Throughout history, cobras and other serpents have played a major role in symbolism and mythology. Their forms and images are common in sacred art; statues are employed to watch over gardens and households and are worshiped in some shrines. When viewing a depiction of cobras, determine the image’s context to interpret its meaning.
Ancient Egyptian Belief
Referred to as “uraeus” -- she who rears up -- the rearing cobra with dilated hood was used to symbolize such things as the sun, Lower Egypt, various deities and the king. A cobra is often seen paired with a vulture, the symbol of Upper Egypt; together, they represented the unification of the lands. Cobras were also used in association with the afterlife in Egypt. Possibly due to their protective natures, two cobras spitting flames were said to guard the gates of the underworld.
Indian Buddhists and Hindus
In India, both Hindus and Buddhists have special reverence for the cobra. Hindus believe in the immortality of the snake due to the shedding of its skin, and a snake eating its tail is a Hindu symbol of eternity. The Indian deity Vishnu sits atop a thousand-headed serpent, which also represents eternity. Though snakes are worshiped throughout the year, the Nag-Panchami festival day is filled with cobra worshiping and attendees performing religious rites to seek the cobra’s protection and good will. Buddhists relate the story of how the cobra shielded the sleeping Buddha from sun and rain as he slept. The spectacle marks on the hood are said to be Buddha's fingerprints, left when he blessed the snake.
Omnipotent Cobra Tattoos
Some of the most common tattoos are of cobras. Though a tattoo holds unique symbolism to each bearer, common meanings make a cobra tattoo desirable; it may represent protectiveness, intuitiveness, wisdom, strength, unpredictability, a defensive nature or even evil. In Thailand, an annual tattoo festival is the occasion to seek protection and blessings from traditional guardians, such as the cobra, inscribed on the skin by monks. There, and throughout much of southeast Asia, cobras are considered fierce defenders, phallic and fertility symbols, and messengers of the deities.
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