As we have often noted, the prevalent mythic perception of the Serpent amidst the minds of many is that of a demonic antagonist – and a male one, at that. There are solid reasons for this, of course: foremost among these is the Judeo-Christian baseline many of tend to operate under, where a certain serpent is indeed symbolic of the Arch-Enemy right from the Garden of Eden through to the End of Days. And, within the realms of the Indo-European mythology more endogenously, we have the incredibly prominent figure of the Demon-Dragon in the Waters – Vritra, Jormungandr, and others besides. It would be tempting, therefore, to relegate the role of the Serpent in our ancestral beliefs to that of the Adversary – as Something To Be Overcome [and certainly, ‘Vritra’ as ‘Obstacle’ is a not-entirely inappropriate translation].
And yet, the truth is – as we so frequently find – much more complicated, complex, and nuanced than all of that.
In previous pieces, I have taken a look at the underlying Serpentine conceptry for the Indo-European Sky Father Deific; with each of Odin, Zeus, and Rudra having a serpentine form and associated characteristics turning up in the relevant mythic conceptual syllabry [consider, for instance, the well-quoted lines of the Rigsthula describing one of the essentialized characteristics of the young Jarl: ” ötul váru augu sem yrmlingi” “Flashing his eyes like a serpent’s shone” – reflected also in the eyes of the Drakon of Greece].
However, now it is the Sky Father’s Consort Who turns our attention; and I would go so far as to say that here, the Serpentine skin fits even better. And also helps to illuminate via Her silken coils, several other vitally important nexes of the ancient Indo-European mythic view of the world.
The linkages are, appropriately enough, Three:
The Serpentine Form of the Earth Mother as connoting Earth and Fertility ;
The Serpentine Form of the Earth Mother as reflecting the Waters, the shape of Rivers wending their way across the Earth or encircling about the edges of All ;
The Serpentine Form of the Earth Mother as the venomous Avenger, the enraged Aspect of Nature’s Draconic Wrath made manifest, and encircling also to protect.
Although it should be noted that this last one also blends quite heavily into the Regal element of the Goddess as Queen – appropriate, it would have to be said, given one of the prime roles and duties of a Ruler is the facility to protect, to police, to uphold order, to defend.
And whilst it would be easy enough to approach all of this in mere abstract, it is rather more handy to be able to affix all of these concepts to actual, tangible examples from the scriptural canons of our forebears.
We shall start with the most ‘basic’ and ‘direct’ of these – and work our way up into the more complex conceptry from there.
The Serpents Of Demeter
So, to begin, Demeter – a rather archetypal ‘Earth Mother’ deific [although with some conjecture as to the etymology of Her chiefly encountered Theonym – some propose a ‘Ge [as in ‘Gaia’] Mother’ understanding, others go with the ‘Mother of the Grain’ as its root. I have another theory based around ‘De’ in more caelestial orientation, but more upon that, perhaps, some other time]. And also one that is most strongly Serpent associated.
Within the mythology, there is a rather prominent occurrence wherein Zeus has a sexual engagement with Demeter in serpentine form, or perhaps with Persephone, or Rhea. The texts themselves are multifarious upon this matter; although we can be (generally) sure that it is the same encounter, as various of these make pointed mention of the same progeny (Dionysus) resulting. And, in any case, as I have long argued – each of these Three (Demeter, Persephone, Rhea) are in fact One, hence the ongoing cavalcade of coterminities within Their relevant localized mythologies. (It should be noted that various of these recountings have Persephone as the resulting child – which is interesting, on grounds that as we have previously demonstrated Dionysus to Himself be the Sky Father (also), perhaps it is apt that the other Greco-Roman figure begotten in such a manner be likewise a ‘projection’ or an ’emanation’ or an ‘echo’ of the other Parent involved)
Yet the more immediately visually apparent Serpentine associations of Demeter are iconographic – there is an enormous weight of both scriptural and archaeologic material showing such a linkage, including Demeter having a Serpent-wreathed head in statuary or grasping a Serpent along with a Dove and a Dolphin [symbolizing dominion over the three realms – Earth, Air, and Sea], or with a pair of Winged Serpents drawing Her Chariot, with a Serpent named Kykhreides as Her Attendant, and so on and so forth. It is little wonder that the Serpent is recorded to be a Sacred Animal of Demeter in that light.
However, this does not in and of itself sufficiently answer the question as to just *why* the Serpent would be so closely linked to the (Earth) Mother Deific.
The most immediately plausible explication we can advance .. is also an incomplete one – that the Serpent is quite low to the ground, in fact lives *in* the ground, and is a power in that natural realm. It is a fine basis, but does not really ring fully ‘true’ as there is little ‘meaning’ to it – it is mere association of environs.
