are supplied to demystify symbolism (and the artwork in this
Click here to return to the online symbolism dictionary.
A potent and very old symbol, the snake seems
to strike a deep and very basic chord in humanity. Take a
peek below and you'll see what I mean! Interpretations cover
everything from personifying an evil tempter to representing
wisdom, healing and rejuvenation. The snake trying to swallow
it's tail is a classic symbol for eternity. Popular slang
terms/(American) culteral interpretation layer: "One-eyed
snake" (male genitalia), "Snake eyes" (rolling
a one on each of two dice), "Speaking with a forked tongue"
(lying), "Holding a snake to your breast" (to hold
a back stabbing sort of fiend too close) and more. Snakes,
venom and slithering lead to interpretations of the somewhat
nasty sort. And there is MORE, so much more... This one I'll
leave to the experts (because they REALLY cover the subject
better than I ever can). Honestly, I should have put Campbell
at the bottom because he boils it all down into one nutshell.
That would have been best, allowing you to enjoy all of the
digressions and excursions around and through the symbol but
I love Campbell's simple and direct approach and I would hate
for anyone to miss it. The man was SO knowledgeable and SO
succinct and boy could he could peel that onion! Anyway, I
hope you enjoy, because it is REALLY interesting reading below
Posted: March 06, 2004.
these definitions are so long, shortcut links are provided:
Campbell: The Power of Myth
Jung: Man and His Symbols
Biedermann: Dictionary of Symbolism
Vollman: The Little Giant Encyclopedia
of Dream Symbols
Power of Myth, p. 45
...the snake is the symbol of life throwing off the past and
continuing to live.
serpent sheds its skin to be born again, as the moon its shadow
to be born again. They are equivalent symbols. Sometimes the
serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. That's
an image of life. Life sheds one generation after another,
to be born again. The serpent represents immortal energy and
consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing
off death and being born again. There is something tremendously
terrifying about life when you look at it that way. And so
the serpent carries in itself the sense of both the fascination
and the terror of life.
the serpent represents the primary function of life, mainly
eating. Life consists in eating other creatures. You don't
think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal.
And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the
birds picking around--they're eating things. You see the cows
grazing, they're eating things. The serpent is a traveling
alimentary canal, that's about all it is. And it gives you
that primary sense of shock, of life in its most primal quality.
There is no arguing with that animal at all. Life lives by
killing and eating itself, casting off death and being reborn,
like the moon. This is one of the mysteries that these symbolic,
paradoxical forms try to represent.
Posted: March 06, 2004.
and His Symbols, p. 153-155
This is the universal quality of the animal as a symbol of
transcendence. These creatures, figuratively coming from the
depths of the ancient Earth Mother, are symbolic denizens
of the collective unconscious. They bring into the field of
consciousness a special chthonic (underworld) message that
is somewhat different from the spiritual aspirations symbolized
by the birds...
transcendent symbols of the depths are rodents, lizards, snakes,
and sometimes fish. These are intermediate creatures that
combine underwater activity and the bird-flight with an intermediate
terrestrial life. The wild duck or swan are cases in point.
Perhaps the commonest dream symbol of transcendence is the
snake, as represented by the therapeutic symbol of the Roman
god of medicine Aesculapius, which has survived to modern
times as a sign of the medical profession. This was originally
a nonpoisonous tree snake; as we see it, coiled around the
staff of the healing god, it seems to embody a kind of mediation
between earth and heaven.
still more important and widespread symbol of chthonic transcendence
is the motif of the two entwined serpents. These are the famous
Naga serpents of ancient India; and we also find them in Greece
as the entwined serpents on the end of the staff belonging
to the god Hermes. An early Grecian herm is a stone pillar
with a bust of the god above. On one side are the entwined
serpents and on the other an erect phallus. As the serpents
are represented in the act of sexual union and the erect phallus
is unequivocally sexual, we can draw certain conclusions about
the function of the herm as a symbol of fertility.
