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In Hindu mythology there was an entire class of intelligent beings who were snakes—the nāgas (a male is a nāga: a female is a nāgī or nāgiṇī). In contemporary Hinduism the nagas are regarded as the protectors of springs, wells, streams, and rivers.  Sometimes nagas assume human form (with all of the abilities, appurtenances, and liabilities) but largely they are huge beautiful king cobras. The nagas tend to live in their own realm, Pātāla, the seventh of the nether kingdoms, yet they appear in other places too and interact with gods, mortals, demons, and animals.  Neither evil nor entirely good, the nagas have their own enmities, problems, and tales (although these intersect sometimes with the human protagonists of Hinduism’s great epics and myths).

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A particular problem of the nagas is the swift and terrible eagle god Garuda, who is an enemy to the serpent people. He despises them because once he was their slave (through a complex family geas which you will have to look up on your own).  Garuda escaped this servitude by bringing the potion of immortality to the nagas, but, as soon as he presented it to them and escaped his servitude, he spilled the potion upon the sword grass.  The nagas desperately licked up the remnants from the razor grass…but it is a bit unclear whether they attained immortality or not—the grasss certainly cut their tongues most cruelly and nagas (and snakes) have forked tongues up to this day.

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The world itself rests on the head of a naga. The naga prince Shesha practiced such astringent asceticism that Brahma became amazed by him.  Shesha’s body (which was already that of a snake) became so knotted and powerful and slender that he slipped downward into a hole which lead all the way to the bottom of the world.  There Brahma entrusted him with the sacred burden of holding the entire planet and all of us.

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With this in mind, it is unsurprising that in certain parts of India, Bali, and Nepal, the naga are worshiped.  Nag stones are a particular object of cultic reverence. Cobras likewise are venerated.

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My grandfather grew up in West Virginia (where snakes are taboo in accordance with longstanding Judeo-Christian cultic practice) but his work took him around the world–which was not quite so homogeneous in the 40s, 50s, and 60s! When I was a child he used to tell me stories of the nagas and their struggles.  He also told me that one of the defining moments of strangeness in his life was when he was passing through South India and saw a woman put out a saucer for (what grandpa assumed was) a pet.  He was surprised when she squeezed some breast milk into it, but stunned when a huge glistening cobra crawled out of a wall and lapped up the milk.

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Black necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) image from angolafieldgroup.com

Black necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) image from angolafieldgroup.com

Who doesn’t love cobras? These beautiful and dangerous snakes have fascinated humankind since prehistory.  Ferrebeekeeper has already written about a lovely red spitting cobra from East Africa: today we cast our eyes to sub-Saharan Africa to learn about the black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) another spitting cobra which lives across the great continent.

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The black-necked spitting cobra lives across a huge swath of Africa—from Northern Namibia to southern Mauritania in the west and from the Somali coast down to Tanzania in the east.  The adaptable snakes can be found everywhere throughout this vast range except for the jungle fastnesses of the Congo rainforest.  Except in dense rainforests, the snakes do well in all sorts of ecoregions and they are famous for thriving in scrublands, forests, grasslands, and deserts (as well as in new habitats like farms and cities). Although the snakes largely prey on small rodents, they are gifted hunters and can also live on virtually any small creatures (including arthropods, birds, reptiles, amphibians) and even on eggs.  Its own predators include a variety of fierce raptors and certain other snakes.  I find it alarming that Africa contains snakes capable of catching and eating a 2.3 meter (seven foot long) cobra which sprays venom!

The black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis)

The black-necked spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis)

The black-necked spitting cobra comes in an assortment of colors from yellowish copper to olive to reddish to gray.  Many have distinct bands of red, white or gray on their necks (although some individuals are missing these bandings entirely).  The most dramatic specimens are glossy black with red or white necks—like death metal priests! Female snake usually lay clutches of 10-15 eggs, but they can lay up to 22 eggs at a time.  The snakes can be diurnal or nocturnal to suit circumstances (and their mood). Unlike the genteel red spitting cobra, black-necked spitting cobras love to spit venom and will do so at the slightest provocation (or for no reason at all—like Kid Rock).

In comparison with some of their relatives, the black-necked spitting cobras are not especially poisonous.  Only five to ten percent of untreated human bites prove fatal.  Their venom primarily consists of cytotoxins—compounds which damage cells instead of attacking organs or neuro-connections.  Although fatalities from bites is low, bites can be accompanied with substantial tissue necrosis.

Why is he smiling about that? What a jerk!

Why is he smiling about that? What a jerk!

In conclusion, the black-necked spitting cobra is a very interesting and visually striking snake (not to mention a born survivor) but I feel it would make an extremely poor housepet.

Vishnu in glory

Vishnu in glory in Vaikuntha (with Lakshmi and Ananta-Shesha)

Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism.  He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him.  Vishnu is the past, present and future.  He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence.  The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth.  Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.

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When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe.  Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space.  In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.

Vishnu-Ananta

Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself.  Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).

vishnuWhen Kalki–the final incarnation  of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left.  The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.