My personal supposition is that the Serpent is sacred to Demeter also due to the ‘Grain-Mother’ element to Her – for what we find in various of the Greek and other Indo-European terms pertaining to the Growth of Grain and other such green shoots of plant-life emblematic of fertility … are terms that also occur around various Snakes. PIE ‘Gerh’ and ‘Kerh’ in relation to the serpentine Cercrops or the mysterious figures of the Horned Serpent and Horned God. The notion of these crops growing up through the ground like ‘horns’ (or, if you prefer, spear-shafts – c.f the warriors growing from the serpent’s teeth sewn by Cadmus, inter alia) is well-preserved in our etymologies. And it is not hard to see how the figurative view of these as being akin to tiny serpents poking up through the ground may also have occurred.
To bring this back to where we began this section upon Demeter – it would make, also, a conceptual sense for the fertility of the Earth to be correlate to not only the Earth Mother deific but also a certain ‘creative’ input to match this from the Sky Father. Something that is preserved in the Greek mythos with the pairing of Zeus and Demeter in Serpentine form begetting Dionysus or Persephone – both of Whom are quite strongly keyed to ‘new life’ and the rendering of what was once barren instead teeming with abundance.
Which invites a perhaps obvious question: Can we find this perception expressed anywhere else amidst the archaic Indo-European canons of religion?
I think, by now, you already know the answer to that!
Sarpa Rajni – The Serpent Queen of the Vedas
To quote from the Shatapatha Brahmana [one of the ‘commentary’ / ‘ritual manual’ texts that occur as part of the Vedas – dating to the early years of the 1st millennium B.C. in terms of their compiling, yet which I have earlier demonstrated to contain elements that must be far older and arcen right the way back to the Urheimat] [2:1:4:29-30]:
“29 He stands worshipping by (the fire) while muttering the (three) Rik-verses of the Queen of Serpents [RV X 189: ] “1,–‘Hither has come that spotted bull and has settled down before the Mother; and before the Father on going up to heaven.–She moves along through the luminous spheres, breathing forth from his breath: the mighty (bull) has illumined the sky.–He rules over the thirty domains; and song is bestowed on the winged one [the Sun], yea, with the light at the break of day!” Thus he recites; and whatever (benefit) has not been obtained by him either through the equipments, or through the asterisms, or through the seasons, or through the laying down of the fire, all that is thereby obtained by him; and for this reason he stands worshipping by (the fire), while muttering the verses of the Queen of Serpents.
30 They say, however, that one need not stand by (the fire) worshipping with the verses of the Queen of Serpents. For the Queen of Serpents, they argue, is this Earth; and accordingly when he lays down the fire on Her, he thereby obtains all his desires: hence he need not stand by (the fire) worshipping with the verses of the Queen of Serpents.”
We know from various other Vedic Hymnals that Dyaus, Parjanya (the aforementioned Father), iconographically identified as a Bull, brings forth the fertility of the Earth (the Mother) via Rain and other such mechanisms that encourage the plants to grow [or, in this particular case, the Sun in the Sky – this is, after all, exactly what is (also) meant by Dyaus, Zeus, etc. : the Bright Solar Sky]. So, what we see above in this section of Vedic ritual manual should be utterly unsurprising – the Earth, identified with this Queen of Serpents, encounters the (Sky) Father as Bull, and Prosperity and abundance thusly results.
This is spelled out in more lurid detail in the Aitareya Brahmana:
“v. 23 (xxiv. 4) They creep thence ; they go to the Sadas; the other priests
creep out severally according to their wont ; the Udgâtrs creep together.
They chant to the verses of the Serpent Queen. The Serpent Queen is this
(earth), for this (earth) is the Queen of what creeps ; this (earth) in the
beginning was bare ; she saw this spell [ :] The dappled bull hath come ‘ ;
this dappled colour, of various forms, entered Her; whither She desired,
whatever there is here, plants, birds all forms (entered Her). The dappled
colour enters Him with various forms, whatever He desires who knows thus.
With mind He utters the prelude, with mind He sings, with mind He
responds; with voice He recites. Speech and mind are a pairing of the
Gods, verily thus with a pairing of the Gods They win a pairing,
by a pairing of the Gods they are propagated in pairings; (verily it
serves) for propagation ; he is propagated with offspring and cattle who
knows thus. […]”
“xxvii. 4 […] (thinking thus) they creep forward together and sing with the verses of
the Serpent Queen ; 2 the Serpent Queen is this (earth), for She is the Queen of
what creeps ; the Serpent Queen is speech, for Speech is the Queen of what
creeps ; moreover, the Serpent Queen is the Cow, for the Cow is the Queen of
what creeps. ‘ The spotted bull hath come ‘, this triplet he should not
omit, to prevent the omission of the strophe. ‘ In us place manliness ‘ (he
says) ; manliness is food ; […]”
This further reinforces the conceptual nexus: as Vak Devi [Goddess of Speech] is the Mother of the World, the Wife of the Sky Father; and we are well familiar with the Cow as the symbol of nurture, nourishment, natural abundance – and the female counterpart, of course, to the Bull [that is the Sky Father].
