The symbolism of the snake in the Yezidi's belief
Dr.Mohamed Naceur Seddiki
During the previous ages, the snake was one of the most important issues which interested the human imagination. There was an active spiritual relationship between them. This relationship had many meanings and spiritual symbols. This is why, we focused on the Yezidi’s symbolic belief of the snake in this study using an anthropological archeological method to build a complete idea about this religious practice and extract its historical meanings in comparison with the other ancient civilization. Our research about the appearance of the snake from a religious side and its symbolism is a helping factor to know the relationship between the Yezidi’s and the snake, which was based on a religious background. This pushes us to say that the relationship between the Kurdish Yezidi’s and this animal was not different from those of the ancient nations in its evaluation and shapes where there was a mixture between the spiritual side and the components of the indigenous religions although the latter was absent in the religious side in the Yezidis’ belief.
Anthropologically, we are going to focus on the mythology of the traditional heritage of the Yezidis and their ideas about snake.
The Yezidis took the snake as a sacred symbol in the grave/tomb of Sheikh Odai Blalesh. According to the ancient publications, there was a relationship between the Satan/Azazil and the snake.
However, before scrutinizing religious issues, we must consider the image of the planet Mercury which was mentioned by “Elbeyrouni” in his book “Ettefhim liawael sinaet ettanjim”. This planet is depicted as “a young man riding a peacock with a snake in his right hand”.
Before detailing the relationship of the peacock with the snake, we have to trace briefly one belief of the ancient people in the snake.
· The ancient people’s belief in the snake:
There was a considerable number of works showing struggles between God and very strong dragons in Mesopotamia during the ancient ages. Human beings believed that the snake was the symbol of eternity. They also thought that the change of its old skin by newer one was seen as a continuity of life whenever it got old. In addition, there was a relationship between the snake and the moon because it got a new skin whenever the moon had finished a complete turn, and hence it was a symbol of the moony goddess. From this perspective, it becomes so related to the planets’ system and their worship . Thus a lot of earthly gods were related to snakes. A lot of ancient sculptures were seen taking snakes in their hands. Afterwards, it became a habit that every temple had to contain a living sample of snakes. Furthermore, the ancients thought that the snake was the guardian of the springs of water and the places of worship. In the Arab heritage, we found the story of the giant snake which was inveigling the well of Zemzem” and that of another giant one which was supervising Alkâaba’s walls in order to keep the evil away.
The same story of the inveigling snake was found in the Greek belief.
The Greeks believed that it inveigled human beings, their properties, and defended good manners of the community.
However, the story of eternal religious which the Hebrew heritage propagated all over the world successfully was the story of Adam and Eve’s existence in the paradise and the snake’s attempt to seduce Eve to eat from the forbidden tree. Ethaâlabi mentioned the details of the Hebrew story and so did Elkortobi in his explanation of the verse “and we said go down earth enemies for each other”. The myth said that “the Satan/Iblis wanted to enter the paradise to seduce Adam and Eve, but the guardians forbade him; so he kept waiting in the paradise door for about 300 years which is one hour of the doom’s day time. The Satan was waiting for anyone who nears the paradise door side. He said “a wonderful bird which is called the peacock come. It was the master of the paradise birds. When the Satan saw him he approached to him and said: “you, the glorious bird, where did you come from.” It answered: “from Adam’s parks.” The Satan said: “I have an advice for you in condition you help me enter the paradise with you.” The peacock answered: “It is impossible, but I can bring you someone who can help you get in secretly.” The peacock went to the snake which was less beautiful than it. It had four legs like the camel’s legs. It was one of the paradise guardians and one of the Satan’s friends. The Satan asked it to let him in its mouth, so it put him in its mouth in the way to the paradise without being noticed by the other guardians. He entered with Adam the paradise.
Then, he went to Adam and Eve and told them: Oh Adam! Should I tell you about the eternity tree and inexhaustible wealth? He said: “Yes.” The Satan ordered: “Eat from this tree, the tree of wheat” and he swore that he wanted good for him. Eve was the first to eat from the forbidden tree, and then Adam did. As they did,god was so angry and he punished them with several kinds of punishment and he punished the snake in five ways. He imputed its legs, made of its belly its means to walk, gave it a very ugly face (before it had been the best of the animals), made the ground its food, and made it an enemy to the human beings (they kill it whenever they see it)”.
Consequently, we find many Hadeeths of prophet Mohamed who recommended killing the snake even when praying or in Alhadj/pilgrimage.
After narrating the Hebrew myth, which become a part of the human heritage and even was used in the Quran’s explanation by the Muslims, it is time to know the snake-peaocock relationship which was painted in the right side of Sheikh Odai Alakbar in Lalesh.
