Monday, 1 December 2014

The Serpent of Paradise

The speaking serpent of Eden has mystified scholars throughout the ages. In my analysis, I focus on the ancient milieu in which the story originated which allows us to understand the story in a radically new way. This is the fourth part in the series on the Book of Genesis. 

There is always a serpent in paradise!! Already in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2-3), the serpent is a very important character. In this regard, the serpent is introduced as a being who is closely connected with the dark and fallen aspect of our world: "the Fall" of the human race is closely connected with this creature. As such, it is depicted as cunning and crooked. What sets the serpent apart from all the other animals in Eden, however, is not merely the fact that it was "more subtle" (Gen. 3:1) than them, but that it had some strange abilities, foremost of which was the ability to speak (Gen. 3:1-5)!

Readers and scholars had been mystified by this for ages. For some, this part of the garden story proves that this is "just a story"; some conservative Christians think that it did, in fact, happened as told. They think that taking the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God requires such a reading. In this essay, I revisit the question: How should we understand the speaking serpent of Eden? I believe that the best way to approach this question is to study the ancient world in which this story came into being.

We cannot understand this part of the story (as is the case with the creation story and the other important motifs in the garden story, for example, that Eve was made from Adam's rib etc. - see parts 1-3 of this series), without considering the ancient background from which this story originated. I have previously argued [1] that the author of the Book of Genesis used the ancient source material that the fathers of the Israelites brought from their original homeland Sumer (Abraham is said to have been from Ur in Sumer). This is again relevant to this discussion.

The serpent and the tree

To understand the motif of the serpent in the garden story, we should first observe the following. In the Biblical story there seems to be a very close connection between the serpent and one of the trees in the garden, namely the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" which grew in the midst (or: middle) of the garden (Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:3). God forbid Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of this tree. Although He did not give any reason, it seems that this was a very serious matter in God's eyes because he warned them (at first only Adam was warned, but Eve understood the warning as applying to them both) that they would surely die on the day when they eat of it.

When the serpent approached Eve, it mentioned something else: the fruit of this tree had some amazing qualities. If they ate thereof their eyes would be "opened" and they would be "as gods" who know "good and evil". Although it might seem that the serpent's intention was merely to get them to disobey God - which would make it into an opponent of God - there does seem to be some special connection between the tree and the serpent. The qualities of the fruit of the tree aligned with the serpent's purpose. The one place in the garden where the serpent would make its appearance was exactly at this tree.

This close association between the serpent and some tree is not unique to the Bible; it is a very old motif that goes back to the earliest strata in ancient Sumerian thought. I previously mentioned that the other motifs in the garden story in the Book of Genesis are also very ancient: contrasting it with the other Garden of Eden story in the Book of Ezekiel makes this clear (see part 3: The Garden of Eden: Was it a real place?). In part 3 of this series, I showed that the Genesis story incorporates motifs that are much, much older than those in the Ezekiel story. In this regard, I mentioned the geographical details which place the garden somewhere in the "east", near the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, instead of in the "northern" Lebanon (the geographical details in the Genesis story corresponds with the ancient Sumerian view which locates this place in the land of Aratta - the Biblical Ararat).

I also mentioned that different trees grew in the middle of the garden according to the two stories, namely a fruit-bearing tree and a cedar. I showed that both motifs, namely the location of the garden and the cedar in the middle of the garden, reflect developments during and after the Akkadian period in Mesopotamia (~2350-2150 BC) when the older motifs were replaced by these more recent ones. This implies that the Genesis story could go back to the earlier version - which we can only account for if we accept that the Abrahamic family brought this story with them from their ancient homeland in Sumer. Such an ancient origin for these motifs is in general agreement with the other Mesopotamian motifs in the ancient history in Genesis (ch. 2-11) which also show no influences whatsoever from after the Old Babylonian period (the first half of the second millennium BC; see my previous discussions in this regard).

