Snake symbolism and meanings include healing, wisdom, primal energy, protection, the Earth, stealth, charm, rebirth, and eternity. While snakes are not native in places such as Greenland, Ireland, Hawaii, and New Zealand, they live on every continent on Earth except Antarctica.1 Hence, these slithery reptiles are sources of fascination for many people, and they are subject in the mythology and folklore of cultures around the world. The snake spirit animal is also a common theme in many cultures. In this post, we’ll cover all aspects of snake symbolism and meanings, snake mythology, the snake spirit animal, and more.
Table of Contents
- What does the snake symbolize?
- Detailed Snake Meanings
- Snake and Serpent Mythology
- Native American Snake Meanings
- Snake Meanings in Aztec and Mayan Culture
- The Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal Australian Culture
- Snake Symbols in Japan
- Snake Meaning in India
- Snake and Serpent Symbolism in Buddhism
- Snake Meanings in Ancient Egypt
- Snake Symbols in Africa
- Serpents in Greek Myths
- Snakes and Serpents in Celtic Mythology
- Snakes in Norse Legends
- Snake and Serpent Meanings in the Bible
- Snake Dream Meanings
- Snake Tattoos
- Snake Spirit Animal
- Organizations that Protect Snakes
What does the snake symbolize?
- Primal Energy
- Rebirth and Eternity
Detailed Snake Meanings
What does the snake symbolize in health and healing? You are probably familiar with two snake symbols: the staffs of Asclepius and Hermes.2 These two symbols are used throughout medicine, such as on doctors’ degree certificates, insurance company logos, and elsewhere.
The staff of Asclepius is a rod with one snake wrapped around it, and the staff of Hermes is a winged rod with two snakes. Both Asclepius and Hermes were gods who were associated with healing. You can read more details about this in the section on snakes and serpents in Greek mythology later in this post.
Besides ancient Greece, other cultures, including the Celts, Nordic, and Hebrew cultures, associated snakes with healing and medicine. Some historians surmise that in ancient medicine, healers had a sense of the immune system. They possibly saw that some exposure to a bug or illness would cause the body to react, fight it off, and then become stronger.3
Because so many snakes are venomous, it’s possibly that ancient healers believed that exposure to snake venom could make a person stronger, if it didn’t kill them first. Another possibility is that our ancient ancestors saw snakes shedding their skin, as if they were being reborn. Thus, they symbolized a way for the body to renew itself.
As you will read more about in the sections on ancient cultures below, snakes are also symbols of wisdom. In Asian and Celtic cultures, people associate snakes with dragons, who have mystical powers. Furthermore, many cultures viewed snakes as ancient beings who possessed primordial knowledge.
Snakes are also symbols of primal energy, also referred to as kundalini, which is an ancient Sanskrit word. Kundalini is a healing form of divine spiritual energy that is sourced at the base of the spine. It’s thought to be dormant until it’s awakened through spiritual practices, such as tantra, kundalini yoga, and hatha yoga.
The symbol for kundalini energy is a coiled snake that is waiting to unwind. Many yoga practitioners believe that awaking kundalini energy in your body can put you on the path to enlightenment.4
While in Indian traditions, kundalini is considered a powerful form of feminine energy, snakes are also symbols of primal male energy. This primal energy center in both men and women is associated with the red and the root chakra.
Snakes and serpents are also symbols of protection. While snakes are considered to be scary animals to many, they are, in fact, not aggressive by nature. That is, unless you corner them or surprise them. Thus, snakes are very powerful symbols for those who need to strengthen their own boundaries.
Snakes are almost always in direct contact with the ground and some species even live in holes in the ground. Because of this, they are symbols of the Earth in Native American and other cultures.
There used to be a long-held myth that snakes can’t hear. But scientists have since discovered that snakes actually do have an inner ear, which is connected to their jawbone.5 Thus, the snake hears through vibrations in the ground and even the air. As a result, snakes are in-tune with the Earth in subtle ways where other creatures are oblivious. The snake is, literally, a grounded creature.
Scientists believe that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards tens of millions of years ago.6 It appears that, over time, moving around without legs became the more efficient way to travel. Snakes are also known to strike their prey even before the prey is aware of their presence. Thus, snakes are symbols of stealthy efficiency.
