The Snake is a universal symbol of immortality and creativity in myth through out the ages and in virtually all lands inhabited by humans. Many snakes shed their skin at various times, revealing a shiny new skin underneath. Thus snakes have become symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Traveling west around the world we find images representing the power of the Snake. The snake symbolizes everything from the Devil to the highest order of angels.
The Gilgamesh Epic of ancient Sumeria tells of Gilgamesh’s search for the meaning of life. Gilgamesh was told the plant of eternal life lay at the bottom of a certain lake.
After retrieving the plant Gilgamesh rests. A snake comes and eats the plant. The snake becomes immortal and Gilgamesh goes home to die.
The Snake is on this seal from ancient Sumer with the Huluppu Tree.
The Sumerian arch serpent-god whose name was Zu or Ningizzida is lord of the watery abyss from which mortal life arises and to which it returns. Emblem of the healing god Ningishzida:
Persia has the great sky serpent Azhi Dahaka, creator of all the planets.
The early, pre-Canaanite Phoenicians had a serpent god called the Basilisk.
The Basilisk lizard named after this god lives in the tropical rain forests of Central America. Called the “Jesus Christ Lizard” because it walks on water.
Medieval Europe has tales of the basilisk, a serpent with dragon’s body that kills by looking at or breathing on its victims.
The Egyptian Sun God Ra.
Apep: an evil Egyptian god: the deification of darkness and chaos.
In Egypt the snake appears in the crowns worn by the divine Pharaoh.
Mehen the Enveloper enclosed the phallus of Ra the sun god every night.
In Egyptian mythology the world rests on the divine serpent Nehebu-Kau.
The Ouroboros originated in Egypt as a symbol of the sun.
Nigeria and the Congo have the rainbow serpent Aido-Hwedo who assisted in creation of the world.
Minoan culture of Crete has the goddess Ariadne: “keeper of the labyrinth.”
Ariadne is goddess of fertility connected to Ishtar (Astarte): developments of Inanna.
Ouroboros “tail swallower” the Greek symbol of eternity, consists of a snake curled into a circle or hoop, biting its own tail.
The Ouroboros grew out of the belief that serpents eat themselves and are reborn from themselves in an endless cycle of destruction and creation.
Ancient Greeks considered snakes sacred to Asclepius, the god of medicine. He carried the caduceus: symbol of modern physicians.
Snakes entwined the staffs of Hermes and Asclepius. On Hermes’ caduceus, wings represent Hermes’ role as escort of souls to the afterlife.
The caduceus is twisted and intertwining with a connotation of sexual congress: the common symbol used to depict the DNA helix.
Zeus became the father of the gods by his conquest of Typhon, the serpent of the cosmic sea.
Zeus immortalized the Dragon by placing him as the constellation Draco.
In Greek mythology the great snake Python lived at the center of the world holding it together. Python guarded and controlled the shrine of the oracle Gaia at Delphos. Apollo came down from Mount Olympus and killed Python, becoming known as the Pythian Apollo.
The sibyl or Pythia told prophecies by inhaling volcanic fumes from the center of the world guarded by the divine Python. The Snake in Inanna and the Huluppu Tree is a python.
In the ancient divinatory art of herpetomancy seers use a live snake to foretell the future.
In Greek mythology, a great and wise serpent called Ladon guards the tree of the golden apples of the Hesperides.
Hecate, Goddess of the underworld is also associated with snakes.
In Judeo-Christian mythology the Gnosis of Basilisdes related the Ouboros to the solar god Abraxas who signified eternity and the soul of the world.
Some Gnostic Christians worshipped the serpent hung on a cross, rod, or Tree of Life, calling it “Christ the Savior.” The Ophite Christians called him Ophion, while the Gnostic Jews worshipped him as Nehushtan.
Some Gnostic Jews believed Yahweh/Jehovah was no god, but a devil, usurper of the Kingdom of the Wise Serpent. The Gnostic demiurge:
In Exodus Moses is commanded to throw his rod down on the ground. The rod becomes a serpent. When he picks it up it becomes a rod again.
Later Aaron throws his rod down before Pharaoh and it becomes a snake. When the Egyptian priests change their rods into serpents, the superiority of the Jewish god is revealed when Aaron’s snake eats the Egyptian snakes.
The sacred rod of Moses has a room made for it in the Ark of the Covenant.
In Christianity, St. John draws a comparison between Jesus on the cross and Moses’ snake on the pole.
Viking culture saw the ouroboros or serpent that eats its own tail as a symbol for the natural forces of land, sea and sky.
