The snake, or serpent, is one of the most symbolically significant animals in literature, religion, and mythology. Although many people associate the snake with sinister and even downright evil connotations, in reality the symbolism of the serpent is far more ambiguous and wide-ranging than this. In the following post, we’re going to try to condense some of the most famous and important symbolic traits of the serpent into one post.
Snake symbolism in classical myth
In ancient myth, a snake devouring its own tail, known as Ouroboros, was a symbol of eternity. The snake’s ability to slough or shed its own skin – symbolic of rebirth and renewal – has also played into this symbolism, and in many cultures, snakes have been associated with the underworld and the abode of the dead (because it spends so much time in pits and below the earth, or hiding under rocks).
Snake symbolism in the Bible
In the Bible, although the serpent is most often associated with Satan and therefore with evil forces, this only tells part of the picture. And strictly speaking, even that part is inaccurate.
It is often assumed that the serpent in the Book of Genesis, that speaks to Eve and tempts her to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, is Satan in disguise. In fact, the Bible never mentions this, simply referring to the snake as ‘the serpent’. There’s also a strong suggestion that it had legs, like a lizard: at least, initially. This is because, owing to its role in leading Adam and Eve astray, God punishes it, according to Genesis 3:14, by declaring: ‘Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life’.
This implies that the serpent, prior to this, did not crawl about on its belly, but had limbs. Viewed in this way, the fate of the serpent acts as a kind of Just-So Story explaining how the snake came to be without arms and legs.
What’s more, although the story of the Fall of Man is often viewed as a regrettable and damaging development, introducing as it does the concept of Original Sin, it can also be viewed as the first stage of mankind’s journey towards enlightenment and self-knowledge. God may not be happy with human beings acquiring such knowledge, but we all have to grow up and become less innocent – at least, many people (including many Christians) would argue.
Viewed in this light, the serpent – far from being Satan in ophidian form – is actually, as Kristin Swenson observes in her brilliantly informative A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, ‘midwife of sorts to the humans’ passage from infantile innocence to the maturity of experience’. Swenson also observes the symbolic role that serpents play in other ancient stories: in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old story which also features a Flood narrative, Gilgamesh attempts to seize a plant that might confer immortality, only for a snake to turn up and steal the plant away. The symbolism is arguably similar to that found in the Genesis story: the serpent, while elsewhere representing immortality (Ouroboros etc.), here acts as the agent making man realise that he, at least, is not meant to live forever.
As Swenson observes, there are as many as eighteen Hebrew words for ‘snake’ in the Old Testament, as well as five Greek words for serpents. Many of these words are onomatopoeic (as indeed the sibilant English words ‘snake’ and ‘serpent’ are): nachash, ophis, aspis. The serpent’s fangs and its hiss, and (in many cases) its venomous bite all mean that it is often viewed as sinister and untrustworthy.
However, this doesn’t tell the full story.
Positive serpent symbolism
Even in the Bible, snakes are far more ambiguous symbols than the Genesis story suggests. The brass serpent which Moses erected upon a pole (Numbers 21:8-9) is often interpreted by Christians as a prototype of Christ’s crucifixion (see John 3:14-15). As Hans Biedermann notes in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), alongside these moments there is also Aaron’s rod which turned into a serpent capable of devouring the snakes conjured by Pharaoh’s sorcerers (Exodus 7:9-12).
And elsewhere in classical culture, snakes were often associated with more positive symbolism, chiefly healing properties and medicine. The staff of Asclepius represents pharmacy, but originally symbolised the Greek god of healing of that name. The staff has a serpent wrapped around it, symbolising healing. Again, this symbolism is grounded in the snake’s ability to shed its own skin, representing renewal and rejuvenation.
Also in classical Greek myth, there was the caduceus: a staff with two intertwined serpents. This staff was carried by Hermes (or his Roman counterpart, Mercury): the messenger of the gods. The two staffs are often confused, but the herald’s staff borne by Hermes/Mercury had two serpents, rather than one, with their heads facing each other. The caduceus came to symbolise trade and transportation because Hermes was often flying around from one god to another to deliver messages.
Snakes in literature
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘Snake’, while he was living on the island of Sicily, in the beautiful resort, Taormina, on the east side of the island:
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, if you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
Lawrence’s gendering, and anthropomorphising, of the snake as ‘he’ stages a masculine battle (or stand-off – well, if snakes could stand, anyway) between him and the snake, two males facing off against one another. (Lawrence also refers to how the snake ‘mused’ as it drank at the trough, another piece of anthropomorphising.) Since this snake is yellow-brown in colour rather than black, and the ‘gold [snakes] are venomous’ on Sicily, Lawrence feels that he should kill the snake so that he will be safe from it. Enacting a sort of inner drama, an interior monologue where he taunts himself over his masculinity (or perceived lack of masculinity).
And in the nineteenth century, the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) gave us one of the most famous snake poems in the English language:
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on –
Of course, the ‘narrow Fellow in the Grass’ is a snake, as the phrase ‘in the Grass’ suggests, summoning the idiom ‘a snake in the grass’. The snake is seen from a child’s-eye view. The snake appears and disappears suddenly, and is apt to be mistaken for other things (e.g. a whip), and eludes our understanding. We have analysed this wonderful poem here.
Meanwhile, in fiction, snakes have symbolised a range of properties. One of the most famous is probably Kaa, the Indian python from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Although many viewers of the 1967 Disney film will view Kaa as a villain, in Kipling’s original book he is also the boy-hero Mowgli’s saviour: it’s Kaa who defeats the Bandar-log monkeys and frees Mowgli. Once again, the snake possesses ambiguous symbolism, being both saviour and danger.