The conceptry is also found in the main Vedic texts as well, for instance the YajurVeda:
“They sing the verses of the Serpent Queen on that day. The Queen of what creeps is this (earth). Whatever on this (earth) they praise, whatever they have praised, through that is this (earth) the Serpent Queen.” [YV VII 3 1]
You get the idea.
The point is : it would appear that what we find recalled in the Ritual formulae and guidance of the Vedas – we find, also, expressed and encoded within the Greek mythology … albeit with some details rendered further ‘symbolic’ and perhaps twisted with literary license as befits a legendarium rather than a manual of ritual process.
However, it is this ‘Queen’ notion that now interests me – as it is another nexus between the various Indo-European mythologia upon this point.
The Serpent’s Crown
The Serpent, as we argued in ‘NAGA PANCHAMI – A CELEBRATION OF SERPENTS’, has a suite of strong ‘Regal’ connotations for the ancient Indo-European [recall the Crown of Serpents of Dionysus – or the perhaps not dissimilar Serpent-wreathed Head of Demeter in some Greek statuary]. And this is made abundantly clear in a perhaps surprising source: the Medusa-head of the Gorgoneion device.
Now this is an emblem that has frequently been misinterpreted – probably also by the Greeks themselves; as we can tell via the etymology of the name ‘Medusa’. The root of this in Ancient Greek is ‘Medo’ – to Rule, to Protect; and with the PIE ‘Med’ which underpins that also referring to both counsel (and healing) as well as the ‘measuring’ of boundaries and imposition of ‘limits’.
The Gorgoneion device is borne by both Athena and Zeus [with Athena having incredibly strong coterminity with Vedic Vak, as we have repeatedly demonstrated]; and is also one of the most prominent emblematic ensigns found upon Greek coinage – because it is actually an insignia of *Sovereignty*. Something which, it is entirely unsurprising to find in linkage to the Earth Mother Deific – as I have previously covered at great length in previous (A)arti-cles such as “BHARAT MATA AND THE INDO-EUROPEAN DEIFIC OF NATIONAL IDENTITY” [which also sets out in further detail various linkages of Athena with the Indo-European Mountain Queen deific complex – a ‘refinement’ (or, if you like, a ‘raising’) of sorts to the Earth Mother]. The ‘spirit of the land’, the territory, is quite naturally the regent thereof – something also reflected in the subsequent conceptual understandings of the ‘Fisher King’ and related tropes, albeit back to front in that it is a mortal ruler who is correlated to the land, rather than the land’s spirit that rules beyond and above men.
And with this ‘spirit’ – or perhaps we might suggest, Her Attendant (or even Descendant, after a sort) also finding potential Serpentine expression: the ancestral snake Erechtheus / Erechthonius [a figure of interesting parentage – involving both Athena *and* “grain-giving” Gaia; and somewhat co-identified with Poseidon Himself in the form of Poseidon Erechtheus ] that lived under the Erechtheion upon the Acropolis of Ancient Athens is an excellent and emblematic exemplar for this ‘genius loci’ concept; especially given His protective and paternal associations for the populace thereof, as well as the fact of the Erechtheion being a dual-temple to both Athena and Poseidon (a Sky Father Deific, as we have previously and extensively covered). [Prior to the 480 BC Sack of Athens by the Persians, which had destroyed the site, this locale was said to be inhabited by the spirit of Kerkrops – an earth-sprung serpentine forerunner and First King , Whom we have already briefly mentioned above in connexion with the PIE mytholinguistic conceptry around new shoots of growth and grain]
Not for nothing do we find so many iconographic depictions of Athena with a Serpent beside Her; nor the mentions for the Serpent as Sacred to Her, and symbolizing the renewable power of Life.
Although surely the most impressive visual panoply of the Ophidian in connexion to Athena is the Aegis – described by Pindar: “while the war-like aegis of Pallas [Athena] resoundeth with the hissings of countless serpents”; or by Quintus Smyrnaeus: “She [Athena] donned the stormy Aigis flashing far, adamantine, massy, a marvel to the Gods, whereon was wrought Medousa’s (Medusa’s] ghastly head, fearful: strong serpents breathing forth the blast of ravening fire were on the face thereof. Crashed on the Queen’s breast all the Aigis-links, as after lightning crashes the firmament.”
