Archive file# r082100c
donated by L. Savage
Symbolism and Iconography
of the Serpent
Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols
"The infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile,
by Gertrude Jobes / 1961. 872 p.
Dictionary of Mythology : Folklore and Symbols (expanded 2 volume set)
by G. Jobes
Androgyny, circle, convalescence, cunning, danger, death, deceit, destruction, divine emanation, evil, false appearance fertility, guardianship, generation, grief, health, intelligence, jealousy, lasciviousness, malice, materialism, misfortune, phallus, pleasure, power, prophecy, prudence, renewal, revenge, self- creation self -indulgence, self -sustenance sensation, sensuality, sin, subtlety, temptation, treachery, the unfathomable, universe circle, vexations, vice, wiliness, wisdom worldliness. Emblem of lightning, physicians, witchcraft.
Figure used on amulets, or represented by a wavy 'M.' From primeval times revered as the reimbodiment of deceased mortals, most ancient of phallic totem beasts. Assigned to mother goddesses. Form of earth, river, sea, and underworld deities, and rain-withholding clouds. Appears in all tree-worshiping cultures as a weather-controller. In African tradition a dawdler, untrustworthy messenger, but life restorer.
From the legend in which God, angered by man, sent a tortoise with a message of death. Relenting, He sent a snake to overtake the tortoise. The snake loitered on the way, thus man must die first, then he may recover his eternal life.
American Indian sky and water symbol, life form given to lightning and the rainbow, with power over rain and wind. Among the Central American Indians symbol of poverty and want; a destroyer (worm) of the dead.
Armenian ancestral ghost with an interest in the family's fecundity and the field's fertility.
In Babylonian mythology the thief who steals the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh. In Buddhism, girdle of Mount Meru.
In China called she, animal which carries the sun through the hours 9 - 11 A.M. and Virgo (Szu), sixth house of the zodiac; guardian of the direction south, southeast, east. In Christianity an emblem of Christ and the saints Hilary, Philip Apostle, Thecla, Verdiana.
In Egyptian antiquity revered as a spirit which pervaded the universe, attribute of Kneph and Set The west wind sometimes was shown as a four- headed winged serpent.
In Greece sacred to Agathadaemon, Apollo, Asclepius, Athena, Erichthonius.
In Hebrew lore represents both good and bad fortune. Attribute of Aaron, salvation; Moses, redemption; Satan, fall from Divine grace.
The Hindu nags, symbolizing every branch of learning. A form of Ahi, Sesa, Vritra.
In Italy that which creeps and does not rise, hence without the ability to aspire. In Japan called hebi, a walking rope Symbolic of divine authority, longevity, woman's jealousy.
In Maori legend the genius which severed Heaven from Earth In Melanesian mythology the animal which pulled dry land up from the primordial sea and gave fire to mortals.
In other Pacific Island myths a destroyer of primordial land and of growth.
In Norse mythology a form taken by Loki and Odin. Frequently engraved on warrior's swords as a charm. Keener of subterranean gold.
Among the Romans a Sian of authority or dominance.
Doreen serpent. Healer.
Erected by Moses in the wilderness after the visitation of fiery serpents. Those who looked upon it were cured. Later called an idol and destroyed as a mere piece of brass. By Christians revered as a symbol of God or Christ.
Brazen serpent on tau cross. Crucifixion. Sacrifice -of Isaac.
Cherish a serpent in one's bosom. Benefit a person who in return injures one; in allusion to the Greek fable of the man who was bitten by a serpent hatchers from the eels he had placed at his bosom.
Eight-forked serpent. In Japan a devourer of humans, outlaw. Serpent with a single body and eight heads and tails.
Erect serpent. Phallus.
Horned serpent. Water
Serpent Bearer. Constellation in the Northern and Southern Skies also called Ophiuchus.
Serpent-bird conflict. See Bird - serpent.
Serpent biting tail. Circle, eternity, power feeding on itself, zodiac.
Serpent column. Composed of three bronze snakes intertwined. Presented to the Delphi temple as a votive offering to commemorate the Greek victories at Salamis and Platea. Used to support the golden tripod.
Serpent. crooked. Crawling and slimy. Destructiveness, loathsomeness, obstructiveness.
Reorient encircling a mountain,
Popular symbol in the East,
Phallic in character. More included for this entry.
A Dictionary of Symbols
by J. E. Cirlot / 1971. 385 p.
