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Teachings of the Mythic Past

The Snake, The Goddess, The Underworld & Their Connections to Samhain – How To Connect with the Ancient & Mythic Past

When you generally think of Samhain, snakes, and the underworld – you would not usually think of them as being interconnected. Not at first at least. However, in this fantastic universe that we live in, somehow all things are indeed connected. Snakes are some of the most misunderstood yet feared creatures on Earth. They embody mystery. They are symbols of life, death, and regeneration; some are even poisonous and venomous. What these sleek and slithery creatures all have in common is their ability to stay low to the ground and close to the Earth. They are typically incorrectly represented as hostile and slimy, and they are widely recognized as a traditional component in witches’ brews. In many ways, the negative connotations of the snake are the furthest thing from the truth. Ancient cultures held the snake to a high standard and many deities are associated with them. The ancient world held the widespread idea that snakes, unlike other animals, do not die of old age but undergo rebirth each time they shed their skin. 

Snakes seek shelter from the heat of the day, usually underground, to avoid being too hot. These limbless reptiles are symbolic not just of fear and poison, but of the different realms of life and death. These sometimes venomous snakes directly connect to the realm of the dead – whatever term you may use for the realm of deceased spirits. We have significant archaeological and mythological evidence that the snake is much more important than many may initially assume. When looking back in time, thousands of years ago, the Earth was cared for by our Neolithic ancestors who recognized the sacredness of various animals including the snake. The “World Serpent ” appeared in the mythology and legends of virtually every ancient society, possibly stemming from a common mythological root. 

How does this relate to the Goddess? The Goddess was in charge of three stages of life—birth, death, and rebirth. This indicates that she was also in charge of all the things that come with it; insight, divination, warfare, love, judgment, and righteousness. She was in charge of everything. An excerpt from Archaeomythology.com states, “…If the Proto-Indo-Europeans had originated in Mesopotamia/Anatolia, then it is odd that they became the ancestors of the East Indians, Iranians, Greeks, Romans, Balts, Slavs, Hittites, Tocharians, Irish, Welsh, British, and Germans, among others, often assimilated the ancient Europeans into their own cultures, and they assimilated the deities and iconography of the indigenous peoples as well. Thus, in these areas, there is a continuum of bird and snake iconography from some time before 6000 BCE through all of antiquity, and continuing until the modern era in many cultural areas snakes represented aspects of birth, death, and rebirth. The goddess of death was also the goddess of renewal, of life beyond death.” (Archaeomythology.org) 

Snake iconography can be found well throughout Europe. They frequently appear as complimentary emblems for several historical female figures, both gods and monsters, probably because their duties were similar, just as the prehistoric bird and serpent frequently appear combined in various ancient works of art. The images of the bird and snake represented a goddess of the cycle of life who, on the one hand, was in charge of the fertility of the womb and the fruitfulness of the soil and, on the other, was in charge of the withering and death of animals and the plants. She is a giver and a taker. She can bring life but also take it away. She is in charge of balance; the dance of life and death. 

So here we follow the snake deep down into the underworld where dark goddesses are found. Deep down into the underworld where the realm of the dead is thriving. This is the time of year when the veil thins and we are once again able to reach our hands into the realms of both worlds. And during this time of year, we celebrate Samhain (pronounced Sah-win). In various cultures across the world, Halloween, Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, The Day of the Dead, Dia de Bruxas, Dziady, etc. are all connected to death (Dimmock). Death goes hand in hand with a realm that is out of our reach here in the land of the living. But aspects of each of these holidays stress the importance of tradition and culture, and why death is an important part of human life.

With traditions worldwide, and with animals incorporated into traditions and religious practices for thousands of years, it is no surprise that the snake is sometimes associated with Samhain, Halloween, and more. The ring-necked snake is a common animal that looks suitably spooky for the Samhain season. A typical ring-necked snake will be under 10 inches in length and its striking bright orange and black colors have made it a popular pet. Like the changing colors of autumn foliage, the corn snake is a popular sight during this time of year. Even while snakes are great at keeping rodent populations in check, it’s best to give them their space and enjoy them from a safe distance. 

Although keeping a physical distance from snakes may be possible, they are still close to humankind through the act and art of storytelling. Ancient Pagans in the Neolithic era recognized and understood the importance of snakes as well as used aspects of the snake and its imagery for ritualistic purposes. In the times we live in now, it is much more common to share the traits and characteristics of the snake through stories that are written and passed down verbally. From Jormungandr in Nordic myth and folklore to the Slavic tale of the Snake Princess, or the Lithuanian story of Egle the Serpent Queen, the snake is ever-present. 

