Archetypes / C.G.Jung / Gnostic / Religion

The symbol of serpent and dragon – an Jungian view


Everywhere the symbol of the serpent and dragon ist connected with the (d)evil. That does hurt me a little bit, as I am Serpent in the Chinese Zodiac – which is the least favored sign. The snake has a bad rap not only according to my wife, but certainly within Christianity. In defense of myself (and the snake), I wanted to look at the snake in symbolic terms, in Jungian terms and to explore this from all possible angles.  In alchemical symbolism dragons are associated with fire and the primal chaotic material. The Western concept of dragons is to portray them as to be feared, and destroyed, whereas in the Near East these negative traits are minimized, Furthermore in the  Far East the dragon possesses different aspects, in that it is simultaneously a creature of water, of earth, of the underworld, and of the sky. A self depicting serpent or dragon eating its own tail ( Ouroboros) is an ancient symbol which is often associated with Gnosticism, and Hermeticism. Carl Jung interpreted the Ouroboros as having an archetypal significance. Jung gave the serpent an important role in his Quaternio Series Diagrams in his book “Aion”.

The Dragon

This is one of the most easily recognized mythical beasts. It is also a pervasive symbol in a variety of cultures, giving rise to many interpretations about exactly what a dragon is, what it represents, and how it behaves. It can be associated with good luck, fortune and wisdom, or with bad luck, elemental evil and heresy. Carl Jung would have called the dragon a symbol of the universal unconscious, since so many cultures have myths associated with a dragon, or dragon like beasts.

For Carl G. Jung’s  the dragon is personification of Sulphur and is by far the male element. Since the dragon is said to impregnate himself by swallowing his tail, then the tail is the male organ and the mouth is the female organ.  The winged dragon represents personal obstacles that must be overcome to insure a more-perfect being; thus, leading to the saying: “You conquer the dragon or he will conquer you.”   We see that Jung did, certainly, inspire awareness of the connections between modern psychology and ancient spiritual practice.  Some credit the Chinese as the inventors of dragon. The origins of dragon lore are a matter of some debate. It is known that at least as far back as 300 BCE, some bones of prehistoric animals were labeled as coming from dragons. In Christianity the dragon is generally a symbol of evil, a demon or the devil. The most famous Christian legend is that of St. George slaying the dragon.

Much of dragon lore tells us that dragons were loathsome beasts and evil enemies to humankind. But dragons were born of a time other than men, a time of chaos, creation out of destruction. The dragon is a fabulous and universal symbolic figure found in most cultures thought the world.

Symbology of the dragon:

Gnostics: “The way through all things.”

Alchemy: “A winged dragon – the volatile elements; without wings – the fixed elements.”

Guardian of the ‘Flaming Pearl” symbol of spiritual perfection and powerful amulet of luck.

Chinese: “The spirit of the way”‘ bringing eternal change.

In Scripture the term dragon refers to any great monster, whether of the land or sea, usually to some kind of serpent or reptile, sometimes to land serpents of a powerful and deadly kind. It is also applied metaphorically to Satan.

  • Thou breakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. — Ps. lxxiv.13.
  •  Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. — Ps. xci.13.
  •  He laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him a thousand years. –Rev. xx. 2.
  •  In the New Testament the word “dragon” is found only in Rev. 12:3, 4, 7, 9, 16, 17, etc., and is there used metaphorically of “Satan.”

The Serpent.

Dr. Jolande Jacobi signifies in her chapter “The Dream of the Bad Animal” the serpent initial material, in need for transformation, the chthonic, moist element of water, female, standing for unconscious  symbol for many things depending of the context, also wisdom. In the famous Houston Interviews (Bollinger, C.G. Jung Speaking or youtube) he talked about a  28-year-old woman who told Jung that “she had a black serpent in her belly.”  The woman was “only intuitive, entirely without a sense of reality.” Then she announced that the snake, which had been dormant, had suddenly become active. “One day she came and said that the serpent in her belly had moved; it had turned around,” Jung says. “Then the serpent moved slowly upward, coming finally out of her mouth, and she saw that the head was golden”  Jung amplifies the image of the snake in the abdomen by reference to the serpent in Kundalini Yoga. “I told you,” Jung says, “the case of that intuitive girl who suddenly came out with the statement that she had a black snake in her belly.” He situates the snake in the context of the collective unconscious. “Well now, that is a collective symbol,” he says. “That is not an individual fantasy, it is a collective fantasy.” The image of the snake in the abdomen, Jung says, “is well known in India.” Although the woman “had nothing to do with India” and although the image “is entirely unknown to us,” he says that “we have it too, for we are all similarly human.” When the woman first told Jung about the snake in her belly, he wondered whether “perhaps she was crazy,” but then he realized that “she was only highly intuitive.” She had intuited a typical, or archetypal, image. “In India,” Jung says, “the serpent is at the basis of a whole philosophical system, of Tantrism; it is Kundalini, the Kundalini serpent” (1977: 322).

