All posts by Loren Petrich

Drugs and Religion: Snakebite Trips?

By Loren Petrich | June 16, 2002 | Leave a comment

In Merlin Stone’s book When God Was a Woman, about early goddesses, there is a strange hypothesis about the importance of snakes in the early Middle East. MS notes that snakes are associated with prophecy and wisdom – and goddesses – in several places, such as Egypt, Sumer, Crete, and Greece. In Egypt, the female deity of pre-dynastic northern (Lower) Egypt was the cobra goddess Ua Zit. Egyptian deities and royalty has a uraeus emblem – a head and hood of a cobra. Some Sumerian goddesses, such as Inanna, were associated with snakes. In Minoan-era Crete, we find some statuettes of goddesses or priestesses with snakes. In one case, the snakes are cobras. In Greece, in what is most likely a Minoan legacy, Hera and Athena were associated with snakes, and the shrines of Delphi, Olympia, and Dodona were originally associated with goddesses. However, they were taken over by the followers of the male gods Zeus and Apollo, who were depicted as snake-killers. Even then, the greatest wisdom was associated with priestesses. Serpenticidal male gods also include Marduk, who killed Tiamat, and Yahweh himself, who killed Leviathan.

MS suggests a connection to the Adam and Eve legend. The Philistines had “snake tubes” nearly identical to some found on Crete, which is consistent with them being Cretan refugees. So some “snake priestesses” may have set up shop in Palestine when the Israelites showed up. The Adam and Eve legend may have been an effort to discredit these women, for it suggests that snakes are wicked, and women who listen to snakes are wicked. This is all in keeping with the Yahvist effort to discredit religions other than the worship of Yahweh, which is a sordid story of religious persecution. This persecution involved going so far as destroying a bronze snake kept in the Temple, the Nehushtan, which could supposedly cure snakebite. This snake was probably associated with an earlier acceptance of this snake cult.

But how did this snake cult actually work? It is difficult to say, but MS offers a strange hypothesis. She notes that we are told that Cassandra and Melampus had acquired prophetic powers from having their ears licked with snakes. So is there some snakebite connection? MS suggests that there was, and tells of someone who had been immunized against krait venom, but who had been bitten by a krait [Cobras in the Garden, H. Kursh]

He had developed a sense of enhanced awareness and he had visions. He reported himself making up verses, and said “My mind had extraordinary powers.”

This is evidently much like mescaline [from peyote] or psilocybin [in certain mushrooms], used by some Native Americans for similar purposes; those who take these two or LSD often feel as if they are in touch with the basic forces of existence and a sensation of perceiving the events and meaning of the past, present, and future with great clarity and comprehension. It could well be that some snake venom has components with similar effects.

So could it be that early snake prophetesses (and male prophets) were going on snakebite trips?

Oracles connected with snakes were consulted in Greece and elsewhere for important decisions, which seems very trustworthy of people with “highs”.

One does have to ask the question on how this type of prophesying got associated with women instead of men or both sexes equally in the ancient Middle East.

This only adds to the riddle of Minoan Crete. Since the priestesses there were important citizens, and since they are associated with snakes, then could some of the leaders of Crete back then have been snakebite-tripping priestesses? The possibility of a “feminist theocracy”, rule by a largely female priesthood, seems awesome enough (no prominent “kings”), but this is truly wild.

I confess I don’t have much taste for theocracy, but I would certainly prefer a Minoan-type theocracy (if that was what it was) to the more familiar kinds – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – which I find absolutely disgusting.