The Sacred Serpent

The Sacred Serpent

MŜ THE SACRED SERPENT

Adding to the Mosaic syncretism, in the Ugaritic mythology appears a figure called Mŝ or Mush, son of Baal and Anath, possibly equivalent to Adar as “Mash,” son of Bel. Mŝ/Mush was propitiated to prevent poisonous animals like scorpions and serpents from attacking, in essence making of him a snake god.1723 Mŝ’s name is asserted to be not Semitic or Egyptian but Sumerian, such as by Brandeis University linguist Dr. Michael C. Astour (1916–2004), who states that there is no Egyptian linguistic borrowing in the Ugaritic texts and who demonstrates instead an abundance of Sumerian religious ideas in Canaanite mythology.1724 He avers that both Mŝ or Mŝi and Moses are Sumerian, remarking, “It is therefore preferable to detach Môše from Egyptian loan-names.”1725

SNAKE GOD

According to Astour, the term Mŝ reflects a Sumerian deity, the source of numerous Ugaritic references to a snake god,1726 equivalent to Muš, meaning “serpent.”1727 This moniker “Mush” thus would be appropriate for a serpentcult founder, “Moses,” “Mosheh” or “Musa,” as in Arabic. In the SumeroBabylonian mythology, there appears also a constellation Muš, which “loosely corresponds” to the hydra or multiheaded snake/serpent.1728 Hence, this Sumerian word and concept were passed along in the Babylonian tradition, as shown additionally in this periodical entry:

muš [SNAKE] (192x: ED IIIa, ED IIIb, Old Akkadian, Ur III, Old Babylonian, Middle Babylonian) wr. muš “snake” Akk. şēru1729

This word can be found almost 200 times in extant writings, including tablets from Uruk, Lagash, Nippur, Ebla and Ugarit.1730 The term muš occurs in the Gilgamesh epic (10.305), while in another tablet we find the phrase gal muš, which means “big snake.”1731 A common form is muš-a, used in the texts

Inanna’s Descent and Dumuzi’s Dream, for example.1732

Fig. 109. Cuneiform muš, Sumerian for ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’

In Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld (376–383), Dumuzi begs Utu to change his extremities into a serpent’s “hands and feet” in order to “escape my demons”: Thus, “Utu turned Dumuzid’s hands into snake’s hands. He turned his feet into snake’s feet.”1733 Here we see the theme of the sun god controlling the serpent, as well as giving magical serpentine attributes to the goddess’s consort-son in order to protect him from demons.

SERPENT MONSTERS

In the Neo-Babylonian era, Inanna’s Semitic counterpart, Ishtar, was symbolized by the mušḫuššu, a monstrous creature with a snakelike tongue, depicted on the goddess’s famous gate at Babylon (6th cent. BCE). Marduk too is associated with the mušḫuššu, a word derived from the Sumerian MUŠ, and the creature may also be the dragon in the apocryphal Jewish tale of “Bel and the Dragon.” Another term is mušnammiru, which means “who illuminates” and is an epithet of Shamash.1734

Fig. 110. Mušḫuššu or “reddish/fierce snake,” originally 6th cent. BCE. Reconstructed Ishtar Gate from Babylon, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

An Akkadian cognate of the Sumerian muš is bašmu,1735 used in the Enuma Elish to describe the offspring of the serpent monster of the deep, Tiamat, and “presumably cognate” also with the Semitic term bṯn, as in the Ugaritic texts.1736 As Cambridge University fellow Dr. Graham Cunningham remarks, “Snakes can also be regarded as similar to chaos-monsters...”1737

ARCHAIC SERPENT CULT

We have seen numerous examples of snake worship, including and especially the serpent motifs in the Bible, particularly in the Moses account. In this same regard, serpent worship may be among the oldest known religious reverence, possibly dating back some 70,000 or more years. This contention is evidenced possibly by the discovery in the 1990s by archaeologists in a remote cave in Botswana, Africa, of what could be a giant carved python which may date from that remote era and indicate a ritualistic purpose.1738