While a rattlesnake may warn you of his presence with a rattle of his tail, which would be a lucky scenario, most snakes are silent. We’ve all heard of a sneaky person being described as “a snake in the grass.”
But it’s important to realize that discretion and secrecy are not always negatives. We all have the right to keep secrets, providing they don’t others by being kept.
Most of us are familiar with the story of what happened with Eve and the apple. In the Book of Genesis, any number of animals could have been used to tempt Eve, but the slithery snake seemed the best one to get the job done.
Thus, it’s no surprise that snakes are symbols of temptation and charm. Ancient snake charmers put on a display, moving with the music as they played their pungis, with the cobra seeming to mirror their moves in a mesmerizing fashion. Behind the scenes, however, the charmers did horrible things to the snakes, like sewing their mouths shut or removing their fangs and venom glands, so they could safely put on their show.7 In spite of what may have been happening behind the scenes, impressions of snakes as being hypnotically charming have endured.
Rebirth and Eternity
Snakes shed their skin several times every year,8 and for this reason, they are symbols of transformation, renewal, and rebirth. In addition, snakes can create a continuous circle with their bodies, as well as a spiral. Hence, snakes are also symbols of eternity.
Like turtles, snakes are one of those rare animals who are found on both land and in the water, including rivers, lakes, and the sea. Thus, snakes are representative of the ability for the mind to move from the conscious (land) to the subconscious (water) and back.
So, the snake spirit animal is an excellent symbol to represent an area of your life that you would like to better understand on a subconscious level and to renew. This may include your own mental or physical health, a relationship, a creative endeavor, or a business enterprise.
Spirals are a pattern that repeats throughout nature and the greater Universe. From sunflowers to hurricanes to galaxies, spirals are representative of an origin that expands outward from a single source and gains power.
Spirals follow the same pattern as the Fibonacci number sequence, which starts with 0 and 1 and then increases with the sum of the previous two numbers, such as 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on.9
Because snakes can coil into a spiral pattern, they are thought to be connected with this divine pattern of the Universe.
For this reason, snakes can symbolize a single idea or a movement that starts with one person and expands outward, gaining strength and even changing society and culture.
Snake and Serpent Mythology
There are over 3,000 species of snakes in the world,10 and they have existed on Earth for over 160 million years.11 Thus, snakes and serpents are the subjects of many ancient stories, from Native American creation legends to Greek myths. Here are some snake and serpent symbols and meanings in some of these cultures. But first, I wanted to address a common question:
What is the difference between a snake and serpent?
The term serpent is less a scientific term (as snake is) and more a literary term. In ancient folklore, literature, and art, the term serpent is used to describe a large snake or snake-like animals. Serpents often have mystical or monster-like aspects to them.
Native American Snake Meanings
Every Native American tribe has their own distinct set of traditions and beliefs, so snake symbolism and meanings vary from tribe to tribe. Here are some examples:
Snakes in Hopi Culture
For the Hopi, the snake is associated with Mother Earth. Underscoring the view that all living beings are intrinsically connected with the Earth, the Hopi see snakes as the umbilical cords that connect human beings to the Earth. The Hopi also have creation stories about winged serpents who once reigned over the Earth,12 which sounds eerily similar to dinosaurs.
Lakota Sioux and Blackfoot Snake Legends
In Lakota Sioux and Blackfoot legends, snakes were often viewed negatively. One story tells the tale of a great serpent with long fangs called Unhcegila. This giant serpent was often to blame when people disappeared or died. Unhcegila was believed to emit slime that would cause flesh to rot and the Earth to become infertile.13
Among the Anishinabe tribes, which included the Ojibwe, Chippewa, Algonquin, Ottawa, Mississauga, Nipissing, and some Oji-Cree and Potawatomi tribes, snakes were viewed as both powerful and dangerous beings. Snakes were to be respected, and those who treated them in a disrespectful way would live to regret it. In fact, in Anishinabe cultures a person who was bitten by a snake was assumed to have broken a taboo or behaved in some other way that was unacceptable.14
Snake Meanings in Pueblo and Ojibwa Culture
Like the Hopi, the Pueblo and Ojibwa Peoples viewed snakes favorably. The Pueblo considered snakes to be healthy symbols of fertility. In fact, the Pueblo tell of a powerful spirit called Avanyu, who is depicted as a horned or plumed serpent. Avanyu is responsible for bringing lightning and thunderstorms and is the guardian of water. And, like the ancient Greeks, the Ojibwa People saw snakes as healers and symbols of rebirth.15
Cherokee Snake Symbolism
The Cherokee also both revered and feared snakes, associating them with great power. They believed that if a person dreamt of being beaten by a snake, they should be treated as if they had received a real snake bite because the snake in the dream was a ghost snake. It was important to never offend snakes, and this included not killing them and giving them plenty of space.
