Understanding People through Symbols: The Meaning of Serpent as an Example of Cross-cultural Communication

By William Hommel.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The study of a symbolic form and its meanings in various cultures can shed light on common ideas, even when there is no contact between the cultures. The serpent is a form that has meaning in many cultures, where it often relates to the same concept. A form often related to water because its movement is similar to the path of a river. Thus it was often used in conjunction with the mother earth goddess as a necessary companion for the fertility of the land and the sustaining of life. Greeks depicted the offspring of Gaia with legs of serpents. Egyptians depicted the life giving Nile as a cobra as did the Hindus depict the Ganges. The Judeo/Christian religions turned it into a demon because of its association with the earth goddess and as Christianity moved into northern Europe is blended with the demon dragon of the Nordic religion. The Dogon of Mali see the serpent as the pure spirit form, relating the concept of life force. The Mende of Sierra Leone used it as a symbol of the river on masks, which they believed were given to the women by the river spirit.

Keywords: Symbolic Forms, Cultural Understanding, Similarity of Concepts Cross-Culturally, Serpent, Mother Earth

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp.201-208. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.124MB).

Dr. William Hommel

Professor, Art Department, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, Oklahoma, USA

I have a Ph.D. in art history with specialization in African art. My teaching has spanned 40 years in higher education and work with museum collections. Recently I developed a curriculum for an art history degree concentrating on non- western art traditions. Among the courses I teach is Multicultural art, which is concerned with the use of symbols cross culturally. The main purpose of this course is to expose the students to world cultures and point out the similarities in ideas. Visual symbols are an excellent way to communicate these similarities.


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