Snakes in Worship—Past and Present
THE ancient Egyptians worshipped snakes, as did the Minoans, early inhabitants of Crete. Some ancient Israelites offered sacrifices to a copper serpent. Others from the same nation took up burning incense before images of “creeping things.”—Ezekiel 8:10-12; 2 Kings 18:4.
Worship of snake-gods also engrossed peoples of ancient Mexico. The supreme deity of the Maya—Itzamná—was at times represented by a serpent. Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent,” was the Toltec god of learning, culture, and philosophy. The Aztecs also viewed it as the god of learning and even revered it as the creator of humans. Regarding that god’s many roles and talents, the magazine Arqueología Mexicana (Mexican Archaeology) states: “The feathered serpent accumulated multiple meanings, more perhaps than any other deity.”
For many centuries the inhabitants of Mesoamerica worshipped the feathered serpent. Today, belief in that god survives among the Cora and Huichol people of Mexico. On certain fiesta days, dances are performed in which the participants adorn themselves with feathers and simulate the movements of a snake. The Quiche perform a fertility rite in which they dance using live snakes. The Chorti, a Maya group in Guatemala, venerate a feathered serpent that they associate with certain Catholic saints.
The question is, How does the Creator of man and animals—including snakes—view the worship of serpent-gods?
God’s View of Snake Worship
Jehovah God gave this command to the ancient nation of Israel: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them.”—Exodus 20:4, 5.
Jehovah prohibited his people from worshipping images of animals, such as snakes. Thus, should it not be clear that those desirous of his favor must avoid the worship of snakes? Why does God reject idolatry, including snake worship? The reason is simple: He gives life to humans, to snakes, and to all other living things. They are all the works of his hands, so worship is due him, not the things he has created.
To illustrate: Suppose that an architect constructed houses and gave them to families to live in and enjoy. What if those families thanked and praised the houses rather than the architect? Would that not be foolish, as well as offensive to the generous architect? Similarly, worshipping animals rather than their Creator is offensive to God.
Clearly, those who wish to have God’s approval should heed the warning of the apostle John: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”—1 John 5:21.
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WORSHIPPING WITH SNAKE IN HAND
● In the southeastern United States, a few charismatic churches practice handling live poisonous snakes. Some individuals drape one of the venomous creatures over their shoulders, while others pick up several snakes at once. Lifting and moving the snakes can startle them and cause them to bite. Over the years, some snake-handling worshippers have died of snakebites.
Snake handlers base their actions on Mark 16:17, 18. Those verses include the words: “With their hands they will pick up serpents.” The King James Version and other older translations present those verses as if they were part of the original text. The New Revised Standard Version, The New American Standard Bible, and The New King James Version note that those verses do not appear in most of the oldest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel.
The teachings of the Bible do not support the idea that snake handling is an acceptable feature of true worship. The Bible says: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) You will probably agree that our loving Creator would not require that his true worshippers carry out dangerous rituals in order to please him. His Son, Jesus, offered the invitation: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28, 29) Surely, handling snakes and possibly suffering pain, sickness, and even death as a result is not what Jehovah and Jesus desire for their followers!
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A feathered-serpent head on an Aztec temple wall
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Bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent god of the Toltec
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Top: REUTERS/Tami Chappell; bottom: © Leonardo Díaz Romero/age fotostock