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2,800-year-old serpent artifact is a ‘missing link’ to Hercules mythology, study says

In the highlands of northern Israel, archaeologists uncovered a small stone artifact of colossal importance.

The object — a 2,800-year-old seal — provides a “missing link” in the evolution of a popular motif that appears in the Bible and Greek mythology, according to a study published in the journal of Near Eastern Archaeology.

The “spectacular” artifact “occupies a special place in this long and largely unknown history of myth transmission,” Christoph Uehlinger, the study author and professor in comparative religion at the University of Zurich, wrote.

Discovered during an archaeological dig in Tel Hazor in 2022, the seal depicts a dramatic battle sequence.

A human figure wielding a spear can be seen locked in combat with a seven-headed serpent, Uehlinger said. A griffin, a scarab and a pair of monkeys can also be seen on the periphery of the scene.

Measuring around 1.5 inches long, the seal was dated to around 800 to 750 B.C. It was likely crafted by either an Israelite or a Phoenician — a people who occupied a nearby part of the Levant.

The motif of a hero slaying a seven-headed serpent is far older than the artifact itself, first appearing around 2,500 B.C. in Mesopotamia.

From there, the motif began to travel in the region, popping up in ancient texts from modern-day Syria, where it found its way into the Hebrew Bible.

In Israel, the hero figure evolved into Yahweh — the Hebrew name for the divine — fighting a Leviathan, Uehlinger said.

Centuries later, it appeared in the Christian Bible — with the serpent beast fighting an angel in the book of Revelation.

The same motif further cropped up Greek mythology in the form of Herakles (the Roman translation of Hercules) locked in combat with a Hydra, a many-headed serpent creature.

The ubiquity of this image — albeit with subtle variations — has long puzzled researchers, who know little about its proliferation during the first and second millennia B.C.

But the newfound seal from Hazor now “provides a tangible link from Phoenicia to Israel,” Uehlinger told McClatchy News in an email.

It also lends credence to a hypothesis that the motif traveled from Ugarit in northern Syria through Phoenicia to Israel.

“Phoenician scribes/scholars probably preserved and transmitted the tradition they may had inherited from Ugarit (an ancient city in Syria) since the Late Bronze age,” Uehlinger said.

How exactly the motif spread west — and became wrapped up in the popular mythology of Hercules — remains unknown, Uehlinger said.

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