From ancient Mesopotamian fertility myths to feminist art
Everyone is talking about Taylor Swift and the 🐍 this week. For those who aren’t up to date with the latest celebrity drama, in short, the story goes like this: last year Kanye West released his song Famous, which had some negative—and some might say sexist—lyrics about Taylor Swift. Taylor publicly spoke out against it, only for Kim Kardashian to reveal that Swift had actually approved the lyrics in the first place. #TaylorSwiftIsASnake went viral and her social media was bombarded with the snake emoji. But this week, she hit back with videos posted to her Instagram that seems to show a CGI snake slithering in the dark. Many see this as Taylor’s reclaiming of her snake-y image in order to publicize her new album.
So far, so standard celebrity. But there’s something much stranger going on here. Slithering and sliding into all of the debates around TS vs. KW is this: 🐍, the snake. This image isn’t accidental, rather, the snake has a long history of symbolic connotations with sex, gender, shame and rebirth.
The oldest cultural representations of snakes come from Ancient Mesopotamia. This snake carved into a stone is 10,000 years old—probably the first depiction of a snake ever made.
For ancient cultures, the snake represented immortality, healing, and rebirth, likely due to the snake’s ability to shed its skin. They were also symbolic of fertility, with frequent depictions of two mating snakes entwined. Several snake-based fertility cults also existed in Canaan.
Because of their connection to fertility and creation, snakes in ancient times were most often linked to women; take the Minoan snake goddesses, or the snake goddess who nursed Hypocrates, for example. The Mesopotamian statue of an attendant to the love goddess Ishtar (below) hides a curse on its back: anyone who moves it will be punished with a snake bite.
The link between snakes and vitality continued on into the Classical period. Ever looked at the side of an ambulance and wondered what the symbol with two snakes wrapped around a stick means? This common symbol in Western medicine originates in the myth of Aesculapius, the ancient Greek god of healing, who turned himself into a snake in order to cure a plague, and whose snake followers licked the ill better. Similarly, the term ‘hygiene’ comes from the Greek goddess of Hygeia, who carried a big snake.
Snakes were also symbols of life, eternity and vitality in Aztec/Mexica cultures. Quetzalcoatl, meaning ‘feathered serpent’, was a creator god, while many other Mesoamerican deities were also snakes, including Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, and Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent.
So how did we get from these mainly positive depictions of snakes to Taylor’s '🐍🐍🐍' insults? The most defining moment for snakes in Western culture probably came with the story of Eve, the Serpent, and the fruit from Genesis. In the garden of Eden, Eve was persuaded by the snake to eat a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and then she used her feminine wiles to convince Adam to eat it too, thus bringing about the ‘original sin’ and banishing humans from paradise forever.
This story was used against women for centuries, as evidence for why women are not to be trusted and must be ruled over by men. For example, the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote to women, “do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law”.
Snakes as a symbol of evil continued on through Renaissance and Baroque art, reinforcing this message. And the connections between the use of sexist language towards Taylor Swift and the image of the serpent prove—excuse the pun—fruitful.
These are the associations of the snake that Swift-haters are most likely referencing with their ‘🐍🐍🐍’: snakes (and women) as deceptive, deceitful and conniving. After Taylor posted her snake videos on Instagram this week, many of her fans began posting the snake emoji back on Kim Kardashian’s page, meaning that, like the snake eating its own tail in an ouroboros, the story has come full circle; but the ‘snake’ moniker is still mainly reserved for women.
With the women’s movements of the mid- to late-20th century, artists began to play with, subvert, or destroy many traditional symbols of womanhood. The connection between women, desire and shame represented in the snake was among them. Artists like Judy Dater and Carol Rama, used images of women and the snake to challenge the gendered assumptions found in Judeo-Christian mythology with Eve and the Serpent, often in erotic ways that also draw on Freudian psychoanalysis.
So, when Taylor Swift plays with these serpentine symbols, she’s engaging with a long, complex cultural history. Do these snake videos herald a cosmic rebirth—a shedding of celebrity skin? Is it a form of healing? Or a more complex engagement with the sexist history and symbolism of the snake? Only time will tell.