Of course  everybody knows the Biblical story of the fall of man tells of how Adam and Eve were deceived into disobeying God by a snake (identified as Satan by both Paul and John in II Corinthians and Revelation, respectively). In the story, the snake convinces Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which she then convinces Adam to do as well. As a result, God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and curses the snake.

Fighting with them – The Hero Myth

In the fight with the dragon the hero battles the regressive forces of the unconscious which threaten to swallow the individuating ego. The forces, personified in figures like Circe, Kali, Medusa, Sea Serpents, Minotaur, or Gorgon, represent the Terrible side of the Great Mother. The Hero may voluntarily submit to being swallowed by the monster, or to a conscious descent into Hades so as to vanquish the forces of darkness. This mortifying descent into the abyss, the sea, the dark cave, or the underworld in order to be reborn to a new identity expresses the symbolism of the night-sea journey through the uterine belly of the monster. It is a fundamental theme in mythology the world over — that of death and rebirth. All initiatory rituals involve this basic archetypal pattern through which the old order and early infantile attachments must die and a more mature and productive life be born in their place.

The mythological goal of the dragon fight is almost always the virgin, the captive, or more generally, the ‘treasure hard to attain.’ This image of the vulnerable, beautiful, and enchanting woman, guarded by and captive of a menacing monster gives us a picture of the inner core of the personality and its surrounding defenses. The hero’s task is to rescue the maiden from the grasp of the monster and, ultimately, to marry her and establish his kingdom with her. This dragon fight and liberation of the captive is the archetypal pattern that can guide us through those major transitional passages in our personal development where a rebirth or reorientation of consciousness is indicated. The captive represents the ‘new’ element whose liberation makes all further development possible. In response to the call the hero undertakes  a dangerous journey to an unknown region full of both promise and danger the

Getting there – the night sea journey.

The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos--a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.["The Psychology of the Transference," CW 16, par. 455.]. Mythologically, the night sea journey motif usually involves being swallowed by a dragon or sea monster. It is also represented by imprisonment or crucifixion, dismemberment or abduction, experiences traditionally weathered by sun-gods and heroes: Gilgamesh, Osiris, Christ, Dante, Odysseus, Aeneas. In the language of the mystics it is the dark night of the soul.  Sometimes, as with Jonah, Aeneas, Christ, and Psyche, it is a descent into the depths — the sea, the underworld, or Hades itself. Always there is a perilous crossing. Sometimes the faintheartedness of the hero is balanced by the appearance of guardians or helpful animals that enable the hero to perform the superhuman task that cannot be accomplished unaided. These helpful forces are representatives of the psychic totality that supports the ego in its struggle. They bear witness to the fact that the essential function of the hero myth is the development of the individual’s true personality.

Symbols of Spiritual Growth and Transformation

The Ouroboros, the snake forever swallowing its own tail, is a famous alchemical symbol of transformation. Jung saw the Ouroboros much like he saw the mandala, as an archetypal template of the psyche symbolizing eternity and the law of endless return – and individuation.

This Ouroboros symbol was first created in 1682. However, the ideaof a snake/serpent eating its own tails can be referred to as far back as Ancient Egypt.

The image, according to Dr. Jolande Jacobi, “shows a sinful world of creation, surrounded by the Serpent of Eternity, the Ouroboros, and characterized by the four elements and the sins corresponding to them; the whole circle relates to the centre, the weeping eye of God, i.e., the point where salvation, symbolized by the dove of the Holy Ghost, may be achieved by compassion and love.”

Ouroboros symbol in Alchemy

The Uroboros symbol in Alchemy, was also seen as a symbol of assimilation. Consumption of the opposite. This sign was also regarded as a symbol for immortality as the serpent never dies and is always reborn.  The snake is seen as a sacred creature in Africa, especially in West Africa. The Ouroboros symbol is prevalent in many religious aspects in the form of the Oshunmare. The Oshunmare is also seen as a symbol for rebirth.

