Thoughts on Nehebukau, the holy Snake God, and the concept of Snake People, with an analysis of their appropriation by modern pop culture and conspiracy theorists.
It’s important to understand that snakes are not a universal symbol of “evil” in Kemetic or ancient Egyptian lore. Actually they are more like angels, a special class of preternatural being. There are good snakes like Wadjet and Meretseger who serve Atum-Ra the Creator; and there are also bad snakes that serve
Apep and who seek to disintegrate all things. One story of Nehebukau is that He was originally one of the bad snakes; but this was only because of a pinched nerve in His spine that was hurting Him real bad, making Him terribly grouchy. Eventually, Ra healed Nehebukau by touching His back and fixing that nerve, and the latter has been a good and holy snake ever since, working Ma’at and assisting sentient beings through their various kheperu or transformations in life and the afterlife (what might be called a “shedding of skins”). In this way, Nehebukau fits right in with some of the other gods I hold most dear. Like Set and Taweret, He’s kind of like a monster that learned to be better, and who is in a very unique position to empathize with humans in our struggles against isfet.
To be clear: when I refer to “the Snake God,” I am referring to Nehebukau, and not to the monster
Apep. When I refer to “the Chaos Serpent,” the situation is reversed. The distinction here is that Nehebukau is a proper god or Netjer, while Apep is more like an “ungod.” If it confuses anyone that I would use “snake” and “serpent” in different ways like this, just remember the comparison to angels above. Nehebukau is no mere angel (and neither is Apep for that matter), but one might say Nehebukau is a Snake God in the same way that Gabriel is a “holy angel,” while Apep is a Chaos Serpent in the same way that Satan is a “fallen angel.” There are additional good male snake gods among the Netjeru as well (e.g., Geb, Mehen, etc.); but as I have not personally interacted with any of them myself, Nehebukau is the particular Netjer I mean to invoke when I write “Snake God” in capital letters.
Prior to collaborating with Setken on Hymn To The Soul Serpent (Hymn To Nehebukau), I don’t recall actually being that cognizant of Nehebukau before. I recall seeing Him in Egyptian art in His winged, double-headed serpent form from time to time; but it wasn’t until my exposure to Setken’s artistry that I remember seeing the Snake God depicted in a humanoid form (as exemplified in Setken’s Study For The Netjeru!: Nehebukau). Apart from just being really fucking beautiful, Setken’s paintings spoke to something buried deep within the furthest regions of my memory. It was not until we were almost ready to release Hymn to the Soul Serpent that I suddenly realized just what these sacred icons were actually reminding me of.
(When Setken first proposed the Hymn to the Soul Serpent project to me, I mistook him for saying “Nekhebet,” and I immediately started studying footage of vultures for inspiration. When I realized my mistake, I apologized to to Nehebukau profusely, even though I am reasonably certain He wasn’t actually offended. But perhaps some kind of project for Nekhebet might be on the horizon!)
This is probably going to get me into trouble (more on this later), but I’ve had a fascination with the idea of reptile people for as long as I can remember. I think my first exposure to this was from watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I also collected the dolls (or “action figures,” if it really bothers other men so much), and my absolute favorites were the Snake Men. King Hiss looked like a normal dude, but his entire torso came apart to reveal his true form as a writhing mass of vipers. Tung Lashor had a super-long poison tongue that came rocketing out of his mouth when you operated the button on his back. And Rattlor’s neck could extend with quite some force, rendering him somewhat hazardous around children’s eyeballs. These characters were not featured in the He-Man cartoons, but the dolls came with miniature comic books that explained their background stories and such.
