Derivation of the name "Europe"---Greece colonized by Ophites---Numerous Traces of the Serpent in Greece---Worship of Bacchus---Story of Ericthonius---Banquets of the Bacchants---Minerva---Armour of Agamemnon---Serpents at Epidaurus---Story of the pestilence in Rome---Mahomet at Atmeidan.
Bryant and Faber both derive the name of "Europe" from "Aur-ab, the solar serpent." "Whether this be correct or not," says Deane, "it is certain that Ophiolatreia prevailed in this quarter of the globe at the earliest period of idolatry. The first inhabitants of Europe are said to have been the offspring of a woman, partly of the human and partly of the dracontic figure, a tradition which alludes to their Ophite origin.
"Of the countries of Europe, Greece was first colonized by Ophites, but at separate times, both from Egypt and Phnicia; and it is a question of some doubt, though perhaps of little importance, whether the leader of the first colony, the celebrated Cadmus, was a Phnician or an Egyptian. Bochart has shown that Cadmus was the leader of the Canaanites who fled before the arms of the victorious Joshua; and Bryant has proved that he was an Egyptian, identical with Thoth. But as mere names of individuals are of no importance, when all agree that the same superstition existed contemporaneously in the two countries, and since Thoth is declared by Sanchoniathan to have been the father of the Phnician as well as Egyptian Ophiolatreia; we may endeavour without presumption to reconcile the opinions of these learned authors by assuming each to be right in his own line of argument."
In Greece there are numerous traces of the worship of the serpent---it was so common indeed at one time that Justin Martyr declared the people introduced it into the mysteries of all their gods. In the mysteries and excesses of Bacchus it is well-known, of course, to have played a conspicuous part. The people bore them entwined upon their heads, and carrying them in their hands, swung them about crying aloud, "enia, enia." The sign of the Bacchic ceremonies was a consecrated serpent, and in the processions a troop of virgins of noble family carried the reptile with golden baskets containing sesamum, honey cakes and grains of salt, articles all specially connected with serpent worship. The first may be seen in the British Museum, in the hands of priests kneeling before the sacred serpent of Egypt. Honey cakes, according to Herodotus, were presented once a month as food to the sacred serpent in the Acropolis at Athens.
The most remarkable feature of all in the Bacchic orgies is said to have been the mystic serpent. "The mystery of religion was throughout the world concealed in a chest or box. As the Israelites had their sacred ark, every nation upon earth had some holy receptacle for sacred things and symbols. The story of Ericthonius is illustrative of this remark. He was the fourth King of Athens, and his body terminated in the tails of serpents, instead of legs. He was placed by Minerva in a basket, which she gave to the daughter of Cecrops, with strict injunctions not to open it. Here we have a fable made out of the simple fact of the mysterious basket, in which the sacred serpent was carried at the orgies of Bacchus. The whole legend relates to Ophiolatreia. In accordance with the general practice, the worshippers of Bacchus carried in their consecrated baskets or chests the Mystery of their God, together with the offerings." 1
At the banquets of the Bacchantes, or rather, after them, it was usual to carry round a cup, which was called the "cup of the good dæmon." The symbol of this dæmon was a serpent, as seen on the medals of the town of Dionysopolis in Thrace. On one side were the heads of Gordian and Serapis on the other a coiled serpent.
The serpent was mixed up to a considerable extent with the worship of many other of the Grecian deities. The statues, by Phidias, of Minerva, represent her as decorated with this emblem. In ancient medals, as shown by Montfaucon, she sometimes holds a caduceus in her right hand; at other times she has a staff around which a serpent is twisted, and at others, a large serpent appears going in front of her; while she is sometimes seen with her crest composed of a serpent. It is remarkable too, that in the Acropolis at Athens was kept a live serpent who was generally considered the guardian of the place, and Athens was a city specially consecrated to Minerva.
Examples of Grecian Ophiolatreia might easily be multiplied to a considerable extent, but we have space for little more than a brief glance. It is known that upon the walls of Athens was a sculptured head of Medusa, whose hair was intertwined with snakes, and in the temple at Tega was a similar figure which was supposed to possess talismanic power to preserve or destroy. The print in Montfaucon represents the face of Medusa as mild and beautiful, but the serpents as threatening and terrible. There is a story current, that a priestess going into a sanctuary of Minerva in the dead of the night, saw a vision of that goddess, who held up her mantle upon which was impressed a Medusa's head, and that the sight of this fearful object instantaneously converted the intruder into stone.
