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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Arab Spring Revolution: Destructive Ambitions and Cruel Ironies

As the Arab Spring has shown us, and continues to show us day after day, everyday, in the never ending atrocities coming from reports out of Egypt and Syria, along with widespread protests in Pakistan; with all these uncertainties in the air, the one certain thing we can identify, is that the relationship between Islam and politics is complicated – to say the least. There is not one monolithic Muslim political landscape across Islamdom and the Arab-speaking world, rather instead the political culture is tainted rather with many multi-faceted differences, nonetheless reunited by certain commonalities. Yet, despite all of these national differences which constitute distinct singularities in regards to the Islamisation of each country’s own politics, there are nonetheless commonalities that reunite such national visions or the individual political interpretation of governmental visions, or the culture of ‘government rule’ (Ayoob 2008: 1-22). To understand this shared traditional Islamic nationalistic political worldview greatly helps in understanding the relationship which many Muslim citizens entertain with their country’s rule(r).

It is a relationship that is a mixed one, meaning there is a general attitude that tolerates governmental rule because it is necessary, but that in the case of corruption and harmful or unjust dictatorships; the latter simply often reveal themselves as sorts of necessary by-products of the political life. The Arab Spring, however, poses a direct threat to this tolerance that had in the past been endured by the people under a Muslim ruler; it threatens to tip the scale in favour of the people versus a corrupt ruler and/or system. But, as the 1979 Iranian revolution has shown, overthrowing a form of corrupt authority does not guarantee a better and more just society will take its place. As the crisis in Syria and Egypt unfold in front of our very eyes, one cannot help but think of what kind of political monster might rear its ugly head in both countries if the seats of power in these countries vacate only to find young charismatic figures – not unlike Khomeini – to take their places. Tit for tat, really.

Like I said earlier, the relationship between Islam and politics is complicated… But was it always so? 

In his work, Mohammed Ayoob explores the modernist interpretation of what is deemed to be the golden age of early Islam, thereby giving as an example the viewpoints of the 19th century theologian and jurist Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, he who advocated that the original teachings of Islam to be in total accord “with the scientific positivism and rationality that underpinned modernity” (Ayoob 2008: 7). Coming from the 19th century conservative Islamic world, this modernist interpretation of the golden age gives us the impression that – if anything – it appears that there is a form of Muslim conservatism and strain of thought that did not so much collide with modernity, but instead saw in it the return of a new golden era. Apparently, this discourse has perhaps been obscured all too often by anti-colonial strife tainted by religious zeal, and this a discourse taking the form of power hungry traditionalists pinning their fellow Muslim compatriots as enemies in relation to an Infidel West. In résumé, this is what Ayoob is saying, that anti-colonial feelings were hijacked in the course of the last century by a backlash or longing to return to a fundamentalist Islamic state of being, the spirit of the ancestors’ golden age. 

This line of reasoning, meaning the whole notion surrounding the so-called War on Terror is not a “conflict between states, but a war of ideas” (Farmer 2007: 3). Conservative American scholars even go so far as to make comparisons between Islamism and Nazism, in the sense that both ideologies reduce “all of societal problems to a battle between good, (represented by radical Islam) and evil (represented by a collaborative effort between infidels Israel and the United States against Islam) and the solution is therefore to “kill Americans everywhere” (ibid. 7). If Farmer’s treatment of the subject is somewhat lacking in tact, it is at least helpful and relevant in pointing out that such subversive ideologies, even if they are often marginal at times, are nevertheless to be taken seriously, since in a similar fashion it is this kind of subversive ideology and fringe movement which within a dozen years after seizing power in Germany would come to overrun most of continental Europe (ibid. 8).

To understand the radical ideology of global jihad is to look at the philosophical foundations that are at the root of what are termed the “lesser” and “greater” jihad movements (respectively, jihad “by the sword” and “by the spirit). This ideological notion of bringing the will of God in earthly man’s unjust affairs, in addition to the political Islamic Resurgence that came out of the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century, is at the root of the jihadists’ vilification of the Western world (as explored in Springer et al.).

The images of the smouldering Twin Towers of 9/11 certainly conveys how and why the West became interested in knowing more about the roots of jihad and the ideologues behind the movement(s). The radical philosophies made infamous by al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden have sowed seeds of mutual discontent and have reached as far as Algeria and Mali, where in these past few weeks new reports are surfacing that al-Qaeda had a hand in all that is going on in recent terrorist activities carried out in North Africa. The Intellectual fathers of the global jihad have possibly left their lasting legacy on modern jihadist movemements, such recognizable names as those of Wahhab and Mawdudi and the likes of Hassan al-Banna (Springer et al. 2009: 27). But what of those rebel fighters in Syria and Egypt? Will the Arab Spring change the face of the Muslim political landscape in Islamdom? Or will it be tit for tat? We can only pray there is not yet another young, enthusiastic, and charismatic religious figure to emerge from the midst of the chaotic rebellion. Or, then again, how can we afford not to pray for the more than estimated 60,000 dead Syrians…

Selected Bibliography

Ayoob, M. The Many Faces of Political Islam. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Farmer, B. Understanding Radical Islam: Medieval Ideology in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Hirst, David. Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East. New York: Nation Books, 2010. 