I now add another ancient motif to the others in the garden story in Genesis: the close association between the serpent and some remarkable tree. In ancient Sumerian literature, there are various stories where we find such a close association between the serpent and the tree, namely that of Inana and the Halub tree, the myth of Lugalbanda as well as the legend of Etana. In the Etana legend, the serpent is in control of a deep pit at the bottom of the tree, which could refer to the realm of the dead since the serpent is also closely associated with that realm in ancient Sumerian thought.

In the Sumerian stories, there is another creature that is also associated with the same tree, namely the eagle which is also called Anzu (the one who "knows heaven"). The eagle is typically depicted in the top of the tree, whereas the serpent is depicted at the bottom. I have previously argued that these Mesopotamian eagles correspond to the Biblical cherubim [1] which would explain why we find both the serpent as well as such cherubim mentioned in the garden story in Genesis. Cherubim also have large wings and we read in Biblical poetry that God rides on a cherub (or: cherubim according to the Septuagint; Ps. 18:10, 11). Although the cherubim of later Biblical tradition are depicted with four heads of which only one is that of an eagle (Ezek. 1:5-10; 10:20-21), it is possible that this reflects later developments (as is the case with the garden story in Ezekiel).

The speaking serpent

Sumerologists have proposed that the motif of the eagle in the top and the serpent at the bottom of the tree is part of the oldest strata in Sumerian thought. This motif probably goes back to the prehistoric shamanistic inheritance of the Sumerians in the time when their forebears lived in the northern mountains of Aratta. Stephanie Dalley writes in this regard: "Certain themes of shaman narratives are strikingly similar to themes of Sumerian and Akkadian myths. The World Tree, the Cosmic Eagle and a Serpent often feature in the shaman's attainment of his otherworldly goal, as they also do in the story of Inana and the Halub [Huluppu] tree, of the myth of Lugalbanda and of the Legend of Etana... One might suppose that shamanism was ingenious in northern Asia and extremely ancient so that in some way it influenced Mesopotamian myths at their very roots" [2].

According to Sumerian legend, their forebears originated in the northern mountainous area of Aratta (which originally could have been in the vicinity of the Urmia Lake - see part 3). This is also where the Biblical story of Eden place the origin of the forebears of the later Mesopotamian peoples and Israel in particular. What is quite striking, is that the motifs that we are discussing, namely of the serpent and the tree (together with the eagle) is thought to go back to this early phase in Sumerian/Mesopotamian history - exactly in accordance with the Biblical story where it is placed right at the beginning of remembered history. This motif captures the early origins of the Mesopotamian peoples (including the Semites) the best!

The reason why the motif of the serpent and eagle in the tree is ascribed a shamanistic origin is that this is, in fact, the pre-eminent symbol of shamanism, especially in the northern Asiatic and Siberian regions. The shamans of this region - even to this day - hold the birch, with its white bark, in high regard and envision that there is an eagle sitting at its top and a serpent coiled up at its roots. The Yahut shamans are said to perceive a naked woman, who embodies the spirit of the tree, at its roots. As such the lower part of her body could have had a serpent-form because roots were often symbolized as serpents [3]. She would be the serpent at the bottom of the tree.

In the Yahat tradition, this serpent woman at the bottom of the tree tempts the aspirant shaman with the milk of her breasts which is said to be a symbol of the mushrooms which grow in close proximity to the birch tree. These mushrooms are said to be of special importance in their shamanistic rituals. The shamans use them to induce the shamanistic experience that takes them to those otherworldly regions which they visit on their spiritual journeys. That such a snake-woman could speak to the shaman would not be considered strange - animal spirits and other spirits speak to them all the time.

This background shows that we should also consider the garden story in the Book of Genesis in a shamanistic context. In such a context it is not strange to find speaking animals involved! Is it not in another shamanistic context, in the story of Balaam, that we find the same motif, i.e. where the donkey speaks to him (Num. 22:27-30)? This means that the speaking serpent should not be understood either in the context of "just stories" or as some real event where some snake actually spoke, but rather as something that does in fact "happens" in reality in the context of the shamanistic experience. As such, the story of the speaking serpent in the garden story in Genesis captures something that really happens in shamanistic context.