If all symbols are really functions and signs of things imbued with energy, then the serpent or snake is,
by analogy, symbolic of energy itself—of force pure and simple; hence its ambivalence and
multivalencies. Another reason for its great variety of symbolic meaning derives from the consideration
that these meanings may relate either to the serpent as a whole or to any of its major
characteristics—for example, to its sinuous movements, its common association with the tree and its
formal analogy with the roots and branches of the tree, the way it sheds its skin, its threatening tongue,
the undulating pattern of its body, its hiss, its resemblance to a ligament, its method of attacking its
victims by coiling itself round them, and so on.
Still another explanation lies in its varying habitat: there
are snakes which inhabit woods, others which thrive in the desert, aquatic serpents and those that lurk
in lakes and ponds, wells and springs. In India, snake cults or cults of the spirit of the snake are
connected with the symbolism of the waters of the sea. Snakes are guardians of the springs of life and
of immortality, and also of those superior riches of the spirit that are symbolized by hidden treasure
(17). As regards the West, Bayleyhas suggested that the snake, since its sinuous shape is similar to that
of waves, may be a symbol of the wisdom of the deeps (4) and of the great mysteries. Yet, in their
multiplicity and as creatures of the desert, snakes are forces of destruction, afflicting all those who have
succeeded in crossing the Red Sea and leaving Egypt (57); in this sense, they are connected with the
'temptations' facing those who have overcome the limitations of matter and have entered into the realm
of the 'dryness' of the spirit.
This explains why Blavatsky can say that, physically, the snake symbolizes
the seduction of strength by matter (as Jason by Medea, Hercules by Omphale, Adam by Eve), thereby
providing us with a palpable illustration of the workings of the process of involution; and of how the
inferior can lurk within the superior, or the previous within the subsequent (9). This is borne out by
Diet, for whom the snake is symbolic not of personal sin but of the principle of evil inherent in all
worldly things. The same idea is incorporated into the Nordic myth about the serpent of Midgard (15).
There is a clear connexion between the snake and the feminine principle.
Eliade observes that
Gresmann (Mytische Reste in der Paradieserzahlung in Archiv f. Rel. X, 345) regarded Eve as an
archaic Phoenician goddess of the underworld who is personified in the serpent (although a better
interpretation would be to identify it with the allegorical figure of Lilith, the enemy and temptress of
Eve). In support of this, Eliade points to the numerous Mediterranean deities who are represented
carrying a snake in one or both of their hands (for example, the Greek Artemis, Hecate, Persephone),
and he relates these to the finely sculpted Cretan priestesses in gold or ivory, and to mythic figures with
snakes for hair (Medusa the Gorgon, or the Erinyes). He goes on to mention that in Central Europe
there is a belief that hairs pulled out from the head of a woman under the influence of the moon will be
turned into snakes (17). The serpent (or snake) was very common in Egypt; the hieroglyph which
corresponds phonetically to the letter Z is a representation of the movement of the snake. Like the sign
of the slug, or horned snake (phonetically equivalent to F), this hieroglyph refers to primigenial and
cosmic forces. Generally speaking, the names of the goddesses are determined by signs representing the
snake—which is tantamount to saying that it is because of Woman that the spirit has fallen into matter
and evil. The snake is also used, as are other reptiles, to refer to the primordial—the most primitive
strata of life. In the Book of the Dead (XVII), the reptiles are the first to acclaim Ra when he appears
above the surface of the waters of Nou (or Nu or Nun).
The demonic implications of the serpent are
exemplified in Tuat, whose evil spirits are portrayed as snakes; however, these— like the vanquished
dragon—may also take on a beneficent form as forces which have been mastered, controlled,
sublimated and utilized for the superior purposes of the psyche and the development of mankind, and in
this sense they correspond to the goddesses Nekhebit and Uadjit (or Buto). They also become an
Uraeus—the same thing happens in the symbolism of the Kundalini—constituting the most precious
ornament of the royal diadem (19).
Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery
by Ad de Vries / 1976. 515 p.
A. general: 1. there is a general
confusion with 'Snake': even though in biology the term
'serpent' is usually preferred for the larger kinds,
literature has never made that distinction; therefore
Snake and Serpent have been put under one heading; the
other distinctives (viz. the serpent being limbless,
having scales, and being characterized by hissiny and
stinging) are not observed either: e.g. in old prints of
the Paradise-scenc the 'serpent' does have limbs,
looking more like a lizard, or (even likelier) a 'dragon';
only when specific mention has been made of the kind,
e.g. Adder (which itself has been mixed up with Asp), or
Viper, it has been given under a separate heading;
the serpent represents any primeval, cosmic force, it
shares the ambiguity of all ancient, elementary symbols
(cf. Eagle, Lion, etc.); examples: a. the most spiritual of
all creatures; it has a fiery nature, and its swiftness is
terrible; it has a long lite (yearly renewed); b. it is also
the most earthy animal, cold-blooded, unconscious,
unrelated; c. it is both toxic and prophylactic; d. as
'Agathadaimon' it is both a good and a bad 'daemon'; e.