Israeli, R. Islamic Radicalism and Political Violence. Portland: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008. 

Kepel, G. Jihad : The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 2002. 

Kepel, G. The War for Muslim Minds. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2004.

Kepel, G. and J.-P. Milelli. Al Qaeda in its own words. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2008.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Life of Adam and Eve, a Jewish Pseudepigraphical Writing from Early Antiquity

(unpublished (c) Feb., 2011)                   
As is often the case with apocryphal literature, subsequent versions of an original text usually survive in later inspired forms or versions, and the early antique text of the Life of Adam and Eve – or in Latin, Vita Adae et Evae – is no different. This Early Antique text survives in different retellings of the lost original, and altogether these different versions traditionally form a part of the Jewish pseudepigraphical group of writings commonly termed the Life of Adam and Eve; also known as the Apocalypse of Moses, a misnomer applied to the surviving Greek version. Besides the Latin version, the Vita Adae et Evae, the other surviving pseudepigraphical texts that rank alongside it as having been inspired from a mutually shared lost original are namely the following: the Greek Apocalypse of Moses (or, also called the Greek Life of Adam and Eve), the Slavonic Life of Adam and Eve, the Armenian Penitence of Adam, the Georgian Book of Adam, and in addition to these, there also exists one or two fragmentary Coptic versions (1). These documents belong to a category of study most generally called the Adam literature.
     In regards to the specific pseudepigraphical texts just enumerated, they are categorized under the heading ‘primary’ Adam literature. Whereas texts belonging to the ‘secondary’ category include later apocryphal writings that have somehow been derived and deal with the subject matter found in the ‘primary’ works (2). Some examples of these ‘secondary’ texts include the Discourse on Abbatôn, the Testament of Adam, the Cave of Treasures, the Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan and the Apocalypse of Adam (3).
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Benjamin West
Image Source:
      The apocryphal text of The Life of Adam and Eve relates the experience of the first human couple after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and continues until their deaths. In summarizing the essential basic elements of the story, it begins with a long “penitence narrative” detailing the first few months of Adam and Eve’s life post-expulsion. Gary A. Anderson gives an excellent summary of the apocryphal tale:
Over the course of their first weeks outside of Eden, Adam and Eve discover the painful fact that their angelic food has disappeared. Through ardent penance they manage to secure a suitable replacement, seeds from which they can begin to grow cereals. Eve, during this time, enters the final months of her pregnancy. When the pains of her labor begin, she is overcome by their intensity and duration. Brought to the very threshold of death she implores Adam to come to her side and beseech God on her behalf. Adam, hears her cry, and responds with alacrity. While praying that Eve may be spared, the angels descend and superintend the first birth. Eve survives the ordeal thanks to Adam’s intercessory prayer. Sometime later, when Adam is about ready to die, he begs Eve and Seth to return to the Garden and prays that the archangel Michael might grant him some of the oil of life to relieve his pains. On their way, they are beset by a life-threatening snake (in some versions, beast). Eve, powerless to rebuke the animal, stands helpless as Seth, “her seed” comes to the rescue. Seth manages to tame the beast and preserve human life. What is common to each of these narrative events is: (1) the discovery of a condition that proves life-threatening: lack of food, excruciating birth-pains, and the onslaught of wild animals. (2) an attempt to circumvent those conditions: Adam and Eve’s penance, Adam’s intercessory prayer, and Seth’s rebuke. (3) a state of equilibrium: grain for food, modified birth-pains, and animals who fear man. [   ] In each of these cases, the life-threatening conditions that greet Adam and Eve are ameliorated, yet the catastrophic loss of what their glorious state had been in Eden is underscored. The bounty they find on earth is a poor substitute for what they knew in Eden.
Anderson 2000: 57-58.
     Scholars have had great difficulty dating the original text, so it is generally estimated to have been composed anywhere between the 3rd and 7th centuries, although with the possibility that certain parts of the work are considerable older than this (3b). Another difficulty surrounding the provenance, or origin of the text, is that it is generally understood to have a Jewish origin, and this because the minimal Christian elements that are found in the text “seem to be of a late redactional level rather than integral to the story itself” (Anderson & Stone 1995: in Part 1). Yet, despite this assumed Jewish origin, this apocryphal text has been copied, edited and expanded by Christian scribes since Early Antiquity. In regards to Judaism, although there is evidence of Jewish familiarity with parts of the work, aside from this there is no evidence that this faith had any role in the transmission of this apocryphal text (Anderson & Stone 1995: in Part 1).
     In order to fully appreciate the number of texts that have survived of The Life of Adam and Eve, there are reportedly 25 Greek manuscripts that have so far come to light, 73 Latin manuscripts, at least 1 in Armenian, 5 in Georgian, 2 in Slavonic, along with 1 small Coptic fragment (from a complete Coptic text that no longer survives) (3c). 
     In exploring the current state of research surrounding, quite specifically, the Latin Life of Adam and Eve (henceforth in the text, Latin Life); it quickly becomes apparent that the Latin Life is rarely studied alone, but rather it is usually studied alongside the other surviving versions of the original lost text. The surviving versions are to be found in languages as different as Greek, Slavonic, Armenian and Georgian, and the Latin Life recensions are usually collected alongside these others in an academic discourse that attempts to encompass all of these surviving works of the Jewish pseudepigraphical group of writings which altogether represent one single lost work, simply referred to as the Life of Adam and Eve. Scholars “focus on the contents of the documents and the relationships between them [meaning the various surviving texts], as well as on their individual features” as de Jonge and Tromp (1997: 7) put it, in describing their own approach in their study of the Adam literature.
