The Goa'uld symbiote is a sentient, snake-like aquatic parasitic predator whose dominant survival strategy is invasion of the soft tissue of a human host body at the back of the neck (1.02 "Children Of The Gods Part 2") or through the mouth (2.02 "In The Line Of Duty") in order to entwine itself around the spinal cord and from there control the brain and through it, the body.
The symbiote is usually dominant, suppressing the sentient host's consciousness, personality and motor functions. While the host remains conscious, looking out through their own eyes, he or she does not normally communicate with the symbiote. The host's thoughts and memories can be read and used by the symbiote.
All symbiotes are born possessing Goa'uld racial memory. As the species originated and evolved on the planet P3X-888, (4.08 "The First Ones") this racial memory was shared by all symbiotes. The primordial Goa'uld took as their first hosts the indigenous aboriginal Unas and from there, spread out through the network of Stargates to populate the galaxy. Racial memory is passed on to the spawn by a Goa'uld Queen. The intense fragmentation and internecine war between the rival Goa'uld System Lords, each with his own Queen, has resulted in 'families' of symbiotes sharing the memories of their progenitors rather than the species as a whole.
This genetic memory leaves an indelible, corrupting imprint upon the personality and aggressive egocentricity of the Goa'uld symbiote: generation upon generation of hate, conquest and destruction bestows 'the mind of a thousand Hitlers.' (4.19 "Absolute Power")
Larval symbiotes spend an indeterminate period of time within the protective environment of an aquatic tank. When they reach a certain level of maturity, they are known as 'Primta' and are ready for implantation into the pouch of a Jaffa. The Jaffa will carry the symbiote until it reaches full maturity, after which it must seek a host.
Possession of a symbiote, be it within a Jaffa pouch or within a host body, bestows greater strength, recuperative abilities and longevity on the bearer. The Jaffa who bear symbiotes lose their natural immune systems but are healed of even severe injuries and death by the symbiote when they enter a state of Kel'No'Reem – a deep trance state. (2.18 "Holiday").
A Goa'uld symbiote possesses one vital special ability: the ability to implant itself and control a host creature. The primary host species of the Goa'uld is human – homo sapiens. The parasite enters a human host through the back of the neck or the mouth, burrowing through the soft tissue inside and wrapping itself around the cerebral cortex. There it can intercept and control the bio-electrical and neural signals of the host, allowing the parasite to possess the body and dominate the conscious mind. This process is called 'blending'.
The Goa'uld's ability to so wholly possess another sentient being may be characterised as a successful defence strategy. Vulnerability to predators and inability to survive outside of a secure aquatic environment are exchanged for control over the host's superior bipedal motor functions, dominance of the symbiote's conscious mind and ability to read the host's memories. The symbiote's exceptional healing and regenerative powers come into their own, making the 'blended' Goa'uld immune to most diseases and toxins, and resistant to the natural aging of the host's body.
This ability to access the host's memories allied with the natural aggression of the symbiote has contributed to the rapid ascension of this species to technological and military dominance within our galaxy. The Goa'uld are scavengers, stealing the knowledge and scientific advances of other sentient species.
The host is unable to reassert control of its own body unless the symbiote wishes it, which almost never occurs. The host witnesses its own actions as a detached observer, helpless to act in any way at all and remembering what the parasite does and feels (2.09 "Secrets" and 3.15 "Pretense").
Possession of a host is typically signalled by glowing of the host's ocular membranes (eyes) and a resonation in the vocal centres, although it is possible for the symbiote to suppress these outward signs of its presence. Osiris made full use of this ability in order to fool Dr. Daniel Jackson into believing he was confiding in host Dr. Sarah Gardner (4.14 "The Curse").
The symbiote's control over the host body is so great that it may inflict terrible pain or kill the host, though this presents dangers to the parasite also.
Though humans are the preferred host species, Goa'uld symbiotes are able to blend with warm-blooded creatures with a developed central nervous system. The first host taken was the Unas, indigenous to the planet on which the Goa'uld evolved. Though exhibiting sentience, the Unas lack man's higher-level cognitive and language abilities. In extremis, symbiotes can blend with animals until a more suitable host presents itself. (5.08 "The Tomb").
The host body taken may be male or female, but the symbiote does not have a gender. They are customarily referred to as 'he.' For example, Teal'c referred to the 'goddess' Nirrti as 'he.' (1.15 "Singularity")
The exceptions are the Goa'uld Queens who spawn the larval Goa'uld symbiotes. The most important of these are Hathor, wife of the Supreme System Lord Ra and "mother of all pharaohs" and Egeria, the enemy of Ra, who spawned the Tok'ra (literally, against Ra), a family of symbiotes which take willing hosts, usually the diseased and dying.
