Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Serpens

the Serpent

 
Urania's Mirror 1825

This snake, Serpens, that Ophiuchus holds (the snake-handler, who represents the healer Asclepius), is found on the symbol of medicine worldwide, the caduceus. The staff of Aesculapius was a single snake wrapped around a staff (often confused with the staff of Mercury or Hermes which has two snakes and is said to represent commerce). [See picture of the Rod of Asclepius]. Serpens is the only constellation divided into two separate pieces.

"Ophiuchus means 'he who holds the serpent' and that is how he is depicted. The struggle will last forever, since they wage it on equal terms with equal powers". [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 1, p.31]

Serpens and serpent comes from Latin serpere, to creep, from the Indo-European root *serp-2 'To crawl, creep'. Derivatives: serpent, serpigo (a spreading skin eruption or disease, such as ringworm, from Latin serpere, to crawl), herpes, herpetology (these words from Greek herpeton, 'crawling animal', from herpein, to crawl, creep). [Pokorny serp- 912. Watkins]

The word serpens is a synonym for snake; Wikipedia explains:

"Serpent is a word of Latin origin (serpens, serpentis) that is normally substituted for 'snake' in a specifically mythic or religious context, in order to distinguish such creatures from the field of biology".

The Bible interchanges the words dragon and serpent liberally. Draco, the dragon, is usually portrayed with feet and believed to be the 'Old Serpent', the tempter of Eve in the Garden.

“The snake (serpens) takes its name because it creeps (serpere) by secret approaches; it crawls not with open steps but by tiny thrusts of its scales. But those animals that support themselves on four feet, like the lizard and the newt, are not snakes, but are called reptiles (reptile). Snakes are also reptiles, because they crawl (repere) on their stomach and breast. Of these animals there are as many poisons as there are kinds, as many varieties of danger as there are of appearance, and as many causes of pain as there are colors.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.255.]

This snake, Serpens, that Ophiuchus the snake-handler holds, or the snake that Asclepius has wrapped around his rod, is likely to be the kundalini snake; because it is a single snake, and because kundalini represents the life-force; the balanced flow of this energy is critical to health and harmony. The kundalini energy or 'serpent power' resides at the base of the spine and is represented symbolically as a snake coiled up upon itself, in three and a half circles like a true snake or serpent (unlike Draco which is a four-footed dragon). Kundalini is a Sanskrit word meaning either 'coiled up' or 'coiling like a snake'. The cultivation and management of this life-force has been the aim of the physician-priests, witch-doctors, and shamans who used drumming, trance, chanting, hallucinogenics etc. to facilitate intuitive diagnostics and cure illnesses. The adjacent constellation Ophiuchus is identified with Aesculapius, the snake-handler, snake-charmer, or doctor.

"One called Ophiuchus holds apart the serpent which with its mighty spirals [gyris] and twisted body encircles his own, that so he may untie its knots and back that winds in loops. But, bending its supple neck, the serpent looks back and returns; and the other's hands slide over the loosened coils. The struggle will last for ever, since they wage it on level terms with equal powers" [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD. book 1, p.31].

Varro says Proserpina (Greek Persephone, the daughter of Ceres who became the goddess of the underworld when Pluto carried her away and made her his wife) received her name because she, like a serpens ‘creeper', but this derivation has been disputed by etymologists:

"From the fact that the Moon is wont to be under the lands as well as over them, Ennius's Epicharmus calls her Proserpina [Greek Persephone]. Proserpina received her name because she, like a serpens ‘creeper,' moves widely now to the right, now to the left. Serpere ‘to creep’ and proserpere ‘to creep forward’ meant the same thing, as Plautus means in what he writes: Like a forward-creeping beast". [Varro: On The Latin Language, p. 65-66.]

“Proserpina, because from her the fruits 'spread forth' (proserpere).” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.187.]

Snakes were seen as having the properties of different poisons according to their species: Isidore says of Mercury "he holds a staff with which he separates serpents, that is, poisons" [p.186.], and: "Of these animals there are as many poisons as there are kinds, as many varieties of danger as there are of appearance, and as many causes of pain as there are colors” [p.255.]

"The snake's venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal, poison, or provide expanded consciousness (and even the elixir of life and immortality) through divine intoxication. Because of its herbal knowledge and entheogenic association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being (close to the) divine". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpent_%28symbolism%29

It was believed that snakes had the ability to discover health-giving medicinal herbs. Herbs have chemical properties and this attribute in snakes of being able to search out herbs might be related to their ability to smell out the chemicals in the herbs. They have what is called a Jacobson's organ in their mouths that functions as a chemical receptor, a snake flicks out its tongue to taste the air and when the tongue is withdrawn into the mouth, the forks of the tongue are placed into the Jacobson's organ where the chemical (molecules) is identified [1].

