Snake Serpent Tattoo Meaning

A highly complex and universal symbol. The serpent and dragon are often interchangeable and in the Far East no distinction is made between them.

The symbolism of the serpent is polyvalent: it can be male, female, or the self-created. As a killer it is death and destruction; as renewing its skin periodically it is life and resurrection; as coiled it is equated with the cycles of manifestation. It is solar and lunar, life and death, light and darkness, good and evil, wisdom and blind passion, healing and poison, preserver and destroyer, and both spiritual and physical rebirth.

Snake Serpent Tattoo Meaning

Snake Serpent Tattoo Meaning
Womma-Jack Tattoo & Art

It is phallic, the procreative male force, ‘the husband of all women’, and the presence of a serpent is almost universally associated with pregnancy. It accompanies all female deities and the Great Mother, and is often depicted twining round them or held in their hands.

Here it also takes on the feminine characteristics of the secret, enigmatic and intuitional; it is the unpredictable in that it appears and disappears suddenly. The serpent was also believed to be androgynous and is the emblem of all self-creative divinities and represents the generative power of the earth.

It is solar, chthonic, sexual, funerary and the manifestation of force at any level, a source of all potentialities both material and spiritual, and closely associated with the concepts of both life and death. Living underground, it is in touch with the underworld and has access to the powers, omniscience and magic possessed by the dead.

The chthonic serpent manifests the aggressive powers of the gods of the underworld and darkness; it is universally an initiator and rejuvenator and ‘master of the bowels of the earth’. When chthonic it is the enemy of the sun and all solar and spiritual powers and represents the dark forces in mankind. Here the positive and negative, light and darkness, are in conflict, as with Zeus and Typhon, Apollo and Python, Osiris and Set, the eagle and serpent, etc.

It also signifies primordial instinctual nature, the upsurging life-force, uncontrolled and undifferentiated; potential energy; animating spirit. It is a mediator between heaven and earth, earth and the underworld, and is associated with sky, earth and water and in particular with the Cosmic Tree. It is also the cloud-dragon of darkness and guards treasures.

The serpent can depict solar rays, the course of the sun, lightning and the force of the waters, and is an attribute of all river deities. It is knowledge; power; guile; subtlety; cunning; darkness; evil and corruption and the Tempter. ‘It is fate itself, swift as disaster, deliberate as retribution, incomprehensible as destiny’.

Cosmologically the serpent is the primordial ocean from which all emerges and to which all returns, the primaeval undifferentiated chaos. It can also support and maintain the world, or encircle it as OUROBOROS, the symbol of cyclic manifestation and reabsorption.

Coiled round the Tree or any axial symbol, it is the awakening of dynamic force; the genius of all growing things; the anima mundi; cyclic existence.

Associated with the Tree of Life its aspect is beneficent, with the Tree of Knowledge it is malefic and the poison of the evil of the world of manifestation.

Coiled round a woman, who is the Great Mother, the lunar goddess, the serpent is solar and together they represent the male-female relationship. The serpent, like the toad, is said to have a jewel in its head and possess treasures and magic rings.

When the eagle or stag appears with the serpent they are solar and manifest light with the serpent as darkness, the unmanifest and chthonic; together they are cosmic unity, totality; in conflict they portray duality, the pairs of opposites and the celestial and chthonic powers at war. The eagle is often depicted with the serpent in its talons, or the stag as trampling it underfoot, typifying the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, heavenly over earthly and spiritual over temporal powers. The fiery serpent is solar, purification, the transmuting and transcending of the earthly state.

As a girdle or bracelet the serpent depicts the eternal revolution of the ages; succession; the cycle of dissolution and reintegration. Lozenges as ornaments on a serpent represent the phallic serpent and the female vulva as the solar-lunar, male-female unity, dualism and reintegration; the reconciliation of opposites; the androgyne.

The ram-headed serpent is an attribute of all horned gods as generative power and fertility. Undulating serpents or dragons signify cosmic rhythm, or the power of the waters. Winged serpents or dragons are solar and typify the union of spirit and matter, the union of eagle and serpent and of all opposites; they also represent quickened understanding.

