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Exploring Serpent Symbolism Across Ages and Cultures

For thousands of years, serpents have been regarded as a complex symbol of either good or evil across different cultures, religions, and tribes. These powerful creatures were feared and respected at the same time and have a wide array of symbolic meanings.

From the ancient Egyptians to the Bible, the serpent is an extremely pervasive and versatile symbol.

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Serpents in Ancient Egypt

Egypt serpent

Throughout Egyptian history, serpents were extremely prominent as a protective symbol of pharaohs.

  • The Uraeus emblem was a symbol of the Wadjet, the serpent goddess. As one of the oldest deities, Wadjet was regarded as a protector of Egypt and its people, and the guardian of the cosmos warding off chaos and evil.The Uraeus was typically placed on the pharaoh’s crowns and represented the highest authority and the protection of the ancient kingdoms.
  • Sometimes, the Egyptian moon goddess Isis is depicted as half human, half serpent. She was also considered to be the protector of children and women and had healing powers.
  • The legend says that the Egyptian god Atum, the god of creation, had a serpent’s appearance as well. It was believed that Atum would shed his skin every morning and would emerge reborn with the first rays of sunlight.
  • In old Egyptian texts, another serpent-like mythological creature called Ouroboros often appeared. The Ouroboros was depicted as a snake swallowing its own tail symbolizing the cyclic nature of birth, death, and rebirth.

Serpents in Greek Mythology

Asclepius history
Asclepius with his rod and snake

Since snakes live in holes and cracks in the ground, they were usually regarded as defenders of the underworld and were the emissaries between the two worlds.

The most prominent Greek myth about serpents is the one about the Gorgons. Medusa is the most famous Gorgon, whose hair was made of multiple live snakes and whose glance would turn mortals into stone.

Caduceus vs rod of asclepius difference

Other times, Greeks would see serpents in a more positive light. Some saw them as protectors from the evil spirits and a sign of good luck, healing and fertility. The symbol of Asclepius, God of Medicine, was a snake on a staff, one that we still associate with medicine today. Asclepius was often depicted leaning on a thick and heavy staff or rod with a serpent spiraling around it.

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To this day, the healing rod of Asclepius remains a symbol of health and is the logo for many medicine and health care organizations and universities in countries across the world.

The caduceus features a snake on a staff with wings and is also used as a symbol of healing today.

Serpents in Hinduism

Serpent Hinduism
Lord Shiva with a serpent around his neck

The omnipresent snakes prevail Hinduism and are almost always associated with their deities.

  • Mostly worshiped in India’s northern parts, Manasa Devi, the Hindu goddess of snakes, is often depicted as having four arms and a crown full of cobras. It was believed that Manasa had the power to cure snake bites and was a symbol of prosperity and fertility.
  • Another Hindu deity, Shiva is also known as the King of Snakes. He is often portrayed as having a snake around his neck as a symbol of power and fearlessness. By wearing a serpent on his neck and body, he protects his followers from the snake’s venom.

Throughout India, snakes are considered to be the guardians of sacred places, treasures, and water sources. They were often associated with good fortune and fertility as well.

Serpents in Norse and Celtic Cultures

Serpents in Norse and Celtic
By Nationalmuseet, Roberto Fortuna og Kira Ursem CC BY-SA 3.0

Due to its ability to shed, the Celts thought of serpents as symbols of wisdom, healing, rebirth, and transformation. They were also associated with the feminine power and fertility since their natural habitat is among weeds and roots deep in the Earth – the life-giving womb.

The Celtic god, Cernunnos, is often associated with horned serpents. The sea serpent of Norse mythology, called Jörmungandr, was an important figure and represented the circle of life, with no end and no beginning. 

It’s telling that when Christianity came to Ireland, it’s symbolized by St. Patrick driving the snakes out of the nation. This effectively represents getting rid of the pagan ideas and beliefs that existed and replacing them with Christianity.

Native American and Mesoamerican Cultures

Feathered serpent
Feathered serpent from the Aztec era

Similar to the Celts, Native Americans also regarded snakes as symbols of fertility, healing, and rebirth, and believed that winged serpent-like creatures ruled the world since the dawn of time.

The profoundly spiritual Native Americans communicated their history, thoughts, and ideas across different generations through different symbols and signs, including the Avanyu symbol.

Avanyu is a zigzag curved and horned serpent-like creature that was benevolent but greatly feared. Due to its curved shape, it was often associated with water, lightning, and thunderstorms, and it was believed to be responsible for seasonal changes.

In Mesoamerica, serpents were very prominent and were viewed as powerful beings with supernatural abilities. One of the most important deities was the feathered serpent which was significant among K’iche’ Mayan, Aztecs and Yucatec Mayans.

Serpents in the Bible

serpent bible

In both the Old and New Testament, serpents are portrayed as evil and represent temptation, trickery, sin, and the underworld.

The best example would be the story of Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, Eve was tricked into eating the forbidden fruit by a serpent. After this sinful act, God banished them from Paradise. As punishment, they were no longer immortal and had to suffer a lifetime of hard labor ending in death.

Serpents – Symbolic Meaning

Symbolism of snakes

Serpents have among the most colorful symbolic meanings of all animals. Their appearance, shape, natural habitat, and skin-shedding ability all equally contribute to the complex symbolism.

Since the earliest civilization records, these enigmatic creatures were associated with the inception of the world, honoring the ancestors, wisdom, and seen as a universal symbol of mother nature and eternity.