The South Slavic worldview of mythical entities was dualistic, encompassing both positive and negative aspects. Even with snakes, this was the case. Venomous or not, most snakes were to be slain on sight since they were thought to be manifestations of demons from the Underworld (Donji svet). This was only after Christian influence. Before that, it would have been considered taboo to kill a snake. When trying to convert people to Christianity the church tried to deem snakes as “evil” due to the power behind their symbol and the close connection with the Goddess. Snakes have long been a symbol of wisdom which is why the snake was vilified in many stories, such as the story of Adam and Eve. Western Slavic viewpoints differed from this greatly. For example, The Western Slavic aristocracy of the Piast empire regarded snakes as emblems of superior (or even supernatural) power, ownership, and belonging. In Slavic folklore, there are also tales of snakes that can fly. What this indicates is not just that snakes are low to the ground and connected deeply to the underworld but they are also in another way, symbolizing life, freedom, and regeneration. According to some Slavic myths, the snake can transform into a dragon after so many years. Hence, when the Slavic peoples traveled west, we were given the stories of Jormungandr, who sometimes eerily resembles a dragon although he is a serpent at best. Jormungandr himself is a misunderstood creature being the child of a Trickster god, Loki. He is banished into the seas and in doing so participates in the end of the world, and becomes the symbol of Ouroboros. In another Nordic tale, The Mead of Poetry, Odin transforms himself into a snake to access Gunnlod, the giantess. Odin can creep up to the giantess in the shape of a snake, going unnoticed. He uses this means of transformation to obtain the mead. What is interesting to note about this story specifically is that the purpose of Odin obtaining the Mead of Poetry was his quest for knowledge and information, thus directly relating to wisdom (Sturluson). This myth has been documented for hundreds of years, and a snake can be seen still on a pictorial stone in Gotland. Probably representing fertility and having ties to the Midgard Serpent, snakes are a common motif in ancient Nordic rock art. Nidhoggr, the Midgard Serpent’s counterpart, gnaws at Yggdrasil’s roots, suggesting that the Underworld may hold some significance (Simek). 

Symbols like these, such as the serpent who swallows his tail, are incredibly ancient and can be found on artwork dating back thousands of years in places such as Asia, Europe, and Africa. On top of archaeological and mythological evidence, we also have fairy tales. There are Slavic fairy tales that feature Baba Yaga as the main figure, and many Slavic people associate Baba Yaga with the snake. “What is attributed to the snake in one variant is performed by Yaga in another; in Ukraine, a witch is also often called a snake. Similar to a snake, she hides the springs of living water, copper, silver, and gold, which are the treasures of the sun. Folklorist and author, A.N. Afanasyev underlines that the triune character “Snake-Witch Baba Yaga ” is the depiction of nature-deities or administrators of a natural phenomenon”(Ivanova). 

The association of snakes with the goddess has led some to conclude that Baba Yaga, the fairytale version, is a representation of the goddess or a version of her. The role of the ancient goddess Baba Yaga, who was said to have supplied life to all of nature and set cosmic rhythms, has been demonized in Russia ever since the arrival of Christianity. This notion originates from the fact that Baba Yaga represents a powerful goddess who rules over all forest dwellers, avian inhabitants, and terrestrial beasts, including not just living things but also natural components. If Yaga is a mother or goddess figure of the natural world and its elements and is considered a ruler of the forest and its dwellers, then she is related to cycles and death in the same manner that things in the natural world are. In certain Slavic legends, Baba Yaga also serves as a gatekeeper to the underworld. 

According to folktales, she resides deep within the woods, but the Slavs viewed the forest as a portal to the afterlife. Sometimes in folklore, there are two levels to the Slavic underworld. The dead of the past rest above the Earth, while others of the present and future call the underworld home. To be clear, in Slavic Paganism there are no “evil” spirits. They are simply spirits, some of which have been incarnated as people, trees, animals, and so on. This is part of a wider belief in the Two-Part Soul. One part goes to the Upper World, and the other part to the Underworld (Woodruff). In one particular tale, Yaga is credited with assisting a hero in his mission to rescue a kidnapped princess from the depths of the underworld. This represents Baba Yaga’s role as a protector of the realms, as she has access to both the living and the dead. Mushrooms, like the living and the dead, are associated with Baba Yaga in numerous folktales. The cycle of death and rebirth is best exemplified by mushrooms. 