Two serpents together symbolize the opposites of dualism which are ultimately united. Entwining a tree or staff they are the spiral cycles of nature; the solstices; the two fundamental forces of winding and unwinding; the alchemical solve et coagula.

On the CADUCEUS they represent the homeopathic powers of healing and poison, illness and health, ‘nature can overcome nature’. Wound round each other they are Time and Fate, the two great binding powers.

Two serpents or dragons biting each other’s tails suggest that, although in seeming opposition, forces and things in the realm of duality actually spring from the same source and principle.

The eggs of the reptile signify rebirth and its lidless eyes denote watchfulness, hence wisdom. The serpent often holds the fruit or herb of immortality. Sometimes the symbolism of the bull and ram are shared with the serpent as phallic, fertility and procreative power.

The serpent as a rainbow that quenches its thirst in the sea occurs in French, African, Indian and Amerindian symbolism.

  • African: A royal emblem; a vehicle of immortality; incarnations of the dead. The celestial serpent is also the rainbow and either encircles the earth, or is a guardian of treasures, or is a thunder spirit and associated with lightning. As a rainbow it quenches its thirst in the sea. The serpent can be a culture hero or mythical ancestor who gave man the forge and corn. It is connected with the waters and fecundity. The cult of the sacred python also occurs.
  • Alchemic: The serpent on a pole is the fixation of the volatile quicksilver, the subjugation of the vital force. Passing through a circle it depicts the alchemical fusion.
  • Amerindian: The thunder creature, lightning, the rain-bearer, the enemy of the Thunder Bird; lunar and magic power; the spear of the war gods. A symbol of eternity and a harbinger of death. The horned serpent is the water spirit, the fertilizing power of water. Snakes are mediators between men and the lower world. The Great Manitou takes the form of a serpent with horns with which it transfixes the Toad or Dark Manitou as evil.
  • Australian aboriginal: The masculine principle; lightning. There is an association between the presence of a snake and pregnancy.
  • Aztec: The plumed serpent, a combination of the Quetzal bird and the snake, is the sun; the spirit; the power of ascension; rain; wind; thunder and lightning; the primordial motion of wind and water; the breath of life; knowledge; the eastern region; it accompanies all rain and wind gods; it is phallic; eternal creation; unending time; an intermediary between God and man. It is the White God from whose black bowels the rain falls and is also an attribute of Quetzalcoatl and the Sky God of the Zodiac when it is solar, but it becomes lunar when the serpent represents the Earth Mother, the Snake Woman, Coatlicue, who wears a skirt of woven serpents. The snake can be a culture hero and mythical ancestor. A bird of prey grips the serpent god from whose blood mankind is born, symbolic of the dismemberment of original unity and the coming of multiplicity in the manifest world.
  • Buddhist: At the centre of the Round of Existence the snake represents anger, with the pig as greed and ignorance and the cock as carnal passion, the three together signifying the sins that bind man to the world of illusion and the round, or wheel, of existence. The serpent is sometimes associated with Buddha, who changed himself into a naga to heal the people in a time of disease and famine. Celtic: Associated with the healing waters and wells. The horned or ram-headed serpent, which occurs frequently in Celtic and Gallic iconography, represents Cernunnos, god of fertility and virility. The snake is an emblem of Bridgit as a Mother Goddess. A serpent-wreathed head is fertility and is apotropaic.
  • Chinese: The serpent is seldom distinguished from the DRAGON (q.v.), but when it is it becomes negative, malevolent, destructive, deceitful and cunning and typifies sycophancy and is one of the five poisonous creatures. The brother and sister, Fo-hi and Niu-kua, are sometimes portrayed as two snakes with human heads, one of the rare animal-human combinations in Chinese symbolism. They are yin-yang and their symbolism is related to that of the caduceus. The snake is the sixth of the symbolic animals of the Twelve Terrestrial Branches.