The Black Avenging Form Of The Serpentine Earth Mother
We have already ‘stablished that the Gorgoneion represents Sovereignty, and in “Ghora – Gorgos – Yggr – The Terrifying Face of Thunder”, inter alia, I demonstrated how this also recalled the Terrifying Face of the Ruler of the Worlds. This ‘Terror’ facing is also relevant for another reason, however – as just as Lord Shiva has terrific Avenger/Destroyer Forms [Such as Bhairava , MahaKaal , or Rudra Himself], so too does His Wife [the best-known example of which, of course, being the enraged transformation of Lady Parvati into Kali – the Black/Time/Death , even of the Universe! and most certainly near anything else within its bounds earlier than that apocalyptically appointed hour of cosmic midnight utterdark!]. We’ve been taking a look at this phenomenon amidst the other major instances of our mythologies in the “The Black Avenging Form Of The Earth Mother And The Pursuits Of The Sky Father As Solar Horseman – A Comparative Indo-European Typological Evocation” series; in particular, the form of Demeter Erinyes as a black and fear-inducing image of Death and Dikaiosune [‘Righteousness’]. It is interesting to note that in the cases of both Kali and Demeter Erinyes – this ‘furious’ form is described as a skin that is removed once the time for its necessity has passed … perhaps in the manner of a snake sloughing off its skin to be returned to ‘youthful’ appearance again.
The Erinyes are of obvious linkage to Demeter in this Form [indeed, Demeter or Persephone have identification as Their Mother – I would say, also, as Their Archetype]; and are also described as being under the commanding aegis of Athena (for instance, in Aeschylus’ Eumenides – They being eponymous to this ancient tragedy’s title). It is, again, absolutely uncoincidental that the Erinyes are described as possessing strong Serpentine features. To quote Nonnus’ Dionysiaca – “He would see the serpentine image of the goddess of Tartaros [an Erinys], and leap up scared at the many-coloured vision of the spectre”; or Statius’ Thiebaid: “Tisiphone . . . rouses from Her infernal abode Her companion Megaera and Her kindred snakes to battle . . . [She] muttered into the Earth the name of the absent one [Her sister Erinys], and raised aloft a horned serpent from Her hair with long-drawn hisses: He was the prince of Her caerulean tresses, and straightway hearing Him earth shuddered and sea and sky . . . The other heard the sound: by chance She was standing near Her Sire [Haides] . . . Forthwith She broke through the massive Earth, and stood beneath the stars: the Manes (Ghosts) rejoice, and as the nether darkness grows less thick, so wanes the light above. Her fell sister receives Her, and clasps Her hand.”
Stirring stuff – and that is relevant also for the etymology; but more upon that in due course.
The conceptry around the Sky Father’s Consort having a Serpentine Avenging Form of blackest terror is also encountered in more residual form elsewhere within the Indo-European mythic canons: for instance, Skadi, a dark and adrastic [that is to say, ‘inescapable’ as a Huntress] figure married to Odin, delivers the Punishment to Loki – overseeing the hellish situation’s emplacement whereby he is bound beneath both Earth and a venomous snake spitting venom down into his traitorous face. The confluence of Earth and Serpent and Sanction is clearly visible here; meted out by a Shadowy Avenger Form of the Sky Father’s Wife. In the Hindu canon, we have the intriguing detailing of the Brahmahatya – the personification of the most egregious sin of Brahmanicide – described as black, horrifying, implacable, female, and often with specifically *serpentine* visual elements; rising up out of the Earth, and sinking back *into* the Earth when Her task is done.
The Snake, that is so often regarded as Chaotic, an enemy of Law and Divine, Cosmic Order (that is to say, as ‘Demonic’) – it would appear in actual fact, and female form, is the opposite upon occasion: the *Upholder* of Dharma, Rta, Orlog, Dikaiosune, and the immanency of this within our universe.
Indeed, they are the Forces *of* Life, given black, terrifying forms that shroud with the imminency of Death – in order that it might be protected. In a certain sense, we might fairly state that Life is Order – that is to say, that Order finds in-universe expression through force of Life. And ‘Angry’, Avenging Life is no exception.
This is, somewhat, what we should expect – as the etymology of Erinyes, is plausibly linked to PIE ‘her’ (‘to move/stir [up]’). The notion is the whipping up of Fury [an intrinsic element for Life in the PIE conception – to be alive is to be angry, we might say]; yet this same PIE particle also informs Ancient Greek ‘Ormenos’ and ‘Ernos’ – terms used to refer to the growing shoots and stalks of green vegetation, life itself. There is also Ancient Greek ‘Oros’ – Mountain – (again of the same PIE root) which is of obvious general conceptual saliency for the Earth Mother / Mountain Queen deific under consideration … although perhaps more immediately interesting for our purposes is another Ancient Greek term that sounds similar, although in this case is etymologically unrelated. A case of ‘convergent evolution’, perhaps.