For the Cherokee, the rattlesnake was the chief of all snakes. According to one Cherokee legend, the rattlesnake was once a man who was transformed into the shape of a snake to save human beings from being destroyed by the sun. And the rattlesnake’s rattle was considered to be an ornament from the thunder god. Thus, it should never be stolen from the snake.16
Native Americans have a clan system that is organized around family groups, which are based on the maternal line. Clans serve as a system of community organization and division of labor. Native American clans have animals that are associated with them, such as the bear, crow, fox, hummingbird, and others. A number of tribes have snake clans. These include the Chippewa, Creek, and Hopi.17
Snake Meanings in Aztec and Mayan Culture
In the Mesoamerican Maya and Aztec cultures, snakes were viewed with both fear and awe. They were also symbols of divinity, rebirth, and spiritual power.18 In fact, the fifth day of the week on the Mayan and Aztec calendars was known as Snake Day.
A number of Aztec and Mayan deities were associated with snakes and had serpent-like qualities. These included Quetzalcoatl, Coatlicue, Tlaloc, and Q’uq’umatz. Quetzalcoatl is depicted as a large feathered serpent. He was also the god of the evening star who brought corn, books, and the calendar to humankind. In addition, snakes adorn the temples of Chichen Itza and Tenochtitlan.19
The Rainbow Serpent in Aboriginal Australian Culture
For the Aboriginal Australians, the snake was a very powerful being. The Aborigines have a creation story about a Rainbow Snake, which I wrote about in my spirit animal guide. The Rainbow Snake was a protector and a provider of life because he brought water to the people. So, for the Aborigines, the Rainbow Snake is associated with fertility, the abundance of plants and animals, and the availability of food.
In this video from Storyteller Media, Robert Bropho, who is an elder of the Noongar People, tells the story of the Rainbow Snake:
Snake Symbols in Japan
in Japanese culture, snakes are associated with waterways, including rivers and the sea. The Japanese also associate them with eternal youth because they shed and regrow their skin. Snakes are also seen as tenacious beings because they can fit into areas where human beings cannot.
As with other cultures, the Japanese view snakes as guardians and protectors. They also associate snakes with dragons, who are associated with treasures and wealth.
One Japanese folktale tells the story of a snake woman who lives in a palace at the bottom of the sea. Interestingly, the Japanese have another story that is very similar but involves a giant turtle.
In the story of the snake woman, it was believed that any man who ventured under the sea to meet her could win her and marry her. In turn, she would bestow great wealth on him when he returned to the real world.20 However, many men were understandably afraid to make such a voyage.
In Chinese culture, the snake was a creator deity. The goddess Nüwa was part human and part serpent and she was believed to have created the first humans out of clay.
Snakes are also symbols of wisdom and are closely associated with the almighty dragon,21 as they are in Japan.
The Chinese celebrate the Year of the Snake every 12 years. Those born in the Year of the Snake are considered to be highly intuitive individuals who follow their own instincts as they set about to accomplish their goals.
Snake Meaning in India
In India, snakes are highly regarded and in some places they are worshipped as gods. And no snake is as revered as the cobra, who is often depicted wrapped around the necks of the gods Shiva and Vishnu.
