Archetypes / C.G.Jung / Spiritual

The dangerous serpent – a Jungian view

Soon there will the year of the (water) serpent. My sign in Chinese Zodiac is Serpent, therefore I have written a few articles in (her!) favour. The Serpent manifests itself consistently ambiguous as both ” evil adversary” and “holistic power, both source of “temptation” and “wisdom”. Jung’s discovery of how the psyche works and how consciousness entwine with unconsciousness,  also refers to this ambiguity depicting the serpent as a symbol of our unconsciousness. The Serpent encounters Jung many times throughout his journey in The Red Book.

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Around the world, for thousands of years, in one form or another, the reptilian Serpent has been an archetype for countless tribes, societies and civilizations. The serpent archetype is regarded with awe and fear. Why is that so? I will explore here the reasons what to make out with this symbol serpent, and where the given attributes may come from with most famous the symbol of a snake eating its tale is known as the Ouroboros.

Symbol of versatility and transformation



The serpent archetype stands for immense and powerful  movements deep under the earth, deep under the oceans, on the earth surface and in the sky. In fact, it is the very ability of serpents to move between various worlds and different dimensions, as indicated by their hibernation in winter and their life on and in the earth, which give them the aura of knowing and being, world-wide. Transformational qualities of serpents such as the shedding of their skins and regeneration add to the awe with which they are regarded. In Jungian reflections on various aspects of the transformation as individuation process—of the lived experiences of individuals and its impact on the experience of ego and Other, or the greater Self this is like the Serpent shading skins. There are potential states of consciousness and being that are actualized and incarnated in the individual personality as the individual develops a growing awareness of his/her relationship to the greater Self and the Ego.

Symbol of the unknown and the unseen

mermaid the unknown

mermaid the unknown

The serpent is a trans-cultural and global symbol which can be identified as a reptile, an earthly serpent, a flying dragon in the air, a water serpent, with many supernatural characteristics. The ancient Greeks believed that there were four elements that everything was made up of: earth, water, air, and fire (Aristotle) which became the cornerstone of philosophy, science, and medicine for two thousand years. But Aristotle came up with a fifth – invisible – element, the aether to explain the stars, one can easily associate with the serpent: The basic theme of mythology and psychoanalysis is that the visible world is supported and sustained by an invisible world, which has been proved by modern physics: the visible (and classical) world is supported and sustained by an invisible (quantum) world. Jung similar, interpreted snakes as symbolic of the conflict between conscious ego and conscious instincts likening in a way the dragon individation. This is even truer if it is a black snake which represents the hidden or subconscious. In some cultures snakes are highly regarded and symbolize the ability to transcend into higher levels of consciousness or into areas of knowledge that exist outside perceived time and space. Snakes do not have conventional eardrums. They actually sense what’s going on around them through the vibrations in the earth rather than by listening like things affecting upon a subconscious level.

Symbol of sin and sexuality

The Sin Adam and Eve

The Sin Adam and Eve

In Judeo-Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of the Bible, portrays the Serpent as the deceitful harbinger of sin – and sexuality. In Freudian terms, snake is a phallic symbol. It seems both cases represent the fear of sexuality, rather than sexuality.Eve has been so frequently allied with the serpent and with the devil, as though they were all on the same plane of symbols. The first association between Eve and the serpent comes in the closeness of their names, for the Hebrew Hawwah is very close to the Arabic and Aramaic word for serpent, which was noticed by the earliest Jewish commentators:

The association between Eve and the serpent, and between the serpent and Satan (the Sammael of Jewish legend and the Shaitan of Iblis of the Qur’an) is made again and again in interpretations of the story of the creation and fall of the first humans . . . She is held to be the devil’s mouthpiece, Satan’s familiar. At times she herself is seen in some way to be the forbidden fruit, or the serpent in paradise, or even the Fall.

Sexuality greensnake

Sexuality greensnake

When spirituality and sexuality fall into polarity, the sexual instinct, split off from spirituality and a concrete image of what was simultaneously feared and longed for: the swallowing genital of the female. As C. G. Jung put it: “What is  projected is unconscious; that’s the rule”.  Some things to keep in minds: They are cold blooded – they depend on their environment to keep them warm. Snakes lay eggs, and abandon them as soon as they have made their nest.  Snakes may not be a particularly cuddly, but they are certainly one of the most powerful and transformative. The snake has acted as a diverse symbol throughout history, representing immortality, evil, femininity, and masculinity. The Legend of the White Snake is one of the most famous folk tales in Chinese culture. Cleopatra identified with the snake during her life, and it becomes even more highly symbolic in her death. By examining three movies (DeMille’s Cleopatra, Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra and the ABC version of Cleopatra) and two dramas (Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Mary Sidney’s Tragedy of Antonie) different symbolic representations of the snake emerge along with contrasting depictions of the Queen of the Nile. Cleopatra is a suiting product of myth.

Symbol of knowledge and cunning

serprent-womanThere is the classical tradition of the snake, of the accumulation of wisdom. We cannot remain with one or the other exclusively, but must harmonise the two – logic and intuition….Jesus says he has come not to destroy law but to fulfill it in spirit. Meta noia – means not only change your ways but also, think further, because a time comes when respect and obedience to law keeps you from seeing god.  Another example from the Gospels that I like very much is when Jesus tells his disciples that when they go among men they should be ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves’.

In Christianity, the serpent also 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 …  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.”

