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Picture of Snakes, People, and Spirits, Volume One

Snakes, People, and Spirits, Volume One

Traditional Eastern Africa in its Broader Context

Author(s): Robert Hazel
Contributors: Robert Hazel;

Book Description

This two-volume publication offers an in-depth analysis of ophidian symbolism in Eastern Africa, while setting the topic within its regional and historical context: namely, with regards to the rest of Africa, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Greek world, ancient Palestine, Arabia, India, and medieval and pre-Christian Europe. Through the ages, most of those areas have connected with Eastern Africa in a broad sense, where ophidian symbolism was as “rampant” and far-reaching, if not more so, as anywhere else on the continent, and perhaps in past civilisations. Much as in the wider context, snakes were held to be long-lived, closely related to holes, caverns, trees, and water, life and death, and credited with a liking for milk. Even though ophidian symbolism has always been developed out of the outstanding biological and ethological features of snakes, the process of symbolisation, which plays a crucial role in the elaboration of cultural systems and the shaping of human experience, was inevitably at work.

This first volume deals with snakes as a zoological category; snake symbolism as perceived by encyclopaedists and psychologists; and ophidian symbolism as it occurred in ancient civilisations. It explores the traditional African scene in general with a view to set the scene for a more proximate baseline for comparison. The divide between animals and humans was porous, and snakes had a more or less equal footing in both the animal realm and the spiritual world. Key features of snake symbolism in traditional Eastern Africa are then examined in detail, especially phantasmagorical snakes, the rainbow serpent, snake-totems, and snake-related witches and ritual leaders, among others.

In Eastern Africa, the meanings attributed to snakes were multifaceted and paradoxical. Overall, the two volumes of this publication show that African snake symbolism broadly echoed the diverse representations of ancient civilisations. The widely acknowledged assimilation of snakes to death and Evil is therefore unrepresentative, both historically and culturally.


ISBN-13: 978-1-5275-3767-5
ISBN-10: 1-5275-3767-6
Date of Publication: 01/10/2019
Pages / Size: 567 / A5
Price: £92.99


Robert Hazel’s interest in Africa grew in the late 1960s and the early 1970s while he was a volunteer in Rwanda. His PhD dissertation in anthropology (1984) dealt with East African age-set systems as institutions marking out successive and contrasting stages of virility. Having completed his training in anthropology, he resumed his career in international development, mostly with regard to Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1996, he reactivated his documentary study of East Africa and the Horn of Africa as a non-affiliated researcher. He has published several articles in both French and English, often with a focus on regional or comparative ethnology, in seven different periodicals between 1978 and 2006, as well as a book on infibulation in the Horn of Africa co-authored with a Somali scholar (2007). In 2008, he undertook research on ophidian symbolism in Eastern Africa, a theme that had been initially explored in his doctoral dissertation.