Although the cave-python thesis remains unproved, archaic serpent reverence can be found among the local San or Khoisan people, also known as Bushmen, among whom the python is one of their top three most important animals.1739 Another very archaic ethnos, the Pygmies of the Congo, also had important myths about serpents/snakes and dragons, possibly dating back many thousands of years.1740

As mythologists Patricia Ann Lynch and Jeremy Roberts state:

Snakes, particularly the python, play prominent roles in African mythology. A serpent named Aido-Hwedo carried the Fon Creator, Mawu-Lisa, in his mouth as she created the world. Chinawezi, the cosmic serpent of the Lunda people, governed the earth and its waters. Snakes were commonly associated with rain and the rainbow.1741

It should also be noted that one currently mainstream DNA theory contends that the San constitute the world’s oldest known ethnicity, the most direct descendants of the proposed “Genetic Eve,” from whom it is hypothesized come all Homo sapiens sapiens.1742

INCANTATION TEXTS

Venomous snakes have the seemingly godly ability of inflicting near-instant death, like the lightning strikes of the sky god but much more frequently fatal to humans and other animals. Hence, in the Mesopotamian incantation texts, poisonous creatures like snakes and scorpions understandably were of special concern. Therefore, the gods and goddesses who potentially controlled them were to be appeased and revered above many others.1743

If one is religious and believes in an all-powerful god or gods, one naturally will suppose that the divine is controlling and sending snakes to do his/her bidding, including and especially exacting capital punishment for some grievous offense. Thus, we can understand the intense fear, respect and reverence that would lead to a serpent cult, evidenced by the popularity of such beliefs in many places globally for thousands of years.

SNAKE-CHARMERS

Snake-controlling spells appear in the Babylonian “Exorcist’s Handbook,” while the Sumerian-derived Akkadian designations for “exorcist” include maš-maš and muš-la-la-ah-hu, meaning “snake-charmer.”1744 Semitic languages professor Dr. Markham J. Geller asserts that these latter two words are synonyms.1745 These facts tie snakes into the mašmašu priesthood, to be discussed below.

In the Ugaritic texts, it is the god ḥrn or Horon/Ḥôrānu who “plays an important role casting spells against snakes…”1746 It is noteworthy also the Semitic word for “snake,” nḥš (Heb.  נחש nachash), is “perhaps related to the Babylonian serpent god Šaḫan.”1747

SNAKE OF ENKI

Since snakes live underground, including beneath temples, it has been believed that underworld deities in particular control and send serpents out for various purposes, principally as a punishment.1748 It is significant that the earliest incantation texts indicate a time when Enki, another god linked to the underworld,1749 was “especially associated with illness-bringing snakes.” In this regard, the epithet muš den-ki or “snake of Enki”1750 indicates his status as a serpent deity in significant part.

Moreover, Cunningham states that in the “Epic of Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Underworld, the earliest copies of which date to the Old Babylonian period, Gilgameš defeats a snake...”1751 The defeat of an opponent generally conveys control over that adversary, suggesting that, like Enki, Gilgamesh here is given the status of a snake god as well. In turn, Gilgamesh has been associated with Moses since antiquity, and it is significant that the biblical lawgiver too possesses important serpent-deity attributes.

NINGISHZIDA THE MUSH

Another underworld and serpent deity is the Mesopotamian agricultural and fertility god Ningishzida, who was understandably the subject of magical incantations by priests, including one text invoking his “mouth” as that of a “magician” and a “snake”:

Lord, your mouth is that of {a pure magician} {(1 ms. has instead:) a snake with a great tongue, a magician} {(1 ms. has instead:) a poisonous snake}, Lord Ninĝišzida, ……! Ninĝišzida, your mouth is that of a pure magician…1752

The original Sumerian of this text repeats the terms maš-maš, maš and muš:

Here maš-maš is rendered “magician,” while maš is “pure,” and muš is “snake.” One manuscript (“ms.”) reads “snake” (muš), rather than “magician” (maš), indicating that these terms were considered interchangeable to some extent. The alliteration in this passage suggests what must have appeared to be a very magical incantation, pregnant with meaning and power. Hence, we might surmise that “Mash” and “Mush” were considered highly powerful sacred epithets, apparently rolled into one in “Moses.”

