Fragments of Ancient Beliefs: The Snake as a Multivocal Symbol in Nordic Mythology

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Author: Gro Mandt
Date: Summer 2000
From: ReVision(Vol. 23, Issue 1)
Publisher: Heldref Publications
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,466 words

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When approaching the study of prehistoric religions in areas and time periods where no solid evidence (such as sacred texts or descriptions of rituals) is preserved, traces of beliefs and practices must be pieced together from a variety of disciplines. Fragments of mythology found in folk traditions, legends, and fairy tales; elements of ancient beliefs occurring in written records from later periods; linguistic data revealing the names of deities and sacred places; and archaeological findings all contribute to the vast symbolic repertoire of material available for religious and mythological interpretation.

The Nordic snake is a recurring symbol both in written records relating ancient myths and in material cultural remains from prehistoric and early historic times. In this article I will explore the significance of the snake from ca. 4000 B.C. to A.D. 1200 in the Nordic area.

Overview

Throughout world cultures, powerful symbolic qualities have been attributed to the snake, as demonstrated by its diverse manifestations in religion, mythology, and art in a variety of societies for millennia. From a naturalist's point of view, the snake achieved its unique position in the animal realm because of its shape and general behavior. Snakes slither quickly; they often hide in crevices or earthen caverns, they hibernate during the cold season, and they shed their skins. Many are poisonous. They are considered to be enigmatic, awesome creatures, and this ambiguity is reflected in people's beliefs about them.

Visual representations of the snake include both naturalistic pictures and abstract patterns associated with it, such as spirals, meanders, zigzags, and wavy lines. The earliest known examples of the snake motif in the shape of zigzag patterns occur in Neanderthal contexts, ca. 40,000 B.C. (Gimbutas 1989, 19). Marija Gimbutas maintains that the use of snake motifs represents one of humankind's earliest ritual activities, and snake symbolism was primarily associated with the female aspects of religion.

In Nordic material culture, naturalistic and abstract snake representations are found from the late Stone Age, throughout the Bronze and the early Iron Ages, to the Viking era and the early medieval period. Written records referring to snakes (serpents as well as dragons) appear only in the latter part of this timeframe, the thirteenth century A.D., but are assumed to express beliefs and traditions that are many centuries older.

Social, economic, and religious changes that took place in Nordic culture are reflected in the changing attributes of the snake motif. I will discuss these variations with an emphasis on their association with female symbolism. Regarding more recent manifestations of the snake symbol, where both written sources and material remains are available, I will examine whether these two sets of data contradict or support one another. Interpretation of earlier snake imagery will be based partly on retrospective analyses and cross-cultural analogies relating to universal concepts of the snake.

Snake Symbolism in Norse Mythology

Nordic culture maintained an oral tradition prior to its conversion to Christianity around A.D. 1000. Knowledge of Norse cosmology of the ninth to the eleventh centuries relies on memories...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A66355315