The snake serves as an ancient and powerful symbol, found across many cultures, and evokes a powerful response in humans. 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson captures this feeling well in her poem ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’.
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
– Emily Dickinson
But why is the snake such a powerful symbol, and why does it evoke such a strong response in us? The answer may lie in our ancient past, with our long distant ancestors and the relationship they bore to snakes.
A Scientific Basis
Lynne Isbell, is a behavioural ecologist, working out of the University of California in Davis. In 2006 she published her work, in what has come to be referred to as ‘Snake Detection Theory‘, to explain the role snakes have in the human psyche.
Isbell states that with respect to early mammals, such as our distant ancestors, snakes were amongst the earliest and most persistent predators. Not only were they one of the first predators, but they were such a significant threat that the evolution of primates was effected in dramatic ways.
The impact of snakes preying on our ancient forebears was to select traits such as bigger visual centers in our brains, and forward facing eyes that helped us to perceive the world around us more effectively, including detecting that snake hiding in wait to grab us. Isbell states that, “… the evolutionary arms race begun by constrictors early in mammalian evolution continued with venomous snakes. Whereas other mammals responded by evolving physiological resistance to snake venoms, anthropoids responded by enhancing their ability to detect snakes visually before the strike”.
An article published in Scientific Reports in 2017 suggested that these changes were sufficiently profound, that even small parts of a snake, such as a patch of snake scales, or a snake tail, were enough to evoke a strong response in humans. Perhaps this deeply ingrained response to snakes is why we find snake-symbology taking a notable role in a number of religious traditions.
Snakes have a range of symbolism in Christian lore, sometimes paradoxical with both negative and positive associations.
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”Genesis 3:13
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Perhaps the most famous snake in Christianity is that from the Garden of Eden, which tempted Eve into eating the apple of the forbidden tree. In this way, the snake, often referred to as ‘serpent’ in the Bible, became the agent of temptation, and the eviction of humankind from paradise.
However, snakes are also associated somewhat with healing in the case of Moses, who, leading the Israelites in the desert, was commanded to erect a bronze snake on a pole, such that whoever was bitten by a snake could look upon that symbol and be healed. A snake bite to endanger their life, and a symbolic snake on a pole to save it.
Snakes In Hinduism and Buddhism
The Hinda ‘naga’ is a divine or semi-divine deity, acting as a benevolent guardian of the threshold. They are associated with renewal, rain and fertility, and are depicted in a variety of ways. A common one is with the tail of a snake and the upper body of a human, often with the tail swirled.
Nagas, and Naginis (the female counterpart to a Naga), are also found in Buddhism and Jainism. The phrase Nagini even emerged in the Harry Potter series, as the name of Voldemort’s serpent, hinting at the fact that the serpent was once also human.
In Buddhist tradition, when Gautama Buddha had attained enlightenment he was then protected from torrential rain by Mucalinda, the King of the Snakes. What can be reasoned from this is broad though – perhaps snakes are not a universal threat and can be benevolent, or perhaps it is enlightenment that removes that threat and subserviates snakes to humanity?
Jung And Freud On Snake Symbolism
Freud ,and his at one time disciple, Jung, both had much to offer on dream symbolism, symbolism in general, and including snakes.
Freud, who along with Jung, is considered one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, interpreted many phenomena through the lens of how they interacted with human sexuality. Snakes were no different, and in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), he offered this:
“Most of those animals which are utilized as genital symbols in mythology and folklore play this part also in dreams: the fish, the snail, the cat, the mouse (on account of the hairiness of the genitals), but above all the snake, which is the most important symbol of the male member.”
Jung by contrast, felt snakes represented much more than the male phallus. In his work Aion, Jung describes the serpent and fish as interchangeably representing the Redeemer, that is Christ.
“Fishes and snakes are favourite symbols for describing psychic happenings experiences that suddenly dart out of the unconscious and have a frightening or redeeming effect. […] The comparison of Christ with the serpent is more authentic than that with the fish, but, for all that, it was no so popular in primitive Christianity”.
A symbol closely related to the snake is that of the Ouroboros. Often found in alchemical and hermetic texts, the ouroboros is a complex symbol in and of itself, and that’s why we’ve written a specific article devoted solely to it.