In return for healing, Tok'ra hosts agree to share the body with the symbiote, remaining conscious and able to exert joint control. The relationship between Tok'ra host and symbiote is a partnership, not an enslavement, and they renounce the 'inherent' evil of the Goa'uld, who have assumed the roles of 'gods' to the humans they have enslaved as Jaffa – warriors, servants, incubators for their larval offspring.
Symbiote Physiology and Maturation
The life cycle and physiology of Goa'uld symbiotes is somewhat problematic. The predatory aboriginal Goa'uld, without naquadah in their bloodstream, continue to thrive in the protective camouflage of natural pools and lakes on P3X-888, taking hosts when opportunities present themselves.
In maturity, they are largely uniform in appearance, with dark brown/black, snake-like muscular bodies of between 12 and 24 inches in length, capable of propelling them through water at great speeds, and small wings behind the head which enable them to fly a short distance through the air to strike at host prey at the water's edge. Their jaws are extenuated, with four hinged mandibles of sufficient sharpness and power to enable the symbiote to burrow into the soft tissue of a host body.
Both the aboriginal symbiotes (4.08 "The First Ones") and those who have seeded the galaxy and taken hosts (4.04 "Crossroads.") have blue internal organs and blue corpuscles in their blood, which are extremely toxic if mixed with the blood of a Jaffa. Death is agonising in that circumstance. (4.04 "Crossroads.")
Despite their sentience, the opportunistic predatory Goa'uld are sometimes cannibalistic. Aboriginal Goa'uld swarmed upon an injured symbiote in a body of water on P3X-888, while warring System Lords ceremonially ate symbiotes during a summit (5.16 "Last Stand Part 1").
Larval Goa'uld symbiotes must mature in a suitable, protective aquatic environment before they are able to survive implantation into the incubating pouch of an adult Jaffa slave. It can be theorised that as they take the place of the Jaffa's immune system and assume responsibility for healing the body from even severe injury and illness, they must have attained a certain level of strength and maturity or both Jaffa and symbiote would die in the attempt to heal.
The Goa'uld Queen Hathor had no hesitation in immediately implanting her newly spawned larval off-spring into Colonel Jack O'Neill, whom she had physically transformed into a Jaffa, creating a pouch in his abdomen and destroying his immune system by means of a device she wore. She did not consider these new-borns too young or immature to survive implantation, acknowledging that the strongest of her spawn would survive.
The mature Goa'uld Queen Amaunet, in her symbiote form, was implanted within a Jaffa priestess while Apophis sought to procure her a suitable host. The priestess appeared ecstatic when Amaunet emerged from her pouch to inspect each of the candidates. However, the Jaffa priestess Sha'nauc was close to death because the symbiote she bore had reached maturity and required a host. The Jaffa warriors trapped aboard Apophis' mothership in a far-flung galaxy, without recourse to replacement symbiotes from a spawning Queen, expected to die when those they bore reached maturity.
On Chulak, Apophis' home world, a larval symbiote of sufficient maturity to be implanted into Teal'c's son Ry'ac was known as a Primta. This symbiote was grey/white in colouration and the corpuscles in its blood were red, distinguishing it from the aboriginal Goa'uld and also from the symbiotes borne by Jaffa such as Sha'nauc and Teal'c's own father, whose blood was blue.
In death, the symbiote which invaded the body of Major Charles Kawalsky was pale brown, a shrivelled husk. Selmak, the oldest of the Tok'ra symbiotes, was small and pink in colouration, with markedly smaller jaw protuberances than are usual in symbiotes. The dying host Saroosh, an elderly woman, referred to Selmak as 'she'. Lantash, Tok'ra symbiote of host Martouf was of similar size and form to the predominant black symbiote, but his colouration was grey.
The Goa'uld Queen Isis, mate to Osiris, was in a stasis prison for thousands of years. Unlike Amaunet, who looked no different than the predominant black symbiote, Isis was small, slender and grey/white in colouration, with delicate, transparent wings, blue internal organs and white blood.
It is not known if these physiological variants are examples of sub-species, mutations or merely proof that Goa'uld symbiotes do not have uniform appearance.