According to the comic that came with King Hiss, the Snake Men are native to He-Man’s homeworld, Eternia, and they controlled a powerful empire long before the reign of King Randor. They were banished to some alternate dimension, but the evil wizard Skeletor found a way to bring them back. Thanks to He-Man, Skeletor only succeeded in facilitating the return of three Snake Men: King Hiss, Tung Lashor, and Rattlor. The Snake Men then launched a campaign to return the rest of their kind to Eternia, so they could invade and enslave humanity once more.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar to you yet? In Episode #10 of this series, I discuss one of my least favorite anti-Setian tropes in popular culture: the theme of an “evil snake god” called “Set” who was banished to an alternate dimension, who has legions of “Serpent Men” under his command, and who seeks to return and invade the world of human beings. This theme originates from the short fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian and Kull the Conqueror), and it gained even more traction when Marvel Comics was licensed to adapt Howard’s fiction into its own fictional universe in the 1970s. Since then, the “Set and His evil Serpent Men” trope has emerged in countless cartoons, movies, role-playing games, and science fiction TV shows. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, with its Snake Men and their tyrannical King Hiss, just happens to be the most obvious example of this trend.
One thing I disliked about He-Man was the fact that these Snake Men were bad guys. I have always loved snakes, especially the non-lethal ones like garter snakes, and I always thought it would be neat if these characters could have been heroes instead. I remember imagining my own Saturday morning cartoon shows where the heroes were all benevolent Snake People (with badass edgy names like Queen Hissteria and Big Bad Mamba), and the bad guys were just normal-looking humans. Curiously, the animated He-Man series does feature another race of snake people, the Reptons, who are peaceful and kind. (One of them, Kobra Khan, is one of Skeletor’s goons; but the show makes it clear that Khan is just a bad egg, and the rest of the Reptons are cool.) But when it comes to stories that add a little more dimension to this concept than what I usually expect, my life changed forever when I saw Doctor Who.
No, I’m not talking about the newer Who series that’s been in production since 2005. I speak to you of those lost long days when the only way you could catch Doctor Who here in the States was by watching PBS and sitting through all those passive aggressive pledge drives they used to do, where they’d threaten us with no Doctor Who ever again if we didn’t call in to buy that nifty coffee mug with the disappearing TARDIS. During the Jon Pertwee years, there were two serials that dealt with the theme of reptile people specifically: The Silurians and The Sea Devils, written by Malcolm Hulke. In the first of these adventures, the Doctor (who is currently stuck on earth with an inoperative TARDIS) learns there was another intelligent species that ruled this planet long before humans evolved from apes. These reptile people are not aliens, but native to earth. They went into hibernation deep underground when their advanced astronomy detected the incoming comet that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs. Their machines were supposed to awaken them shortly after the disaster, but a malfunction caused them to remain in suspended animation until they were accidentally revived by human nuclear testing during the 1970s.
Having resurfaced, the reptile people are understandably distressed to find their planet invaded by ultraviolent hairless apes. Some of them are willing to try and co-exist with us peacefully, and the Doctor tries his best to facilitate an arrangement to this effect. But racists on both the human and reptilian sides of this dispute eventually stifle this hope, with the reptiles unleashing their biological warfare upon us, and the humans bombing all the rest of their hibernation chambers. In the second of these serials, the Doctor encounters another tribe of reptile people who belong to an aquatic subspecies, and the whole thing starts all over again. (Things are made even worse this time by the Master, played by Roger Delgado, who actively seeks to escalate the conflict between humans and reptilians.) Doctor Who lore is curiously divided as to how the reptilian characters in these stories are to be identified, but when I was a kid at least, I always went by the Malcolm Hulke novelizations, which refer to the land-dwelling reptilians as Silurians and their oceanic cousins as Sea Devils.
I remember CRYING a lot whenever I watched these episodes of Doctor Who, to the point that my parents were concerned I was actually scared and would have nightmares. But while I did find this stuff disturbing, it wasn’t because it was scary; it was because it was sad. I thought the Silurians and the Sea Devils were cool, and I wanted things to work out so that everybody can share this planet together and get along. I will admit that I was very young at the time, and I didn’t yet grasp that this was all just make-believe. But I also remember that when I got a little older and I first learned about some of the colonialist atrocities that have been (and still are) perpetuated against Native Americans, my initial reaction was to reflect back on Malcolm Hulke’s stories and the profound emotional reactions they invoked in me. The difference, though, is that THIS WAS FUCKING REAL, it ACTUALLY HAPPENED, it is most certainly NOT make-believe. And learning THAT horrible truth (in addition to others) has kept me awake at night far more than any scary TV show ever could. (Somehow, I sense that if I could ask Malcolm Hulke about this today, he would tell me this was exactly his point in writing these awesome stories.)