Ophiuchus is the snake-holder who holds this snake, Serpens, and represents the healer Asclepius. According to Hyginus (Hygin. Poet. Astr. ii. 14.), one day Asclepius killed a snake, but to his surprise a second snake carrying an herb in its mouth crawled into the room. It gave the herb to the first snake, which immediately recovered. This was how Asclepius learned how to raise people from the dead, by making use of this same herb which had the same resuscitating effect upon men [2].

"The serpent was placed in heaven and for this reason certain writers have identified Ophiuchus with Aesculapius. According to other accounts the serpent is one of those that would have slain Hercules in his cradle." [Fixed Stars and Constellations in Astrology, Vivian E. Robson, 1923].

A similar story is told about the seer Polyeidus (or Polyidus) who was locked in a Old Cretan vault with the corpse of Glaucus and ordered to resuscitate it. A snake soon crawled toward the body, but Polyeidus killed the snake. Another snake came into the room bearing an herb and laid this over the dead snake, which at once revived. Polyeidus then placed the same herb over the body of Glaucus, who immediately came to life.

Serpens is from Latin serpere, and Greek herpeton, 'crawling animal', from herpein, to crawl or creep, Sanskrit herpo 'creep'. With all this evidence of snakes association with herbs; is it not likely that Greek herp- might be related to the word herb? Snake venom has different chemical properties according to the species of snake, as have the various species of herbs.

Drugs made of various chemicals and herbs are called medicines. 'Medusa' the Gorgon, represented by the star Algol, whose head Perseus carries, is related to the word 'medicine'. Medusa has serpents for hair that might ultimately represent herbs and chemicals.

Ophiuchus, the snake holder, is the adjoining constellation that holds this serpent, and his name means serpent-holder (ophis, serpent + okhos, holder). The Greeks knew Serpens as Ophis which comes from the Indo-European root *angwhi-, 'Snake, eel'. Derivatives: ophidian, ophiolite, ophite (a green rock), ophicleide ('serpent-keys', a musical instrument of the bugle family), ophiology, Ophiuchus (the adjoining constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Holder), ophiuroid, (these words from Greek ophis, snake, serpent). 2. Taboo deformation or separate root *eghi-; echino-, echinus, from Greek ekhinos, hedgehog (< 'snake-eater'), echidna (from Gk. ekhidna 'snake, viper,' from ekhis 'snake'). [Pokorny angw(h)i- 43. Watkins] The term ophiasis means a winding bald patch on the head, or a form of leprosy in which the patient sheds his skin like a snake.

There might be a connection between the two words sophia and ophis:

"The image of the serpent as the embodiment of the wisdom transmitted by Sophia (from sophos, meaning 'wisdom') was an emblem used by gnosticism, especially those sects that the more orthodox characterized as 'Ophites' ('Serpent People')" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpent_%28symbolism%29

 ".. sophos, the Greek for wisdom, and Sophia, the Virgin of Light, may be traced to is ophis, the 'light of ophis,' the Serpent" [The Lost Language of Symbolism, Harold Bayley, p.219.]

"the Greeks call the Marsians 'Oscians,' as if it were ophskoi, because they had many serpents, and ophis means 'serpent.' They are also said to be invulnerable to the sorcery of spells. Like the Umbrians they inhabit the region of the Apennine mountains" [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.196-197.]

On a fragment from the 3rd century Porphyry, On Images, fragment 8, (c. 232 AD - c. 304):

"Of the sun's healing power Asclepius [Ophiuchus] is the symbol, and to him they have given the staff as a sign of the support and rest of the sick, and the serpent is wound round it, as significant of his preservation of body and soul: for the animal is most full of spirit, and shuffles off the weakness of the body. It seems also to have a great faculty for healing: for it found the remedy for giving clear sight, and is said in a legend to know a certain plant which restores life."

A dragon is sometimes used (in the West) as a national emblem of China, possibly because dragons were featured on flags of China. I have seen where some see this dragon as represented by the constellation Draco, the Dragon. However, it might be that this serpent is a more likely representation. In Allen's book Star Names (p.375 online), he notes that a Christian missionary, Edkins, said "The twenty-two stars in the Serpent (Serpens) are named after the states into which China was formerly divided."

[Picture from Lana Rings' website] Ophiuchus might be the fetus (foetus) attached to the umbilicus cord (Serpens). Ophiuchus is depicted holding a snake, the snake is represented by the constellation Serpens. Ophiuchus from Greek Ophiukhos, literally 'holding a serpent', from Greek opis, the Greek word for 'serpent', + Greek ekhein, 'to hold, keep, have'. In a discussion on this linguist website there is a suggestion that there might be a relationship between Greek ophis and *omphi-. [Omphi from the Indo-European root *nobh-. Related words 'umbilicus', 'omphallus', 'navel', 'nave', the hub of a wheel]. The constellation Ophiuchus is identified with Asclepius, who was cut from his mother's womb as a foetus. The long tube-like shape of a snake bears a resemblance to an umbilical cord. When the snake is curled up it might appear to be like the nave or hub of a wheel. The womb is represented by Delphinus.