  • Christian: Ambivalent as both Christ as wisdom and raised on the Tree of Life as a sacrifice, and as the Devil in his chthonic aspect. The serpent, or dragon, is Satan, the Tempter, the enemy of God and the agent of the Fall; he represents the powers of evil; destruction; the grave; guile and craftiness; he is also the power of evil that man must overcome in himself. Dante equates the serpent with the damned, but entwining the Tree of Life it is wisdom and is beneficent, while with the Tree of Knowledge it becomes Lucifer and malefic. The serpent raised on the cross, or pole, is a prototype of Christ raised on the Tree of Life for the healing and salvation of the world; the serpent wound round the cross is sometimes portrayed with a woman’s head to symbolize the Temptation; the serpent at the foot of the cross is evil, and in that position represents Christ’s triumph over evil and the powers of darkness. In Christianity the serpent can change places with the dragon; like the Babylonian Tiamat, the Satan of Christianity is ‘the great dragon … that old serpent, called the devil and Satan’ (Rev. 12, 9). The good serpent is seen in iconography rising from the chalice of St John. The evil serpent is Satan, the dragon of the Apocalypse. Tertullian says that Christians called Christ ‘the Good Serpent’. The Virgin Mary crushes the head of the serpent of Eve instead of succumbing to him.
  • Egyptian: The uraeus, the cobra, is supreme divine and royal wisdom and power; knowledge; gold. Apep, the coluber, as Set in his typhonic aspect, is the serpent of the mist, the ‘demon of darkness’, discord and destruction; also the baleful aspect of the scorching sun. Serpents at the side of the sun disc represent the goddesses who, as royal serpents, drove out the enemies of Ra, the sun god. Two serpents are No us and Logos. The serpent with a lion’s head is protection against evil. Buto, a snake goddess, takes the form of a cobra. The horned viper is an emblem of Cerastes.
  • Gnostic: The author of divine gnosis. The winged serpent is Phanes, and, with a nimbus round it, depicts the Light of the World; knowledge and illumination.
  • Greek: Wisdom; renewal of life; resurrection; healing and as such an attribute of Aesculapius, Hippocrates, Hermes and Hygieia; it is also an aspect of Aesculapius as saviour-healer. It is the life principle, and an agathos daimon; sometimes it is a theriomorph of Zeus/Ammon and other deities; sacred to Athene as wisdom and particularly to Apollo at Delphi as light slaying the python of darkness and of the deluge. Apollo not only frees the sun from the powers of darkness but liberates the soul in inspiration and the light of knowledge. The serpent is associated with saviour deities of the Mysteries and also represents the dead and dead heroes: the vital principle, or soul, left the body in the form of a snake, and souls of the dead can reincarnate as serpents. The snake is a symbol of Zeus Chthonios; it is also phallic and is sometimes depicted as wound round the egg as a symbol of vitality; it represents the passions vitalizing both the male and female principles. Women with hair of serpents, such as the Erinyes, Medusa and Graia, signify the powers of magic and enchantment, the wisdom and guile of the serpent. Two huge serpents, sent by the offended Apollo, crushed Laocoon and his two sons. The three serpents on the breastplate of Agamemnon are equated with the celestial serpent as the rainbow. Bacchantes carry serpents.
  • Hebrew. Evil; temptation; sin; sexual passion; the souls of the damned in Sheol. The brazen serpent of Moses is homeopathic, ‘like heals like’. Leviathan is a serpent of the deep. Jahveh launches ‘the crooked serpent’, lightning (Job 26, 13). Qabalism depicts Adam Kadmon as a man holding an erect serpent by the neck.
  • Hindu: The shakti; Nature; cosmic power; chaos; the amorphous; the non-manifest; the manifestation of the Vedic Agni, fire, the ‘fierce serpent’; the dark serpent denotes the potentiality of fire. As Kaliya, vanquished by Krishna, who dances on its head, the serpent is evil. The cobra is a mount ofVishnu and as such is knowledge, wisdom and eternity. As the cosmic ocean Vishnu sleeps on the coiled serpent on the primordial waters, the oceanic, chaotic, unpolarized state before creation. His two nagas, with intertwined bodies, represent the already-fertilized waters and out of this union rises the Earth Goddess, symbol of both earth and waters. Ananta, the thousand-headed ruler of the serpents, is the ‘endless’, the infinite and fertility, whose coils encircle the basis of the world axis. Vritra, the imprison er of the waters, is subterranean darkness which swallows the waters and causes drought; he, like Ahi ‘the throttler’, is a three-headed snake slain by Indra, who releases the waters again with