The Tok'ra scientist Ren Au informed SG-1 that dying symbiotes release a toxin as deadly as the poison the Tok'ra developed to annihilate the ruling System Lords during their summit (5.15 Summit Part 1" and 5.16 "Last Stand Part 2"). This contradicts the death of the Tok'ra symbiote Jolinar, who gave his life to save involuntary host Captain Samantha Carter. While it might be said that as a Tok'ra, Jolinar would naturally protect the host, the same cannot be said of Apophis. Yet when Apophis died from injuries sustained in a crash while fleeing his rival System Lord Sokar, no toxin was released and his host lived until extreme old age caught up with him (2.17 "Serpent's Song"). Nor was host Skaara killed by Klorel when he was forcibly removed from Skaara's body by the Tok'ra (3.15 "Pretense").
The Tok'ra poison was used to devastating effect by the sinister Earth organisation The Trust who targeted missiles containing the poison as a payload through the Stargate, killing not only Goa'uld underlings of the System Lord Ba'al, but also millions of innocent Jaffa (7.10 "Endgame").
In addition to their natural healing abilities, Goa'uld symbiotes are sustained by repeated exposure to the sarcophagus technology, which repairs any and all damage to the host body and prolongs their life indefinitely. The Supreme System Lord Ra told Dr. Daniel Jackson that he chose a human host because the human body is so easy to repair.
The sarcophagus has the capacity to not only heal the host and symbiote, but to revive them from death. This is not without its toll: the sarcophagus is addictive and usage over even brief periods of time causes severe psychological problems. The Tok'ra believe that the sarcophagus destroys the soul and attribute to its use the intense aggression and heinous acts of the Goa'uld. They refuse to use it. (2.11, "The Tok'ra Part One"). The addictive effects are felt by humans as well as hosts bearing symbiotes. Both Dr. Daniel Jackson and Col. Jack O'Neill have suffered physical addiction and withdrawal after enforced exposure to the sarcophagus technology. (2.05 "Need" and 6.06 "Abyss").
There are signs that even the sarcophagus cannot make the naturally long-lived Goa'uld immortal. While they can live for millennia with its aid, the oldest among the System Lords, Lord Yu is finally succumbing to age, exhibiting signs of dementia and senility. His Jaffa First Prime reported to Teal'c that Yu was no longer capable of taking a new host body (7.01, "Fallen").
Unaided by the sarcophagus, Tok'ra symbiotes do not live for thousands of years as the Goa'uld symbiotes do (2.11, "The Tok'ra Part One"). As each host dies, they move to a new one, usually a willing human who requires healing from severe or life threatening illnesses. Tok'ra healing abilities are sophisticated and they can sustain a healthy host unaided by the sarcophagus for between one hundred and two hundred years. If another willing host cannot be found, then the symbiote dies too. Tok'ra scientists were able to sustain the life of the symbiote Lantash for a year after the death of his host Martouf within a protective aquatic environment. (5.15 "Summit Part 1").
Goa'uld Queens and Reproduction
Goa'uld Queens are capable of fertilising their own larvae and may spawn from either their symbiote or host forms, although the latter is said to help ensure blending compatibility. The Tok'ra Queen Egeria and the unnamed Goa'uld Queen colluding with System Lord Anubis were each contained within an aquatic tank in the form of huge, bloated symbiotes. Birthing sacs swollen with pregnancy, each was spawning offspring in huge numbers. It may be theorised that within the host form, the Queen genetically alters the female host's own reproductive system to generate larvae at a vastly accelerated pace. This was demonstrated by Queen Hathor, who spawned immediately after obtaining a sample of Dr. Daniel Jackson's DNA to ensure compatibility between human host and Goa'uld 'child,' reducing the risk of rejection and death.
More impressive than this genetic sampling of the host species, the Queen is able to exert control over her own genetic makeup and to introduce characteristic traits or flaws into her young seemingly at will. There is evidence that this manipulation is successful in altering both physical and mental characteristics in the off-spring.
The natural healing powers of the symbiotes are so great, the Tok'ra Queen Egeria was imprisoned by the people of Pangar to breed symbiotes for the purpose of creating a healing, longevity-enhancing drug called tretonin. Egeria – Roman goddess of childbirth - demonstrated the power of breeding Queens, capable of sabotaging the genes of her offspring to reduce the effectiveness of tretonin and procure her freedom from captivity. Egeria did not intend for the Pangaran people to die as a result of this genetic manipulation and gave her own life in recompense as her last act (6.10 "Cure").
Another demonstration of this power to manipulate offspring was demonstrated by the unnamed Goa'uld Queen who colluded with Anubis to breed his fearsome Kull Warriors. Each Kull is a crude, barely viable life form, physically sustained and rendered near invulnerable by a symbiote. The exertions required to maintain the Kull kill the symbiote within a matter of weeks. In order to ensure the subjugation of these 'kamikaze' symbiotes, the Queen altered her own brain patterns to deliberately withhold from her spawn the Goa'uld racial memory. The symbiotes were consequently born mindless. (7.12 "Evolution Part 2").
