There’s something about reptiles that incites a large emotional response in people. Negatively, it is easy to understand why; snakes, lizards and crocodiles are all very different animals from the mammals we are. Dislike of reptiles apparently is learned rather than instinctive, but once settled it becomes quite hard to get rid off; indeed, cultural hatred of snakes is purely the result of education. Recently, reptile appreciation does incite emotional responses, but more on the realm of “coolness”; much like goths appreciate dark imagery, many people come to love reptiles as symbols of danger as means to make a person more awesome by conquering such beasts.
Historically, serpents only receive the connotations with evil fairly recently. Even early christians did not had the negative perception towards these animals as modern churches have, something that probably only came about after the popularity of the last section of the Bible, Revelation. Indeed, the main theme of this post is to show that snakes not only had positive connotations, they were actually deified.
In abrahamic angeology, the Seraphim, or seraphs, are angels that are either in the fifth rank of the heavenly hierarchy, or that are the highest of the divine beings after Yahweh. They are consistently associated with fire; their name comes from the word sarap (see below), “fiery”, and they are depicted as fiery beings with intense light that supposedly burns alive anyone witnessing their true form, earning salvation at the cost of bodily incineration. Their fire has been associated with devotion to divine principles, as fire ascends to the Heavens and has a penetrating heat (the same kind of logic is also used by zoroastrians); indeed, some depictions have them constantly singing for God. They are said to have six wings, two of which to fly, two of which to cover their face and two of which to cover their feet (“lower body” seems to be a more accurate translation).
While jewish reccords claims that the seraphim are fairly low in the divine hierarchy as the fifth rank (depending on the sources, the Fifth Heaven is actually the Sun, so they wouldn’t be out of place there), christian reccords claim that they are the highest angels. Exactly what this entails is not clear; all relevant angels are usually considered archangels, which are fairly low in the cosmic totem according to christian theology, so figures like Michael (the so called “Heavenly General”) are way beneath the seraphs (note that Michael is associated with fire, so him being a seraph would not be out of place either), and conversely Lucifer would be a seraph and not an archangel (then again, “Lucifer” as christians claim was never a valid mythological figure, since it was just an epithet for several characters).
Modern seraphs don’t escape the general tendency to depict angels are pretty people, and indeed they are usually depicted nowadays as stereotypical angels with six wings instead of two. However, biblical angels are notably more bizarre looking; the tetramorphic cherubs with lion, eagle and bull heads are very prevalent, after all, while the wheel like ophanim are outright lovecraftian. Seraphs are no exception.
Associations with serpents
“Seraph”, as mentioned before, comes from the word “sarap“. This word is usually used in the Bible to described snakes, alongside the words “nahash” (regular snake) and “efeh” (a term exclusive to vipers/adders). In the ancient middle east, snakes were associated with fire, as their venom has a burning sensation and sometimes results (via mass necrosis that occurs as the living tissues die), and possibly also because snakes depend on the Sun to survive, even hibernating when the Sun is too weak. Indeed, in some ways, snakes are very solar animals, being connected to ressurection thanks to their snake molts. This is a strong contrast with the asian, african and australian associations of serpents with water, and this association with fire seems to have prevailed in heraldry, as the elemental “salamanders” are fiery beings while medieval dragons breathed fire.
Indeed, it is thought that the seraphim were inspired by Wadjet, an egyptian goddess of the Sun, fire and the Milky Way. Depicted as a cobra standing aggressively, Wadjet was the protector of Ra and of the Pharaoh, and was a prevalent emblem of the divine might of the egyptian kings, hence becoming very common symbol. Influenced by the power of the serpent as a guardian, ancient hebrews likely incorporated protective cobras in their symbolism, and while creatures akin to the seraph are difficult to find in Canaanite Mythology, the idea that Wadjet is the inspiration for these beings is universally accepted by archaeologists. Other possible origins may also be located in Greek Mythology; here, serpents/dragons are similarly depicted as fiery guardians, and snakes are thought to have been sacred to Apollo, while Helios at least once gave snakes to his daughters to serve as steeds.
Likewise, seraphs are claimed to be “dragon like angels” or “divine dragons” in several texts contemporary to the Bible, most notably the Book of Enoch and On the Origin of the World (the latter being an early christian work). The general symbolism attributed seems to be both of guardians and of companions to God, as they supposedly constantly praise the deity in song; the connections to Apollo seem obvious.
However, seraphs do have the important aspect of being depicted with six wings. Wings are omnipresent in angelic descriptions (except maybe in the wheel like ophanim), and seem to have originated of both artistic beauty and to emphasize the divinity of these creatures, being unreachable and free to rise to higher realms. Why exactly seraphs have six wings is not clear (nor why they cover their faces and lower bodies with them), but it might both be indicative of power and their own fiery nature, as being covered both on the head and lower body might be suggestive of actually being on fire.
Seraphs show that the stereotypical christian depictions of serpents as evil is an outright gross misunderstanding of religious passages. While the Bible does engage in animal stereotyping, snakes are not considered evil; even the tempter in the Garden of Eden is not considered as much “evil” per se as a trickster figure, often considered to be deliberate agent of God to expel mankind from Eden (whereas that’s a moral move on God’s part is debatable; I think he was a douche). Indeed, as representations of fire, light and the Sun, snakes were replaced by lions in european symbolism, something brought about by connections of Jesus with the animal as well as superficial similarities between the lion’s mane and the Sun’s rays, never minding that Satan is also associated with lions and that they are nocturnal animals (as acknowledged by african peoples, for instance, which consider the hyena of all things to be far more Sun connected than the lion). The irony is quite interesting to note.
Likewise, one can establish parallels between asian and western dragons. Both essentially are divine beings, both being servants of Heaven, though while seraphs are fiery, asian dragons are aquatic and bring rain. The mesoamerican feathered serpent deities like Tohil and Quetzalcoatl are obviously also similar, some of them being solar deities while others being rain deities.