The mushroom is a member of the natural world, the spiritual realm, the animal kingdom, and more. Regeneration symbols are surprisingly common in contexts including death, the goddess, folklore, and the underworld. (Robin Woodruff). The flying mortar and pestle associated with Baba Yaga’s herbalist and healing role appears in multiple stories. People may not know that Yaga is sometimes depicted as having “one leg” due to this misconception. This relates directly to the snakelike quality of this famous figure. K.D. Laushkin claims that this feature reflects Baba Yaga’s ancient zoomorphic identity. Lameness (or one leg) is represented by the snake in chthonic iconography. If a mythical creature has a problem walking, Laushkin concludes that a snake must be involved (Luashkin, 1970, p.181). According to Dr. Patricia Robin Woodruff, she’d consider this theory as “having one half of the body in the Spirit World”. Baba Yaga, a legendary Slavic witch, is said to have transformed into a snake just before her death. Baba Yaga, the Slavic goddess of death, takes the form of a snake, which is often associated with death or becomes a kind of personification of death. 

In Slavic Paganism, dozens of deities connect not just with the underworld, death, life, and rebirth – but these deities also have a connection to sacred animals such as the snake. Jarilo, Dazbog, Siva, Kupolo, Marzana, Mat Zemla, Zemepatis, Veles, Veliona, Baba Yaga, Koshchei the Deathless, Striga, Mokosh, Berehynia, Triglav, Trigla, and Rod just to name some, according to Woodruff’s Guide to Slavic Deities. Some of these deities’ names may already be familiar to you. One that stands out to me is Zemepatis and his female counterpart Zemepati or Zemyna. Zemyna is an Earth goddess and is naturally connected very closely to snakes. What is interesting to note here about this pair who can be seen as “Father Earth” and “Mother Earth” is that their festival was primarily held at the end of October, and then again around the Winter Solstice. Both times have been associated with the “end of the year” (Woodruff).

From historical records, we learn that ancient Prussians and Lithuanians both liberated the earth with food and wine to entrust it to the care of the goddess Zemyna, patroness of the planet and its fertility. To Zemyna, libations were offered at birth, marriage, and death, as well as at the beginning of each new season of agricultural labor and harvesting, and when blessing animals (Laurinkien?). We have multiple accounts of historical records of this Mother Earth goddess being worshiped at the end of October. In Lithuania and other places in the Baltic Sea region, there are numerous rituals connected to Zemyna and other Baltic chthonic gods.  “Hay was used in an offering to an ‘earthly’ god (erdische goth), which is what the goat is called here (there are quite a lot of such references among sources of Baltic religion and mythology about a connection between the goat and agriculture and its deities). Hay is also present in other rituals connected to the Baltic chthonic gods. Maciej Stryjkowsky notes that in sacrifices carried out at the end of October in Lithuania, Samogitia, Livonia, Curonia, and Russia in some regions to the god Ziemiennik, the table was laid with bread and beer on hay or a towel ” (Laurinkien?). Zemyna being a patron of the planet, fertility, and the fact that she was celebrated during death rites brings me back to the original message – how all of these magical things are connected. 

As we can see, death plays a significant role in many folktales, myths, and rituals. By giving folklore some serious thought, one can begin to see how stories link to a wide range of Pagan customs and festivals. Samhain is notable for its emphasis on mortality. At this time of year, many Pagans observe customs that are widely believed to have originated on the other side of the world. The ancient Irish and Scottish customs served as the basis for the modern celebrations we enjoy every year. Despite being more commonly known as “Halloween,” its Pagan roots may be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. This includes the practice of dressing up in costume, collecting sweets, and telling ghost stories or singing songs to the dead. In Poland and many other Eastern European countries, Dziady was celebrated. Dziady, also known as Forefathers’ Eve, is a Slavic celebration honoring the dead. The main focus of this holiday was to honor the dead. Dziady was outlawed and its adherents were persecuted when Christianity spread to Poland. Although Dziady was no longer widely observed, it was nonetheless observed for a considerable length of time in various locations around the country, especially those far from major religious hubs. 

