Snakes Symbolism: What Do Snakes Represent?
Snakes have been symbols of good and of bad in many cultures and across millennia. Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of Eve and the serpent.
However, snakes are not always viewed as bad. For instance, among the Igbo people of Nigeria, the ball python symbolizes the earth. Similarly, in northwestern Ghana, the Sankana people view pythons as saviors and helpers. Let us explore snake symbolism and find out the cultural significance of these majesty creatures across the world.
Snake as A Symbol of Healing
The staff of Asclepius (also called the rod of Asclepius), which details a snake wrapped around a staff, is associated with health, medicine, and healing. This snake symbol named after the ancient Greek god of Healing Asclepius is used by health organizations all over the world.
In the United States, this symbol can be found in the logo of the American Medical Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, Army Medical Department of the U.S. Army, and as part of the logo of many schools of medicine such as the New York University School of Medicine, and the Stanford University School of Medicine. It can be found in the logo of almost all associations and organizations associated with medicine and healthcare.
The rod of Asclepius can be found all over the world as well. This snake symbol is present in the logos of countless health departments (such as governmental institutions of health in China, India, Malaysia, and countless others), universities, hospitals, healthcare providers, and army medical corps. It is even part of the logo of the World Health Organization, the Star of Life (symbol of emergency medical services), and the Medical Protection Society.
Anywhere there is healthcare, you can be sure to find the rod of Asclepius.
A depiction of the symbol can be found right below.
Snake as A Symbol of Creation, Rebirth, and Transformation
It comes as no surprise that the snake is a symbol of rebirth and transformation. This symbolism is closely related to the shedding process of the snake. Not only does shedding allow the snake to heal and look new again, the snake looks reborn. Many cultures all over the world have associated snakes with rebirth and transformation.
Similarly, snakes are seen as a symbol of immortality as snakes have been observed biting their own tails to form a circle. A circle or a spiral is a symbol of immortality. The serpent god Danh frim the African Dahomeyan culture circles the earth and prevents it from falling apart.
Similarly, the Jörmungandr from Norse mythology also circles the earth. Likewise, the Hindu Ananta is responsible for holding the world together. Additionally, the Cosmic Serpent wraps itself around an egg as a symbol of fertility and rebirth. In Egypt, the god Ra and all creation originated from the many-coiled serpent called the Amduat.
Snake as A Symbol of Fertility
Because many snakes crawl on the ground, they are seen as a symbol of the earth in many cultures across the world, from Native American cultures to European cultures and African cultures. Their close proximity to the earth as creatures with no limbs means they are seen as agents of fertility, prosperity, and fruitfulness.
Snake as A Symbol of Wisdom and Guardianship
Serpents are seen as symbols of wisdom in several cultures because of the ponderous manner in which they pose before attacking their prey. In West Africa, traditional fetish priests and healers copy this pose as they deliver prophetic teaching.
Not only are snakes a symbol of wisdom, but they are also regarded as guardians of sacred places and temples all over the world. Symbols of the meditating Buddha protected by a nāga is a common image in Cambodia. (The nāga or Nagi are divine or semi-divine serpentine beings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.) In parts of West Africa, a great python is said to have protected people from slavery.
Snake Symbolism in Dreams
Snakes in dreams have a wide variety of meanings. Some of which are positive and some of which are negative. Among African, Asian and North American native cultures, snakes are a sign of wisdom. However, in other cultures, snakes are seen as bad omens. However, dreams of snakes usually denote a form of change, growth, transformation or deception.
- Snakes may be trying to warn you. A dream about a snake may be a warning of an evil and deceitful person in your life. The snake may be trying to alert you to this deception. Similarly, if you have hidden feelings, be it good or bad, towards someone important to you you may dream of snakes often. In this situation, it is best to reveal these hidden feelings.
- Just as snakes symbolize birth and fertility, they also symbolize personal and spiritual growth. Unsurprisingly, the serpent represents personal growth on the Chinese zodiac. In many East Asian cultures, a dream about a snake is synonymous with the awakening of the Kundalini (divine energy located at the base of the spine). The kundalini translates to “coiled snake”. This awakening leads to spiritual liberation.
- Feeling fear while dreaming of a snake may refer to the difficulties and uncertainties you face in life.
- When the presence of the snake is friendly or non-threatening such as dreaming of a pet serpent, it usually represents an opportunity for growth, positive change and assurance that you will overcome whatever adversary you face. A non-threatening snake always denotes healing and transformation.
- If you fight or struggle with a snake, then you are resisting change or struggling with a decision. It could represent struggles with a career change or personal relationship.
- Communicating with a snake means you are trying to understand new possibilities and occurrences in your life including spiritual, mystical, and physical phenomena.
- In Islam, snakes are considered as symbols of foreboding trouble, difficulty, and danger. As such dreams of snakes can represent this future struggle. Similarly, dreams of overpowering a serpent represent overcoming adversary.
As you can see, snake symbolism is complex and multifaceted. As far as you are open to change, dreams about snakes can offer much wisdom about how to tread in your waking life.