· The Yezidis symbolism of the snake and the extent of its communication with the religious ancient heritage:
Having an overview on the Yazidis oral literature, their traditions, their sculptures, we affirm that there is a relationship. However, its causes and explanations and identity need a lot of effort.
In one of the common oral Yezidis myths, it was said that there was a seven-headed snake which closed the town’s water spring and the citizens faced thirst and draught until “Mirza Mohamed” came and rescue the town using his arrows by beheading the snake or the dragon’s head. Other myths mentioned that the town’s citizens gave a girl as a ransom to the snake weekly in order to move a little bit to let the water flow to the town. This Yezidis myth of the snake or the dragon and the role of the rescuer “Mirza” in the killing of the snake was only a continuity of the original mythical Christian story. It also unveiled the story of the martyr knight “Marjayes” (or Korkus/George in different languages) who saved the king’s daughter from the dragon’s danger.
In fact, he saved all of the citizens and became very famous in all over the world. Temples were established, and people were proud to bear his name. Several stories and tales talked about him. Artists painted him in different ways. Almost all the far-east countries and even the western European ones contain temples and shrines bearing his name.
This represented a continuity within the ancient peoples and nations mythology which was anchored in the Yezidis belief with a minor difference.
What does the Yezidis’ snake represent?
Some people see the Yezidis snake as a symbol of good as we had seen it - and according to the literature of the Yezidis – it saved Noah’s boat from sinking when it put itself in the boat’s puncture. Therefore, the Yezidis look at it with great respect and hence the snake was drawn in their sacred tomb and especially in the main door of the tomb of Esheikh Ady in the mountain of Lalesh/Sheikh Odai. The Yezidis believe that there are two pictures in the paradise’s door; one for the peacock and the second for the snake.
Some other people thought that the snake which was drawn in Esheikh Odai’s tomb was only magic hints related to the worship of the Satan. However, the archeologist Layard, who visited Esheikh Odai’s tomb in the end of the 19th c, mentioned that there were a lot of pictures of a lion, an axe, a man, and a comb in the tomb high threshold and the snake very clear to everyone as if it represented a symbol. On the contrary, Sheikh Nasr assured to him that it was the Christian architect who rebuilt the tomb years ago and drew these paintings.
Possibly, he did not disclose the secret of these symbols to his foreigner guest for fear that he accused him of the worship of the Satan which they totally refuse.
From this perspective, our focus will move from the mountains of “Lelesh” to “Al kaaba” which was built by the prophets’ father Abraham then became the most sacred place in Mecca. To identify this sacred place, we say that it is a space of ground isolated from the dirty world. Generally, people are not allowed to enter it because it was inhabited by an unseen soul”. For this reason, there was the snake to invigilate the place. The black snake may be the guardian of Esheikh Odai Blalesh’s tomb because many of the rites which the Yezidis practice were found in the Greek myths and most of them were related to “the guardian snake” which was made in the form of necklaces to protect the young children from any evil.
This black snake which was drawn in the right side of the tomb’s entry reassures the belief of favoring the right at the expense of the left. This is due to the sophist’s belief and its deep influence in this religious group which believes that the good people were those who had been given the privilege to touch snakes and scorpions by their hands without being stunk and had the ability to cure the snakes’ stings.
The origin of this endowed man was Odai family and his name was “Esheikh Mand Ben Fakhreddine Ben Odai the second”.
The Yezidis might have taken the snake as a sacred symbol as a counterpart to the “Elf snake” which talked to “Esheikh Abdelkader Al Jilani” who was a friend to “Odai Alakbar”. This was considered a great endowment to him. The Elf which retained its natural shape had declared its repentance and converted to Islam. In fact, all what we have just mentioned makes us believe that the influence of the rites of the Yezidis ancestors and the Jewish peacock and the snake represent the symbols of the planet “Mercury”. However, they have a special representation in the Yezidis belief: the peacock represents the symbol of the universe and the creator’s beauty and the snake represents wisdom, intelligence, and the good.
To conclude, in this article, we have talked about the Kurdish Yezidis belief in the snake and the symbolic meanings it represented in their civilization. The snake was also represented in the Yezidis spiritual feeling since it was considered as the guardian of the place which it considered as its own secure home.
What is worth noting is the continuity and the interference in the belief between the human religious heritage, the influence of the neighboring cultures, discovering those symbolic representations in the Kurdish Yezidis life and the effect of the human imagination in general and the Yezidis one in particular on the stories and tales about the snake.
Picture n° 1: The snake invigilating Esheikh Odai’s tomb.
The entry leading to Esheikh Odai’s tomb (the black snake in the right)
The symbol of the Yezidi’s sacred snake
The eastern wall of the yard painted in 1909