Gnostic: emblem of the brain-stem and spinal chord,
consistent with its predominantly reflex psyche; v. Q. 1;
f. it is the symbol for the unconscious, expressing the
latter's sudden manifestation, its painful and dangerous
intervention in our affairs (thus being a manifestation of
the unconscious mother-image), so: feminine; but also
the phallic symbol, so: masculine;
3. as 'dragon' it is
often 'plumed', 'winged' (cf. Basilisk), or 'horned';
4. it is
androgynous: selt:creative (like Lotus, Scarab, etc.);
B. divine emanation:
1. O.T.: the
relation between Moses'"Brazen serpent" and Yahwehs' "Brazen serpent" and Yahwehis highly ambiguous; v. Seraph;
1. Zeus: a. to
escape Cronos he changed into a serpent, and his guards
into bears, both of which are seen as constellations (and
are seasonal animals); b. he coupled with Rhea, his
mother, who had taken refuge in the form of a snake, by
taking the same form and becoming an 'insoluble knot'
with her; c. v. H, IV;
2. in the Pelasgian Creation-myth
Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, rose naked out of
Chaos, caught hold of the North Wind (Boreal), rubbed
it between her hands, and the great serpent Ophion was
created, who fertilized her (tor Boreas as fertilizer: v.
3. it is an attribute of Dionysus (as fertility-
god); he was crowned with serpents (i.e. born in winter:
4. it is sacred to Agathadaemon, Apollo,
Asclepius, Athena, Erichthonius; the serpent from
which the staff of Apollo Belvedere is made, represents
Omphalos (v. Navel), from which umbilicus was
1. Odin disguised hunself as a
snake (also as an eagle, its opposite: cf. Zeus), and so
2. this may explain the serpent-forms on
Germanic swords, e.g. the sword with which Beowulf
killed Grendel's mother; also in the O.K. poem "The
Wanderer" (a minstrel repenting old tunes): "Now in the
place of the dead warriors stands a wall, wondrous high,
covered with serpent-shapes" which thus may refer to
gods (or, less likely, to dead souls);
snake expresses sun-rays (another link with sword);
in a complete circle it represents the Zodiac (beside
Eternity); Macrobius: the curving movement of the sun;
3. the serpent was used by the Egyptians in nearly all
symbols, but mainly the sun-symbol: it even formed part
of the hair-style of Isis; v. N, 1;
1. the inferior inhabiting the
superior, evil inhabiting everything;
2. for Yahweh
conquering the 'monster of the deep': v. Chaos;
Satan: tall trom Divine Grace;
4. if the snake in itself is
already magically potent, the coupling of two, seen by
human eyes, is fatal: v. the myth of Tiresias: it brings
blindness with either homosexuality or change of sex:
ref. Ovid (Metam. 3, 323ff.);
5. Germanic: a gigantic
serpent (with lesser snakes) nibbles at the root of the
Tree of Life, Yggdrasill; the WorldSerpent is Loki's
D. Life, healing:
1. Life: a. connected
with the wheel of life: v. Ouroboros; b. sacrificed:
killing the serpent (= life-force) = to accept death (cf. the
swan who wafts the hero to heaven); c. fertility: after
Python had coupled with Eurynome (v. B, 11, 2) she
bashed his head, kicked out his teeth, and sent him
underground(the source of riches), when he claimed
authorship of the Universe; yet from his teeth man had
sprung; d. Germanic: Balder was rendered invincible by
a food over which snakes had dropped poison;
a. the Brazen Serpent of Moses: erected by him
after the'visitation' of the 'fiery serpents' (serafim): those
who looked upon it were cured (later the practice was
recognized as idolatrous and discarded); thus the
serpent was punishment and healing at once; in
Hezekiah's time it was called Nehushtan: nehoshet (=
brass) + nahash (= snake);
b. Aesculapius (Apollo's
'son') visited the disease-stricken country of the
Romans (at their bidding) in the form of a crested snake,
going before them from the temple in Epidaurus to their
ships, and guiding the ship with his head on the stern:
Ovid (Metam. 15, 626fT.); v. also Caduceus (e.g. for the
physician's emblem) and
E. eternity, fertility, regeneration:
1. v. Ouroboros: a snake biting its own tail,
making a circle;
2. in Babylonian myth the thief who
steals the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh is a
1. it is often coiled around a person
to give generative heat: Aion, the Egg of the World,
2. in the Adonis-myth the part of the year
he spends with Persephone is represented by a snake
3. on the love-bed of Queen Titania was shed a
snake's "enamelled skin, Weed wide enough to wrap a
fairy in": MND 2, 1;
1. it sheds its
2. Babylonian: the earth-god E a-En-ki (in serpent-
form) gave man knowledge of the World's Order, but