     It is therefore impossible to make any serious study of the Latin Life without accounting for the other mutually inspired texts inspired from the same lost original. This helps to explain why in specialized databases dealing in Biblical studies, such as in the University of Lausanne’s BiBIL, when performing an “Advanced search” in the “Keyword (field) drop-down menu” a clickable entry query reading “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (OT) : Life of Adam and Eve/Apocalypse of Moses” immediately appears as a suggested search title in their bibliographic database. Whether a search is solely made for the Latin Life title or the more general designation Life of Adam and Eve (the latter a title representing not any one single surviving text but rather the entire collection of the pseudepigraphical group of writings), regardless, in the database they are all linked for the convenience of the researcher since all these texts share a symbiotic intertextual relationship. The state of research confirms this reality; the search parameters in BiBIL return with the same 96 results for both searches, whether it be a search for the Latin Life title alone or a click on BiBIL’s pre-formatted reading “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (OT) : Life of Adam and Eve / Apocalypse of Moses”. And, in relation to the state of research surrounding the Latin Life, or in extensio the publications dealing with the primary Adam literature, within these aforementioned 96 results found in BiBIL’s Biblical bibliography, among these, 56 publications date from the years 2000s, 28 from the 1990s, while the pioneers being the 12 that appear as early as the 1980s. While the 96 resultant entries for either a Latin Life or Life of Adam and Eve search query in BiBIL is clearly not abundant, it is nevertheless substantial, specially in comparison to, let’s say, for example the meagre 6 results found in searching for the Book of the Cock, with of course 4 out of these 6 authored as recently as the years 2000s – incidentally, by the University of Ottawa’s own Prof. Pierluigi Piovanelli. By comparison, certainly the area of study that has opened up around the specialized topic of the Life of Adam and Eve writings has been established a little longer, even though the 1980s are not too far off. In analyzing my 96 results, immediately there are two names that appear more frequently than others on the bibliographic listing, being 11 publication entries for Gary Alan Anderson, another 9 publication entries for Michael E. Stone along with 7 listed for Johannes Tromp. Clearly, in representing among them a tally of 27 books and articles published on the specialized topic of the Life of Adam and Eve, these three people represent nearly the third of BiBIL’s entries on my chosen subject.
     In having established that Michael E. Stone is one of the main authorities on the Life of Adam and Eve writings is significant for me in locating a most reliable source. A quick search online for leads in relation to Michael E. Stone leads me to a bibliographical database born out of the Enoch Seminar, called 4 Enoch: The Online Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism and Christian Origins (4). A biographical entry for the Enoch scholar Michael E. Stone describes him as an Israeli scholar, emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, received his PhD in Near Eastern Languages at Harvard, along with other impressive accomplishments and published works. Yet, what is even more relevant to me in my assessment of his pioneering work in the field of apocryphal literature is that, not only is Stone a member of the Enoch Seminar, but he is the actual founder of the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls (5). The Orion Center was established in 1995 as part of the Institute for Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (5b).
     These same three scholars that populated BiBIL’s search query in regards to the Life of Adam and Eve literature – being Michael E. Stone, Gary Alan Anderson and Johannes Tromp, have actually together, the three of them, co-edited a book titled Literature on Adam & Eve, Collected Essays (Anderson, Stone & Tromp: 2000). It is here in this work that Anderson (ibid. 3) speaks of the “remarkable renaissance” which the study of the Life of Adam and Eve is undergoing. In his discussion of the main reason behind this recent revival, Anderson also gives us a good assessment on the current state of research surrounding the text:  
This document [being the Life of Adam and Eve], which used to be known only by its Latin, Greek, and Slavonic versions, is now known to have had two other important witnesses in Armenian and Georgian (and Coptic fragments). The addition of the Armenian and the Georgian texts has opened new avenues of research into the nature of the origins and development of this important literary work.
Ibid. 3.
     It can therefore be seen how the addition of these two new texts, the Armenian and the Georgian, are adding a new dimension of research to the previously existing ones. The translations of the Georgian and Armenian texts have become available in recent times, the Armenian translated into English by Stone in 1981, and the Georgian text translated into French by J.-P. Mahé in 1981 (Anderson 2000: 3). In qualifying these two new editions, as an apocryphal specialist working with the primary Adam literature, de Jonge relates the following observation in regards to these newly added texts to the scholar’s field of study:
They [the editions of the Georgian and Armenian] form a welcome addition to the evidence, particularly because they seem to occupy a middle position between the Greek and the Latin. [   ] On the other hand this new material now makes it necessary to sort out the relationships between no less than five clearly related but in many respects different documents. (The fragmentary state of the Coptic evidence does not allow us to draw any significant conclusions.)
de Jonge 1997: 12.