The Shooting Goddess Of Order And Growth – The War-Effort Of The Natural World
The term – and, indeed, theonym – in question is ‘Hora’, best known in its plural formulation – ‘Horae’ (from the same root as modern English ‘Hour’, ‘Year’, etc.). In Greek usage, this refers to a set of Goddesses Who both regulate the passing of the seasons and various elements of righteous conduct – in both the natural and the human spheres, what is right to be done at the right and particular time. It is no accident that these areas of responsibility are so strongly coterminous. After all, for the ancient Indo-European man – one was not separate from the natural world, but a part of it; and the natural world was very much an inextricable forest of laws and deeper order that ought inform the human inhabitants thereof, as well. Something we have sadly lost in this detritus of modernity where we increasingly feel ourselves to be not only above Nature – but also above the Gods, Divine Law Itself.
Now this has further conceptual saliency when we consider the fertility rites for the land that must be carried out. It is part and parcel, we may say, of the wise stewardship *of* said land – we look after the land, the environment, nature, so that nature *also* looks after us. And those who refuse to embrace such a responsibility – or, worse, spit upon it and seek to exploit the land whilst offering precious nothing in return, may find themselves rendered down into fertilizer of another kind for same.
This understanding is preserved in any number of archaic Indo-European sources – although we have not heard much from the Nordic corpus in this piece, so we shall start with the incidence from the Ynglinga Saga:
“Of the Death of Olaf, the Tree-Feller
There were a great many people who fled the country from Sweden, on account of King Ivar; and when they heard that King Olaf had got good lands in Vermeland, so great a number came there to him that the land could not support them. Then there came dire times and famine, which they ascribed to their king; as the Swedes used always to reckon good or bad crops for or against their kings. The Swedes took it amiss that Olaf was sparing in his sacrifices, and believed the dire times must proceed from this cause. The Swedes, therefore, gathered together troops, made an expedition against King Olaf, surrounded his house and burnt him in it, giving him to Odin as a sacrifice for good crops. This happened at the Venner lake. Thus tells Thjodolf of it: —
“The temple wolf, by the lake shores,
The corpse of Olaf now devours.
The clearer of the forests died
At Odin’s shrine by the lake side.
The glowing flames stripped to the skin
The royal robes from the Swedes’ king.
Thus Olaf, famed in days of yore,
Vanished from earth at Venner’s shore.”
Now it can be fairly argued, I think, that the understandings preserved there are twofold – first and foremost, that the King had neglected his duties of regulation in order to protect the environment and therefore his people’s ability to live thereupon .. but second, that there are multiple spheres, multiple ways in which he could be said to have failed. One of which being the potentiality that he had done little to stop the massive increase in population beyond the land’s carrying-capacity (i.e. he had allowed through inaction, things to get out of balance with the underlying environmental requirements of the deeper Law); and the other being the allegation that he had not carried out appropriate sacrifices and other rites to ensure the charitable nourishing both of and by the Land. Therefore, they – his now suffering people – chose to offer *him* as a sacrifice, instead!
And, entirely as we should expect … this is a sacrifice to Odin – the Indo-European Sky Father in Nordic form – to provide, as we had seen earlier with the fire-rites mentioned in the Vedas and associated Brahmana commentaries, the fertility and abundance of the land one more.
Another example which beautifully illustrates this concept in action, concerns the Hindu figure of Shakambhari – the Bearer of Shoots … or, slightly more figuratively, the Shooter.
This is one of my favourite Hindu myths, because of just how much it succinctly illustrates. I shan’t go into all the elaborate depth nor detail here, but the salient details are the following:
A demon by the name of Durgamasur [‘the invincible demon’] had secure a boon of erasing the knowledge of the Vedas [i.e. their performance – the proper pious conduct] from the minds of Mankind. This lead, as an obvious and direct consequence, to a cessation of sacral conduct by humanity … and the weakening of the Gods, the ascendency of demons and mighty demonic armies making ready to assail the Heavens, as well as the immense degradation of the environment, nature, as a co-occurrent result.
All seemed lost, until Devi – Who is above and beyond the Universe in these regards (indeed, is a-priori to it) and therefore unaffected by the happenings therein that had so weakened the rest of the Pantheon – She manifests as the demon army is making its way toward the final assault against the Gates of Heaven, as Shakambhari [‘The Bearer Of the [Green-]Shoots’].
Now, usually we interpret the ‘Saka’ in question as referring to the green shoots of new vegetation that accompany the resurrection of the health of the natural environment with Her arrival. And I do not think that that is inaccurate. But given Her mechanism for dispatching the demon Durgamasur – shooting him repeatedly with Her Arrows – I would also contend that the ‘shoots’ in question may refer to those Arrows; as, after all, there is a well-known crossover of conceptry even in modern English (where we have ‘Spears of Asparagus’ or ‘Blades of Grass’) between the terms for growing consumable vegetation and sharp, piercing weaponry.
