The Serpent & Original Sin
I'd like to begin this page with a disclaimer. First, I am not a student of religious matters. I am not an expert regarding the tangled, multi-layered, confusing, and contradictory body of thought that constitutes Christianity. I have, however, in the course of my life, sat through more brainwashing Sunday School classes than any one human being should ever be subjected to. So here it is - a page full of my ramblings about serpents, Genesis, Satan, and Christian mythology, based almost solely on my own opinions, biases, and personal interpretations of the Bible and such. Let's go.
For those of you who don't know your Judeo-Christian Genesis myth, here it is, straight from Genesis, Chapter Three, as translated in the Revised Standard Edition of the Bible.
From the Genesis story Christianity has derived the concepts of total depravity and original sin. Both are extremely complicated terms in the sense that they have been used and interpreted in wildly different ways by different sects of Christianity throughout history, but as far as a very superficial and mostly inaccurate explanation goes, it might be best to say this: Total depravity is the state in which all humans are inherently susceptible to sin, and original sin ("sin" being used to define a state, not an action) is based on the fact that since Adam was expelled from the Garden, humans became mortal (must all eventually die) and human nature became "deranged" so that humans cannot live exactly as God would want them to live.
It's all Crowley's fault, of course.
Anyway, another interesting thing about the novel Good Omens is how the characters Crowley and Aziraphale pretty much reject total depravity and original sin outright. Crowley, while convinced that humans are capable of evil far greater than Hell could ever conjure up, nevertheless certainly doesn't believe that Heaven or God are inherently "good" either. Since there can be no original sin without a contrasting eternal Grace, that pretty much puts the matter to rest - after all, what is "deranged" human nature supposed to be compared to? God and Heaven seem a bit deranged themselves. Second, and most important, is the fact that Crowley (and the readers) finish the novel with the distinct impression that (much to Crowley's chagrin) eating the forbidden apple wasn't a sin at all - in fact, it was the right thing to do. Aziraphale, for his part, doesn't voice his opinions as often or as loudly as Crowley does, but does leave the impression that he also knows that "the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil was right inside the human mind" (page 71).
The Serpent in the Hearts of Men
Good Omens departs from your basic Genesis story, not only in being of course very silly and changing a few details about the angel and his flaming sword, but changes also in the sense that it recasts one very, very big character - the snake. In the traditional interpretation, the snake is actually supposed to be Satan himself, not one of his shades-wearing henchmen. Granted, the Bible doesn't actually bother to clarify this point until the very end, in the book of Revelation, but it's there nonetheless. Thus most interpret Genesis 3:15 as being a prophecy of the eventual coming of Christ and his triumph over sin ("sin" being synonymous with "Satan" and with "the serpent"). The symbol of the snake at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixtion is supposed to represent evil being crushed by Jesus.
From Revelation, Chapter Twelve:
9: And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world -- he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
And from Revelation, Chapter Twenty:
2: And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
Thus, the very last book of the New Testament establishes the fact that the original serpent, and the Devil, are one and the same.
But we don't need the New Testament to tell us that the snake is synonymous with evil. Genesis also firmly establishes the mythological significance of the snake in most Christian cultures - bad, evil, nasty, venomous, the natural enemy of humans, to be feared and hated. The rest of the Bible confirms the place of the snake in Christian imagination. Psalms, James, Matthew, Luke, and other books all associate sinners with "vipers" and "serpents"; finally, in the book of Revelation, Satan is revealed as having three faces at once - dragon, serpent, and devil. They are all one and the same.
Christian folklore has never been very kind to the snake either. Saint Patrick, who historically deserves credit for converting most of Ireland to Catholicism, is remembered in popular folklore as a hero who drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Thus, we now have St. Patrick's Day. Er, does anybody else see the creepy parallel between converted Ireland to Catholicism and drove out all the snakes? When imagination and myth equate snakes with sin, then the connection becomes obvious. In truth, St. Patrick actually drove out and suppressed pagan religions throughout Ireland, and I guess that paganism can easily be equated with "sin" and "snakes," according to the dominant ideology of the time.