     To assist scholars with their work in regards to the array of texts now available, thankfully the University of Virginia, under the authorities of their own Gary A. Anderson and Michael E. Stone (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) started what is called the Adam and Eve Archive Project, essentially – as they refer to it online – they have created An Electronic Edition of the “Life of Adam and Eve” (6). On the site can be found the main five Adam and Eve texts (all except the Coptic fragments), meaning that along with critical texts presented in English, there is also in accompaniment to it the original text in its native language of composition. For instance, on the site – I have not only access to the English translation of the Latin Vita (on which Gary Anderson himself collaborated), but also I have a detailed textual history of the Latin original (and even the subsequent translated editions) thus giving me all the bibliographic information needed as far as referential material is concerned (7). Significantly, this means that even if there is a scarcity of bookshelf published materials available per se, as a researcher into the primary Adam literature, I can nonetheless have access to the native texts individually made available online. The newly added Armenian and Georgian versions are featured there as well, with the added bonus for non-French speakers that the only English translation of the original Georgian has been commissioned by the site (from J.-P. Mahé’s French edition). 
     In tracking the progress of the study of all of the Life of Adam and Eve literature published in the last 30 years, in the words of Anderson et al. (2000):
The following publications have proved to be of major importance in what may be called the revolutionary scholarly progress in this field: the diplomatic edition of 26 manuscripts of the Greek Life of Adam and Eve by M. Nagel in 1974; the edition of the Georgian Livre d’Adam by J.-P. Mahé in 1981, and of the Armenian Penitence of Adam by M.E. Stone, likewise in 1981; the Concordance grecque des pseudépigraphes d’Ancien Testament by M.-A. Denis in 1987 (including the provisional critical edition of the Greek text by M. Nagel); the Synopsis of the Books of Adam and Eve by M.E. Stone and G.A. Anderson in 1994.
Anderson et al. 2000: 235

     Moreover, in addition to all of these most reputable scholarly publications, another book that proves to be quite useful for a newcomer to the field is one by Michael Stone (1992) A History of the Literature of Adam and Eve, as well as a student’s guide by Marinus de Jonge and Johannes Tromp (1997) entitled The Life of Adam and Eve and Related Literature. In short, there is a rich mine of information and scholarship that has come to light in recent years in relation to the primary Adam literature, and it is in great part this newfound interest in apocryphal scholarly circles that in part underlies the creation of the aforementioned Adam and Eve Archive Project. 
     One of the explicit aims behind the creation of An Electronic Edition of the “Life of Adam and Eve” (8) is to present to current scholars (in accessible English form) the best critical texts from the 5 language families. However, another reason for the online Archive Project is the cost-effectiveness of the website, as its creators point out, and this specially given the enormous volume of material available and the extraordinary costs of publishing printed forms in restricted presentations of the data (Anderson & Stone 1995). Therefore, in making accessible to students the earliest form of each version of the apocryphal text to be found in each language, will thereby create an electronic version of the Life of Adam and Eve that is, to quote Anderson & Stone (1995) on the site (9), “flexible enough to allow scholars to employ the textual data accordingly to whatever research purposes they may have.” In conclusion, it suffices to say that besides all of the scholarly wealth of information to be found in print form, there are also ample resources available to students online as far as accessing the best quality editions of the primary Adam literature.  


