Snake Talks Sense, God Gets Mad
…but this symbol of power and the sacred feminine wasn’t always reviled.
Ever wondered about women’s voices before the first wave? Women weren’t quite as silent as we’ve been led to believe. For example, poet, professional writer, and author of what can only be described as a feminist texts, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) was a successful, well-known French poet. Her influential work was lost to history until she was rediscovered in the 19th century.
Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) was a Renaissance artist and nun. She was famous in her her time and was known for, among other works The Last Supper, the largest work of its period painted by a woman. Yet she was unknown to art historians until she was rediscovered by women in 2006.
— Jane Fortune, Advancing Women Artists
Women being literally property through most of living history well and truly made us the second sex. Men being in charge of library curation, publishing, and academe had each had a heavy hand in the suppression of women’s herstory.
I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
— Virginia Woolf
Feminist scholarship is now showing us women’s creations and voices were heard, and seen. Y’know. Here and there.
Things just got a bit allegorical and symbolical for a while. (Oh, and the patriarchy sucks, but we’re making headway — that’s why Herstory is an emerging field.)
Here’s something I learned just recently [while watching ABC’s Hard Quizz of all things, Australian readers]. The 16th century portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (depicted above, with QE1 holding the posy) was restored a few years back.
What they found after lovingly stripping back the centuries-old layer of oils is that Queen Liz, the famously flame-haired unmarried, un-heir-producing, Spanish Armada-crushing powerhouse with the heart and stomach of man, wasn’t holding a posy of flowers in the first version.
Queen Elizabeth I held a snake. Not flowers.
The Female Principle
I write about the suppression of the feminine principle in my manuscript, The Lie of Perfection. Here’s a sneaky peak:
Meander lines (literally wavy lines, representing water and also drawn as snakes), along with concentric circles and ‘cup marks’ engraved into stones are thought to be the first artifacts of the feminine principal. All across Europe, they’ve been found, indicating it wasn’t an isolated tribal practice.
Snakes, bees, water, cows, and even pigs* were once symbols of the sacred feminine.
*Yes, pigs — which makes the prohibition of pork to patriarchal monotheisms Islam, Judaism, and some Christianties like Seventh Day Adventists even more…let’s say, interesting. But I digress.
Snakes Symbolised Wisdom (and in Christianity, that was a problem)
In ancient Greece, snakes were a symbol of wisdom: arm-bands shaped like snakes were a common adornment. (On a high school excursion I was lucky enough to try one on: it only went half way to my elbow. Let’s keep it real, a tall strapping Saxon/Celtic huntress like myself would’ve been thought quite the giant in ancient times).
It’s thought early Minoan societies were matrilineal to whom the snake was sacred. Surviving artworks and artifacts of a bare-breasted Minoan goddess holding snakes support this view. Christianity’s rejection of the natural world and the sacred feminine saw many symbols of the feminine principal be given a new and sinister story.
Jars, cauldrons, spinning wheels and brooms were also symbolic of woman and her transformative power. What do these objects remind you of today? That’s right: witchcraft. And we know how the patriarchy dealt with witches; why, there was even an instruction manual, The Witch Hammer.
Christianity demonized the symbol of the snake along with many, many other things, so it can be easy to overlook this part: Eve did receive wisdom from the serpent. He gave her the gift of Knowledge. And it was pretty sound, on all accounts.
And God did NOT like it. As in, not at all.
Adam threw Eve under a bus as soon as God realised something was up, and they were both expelled from their paradise into the hard, horrid world of toil and pain, with the fall of man sat neatly on Eve’s shoulders. As they left, God mutters, ‘Sooo glad they didn’t find the tree of eternal life as well — then they would have been just like us.’ Yep. It’s harder to hold dominion over equals.
There are exceptions, but Christianity did a pretty good job of burying once empowering symbols of feminine wisdom. Yet here sat Queen Elizabeth I, a pre-Christian symbol of power and wisdom held calmly in her hands.
Which makes the original depiction even more intriguing, and I’m going to jump in and say it — quite possibly — feminist AF. The artist is unknown; unknown like all of those poets ‘Anon’ Virginia Woolf spoke of?
Was the artist, like Sr Nelli, famous, then buried by the weight of patriarchal scholarship and curation? Did the Queen commission a female painter? Did she approve, or even ask specifically for the image to be as it was before the recent restoration? We can’t know. And as The Guardian reported, someone made a panicked and last minute decision to replace a symbol of power, virility and wisdom with a meek and virginal posy.
But the serpent lay coiled, waiting, waiting, as if in hibernation — a better time to reveal its true from.
And I bloody love that. Don’t you?
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And if you enjoy a bit of Herstory OR love collective nouns, find out about the surprising authorship of the book of St Alabans: Collective Nouns: A Prioress, a Book, and a Legacy of Appreciation