Snake Symbolism



Snakes fascinate and terrify most of us. Because of this near universal reaction, and because snakes have played such important roles in the mythology of just about every religion, we know they have relevance to the psycho-spiritual life of every human being.

Throughout history the connection between the snake and the feminine principle has been profound and intimate: from Eve to the Serpent Lady of Ashtoreth and Kadesh; from Ishtar, the Babylonian Lady of Vision to the Serpent Goddess of Crete; from Kebhut, the goddess of freshness who played a part in Egyptian funerary ceremonies to the asp that transported Cleopatra to the afterlife; from Greece’s ancient Earth Mother Gaea to the Golden Age’s Queen, Hera, and her step-daughter Athena, goddess of wisdom; from east to west, serpents have always tempted, personified, accompanied, awakened, transformed, and empowered women and goddesses.

A snake is one of the most versatile of all creatures. It can live in the ground or in a tree, in the desert or in the water, but it is primarily considered a chthonic creature, i.e. as pertaining to the earth and the spirits of the underworld. This accounts for its association with the physical death of the body; however, because it periodically sheds its skin and emerges as if reborn, it is also seen as a symbol of transformation and the perpetual capacity for renewal.

Psychologically, because of its phallic form, it is a masculine sexual symbol; yet, at the same time, because of its devouring nature, it also suggests feminine sexuality as well as extremely powerful unconscious feminine energies. In this latter regard, Jung noted that distressing dreams about snakes are symptomatic of anguish over a reactivation of the destructive potential of the unconscious. It is no wonder they are almost universally feared.

Snakes are also associated with divine revelation. Evidence from shrines and oracular sites of the Goddess in Babylon, Sumer, Anatolia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome suggests that sacred serpents were kept and fed by priestesses who were consulted for prophecy. Perhaps it is this association that led Philo of Alexandria to believe that the snake was the most spiritual of animals.

In sum, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols notes: “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…” Thus is Hinduism’s Shakti personified as Kundalini, a Sanskrit word meaning “circular power.” It is said the sleeping serpent-goddess is coiled in the pelvis and can be awakened through spiritual exercises, especially yoga. When aroused, she rises up through the spinal chakras until she reaches the head, completely transforming the individual along the way.

Whatever we call this energy, spirit persons from every religion have reported powerful and often very distressing physical and psychological symptoms consistent with this symbolism. Like Indra’s diamond net which intuitively prefigured Jung’s collective unconscious, quantum physics’ holographic universe, and the worldwide internet thousands of years ago, the Kundalini goddess may well be an ancient expression of a scientific reality: to wit, the very painful but ultimately healing transformation of consciousness we see taking place all around us in the world today.

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.


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0 Responses

  1. Jean, I so appreciate your writing! This one on snakes draws my attention to a picture we have at our retreat center (MorningStar), a picture of young, nude, beautiful Lilith, with a huge serpent wrapped around her body. According to Jewish tradition she was born out of the earth with Adam, but refused to submit to his dominance, so was cast out of the Garden and became known as an angry woman causing much destruction in life. I see her as the image and key to human transformation; receptive to both instinct and intuition and action grounded in Wisdom; the integration of opposites within which serve to bring wholeness to God and to every person willing to undergo this transformational process from inside out through the serpentine death to the old skin and rising to ever new levels of integration. Thanks for bringing us the symbol of this power we have within us.

  2. Hi Julie,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve seen a picture like that; perhaps its the same one. It’s gorgeous! Thanks for reminding me that although she’s received a bad rap in traditional mythology, Lilith is, indeed, like the serpent, a powerful symbol of autonomous femininity and its transformative powers.
    I suppose any symbol, which, like woman and snake, represents the power that comes from integrating opposites, is destined to be feared and maligned. We are still so mired in our dualistic good vs. evil mindset that we have tremendous difficulty wrapping our minds around the idea that things are neither all good nor all bad, and that the wholeness we seek contains all opposites.
    By the way, after writing this post a few days ago I dreamed that a woman who had a powerful presence and was draped in flowing robes walked up a grand staircase from the floor below and presented me with a rather large snake which proceeded to wind itself cozily around my outstretched hand. Could she have been Lilith? I wonder…. Enjoying the mystery….
    Many blessings to you,