Snake Symbolism in Judeo-Christian Traditions
Among the Judeo-Christian religions, which include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, snakes aren’t always a bad sign. In fact, in the biblical book of Numbers, through the instruction of God, Moses made a bronze serpent on a pole which protected Israelites who saw it from dying (ironically, from snake bites). Many bible scholars believe this symbol of mass healing influenced many across the Old World and may have helped popularize the symbol of a snake and a stick as a symbol of healing.
In Christianity, specifically in the Gospel of John, Jesus compared his resurrection (which is the cornerstone of the Christian religion) and the promise of eternal life to the Moses lifting up the bronze snake to heal the Israelites.
However, snake symbolism in Judeo-Christian culture isn’t all about healing and life. The snake is also viewed negatively as it is believed that the serpent tricked Eve (the first woman) into sinning thus bringing forth pain into the world.
Snake Symbolism in Early Norse and Celtic Culture
The Celts considered the serpent as a symbol of healing, wisdom, transformation, and rebirth. This is down to the recurrent nature of the shedding process. Through this process, the snake is healed, transformed and reborn.
Also, because the snake (the adder) burrowed deep unto the earth, it was viewed as a feminine power, as the earth represents the womb from which life comes forth. The snake’s close relationship to the earth has made it a symbol of fertility. Likewise, because the snake is a successful hunter, it has come to represent masculinity among the Celts. The Celtic god, Cernunnos, is usually pictured/represented holding a snake.
Norse mythology also incorporates serpents such as Jörmungandr which is a great serpent that guards Midgard, the realm of humankind. This serpent protects Midgard/Earth. The Jörmungandr is also an ouroboros, which is a symbol of a serpent eating its own tail.
Snake Symbolism in African Culture
As I briefly glossed over in the introduction, the snake is a popular totemic spirit in many African cultures.
The first culture I will refer to is that of ancient Egypt. The uraeus, which is a rearing cobra, can be found on many ancient artifacts such as the Mask of Tutankhamun’s mummy, and the throne of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
In this culture, the cobra represented sovereignty, divine authority, deity and royalty. The pharaohs wore the uraeus as a symbol of their legitimacy to rule. One of the earliest Egyptian goddesses, Wadjet, is depicted as a serpent and was regarded as the protector of lower Egypt and the patroness of the Nile Delta.
As a symbol of royalty, the gods Horus and Set are frequently depicted as wearing snake symbols on their crowns. The cobra was also heavily associated with the sun god Ra.
According to the Sankana people of northwestern Ghana, a great python is said to save the ancestors by transforming into a log so as to get them across a river and away from the attack of enemies (slave raiders). Therefore, the snake is a symbol of salvation from slavery. Even today, the people of the Sankana community revere and protect pythons found in their community.
Similarly, among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, the snake is symbolic of the earth as it burrows into the earth as well as transverse across it. Because of this, pythons are treated with care even among Igbos who are Christians.
Several other African cultures also revere snakes as protectors, bringers of fertility, and guardians of the earth. The venerated West African water spirit Mami Wata is usually pictured holding large snakes which represent divinity and divination.
Snake Symbolism in Mesoamerica Culture
The Feathered Serpent, a prominent supernatural being found in several Mesoamerican cultures, is associated with the dawn, the wind and the planet Venus.
The Feathered Serpent is also the patron of crafts, arts, priesthood, and commerce. The Feathered Serpent is referred to as the deity Kukulkan in the Mayan culture and the deity Quetzalcoatl in Aztecan culture and is important in both cultures’ origin stories.
Snake Symbolism in Native American Culture
Snake symbols have different meanings among different North American tribes. According to the Pueblo tribe, snakes symbolize fertility, rebirth, and healing. This symbolism is shared in many cultures around the world since many species of snake burrow into the earth and snakes shed their old skin.
Another popular snake symbol is the Unhcegila originating from the Lakota people specifically the Blackfoot Sioux. This is a serpent-like monster that causes mysterious death and disappearance of people.
The Avanyu symbol, which is a serpentine deity connected to thunder and lighting and is said to be a water guardian, represents a fearful yet benevolent figure. It brings forth thunderstorms as well as water that nourishes. Not only does the serpent cause violent change, but it also brings about the change of the seasons. The Avanyu is depicted as a horned snake with meandering curves suggestive of lightening and flowing water.
The winged serpents are believed to have reigned over the earth at the beginning of time.
Snake Symbolism in East Asian Culture
According to Hindu mythology, the serpent Shesha supports Lord Vishnu as he sleeps while floating on cosmic waters. The great Shesha holds up the planets.
Because the snake can shed its skin, the snake represents rebirth, death, and mortality in many East Asian cultures. According to the Chinese zodiac, snakes are seen as a sign of financial and personal growth, as well as a symbol of power and strength.
Snake Symbolism Explainer Video
It is my hope that this article enables you to better understand snake symbolism. Just as the snake is a multifaceted creature, so are the symbols that surround it. The wise and transformative serpent represents change, rebirth, and creation in many cultures around the world.
The serpent protects and heals. No wonder, healthcare logos all over the world have depictions of serpents in them. Similarly, the snake can be seen as a sign of deception, hidden motive and struggle. If you have any comments, questions or additional information, kindly leave them in the comment section before.