his thunderbolt. Entwined serpents are chthonic. Two serpents with downward and upward movement represent the Divine Sleep and Divine Awakening in the nights and days of Brahma. The Naga and Nagina are serpent kings and queens or genii, often divinities in their own rights; they can be depicted as either fully human, or as snakes, or as humans with cobra heads and hoods, or with ordinary snakes’ heads, or as human from the waist upwards and serpentine from the waist downwards. They frequently share the same symbolism as the Chinese Dragon as rain-givers and the life forces of the waters, fertility and rejuvenation. They are guardians of the threshold, of the door and of treasures, both material and spiritual, and of the waters of life; they are also protectors of cattle. As snake kings and queens they have their images under trees. To drive a stake through a serpent’s head is to ‘fix’ it and at the foundation of a Hindu temple this is to imitate the primordial act of Soma, or Indra, in subduing chaos and creating order. A serpent sometimes entwines the lingam of Siva. With the elephant, tortoise, bull and crocodile, the serpent can be a supporter and maintainer of the world. See also KUNDALINI.
  • Inca: The serpent and bird are the beneficent aspect of Quetzalcoatl.
  • Iranian: An aspect of Ahriman or Angra Mainu, the Serpent of Darkness, the Liar. The Persian snake Azi-dahak is ‘the throttler’, enemy of the sun god.
  • Islamic: Closely associated with life, the serpent is el-hayyah and life el-hyat and EI-Hay, one of the chief names of God which signifies the vivifying, that which confers life, the life principle rather than the merely living; that which both animates and maintains, which imparts life and is the life-principle itself.
  • Japanese: Personification and attribute of Susanoo, god of thunder and storms.
  • Manichean: A symbol of Christ.
  • Maori: Earthly wisdom; a swamp worker; irrigation and growth.
  • Minoan: Snake symbolism is prominent in Crete and there seems some evidence that there was a predeistic serpent cult. The Great Goddess, protector of the household, is portrayed with snakes held in her hands and, later, serpents were also associated with the deities who succeeded her. On ancient coins the goddess is depicted enthroned under a tree and caressing the head of a snake; serpent and tree symbolism are closely connected. The snake is a symbol of fertility and is notable in the cult of Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. The serpent seen by Polyides was carrying a herb that could restore life to the dead. The snake could be an incarnation of the dead, an ancestor, or a ghost, and on a grave mound the image of a serpent indicated the burial place of a hero and was a symbol of resurrection and immortality. Later the serpent represented Aesculapius, the physician-god.
  • Oceanic: A creator of the world. The presence of a snake is associated with pregnancy. In some parts the Cosmic Serpent lives underground and will ultimately destroy the world.
  • Roman: Serpents were associated with saviour divinities and fertility and healing deities such as Sal us. The serpent is an attribute of Minerva as wisdom.
  • Scandinavian: The serpent of Midgard encircles the world with the endless coils of the abyss of the ocean. The serpent Nidhogg, the ‘Dread Biter’, who lives as the root of theY ggdrasil, the Cosmic Tree, continually gnawing at it, represents the malevolent forces of the universe.
  • Sumero-Semitic: The Babylonian Tiamat, ‘the footless’, the ‘serpent of darkness’, also depicted as a dragon, is chaos, the undifferentiated, the undivided, guile and wickedness, destroyed by Marduk as solar and light. The Assyrio-Babylonian Ea, as Lakhmu and Lakhamu, of the sea, are male and female serpents giving birth to the masculine and feminine principles of heaven and earth. Ish tar, as a Great Goddess, is portrayed with the serpent. The Phrygian Sabazios has a serpent as his chief attribute and in his cult the officiating priestess dropped a gold snake, as ‘god through the bosom’, through her robes to the ground. The corn goddess Nidaba has serpents springing from her shoulders, and the snake is associated with both the Earth Goddess, of whom the serpent entwining a pole is a pictograph, and her Dying God son, who frequently has a serpent rising from each shoulder. The serpent set up on a pole and worshipped as a god of healing was a recurring symbol in Canaan and Philistia.
  • Toltec: The sun god looking out of a snake’s jaws symbolizes the sky.
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