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Serpens
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
iota 15SCO48 17SCO11 234 49 48 +19 49 48 +38 06 39 4.49 A2
delta 16SCO58 18SCO21 233 06 09 +10 42 12 +28 53 04 5.16 A9
rho 18SCO08 19SCO31 237 16 00 +21 07 37 +40 00 24 4.88 K5
kappa 18SCO24 19SCO47 236 37 18 +18 17 41 +37 07 02 4.28 M1
beta 18SCO34 19SCO57 235 58 11 +15 34 37 +34 19 56 3.74 A0
Unukalhai alpha 20SCO40 22SCO05 235 27 03 +06 34 53 +25 30 44 2.75 K2
gamma 21SCO23 22SCO46 238 32 08 +15 49 24 +35 13 02 3.86 F5
epsilon 22SCO57 24SCO20 237 04 50 +04 37 36 +24 00 39 3.75 A6
mu 24SCO33 25SCO56 236 45 07 -03 16 43 +16 14 40 3.63 A0
xi 23SAG10 24SAG33 263 40 49 -15 22 08 +07 56 31 3.64 A5
omicron 24SAG01 25SAG24 264 39 02 -12 51 01 +10 29 49 4.39 A2
eta 04CAP18 05CAP41 274 40 50 -02 54 48 +20 27 05 3.42 G8
Alya theta 14CAP22 15CAP45 283 26 00 +04 08 13 +26 52 59 4.50 A5

Ophiuchus (Serpentarius) and Serpens from Hevelius' Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

The starry Serpent

Southward winding from the Northern Wain (Ursa Major),

Shoots to remoter spheres its glittering train.

  — Statius.

Serpens, the Serpent, is le Serpent in France, il Serpente in Italy, and die Schlange in Germany, probably is very ancient, and always has been shown as grasped by the hands of Ophiuchus at its pair of stars delta, epsilon, and at nu, and tau - Ophiuchi. The head is marked by the noticeable group iota, kappa, gamma, phi, nu, rho, and the eight little stars all lettered tau, and consecutively numbered, 10° south from the Crown and 20° due east from Arcturus; the figure line thence winding southwards 15° to Libra, and turning to the southeast and northeast along the western edge of the Milky Way, terminating at its star theta, 8° south of the tail of the Eagle (Aquila) and west of that constellation's delta.

Of the four stellar Snakes this preeminently is the Serpent, its stars originally being combined with those of Ophiuchus, although Manilius wrote

Serpentem Graiis Ophiuchus nomine dictus dividit;

but it now is catalogued separately, and occasionally divided into Caput and Cauda on either side of the Serpent-holder.

The Greeks knew it as Ophis Ophioukhou, or simply as Ophis, and familiarly as Erpeton and Egkhelus (eel), respectively the Serpent and the Eel; the Latins, occasionally as Anguilla, Anguis, and Coluber; but universally as Serpens, often qualified as the Serpent of Aesculapius, Caesius, Glaucus, Laocoon, and of Ophiuchus; and as Serpens Herculeus, Lernaeus, and Sagarinus.

The 1515 Almagest and the Alfonsine Tables of 1521 had Serpens Alangue, thus combining their corrupted Latin with their equally corrupted Arabic, as often is the case with those works. It also was Draco Lesbius and Tiberinus, and, perhaps, Ovid's and Vergil's Lucidus Anguis.

In the astronomy of Arabia it was Al Hayyah, the Snake, — Chilmead's Alhafa; but before that country was influenced by Greece there was a very different constellation here, Al Raudah, the Pasture; the stars beta and gamma,{Page 375} with gamma and beta Herculis, forming the Nasak Shamiyy, the Northern Boundary; while delta, alpha, and epsilon Serpentis, with delta, epsilon, zeta, and eta Ophiuchi, were the Nasak Yamaniyy, the Southern Boundary. The enclosed sheep were shown by the stars now in the Club of Hercules, guarded on the west by the Shepherd and his Dog, the stars alpha in Ophiuchus and Hercules.

To the Hebrews, as to most nations, this was a Serpent from the earliest times, and, Renan said, may have been the one referred to in the Book of Job, xxvi, 13; but Delitzsch, who renders the original words as the "Fugitive Dragon," and others with him, consider our Draco to be the constellation intended, as probably more ancient and widely known from its ever visible circumpolar position.

The biblical school made it the serpent seducer of Eve, while in our day imaginative observers find another heavenly Cross in the stars of the head, one that belongs to Saint Andrew or Saint Patrick.

Serpens shared with Ophiuchus the Euphratean title of Nu-tsir-da, the Image of the Serpent; and is supposed to have been one of the representatives of divinity to the Ophites, the Hivites of Old Testament times.

The comparatively void space between nu and epsilon was the Chinese Tien Shi Yuen, the Enclosure of the Heavenly Market.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]