Life is thus restored to the Earth – both through Shakambhari’s re-introduction of the knowledge of the rites to the minds of men (and it is interesting to note that the ‘Verses of the Queen of Serpents’ that we had earlier met, the ones accompanying the Vedic Rite aforementioned, are actually spoken and compiled for the Rsis [Sages/Seers] *by* said Queen of Serpents to begin with] and provision of fruits and vegetables to be rendered up as sacral offerings to the Gods therethrough … and also through Shakambhari Durga and Her Army slaughtering their way through the forces of the demons, watering the world with the literal rivers of blood of the foe that thusly result.
Yet, other than the aforementioned conceptual overlap for the ‘shoots’ of new growth rising up out of the ground, and snakes (or, in the case of Kerkrops, snake-men) doing likewise … how does this relate to the Serpentine Form of the Indo-European Earth Mother?
For that, we must turn to the Scythians (another ‘Shooting’ people, not least via the etymology of their ethnonym) – and the various fascinated Classical perspectives upon the Scythian Dragon, Drakaina Skythia, hailed as ‘Hora’, and also occasionally referred to in subsequent literature as an or even the Echidna: a decidedly Serpentine figure Who is Mother to their race.
The Scythian Serpent-Mother
Per the accounts of several Classical commentators, the origin of the Scythian race was to be found in the womb of a certain Serpent. I shall not be getting into the details of this myth here – nor the comparative analysis of this in light of various other Indo-European origin mythologies. For that, I have dedicated an upcoming additional swathe of the Sons of the Sun series looking specifically at ‘The Scythian Sons’. Because such a subject, and its intricacies, really does require quite an extensive exploration in order to make proper sense of it all – especially given the lack of primary texts by the Scythians themselves ‘in their own words’ as to what they actually believed upon this score; and the various efforts at affixing their mythos to other Indo-European canons that have been undertaken from time to time (including by those aforementioned Classical authors themselves in the now-far-distant past).
For now, it is enough to assume for the sake of argument that the Scythian Dragon-woman, occasionally thought of as ‘Echidna’, is an Earth Mother Deific that, in conjunction with the Sky Father [and Valerius Flaccus is quite direct about this; Herodotus, too, albeit with what he thought to be a differently identified Mother], gives rise to the Scythian race of man in much the same manner that the familiar Vedic account hails Vivasvan [‘Wide-Shining One’] and Saranyu as Parents to Manu [‘Man’]. And further, to presume that somewhere ‘midst the common coils of the several versions of the Scythian ethnogenesis as presented by Herodotus et co, that there is this singular underlying mytheme which also expresses itself – again with some variance as to the details – in other Indo-European origin-of-the-race legends such as that of Romulus and Remus, Mannus of the Norsemen, etc.
However, there are some complicating factors to the main transmission of the myth down to us through Herodotus – he was, after all, working through at least one layer (and quite probably several) of intermediary conveyancing, and it seems likely that some details had ‘shifted’ due to their couriering and (literal) translation as they made their way to him. One example for this concerns the alternate name for this Mother to the Scythian Race by Herodotus in his rendition of the Scythians’ own origin-myth: Borysthenes.
Now, the conventional wisdom is that Borysthenis is the Daughter of Borysthenes, the latter being a rather prominent river of Scythia (the Dnieper, and as we shall soon see, the ‘Danu’ style root to this hydronym is not at all coincidental). Yet recent linguistic analysis has suggested rather strongly that the Borysthenes – the name of both the River and the Father of this River-Mother to the Scythians … is actually, in its original Iranic tongue, a female noun. One that the Greeks would have interpreted due to their grammar as being a male one. It would therefore seem plausible that this ‘father figure’, Borysthenes, was an unnecessary addition to the story by Herodotus or one of his intermediaries – an attempt to reconcile what should have been, by their view, a male figure for the river with the clearly female identity of the river-linked female that produced the Scythians by Zeus.
So, in terms of a ‘reconstruction’ of the ‘original’ form of the Scythian myth – what we in fact have is the Sky Father in a relationship with a River-Mother or a Water-Woman style figure. Something with clear precedency in an array of Indo-European mythological accounts, including the plausible etymology of ‘Saranyu’ in Sanskrit (that being the Mother of Manu by Vivasvan) which reflects a ‘swift-flowing’ notion; and, although again the genders do not align, the immense role of the Tiber in the promulgation (and delivery to safety) of Romulus and Remus in the Roman version of this same myth.
However, that is not where the curious developments of the linguistics upon this reconstruction end. For the term ‘Borysthenes’ has been de-calqued back to another pair of words in Iranic – ‘Uaru-Stana’ , Wide-Standing. Which, while it might be interpreted to refer to a river or a great gulf of water – to my mind better recalls the concept of the ‘Wide Earth’. A prominent and well-familiar way to refer to the Earth Mother, and for obvious good reason.