In Norse mythology Odin’s universe is upheld by the “World Ash, Yggdrasil” whose shaft was the pivot of the revolving heavens.
The most famous divine serpent in Viking or Norse mythology was Jormungand, the Great Divine World Serpent. Jormungand is the son of Loki, the Teutonic Satan. Here Thor battles Jormungand.
The serpent Nidhogg at the base of the world-tree devours the bones of fallen humanity.
Old German myth tells of Fafnir, “great worm” with magical, mystical powers.
Celtic legend tells the tale of Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of its snakes.
A giant water serpent, called the Lough Derg Monster was tricked by Patrick to stay at the bottom of Lough Derg, a pilgrimage site.
Among Voudon religions the Caribbean we find Dambala, powerful snake god of darkness.
These gods are morally neutral, working for good or evil.
The North American Chippewa story tells of the hero Nanabozho, who killed the Great Serpent who lived at the bottom of Lake Superior.
Before the Great Serpent died he caused a great flood to come upon the earth to kill everything. Nanabozho built a raft and saved mankind and the animals, just as Noah did with the ark.
In South America the Qiche Maya have the serpent god Gucumatz who brought civilization and agriculture to the Maya.
The god Kulkulcan or “the feathered serpent” was one of the major gods of the Maya. The Aztecs merged him with Quetzalcoatl. When Quetzalcoatl knew he must leave his people he wove snakes together to make a raft.
Quetzalcoatl symbolized the blending of Heaven and Earth as does Inanna. Some say he ascended into heaven and became Venus, the morning star.
The Gadsen flag of the American Revolution depicts a rattlesnake coiled and poised to strike with the legend, “Don’t tread on me”, symbolizing the willingness of the colonists to fight for their rights and homeland.
Prehistoric inhabitants of North America the “Mound Builders” gave great mystical value to the serpent. The “Serpent Mound” in Ohio:
The divine serpent is also found in the Admiralty Islands, the Solomon Islands and the island of Fiji where we hear about a god named Degei.
This snake god lived alone and the only living creature he knew was Turukawa the hawk, paralleling the Snake and the Anzu Bird.
The Vietnamese dragon , called “Long” is a fabulous beast with the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a fish, ears of a buffalo, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle and feet of a tiger and the body and neck of a snake.
The dragon, representing power and nobility to the Vietnamese, is the symbol of the emperor.
Australian aborigines have a divine reptile. “The Rainbow Snake” variously named: Julungul, Galeru, Ungur, Wonungur, Worombi, Yurlungeur, Kalseru, Langal, Ungud, Wullunqua or Muit
In China the power of the dragon is celebrated.
The Naga or divine aspect of the cobra is found in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The Nagas symbolize both good and evil, hope and fear. The snake king Muchalinda shielded Buddha from a storm.
The word “naga” is a Sanscrit word meaning “serpent”. Nagas are believed to live in underground palaces as protectors of springs, wells and rivers. The Naga brings rain and fertility and also disasters such as floods and drought.
In Malay myths Nagas are many-headed dragons of enormous size. On Java and Thailand, the Naga is a serpent-god, ruler of the netherworld who possesses much wealth. In Java they are also called Sesas.
In Thailand the Naga can have five heads like the Hindu Naga Kanya.
Sesha, the king of the Nagas, has 1000 heads and dresses in purple.
The 1000 headed Naga in Buddhism, Ananta, encircles the base of the world axis.
The God Shiva is represented with snakes around his neck.
The cobra/naga is a mount of Vishnu representing knowledge, wisdom and eternity. The Naga as a god is widespread and significant in all of Southern Asia. On the Malay peninsula we find Raja Naga. Vishnu reclines on the coils of the great serpent.
The serpent represents reconciliation between antagonistic principles. It symbolizes the life force that motivates birth and rebirth.
Kundalini Yoga also centers around the imagery of the serpent..
The staff represents the spinal column with the snake(s) being energy channels. In the case of two coiled snakes they usually cross each other seven times corresponding to the seven energy centers or chakras.
Carl Jung views the serpent as the collective unconscious with wisdom of its own and supernatural knowledge.
The serpent as a libido symbol is clear through its phallic dimension. However, the snake being cold-blooded allows no true psychic rapport with warm-blooded animals.
According to Joseph Campbell the Judeo-Christian god Yahweh originated as a serpent consort of the Jewish earth mother goddess Asherah. Yahweh is identified with the Egyptian Set and also the snake-legged Greek Typhon, whose image appears with the name “Ia”, “Iah” or “Yah” on amulets and charms found in the graves of the Maccabees.
Joseph Campbell once said, “Serpent gods do not die.”