As we’ve seen, different cultures had different interpretations of this mysterious animal. Next, we will dive into some of the most common symbolic meanings of serpents:

1- Healing

Since ancient times, many civilizations regarded the serpent’s venom to be remedial, and its skin-shedding ability as a symbol of health, renewal, longevity, and immortality.

Even today, the serpent is used around the world as a symbol of health care and medicine. This interpretation originates from ancient Greeks and their god of healing, Asclepius.

2- Rebirth and Immortality

When the serpent sheds its skin, it frees itself from the old and emerges renewed and reborn. This symbolism also comes from the depiction of a snake eating its own tail. This shape represents the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and is a symbol of immortality and continuous renewal of life.

3- Creation and Fertility

Many cultures around the globe were fascinated by the serpent’s transformational powers, interpreting them as the symbols of creation and fertility. This is partly due to their phallic shape symbolizing the male sex organ, and partly due to its skin-shedding process.

Additionally, serpents are often associated with water and Earth. They live close to the ground or in rivers, lakes, and seas. Since water is the source of all life on Earth, serpents are seen as symbols of creation. And thanks to their natural habitat underground and close to the life-giving Earth, they also symbolize creative life force, fertility, and fruitfulness.

Snakes are slow and inactive during winters and summers when the Earth is red and dry, symbolizing an immature female. On the other hand, they come out in the rainy season when the Earth is lush and green, representing regeneration and a new life.

4- Wisdom

As the serpent sheds a layer of its skin, it leaves the old self behind, getting rid of the old, and metamorphoses into a fresh and new being. Symbolically, this process could be interpreted on a more spiritual level. It can represent our ability to discard everything we have outgrown, all the bad habits and old beliefs, raising toward awareness and higher spiritual energy.

They hide in the trees and underground and effectively camouflage themselves before they attack their prey. This is a great example of the intelligence and cunning nature of these great hunters.

5- Protection

Snakes protecting Buddha
Buddha and the Naga

Both ancient Egyptians and Greeks saw this powerful animal as a symbol of protection and guardianship. Around the world, snakes are considered to be the guardians of sacred places and temples. This might be linked to the observation of how rattlesnakes and cobras act when in danger or threatened. They hold their ground, and instead of retreating, they display an intimidating pose and attack.

The famous meditating Buddha statue depicts the sitting Buddha sheltered by the Naga snake. The Naga is usually a great cobra with either one or multiple heads. It is believed that the snake protects the meditating Buddha from the harsh elements such as storms and heavy rains.

6- Duality, Balance, and Harmony

The serpent can represent two polar opposites. It’s associated with both water and desert, death and birth, masculine and feminine. Often seen as the symbol of assertive power due to its phallic form, the serpent represents masculinity.

On the other hand, it’s associated with the umbilical cord and creative life force. Therefore, it also symbolizes femininity and fertility. It’s also connected to Kundalini – the divine feminine creative energy that lies as a coiled serpent in the pelvis. When awakened, this latent energy joins both feminine and masculine entities, symbolizing balance, harmony, and homeostasis.

Serpents in Dreams – Symbolism and Interpretation

dreaming of serpent symbolism

Different cultures interpret the dreaming of snakes in opposite ways. They are seen as either a bad omen or deception. On the other hand, they can symbolize growth, transformation, and positive change.

  • Warning – If you dream about a snake, it’s usually interpreted as anwarning that a deceitful and evil person has crossed your path.
  • Secret feelings– It’s believed that if you dream of snakes often, it might be a sign that you’re harboring some feelings, which could be good or bad, towards someone that is important to you. It’s also considered to be a sign that you should reveal those hidden feelings.
  • Spiritual growth – In the East Asian tradition, dreaming about a serpent represents the awakening of the dormant female energy located at the base of the spine, and is called Kundalini. The serpent is a symbol of the beginning of the path toward enlightenment.
  • Facing difficulties – Being afraid of a snake in a dream might be an indicator that you are currently facing some uncertainties and difficulties in your life. Similarly, if you’re fighting the snake, it could mean that you are struggling with some challenges and changes, including your career and personal life.
  • Growth and opportunity – If you feel that the presence of the snake in your dream is non-threatening and friendly, it usually denotes that healing, transformation, growth, and successful overcoming of a difficulty.
  • Pregnancy – In some regions, like Sri Lanka, dreaming of a snake indicates an impending pregnancy. This could be connected to the snake as a symbol of fertility.

Serpents in Astrology

Snake is the sixth Zodiac sign. According to Chinese astrology, people born in the year of the snake project a calm and cool appearance and exterior, while internally they’re hiding a fiery and passionate heart.

The people under this sign are generally kind-hearted, cheerful, ready to help and accept new challenges. They are usually handsome, vital, and have a long life.

If this is your sign, you’re likely very smart and charming and have a knack for business and finances. Although caring and empathic, sometimes, this sign can show jealousy and arrogance.

To Wrap It Up

Throughout history, serpents have both terrified and fascinated us. Unquestionably, this powerful and perplexing animal is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols, the serpent has a complex meaning.

In mythology, literature, science, and religions around the world, serpents symbolize both negative and positive aspects, including fertility, immortality, renewal, healing, but also evil, lust and danger. This makes the serpent a fascinating creature – one that’s both good, evil and ambivalent.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.