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Snake Symbolism and the Serpent Ouroboros

Updated on February 1, 2011

Did you know that outside of Judeo-Christianity the snake or serpent was in most every religion and mythology used to represent positive cosmic energies as opposed to negative or evil ones? In ancient civilizations, the serpent was the symbol of rebirth, protection, divine power and so on. Only in Judeo-Christian myth did it become the treacherous spirit that tempted Adam and Eve to defy the will of God.

The serpent Ouroboros swallowing its tail.
The serpent Ouroboros swallowing its tail.
Uraeus on the pharaoh's crown.
Uraeus on the pharaoh's crown.
Tutankhamon's Buto necklace
Tutankhamon's Buto necklace
Gnostic Demiurge.
Gnostic Demiurge.
Saturn in his chariot.
Saturn in his chariot.
Quetzalcoatl, Plumed Serpent. A benevolent god.
Quetzalcoatl, Plumed Serpent. A benevolent god.

The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for goddess is a snake. The goddess Buto was in ancient Egypt depicted as a cobra. Buto's role in mythology is to protect Horus, the Sun god, and his mother Isis. But it didn't stop there, as it is well-known that every individual in Egypt was protected by a personal snake-spirit that symbolized their lifetime and their survival into the afterlife.

Buto was present in most every pharaoh’s crown in the form of the uraeus that was the symbol of the pharaoh’s divine power. Remember the snake on the pharaoh's crown? Now, that's Buto weaving her body around a solar disk that represents the Sun’s orbit and the cyclic nature of eternal life.

Pelasgian, the earliest known Greek creation myth tells that Eurynome, the goddess of all, surfaced from the ocean of Chaos, while, at the same time, the north wind created Ophion, a great snake. After mating with Ophion, Eurynome turned into a bird and created the world egg, which Ophion encircled seven times. Out of this egg were all things in creation hatched.

In the classical period, the Greeks held that Chronos, the god of time was like a river that encircles the earth. Oceanos was like a serpent that encircled the universe bearing the zodiac on its back.

In Hellenistic Egypt arose an old-new philosophy called the Hermetic tradition named after the Greek god Hermes. In its symbolism the serpent bit its own tail and thus became a symbol of the unity of spirit, soul and body - ouroboros One the All. It was also the symbol of the never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth. From the tomb of Seti I comes the first known depiction of ouroborus. In order to ensure the immortality of the diseased pharaoh into the lid of his sarcophagus was carved the Sun god encircled by the snake ouroboros.

Since according to the beliefs of people at the time the earth was in the center of the universe, the Gnostics believed that the ouroboros, also called world serpent, indicated the boundary between the world and the pleroma of heaven. Influenced by the Old Testament some Gnostics believed the world serpent was the evil demiurge that created the world and guards the gateway of escape. Other Gnostic sects, such as the Naassenes and Ophite Gnostics, believed that the ouroboros was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but rather than an evil villain, the serpent was really the helper of Adam and Eve to obtain the first knowledge by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

Similar to the Hellenic myth, in Roman mythology, the serpent was identified as the god of time, Saturn, joining together the months of the year like the serpent swallowing its tail. Having swallowed his children, Saturn, with his scythe in hand, represented the end or devouring of mortal life and the beginning of a new cycle - rebirth. This figure of Saturn continued to be identified as ouroboros in Renaissance Europe holding his scythe, the symbol of death.

Throughout the Middle Ages, ouroboros, in hermetico-alchemical tradition, symbolized the very first principle of the hermetic teaching - the oneness of all. The alchemical ideogram of ouroboros is a circle, a line that encloses within itself and contains within itself both its end and beginning. Oftentimes, as in the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, the circle is replaced by a snake biting its own tail. The importance of the serpent symbol in alchemical teaching is that it represents something that is both itself and the overcoming of itself. It has the capacity to alter and dissolve and as such is both dominating and dominated principle. "Nature rejoices in Nature, Nature triumphs over Nature, Nature dominates Nature."

The snake symbol throughout time sends the message that there are limits that we as humans cannot break, there is knowledge that we cannot grasp, that is beyond our levels of comprehension, yet within our own little pond of life we are the masters of our own destiny, we decide how we live our lives, what we make of it and how we make this earth into a happy place.


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    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hungary

      Hi nasake :) Interesting thought. I'm sure this symbol is pretty universal across all cultures as it stands for solve et coagula, which is the basic concept behind alchemy.

    • nasake profile image


      7 years ago from England

      It's funny that the picture at the top has been labelled as "The serpent Ouroboros swallowing its tail." Its really amazing the difference in names and such. I saw that picture and instantly thought of Damballah.

    • JasonPLittleton profile image


      8 years ago

      Fascinating hub!Something about snake is worth reading it.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      interesting. Will link to my hub about evolution of religion

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      lol, Audrey, snakes are warm-hearted, well-intentioned, sneaky little beasts. It's not their fault they give us the creeps. They were made by God for the good of all... :)

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 

      9 years ago from Washington

      This seems to be my week for the snake - yikes. Great information - it is just my phobia about them that is the pits!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      That's very interesting, Nadia. Thank you. I will include it in my angel hub. :)

    • nadiaazhar profile image


      9 years ago from kuwait

      no,not atleast i don't find your topic picks weird,though they are different than the usual subjects and that's the part i like the most about ur hubs,keep up selecting different subjects.

      Christianity is the closest to the beliefs of Islam, It does have the concept of angels,and we do believe that angels are gaurding each and every deed and tought of human beings till death,just to add a little that i know that on our right shoulder we have an angel who watches and keep a record of our good deeds and thoughts, and the angel on left watches n keep a record of bad deeds and on the day of judgment these angels will present our doings of this mortal life.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      Thank you, drbj. The uraeus represents the glory that in Christian iconography is portrayed as a halo around the person's head. Similarly, in Islam you can sometimes see saints or prophets portrayed with a flaming head that's the equivalent of the halo in Islamic lore. It's a life-force that was believed to be life-giving, but at the same time dangerously destructive. It was a divine power passed down from Horus / God / Allah etc. to the kings. But it wasn't a given. Kings had to pass certain initiation rites to earn this sacred power and then they had to conduct rituals to help them sustain it. In every religion there is a myth in which God is victorious over some sort of personification of evil. In Egypt this is Horus overcoming Typhon-Set, the demon from the netherworld. The king who was Horus on earth had to conduct rituals in which the victory of good over evil was reproduced. It was kind of an honoring of God by virtue of which he could keep his divine power represented by the uraeus.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      Thank you, Haunty, for your time and research in producing this fascinating hub. I remember visiting the museum in Cairo where King Tut was displayed and seeing the serpent on his crown and on many of the relics that were found. Now I have a better understanding of its symbolism.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      Thank you, Nadia. :) I usually pick topics that I find interesting. I know there will be folks that think I'm weird in terms of what interest me.

      Actually I was writing a hub about angels, but I found so much research material that I had to take a break form it and write this hub. I didn't know for instance that Islam knows the concept of angels as much as Christianity. "He is the supreme guard over His servants, and sendeth forth guardians who watch over you, until, when death overtaketh any of you, our messengers receive him and fail not." (Surah 6.61)

      Your fb activity has lessened. I hope you are well! :)

    • nadiaazhar profile image


      9 years ago from kuwait

      another informative hub,i always thought snakes as the evil energy,you always go for intresting topics.i enjoyed the read.Cheers



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