The serpent symbol is found in most mythological and religious traditions around the world—past, present, and most likely future.
Similarities in meaning exist as do important differences.
In Jewish and Christian accounts of Eden, the serpent is the “most subtle” of all creatures that tempts Eve into disobeying God’s command to not eat of the tree of knowledge. Eve then seduces Adam into eating and mankind is expelled from the Garden of Eden and cursed to forever suffer and work.
Cultural studies professors often use this to “prove” that the biblical Garden of Eden story in particular, and the Genesis account in general, are responsible for just about everything bad today, from mankind’s desire to conquer nature (toxic pollution), to man’s domination over women (sexism and gender inequality), to the lack of animal rights and the inhumane treatment of animals. But the biblical account isn’t quite so simple as saying that the serpent always represents evil.
It’s true that God sent “fiery” snakes to punish the Israelites for complaining in the wilderness. But God also instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent to heal the afflicted.
In the Book of Numbers, while Moses was in the wilderness, he mounted a serpent of bronze on a pole that functioned as a cure against the bite of the “seraphim”, the “burning ones” (Numbers 21:4-9). The phrase in Num.21:9, “a serpent of bronze,” is a wordplay as “serpent” (nehash) and “bronze” (nehoshet) are closely related in Hebrew, nehash nehoshet.¹
And a vision in Isaiah 6 tells of a fiery, winged serpents that flank God’s throne, symbolizing God’s divine glory and omnipotence.²
The Biblical Leviathan was a great sea serpent, “the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1).
India also has a naga cult with widespread devotees who worship a demi-god cobra with a human face.
Ancient Egyptian culture had the erect cobra symbolizing the utmost power and authority of the Pharaoh and the gods.³
The snake is also regarded as a healer in some Native American traditions.
In Mexican mythological art, a giant serpent is often depicted as swallowing a human being, usually head-first. This has interesting psychological connotations, especially for depth psychology. The serpent could be seen as a portal or the powers of the unconscious which can “swallow” the ego, leading to a new kind of awareness and outlook.
Australian aboriginal myths also talk of the serpent “swallowing up people and animals.”4
These mythic images of swallowing might bear a symbolic relation to the Biblical notion that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). Again, interpreted psychologically to mean that inferior aspects of the human personality must be symbolically devoured, purged or sent to hell for the superior aspect of the self to be realized and eventually flourish.
The logo for contemporary western medicine is a snake coiled around a pole, a symbol derived from ancient Greece, as evident in engravings of Aesculapius, c. 100 BCE, where a serpent is coiled around his staff. This symbol is often mistakenly linked to the Greek Caduceus, displayed in myth as a two serpents wound around a staff, sometimes with wings.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung was interested in the Ouroboric serpent, a symbol derived from Gnosticism in which the snake forms a circle by biting its own tail. For Jung this is a mandala, symbolizing his understanding of the self and wholeness.
The above only scratches the surface of serpent symbolism, a topic too diverse to treat adequately here. Nevertheless, J. E. Cirlot suggests that one commonality present among many serpent symbols is the representation of psychic energy. And Philip Gardiner and others say that snake symbolism as a whole is dualistic, containing elements of salvation and destruction. We should point out, however, that this dualism does not necessarily mean that both positive and negative aspects are present at the same time, or that they are of equal power—a point that some New Age, neoGnostics seem to overlook.
¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpent and Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary (1987), pp. 926-7.
² Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary (2000), p. 1188. This is a curious parallel to the serpents that surround some Hindu deities.
4 Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia ed. Richard Cavendish, 2003, Time Warner Books, p. 211.
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