Except how is it that a term that would otherwise appear to refer to the Earth Mother as , well , Earth – has wound up affixed to a River God(dess)? And why is it that I have no compunction in arguing that these are in fact the same being, that is also referred to in decidedly Serpentine terms in other Classical accounts?
Well, to address the first arc of this tri-force – that of the Earth Mother and a River Goddess … in the course of various of my previous works, we have earlier seen how Aditi is hailed as both Earth (Mother) and a Caelestial Mother figure. An ‘All-Mother’ of sorts to go with the ‘All-Father’. In this latter role, the Mother of the Skies, it would seem logical for Her to also be closely identified with The Waters that are the liminal sphere about the border of the Universe. And, indeed, there are various Vedic verses to this effect – Devi Vak in RV X 125 pointedly identifies Her Home as being in The Waters, in the same line that She is singing of ‘bringing forth’ the Father upon the Summit of the World. However it is also quite directly stated that these three elements – the Waters, Aditi, and the Earth – are One, a single Mother … a Mother to the Gods. RV X 63 2: “Ye who were born from waters, and from Aditi, and from the earth, do ye here listen to my call.”
I would also submit that what we find recorded in the Celtic mythology – where the Gods are spoken of as the Tuatha [‘Tribe’] De [Gods – like ‘Deva’/’Deus’] Danann – expresses functionally similar conceptry. There, the ‘Danann’ in question is the Mother of the Gods – in a role quite akin to how Aditi is the Mother to the Adityas [and this term is evidently intended to be understood rather more broadly than ‘just’ the Seven or Eight (or, in some cases, Twelve) Solar Deities – RV X 77 refer to the Maruts in such a manner]. [There are also some fragmentary supports for this concept to be found in other Indo-European mythological canons – the mention made in Homer of the Oceanus as a parent to Hera, for instance; or the Norse mythology having the initial generation of Gods being ‘thawed out’ from the Ice that is a strong functional correlate for The Water(s) in those frosty Northern climes].
So who is this ‘Danann’ ? Presumably a similar figure to ‘Danu’ [indeed, the nominative for ‘Danann’ is also ‘Danu’, although I have kept the genitive form for the Celtic to avoid confusion with the Vedic] – a Wife of Kashyapa in later Hindu conceptry, just as Aditi is [and I would go so far as to suggest that in archaic conception, these would have been the same figure with different ‘elemental’ associations; with Kashyapa being in the position in these later tellings of the Indo-European Sky Father. Handily, this may also assist to ‘reconcile’ the unresolved questions around the potential co-identification of Danann and Anu in Celtic mythology – the latter being “Earth’ associated, as Aditi also is, and another ‘Mother of the Gods’; Per my schema, there is no contradiction in these accounts … just the One Goddess with two names and ‘elemental’/functional associations].
Who is ‘Danu’? A term for a Water Goddess, from PIE ‘Dehnu’, that also occurs as a somewhat misunderstood figure in the Vedas . Fascinatingly, this “Danu” term is also a Scythian one – where, to the surprise of nobody by this point in the piece, it refer to a River. Indeed, the Dnieper [that river that is also labelled the Borysthenes in Herodotus] has as its ultimate etymological origin precisely this Scythian and thence Proto-Indo-European term. [There are quite a range of Rivers which bear ‘Dehnu’ derived hydronymy – the Dniester, the Don, the Danube, a Danu, and still others besides. It would therefore be rather premature to presume that there was an especial linkage of The Goddess to *that particular* ‘Danu’-derived River; although perhaps for the Scythian group in question whose accounts were supplied to Herodotus, the Dnieper had a similar saliency to ‘Father Tiber’ for the Romans – and they had indeed re-congealed their otherwise pan-Indo-European (non-residual) origin mythology to be aligned to this river specifically as the loka-lized embodiment of Her.]
What does this mean? That this Goddess that is linked to the Sky Father deific , this Mother Goddess , bearing the name of a River (but also the Earth) in the Classical renderings of the Scythians’ origin myth … has exactly the name underlying that we ought expect for the (ultimate) Mother Goddess of the Indo-Europeans as attested in various other, quite far-flung [all the way from India to Ireland, if not further] IE mythologies. And that we can viably ‘fill in’ the incredibly fragmentary characteristics and understandings of this Scythian figure that have come down to us, by linkaging the Goddess in question (now restored to Her true status *as* a Goddess) with those aforementioned parallel IE expressions from elsewhere – especially The Vedas.
