I am lucky enough to live in Kifissia, a lovely green suburb of Athens, Greece. Not far from my home there’s a quiet place with meadows and olive groves. I love taking meditative walks there. Last summer, as I was walking, I came across a snakeskin. I felt chills down my spine as I remembered the powerful symbolism of transformation associated with a creature that can literally shed its skin.
This made me think that the forces of change are always with us. They’re part of nature as much as they’re part of our inner landscape and our social environment. Living in Greece has given me ample opportunity to experience the winds of change time and again these past few years.
For many people this change has been for the worst: a plunge into poverty and profound insecurity. Unemployment and suicide have both dramatically risen. Yet for many of us this has also been a time of resistance: an opportunity to reach out to people, share our concerns and ideas, organize, and take action. Although it’s not always obvious, this effort has paid off. The rewards have been richer than I could have imagined.
For me the spirit of activism is embodied by the goddess Athena. She holds the shield of protection and the spear of the fighter. And she’s never too far away from the snake that connects her to the forces of nature. Athena is a major source of inspiration for me these days. Allow me to share with you the second part of the essay I wrote exploring her primordial connection with the serpent…
The Sacred Serpent
Strange as it may seem, the Hellenic mythology reveals a true fascination with the serpent. Large snakes (called drakontes, “dragons”) are sometimes portrayed as destructive forces that end up killed by gods and heroes, like Apollo and Heracles. At the same time, though, the serpent frequently appears benign, even sacred, in close association with the Underworld and various divine figures.
Athena’s snakes seem to have protective qualities, just like the reptilian sons of Gaia were often the guardians of a special place. One of the Acropolis temples was the home of a real, live snake dedicated to the goddess of wisdom. This temple was called Erechtheum, in honor of Erechtheus, another mythical king of Athens who, not by accident, was closely related to Erichthonios. The creature that lived there was known as oikouros ophis, “the home-guarding snake.” Hesychius of Alexandria says that it was considered the guardian of the Acropolis and was fed pies made with honey.
Plutarch narrates a telling story that reveals the significance of the sacred serpent: in one of the Persian invasions in the early 5th century BCE, the Athenian general Themistocles was trying hard to persuade the citizens to abandon the city before it was destroyed by the enemy, who largely outnumbered the Athenian army. That was no easy task; thus, he resorted to a trick: when the priests of Athena reported that the guardian of the homeland had disappeared leaving their daily offerings of food untouched, he interpreted this as a divine sign. It meant, he said, that the goddess herself had left the city, pointing the way to the sea. The trick worked—the Athenians embarked on their ships, the women and children were brought to the island of Salamis and one of the greatest battles in European history was fought and won.
Interestingly, the concept of the snake as the guardian of the home has survived in modern Hellenic folklore. In many rural parts of Greece people would allow a snake to live in or around their house and would even feed it sometimes. It was considered a protective spirit which would ensure the health and happiness of the family.
If we take into account this view of the serpent, then it’s hardly surprising that it was so closely associated with Athena. She herself was a powerful goddess, charged with the protection of heroes and the defense of the city. At the same time she had a number of other qualities, one of which is of particular interest here: she was also considered a healing deity, hence one of her titles was Hygieia, “Health.”
Hygieia was at the same time the name of one of the daughters of Asclepius, the patron of doctors. Does it come as a big surprise that both Hygieia and her father were almost always accompanied by snakes? In fact, the rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is a widely accepted symbol of medicine today. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one of his sanctuaries, dating to around 420 BCE, is located on the south slope of the Athens Acropolis.
In fact, the healing aspect of the city goddess, Athena Hygieia, was also honored on the sacred hill. Plutarch has preserved for us one more intriguing story, explaining why Pericles, the famous ruler of Golden Age Athens, set up a statue of hers while the Parthenon was being built.
One of the artificers, the quickest and the handiest workman among them all, with a slip of his foot fell down from a great height, and lay in a miserable condition, the physicians having no hope of his recovery. When Pericles was in distress about this, the goddess appeared to him at night in a dream, and ordered a course of treatment, which he applied, and in a short time and with great ease cured the man. And upon this occasion it was that he set up a brass statue of Athena Hygieia in the citadel near the altar, which they say was there before.
We don’t know what this statue looked like, but it’s safe to assume that the serpent’s mysterious presence must have been part of it. The goddess Hygieia was frequently depicted as a young, beautiful woman feeding a drakon, a large snake wrapped around her body. Even as late as the 2nd century CE, the statues of both Hygieia and Athena Hygieia stood near the entrance to the Acropolis.
From the time of the Minoan Snake Goddess until the late antiquity the eerie charm of the serpent is ever-present. Its ability to renew its skin certainly played a role in the healing qualities attributed to it. Its old skin was called geras by the Greeks, a word that also meant “old age.” In their eyes it must have embodied the powers of renewal and regeneration. Its close contact to the earth—and the wise old Earth Mother, Gaia—would also have contributed to its powerful aura.
Athena, one of the most significant figures of the Hellenic pantheon, inherited the connection to this sacred creature. As she carried the symbol of her venerable great-grandmothers on her body, she must have seemed imbued with the life and blood of these primordial feminine forces.
 Hesychius, Dictionary, s.v. “oikouros ophis.”
 Plutarch, Themistocles 10.1. A similar story is told by Herodotus 4.38-41.
 G. A. Megas, Greek Festivals and Folk Customs (Athens, 1957), 14.
 Plutarch, Pericles 13.8.
 Pausanias 1.23,4.
 Liddell and Scott, Great Dictionary, s.v. “geras.”
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