This background also throws some light on the "fruit" of the tree in the middle of the garden of Eden. In the context of primitive shamanism, this would refer to the mushrooms which grow in proximity to the beach. This is the fruit with which the serpent-woman tempts the shaman - in exactly the same way that the serpent tempted Eve in the garden story with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The amazing qualities of the fruit of this tree are now easy to explain: it "opens" the eyes to spiritual dimensions (Balaam also refers to himself as the one "having his eyes open"; Num. 24:16) and those who partake of such shamanistic "food" often think that this enables them to become like "gods".

Taking the fruit of the tree in the middle of Eden as referring to such mushrooms allow us to make sense not only of the speaking serpent but also of God's command not to eat of that fruit. The appearance of this prohibition in the garden story, which clearly refers to a very early period in our human existence, makes perfect sense in the framework of that time when shamanism was still very much part of all human life. It also brings into focus a prohibition which is generally accepted throughout Israel's history, namely of all occult experience and anything that would induce such experience.

The serpent as fallen seraph?

We can now consider the Biblical serpent in more detail. In the Sumerian tradition, both the eagle and the serpent (especially when considered in the context of the world tree) were considered to be symbols of spiritual entities. In this regard, we find that both of these creatures were supposedly able to renew themselves (symbolizing living forever?), i.e. the eagle's feathers grow back and the serpent shed its skin. In the legend of Etana, we are told how the eagle's feathers were pulled out when he was thrown into the deep pit guarded by the serpent, but also how it regrew after his escape. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we are told how the serpent stole a special plant from the hero and directly thereafter shed its skin.

When we consider the eagle and serpent as signifying "spiritual entities" it is very possible that they were later remembered as cherubim and seraphs in Biblical tradition. In the Bible, seraphs are flaming beings of which the name means "serpent". Although such seraphs are found around the throne of God, there were corresponding creatures with the same name which were possibly fallen beings. As such, certain characteristics of the serpent are especially applicable to them - which could be the reason why the Biblical author of the garden story accentuated the fact that the serpent was "more subtle than any beast of the field" (Gen. 3:1). In this regard, the symbol of the serpent was especially applicable to these creatures.

These creatures are flaming (and flying) snakes called "sârâph", which kept in desert places (they were associated with such snakes in the desert; Deut. 8:15; Is. 30:6; but see also Is. 14:29 [4]). The serpent which Moses set upon the pole was also such a creature (Num. 21:6, 8). It is possible that this image of the serpent on the pole had reference to the garden story, i.e. to the serpent in the tree (I have shown that this story is very old and not fabricated during or after the Babylonian period) in which case that serpent was in fact taken to be such a "sârâph". Later, in the New Testament, this same image is applied to Jesus Christ who took our sins upon Himself on the cross (Joh. 3:14).

In the ancient Sumerian context the serpent which held at the bottom of the tree was closely associated with the realm of death of which the pit in the Etana story is clearly a symbol (see above). The serpent was also the pre-eminent symbol of that realm in ancient Sumer. As such, the serpent was regarded as the prime enemy of the Anzu eagle, who had access to the abode of the Most High God. The conflict between these creatures, and supposedly the two realms, is illustrated in the legend of Etana where these are depicted as arch-enemies. The Biblical story seemingly uses the same motif of the conflict between the serpent (which would be the servant of the ruler of the realm of death) and God. In this story, the fruit of the tree is also associated with death (God warned Adam and Eve that they would die if they eat that fruit). 