made death necessary, so he could rise again;
Iightning (apart from fertility) is a sign of the birth of a
new Cycle (v. Thunder);
4. the marrow of a dead man's
spine becomes a snake: v. Q, 1, and Spine; v. also E, 1,
F. earth, underworld:
of the dead;
2. the world-snake of 'Midgard', biting its
own tail, also stands tor the ocean which encircles the
earth, and is the place where the sun makes its Night-
crossing (= the Underworld);his movement causes the
sea-storms; at the Twilight of the Gods he fought (and
was vanquished by) his great enemy Thor;
3. the winds
are represented as having serpents' tails: coming trom
the ground (the wind-mountain), so chthonian, in charge
of the White Goddess (and later the witches), or Aeolus;
it may also refer to the tapering of their strength;
was originally a chthonic snake, a Lord of the
Underworld, where death-resurrection took place: v. the
myth of Eros and Psyche;
5. as psychopomp: "As it fell
upon a day Rich Dives sickened and died; Then came
two serpents out of hell, His soul therein to guide"
The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols
by Udo Becker / 1994. 343 p.
Among most peoples, the serpent plays an extraordinarily important and extremely diverse role as
a symbolic animal. The primary characteristics that gave the serpent its symbolic significance were
the special place it occupies in the animal kingdom (movement over the ground without legs, living
in holes in the ground, yet slipping out of eggs like a bird), its cold, slick and shiny exterior, its
poisonous bite and its venom that can be used for medicinal purposes, as well as its periodic
shedding of its skin.
It is frequently encountered as a chthonic being, as an adversary of man
(but also as an apotropaic animal), as a protector of sacred precincts or of the underworld, as an
animal having the soul of a human, as a sexual symbol (masculine because of its phallic shape,
feminine because of its engulfing belly), and (because of its shedding) as a symbol of constant
power of renewal.
In Africa, the serpent was occasionally revered in cults as a spirit or deity.
ancient Central American civilizations, the feathered serpent, in particular, played a large role; it
was originally a symbol of rain and vegetation and later became a "night sky serpent covered with
green quetzal feathers" that stood opposite the "turquoise serpent or day sky serpent" and, united
with the latter, represented a symbol of the cosmos.
In China, the serpent was thought to be
connected with the earth and water and was thus a Yin symbol (see YIN AND YANG). In
Indian mythology, there are nagas, serpents that function as beneficent or maleficent mediators
between gods and humans and were sometimes (like other serpents in other civilizations)
associated with the RAINBOW. The kundalini serpent, imagined as being rolled up at the bottom
end of the spine, is regarded as the seat of cosmic energy and is a symbol of life and
(psychologically formulated) libido.
The oldest evidence for a staff of Aesclepius (see
AESCLEPIUS, STAFF OF) comes from Mesopotamia (end of the 3rd millenium B.C.). In the
symbolism of the Egyptians, the serpent played an essential and greatly varying role; there were,
for example, several serpent goddesses, such as a cobra goddess who presided over the growth of
plants. Fate (good or bad) was also sometimes worshipped in the form of a serpent, that is, as a
"house spirit." In addition, there are numerous mythological serpents (winged, with feet,
many-headed). The uraeus serpent was regarded as a representative of a goddess who had many
names; in it, one saw the embodiment of the eye of the sun god; according to mythology, it rises
up on its tail end on the sun or on the forehead of the sun god and destroys its enemies with a
breath of fire; its likeness appears on the forehead of Egyptian kings as a symbol of protection and
rulership. Apophis, the arch-foe of the sun god and of world order, is also in the form of a
In addition, the symbol of the UROBOROS, the serpent biting its own tail, first appeared
The Jews considered the serpent primarily as a threatening creature; the Old Testament
counts it among the unclean animals; it appears as the idealized image of sin and of Satan and is
the seductress of the first couple in Eden; on the other hand, though, it also appears as a symbol
of prudence. When God punished the disobedience of the Israelites with a plague of poisonous,
winged serpents, He commanded Moses, who asked for help, to make a BRAZEN SERPENT;
whoever was bitten by poisonous serpents and looked upon the brazen one, was to remain alive.
