Snakes could either have positive or negative connotations in ancient Egypt. The demon Apophis or Apep was the archenemy of the son god Re and at the same time the uraeus cobra was the protector of the king. The ability of snakes to shed their skins possibly linked several snake deities with rebirth.
Although deaths from snake bites are rare in Egypt a number do occur. Among the venomous snakes are the Black-necked spitting cobra (Naja mossambica pallida) which can spray poisonous venom three meters into the eyes and leave the victim permanently blinded. There is also the Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje haje) which is more than two meters in length and the smaller horned viper (Cerastes sp.).
The gigantic African Rock Python (Python sebae) which was present in the Predynastic Period is no longer found in the country. Ivory knife handles sometimes show intertwined pairs of this snake under an elephant. Whether the elephant was depicted as trampling the snake or working with the snake is debatable. Houlihan (1996, 172-173) believes the elephant is attacking the snake, an idea reinforced by the legend that African Rock Pythons were enemies of the African elephant. Johnson (1990, 40-41) however, believes that the snakes are supporting and defending the elephants.
There are a large number of ancient Egyptian texts which were designed to act against snakes. Spell 33 of the Book of the Dead, for example, states that in order to drive off a serpent, the following should be recited: ‘Oh Snake, take yourself off, for Geb protects me; get up for you have eaten a mouse, which Re detests, and you have chewed the bones of a putrid cat.’ The archenemy of the sun-god Re, Apophis, took the form of a snake, and at midday threatens the voyage of the god through the otherworld. He is however defeated and Re goes on his way. In the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead a snake is mentioned who is part made of flint. This snake is identified as Apophis. Dangerous snakes are shown as being cut up or otherwise mutilated. In early Egyptain tombs, even snake hieroglyphs were shown cut by knives lest the representation be made living and harm the deceased. In Egyptian spell books, snakes are often killed using a flint knife.
Despite the fact that many snakes were obviously harmful the Egyptians did not think of all snakes as bad. Indeed, many protective gods and goddesses could take the form of snakes, for example Renenutet and Merseger. Meretseger protected the Theban necropolis and Renenutet was a guardian of the king and also a protector of the harvest. The downstairs gallery has a large stela with two snakes entwined. They represent Isis-Thermouthis and Serapis (Serapis is the bearded one on the right). Isis was the consort of Serapis, and the two came to embody the forces of male and female fertility. They are sometimes represented on door-jambs as human-headed serpents.
The Centre also has protective amulets in the form of snakes.
Wadjet, the goddess of Lower Egypt, could take the form of a snake. Her counterpart was Nekhbet the goddess of Upper Egypt and together the pair represented the unity of the two lands. They can be seen on coffin fragments in the Centre. For example Wadjyt can be seen on W1042. She can also be seen on the coffin of the Egyptian priestess as a winged cobra.
Long coiled snakes also appear on the Egyptian game of ‘Mehen’ (copies of which can be purchased at the Egypt Centre). The original game of mehen was played on a spiral board in the form of a coiled snake. Examples have been found in early Egyptian tombs, over 4000 years old. Pieces, in the form of marbles and a lion shaped counter were moved around the board. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead mentions Mehen, protector of the sun-god Re as the enemy of death.
The cobra which appears on the forehead of Egyptian royalty is known by Egyptologists as the ‘uraeus’. Female goddess who were the daughters of the sun-god Re were particularly associated with the uraeus, which was also the Eye of Re. For example, Hathor, Neith and Isis. An example of Neith as a winged uraeus can be seen on the 21st Dynasty Coffin in the Egypt Centre. The uraeus protected the king. Sometimes uraei are shown spitting flame or fire, for example, in the Book of Amduat.
It is possible that Egyptian magicians carried wands in the shape of snakes. The god of magic, Heka, is shown carrying two snakes, one in each hand. An example of him can be seen on the coffin of the Egyptian Priestess in the downstairs gallery. Snakes were also carried by healers. For example, depictions of Horus the Child meant to ward off stings and bites from dangerous animals sometimes shows him holding snakes.
Items associated with snakes in the Egypt Centre