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The Mystical Serpent

Unravelling its symbolic significance

Of all animal symbols, the serpent is probably the most significant and complex. It smells with its flickering forked tongue, hears through its skin and is particularly sensitive to low-frequency vibrations and tremblings of the earth, linking it with secret, subterranean, oracular mysteries of knowledge. From very early times, snakes seem to have been linked with eternity, as creators and destroyers of the universe, and associated with both healing and wisdom; they have also been demonised and aligned with temptations and immorality.

Powerful Dual Nature: Creator and Destroyer

Serpents appear as the source of life in many creation myths, though they can also be figures of destruction. The Sumerians and Akkadians of Mesopotamia described the mingling of the waters of Apsu and Tiamat, from which emerged Lahmu and Lahamu, two monstrous serpents who gave birth to Heaven and Earth. The Rainbow Serpent appears in Aboriginal rock art in Arnhem Land from between 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. This Dreamtime ancestor is a life-giving creature associated with fertility, abundance and rainfall, as well as often being the creator of human beings. Its destructive side involves punishing those who go against the natural law by swallowing them in great floods and regurgitating their bones. Ancient Germanic mythology associates the serpent with death and the continual undermining of the roots of the world tree. Norse tradition foretold a deluge that would destroy the world when Jörmungandr or the Midgard (World) serpent was awoken.

Healing and Death

Serpents have long been associated with healing and mediation between life and death. In Greek mythology, Asklepios, the son of Apollo and the mortal princess Coronis, was able to metamorphose into a serpent and could bring the dead back to life, thus angering Hades, god of the underworld. The Asklepion symbol of a tree snake wrapped around a staff represents healing and is today used as a medical symbol. It is often confused with the caduceus or "winged staff," of Mercury, on which two snakes were twined. These snakes were involved in a fight in which Mercury intervened, revealing his nature as a psychopomp, or conductor of souls between worlds.

Fertility, Numinosity and Wisdom

The ancient Phoenician fertility goddess Tanit, who is linked with Eve and Lilith, was associated with serpents. In Egyptian mythology Wadjet was the goddess of serpents, often depicted as an Egyptian cobra-headed woman. Pharaohs wore the uraeus (snake worn over the pharaohs brow, its head raised and hood dilated ready to attack) symbolising royalty, sovereignty, power and protection from their enemies.

In many parts of the world serpents were used to represent nature in its most primordial or fundamental aspects. Because it shed its skin and then started life anew, it embodied the cycle of death and resurrection. A primary god, the serpent existed at the roots of life and had a strong chthonic or underworld connection, arising from the depths of Mother Earth, and psychologically from the collective unconscious. For the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the serpent symbolised that which is totally unconscious and instinctual, nevertheless possessing an almost supernatural and unique wisdom*, which can come into conflict with conscious attitudes.

*In Indian mythology, nagas (from the Sanskrit word for snake) are divine water-serpents, benevolent and wise, portrayed with a human face and the hood of the cobra. Nagarjuna (name synonymous to Indian Alchemy, Chemistry and Metallurgy) aims to unify the body's energies in a journey of self-realisation to preserve the elixir of life.

The serpent can therefore symbolise both evil and wisdom, easily overriding human mortality. Valiant, epiphanic and terrifying, serpents flare up out of the earth or the dark waters of rivers or the darkness of the psyche. To dream of a serpent suggests that there is a large gulf between the conscious and unconscious, and that the unconscious is making itself known in a compulsive and reflexive way. A serpent in our dreams might also suggest that we have strayed from the serpentine path of our individuation.


Digital art titled: Wadjet. Inspiration: The Egyptian Serpent Goddess - raised head of the serpent, a numinous encounter with (or magical invocation of) the serpent as emblematic, primordial life force. In Tantric tradition, a pair of intertwined serpents represent the sun and the moon - components of the subtle body.

Reference: Work on Signs and Symbols by M. O'Connell and R. Airey

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