Quaternio series: Moses - Shadow - Paradise - Lapis Quaternio

Quaternio series: Moses – Shadow – Paradise – Lapis Quaternio

In the Quaternio series; Man culminates in the of a good God, but rests below on a dark and evil principle (Devil or serpent). The serpent has its compliment in the Paradise Quaternio which leads into the world of plants and animals. Indeed, this serpent actually dwells in the interior of the earth and is the pneuma that lies hidden in the stone. The point of greatest tension between the opposites…(is)…the double significance of the serpent, which occupies the center of the system. Being an allegory of Christ as well as of the devil, it contains and symbolizes the strongest polarity into which the Anthropos falls when he descends into Physis. Symbols of fear and cunning

A lack of firsthand experience with snakes makes the serpent a creature representing a fear of the unknown. As such, snake symbolize that unknown fear. The fear can be an intuitive warning or an unfounded anxiety about some undefinable, hidden something. Honest analysis provides the key to deciphering the snake symbol. In Christianity, the symbol pertains to Satan and the world we currently live in. It also refers to the men and women of this planet as being self-centered and “fallen”. The whole idea of the serpent itself is that it reflects something that is re-creating itself.  Be wise as serpents … – Serpents have always been an emblem of wisdom and cunning:

Genesis 3:1. Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” 4The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! 5“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Snakes as Sexual Symbols

Snakes are usually symbolizing sex and sexuality. The feelings the snake evokes is key to its interpretation. Feelings of revulsion indicate sexual dissatisfaction.

The Legend of the White Snake is one of the most famous folk tales in Chinese culture. Legendary actress Brigitte Lin, is a snake spirit who has come into the human world with her sister Green Snake. Human scholar Xu Xian  immediately catches White Snake’s attention from afar, and the two quickly fall in love and get married. However, a Taoist priest sees the two spirit sisters returning to their true self. There is an egmatic seduction scene in there. Maggie Chung is the lusty maiden & titular character Green Snake, flirting erotically with thrilling, dynamic, not to say with perverse personality. Despite having accumulated 500 years of merit, her ability to remain in human guise is restricted by her delight in her own snakey sensuousness. She frequently reverts to her serpent form in whole or in part. Green Snake in her unrestrained manner finds that she is attracted to the monk, & as White’s Snake disciple, she thinks it only correct that she find a human partner as admirable as Xu Xian has been for White Snake.

Symbols of Wisdom

The Egyptians used the serpent in their hieroglyphics as a symbol of wisdom. Probably the thing in which Christ directed his followers to imitate the serpent was in its caution in avoiding danger. No animal equals them in the rapidity and skill which they evince in escaping danger. So said Christ to his disciples, You need caution and wisdom in the midst of a world that will seek your lives.

My Chinese sign of the snake serves as embodiments of intellectual, elegance, wisdom and sensuality, but describes the bearer of the sign also as cold, arrogant and feared by many. For Chinese astrologers, the snake is a revered creature of  intuition, and spiritual development. The very same mystery and elusiveness causing fear in some gives rise to a fascination or intrigue in others. I connect with the sign of the snake as embodiments of elegance, sensuality,  the intuitive, introspective, refined and collected of the Animal Signs.  But am I dark  and  cunning,  plotting and schemes to make certain things turn out exactly as I want them to?  , I guess that would be similar to the “green snake”,  would be my shadow.

6 thoughts on “The symbol of serpent and dragon – an Jungian view

  1. I am always amazed at the Word Press blogs I come across while researching a paper essay or school assignment. I will be reading this for snake symbolism as I have an essay on a short story with a snake. :D

    Nice to meet you, come for a visit sometimes. I am not as deep as you but I have other blogger friends that are.

  2. Do you have more research/thought in a black dragon (female), which can be inplanted in a human, controlling?

    • Fictional dragons in television, comics, animation and video games? Those are not my expertise. Serptens and dragons are close, do you mean the Chinese sign Female Black Water Serpent (2013) or Black Dragon (2012)? Snakes are closely tied with the Dragon as they are said to have come to earth as a dragon who lost his wings and scales.
      Implanted in men? As a symbol the Dragon are in the center of hero myths where they represent water and the unconsciousness – in essence anima (the female side in men) and the shadow in us we have to recognize during individuation. The dragon is another archetypal image of the divine mother.
      Jung psychoanalytically pictured the dark dragon as regressively charged image of the incestuous mother, who would keep the hero trapped in the Underworld.The dragon in every culture symbol for transformation, particularly Ouroboros in alchemy. Serpents (close to dragons) were commonly connected to the Mother Goddess. There are female dragons in Chinese legends (daughters of the Dragon King) and Egypt myths of course.

      To the male Jung says.. “either engage the {female] dragons [in you] heroically, or risk an inauthentic life” Some of my aditional thoughts here http://wp.me/p2bcCT-1dC

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