Incidentally, the Silurians and Sea Devils return in a few later Doctor Who adventures, but Malcolm Hulke had nothing to do with these serials, and I am not really a fan. In the 1983 episode Warriors of the Deep, the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) ends up wiping out two combined tribes of terrestrial and aquatic reptilians all at once. Sure, Davison makes a fantastic Doctor, and he clearly doesn’t WANT to commit genocide against the reptilians; but he does it anyway, and it’s gross, and there is no text or subtext about colonialism anywhere to be seen. It’s just “We gotta kill the people with animal heads so the humans can live.” This leaves the whole story feeling way too hollow and mean-spirited for my tastes.
Decades later, the new Doctor Who series re-introduced the Silurians during the Matt Smith era. These episodes deal with Malcolm Hulke’s creations much more respectfully, and I really enjoy the idea of a badass lady Silurian living in Victorian England and kicking hiney to help the Doctor save the world and stuff. I believe they even wrote it that at some point in Earth’s future history, humans and reptilians really do learn to co-exist. This is definitely a major victory as far as my inner child is concerned; but I just can’t stand the new makeup design for the Silurians. Old Silurians (and Sea Devils) actually look like people with reptile heads, much like the Serpent Men from Conan and the Snake Men from Masters of the Universe. The new versions are really just people with reptile skin, and they don’t resemble the beloved creatures from my childhood enough to resonate. Still, I do enjoy the fact that Doctor Who‘s reptile people have at least been vindicated in terms of their collective story arc after all these years.
Another show in which Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men resurface is Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. In the 1987 animated film adaptation of the popular cartoon series, it is revealed that the international terrorist organization Cobra is really just a front for an ancient civilization called Cobra-La, which of course was populated by Snake People. These reptilians naturally seek to reclaim what they perceive to be their stolen earth, and the entire history of Cobra as a human totalitarian human regime is really just one more phase in their long game.
I don’t remember owning any G.I. Joe dolls, but I remember really enjoying the cartoon and its huge ensemble of diverse and fairly well-developed characters (especially my first true love, the Baroness Anastasia Cisarovna). But imagine my surprise when I learned that Cobra wasn’t actually created by Hasbro, which launched the toyline. Rather, it was “invented” by Marvel Comics, which was commissioned to write a story for Hasbro when it re-launched its catalogue in the 1980s. The writers at Marvel pointed out that the heroes needed some villains to fight if there were going to be any story worth telling; and for lack of any better alternative, they more or less cloned the concept of Hydra—the terrorist organization battled by superhero teams like the Avengers—and re-named it “Cobra.”
Like Cobra, Hydra was originally founded by ancient reptilians, who later infiltrated human governments for their own purposes, including that of Nazi Germany. Then there’s the fact that many of Hydra’s most infamous members are named after snakes in one way or another, including Viper/Madame Hydra, Gorgon, Anaconda, etc. But there’s an extra layer here: the Serpent Men who founded Hydra turn out to be the very same Serpent Men who serve the “evil snake god” Set in Howard’s Kull and Conan tales. This bastardization of Set has even appeared throughout Marvel Comics as an actual character for superheroes like the Avengers to fight. This is ironic given that the real Egyptian god Set also makes a personal appearance in an episode of G.I. Joe; but as discussed in Episode #10, G.I. Joe was much much closer to the mark! Its version of Set doesn’t appear to be involved with the civilization of Cobra-La, either.
Now I must return to my earlier point about how writing about all of this will probably get me into some trouble with some people. (It’s okay, I don’t really care—this is all for Nehebukau, to whom I shall return in just a moment!) I am sure readers in the know are already chomping at the bit for me to touch on reptilian humanoid conspiracy theories and the bizarre subcultures they have bred in real life. I’m referring of course to the belief some people have that there are actual reptilians living among us here on earth. These people mostly take their cue from the exact same source: David Icke, a pseudoscientist and total huckster. Since the late 1990’s, Icke has popularized this belief that reptilians from a planet orbiting Alpha Draconis invaded our planet way back in ancient times. They were mistakenly worshiped as “gods” by “wayward” people like the ancient Egyptians, and they continue to infiltrate modern human governments (including the entire Bush family, no less). Furthermore, this ancient alien reptile conspiracy is supposed to kidnap little children and drain them of their spinal fluid so it can be fed to Hillary Clinton, who is herself alleged to be a reptilian warlord in disguise. (Icke even manages to tie his evil reptilians together with Nazi Germany somehow, which explains the trope of Adolf Hitler secretly floating around the Arctic in submarines with reptile people.)