Fight the serpent Fear

Fight the serpent Fear

Symbol of protection and harm

There is an obvious link between the serpent with poison and medicine. The famous symbol of the Caduceus, composed of twin snakes entwined around a staff with the wings of Hermes in the background, is a symbol of modern-day medicine. Again this association goes back to the ancient Greeks and linked to the Hippocratic Oath. Navajo have stories of giant serpents as protector and Pueblo tribes honor the great water serpents. the pre-Christian days, snakes were considered symbols of fertility, healing, and nurturing (the healing serpent representing a god). Serpents were therefore often linked to protection and guardianship in many cultures, including stories of Buddha who is often represented as being supported by the seven coils of a naga, with the cobra-like hood of the naga shielding him from harm while he meditates, as a storm is manifesting. But one proverb in many languages is, “he speaks with a forked-tongue,” a clear reference to the characteristic of deceit like the image of “poisoned relationships.

Symbol of creation

Again there is an obvious link between the fertile serpent with creation and the Serpent is often described as the primary figure in the chronicle of Creation.Today researchers and scientists through multiple academic disciplines have studied the relationship of the serpent to plants, animals, humans, chemistry, physics, and biology linking the significance of the serpent to DNA and the origins of life. The serpent archetype as it pervades many ingenious cultures seems to speak to the idea that our diverse cultures have some things in common. It was C.G. Jung who gave us the concept of the psychic unity of mankind to attribute such similarities to deep, inner templates learned in our human past and embedded as archetypes in our unconscious minds.

Symbol of infinity

We have all looked up at the night sky at some point and wondered about the bconnected myth. Some stars (animals), as well as planets (gods) are ‘eaten’ or then expelled and reborn anew by the actions of the celestial serpent.In the Greek and Roman astronomy we find different parts of a serpent. In the Greek lore Ophiuchus is holding a serpent, in the Norse myth Loki is bound with serpent-like entrails.

SerpentAstronomyIn  Egypt, China, Southeast Asian, India, South America, Meso-America and ancient Sumeria, serpents carried a significant presence in the astronomical symbols from ancient times to today. The Mayan temple El Castillo shows the serpent shadow at equinox representing the serpent god “Kulkukan” for which it was built. Many stories of the serpent are linked to the Milky Way as a “serpent of light residing in the heavens.” This association goes back centuries to Egyptian and Greek stories and is linked to the Greek symbol “Ourobouros” the serpent that forms a circle with its tail within its mouth. This symbolic association includes the holistic universe which lead to infinity and holistic cycles.


Sometimes serpents represent negativity in our lives that threatens. In the long run the snake may be a positive symbol; to me they represent transition and transformation that lead us to the center of personality and result in feelings of completeness and transcendence.

Unfriendy fire.

Unfriendly fire. Serpent – Earth – Water – Air and Fire

Carl Gustav Jung writes in his book, Man and His Symbols about the serpent:

This is the universal quality of the animal as a symbol of transcendence. These creatures, figuratively coming from the depths of the ancient Earth Mother, are symbolic denizens of the collective unconscious. They bring into the field of consciousness a special chthonic (underworld) message

Appendix Archetypal images with the serpent:

  • Water: the mystery of creation; birth-death-resurrection; purification and redemption; fertility and growth. Symbol for the unconscious.
    •    The Sea: the mother of all life; spiritual mystery and infinity; death and rebirth; timelessness and eternity; the unconscious.
    •    Rivers: death and rebirth (baptism); the flowing of time into eternity;transitional phases of the life cycle; incarnations of deities.
  •     Sun (fire and sky are closely related): creative energy; law in nature; consciousness (thinking, enlightenment, wisdom, spiritual vision); father principle; Solar year
    • Rising sun: birth; creation; enlightenment
    • Setting sun: death
  •     Colors:
    • Red: blood, sacrifice, violent passion, disorder
    • Green: growth, sensation, hope, fertility, in ironical context may be associated with death and decay
    • Blue: usually highly positive, associated with truth, religious feeling, spiritual purity, security
    • White, highly multivalent; signifying in its positive aspects light, purity,innocence, and timelessness;
    • Black (darkness): chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, primal wisdom, the unconscious, evil, melancholy
  •     Circle (sphere): wholeness, unity
    • Mandela (a geometric figure based upon the squaring of a circle around a unifying center; the desire for spiritual unity and psychic integration. Nunber 4
    • Egg (oval): the mystery of life and the forces of generation
    • Yang-Yin- the Chinese symbol representing the union of opposite forces of
      • Yang (masculine principle: light, activity, the conscious mind)
      • Yin (the feminine principle: darkness, passivity, and the unconscious mind).
    • Ouroboros: the ancient symbol of a snake biting its own tail, signifying the eternal cycle of life, primordial unconsciousness, the unity of opposing forces (as in Yang-Yin).
  •     Serpent (snake or worm): symbol of intellectual energy and pure force (cf. libido); evil,  corruption, sensuality; destruction; mystery; wisdom; the unconscious.
  •     Numbers:
    • Three: light; spiritual awareness and unity (cf. The Holy Trinity); the male principle.
    • Four: associated with the circle, life cycle, four seasons; female principle, earth, nature; four elements (earth, air, fire, water).
    • Seven: the most potent of all symbolic numbers – signifying the union of three and four, the complement of the cycle, the perfect order.
  •     The archetypal woman (Great Mother- the mysteries of life, death, and transformation):
    • The Great Mother (positive aspects of the Earth Mother): associated with the life principle, birth, warmth, nourishment, protection, fertility, growth,abundance (Cybele Demeter, Ceres).
    • The Terrible Mother: the witch, sorceress, siren, whore, femme fatale associated with sensuality, sexual orgies, fear, danger, darkness,dismemberment, emasculation, death; the unconscious in its terrifying aspects.
    • The Wise Women: the Sophia figure, Holy Mother, the princess or “beautiful lady” – incarnation of inspiration and spiritual fulfillment (Jungian anima)