  3. Jean, your dream image surely seems like Lilith making her appearance in and through your life and writings as she is rising more and more to consciousness in all who seek to elevate the need in humanity to
    redeem the creative, self-transformational power lying within. The crowning goal of the whole divine-human relationship, seems to me, is giving “God” a conscious Home within the Heart of our humanity.
    Thank you for being a Light for Lilith and Home for Divine Homecoming.

  4. I love how your posts inspire me to think deeply!
    From your post: “Psychologically, because of its phallic form, it is a masculine sexual symbol; yet, at the same time, because of its devouring nature, it also suggests feminine sexuality as well as extremely powerful unconscious feminine energies.”
    Intuitively I think I’ve always seen the spiritual energy of snakes as genderless. In many Native American traditions, snake medicine is high magic for the reasons you’ve given above (transformation, associations with the spirit world, etc.). Another layer to snake medicine and viewing it as genderless (or as both genders together) is the Two-Spirit people. These natives were revered spiritual leaders that “walked between the worlds” of earth and spirit, and often had sexualities and/or gender identities which were outside the norm. Some contend that this blending of masculine and feminine energies enhanced their gifts.

    1. And I love how you think deeply!! I’ve never heard of the term, Two-Spirit people, but it does seem a very apt description. Whether or not this blending manifests sexually, I believe it is a profound reality for many, if not most authentic spirit people because the union of opposites is what activates creativity and empowers spirituality. Blessings, Jeanie

  5. Hi.
    I was just surfing the web and came across this page and want to recommend the book, “The Cosmic Serpent” DNA and the Origins of Knowledge” by Jeremy Narby.

      1. You’re welcome.
        I found it fascinating.
        Both DNA and the serpent have been key in my own inner experiences and, i’ll add, without the use of Ayahuasca.

    1. Hi Jaya, What an amazing picture! So beautiful! It reminds me of the Nazca Lines in Southern Peru. Didn’t I read somewhere a while back that some people confessed to creating the crop circles? I guess they’re back at it! Jeanie

  6. I don’t know about the origin of crop circles.
    I saw a very good documentary about crop circles quite a few years ago and after watching it the issue remained a mystery which is fine with me.
    Sorry for that sloppy link … i’m used to posting on forums where i can edit such a mess.

  7. Jean,
    Thanks for writing this overview of the symbolism of the snake. It stimulated me to pull out and post a few very meaningful experiences I have had in my own dreams, inner journeys, and dreamwork related to dealing with serpent encounters. One dreamwork in particular was probably one of the most dramatic I have engaged in. Thanks to your bringing this to mind I decided to create a new graphic for this latter event, and I am glad that I did. Thanks for your inspiration to re-visit the implications of snakes as symbols. I would be interested in your impression of my experiences, which you can read about here:

  8. Thanks for letting me know my post inspired you to do more work on your own snake “visitations.” This is such powerful work, especially your graphic of you at the alter of the snake. I enjoyed reading it very much and recommend it to my readers as an example of the value and power of dreamwork and active imagination. Best, Jeanie

  9. I find your commentary about snake symbolism helpful. While living in Japan, I found, having been born just after the outbreak of WW II; I was a Snake personality in Chinese astrology. I have never been afraid of snakes, though wary of them on the hiking trail and carefully stepping over them if they were sunning. I enjoyed reading the Chinese mythology of being a Snake individual; it did seem to resonate with me more than being a Capricorn in Western astrology. I’ve always thought it kind of strange for the fundamental Christians to find the snake as evil.

    1. I’m happy to know this post gave you a bit more understanding of yourself. I love how symbolism can do that! I find that studying the symbols that show up in my dreams are the most helpful of all. Thanks for writing.

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