This also helps to tie all together the conceptual association of this Goddess of the Waters with the fertility not only of Herself in bringing forth The Gods – or, for that matter, the first generation of Man [whether Manu or Targitaus – or Romulus and Remus borne of Rhea Silva [‘Earth Forest’, to translate somewhat directly] via the River] ; but with the land itself (we should perhaps say ‘Herself’). After all, in the absence of the essential life-giving waters, few plants nor animals shall thrive. And it is precisely the coming of the Rains from The Sky Above that bring up the ‘shoots’ of new life in a not entirely incomparable manner to the rise of sharp-pointy serpents from their holes in the wet, nurturing Earth.
However, there is a perhaps more *direct* reason for the comparison of this Danu / Borysthenis figure that we otherwise know as a Water Goddess , with the creature that is the colossal Serpent or Dragon – hence, assumedly, why Herodotus and Valerius Flaccus et co reported upon this Goddess as being such a sinuous specimine.
And that is due to the manner in which a river flows across a surface – which is rarely in a straight line unless the force of man or some other shaper is involved. Instead, the course of the river twists and curves, meanders in its flow – almost akin, we might surmise, to the coiling thrust of the movement of the Serpent. The River, in other words, is a Serpent, a Life-Giving Serpent, of Water(s); the ‘Quickness’ of Life [‘Saranyu’].
Just exactly that which we have come to expect from our earlier conceptual syllabry around the Indo-European Queen of Serpents deific, co-identified with this Mother of Waters and Mother of Earth, and with all three understandings engendered in the fertilization and setting the conditions for the promulgation of life and abundance in the natural (as well as human) world.
As applies Herodotus specifically, given that the account he gives which posits a God and a Demoness as being the Progenitors of the Scythian race, is apparently the tale told by Greeks of the region about their wild and ‘barbaric’ neighbours … it would seem feasible to surmise that this was not an authentic Scythian mytho-understanding (although it evidenty DID share elements drawn from at least one), but rather the semi-metaphorical cognizance of those Greeks – who viewed the Scythians around them with a mixture of awe and fear, somewhere between ‘men’ (and therefore in a certain sense ‘related’ to them) and (‘outsider’) demons.
Legends do so often tell us more about the tellers than they do about the subjects ostensiably being mythologized.
Concluding Remarks – The Serpent, Protected, Protects:
This has been a quite a lengthy piece; and it has, as promised, coiled about upon itself in wending, winding, winnowing way as we have hopefully brought to light a whole scintillating suite of understandings that were otherwise left obscured ‘neath the dusty earth and the seeming-still (yet never *quite* stagnant) waters of the collective Indo-European mind.
It is perhaps not hard to see why various of these perceptions may have fallen from view over the ages. The Serpent, much like Nature Herself (but, then, I repeat, don’t I) is not a creature that gives up Her secrets easily; and is far more readily thought of as commanded by man than She is ever actually at our petty beck and call. Dangerous, indeed, is the presumption that we, not She, lies truly at the heart of this world.
Nature is, as She ever was, well beyond our scope and ken of vision in much the same manner (and for exactly the same reason) that a fish would be unable to describe the Ocean – or somebody might, to reference me some Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, have some trouble seeing England while standing in Trafalgar Square.
We are only a small part – and we are most assuredly not Above, nor extricably ‘outside’ of this incredibly complex environmental sphere. And we ignore that at our unabated peril.
Mahadev Himself may be able to don a Cobra about His Neck as an adornment under His aegis (or, perhaps, with reference to the Greek mythic conceptry – *as* His Aegis); yet for a man to carelessly endeavour to do likewise with all the class of a trinket – could all too easily end up with the Snake playing the role of a Noose.
No, for us and our lot – it is not to riskily attempt to Command Her, but rather to politely Ask; and always always always to keep the appropriate sense of reverency and wonderment in our regard for Her.
As Mircea Eliade put it :
“As we have said before, for religious man nature is never only natural. Experience of a radically desacralized nature is a recent discovery; moreover, it is an experience accessible only to a minority in modem societies, especially to scientists. For others, nature still exhibits a charm, a mystery, a majesty in which it is possible to decipher traces of ancient religious values. No modern man, however irreligious, is entirely insensible to the charms of nature. We refer not only to the esthetic, recreational, or hygienic values attributed to nature, but also to a confused and almost indefinable feeling, in which, however, it is possible to recognize the memory of a debased religious experience.”
But for us ? We are not ‘irreligious men’. Quite the opposite.
And so we therefore have no compunction in Hailing our Mother !
The Indo-European Serpent Queen that is the Rivers, The Waters, The Atmosphere, The Rains, The Heavens, The Star-Sun Light, The Mountains, The Earth.
From Whom, we are ultimately descended; and To Whom, like the Serpent biting its tail, we ultimately return; with the sloughing of the skin of the snake revealing once again new life for the next phase and cycle of creation’s dance.
Rather than impetuously Commanding – We are, more properly, at Her Command.
And we know that which it is that we must do.
Nature Protected Protects
Sarpo Rakshati Rakshitaha