There are so many things wrong with David Icke’s bullshit, it’s impossible for me to address each particular grievance in today’s sermon. But my most immediate critiques are that Icke’s take on ancient civilizations is hopelessly racist; his encouragement of secularized Satanic Panic nonsense is absolutely deporable; and worst of all, domestic terrorists have adopted his anti-reptilian routine, trying to assassinate politicians they believe are reptilians. Yet there is something else wrong with all of this that should hopefully be CRYSTAL fucking clear by this point, given everything I have already explained above:
It’s ALL fiction, and NONE of it is original.
Robert E. Howard made a lot of this crap up back in the 1920s. Then Marvel Comics came along and made up some more in the 1970s. Then a bunch of Saturday morning cartoons boosted the signal for it during the 1980s. And of course there have been countless other science fiction authors and media properties that have played around with the concept in one way or another. David Icke never wrote any of his conspiracy theory bullshit until the late 1990s, by which point the meme had already been well established in popular culture. So it’s pretty fucking clear that he plagiarized his entire routine from a bunch of cartoons and comic books. And the assholes who are willing to kill people over this shit are really doing it for nothing.
Here’s the thing: I do not actively believe there are any reptilian humanoids living on this earth, or at least not in the sense of “ancient aliens” (more on this below). I’m not saying it isn’t possible; I just haven’t found any evidence to substantiate such an idea. But even if I did, I would quicker assume such entities are just as native to this world as we are, and that they have just as much right to be here as we do. I don’t believe any of this nonsense about aliens controlling human governments; human beings are the single most dangerous creatures on this planet, we don’t need extraterrestrials to make us any better at wreaking havoc. If there ARE any Snake People around, they’re probably HIDING from us because they’re fucking SCARED TO DEATH of us!
And to assume that an entire sentient race would be inherently evil simply because it evolved from reptiles is, to call a spade a spade, racist. WE evolved from motherfucking APES, and apes do some pretty fucked-up shit you know. Maybe it’s just because I grew up learning important lessons about these things from Captain Jean-Luc Picard; but I see no reason to assume a civilized reptilian people would be any worse at respecting Ma’at or fighting isfet than civilized simian peoples apparently are. (I can already read the emails from Icke’s zombie followers, skewering me for being some dumb, deluded PR boy for the Visitors who want to eat me and my family!)
The thing is, there are other people who believe in real reptilians so to speak, and who hold more sensible views about them than anything offered by David Icke. The most prevalent example of this would be Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religious belief systems that acknowledge the Nagas. These semi-divine creatures can appear as snakes, people, or any variety of human/serpentine hybrid. They are believed to have pre-existed humans, and while they can be good or evil just like us, most of them appear to be dutiful servants of the Devas (the Hindu gods). They enjoy living in rivers, lakes, oceans and raindrops, and they guard all kinds of ancient knowledge and treasures. Though they are not necessarily gods, the Nagas are often venerated with offerings, which helps to attract good fortune. Much of this is echoed in Chinese folk beliefs about dragons, as well. Lóng or Chinese dragons are also shapeshifters who can appear human and who bring good luck to those who show them the proper gratitude and respect.
I first learned about the Nagas not from a textbook or a cartoon show, but from my best friend in second grade, a boy named Pawan. Pawan and his family were Indian American immigrants and deeply observant Hindus. I remember seeing various images of the Devas whenever I visited their apartment. I do not recall which sect or tradition Pawan and his family might have followed (and being only eight years old or so, I lacked the head space to even formulate such a question at the time). But I remember asking Pawan’s mother to tell me about the Nagas, and she seemed really happy to share some stories with me. It must have been crazy to have this weird little white boy from next door take such a genuine interest in her family’s culture and heritage!