we are mistaken if we think this only refers to biological
fertility. Hermes is Trickster in a different role as messenger,
a god of the cross-roads, and finally the leader of souls
to and from the underworld. His phallus therefore penetrates
from the known into the unknown world, seeking a spiritual
message of deliverance and healing.
in Egypt Hermes was known as the ibis-headed god Thoth, and
therefore was conceived as the bird form of the transcendent
principle. Again, in the Olympian period of Greek mythology,
Hermes recovered attributes of the bird life to add to his
chthonic nature as serpent. His staff acquired wings above
the serpents, becoming the caduceus or winged staff
of Mercury, and the god himself became the "flying man"
with his winged hat and sandals. Here we see his full power
of transcendence, whereby the lower transcendence from underworld
snake-consciousness, passing through the medium of earthly
reality, finally attains transcendence to superhuman or transpersonal
reality on its winged flight.
Posted: March 06, 2004.
of Symbolism, p. 310-313
A symbolic animal with highly ambiguous associations. For
many ancient civilizations, the snake symbolised the underworld
and the realm of the dead, apparently because it spends much
of its life in hiding and in pits below the surface of the
earth, but also because of its apparent ability to be rejuvenated
through the shedding of its skin. The snake moves effortlessly
without the aid of feet, emerges from an EGG like a BIRD,
and can often kill with its venomous bite.
snake has such remarkable natural associations with life and
death that it plays a significant role in most cultural traditions.
Biblical serpent, the embodiment of Satan in the Garden of
Eden, later becomes the "serpent of brass" "put
upon a pole" by Moses [Numbers 21:8-9], interpreted as
an archetype of Christ crucified [John 3:14-15]. Aaron's rod
was transformed into a serpent capable of devouring those
of Pharaoh's sorcerers [Exodus 7:9-12].
Norse mythology a huge snake (Jormunjgandr) is wrapped around
the earth, a symbol of the sea, not unlike its ancient Egyptian
counterpart, the gigantic Apophis, which threatens to capsize
the boat of the SUN god.
early Christian text Physiologus offers curious versions
of the snake's symbolic significance: because it sheds its
skin, the snake is associated with rejuvenation (the Christian,
too, should slough off the "old age of this world"
and strive for the rejuvenation of eternal life); when the
snake drinks from the SPRING it leaves its venom behind in
its CAVE so as to keep the water pure (thus the Christian
pursuit of the water of eternal life must leave behind the
poison of sin); snakes bite only those who are clothed, shying
away from the NAKED (thus we should cast off the "fig
leaf of lust" and be "naked of sin," so the
evil cannot have its way with us); finally, a snake in danger
protects only its head, leaving the rest of its body open
to attack (thus we are to protect only our head, i.e., Christ,
never denying him, but sacrificing our bodies like the martyrs).
particular symbolic significance is the snake biting its own
tail (Greek UROBORUS), which stands for the cycle of eternal
return, or for eternity in general. In the alchemistic tradition
it is associated with cyclical processes (evaporation and
condensation, alternating successively), the state of "sublimation"
often being represented by WINGS.
traditions tend to stress the negative role of the snake (e.g.,
the danger of its venomous bite); thus the creatures thought
of as killing snakes (EAGLE, STORK, FALCON) have come to have
positive associations. Older systems of myth, however, include
mysterious positive aspects of the snake, often because of
its associations with the earth and the underworld. A house
snake, for example, can represent the blessings of departed
ancestors. (Crowned, milk-fed snakes appear in many popular
legends.) The snake is also associated with healing and reincarnation
(e.g., the sacred snakes of ASCLEPIUS; see also CADUCEUS).
For the ancient Egyptians, the snake Uraeus (the bellicose
cobra) stood for the CROWN, spitting venom at the Pharaoh's
enemies; it was also represented as coiled around the solar
disk associated with various sun gods.
the pre-Columbian civilizations of Central America, the snake
appeared as the fifth day-sign of the calendar. The snake
being thought of as poor and homeless, it mostly portended
ill for those born under this sign, who were expected to become
peddlers and warriors, forever wandering with no fixed abode.