As mentioned earlier, in India snakes symbolize the awakening of divine kundalini energy. It’s believed that if you dream of a snake, it’s a sign that your kundalini has been awakened. In fact, in Hindu culture, snakes symbolize death and rebirth, and they are symbols of fertility.22
Snake and Serpent Symbolism in Buddhism
In Buddhism, snakes symbolize protection. In one story, Buddha is meditating under the Bodhi Tree. He is so deep in meditation that he fails to notice the skies darkening and a storm coming. Unbeknownst to the Buddha, a giant cobra-like serpent named Mucalinda rises from the roots of the Bodhi Tree. He shields Buddha from the storm with his massive flared head.23
Snake Meanings in Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians also revered snakes. They especially revered the cobra, which adorns the crowns of the great pharaohs. The ancients Egyptians believed that a coiled serpent protected the creator, Sun Ra. It would emerge every day, after being reborn each night. Snakes also symbolized eternal life in Egyptian culture. This is demonstrated in the ouroboros symbol, which depicts a serpent in a circle biting its tail.
The Egyptians believed that snakes had healing properties. At the same time, they could serve another purpose, as in Cleopatra’s case, which was an efficient way to enter the afterlife.
Snake Symbols in Africa
Ancient cultures throughout the African continent believed that snakes were the incarnation of relatives who had passed, and thus it was taboo to kill them.
In the Dahomey Kingdom of the 18th and 19th centuries, which is now the location of southern Benin, locals worshipped serpents. The Dahomey believed that a snake god named Danh encircled the world like a belt by biting his tail. This action prevented the Earth from falling apart.24
The Serer People and Black Snakes
For the Serer People, who hail from the area that now Senegal, serpents represented the pangool, who were ancestral spirits. According to Serer tradition, when a person dies, they must first reincarnate into a black snake and hide for a time in a tree. Afterwards, they can make their way to Jaaniiw, the place where all good souls go.25
The Dogon People of Mali also revere snakes. They believe that a great serpent named Lebe guided the Dogon Mandé to the Bandiagara Escarpment, so they could escape persecution.26
Serpents in Greek Myths
In one Greek myth, a giant serpent named Ophion incubates an egg from which all of creation is born.27
Snakes were also symbols of healing in ancient Greece, as noted earlier. Asclepius, who was the god of medicine, carried a rod with a snakes coiled around it. So did the god Hermes, who was the deity of luck, fertility, and trade.
Snakes and serpents did not always have positive meanings in ancient Greece. They were also sources of terror. In the Greek myth about the Gorgons, who were horrific monsters, there was one sibling who was actually a beautiful mortal named Medusa. But when Medusa had a love affair with Poseidon, she earned the wrath of Athena, who punished her by turning her into a hideous monster with snakes for hair. Interestingly, one of the meanings for the name Medusa in ancient Greek was “guardian.” Thus, in this myth snakes were still aptly in their protective role.28
Snakes and Serpents in Celtic Mythology
For the ancient Celts, snakes and serpents were seen positively, as were other wild creatures, including crows and ravens, wolves, and foxes. The Celts viewed snakes as symbols of ancient wisdom and knowledge.
The Celts believed that snakes and serpents originated from under the Earth, and thus, they intimately knew the world’s secrets and had universal wisdom.29
In addition, as in so many other cultures, the Celts viewed snakes as symbols of healing and rebirth because they shed their skin and were completely renewed again.
Because of the ancient Celts’ views, when Christianity started to overtake their world, serpents became symbols of paganism.
Snakes in Norse Legends
Ancient Nordic stories tell the tale of a giant serpent named Jörmungandr who guards Midgard, or the Earth. Legend has it that the Norse god Loki had three children, the goddess Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the serpent Jörmungandr.
Odin and the other gods feared these children, so Odin took them. He threw Hel into Niflheim,30 which was the mist, and he threw Jörmungandr into the sea. (As it happens, Fenrir ends up killing Odin.)31
Under the sea, Jörmungandr grows so large, that he is soon able to surround the Earth and grab his own tail.32 Thus, the ouroboros symbol is commonly seen in Nordic artifacts as it is in those of ancient Egypt.
Snake and Serpent Meanings in the Bible
Snake meanings in ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs were mixed, however, they were mostly negative. In early Hebrew culture, snakes were symbols of fertility, healing, and divination.33 But that’s about the extent of positive symbolism for snakes.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses’ staff turns into a serpent. Biblical scholars surmise that because the snake was a symbol of the pharaohs’ sovereignty over ancient Egypt, God was showing Moses that he held an even higher sovereignty than that of the pharaohs.34
Of course, the serpent in the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a deceptive trickster.
