Snakes (ḥfʒw was the most common Egyptian term for the members of the suborder Ophidia) were found throughout Egypt—in the desert sands, in old walls, in fields, by the Nile and in its swamps, on threshing floors, in houses, and in livestock enclosures and pastures. Poisonous snakes would have posed a threat to humans and domestic animals alike. A papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum which served as a manual for a doctor treating snakebite reveals that the Egyptians had an intimate knowledge of their biology. Although the beginning of the papyrus is broken off, it would once have listed the names of thirty-seven types of snakes distinguished by the ancient Egyptians; at least thirty-six species have been identified in modern Egypt, but the ancient typology most likely did not correspond exactly to the modern one. The papyrus gives a physical description of each snake and its habitat, along with precise descriptions of the symptoms produced by each snake's venom, whether or not the wound is mortal, and the name of the god or goddess of which the snake is considered to be a manifestation. Following the list of snakes is a list of remedies to cure bite victims (some of which are specified for certain types of snakes, and some for specific symptoms); these remedies include emetics, compresses, unctions, massages, incision of wounds, and fumigations. Magical incantations were sometimes spoken over the remedies. The ingredients in the remedies include liquids and substances of mineral, animal and vegetable origin. The most common ingredient is onion, still used frequently in Egyptian folk medicine today to treat snakebite.

One of the poisonous snakes the Egyptians had to contend with was the horned viper (Cerastes cornutus). When the horned viper attacks, it rasps its coils together before springing forward. The rasping sounds like the letter f, and the horned viper was used as the hieroglyph to write this sound (fy is the Egyptian word for “viper” as well).

The Pyramid Texts allude repeatedly to the menace of serpents, and they recur in religious texts throughout ancient Egyptian history. First attested in the First Intermediate Period, the snake god Apophis was considered the enemy of order, or Maat. As early as the reign of Ramesses III, Apophis became the subject of a ritual recorded in several magic books. During religious processions and lunar feasts, images of Apophis were fashioned from papyrus and wax and then subjected to various tortures, representing the triumph of Re and Maat over the chaos symbolized by Apophis.

Not all snakes were considered bad. Deities associated with poisonous snakes were sometimes considered beneficial. The goddess Renenutet often appeared in the form of a hooded cobra. Her name is derived from an Egyptian word meaning “to nurse,” and she was closely associated with the fertility of fields, and consequently was considered the goddess of the granary. Offerings of the first fruits were made and hymns sung to a statue of Renenutet when grain was brought to the granary or when wine was stored in the cellar. She also had close ties with woven material and personified linen. Although her name first appears in the Old Kingdom in the Pyramid Texts, she is not depicted in art until the New Kingdom. She was worshipped throughout Egypt, but her cult was of particular significance in the Faiyum.

Snakes

Snakes. Detail of a wall painting showing the decreased tomb owner adoring a huge serpent called “Son of the earth”. A twentieth dynasty painting from the tomb of the foreman Inherka at Thebes, which portrays a vignette from Chapter 87 of The Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead). (© Patrick Francis Houlihan)

The snake goddess Meretseger personified the pyramid-shaped peak that rises above the Valley of the Kings. She may have been an object of a domestic cult in the nearby village of the royal tomb-builders and their families, Deir el-Medina, because snake figurines were found during excavations, many of which were covered with cooking soot, suggesting she provided protection for the kitchen. Certainly nonpoisonous snakes would have been considered beneficial to the household, as they are sometimes regarded today in Egypt, because they eat rodents.

The uraeus was the image of the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje), worn in the front of the king's headdress. Here the snake represents the snake goddess Wadjet, associated with the Lower Egyptian sanctuary of Buto. Her counterpart was the vulture goddess Nekhbet of Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt. Wadjet acted as a mythical mother and midwife of the king.

A creation myth explains how the uraeus came into being. The god Atum had created the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut, who represented air and moisture, and they had gone out into the world. Atum sent his eye out to fetch them, which it did, but when it saw that it had been replaced by the sun, it became furious and transformed itself into a cobra, which Atum appeased by placing it on his brow. Thus the uraeus came to be considered a protector of kingship.

Winged snakes are depicted in Egyptian art and are found frequently in religious texts painted in the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Wadjet was sometimes depicted as a winged snake. The Greek author Herodotus claimed to have seen skeletons of flying snakes when he visited Egypt. It is not known how the idea of winged snakes originated, but among the suggestions that have been put forth are the resemblance of the posture of the snake's neck and anterior of its body to wings when it is excited, the fact that horned vipers throw themselves at their victims, or the resemblance of a shedding snakeskin to wings.

Snakes appear in several Egyptian literary works. A central character in the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor is a cobra who saves the shipwrecked sailor and looks after him on his island in the midst of the sea for four months. At the birth of the eponymous character in the Story of the Doomed Prince, the fates decree that he will die as a victim of a snake, dog, or crocodile. He escapes the first of these fates after his wife puts out some beer to attract the dangerous snake out of its hole; the snake drinks it, passes out, and is hacked up by the woman.

See also AMPHIBIANS AND REPTILES.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, John. Zoology of Egypt: Volume First, Reptilia and Batrachia. London, 1898. Contains systematic descriptions of a number of snake species.
  • Broekhuis, Jan. De Godin Renenwetet. Bibliotheca Classica Vangorcumiana, 19. Assen, 1971. Publication of a dissertation in Dutch on the goddess Renenutet, with an English summary on pp. 149–152.
  • Johnson, Sally B. The Cobra Goddess of Ancient Egypt. London and New York, 1990. An overview of the uraeus and a typological study of uraei during the Predynastic through Old Kingdom periods.
  • Keimer, Ludwig. Histoire de serpents dans l'Égypte ancienne et moderne. Memoires de l'Institut de l'Égypte, 50. Cairo, 1947. About snake-charming and worship in ancient and modern Egypt.
  • Leitz, Christian. Die Schlangennamen in den ägyptischen und griechischen Giftbüchern. Mainz, 1997. Lexicographic study of names of Egyptian snakes in Egyptian and Greek.
  • Marx, Hymen. Checklist of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo, 1968. Includes the most complete list of snake species in Egypt published to date.
  • Sauneron, Serge. Un traité égyptien d'ophiologie. Cairo, 1989. Publication of the papyrus identifying snakes and the treatment of their bites.

Nicole B. Hansen