(1) de Jonge & Tromp (1997: 11-78) devote the first four chapters of their study in exploring these different versions of one lost original book, a Life of Adam and Eve.
(2) In their Preface, de Jonge & Tromp (1997: 7) credit Michael E. Stone (1992) for this distinction made between the categories deemed as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ Adam literature.
(3) de Jonge & Tromp (1997: 79-94) explore these ‘secondary’ works given as examples belonging to this category. 
(3b) As Anderson & Stone (1995) state in their “Introduction and problems of the text”,  in Part One of An Electronic Edition of the “Life of Adam and Eve”. Available at:
(3c) Anderson & Stone (1995) give this tally in relating the individual versions of the text that survive.
(4) According to 4 Enoch (see biblio.), the database has been made accessible in wiki-format since August 2009. Available at:
(5) The Enoch Seminar’s bibliography for Michael E. Stone is available at:
(5b) According to the Orion Center as stated in their Aims and Purposes on their website. Available at:
(7) For the Latin Life, the following references are given for the Latin original and English translation: “The Latin text has been supplied by Mr. Wilfried Lechner-Schmidt. It basically follows the Group I text from which Meyer printed in his critical edition ["Vita Adae et Evae" Abhandlungen der koeniglichen Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philsoph.-philologische Klasse. Munich: 14.3: 185-250] It has been translated by B. Custis with the assistance of G. Anderson and R. Layton”


4 Enoch: The Online Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism and Christian Origins, an academic project of the Enoch Seminar, created and directed by Gabriele Boccaccini (University of Michigan, USA) with the late Hanan Eshel (Bar-Ilan University, Israel) and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (Princeton Theological Seminary, USA).
Description of source: Born as a bibliography in the early 1990s and developed as a database in the 2000s, 4 Enoch has been made freely accessible online in wiki-format since August 2009.

Anderson, Gary & Michael E. Stone “Introduction and problems of the text”,  in Part One of An Electronic Edition of the “Life of Adam and Eve” 1995.

Anderson, Gary; Michael E. Stone & Johannes Tromp (eds.) Literature on Adam and Eve, Collected Essays, Brill (Leiden/Boston/Köln), 2000.

BiBIL: Biblical Biography of Lausanne. University of Lausanne, Institut romand des sciences bibliques.

de Jonge, Marinus & Johannes Tromp. The life of Adam and Eve and related literature, Sheffield (England): Academic Press, 1997.

Meyer, W.  "Vita Adae et Evae." Abhandlungen der königlichen Bayerischen Akademie des Wissenschaften, Philosoph.-philologische Klasse. Munich: 14.3, 1878: 185-250.
Description of source:  It is this specific version of the Latin Adam and Eve that is presented An by Anderson & Stone (1995) in their Electronic Edition of the “Life of Adam and Eve”. The authors note that the text is basically that of Meyer’s edition with special notation of the additions found in Family III, and further adding that the text was prepared by Wilfried Lechner-Schmidt (Germany). It has been translated into English by B. Custis with the assistance of G. Anderson and R. Layton.

Stone, Michael E. A history of the literature of Adam and Eve, Scholars Press, Atlanta (GA), 1992.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Divine Serpentine: A Cross-Cultural Survey of the Hindu Nāga Worship & the Judaeo-Christian Interpretation of Moses’ “Copper Snake”, the Nehushtan

The artistic treatment of the serpent – or snake – in the tradition of the Hindu Nāga worship and the Judaeo-Christian interpretation of Nehushtan, Moses’ so-called “copper snake” along with other possibly related Western symbolic figures (e.i. the caduceus, and the rod of Asclepius), vary considerably in the manner in which they are depicted. The aesthetic styles used to represent the serpentine divine will be explored in this brief article devoted to taking a look at how snakes still possess and evoke powerful symbolic meaning in both culture and religion.

     In regards to the Hindu Nāga, there is quite an abundance of similar terminologies that exists in non-Hindu neighbouring Indian countries that have adopted/adapted or borrowed the use of the Sanskrit term Nāga in reference to their own cultural equivalent of the mythic serpentine being. The imagery explored in the scope of this article, however, will limit itself to examining the divine images of the Nāga myths of India, which are described as “Nagas [male] and Naginis [female serpent beings]” who are “said to be descendants of Kadru and Kasyapa” and who appear “as being human to the waist and a serpent from the waist-down” (Rose 2000: 261). And Rose adds that they are often—

described as having many heads and being of different hues. The Nagas live in beautiful underwater palaces in Bhagavati or, according to other myths, under the earth in Nagaloka. Their wives, who are called Naginis, are said to be extremely beautiful. They are ruled by their king, Ananta-Shesha, who protects and supports the god Vishnu […]. In modern Hindu belief, Kārkotaka is the king of the Nagas that controls the weather, especially the coming of the rains.
Ibid. 261
     In surveying the use of the Sanskrit term nāga (“cobra”) in relation to myths in general, there is an important distinction to be made. Other languages and cultural groups outside of India have borrowed the term – mostly through the spread of Buddhism – and because of this the Sanskrit nāga can be found to be used in Indonesia, Thailand and West Malaysia (Rose 2000: 261). A nāga in these non-Indian cultural traditions usually represents something along the lines of what in English could best be described as a multi-headed dragon (ibid. 261), whereas in the Indian mythic tradition a nāga is simply a “snake”, and is the generic term for the sneaky animal in many languages in the Indian subcontinent today (whether belonging to Āryan or Dravidian language families) (Apte 2002: 432). The Nāga, therefore, in the Hindu tradition is strictly a “cobra/serpent/snake” figure. 