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The Red Spitting Cobra (Naja pallida)

If I were forced to choose a favorite spitting cobra, I would enthusiastically choose the red spitting cobra (Naja pallida), a swift-moving hunter which inhabits the dry scrub-land of East Africa.  A small cobra measuring less than 120 centimeters (4 feet), the cobra hunts for small mammals and reptiles. The lovely snake can be found in a range of ruddy hues including deep orange, pale red, pinkish and light brown– but the fanciest and loveliest specimens are a dramatic blood red.  Although the name makes the red spitting cobra sound uncouth, the designation is actually a misnomer. Red spitting cobras do not wander around spitting like rustic bumpkins in a cowpoke bar, instead they carefully and deliberately spray a high velocity jet of toxins into a predator’s eyes (let’s see the bumpkin try that!). The red spitting cobra is not aggressive, but if provoked it will rear up, hiss loudly, and flare its cobra hood.  If, after receiving this warning, the provocateur stupidly continues to antagonize the snake, the cobra is likely to spray venom directly into its antagonist’s face and eyes.  A direct ocular hit can cause permanent blindness (and is certain to cause stupendous searing pain).

As with most cobras, the venom of the spitting cobra contains a mixture of neurotoxic and cytotoxic compounds. The red-spitting cobra rarely bites predators or people (reserving its poison for hunting and spraying).  However if you somehow manage to find one of these rare snakes which live in the arid wastelands of East Africa and then provoke it into biting you, you should seek treatment immediately!

Ancient Egypt was divided into two parts: 1) the black lands which compromised the fertile valley of the Nile where almost every Egyptian lived and; 2) the red lands–the burning deserts on both sides of the Nile which were virtually uninhabited but which provided gold, copper, stone, and other precious raw materials vital to Egypt’s interest.  The red lands were divided into the Arabian Desert which stretched away east of the Nile to the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert which lay westward and into the trackless Sahara.  The black lands were also divided in two: Lower Egypt consisted of the lush green swamps of the Delta in the north (this territory runs from the 30th parallel to the Mediterranean); Upper Egypt, stretched from Lower Egypt up through the Nile valley into the higher altitudes (hence the name) and terminated at the southern cataracts where the lands of Nubia began.

Egyptian goddess Wadjet (painting from the tomb of Nefertari, ca 1270 BC)

This is important background information for today’s post which concerns the cobra goddess Wadjet and tomorrow’s post about the three crowns of Egypt.  As you may recall from previous posts about the rainbow serpent and Nuwa, I have an abiding affection for snake gods.   Egypt actually had several snake deities but the most important was Wadjet, the ancient cobra goddess who served as protector and patron deity of Lower Egypt.  Originally Wadjet was a local deity of Per-Wadjet, a venerable city on the Sebennytic arm of the Nile (one of several branches which the Nile takes through the Delta).  Per-Wadjet developed from a truly ancient pre-dynastic city of Deb (which in turn came from a Paleolithic settlement over ten thousand years old) and was the sight of a famous oracle renowned throughout Lower Egypt. The Greeks later christened the city as “Buto” and it has been surmised that Wadjet’s oracle may have played some role in the Greek worship of serpent oracles.

Wadjet

When Menes (whom modern scholars increasingly identify as Narmer, the catfish king) united Upper Egypt with Lower Egypt to become the first pharaoh, the culture of the Lower Egypt was largely subsumed, but Wadjet’s role expanded greatly. Wadjet came to represent all of Lower Egypt.  In such a guise she was one of the deities who protected the monarchy and the pharaoh. The symbol of Wadjet was the uraeus, the stylized upright spitting cobra which Pharaohs wore on their brow. But despite her royal trappings, Wadjet also remained the goddess of women in childbirth, who were under her direct protection.

Amenhotep II wearing the Uraeus (painting, ca. 1400 BC)

Wadjet literally means “the papyrus colored one” or “the green one” which was an appropriate designation for the goddess of the Nile Delta.  Our picture of ancient Egypt is often built around the desert, but the Nile Delta is a wet region today and it was even more so during the age of the pharaohs. Great shallow wetlands were filled with papyrus and reeds, which in turn hosted countless fish and waterfowl.  Crocodiles and hippos flourished there in ancient times (as did poisonous snakes).  As with most Egyptian deities, Wadjet’s form was depicted in many different ways:  sometimes she was a cobra or a snake with a woman’s torso.  Other times she appeared as a woman with a snake’s head, a two-headed snake, or a woman wearing the uraeus.  Wadjet was associated with the Milky Way–the primal serpent.  In later dynasties she was elided with sundry other gods and goddesses most notably the goddess Bast.  Wadjet-Bast was a very fearsome deity combining the attributes of a lion and a cobra!

Wadjet as a lion goddess (Carving, ca. 8th century BC)

Wadjet was not merely a deity of this world. The ancient Egyptians were profoundly interested in their place in the afterlife and Wadjet was of critical importance there. To quote webcalf.com, “In the Book of the Dead, Wadjet protects the souls of the deceased by destroying their enemies in the Underworld.”  An ancient myth about Wadjet shows her foremost as a divine protector. Her sacred city Per Wadjet was the location where Isis gave birth to Horus. Set, the evil god of the red desert sought to destroy mother and child, but Wadjet wove stalks of papyrus into a screen and hid the pair beneath this blind deep in her marshes.

A gold amulet of Wadjet (from Tutankhamun's tomb, ca 1320 BC)

Wadjet had a twin sister, the vulture goddess Nekhbet who was the protector and patron of Upper Egypt and was shown as a white vulture. White vultures were symbolic of purity because ancient Egyptians (incorrectly) believed they were all female and reproduced without males. Nekbeht is a fascinating figure in her own right (but I am writing about snake gods—you can go start your own vulture god blog). The two sister goddesses were symbolic of all of Egypt and they frequently appear together and were worshiped as the “two ladies.” Additionally Wadjet was goddess of the red crown of Lower Egypt and Nekhbet was the goddess of the white crown, but that is a subject for tomorrow.

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