Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Double-headed snake stone amulet from Sokh (Source: Rempel L.I. Cep vremyon - Tashken, 1987)

Serpent Image in Ancient Beliefs of Uzbekistan

Throughout history, various amulets and talismans portraying animals have been associated with astrology and religion.

Ancient beliefs in Uzbekistan were no different. According to some of these beliefs, serpents were guardians of humans, so amulets and talismans portraying serpents were seen as peace-making totems. Archaeological discoveries in Uzbekistan over the past several decades have revealed many samples depicting serpents as beings of worship and appreciation.

An amulet-signet dating back to the second millennium BCE at the Sopollitepa site of the Surkhandarya region was discovered in 1987. This piece portrays serpents and other animals considered symbols in animal-astral beliefs. Closer analysis and interpretation reveals interesting ideas about it—namely, the dual role of the serpents. On one side of the amulet-signet are four serpents crawling towards four different directions, symbolizing the sacred areas of Earth that were also considered protective poles for humans. Serpents are symbols of the universe and the ability to guard human beings. On the other side are four animal heads—lion, mountain goat, griffin, and hog. This addition also indicates that the amulet-signet was also a lucky trinket for successful hunting.

Another example is a fragment of a ceramic vessel found in Surkhandarya (South Uzbekistan), dating back to the eighth to seventh centuries BCE. The fragment includes a distinctive waving serpent image. This same image appears on a cauldron that dates to the ninth to tenth centuries CE. This serpent image guarded food against evil spirits and symbolized abundance in the household. The longevity in usage tells us how important it was to ancient life.

Wall paintings in one of the Sogd settlements contain an image of a goddess astride a dragon; there is a spotted serpent in her head dress. Archaeologists also made similar discoveries at the Dalverzintepa site in southern Uzbekistan, including an image of goddess flanked by a priestess who is wearing with a snake-like bracelet, which symbolizes chthonic (underground) element. Another comparable symbol was found in Sokh (Ferghana region of Uzbekistan) on an amulet dating back to the third millennium BCE. It is made of black chrysolite (golden-green colored precious stone) and in the shape of double headed serpent. The latter piece mentioned is important as it is the most ancient image of snake on stone found in Uzbekistan and it shows that it was a common ancient belief that the depiction of two predatory animals protected the wearer from forces of evil from the right and left sides.

In Central Asia, totems containing both a serpent and a dragon (ajdakho in Uzbek) are widespread, and they represent the creation of the world and its protection. In miniature on one of the Bukhara treatises, a serpent-dragon appears, reflecting various periods of time. Such hybrid creatures were symbols of various environmental occurrences. Wings, for instance, represented the sky; a widely open jaw, a fire; a serpent’s body, the underground world and water. A creature called Senmurv, which unites the body parts of an animal, bird, and serpent—respectively symbolizing earth, sky, and water—is a good example of a hybrid creature. The winged serpent embodies knowledge and enlightenment.

The signets of the ancient Khorezm usually had an image of a hippocampus—a winged horse-serpent. A similar creature was found on Dalvarzintepa signets, which also have artistic flourishes in the design. Among the ancient Uzbekistan findings, a figurine depicting a fabulous creature was found. It included the head, neck, and forelegs of a horse; a body, from which wings emerged, of a serpent; and a tale with a bifurcated tip resembling bear spear.

One of the wall paintings from Samarkand, dating back to the seventh century CE, depicts a creature living in water. It has a sheep head and a serpent body. Ancient beliefs say that a serpent with a head of sheep is a symbol of fertility and productivity. In the agriculture-based culture of Uzbekistan, sheep embodied the meaning of abundance and luck, whereas a water serpent was fertility. Having such a symbol on a wall painting of residential house as a protecting amulet meant luck and fertility for the hosts of the house.

The existence of a serpent-protector symbol in ancient Uzbekistan testifies that spiritual and cultural autonomy of different people of the world is a symbiosis of indigenous beliefs and cults with some admixtures of religious views. And this is one feature of the world’s religious space, reflecting the symbols of the universe known to all people and nations. These symbols helped ancient humans open the world not only intellectually but also spiritually. Throughout many centuries, monotheistic religions imposed the idea of self sufficiency of a single and moral self-purification of the human. But ancient symbols preserved their power and came down to us.