     One of the most important Hindu Nāga figures or one of the “Principal Nāgarājas”, as these popular Nāgas are referred to by Hindus, is without a doubt Śesha (read: Shesha) or Ananta the World-Serpent (Vogel 1926: 190-92).

Image 1: Śesha or Ananta the World-Serpent

     Above Śesha appears in one of his more popular positions as the serpent-bed of Vishnu, the latter deity floating on the crowned twelve-headed marine nāga. This image is one of the more significant ones that appear of Śesha protecting and supporting the god Vishnu. Because of its importance in Hindu mythology in relation to the Hindu myth of the “churning of the Ocean of Milk”, Śesha is therefore considered as a king among nāgas since he was essentially used as a rope by the gods in the myth (Turner & Russell Coulter 2000: 421). It is for this great important reason that Śesha’s multiple heads are crowned by the numerous appreciative deities in the myth, but nevertheless the serpentine body is neatly distinguishable as such as Vishnu lets himself be cradled comfortably in the nest of Śesha rather large body. This much is clear in Image 1, whereas in the following, in Image 2 (see below), the body of Śesha forms a “couch” or bed in much the same way, but this time it is nearly indistinguishable as the body of a snake (nāga).

Image 2: Śesha

     The heads once again appear in multiples here again, but instead of having one large serpentine body as in the first image, Śesha’s body (in Image 2) appears to be the result of an innumerable mass of flattened snakes all fused together for lack of a better description. And the exaggerated form of Śesha in the next image (Image 3 below) is even more so less recognizable than the previous serpentine body. Arguably, Śesha appears to be monstrously disfigured in this particular artistic representation the mythic being. For instance, for those individuals who are totally unfamiliar with the particular Hindu mythic subject matter in Image 3, would be hard pressed to find any resemblance in the imagery with that of a serpent’s body. The humongous size of Śesha in the artwork merely attests to the great importance of the role it plays in the myth.

Image 3: Śesha

   If we compare such a divine or royal, beautifully enlarged and lustrous creature such as represents Śesha in Hindu mythic artwork; in stark contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition of representing snake/serpent creatures is usually not executed in such a positive light. For instance, in the biblical tradition, the Nehushtan or bronze (or copper) serpent raised by Moses on a pole “in the desert in order to heal the Israelites from the bites of the poisonous serpents to which they were exposed (Num.xxi.4-10)” (Hirsch & Ochser 2002: 212-13) does not enjoy such an exalted status in the Judeo-Christian tradition as does Śesha in Hinduism. Although, it could be argued that there is a similarity, since undoubtedly both Śesha and the Nehushtan are associated with the divine in some way or other; with Śesha serving as a rope for the gods, and for the Nehushtan to heal the Israelites in the desert through God’s instructions to Moses in creating it. So in a manner of speaking, structurally, the Nehushtan is God’s will to heal on earth through its serpentine figure which symbolically serves as a ladder, which is in a way comparable to a certain degree to Śesha being used as a rope to heaven by the gods.  
Image 4: Michelangelo’s Nehushtan

   In examining the above Image 4, in Michelangelo’s famous fresco painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, there can be seen illustrated a crowd of Israelites seeming to wrestle with both evil and vile serpents – seemingly trying to bite, strangle – in short, they are trying to kill them. But alas! in the background mounted on the pole is the brass – or copper-coloured – Nehushtan, facing several bitten Israelites that are probably looking to be rid of the evil serpents’ venom. One of the men (with quite large biceps) can be seen offering what could be considered as his wife’s gentle hand as he cups her breast lovingly. This contrasts sharply with the flying green snakes in the foreground, these evil creatures that are attacking the fearful Israelites. All this frightful scene, Michelangelo seemed to try to depict occurring behind the Nehushtan’s back (in the upper right half of the painting), where the coiled-up green serpent appears to lead the charge in the attack. There is both reverence and fear represented in the serpentine figures of this fresco.   
Image 5: The Brazen Serpent, by Benjamin West

     There is much the same treatment of the Nehushtan in the painting above, in Image 5, this one a famous work by Benjamin West in which in it Moses appears, holding a staff, seems to be gesturing to the enormous snake coiled up around the pole next to him – the Nehushtan, in the upper right quadrant. The scene can arguably be interpreted to mean that Moses is telling the Israelites that this giant ugly-looking snake next to him on the pole – or tree – can heal them from other vile snake bites they’ve endured. Once again, much like in Michelangelo’s painting (Image 4), this newer version by West (Image 5) employs a dramatic scene with a mob being attacked from all sides by smaller snakes with the promising miracle snake Nehushtan appears to bear some kind of a promise of a cure from certain death. There also appears in West’s painting an homage paid to the Laocoön “by adapting the sculture to an Old Testament subject, just as Michelangelo had done in the spandrels of the Sistine ceiling” (McCarthy 2008: 170). In the lighter painted portion of The Brazen Serpent, similar to the marble statue of the Laocoön (see following Image 6 below), West has painted overthrown individuals coiled up in snakes – a direct reference to the snakes that Athena sent down from heaven.  