By the 5th century, snakes had still not redeemed their reputation in the Christian world. The story of St. Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes (which, as noted earlier, were never there in the first place) was a symbol for Christianity driving Paganism out of the Emerald Isle.
The Qur’an also shares the story of Moses throwing down his staff and seeing it turn into a serpent. Yet, in other Islamic stories, snakes weren’t viewed negatively. According to some tales, if you find a snake in your home, you must first try to persuade him to leave instead of outright killing him. The reason is that the snake might very well be a jinn, or genie, in disguise.35
Snake Dream Meanings
What does it mean if you dream of a snake? The answer is unique for everyone. Some psychologists may claim that the dream is sexual in nature. But that’s a narrowly defined view. For example, as mentioned above, in Hindu culture, dreaming of a snake means that your kundalini, or primal energy, has been awakened.
However, our dreams, and what a snake can mean in a dream, are unique to each of us. What’s important to consider is how you felt in your dream. For example, did you feel anxiety, fear, or excitement? The emotions you felt can guide you into understanding what your subconscious is grappling with. Then, your conscious mind can help you to make sense of it. Once you identify your feelings in the dream, consider the different meanings applied to snakes, and hopefully you will have an aha moment that brings clarity.
Tattoos are deeply personal and thus snake tattoos can have a variety of meanings. A snake tattoo can be a great symbol of healing, eternity, and ancient wisdom. And because snakes can take on a variety of shapes and forms, they are actually ideal animals when it comes to tattoos. A tattoo artist can depict them artfully all over the body.
Snake Spirit Animal
If the snake spirit animal resonates with you, I encourage you to learn more about these unusual creatures. Many people are intrigued with these creatures and even consider them to be one their power animals. According to Native American traditions, you don’t necessarily choose your spirit animals. Instead, they select you. A spirit animal might come to you in a vision quest or a dream or in another powerful experience that affects the course or your life.
If a snake makes him or herself known to you, whether by slithering across your path in real life or through art, the media, or elsewhere – pay attention. There are no coincidences. Your spirit animal serves as a guide, bringing you messages from the Universe to help guide you during your human experience on Earth.
How do you know if the snake is your spirit animal?
If you are wondering whether the snake is one of your spirit animals, consider the questions below. And as you read this post, you’ll learn more about snake and serpent folklore, so it may become even more clear to you.
If you already feel that the snake is one of your power animals, you may learn some new things in this post that further guide you in your life. There is always more we can learn from these ancient beings. And if you’re curious about other animals who might be your spirit guides, you can take a spirit animal test in UniGuide’s post about spirit animals.
Questions to consider:
- Did snakes capture your attention in a special way when you were a child?
- Has a snake made himself or herself known to you, whether by slithering directly in front of you or surprising you suddenly
- Has a snake riveted your attention in the media, art, or another way?
- Do you feel a connection to snakes, and do you experience a feeling of wonder when you see them or hear about them?
- Has a snake or snakes entered your dreams?
- Are there stories, books, or movies that involved snakes that had a strong impression on you and stayed with you?
- Have your friends, family, or others described you as charming?
- Do you have a special interest in medicine, holistic health, or other healing disciplines?
- Do you feel the need to continually reinvent yourself?
If you answered yes to a number of these questions, you may very well be a snake person!
Only you can truly know if the snake is one of your spirit animals. You may have been intrigued with snakes your whole life, or perhaps you never thought much about them until one suddenly entered your life and captured your attention. Either way, if the snake spirit has made an impact on you, by all means explore what these unusual beings can to teach you!
Organizations that Protect Snakes
Snakes are vital in their natural habitats, as they help to maintain their native ecosystems. One important job they perform is keeping pest population in balance. People are still very afraid of snakes. In fact, snakes bite a few hundred thousand people every year. Unfortunately, this fear causes people to kill all kinds of snakes, even those that are not dangerous. In addition to conflict with humans, other threats that snakes face include habitat loss, disease, invasive species, and climate change.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, 12 percent of the world’s assessed snake species are threatened and their populations are in decline.36 But it’s important to keep in mind that 62 percent of the world’s reptile species have still not been assessed, so their status is unknown.37
If you care about snakes, please do what you can to protect them.