The ancient Sumerian background of the garden story in the Book of Genesis helps us to understand some of the motifs which would otherwise be hard to explain. The motif of the serpent and the tree is a very old one - going back to the earliest strata of Sumerian thought. It takes us back to the time when shamanism was a basic way of life. This shamanistic context explains the talking serpent - this is a typical experience in such a context. It also explains the "fruit" of the tree of knowledge of good and evil [5]. In my view, we can regard that fruit as the mushrooms which shamans use to induce their experience - in this context God's prohibition makes perfect sense. God did not merely forbid Adam and Eve to eat some apple (how would that make sense?); He forbid them to engage with the occult world where the initiates experience that their eyes are "opened" and that they become "as gods".

This interpretation of the garden story does not explain everything. Some aspects of the story still need an explanation but I will do that in the context of the next part of the series which focuses on the "Fall". The next question to answer is: How should we understand the "Fall", especially if Adam and Eve were not the very first humans, as I argued previously (see part 2)?

[1] In my book Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012).
[2] Dalley, S. 1998. The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University.
[3] In my view, this shamanistic serpent-woman is probably the forerunner of the goddess Ninhursag, depicted as a snake-woman, who in the Kesh Temple Hymn could also be viewed as the "spirit of the temple". Kesh originally referred to an area in the northern mountains. She is not only described as a snake in the hymn; in later Mesopotamian tradition she is also depicted with the lower part of her body in the form of a snake. (See Johan Coetser's essay on this blog: An introduction to ancient Sumerian religious literature).
[4] The fiery serpent with wings first appeared as a symbol in the Akkadian period when the great king Naram-Sin, grandson of Sargon the Great, used it as his symbol. This symbol was probably used by later Mesopotamian kings who regarded him as the archetypal king, which would be the reason why it is ascribed by the prophet Isaiah to the later Assyrian king Sargon (Is. 14:29). It seems that this symbol was translated into heaven as the constellation Draco that rules the northern starry heavens. It was later stripped of its wings but stayed the "heavenly serpent" who rules over all earth. In the Book of Revelation, this is referred to as the Great Dragon (Open. 12). The fallen seraphs that are depicted as fiery flying serpents could clearly be viewed as belonging to the realm of this king of serpents.
[5] In the garden story another tree is mentioned, namely the "tree of life" (Gen. 3:22; 24). Why is this tree only mentioned towards the end of the story and why were Adam and Eve not also previously (i.e. before the "Fall") prohibited from eating its fruit? In this regard, it is interesting to remember that there is a strong tradition according to which the great tree in the Garden of Eden was felled (Ezek. 31:12-18). We find this motif also in extra-Biblical traditions according to which the conflict between the eagle and serpent led to the tree being cut down. After that, however, a new shoot sprouted out. This could be the tree of life. There is a sense in which those partaking in the shamanistic (or, in later times, in the mystical) experience believe that they can obtain immortality.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. (Ref.
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Op soek na Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a philosopher and scientist (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science, and eschatology.

Read also the other parts of the series on the Book of Genesis:
If readers find the article interesting, they are welcome to share it or forward it to others, including their pastors or other scholars. 


  1. Dit maak baie sin - soos ek jou verstaan - die ontmoeting met die slang was 'n okkultiese/shamanistiese gebeurtenis maw bonatuurlik, soos in 'n trans ervaring. Die slang was nou nie juis iets soos 'n mamba of pofadder nie, en die vrug nie iets wat jy in 'n boord in die Boland sou pluk nie... nie noodwendig nie.

  2. Ek dink ons dink baie maal ons moet maar net die Bybel soos kinders glo - omdat dit soms bykans soos kinderstories klink. Maar dit is juis om die punt te mis. Die Bybelse teks bevat ontsaglike ou motiewe wat net sin maak as ons dit in die konteks van daardie antieke wêreld ondersoek. En omdat dit 'n betroubare teks is kan ons dit maar glo al verstaan ons nie altyd als nie. Tog help dit as ons kan insien hoe als bymekaar kom. Ek hoop dis wat ek kon regkry met die en die ander skrywes. Groete daar.

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