By Allison Stieger, MA (www.mythicstories.com)
Some of the most interesting aspects of studying mythology are the times when you see the intersections between myths in cultures that are geographically quite distant from each other. In these cases, we see the places in which the human psyche is inserting itself into the stories of differing cultures.
In Greek myth, we have the story of Apollo’s defeat of the Python. Apollo is the son of Zeus. He is the god of light and logic, music and prophecy. If we were to think about him in more modern terms, he would be the god of technology and architecture, of the part of the brain that thinks rationally and without strong emotion. He is the polar opposite of the god Dionysus. Dionysus rules wine and ecstasy, of the abandon known when giving yourself over to a wild, mindless experience. If you can imagine the feeling of drinking and dancing in a club, of giving yourself over to the feeling in your body, you will know Dionysus’ kingdom.
This is the part of life that Apollo rejects unequivocally. He is all about self-control, intelligence, sensibility. He is the very symbol of the idealized man, god of Greek aristocrats. It’s interesting to think about him in this context when we examine his story of defeating the Python.
The Python was a great serpent, guardian of the shrine at Delphi. Since ancient times Delphi has been a site of prophecy, and over and over again in Greek myth we have our heroes visiting the Oracle at Delphi, to have their fate prophesied.
Apollo destroys the serpent with his arrows, and created the temple to himself at Delphi, becoming the god of prophecy in the process. The Oracle at Delphi functioned under Apollo for a thousand years, and Delphi was regarded by the Greeks as the center of the world, containing the omphalos stone, the navel of the world. The oracle was also known as the pythia, after the python that Apollo destroyed.
Scholars believe that, in destroying the Python, Apollo was displacing an earlier oracle, one associated with the earth goddess Gaia. We see a similar pattern in a story from Indian myth about the god Krishna. In “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization”, Heinrich Zimmer tells the story something like this (paraphrased a bit):
“When wandering alone on an exploring expedition, Krishna came to a place along the river where the water was whirling, white with foam. This was the home of the great serpent king, Kaliya, whose poisonous breath was killing every living thing for a fair distance. Krishna, the adventuring seven-year-old, came to this dangerous place and peered into the depths. “I shall vanquish this king of serpents and release the inhabitants of the country from their continual dread.” The boy jumped with a great leap into the depths, which brought the serpent king rising to the surface. The king and his court bit Krishna, and sprayed their poison all over him. Krishna sank, inert and unconscious, to the depths. When Krishna’s brother, Balarama saw what had happened, he called out to Krishna’s divine nature. The words rang in Krishna’s ears, and he burst free of the snake, defeating him.
The king snake, with Krishna’s foot on his neck, calls out to Krishna. “I have only acted according to my nature. I implore you to spare my life.”
Krishna sends the snake to live in the vastness of the ocean, away from people he could harm.So the serpent king is defeated, and the people are safe.”
-Heinrich Zimmer, “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization”, pages 83-88
Both of these stories illustrate ways in which sky gods defeated serpents, which represent earth energy and an earlier, goddess worship tradition. In early culture, before most myths were written down, the serpent was the consort of the Mother/Earth goddess, and was representative of her. We see this symbolism coming out in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as well. As human history progressed forward in time, cultures moved away from the earlier goddess worship traditions toward a more masculine-centric, sky-god-worshipping tradition. Both of these stories, the Greek and the Indian, illustrate that pivot point in culture. As Zimmer says, “a higher, celestial principle had replaced the terrestrial presence-and yet, had not completely erased it. The priestess remained in her ancient role; the beneficent power of the earth still spoke to humans, the Delphic Oracle continued in operation. Only now, the patron and owner of the sanctuary was no longer a primitive earth demon but an Olympian: Apollo, as the Pythic god.” (Zimmer, page 86)
Krishna, similarly, plays the role of moderator rather than annihilator. The serpent has his place in the world, but now culture is safe from him. His energy is not destroyed, only made safe for civilization. The serpent has a role to play that must be maintained.
Symbolically, serpents and humans can be regarded as being at opposite ends of the evolutionary scale. If humans stand at the end of a long evolutionary struggle, we must set the serpent at the beginning. It embodies the lower psyche and what is incomprehensible and mysterious, the sacred made manifest. “It evades time which can be clocked, space which can be measured and logic which can be rationalized, to escape to the lower reaches from which it came and in which it can be imagined timeless, changeless and motionless in the fullness of its life. The serpent is an old god, the first god to be found at the start of all cosmogenesis, before religions of the spirit dethroned him.” (From “The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols”).