The Bird, the Snake, the Woman

Bald Eagle on Flight Near Rock Formation

John Ruskin, in his Proserpina, calls himself “the gentle and happy scholar of flowers”. A large part of his work is an attempt to connect nature, art and society. To prove this, he tried to show that species can and do symbolize the ethical qualities of mankind, representing man’s states of good and evil, as well as the timeless human belief of destruction or redemption. The bird and the serpent are Ruskin’s major examples of these associations. As the bird is the symbol of the spirit of life, the serpent is the symbol of the sting of death. Ruskin reintroduced a very wide-spread ancient belief. The association of the bird and the serpent to life and death goes back to the  last part of the stone age, later represented by ancient Greek’s Medusa, all the way to ancient China where the two animals are revered as embodiments of power and nobility.  

Woman With A Snake on Her Neck

From the Neolithic period, there are figurines which represent hybrids of bird-woman, serpent-woman, and even bird-serpent-woman. As goddesses with bird and snake iconography appear in early historic religions, such as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, scholars have theorized that the figurines represent powerful divine female figures in the Neolithic cultures of Europe and the Near East. The ancient figurines from the Cyclades and Anatolia may symbolize death, but a pregnant Cycladic figure demonstrates that the Goddess was associated with regeneration as well as death. The bird-serpent Goddess represents birth, death, and rebirth.

As with symbols they represent, the realms of the bird and the serpent cover all of the worlds. Birds mostly fly to the heavens although some also occupy the waters. Although snakes live on the earth, as well as “below” the earth (the underworld), water snakes occupy the waters. The bird and the serpent, therefore, occupy the domains of the ancient Greek’s divine triad of Zeus (heaven), Poseidon (water) and Hades (underworld).

Lilith (John Collier painting).jpg
“Lilith” by John Collier (1889)

As they are oviparous and lay eggs, the bird and the serpent embody depictions of birth; and as birds molt and snakes shed their skin, they also represent regeneration. In Neolithic Europe, death and rebirth were tied together in the tomb which served as a ritual place for rebirth as well as representing a mother’s womb. In Sumerian mythology, as the process of death is believed to lead to regeneration, she who presided over death also presided over rebirth.

Faceless barefoot female traveler on embankment against sea

Therefore, the Neolithic goddess destroys and brings renewal and protection. There are many examples of Indo-European female monsters and deities with bird and serpent iconography. The Baltic witches, raganas, for example, take the shape of crows, and they have snakes in their hair.

This tradition continued to ancient Rome, where the Roman poet Virgil, in the Aeneid, associates the Furies, Sirens, and Harpies to serpents and describes them as having wings. Medusa was one of many monstrous figures represented by similar iconography. She also embodies the serpentine and the avian aspects of the Neolithic bird-serpent Goddess, even though she does not seem to have these characteristics in her earliest depictions.

Minoan snake goddess figurines - Wikipedia
Minoan Snake Goddess Figurine

The version of Medusa that is most familiar to us today is a compilation of Neolithic European, Semitic, and Indo-European mythology and iconography. There are two depictions which came together over time in the figure of Medusa. They are the depiction of the Neolithic Goddess and the Near Eastern demon Humbaba whose severed head is used in an apotropaic manner, much like Medusa’s head.

In the ancient epic Iliad (circa 750 BCE), Medusa is not named, but one finds her the first reference to a Gorgon. In this text, on Athena’s aegis are depicted, among others, Phobos (Fear), Eris (Strife), and “the Gorgon head of the terrible monster, terrible and fearful.” Although there are no references to wings or snakes in Homer, the Gorgon is paired with snakes on the shield of Agamemnon.

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Head of Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Italian, 1598–1680)

Although the disembodied head of the Gorgon must have been referenced by 750 BCE, it is likely that the story of Medusa and Perseus was not known then. Although Perseus is mentioned twice, there is no reference in the Iliad to Medusa’s decapitation. Here, the name of the warrior Perseus is not linked with Medusa’s. In the Odyssey (circa 725 BCE), Medusa and Perseus are still not connected. Here, she is mentioned as a fearsome creature that dwells in the Underworld. Odysseus says, “Pale dread seized me, lest illustrious Persephone might send forth upon me, from the house of Hades, the head of the Gorgon, the terrible monster.”

Medusa and Perseus are finally connected in Hesiod’s Theogony (circa 700 BCE) and by the time the Greek poet Pindar was writing his odes (circa 500 BCE), serpents were already permanent fixtures of all three Gorgons’ heads, instead of just Medusa. “… Perseus heard, from beneath the terrible serpent-heads of the maidens, when he destroyed the third sister.”

In the era in which the Greek playwright Euripides (circa 480–406 BCE) wrote his plays, Gorgon heads were traditionally fixed to temple walls, serving an apotropaic function of protecting the temple and warding off evil spirits, as well as protecting other buildings in the city. In Euripides’ play, Ion, Medusa is closely associated with serpents.

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Orestes at Delphi. Paestan red-figured bell-krater, ca. 330 BC.

In addition to the Gorgon head as a protector, we learn something about the function of Medusa’s blood. Two drops of Medusa’s blood, which Athena gave to Erichthonius, have different functions, one is deadly and the other brings healing.  Therefore, Medusa, who would have already been a very familiar figure with her hair of snakes, represents regeneration as well as death. Indeed, the venom of a snake can be both poison and antitoxin.

In the second century BCE, Apollodorus gave a more detailed description of the Gorgons which includes a pair of golden wings. He says, “The Gorgons had heads twined around with the horny scales of serpents, and huge teeth like boars, and bronze hands, and golden wings, by means of which they flew. And they turned to stone those who looked upon them.” This is the closest depiction of the Gorgons as bird-serpent-women hybrids, similar to the Neolithic European and Near Eastern figures.

Woman feeding seagulls on river embankment

The ancient symbols of the bird and the serpent do not confine themselves to western culture. Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the phoenix and the dragon were regarded as the most scared animals and used as emblems of emperor and empress. Unlike its western mythological counterpart, the hybrid of the bird and the serpent in Chinese mythology is subtler, and the two animals are more often depicted as two separate beings.

Lung (the dragon) was adopted as the imaginary animal in the prehistoric tribes of China, as shown in the decoration on the bronze vessels of Shang Dynasty (circa 1600- 1046 BC). Dragon figurines have also been found from the Hongshan Neolithic period (circa 4700 – 2900 BC). Earliest legends described the dragon as an animal with fish scales and long beard. As what would happen later to Medusa in the west, whose appearance gradually acquired wings and serpent hair, the dragon’s description evolved to having a serpent’s neck and an eagle’s claw as well as other distinctive features of other animals until it took on the appearance we know today. The dragon, therefore, effectively becomes a hybrid of the bird and the serpent.

Photo of Woman Wearing One-Shoulder Dress

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