Thus, a Brazen Serpent of this type was long a ritual object of the Jews and was considered by
Christianity to be a symbolic portent of Christ due to its salutary character; the serpent figures on
bishops' crooks refer in part to that Brazen Serpent as well as to the serpent as a symbol of
There were numerous mythological and symbolic serpent figures in antiquity as well,
frequently in the form of monstrous hybrid creatures (see CHIMERA; ECHIDNA; HYDRA). In
the cult of the god of healing, Asclepius (Aesculapius), the serpent (with respect to its shedding of
its skin) played an important role as a symbol of the constant self-renewal of life (see
ASCLEPIUS, STAFF OF). Serpents were often kept in Roman houses as symbols of house and
family spirits. The Midgard Serpent of Old Norse mythology is a giant, destructive serpent that
closely surrounds the earth (Midgard), which is thought of as a disk; it is a symbol of constant
threat to the world order; in early Christianity, it was identified with LEVIATHAN. Christian art
of the Middle Ages often emphasizes the seductive aspect of the serpent of Eden by a close
association with woman (such as depictions of serpents having a woman's head and breasts),
whereby an inner relation to the tempted Eve is suggested. In PHYSIOLOGUS, the serpent is
discussed with respect to the text of Matthew 10:16, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and
harmless as doves."
The serpent is the sixth sign of the Chinese ZODIAC and corresponds to
Virgo (see VIRGIN).
Symbolism: A Comprehensive Dictionary
by Steven Olderr / 1986. 153 p.
serpent evil; sin; energy; force; night; subterranean life; fertility; wisdom; power to heal; generative
energy; regeneration; the Devil; secrecy; hiding; danger; death; materialism; slavery; temptation;
fascination; jealousy; wisdom of the deep; guardian of the springs of life, immortality, the superior
riches of the spirit; great mysteries; forces of destruction; seduction of strength by matter; the inferior
within the superior; the evil inherent in all worldly things; the evil side of nature; the feminine principle;
a phallic symbol; the unconscious expressing itself suddenly and unexpectedly with terrible or
emblem of the tribe of Dan; attribute of Saturn, Janus, Father Time, Asclepius,
Minerva, Ceres, St. Patrick, the personifications of Time, Earth, Logic, Innocence, Africa heraldry
strategy; military fame; courage; vigilance; instinct; the subconscious China evil; cunning horned
snake water; intensified duality; opposite forces in conflict feathered snake duality (good / evil, heaven
/ earth, etc.) brass snake associated with the Crucifixion snake with head erect human wisdom ~
rising snake retrospection snake in a circle, or biting its own tail eternity; time; union of the sexes
(has to have its tail in its mouth); the zodiac snake encircling a globe the spread of sin;
omnipresence of sin snake encircling a tree the Fall of Man woman holding a mirror and a serpent
Prudence personified serpent at the foot of the Cross Christ's overcoming of the evil that leads man
into sin plumed serpent beneficence; reconciliation of opposites; the angel of dawn serpent with
sheep's head spring; initiation; spiritualization serpent with rod or staff the miracles of Aaron, Moses
serpent over a fire associated with St. Paul at Melita twin serpents death; all binary opposites (good /
evil, male / female, life / death, etc. ) three coiled snakes attribute of St. Hilda serpent sloughing its
skin rebirth; healing; kissing a serpent's head; fellatio serpent on a Tau cross; Christ ;the Virgin Mary;
with a serpent underfoot victory of the Seed of Woman bruised serpent; attribute of the Virgin Mary
indicating her victory over sin serpent battling with a fish Satan tempting Christ; serpent emerging
from a cup or chalice the attempted poisoning of St. John; serpent on a sword attribute of St. John;
serpent in a loaf of bread or in other food attribute of St. Benedict; woman with serpents for hair
Medusa; woman with serpent to breast Cleopatra; woman treading on serpent; the Persian sibyl;
serpent entwined around a woman's arm or leg;
Eurydiceů serpent with a woman's head Deceit
personified serpent entwining a corpse, with other victims nearby Cadmus two youths and a man
wrestling with a serpent Laocoon and his sons infant wrestling with two serpents; Hercules man
shooting python with arrows; Apollo image of a serpent with a human head on a shield; attribute of
the Iron Age personified; serpent around man's wrist at campfire; St.Paul; serpent with infant in a
basket; Erichthonius; see also viper; wyvern; sea serpent; python
Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred
by Barbara G. Walker / 1988. 527 p.