Like Ishtar and Marduk, Ningishzida is also styled with the epithet muš-huš (“mush-hush”) or mušhuššu/mušḫuššu (Akk.), meaning “fierce serpent,” “serpent-dragon” or “monster.”1753 Ningishzida’s son, Dumuzi/Tammuz called “Damu” (“child”), is also known as muš-a and muš-huš.1754

Like the apocryphal Moses, son of Yahweh, Ningishzida is the son of the heavenly god, Anu. He was also believed to be an ancestor of Gilgamesh, indicating again that the latter heroic compilation incorporates the serpentunderworld god’s attributes in his myth. The snake god’s connection with the king Gudea is significant—Gudea is called the “son of Ningishzida”1755—in that it seems some of the latter’s biographical details were interwoven into the Gilgamesh myth.

SOLAR ASPECTS

Ningishzida is also called the “god of dawn and dusk,” reminding us of the twin aspects of Venus, as embodied in Ugaritic mythology by Shahar and Shalim. As we have seen, this attribute is also significantly solar, representing the sun in the morning and evening. The Mesopotamian solarserpent god’s status as the underworld deity resembles the role of Osiris and other deities symbolizing the sun’s nightly passage.

In this regard, the text “Ningishzida’s Journey to the Netherworld” contains much solar mythology, with its calls to “arise” and “sail” in a “boat.” It also resembles various Egyptian hymns and spells for the passage of the deceased king into the underworld. As we might expect, this sacred passage includes the consumption of “choice wine,” part of the medicine chest of antiquity.

MEDICINE DEITY

It is significant too that this god is the patron of medicine, with his snake entwined imagery reproduced as a symbol of modern medicine. The iconography of Ningishzida includes depictions of the god with a snake head, as well as an image that resembles the later caduceus of Hermes, the staff of Asclepius and the serpent rod and brazen fetish of Moses.
Fig. 111. Libation vase of Gudea with dragon Mušḫuššu, 21st cent. BCE. Louvre The oldest of its kind extant, this Mesopotamian artifact dates to the 21st century BCE, long before the purported historical Moses. This god, therefore, is extremely old, and it is clear that he was addressed by essentially the same title as “Moses” many centuries before the Jewish bible was written.

BEER AND WINE

As beer itself, Ningishzida’s son Dumuzi/Tammuz descends into underground containers, while the same fate is destined for his “sister,” Geshtinanna, whose name means “leafy grapevine,”1756 much like serpents, which go underground and then appear alive again on the surface. Thus, the two siblings symbolize grain and vine, harvested at six-month intervals from each other, grain in the spring and grapes in the fall. Hence, they are underground for six months at opposite times from one another.1757 As we have seen, in the Jewish era Tammuz came to signify the wine harvest as well, reflecting the omission of female divinities in biblical texts.

Significantly, Geshtinanna is depicted in another myth as Ningishzida’s wife,1758 once against demonstrating the intimate connection between wine and snakes.

MOSHEH AND THE SERPENT

There exists good reason to suggest that the mythical and syncretic Moses is based significantly on not only the sun and wine god but also the serpent deity, including and especially Ningishzida as Muš, muš-huš or Mŝ, as he appears to have been passed along in the Ugaritic texts.

