Ancient symbol of wisdom and fertility, but in Christianity turned into a symbol of evil, the Devil, and Satan. The serpent is a favourite shape-shifted form of the Devil and the Djinn.
The serpent is one of the oldest, most universal, and most revered symbols in mythology. Although negative associations exist, the serpent is predominantly associated with wisdom, enlightenment, immortality, healing, renewal, magic, and the guardianship of hidden treasure. Numerous deities have been associated with serpents. The Aztecs’ Quetzacoatl is the “Plumed Serpent” and is prophesied to return as a great teacher. The “Rainbow Serpent” in Australian mythology is a creator deity. Asklepios, the Greek god of healing, has a totemic serpent entwined on a staff. Hermes, the Greek god of learning and magic, carries a caduceus wand entwined by two serpents. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, has a serpent on her shield. The Nagas of Vedic lore are human/serpent beings who possess a high level of wisdom. In yoga, the kundalini, the energy of enlightenment, is likened to a coiled serpent that sleeps at the base of the spine and rises to the crown of the head when awakened by spiritual study and discipline.
Serpent in the Bible
The book of Genesis tells how a clever talking serpent convinces Eve to eat forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. She gives the fruit also to Adam. Angry, God casts them out of the Garden of Eden and condemns the serpent to travel upon its belly.
The appearance of the biblical serpent is controversial. Genesis does not give an exact description. Some illustrations of the serpent, in Eden, depict a reptilian-humanoid being. The serpent talks to Eve and exhibits intelligence and wile. In some older Jewish legends, the Genesis serpent is a tall, extremely intelligent creature with human arms and legs. He was created by God to be king of all creatures and eat the same food as humans. But his envy of humans, which was the evil within him, caused him to bring about the Fall.
Genesis does not equate the serpent with the Devil or Satan; the associations were made later by early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. The serpent later symbolized lies, treachery, and evil, serving as the inspiration for the forked tongue and serpent-tailed representations of the Devil.
In Christian art and literature, the Devil took on snakelike and reptilian features, such as scaly skin, a forked tongue, and a long tail. Dragons also became symbols of evil and the Devil.
At the opposite end, the highest-ranking order of Angels, the seraphim, have serpent associations. Their name is thought to be derived from the Hebrew verb saraf, which means to “burn,” “incinerate,” or “destroy” and probably refers to the ability of seraphim to destroy by burning. The seraphim may have evolved from the uraeus, the gold serpent (specifically a cobra) worn by Egyptian pharaohs on their foreheads. Uraei without wings and with two or four wings were depicted in iconography throughout the Near East. They protected by spitting their poison or fire. The seraphim who became angels in lore perhaps originally had serpent forms with human characteristics.
In the Old Testament, the term saraf is applied to fiery serpents. Numbers 21:6–8 refers to fiery serpents sent by the Lord to bite and kill sinning Israelites. After Moses prayed for forgiveness, he was instructed to set a fiery serpent atop a pole. Whoever was bitten by it, when he looked upon it, would live. Moses made a bronze serpent, which may have been a representation of a seraph angel. Deuteronomy 8:15 refers to the “fiery serpents” and scorpions in the land of Egypt.
3 Enoch, one of the most important works in the pseudepigrapha, says that the seraphim are so named because they burn the tablets of Satan. Every day Satan sits down with Samael, prince of Rome, and Dubbiel, prince of Persia, to write down the sins of Israel on tablets. Satan gives the tablets to the seraphim to take to God so that God will destroy Israel. But the seraphim know that God does not wish to do so, and so they take the tablets and burn them.
In the New Testament, Jesus acknowledged the wisdom of the serpent in his statement “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Serpent in Gnosticism
Gnosticism, a dualistic sect, considered the serpent as the Son of Man, the Savior himself, who initiates humankind into consciousness and raises them up out of a primitive, nature-identified unconsciousness. Gnostic teachings identify Jesus with the serpent in Eden because they were both condemned for giving humans more godlike status.
Serpent in Mythology
In mythology, serpents are powerful, magical, and mystical creatures. They are universal symbols of renewal and rebirth because of their unique ability to shed their old skin for new. The ouroboros, the serpent that forms a circle by biting its own tail, symbolizes the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In its carnal aspect, the serpent represents a phallus and its associations of the life force, sexuality, and sensuality. As a phallic symbol, the serpent often is associated with pregnancy in imagery and mythology.
As a creature that crawls along the earth and lives in holes in the ground, the serpent has connections to the underworld, the unconscious, and humankind’s instinctual drives. Mythical serpents guard the sleep of both the living and the dead; thus, they are creatures at the gateway to new consciousness. The serpent also is a universal companion to goddesses and thus can symbolize the feminine, the anima, the womb, the dark, intuition, emotion, and all the aspects of the Great Mother. The coils of the serpent represent the cycles of manifestation: life and death, good and evil, wisdom and blind passion, light and dark, healing and poison, protection and destruction. In kundalini yoga, a psychic force called the “serpent power” resides coiled near the base of the spine. In spiritual transformation, the energy rises up the spine to the crown chakra. The appearance of serpents in one’s life can presage or accompany the rising of kundalini energy.
The dark aspect of serpents rules chaos, night, and death. Deities that wear serpents are depicted with headdresses of crescent Moons.
Serpent in Alchemy
In alchemy, the serpent is the serpens Mercurii, the quicksilver that represents the constant driving forward of psychic life forces: living, dying, and being reborn. The serpent is the prima materia, the unformed and dark chaos, from which order and life spring. Alchemical art often shows the serpent wearing a gold crown, gem, diadem, or light to depict its expanded spiritual consciousness. This is another way of expressing the activated kundalini or serpent power.
Serpent in Healing
The serpent is a potent symbol of healing, which also is part of the transformation process. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, appears in the form of a serpent, and domesticated serpents were kept at the sacred healing temples of the classical world. Dream experiences were an integral part of the healing therapies at these temples; it was especially good to dream of serpents, because it portended healing. The healing power of serpents is cited in Numbers 21:8, in which Moses is instructed to set a fiery serpent upon a pole, so that all who look upon it shall live.
Serpent in Dream Symbolism
To be bitten by a serpent in a dream can represent an initiation or an infusion of wisdom—being “bitten” by a new awareness, a gift from the gods. It is the equivalent of an injection administered by a doctor: One is forcibly administered a substance that will bring about some kind of healing or new spiritual awareness. To be stalked or pursued by a serpent intent on biting indicates that the unconscious is attempting to introduce something into waking awareness.
Serpent as Archetype
The serpent represents great power indicating change, renewal, and transformation. Carl G. Jung considered the serpent to represent a potent archetype of psychic energy, power, dynamism, instinctual drive, and the entire process of psychic and spiritual transformation. When serpents appear, they may indicate a transformative process that already is under way, or they call attention to the need to move to a new level of consciousness. Serpents also are associated with water, the symbol of the unconscious, and trees, the symbol of wisdom and knowledge. A serpent climbing up a tree represents the process of becoming conscious or going through psychic transformation. Two serpents twine up the caduceus staff of Hermes (Mercury or Quicksilver), the classical god who escorts the souls of the dead and delivers messages to the gods. The caduceus is a symbol of enlightenment and of healing.