The letter S was one of the oldest symbols
of serpenthood, both in its shape and in its
sibilant sound; and the serpent was one of
the oldest symbols of female power.
Woman and serpent together were
considered holy in preclassic Aegean
civilization, since both seemed to embody
the power of life. Serpents were considered
immortal because they were believed
to renew themselves indefinitely by
shedding old skins. It was the mother of all
gods, the Earth Goddess Gaea, who first
founded the Delphic ("Womb") oracle and
inspired its original Pythonesses or
divinatory serpent-priestesses, according to
Homeric hymns. Hesiod referred to her as
Gaea Pelope, the female serpent.
The biblical Nehushtan was a deliberate
masculinization of a similar oracular she-
serpent, Nehushtah, Goddess of Kadesh
(meaning "Holy"), a shrine like that of the
Pythonesses. Israelites apparently violated
the sanctuary and raped its priestesses, but
"Moses and Yahweh had to placate the angry
serpent goddess of Kadesh, now deposed, by
erecting her brazen image.... Mythologically,
the serpent is always a female divinity."
In India, the "Mother of All that Moves"
and Goddess of the Earth sometimes bore the
title of Sarparajni, "Serpent Queen." As the
female serpent Ananta the Infinite, she
enveloped all gods during their death-sleep
between incarnations. As the female serpent
Kundalini, she represented the inner power
of the human body, coiled in the pelvis like
woman's organs of life-giving. It was, and
still is, the aim of male Tantric sages to
awaken the female Kundalini serpent in their
own bodies, through physical,
mystical, and sexual exercises and through
meditation on the female principle.
Among the oldest predynastic Goddess
figures in Egypt was the serpent-mother
Iusaset, or Ua Zit, or Per-Uatchet whom the
Greeks called Buto. Pyramid Texts say she is
the Celestial Serpent, giver of the food of
eternal life. 3 Her symbol, the uraeus, meant
both "serpent" and "Goddess." She was also
Mehen the Enveloper, the female serpent like
Ananta who enclosed the phallus of Ra the
sun god every night. There are mythic
indications that this nightly sexual
communion with the serpent power of
Mother Earth was at times considered the real
source of Ra's renewed power to light up the
world again each day.
The Middle East used to regard the female
serpent as the embodiment of enlightenment,
or wisdom, because she understood the
mysteries of life. In Arabic, the words for
"snake," "life," and "teaching" are all related
to the name of Eve-the biblical version of
the Goddess with her serpent form, who gave
the food of enlightenment to the first many
Of course, in the Bible both Eve and her
serpent were much diabolized; but Gnostic
sects of the early Christian era retained some
of the older ideas about their collaboration
concerning the fruit of knowledge. Some sects
worshiped the snake as a benevolent Female
Spiritual Principle, who taught Adam and Eve what
they needed to know about God's duplicity,
saying, "You shall not die; for it was out of
jealousy that he said this to you. Rather,
your eyes shall open, and you shall become
like gods, recognizing evil and good." The
"arrogant ruler" (God) cursed the woman and
her snake, declaring that they must be
enemies to one another instead of
collaborators.6 But the Gnostics honored Eve
and the serpent for providing the essential
knowledge that made human beings human.
Naturally, the serpent was also
masculinized and often viewed as Eve's first
consort. Gnostics called this serpent Ophion,
or the Aeon of Light, or Hellos, or
Agathodemon, which meant the Great
Serpent of Good, as opposed to Kakodemon,
the Great Serpent of Evil.7 His worshipers
were sometimes known as the Brotherhood
of the Serpent. Their writings said: "Thou
who risest from the four winds, thou friendly
good demon, glittering Hellos, shining over
the whole earth, thou art the great serpent
who leadest the gods."
Several other mythologies also had the
Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge guarded
by a serpent sacred to the Goddess, such as
Ladon, the mighty serpent who guarded
Mother Hera's life-giving apple tree in the
Garden of the Hesperides. The intimate
relationship between the Goddess
and her serpent consort was
believed to be the reason for his
mysticism turned the Great
Serpent into Ouroboros earth
dragon living forever in the
uterine underworld. A symbol
of his cosmic world-creating
seed was the round sea urchin,
which the Celts called "serpent's
egg."9 Some showed Raphael as
a Wise Serpent.