Fig. 112. Mór Than, Moses and the Nehushtan, 1879. Plan for stained glass window, Ferencváros Church, Hungarian National Gallery

In this regard, Astour summarizes his case that the name Mosheh/Moses
seems to be derived from the serpent god, rather than the Egyptian term for “born”:

For the Hebrew Môše, too, the association with the CanaaneoSumerian serpent-god seems to be much more convincing than with the pale banal Egyptian hypocoristic [diminutive] from some name composed with ms(w) “born.” The ophic features of Moses are very pronounced: his sacred emblems are the serpent-wand and the bronze serpent on a pole; his tribe is Levi, whose name signifies “serpent” and who was the son of Leah, the “cow”...; he is a healer in the full sense of this word, knowing both how to cause and to heal diseases.1759

We have seen how Moses and Aaron’s staffs turn into snakes (Exod 4:3, 7:10), how Yahweh sent “fiery serpents” against the Israelites (Num 21:6), and how the patriarch raised up a magical bronze serpent,  נחשתן Nĕchushtan (2 Ki 18:4),1760 as a talisman against death by snake bite (Num 21:9). We have noted too that the entwined snakes symbolizing the healing deity date to at least the third millennium BCE, with the magical and healing serpent controlling spells part of an ancient priesthood.

We also have discussed that the Levitical priesthood is named from the same root as “Leviathan,” connoting sea monster. Noteworthy too is Yahweh’s “hissing,” previously mentioned. Additionally, some of the muš terms, such as bašmu, are used to designate a horned serpent, providing yet another reason for that motif in the Moses myth.

Important also is the suggestion that the biblical term  נחש nachash denoting “serpent” could represent the Babylonian snake god Šaḫan, cast in Genesis 3 in the role of bringer of knowledge and wisdom.

BI-GENDERED

Concerning the sacred serpent, Walker relates:

The biblical Nehushtan was a deliberate masculinization of a similar oracular she-serpent, Nehushtah, Goddess of Kadesh (meaning “Holy”), a shrine like that of the Pythonesses. Israelites apparently violated the sanctuary and raped its priestesses, but “Moses and Yahweh had to placate the angry serpent goddess of Kadesh, now deposed, by erecting her brazen image…”1761

The serpent deity was viewed not only as male but also as female. Astour also points out the bigendered characteristic of the serpent deity, which recalls the two-sexed Mises, a Bacchic title that likewise may reflect the merger of the Dionysian cult into the Sumero-Semitic serpent cult. It should be recalled that, like Moses, Bacchus too was associated with snakes.

SON OF THE COW AND HEALER

Added to these correspondences is the fact that Moses himself was a “son of the cow,” so to speak, noteworthy since in the Canaanite myth Mŝ/Mush is said to be the son of Baal, the bull, and Anath, the heifer. A “chthonic deity identical with Mŝ” is the god Rpu-Bᶜl or Rāpiu Baal, “son of Baal and the heifer,” whose name means “Healing Baal” or “Lord Healer.”1762 In this god, Astour also finds the Sumerian deity Ninazu, father of the serpentine Ningishzida,1763 as well as the later Greek hero and monster-slayer Bellerophon. We may look also to Rpu-Bᶜl for inferences of the Moses character.

SERPENT-GODDESS MOTHER

Another clue as to Moses’s serpentine nature comes in the name of his adoptive mother in Josephus, Thermuthis/Thermouthis,1764 also the Greek moniker of the Egyptian serpent goddess Renenutet, who watched over and nursed babies, and protected grain, serving also as a goddess of wine. As such, Renenutet was the “nurse of the pharaoh,”1765 appropriate for her appearance in the Moses nativity tale.

Concerning Thermouthis/Renenutet, Dr. Roelof van den Broek, professor of Christianity at Utrecht University, remarks:

Primarily a vegetation and fertility goddess praised for providing good crops, she was considered the giver of all necessaries of life and of the blessings that make life agreeable as well….