The plumed serpent Quetzalcóatl (adorned with the green
feathers of the quetzal bird), however, was a divinity of
great religious significance, apparently representing a harmonization
of the duality bird/snake (and thus heaven/earth). (The Mayan
name of the plumed serpent was Kukulcan.) The bird/snake polarity
is represented, for example, in the arms of Mexico City (In
which show an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its
claws. Throughout the world such pairings are of great significance
as symbols of the union of polar opposites. [See M. Lurker,
Adler und Schlange, 1983.]
Goethe's prose work entitled "Fairy Tale," the snake
symbolizes the spread of pure humanity. Traditionally, however,
snakes are thought of as fear-inducing. Such mythic creatures
as BASILIKS and DRAGONS are exaggerated versions of the snake
and its menace. In psychoanalysis snake phobia is interpreted
as fear of a "phallic symbol."
philosophy systems of Asiatic origin the kundalini snake,
coiled at the base of the spinal column, symbolizes vital
energy to be awakened and elevated through meditation. (See
creatures play an important role as "guardians of the
TREASURES of the earth" in ancient Indian symbolic tradition.
These benevolent demigods, called "Nagas," are often
portrayed by sculptors as humans with snakes' bodies, standing
guard at temples. Poisonous snakes, however, were seized by
the GRIFFIN-like "golden-plumed sun bird Garuda"
and destroyed, according to myth. Still, the snake was the
most revered of animals after the COW and the APE, primarily
because of....(and the definition for SNAKE/SERPENT goes on
for another page and a half!!!! At this point I gotta just
stop and say, "Get the book!" <laugh>).
Posted: March 06, 2004
Little Giant Encyclopedia of Dream Symbols, p. 401-403
See Poisonous Snake. More than anything else, this
is a symbol of fear. It is also often a sexual symbol, and
a symbol of wholeness, transformation, and rebirth, as in
Ouroboros. A symbol of the dark feminine and deception,
it also represents wisdom and cunning. Almost every woman
dreams about serpents at least once in her life, which could
mean fear of a rival or of the male gender. The serpent stands
for physical drives. If something is not right in that area,
snake dreams appear. The image of the serpent may also refer
to the "water of life," since it comes from inside
the earth where the healing springs originate. The Caduceus,
the staff of Aesculapius, a symbol of the healing arts, shows
two serpents winding around it. In the sacred temple of Aesculapius,
serpents crawled on the floor of the sleeping halls. They
were said to induce healing dreams.
to 2nd dream interpreter Artemidorus, dreaming about serpents
indicates healing and the return of vitality. It is also a
symbol of immortality (shedding the skin--rebirth). The "Midgard-serpent"
and the "Ferris wolf" in Norse mythology threaten
the gods as the world comes to an end.
serpent is also the symbol for secret wisdom and the revelation
of the hidden. Snakes are quick, attracted by fire and the
birth of energy. A snake steals from Gilgamesh (hero of the
Sumerian epic) the herb of immortality, while he is taking
a bath in a pond. In Greece, Gaia, the goddess of the earth,
produces two half-serpents called Titans, who do battle with
Zeus. For the Gnostics of late antiquity, the serpent symbolized
the dark, deep and unfathomable side of God. The serpent is
also a symbol for Kundalini (the yogic life force). In ancient
Greece, serpents were even honored publicly, because they
were believed to be ghosts of the dead.
appear suddenly, out of the unknown, creating fear. It is
impossible to have a meaningful communication with them; they
are secretive and fear-inducing, as is the unconscious. Their
poison is sin, their wisdom transformation and deliverance.
According to Early Christian imagination, when a snake is
attacked, it would only protect its head.
to Freud, a phallic symbol. According to Jung, the image of
the snake means that something important is taking place in
our unconscious; it may be dangerous or healing. See Eel.
Posted: March 06, 2004.
Want to know more? Go out and pick up a copy of the book(s) quoted and expand your mind :) These are MY teachers, the people who teach me about symbolism :) I hope the supplied definitions help you understand the art found on this site.