Christians adopted the Great
Serpent as a form of their devil;
yet the life-giving powers of the
serpent retained popularity in
secret books of magic and
materia medica. As late as the
eighteenth centuryA.D., Arnold
de Villanova declared that stags
are known to reverse of old age
and restore their youth simply
"by feeding on vipers and
Symbols, Our Universal Language
by Eva C. Hangen / 1962. 308 p.
From the serpent we get a great variety of symbolisms, among them:
- In general symbolism, good, evil, wisdom, power, eternity, everything that is base, dark, low, depending upon the circumstances into which the reptile is drawn.
- From Matthew 10:16, symbol of wisdom
- Serpent surrounding a tree, fall of man.
- Serpent wrapped around a globe, spread of sin.
- A serpent coiled when held aloft upon a staff, regeneration.
- Coiled with head erect, defiance.
- With tail in its mouth, eternity or tempation.
- Man-headed with double tail, fraud.
- Serpent drinking from a kantharos in hand of a maiden, (Hygeia) health.
A Dictionary of Symbols
by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant / 1994
Serpents are as different from all animal species as the human race,
but at the opposite end of the scale. If mankind may be regarded as standing
at the end of a long evolutionary struggle we must set this coldblooded,
armless, hairless, featherless creature at its very beginning. In this sense
mankind and serpents are opposites, complementary and rivals the one to the
other. In this sense too, there is something of the serpent in all human beings,
and strangely enough in that portion of them over which they have the least
control. An analyst has remarked that 'the serpent is a vertebrate creature
embodying the lower psyche, hidden psychosis and what is unusual,
incomprehensible and mysterious.' There is nothing so simple or so
commonplace as a serpent, and yet by virtue of this very simplicity nothing
which shocks the spirit more.
At the well-springs of life: the serpent as soul and
Travellers in the southern Cameroons have observed that in their hunting
language the Pygmies depict serpents as a line on the ground and doubtless
similar cave-drawings have exactly the same meaning. They may be said to
take the serpent back to its original manifestation. It may only be a line, but it
is a living line, what Andre Virel calls 'an abstraction in flesh and blood'. Lines
have neither beginning nor end and, once they come alive, they become
capable of depicting whatever you like or of changing into any shape. All that
can be seen of the line is what is immediately made manifest in space and time,
and yet one is aware that, at either end, it is produced into invisible infinity.
The same is true of the serpent. When made visible on Earth, the serpent
in the instant of its manifestation is the sacred made manifest. Above and
beyond this, there is a feeling that it is a continuation of the infinite
materialization which is none other than primordial formlessness, the
storehouse l latency which underlies the manifest world. The serpent which
we see is . he manifestation of the holiness of nature, a holiness which is
material and no sense spiritual. It makes its appearance in the sunlit world like
a ghost which one can touch, but which slips through one's fingers. So, the
serpent evades time which can be clocked, space which can be measured and
logic which can be rationalized, to escape to the lower reaches from which it
came and in which it can be imagined timeless, changeless and motionless in
the fullness of its life. Swift as lightning, the serpent streaks from the dark
mouth of some crevice or cranny to vomit life or death, before returning again
to invisibility. Or else the serpent discards its male appearance to become
female, coiling up, entwining around, squeezing, throttling, swallowing,
digesting and sleeping.
The she-serpent is the invisible serpent principle
which dwells in the lower levels of consciousness and the deeper strata of the
Earth. It is secret and equivocal, its decisions are unpredictable and as swift
as its transformations. Ever ambivalent, it toys with its own sexuality; it is
both male and female, twins within the same body, like so any of the culture-
heroes who are always depicted initially as cosmic serpents. The serpent does
not therefore depict an archetype but an archetypal complex, linked to the
freezing, clammy subterranean darkness of the beginning of things.
possible snakes together form one single primordial manifoldness, an
inseverable primordial Something which yet is ever coiling and uncoiling,
which is ever melting away and re-emerging' (KEYM p. 222). Yet what is this
'primordial Something' if it is not latent life or, as Keyserling puts it, 'the lowest
layer of life'? It is the well-spring, potentiality, from which all manifestation
derives. 'Nethermost Life', he continues, 'must needs be reflected in daylight
consciousness in the form of a snake as indeed the Chaldeans had but one
word for Serpent and Life' (KEYM p. 21). Rene Guenon makes the same
observation: 'Serpent symbolism is, in fad, linked to the notion of life itself. In
Arabic the word for "serpent" is el~hayyah, and that for "life", el-hayat'
(GUES p. 159), adding, and this is of prime importance, that El-Hay, one of the
principal names of God, 'should not be translated as "the Living", but as "the
Life-giving", the one who bestows life or who is the principle of life itself.'