Logically, it is this extraordinary, complex ability to genetically manipulate her off-spring which enabled Egeria to literally spawn the Tok'ra resistance movement, with host and symbiote co-existing in equality, sharing body and minds.
It can be theorised that the strength and recuperative abilities of the host body are enhanced by the naquadah within the blood of the symbiote. Captain Samantha Carter was host to the Tok'ra symbiote Jolinar of Malkshur for only a brief time, yet years after the event, she maintains unusual strength as well as resistance to anaesthesia. (3.14 "Foothold" and 5.11 "Desperate Measures").
Naquadah is the element from which the Ancients constructed the Stargates. After being awoken from stasis within a pyramid in Mexico, Hathor was drawn to the Stargate beneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs because of the naquadah within it. (1.14 "Hathor").
The presence of naquadah in the bloodstream enables the host body to access Goa'uld technology and the ability remains even after the symbiote dies or is removed. It is not known when the Goa'uld became exposed to the element which has proven so vital to their technological and military dominance.
In the experiments conducted by Dr. Daniel Jackson and Dr. Robert Rothman on fossilised primordial Goa'uld on P3X-888, (4.08 "The First Ones") it was established that the original form of the species did not have naquadah permeating the bloodstream.
Those with naquadah in their blood can sense its presence in others and even in the Stargate. Samantha Carter, taken as host by the Tok'ra Jolinar, developed this perception over time. Carter did not detect the presence of the aboriginal Goa'uld symbiotes in the bodies of water on P3X-888 or those within Hawkins or Dr. Rothman because there was no naquadah in their bloodstream (4.08 "The First Ones"). Teal'c, a Jaffa, did not demonstrate this ability to sense the presence of naquadah in another being until 5.08 "The Tomb."
The Tok'ra were able to synthesise artificial tretonin and administered it to Teal'c and Master Bra'tac, for whom it successfully replaced their destroyed immune systems (6.19 "Changeling"). The drug has also been administered to the Ha'ktyl, a tribe of renegade female Jaffa warriors, in its largest medical trial to date (7.10 "Birthright").
Tretonin can keep a Jaffa alive, but they lose the super-healing abilities and strength they formerly drew from a symbiote. This causes great distress and conflict as Jaffa consider weakness synonymous with death. (7.04 "Orpheus") Concern has also been expressed that in exchanging their symbiotes for tretonin, the Jaffa are merely exchanging the forms of slavery they endure (7.10 "Birthright").
The drug is not successful in all cases. The female Jaffa warrior Mala died after it was administered to her and even re-introduction of her symbiote was not enough to save her life. (7.10 "Birthright").
- Goa'uld and Tok'ra Screencapture Gallery Contains images of all the variants on both mature and larval Goa'uld symbiote physiology. Clicking on each thumbnail will lead you to a larger image which you are welcome to download. At any time, you can return to this page by clicking on the home button.
- 1.02 "Children Of The Gods Part 2" (Goa'uld Queen symbiote Amaunet and Jaffa)
- 1.03 "The Enemy Within" (Kawalsky's symbiote)
- 1.12 "Bloodlines" (Larval Goa'uld symbiotes)
- 1.14 "Hathor" (Goa'uld Queen Hathor)
- 2.10 "Bane" (Teal'c's symbiote Junior)
- 2.11 "The Tok'ra Part 1" (Tok'ra symbiotes)
- 2.12 "The Tok'ra Part 2" (Tok'ra Selmak)
- 2.17 "Serpent's Song"(Death of Apophis symbiote)
- 3.15 "Pretense" (Klorel symbiote)
- 4.04 "Crossroads" (Tanith symbiote)
- 4.08 "The First Ones"(Aboriginal Goa'uld)
- 5.01 "Enemies Part 2" (Stranded Jaffa fear death as symbiotes mature)
- 5.02 "Threshold" (Junior removed from Teal'c to weaken him)
- 5.15 "Summit Part 1" (Symbiote toxin, cannibalism)
- 6.10 "Cure" (Tok'ra Queen Egeria used to spawn symbiotes for use in tretonin)
- 6.19 "Changeling" (Teal'c and Bra'tac survive sharing Junior and are administered tretonin to save them)
- 7.10 "Birthright"(Ha'ktyl warriors trial tretonin)
- 7.11 "Evolution Part 1"(Goa'uld Kull Warriors)
- 7.12 "Evolution Part 2"(Anubis' Queen spawns mindless symbiotes)
- 8.10 "Endgame" (Symbiote poison)
--Alison 12:09, 10 Jan 2005 (PST)