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Snakes Through the Ages: Myths & Symbols

By Mary A. Hylton


Mythology has always fascinated me and so when it came time to choose a particular focus for this article, I thought it might be fun to explore snakes and the roles they have played in ancient cultures—zeroing in on their powerful and unique symbolism. The following article is the first in a series centered around the theme of serpentine mythology—delving into their significance across different cultures, religions and tribes. I realize this may not be everyone’s cup of tea or brand of beer but I hope you’ll be game to come along for the ride!


Snakes, or serpents, as they were more commonly referred to in mythology, have endured a love-hate relationship with humans for a very long time. Snakes—you either love‘em or hate‘em. How often have we heard the quip, “The only good snake is a dead snake”? In my humble opinion, snakes have gotten a bad rap down through the ages and are truly one of, if not THE, most misunderstood, and consequently feared, creatures. Given that, I’m surprised that so many words in the English language begin with the letter “S” which is in the shape of, yes, a serpent! Think about it!


From the ancient Egyptians to the Bible, the serpent has been regarded as a complex symbol of either good or evil across different cultures, religions, and tribes. These powerful creatures, as lowly as they appear, were feared and respected at the same time and have a wide array of symbolic meanings, many of which will be explored in this and subsequent articles.


Now that you’ve traveled this far, let’s take our first journey down the Nile to ancient Egypt. Throughout Egyptian history, serpents were extremely prominent as a protective symbol of both pharaohs and commoners.


Divination was taken very seriously in the ancient world, especially among the leaders—chiefly, the pharaohs. In fact, it was fairly common for them to consult an oracle or seer before an important undertaking. The tradition of such a practice may have originated with the oracle of the Egyptian goddess Wadjet at Per-Wadjet (modern-day Desouk, near Alexandria). As one of the oldest deities, Wadjet was regarded as a protector of Egypt and its people and the guardian of the cosmos warding off chaos and evil. She was often depicted as a snake, usually an Egyptian cobra. Or she was depicted as a snake with the head of a woman, or a woman with the head of a snake, or two snake heads. She nursed the infant Horus and protected Ra by coiling herself upon his head.


The serpent goddess figurines excavated in the Minoan palace at Knossos may have been connected to Wadjet, as is the Uraeus emblem which was the stylized upright cobra used as a symbol of sovereignty and divine authority, and mounted, among others, onto the crowns and masks of the pharaohs including, famously, Tutankhamun.


(Illustration below courtesy of symbolsage.com)

Snake symbolism of the uraeus. The rearing cobra with an open hood on the forehead of the pharaoh's sarcophagus.

Sometimes, the Egyptian moon goddess Isis is depicted as half human, half serpent. She was also considered to be the protector of children and women and had healing powers.


The legend days that the Egyptian god Atum, the god of creation, had a serpent’s appearance as well. It was believed that Atum would shed his skin every morning and would emerge reborn with the first rays of sunlight.


In old Egyptian texts, another serpent-like mythological creature called Ouroboros often appeared. The Ouroboros was depicted as a snake swallowing its own tail symbolizing the cyclic nature of birth, death, and rebirth.


Snakes are truly a living paradox—existing as both positive and negative aspects in this world of ours— realistically and symbolically!


1 Comment


Great article! 🐍 Thanks for sharing!

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