The serpent which we see should, therefore, be regarded simply as a eeting
incarnation of a Great Invisible Serpent, causal and a-temporal, lord of the
life-principle and of the powers of Nature. The serpent is an 'Old God', the
first god to be found at the start of all cosmogenesis, before religions of the
spirit dethroned him. He created life and sustained it. On a human level he
is the dual symbol of soul and libido. 'The serpent is one of the most
important archetypes of the human soul', wrote Bachelard (BACR p. 212).
In Tantrism, the serpent is the kundalin', coiled round the base of the
spinal column, on the sleep-state chakra, 'its mouth closes the urethral
meatus' (DURS p. 343). When the serpent awakes, hisses and stiffens,
ascent through the successive chakra takes place. This is the rising tide of
the libido the fresh manifestation of life.
The Book of Symbols
by Jana Garai / 1974. 143 p.
Stirr'd up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind'.
FROM BABYLON to Greece, India and China to Europe, the eternal symbol of the snake crossed
every path in the myth, culture and history of man. As the Egyptian Ra arose from the depth of the primeval
water of Nun, the snake was the first to acclaim him god. In the shpae of the great serpent Ophion, he
entwined the divine limbs of the Greek Great Goddess and feathered the earth. An ally of
monsters as well as the gods, he was the inspiration of the Nassenes and is still a source of of ecstasy to the Holy
Rollers of Kentucky.
The wisdom of the gods was the knowledge of the serpent; his sinuous form like the undulating waves of the sea which
contain every secret and the mystery of life. Melampus, whose ears were licked by snakes, was the first mortal to be
granted prophetic powers and to learn th elanguage of the birds and insects. Garga, the father of
Indian astronomy, owed his learning to a serpent. The god Quetzalcoatl, master of life,
patron of the arts, and snake-bird, taught agriculture, metallurgy and gave the Aztecs maize and freedom from disease.
Plutarch concluded that the serpent himself was a deity because 'it feeds upon its own body;
even so all things spring from God, and will resolve into deity again'. The ouroboros, a symbol of the snake biting his own tail,
was at the time adopted by the Gnostics, not only because it was a deity, but also because
it represented the 'circle' or the 'wheel' of life, regenereation and eternity. The ability
of the snake to shed its skin was confimation of the belief in resurrection to the ancient
sages and they thought that with its skin, it also shed old age.
As a symbol of evil the coiled serpent of Midgard encircled the earth in the mythologies of
the Noresemen. A serpent entwined the Tree of Life in the Garden of Paradise and first
whispered the words of corruption to Eve. The woman succumbed and, like Hecate and Artemis
who carry the snake in their hands or the grotesque Medusa whose tresses are made of
reptilian coils, the shadow of sin endangered the spirit. The snake or the Devil lurks in
the darkness to challenge the power of good; it is a symbol of seduction and the inherent
evil in all the things of the world. But the snake coiled also around the caduceus of Mercury
and the staff of Aesculapius, the god of medicine and healing. As good is balanced by
evil, so must health be offset by sickness, and the brass serpent of Moses was the healer
of the wound caused by the serpent.
The coiled or triumphant serpent had to be vanquished; so the body of a snake nailed to a cross
is found in the sixteenth century book of Abraham le Juif. There it is taken to mean the
conquest of the spirit over the temptation of the woman and is also an undeciphered symbol
of the union of the male and female principle in alchemy. In the Illiad, an eagle carrying
a wounded snake in its claws appears to the Greeks. The crucified serpent is again symbolic
of the triumph of the patriarchal Aryans, who have subdued the feminine and matriarchal
tradition of Asia.
Other Resource Material
The Herder Dictionary of Symbols :
Symbols from Art, Archaeology, Mythology,
Literature, and Religion
by Boris Matthews
Signs and Symbols : Their Design and Meaning
by Adrian Frutiger, Andrew Bluhm
Dictionary of Symbols :
An Illustrated Guide to Traditional Images, Icons, and
by Jack Tresidder
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols
by J. C. Cooper
Dictionary of Symbolism :
Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them
by Hans Biedermann
Illustrated Book of Signs & Symbols
by Miranda Bruce-Mitford,
Handbook of Pictorial Symbols :
3250 Examples from International Sources
by Rudolf and Modley, William R. Myers, Diana G. Comer
The Secret Language of Symbols :
A Visual Key to Symbols and Their Meanings
by David Fontana
An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols
by Henry Dreyfuss
Dictionary of Symbols
by Carl G. Liungman
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