Image 6: Laocoön and His Sons 

     In all of these artworks, the snake/serpent as the main subject clearly dominates the scene being played out. The size of the serpentine divine appears much greater than that of the average snake. Whether coiling around a poll as the biblical Nehushtan or in its  exaggerated form as Vishnu’s serpent-couch, both religious artistic traditions depict it as a larger-than-life figure.  

     Aesthetically, of course Śesha could be termed to be quite abstract in style compared to the realist paintings of the Nehushtan. Another distinction to be made is that when looking at the Śesha depictions with Vishnu in relaxation mode with a prostrate Lakshmi in front of him (in Images 1 to 3), and in the first two images (Images 1 and 2) Brahma is flying on a lotus flower, hovering about; in short, in these settings where Śesha appears, there is an undeniable otherworldy mythic feeling to the colourful art. Whereas the contrary can be said of the Nehushtan representations since they cast the grand serpent as realistic – although rather on the large side – and that it is an earthly worldly setting – in a place where people usually fear the snake’s venom and this often as much as they fear the creature itself. Images 4 and 5 are filled with human emotions of fear and the blessed sign of the miracle embodied by the Nehushtan as it has been sent by God through Moses to save the poisoned Israelites; this certainly helps explain the settings for these two images, since the paintings are demure, dark, yet both contain a promise of light in the background surrounding the heavenly sent Nehushtan. Śesha, on the other hand, is pictured in a colourful – almost blissful – setting, the Hindu tableaux always seeming to be filled with awe, quiet wonderment. This is most likely an accurately described feeling of peace and amazement evoked by the artist, since traditionally, Śesha, along with Vishnu resting on him, have both just finished their business of creating the universe. 

     With such wonderment at hand, details in depicting such wonderful and holy beings, as a realistic-looking World-Serpent Śesha, could have been seen or interpreted to be quite frivolous in regards to what the onlooker is witnessing in these representations. Clearly, the subject of Śesha and his divine companions are not ‘of this world’, they are ‘of the light’ and so they all shine in their own mythic world where the artist has attempted to convey this heavenly gaze to the spectator. 

     The Judeo-Christian tradition and depiction of the Nehushtan is not only dark and demure, but it is also representative of a religious tradition that is steeped in history – real human history – sine the Hebrew Bible does not consider Moses and his Nehushtan to be otherworldly in quite the same way as Hinduism considers Vishnu and Śesha. Moses and the Nehushtan play out their biblical scene in the real world, in an earthly world where the artists depict suffering and death, danger and promise, and this frames the Nehushtan in a very worldly setting that the viewer can relate to. 

     Most interestingly, the feelings evoked in both the Hindu and Judeo-Christian mindsets in regards to this common theme of the serpentine divine sacred imagery is quite consistent with the manner in which this creature is usually seen in their respective environment. In the West, as inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition, through their bad biblical reputation where snakes have most often been vilified, people have a tendency to fear the creature. On the other hand, in India, because of many ancient beliefs that place the Hindu Nāga in high esteem as either an important fertility symbol, or the fact that is intimately linked with specific aspects of dharmic/religious holiness (such as demonstrates the mythology of Śesha) has helped to preserve the everlasting tradition of snake worship. The Nāga is a positive image. 

Nag Panchami is a Hindu Festival celebrated in the month of July or August.
Image Source: (Photo:PTI)

     For example, in the East, snakes are a common motif in temples, and are even shown to “crown” many important religious/dharmic figures – in this sense, this artistic tradition of wearing the Nāga “crown” in Indian art serves a similar function as a halo does in Western religious spiritual “crowns”. 

 Lord Parshwanath, the 23rd Jain Tirthankar
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Buddha with seven-headed snake protector
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 The Hindu god Shiva often wears a snake coiled around his upper arms and neck symbolizing the power he has over the most deadly of creatures.
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     There is even a Hindu folk Goddess of Snakes and Poison, by the name of Manasa (Manasha, also Mansa Devi), who is widely worshipped (see Image 6). Moreover, it is even customary in some areas to have or house idols of snake gods – Naga Devatas and Naga Devas.

Image 7: Mansa Devi, the Hindu folk goddess of snakes

     The same cannot be said of the Judeo-Christian world where there seems to be a cultural inheritance of disliking or distrusting snakes which is most likely related directly to Biblical lore (as can be seen in Image 7).