In Hellenistic times, like so many other goddesses, Thermouthis too was interpreted as a manifestation of Isis. According to Aelian, she is the sacred viper of Isis, identical with the ureus that adorns the statues of this deity as a royal diadem.1766

Fig. 113. Egyptian wine and snake goddess Renenutet, Renenet, Rennut, Ernutet, Thermuthis, Thermouthis, Hermouthis or Parmutit

The Egyptian fertility and childbirth goddess Isis was known in Ptolemaic times (323–30 BCE) by the epithet “Isis-Thermouthis,” “Ermouthis-Isis” or other form. The cult of Isis-Thermouthis evidently existed only in Egypt, indicating it was from there that Josephus derived this Moses attribute. The serpent goddess mythology upon which this later figure was based, however, dates to hundreds or thousands of years earlier, and can be found in many places outside of Egypt. The fact that Renenutet was also a wine goddess is significant in consideration of the Moses-Dionysus connection as well.

JEBUSITE SERPENT CULT AT JERUSALEM?

To reiterate, in the Bible, Moses’s magical serpent staff, Nehushtan, was set up in the Jerusalem temple, to be revered as a talisman protecting against deadly snake bites, among other purposes. In this regard, it appears that there was an Amorite/Jebusite serpent cult at Jerusalem centuries before David purportedly conquered the city.1767 It is possible this talisman and its deity were called by the incantational and magical Sumero-Semitic epithet of “Mush” and/or “Mash,” demoted in Yahwist times to the patriarch Mosheh/Moses.

DESTRUCTION AND SALVATION

According to the Bible, Moses’s serpent cult fell out of favor during the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, who “removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehushtan.” (2 Ki 18:4)

Subsequent to Hezekiah’s rampages, it was his great-grandson Josiah who purportedly found the Book of the Law or torah in the temple. Again, one wonders what ideology Hezekiah was following when he went on his brutal frenzies, which were supposedly in keeping with the (long-lost) Mosaic law but which ironically destroyed the Mosaic serpent cult.

Despite this monotheistic fanaticism, the remnants of the serpent cult survived in the Ophites and other sects. Included in this serpent cult is the perspective that the reptile is the bringer of not only wisdom but also salvation: “The best example of the serpent as savior appears in a Jewish writing from the second century BCE...the Wisdom of Solomon,” in which Moses’s snake is called a “symbol of salvation.”1768

Fig. 114. Bronze menorah with seven (phallic) serpents, Roman period (?) (after Charlesworth, 16)

Moreover, a bronze menorah dating from possibly the Roman era depicts its seven branches as serpents.1769 Indeed, in Roman times, Moses continued to be associated with the serpent in literature, as in a haggadah1770 evidently used by Josephus (Ant. 2.10.2):

Moses took the short road along the desert, deemed impassable on account of its many flying serpents (“seraphim”), and provided himself with numerous baskets filled with ibises, the destroyers of serpents, by the help of which he removed the dangers of the desert.1771

Here again the patriarch possesses the snake-controlling attributes of a serpent god.

The serpent cult extended well into the common era, as related by Princeton theologian and New Testament scholar Dr. James H. Charlesworth, who refers to “Jewish, Christian and Gnostic amulets with serpents” that “often reveal the evil-eye power of the serpent...”1772

SERPENT AND CROSS

In the Bible, the serpent is vilified “in the beginning,” then venerated, then denigrated again, and once more adored when it is associated later with Christ, as a “type of” him: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (Jn 3:15) The serpent’s “lifting up” is believed in Christian tradition to represent Christ’s crucifixion; hence, Moses’s serpent staff is Christ on the cross.

Fig. 115. Robert Anning Bell, The Brazen Serpent, c. 1890. Reproduction of wood engraving, Wellcome Library no. 18284i

As we have seen, snake/serpent worship possibly dates back many thousands of years. It would seem that, in the Moses myth, we possess the remnants of a serpent cult, in which the god himself is identified with the snake.

The conclusion is that, in Mŝ/Muš/Mush there appears to be another important germ for the Moses myth, the demotion of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Ugaritic and Jerusalemite serpent god to a “patriarch,” as Mŝ worship in the Israel area or hill country became subordinated under Yahweh, who eventually reigned supreme, as “Most High” and “Almighty.” It appears that the thrust to subordinate the serpent cult occurred at the time when the Moses myth was created, demoting the god under Yahweh but maintaining its priesthood and laws.

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