Dictionary of Mythology: Folklore and Symbols
by Gertrude 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 re-embodiment 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
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,
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
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
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
Constellation in the Northern and Southern Skies also
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
Serpent. crooked. Crawling
and slimy. Destructiveness, loathsomeness,
Reorient encircling a
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
connection 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.
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-scene
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
2. as 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,
B. divine emanation:
the relation between
Moses' "Brazen serpent" and
Yahweh's "Brazen serpent" and
Yahweh is highly ambiguous; v. Seraph;
a. to escape Cronos he changed into a serpent, and his guards into
bears, both of which are seen as constellations (and are
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. also
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 derived;
1. Odin disguised
himself as a snake (also as an eagle, its opposite: cf.
Zeus), and so did Loki;
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)
IV. sun (god):
1. a snake expresses
sun-rays (another link with sword);
2. in a complete circle it represents the Zodiac
(beside Eternity); Macrobius: the curving movement of
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':
3. as 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,
5. Germanic: a gigantic serpent (with lesser snakes)
nibbles at the root of the Tree of Life, Yggdrasill; the
WorldSerpent is Loki's child
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
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 (=
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
E. eternity, fertility,
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 snake;
1. it is often coiled
around a person to give generative heat: Aion, the Egg
of the World, Buddha, etc.;
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 skin;
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;
3. 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, 2
F. earth, underworld:
1. incarnation of the
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 from 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
4. Eros 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.
In 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. 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 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
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 serpent.
In addition, the symbol of the UROBOROS, the serpent biting its
own tail, first appeared in Egypt.
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 prudence.
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 frightening results;
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; the 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
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
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
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 deathlessness. Gnostic
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 serpents."
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 temptation.
Man-headed with double tail, fraud.
Serpent drinking from a kantharos in hand of a maiden, (Hygeia)
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 cold-blooded,
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
At the well-springs of life: the serpent as soul and libido
Travellers in the southern Cameroon's 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
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.
'All 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.
"The infernal serpent; he it was,
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 shape 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 the language 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, regeneration and eternity. The ability of
the snake to shed its skin was confirmation 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 Iliad, 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