The armour of Agamemnon, king of Argos, was ornamented with a three-headed serpent; Menelaus, king of Sparta, had one on his shield, and the Spartan people, with the Athenians, affirmed they were of serpentine origin and called themselves ophiogen.
At Epidaurus, according to Pausanias, live serpents were kept and fed regularly by servants, who, on account of religious awe, were fearful of approaching the sacred reptiles which in themselves were of the most harmless character. The statue of Æsculapius, at this temple, represented him resting one hand upon the head of a serpent, while his sister, Hygeia, had one twisted about her. It is reported that the god Æsculapius was conveyed by a woman named Nicagora, the wife of Echetimus, to Sicyon under the form of a serpent.
Livy, Ovid, Florus, Valerius Maximus, and Aurelius Victor, relate that a pestilence of a violent and fatal character once broke out in Rome, and that the oracle of Delphi advised an embassy to Epidaurus to fetch the god Æsculapius. This advice was taken, and a company of eleven were sent with the humble supplications of the senate and people of Rome. While they were gazing at the statue of the god, a serpent, "venerable, not horrible," say these authors, which rarely appeared but when he intended to confer some extraordinary benefit, glided from his lurking place, and having passed through the city went directly to the Roman vessel and coiled himself up in the berth of Ogulnius the principal ambassador. Setting sail with the god, they duly arrived off Antium, when the serpent leaped into the sea, and swam to the nearest temple of Apollo, and after a few days returned. But when they entered the Tiber, he leaped upon an island, and disappeared. Here the Romans erected a temple to him in the shape of a ship, and the plague was stayed with wonderful celerity.
Delphi appears to have been the principal stronghold of serpent worship in Greece. Strabo says its original name was Pytho---derived from the serpent Python, slain there by Apollo. From this story Heinsius concludes that the god Apollo was first worshipped at Delphi, under the symbol of a serpent. It is known that the public assemblies at Delphi were called Pythis, these were originally intended for the adoration of the Python.
In Gibbon and the Annales Turcici we have interesting matter about the serpentine column. The former says it was taken from Delphi to Constantinople by the founder of the latter city and set up on a pillar in the Hippodrome. Montfaucon, however, thinks that Constantine only caused a similar column to be made, and that the original remained in its place. Deane says, "this celebrated relic of Ophiolatreia is still to be seen in the same place, where it was set up by Constantine, but one of the serpent's heads is mutilated."
From the Annales we get the following explanations of this inquiry. "When Mahomet came to Atmeidan he saw there a stone column, on which was placed a three-headed brazen serpent. Looking at it, he asked, 'What idol is that?' and, at the same time, hurling his iron mace with great force knocked off the lower jaw of one of the serpent's heads. Upon which, immediately, a great number of serpents began to be seen in the city. Whereupon some advised him to leave that serpent alone from henceforth, since through that image it happened that there were no serpents in the city. Wherefore that column remains to this day. And although in consequence of the lower jaw of the brazen serpent being struck off, some serpents do come into the city, yet they do no harm to no one."
Commenting upon this story Deane remarks---"This traditionary legend, preserved by Leunclavius, marks the stronghold which Ophiolatreia must have taken upon the minds of the people of Constantinople, so as to cause this story to be handed down to so late an era as the seventeenth century. Among the Greeks who resorted to Constantinople were many idolaters of the old religion, who would wilfully transmit any legend favourable to their own superstition. Hence, probably, the charm mentioned above, was attached by them to the Delphic serpent on the column in the Hippodrome, and revived (after the partial mutilation of the figure) by their descendants, the common people, who are always the last in every country to forego an ancient superstition. Among the common people of Constantinople, there were always many more Pagans than Christians at heart. With the Christian religion, therefore, which they professed, would be mingled many of the pagan traditions which were attached to the monuments of antiquity that adorned Byzantium, or were imported into Constantinople.