The dead were held in high regard in Slavic religious practice. Spirits were thought to have the potential to exert significant physical effects. They have symbolic meanings related to growth and plenty. Because of this, Dziady is among the most important holidays in the Slavic calendar. Dziady was observed twice a year, once around May 2 and again on the night of October 31/November 1. It was a moment of transition when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was thin and the afterlife was accessible to the living. Then, individuals could attempt to win their approval.  The spirits were provided with refreshments. Dziady served a vital purpose in helping souls cross over. Campfires, lit by kind strangers, pointed them on the right route (Szlezak).  

The night of October 31 in North America is rich with ancient Pagan rituals that predate the arrival of European settlers in the region in the 19th century. Tricks, rather than treats, were thought to be what faeries were all about. Samhain is a time when the Earth’s energy returns to it from the soil, the leaves, and the trees. When the realms diverge at Samhain, the rebirth cycle acts as a metaphor, or curtain, opening a channel of communication between the living and the dead. Contemporary Pagans celebrate this day in honor of their departed family members and ancestors, just as our ancient ancestors did, and make offerings to various gods and goddesses during this time of year. 

To honor your ancestors, lost loved ones, the goddess, and the sometimes misunderstood creatures that inhabit the Earth, be sure to make offerings on Samhain (or whatever you choose to call this time of year in your practice). 

References: 

Woodruff, Patricia R. Woodruff’s Guide to Slavic Deities. 1st ed., Bowker, 2020.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.   Castle Books, 1996. 

Ivanova, Evgenia. The Problem of Mysteriousness of Baba Yaga Character in Religious   Mythology, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/38640706.pdf. Accessed 31 Aug. 2023. 

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. BOYE6, 1993.

Butler, Jenny, et al. Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World, Neo-Pagan Celebrations of Samhain. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Dexter, Miriam R. “The Monstrous Goddess: The Degeneration of Ancient Bird and Snake Goddesses into Historic Age Witches and Monsters.” The Journal of Archaeomythology, vol. 7, no. Special Issue 2011, https://doi.org/https://www.archaeomythology.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Dexter-7.pdf

Aitamurto, Karina, and Scott Simpson. Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group London & New York, 2014. 

Szl?zak, Karolina. “Dziady – Supernatural Genealogy.” Your Roots in Poland.  2021yourrootsinpoland.com/blog/dziady-supernatural-genealogy/. Accessed 30 Aug. 2023. 

Laurinkien?, Nijol?. Stones-goddesses in Granaries, Akmenys-deiv?S Svirnuose. Archaeologia Baltica. 2011, T. 15, P. 56-60. ISSN 1392-5520., 2011, https://doi.org/https://etalpykla.lituanistika.lt/object/LT-LDB-0001:J.04~2011~1367182123035/

“‘egl?, Queen of Serpents By A. Algminas (40 x 30 in. Oil on Canvas).” Egl?, Queen of Serpents, www.lithaz.org/legends/egle_legend.html.  Accessed 31 Aug. 2023. 

All Souls Day / Day of the Dead / Ilg?S / V?Lin?S / Dziedai. Baltic Pagan, 2021, https://doi.org/https://balticpagan.wordpress.com/2021/10/30/all-souls-day-day-of-the-dead-ilges-velines-dziedai/

“Russian Folk-Tales/The Snake Princess.” Wikisource, 1 Jan. 1928, en.wikisource.org/wiki/Russian_Folk-Tales/The_Snake_Princess.

Fear Not These Animals of Halloween Lore.” N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, www.ncwildlife.org/Connect-With-Us/Blog/ArtMID/7428/ArticleID/2281/Fear-Not-These-Animals-of-Halloween-Lore . Accessed 31 Aug. 2023. 

Dimmock, Kachina. “10 Spooky Halloween Traditions from around the World.” Trafalgar, 14 Oct. 2021, www.trafalgar.com/real-word/halloween-traditions-around-the-world/. Accessed 30 Aug. 2023. 

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About the Author:

Kimberly Anne author photo

Kimberly Anne is a USA freelance writer and Administrative Secretary of Art and Music at a college near her hometown. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in Creative Writing and English Literature and is also a member of Sigma Tau Delta. She is currently working on her Masters in Library and Information Science degree. 

After devoting a decade to the personal study of global mythology and folklore, she began writing about them. She focuses primarily on Nordic, Germanic, and Slavic pre-Christian beliefs. Kimberly has worked with various clients on freelance work including Patricia Robin Woodruff, PhD. MDiv and the YouTube channel Mythology Unleashed. She is a polytheist with animist beliefs who loves to talk about it all! You can find her in the book stacks of the library, in a forest with Landvættir or at www.kimberlyanneinc.com