Various cultures throughout the world treat the snake very differently. Some still associate the snake with evil - for example, in Greek mythology, the monster Medusa has snakes for hair. Another common motif across cultures is the image of the snake associated with female sexuality - usually, unfortunately, portrayed as a dangerous, evil, and tempting thing. (This association is found in Christian folklore also.) This attitude toward snakes contrasts sharply with traditions who worship and revere the snake. The Aztec of Central America worship Quetzalcoatl, a serpent with wings, as a god of life and civilization. Indigenous people of Australia worship Kurrichalpongo, a rainbow snake who created the world. In ancient Egypt, the cobra was an important diety associated with immortality. In Hindu mythology, Naga, the snake, is a semi-divine figure. Today, snake worship is still widespread in parts of Africa and Asia.
Unfortunately, snakes currently remain feared and despised in most of the UK and the USA. One way this bias manifests is the persistent belief that most or all snakes are poisonous to humans. Venomous snakes only make up 10% of snake species worldwide, but you'd never know that from the way that most of us are taught to treat each and every snake that we stumble upon as potentially deadly. Another common myth associated with snakes is that they can charm or hypnotize their prey. This is never true, although the idea once again harkens back to the image of the charming, tempting snake in the Garden of Eden. Crowley himself actually fits the stereotype. Not only does he demonstrate his use of hypnotic powers in the course of the book, but as a general rule, his friendly, approachable nature and human appearance must certainly get a lot of his human "prey" to let their guard down around him.
Nechushtan, Seraphim, and the Cherubim
The Bible as it exists today is notorious for editing out some of the messier polytheistic folklore that informed religious opinions at the time that the Bible was originally written. For example, Biblical text co-opts two mythical beings, the seraphim and the cherubim, and rationalizes their existence as "angels" of Heaven.
The Seraphim and the Cherubim form the two highest orders of angels in Heaven, followed by Thrones/Ophanim to complete an initial triad, then Dominions/Hashmallim, Virtues/Tarshishim, and Powers to create a second triad, and finally Principalities, Archangels, and Angels in the final triad. Aziraphale is noted to be a Principality in Good Omens. Although if the authors had been going for a strict Biblical interpretation, which they obviously weren't, he would have been a Cherub, consistent with the Genesis story.
The seraphim, described in ancient Hebrew mythology as fiery winged serpents, are the highest order of angels. Metatron, Kemuel, Nathanael, Gabriel, and Lucifer are (or were) all seraphim. Some folklore describes the seraphim as having six wings and four heads. The most consistent threads that connect descriptions of seraphim are that they are all serpentine in nature, and that they are associated with fire.
One particular seraph, named Nechushtan, takes on a prominent role in Hebrew folklore. The name "Nechushtan" is roughly derived from the words bronze serpent in Hebrew. He is closely associated with Nechoshet, a snake-god of the ancient Egyptians. One interpretation holds that Nechoshet and Nechushtan are the same being, a creature set up as a rival power to challenge Moses (and God) in the Exodus story.
The stories involving Nechushtan are wildly varied and sometimes vague. Nechushtan was a seraph who fell from grace and was cast out of Heaven along with Lucifer and the rest of his angels after the rebellion. Depending on who you listen to, Nechushtan was either the snake in the Garden of Eden, a bronze idol melted by King Hezekiah, guardian diety of a cult in ancient Egypt, protector of the descendants of Dan, tormentor sent to torture the Israelites as Moses led them out of Egypt, or all of these at once. Nechushtan is labeled "an enemy of God" but is revered for his wisdom and cunning; he was certainly a heckuva lot smarter than those two idiots in Eden.
After the Exodus story, Nechushtan vanishes into obscurity and is not named again in Biblical texts. It is hypothesized that Nechushtan was a fertility snake-god of Egyptian, Canaanite, or Midianite origin who somehow found his way into getting a mention in the Bible. Nechushtan, as a mythical figure, certainly helped establish the role of the serpent as a symbol of evil, but he also was admired for his intelligence and wisdom. Even the Genesis story admits that "the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made."
Research credits for this page are here.
Important Note: Page numbers in reference to quotations from the book refer to the 1996 Ace mass-market paperback edition. Disclaimer: Crowley, Aziraphale, and Good Omens are owned and copyrighted by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Excerpts and quotes from the novel Good Omens used throughout this site are reproduced without legal permission, for which I can only hang my head sheepishly and apologize. However, this is a FANSITE, meant in the name of fun, and not intended to make a profit. The lovely model in this site's header graphic is an endangered Eastern Indigo Snake, in a photograph courtesy of SeaWorld.org. Brushes used in the header graphic are courtesy of Paper Flowers.