But then I would go home and tell my parents about this stuff. For some reason, they were only okay with such beliefs as long as it was Pawan and his family practicing them. I received every indication that it is only acceptable for white people to be Christians and believe in one god, even though neither of my parents has ever been a committed religious believer of any kind. Much later I would meet some of David Icke’s followers (most of whom are white), who insisted to me that both Naga and Lóng veneration is really just another part of the evil reptilian plot to murder children and keep the world hypnotized. When these people claim that Asians are actually venerating evil demons or aliens—or if they suggest that such religious traditions are “beneath” white people for any reason—they are blatantly endorsing Christian white supremacism; full stop.
Furthermore, neither the Nagas nor the Lóng are space aliens that ride around in spaceships. There are no tales about them eating people or operating any nefarious shadow governments. They are nature spirits and religious figures, not science fiction monsters. The same is true of other Snake People who are acknowledged in other cultures too, including African Mami Wata spirits and Native American horned serpents. This begs the question: could the ancient Egyptians have believed in something similar? There doesn’t appear to be any specific term in Egyptian for “serpent man” or “snake person” (or at least not that I have found just yet); but perhaps this would have been redundant. The Egyptians appear to have regarded normal, everyday snakes as sentient creatures with magical powers. How else could serpents be held accountable to Ma’at, with the good snakes serving Ra and the evil snakes following
Apep? This distinction makes little sense, at least to me, unless we stop to consider that maybe snakes are actually people too!
Which helps me circle back to the Netjeru. It is curious that I never felt drawn to any particular Egyptian snake deities until Setken first proposed that we collaborate on his Hymn to the Soul Serpent project together. Only then did it occur to me that everything I ever needed to justify my enthusiasm for snakes (whether as animals, sentient beings, or magical anthropoids) is already included in the belief system I already follow. And when I laid eyes on Setken’s humanoid portrayals of Nehebukau, I was taken back to those far-off days when I would play with my Snake Men dolls; when I would weep over the Silurians and the Sea Devils; when I secretly rooted for Cobra or Hydra as reptilian freedom fighters; and when I listened to Pawan’s mother explain to me about the Nagas. Could it be that Nehebukau was looking in on me even back then, thinking, “This is the kid I want to co-write a song for Me someday”? Could it have been His double-headed wisdom that helped me see through all of David Icke’s bullshit when it was first presented to me? Hell; I reckon Set and Nehebukau probably both had all of this arranged somehow before I was even born!
Writing one song isn’t all I think I am meant to do, either. I think Nehebukau has probably put all of this stuff into my brain for some kind of purpose, and I mean to put it to use somehow. This very likely means another album will soon be in the works. I always wanted to make movies when I grew up; and failing that, I enjoy adapting some of my old story pitches from childhood into “soundtracks” for films that don’t exist (as with Summer’s End and His Nocturnal Majesty, with which I am very happy). I’ve successfully introduced the crimefighting mummy Het-Sem-Peckinpah to the world, as well as the mysterious Knights In Sutekh’s Service. Now that my Halloween and apocalypse “movies” have been taken care of, so to speak, perhaps it is time to revisit my old sword-and-sorcery “movie” pitch as well. It could be that Queen Hissteria, Big Bad Mamba, and other Saurian Warriors of Basilisk Basilica will soon be making an appearance…
2 thoughts on “Shedding Skin With the Snake God (and Snake People!)”
I wonder if those He-Man toys were from a random Tokusatu series. That seemed to be a way to increase the toy lineup without the expense of designing and making them, and producing a tie-in comic would be cheap by comparison. I’ve seen that with mecha from anime series like Dorvack showing up as Transformers toys.
Thanks for the excellent article on Nehebkau, and how snake creatures are maligned in pop culture!
No problem, and thank you for reading, glad you enjoyed this!
Also you might have a point about the Tokusatu possibility! I know for sure that Hasbro did this with G.I. Joe as well as Transformers. Not sure about He-Man, but wouldn’t be surprised!