Image 8: Michelangelo’s "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden"
 Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling painting shows the Serpent giving Adam and Eve fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

    Yet, in analysing the biblical “healing properties” of the Nehushtan as presented in the Bible (Num.xxi.4-10), there is a striking parallelism that exists today in the modern era which was also inherited from the ancient world and that could also possibly be related to ancient practices similar to that of Moses raising the snake on a pole to cure the bitten Israelites. In exploring the motif of the Nehushtan, this fact warrants discussion in order to see that there is actually some positive imagery or symbolism concerning the snake that was inherited or transmitted to the West down through the ages. Whether the imagery of the Nehushtan be responsible directly or not for the artistic motif of the symbol commonly found for medicine in apothecary store-windows or pharmacies in North America, assuredly there is either a direct inheritance that has come down to us from the ancient world if not through biblical lore then perhaps from a commonly shared cultural source. These other related contemporary Nehushtan-like divine serpentine figures are the caduceus (see Image 8 below) and the rod of Asclepius – the name of the Greek god of medicine (Image 9).

.Image 9: The caduceus

          Here is a local example of the use of the caduceus as part of the Ontario Medical Supplies logo.

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   Both the caduceus and the rod of Asclepius retain a symbolic significance with their relationship to medicine and healing.

Image 10: The rod of Asclepius

     Another local example from here in Ottawa in relation to the use of the rod of Asclepius is the logo of The Academy of Medicine Ottawa, a branch society of the Ontario Medical Association (the A.M.O. represents Ottawa physicians at the local and provincial levels).

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      It appears that even if most people possibly ignore and often take for granted the existence of these powerful snake symbols in our everyday surroundings, they do nevertheless possess some of the same healing powers similar to that of Moses’ Nehushtan, and to a certain extent those positive Nāga figures in the East. Undoubtedly, many individuals would be quite surprised to learn of the great antiquity of the use of these magic snakes in our modern healthcare facilities and medical associations.  

 Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre
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      Although the Nehushtan is mostly relegated to biblical lore and religious specialists, the symbol of the rod of Asclepius, on the other hand, can be seen while driving down most main city streets across North America. Without going too much into any great detail about the presumably commonly shared ancient origins with Moses’ Nehushtan, it is sufficient to mention that the rod of Asclepius has undergone a sort of evolution or transformation in recent times. The reason for this is due to a confusion with the similar or comparable image of the caduceus (also called the wand of Hermes), and the fact that it was mistakenly the latter – a staff entwined by two serpents and a double helix and which is sometimes surmounted by wings – that was adopted by the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the 19th century by mistake instead of the rod of Asclepius (1).

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     Due to this inherited confusion, the end result is that the two, both the rod of Asclepius and the caduceus are currently used in relation to being a popular symbol of medicine. According to a U.S. study, “A 1992 survey of American health organizations found that 62% of professional associations used the rod of Asclepius, whereas in commercial organizations, 76% used the caduceus” (2).  Evidently, even if as an artistic motif the Hindu Nāga does not enjoy such commercial popularity as does the imagery of the Nuhushtan et parenté, it can still be said that the fact remains – that both in the East and West – the divine serpentine tradition continues to exist in various ways as it did in ancient times, and it plays an important part in our symbolic values, whether they be cultural, religious or commercial.


(1) In regards to the history of this confusion between the caduceus and the rod of Asclepius, see the following: Wilcox, Robert A; Whitham, Emma M (15 April 2003). "The symbol of modern medicine: why one snake is more than two". Annals of Internal Medicine; Retrieved 2007-06-15.  Lt.-Col. Fielding H. Garrison, "The use of the caduceus in the insignia of the Army medical officer," Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 9 (1919-20:13-16), noted by Engle 1929:204 note 2.
(2) Quoting the Caduceus Wikipedia article which references Friedlander, Walter J (1992). The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus symbol in medicine. Greenwood Press.

Image Credits

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 5

Image 6: Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Artists: Hagesandros, Athenedoros, and Polydoros. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506. Current location: Museo Pio-Clementino, Octagon, Laocoön Hall. Source/Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009).

Image 7

Image 8 

Image 9

Image 10

Selected Bibliography

Apte, Vaman Shivram. The Student's English-Sanskrit Dictionary, Motilal Banarsidass (reprint edition), India, 2002.

Hirsch, Emil G. & Schulim Ochser. “Nehushtan.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, 2002.

McCarthy, Erik. William Blake’s “Laocoön”: The genealogy of a form. (Ph.D., University of Kansas, 2007) ProQuest Information and Learning Company, Ann Arbor (MI), 2008.

Rose, Carol. Giants, monsters, and dragons: An encyclopedia of folklore, legend, and myth. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York (U.S.) & London (U.K.), 2000.

Turner, Patricia & Charles Russell Coulter. Dictionary of Ancient Deities, Oxford University Press, 2000. 

Vogel, Jean Philippe. Indian serpent-lore: or, The nāgas in Hindu legend and art, Kessinger Publishing, London, 1926.