Snake Symbolism


Snakes, and particularly red ones, are not only spirits of the dead, but can also represent emotional states, as you have heard in the paper. They stand for the heat of the soul, the fire of passion, and thus represent a more intense stage of development. ~Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams Seminar, Pages 364-365.

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.

Snake Goddesses from the Minoan civilization of Crete. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete

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 evolutionary transformation of consciousness we see taking place all around us in the world today.

The next time you dream about a snake, pay special attention to the setting in which you saw it, what it is doing, and how its appearance and behavior make you feel. Then ask yourself questions like these or any others that seem to apply: “When have I recently felt this way in waking life?” “What internal changes am I becoming become aware of?” “What instincts or energies seem to be stirring up in me?” “Am I afraid of them?” “Why?” “What’s the worst that could happen if I acknowledged their reality and let them out?” “What’s the best that could happen?” “What outdated aspects of myself are dying?” “What message might Snake have for me?” “What aspect of myself am I being asked to transform and heal?”

Image credits:  Top, Google Free images, original source unknown. The others are the author’s photos.

Thank you to Lewis Lafontaine for providing the beginning quote from Carl Jung.

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. Her new book, The Soul’s Twins, will be launched next year.


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10 Responses

  1. On occasions, my hypnogogic/pompic visions are of snakes, usually curled up on the bed next to me. About five years back, I dreamed of a winged snake that came down our chimney.

    1. Hi Viv,
      In the first years of our marriage we lived in married student housing while going to graduate school. Twice during that time we came home to find two large snakes in our apartment. The mystery was solved when we learned that the people in the apartment above us kept snakes as pets…these two had slithered down through the heat shaft that connected us. Thank goodness I never awoke with a snake curled up in bed next to me, but I did find one in my dresser drawer!!!

  2. Jeanie, as I only discovered your amazing books and rich articles in recent years, I’m loving your recent reposts! Hmm, since I first started recording my dreams 12 years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever had, or can remember having, a dream with snakes or serpents in it … one to look forward too now as you’ve covered the subject so well. Just the mere mention of myths and stories about snake and serpent goddesses makes me want to read more about them.
    For some reason, I’ve never considered that a snake can live in any or all four elements before … wow, talk about having a versatile spirit! What an amazing creature, no wonder there’s so much history and symbolism has been written about them throughout the ages! Thank you for sharing this wonderful post and for including the links to other pages, most helpful. As an aside my partner dreams about snakes often … just not me, well, not yet! Warm autumnal blessings, Deborah.

    1. Hi Deborah,
      As an archetypal image, Snake holds a prominent place in the inner imaginarium of every individual. I doubt humanity will ever outgrow our fascination with it. This is one of my earliest and most-read posts. Because of that, I decided it merited a repost.
      I’ve had several dreams of snakes over the years but rarely understood them at the time. I’ll probably never understand them fully, but that’s okay. The Snake Goddess doesn’t need my ego’s understanding to do her transforming work in the depths of my unconscious. I’m just glad to know she’s there, aiding the evolution of my body and soul. 🙂
      Warmest blessings, Jeanie

  3. I’m also fascinated by serpent/snake symbolism Jeannie. I like the analogy that as a snake sheds its skin to be born anew so do we as humans also need to shed a skin that does not fit any longer. And of course the ancient mythological story of Lilith as serpent in the Garden of Eden – thank you, lovely post 🙂

  4. Such a powerful symbol, especially in the hands of the Cretan Snake Goddess. Thank you for bringing in so many traditions and associations. I don’t remember dreaming of a snake, but many garter snakes (the females get big because they birth their young live) live under my porches and in the garden. I like them because they eat mice. And I love watching them move. I adopted a dog in 2009, after my husband’s death, that became vicious once I got her home. I knew she was a different kind of dog because she killed the snakes under my porch–my snake friends–and also went after spiders. In the end, after turning on my older dog repeatedly, I had no choice but to let my vet euthanize her. I knew we were in trouble when she killed the friendly resident snakes. No other dog has done that before or after, including my new pup who saw a snake, but didn’t grab it. Good thing they weren’t the deadly kind.

    1. You truly are an Artemis type, aren’t you? The love you feel and the care you give to all living things, especially dogs, snakes, birds, and butterflies, is beautiful and inspiring. I share this passion with you. The six years I had with with my horse before he died were magical. And so have been the times I’ve spent in NC with Bear and Izzie. Our animals just seem to bring soul and mystery and beauty….and presence!…. into almost every moment we spend with them. They’re masters at teaching us how to appreciate the moment and live “in the now.”
      I’m sorry you had to euthanize your rescue dog. I know how hard that is.
      I’m so happy for you and Willow to have a new puppy to love now. Lucky puppy to have picked you out from all the rest. Something in her must have known she’d be safe and well-loved with you.
      Thank you for your stories. They warm and brighten my time spend here and the feelings linger long after….

  5. The new rescue pup is doing well and is a constant challenge. Still working on her name which is morphing from Joy to Joya. Time for a long hike to wear her out for her afternoon nap so I can write a while, but somehow writing feels less important at this moment than fostering new life and joy. Puppyhood doesn’t last forever.

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