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What Are the Roles of Snakes in Mythology?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

Snakes have a very prominent role in the mythology systems of many different cultures and societies, past and present, throughout the world. In some mythological systems, snakes are regarded as symbols of fertility, and in others they're viewed as deceivers. Snakes in mythology appear both in ancient and modern literature, with interpretations following cultural lines, making it important to research a culture's mythological system before attempting to analyze its literary works. Snakes in mythology are interesting largely because of the many different roles they play. Many different mythological systems see them as powerful, good, and representative of life and connection to the Earth, while others, most notably Judeo-Christian culture, view snakes as representatives of the devil.

Snakes in mythology are often representative of life, fertility, and a strong connection to the Earth. Some cultures, for instance, believed that snakes served as guardians and messengers from the underworld because they lived in the ground. Some African and Australian creation stories involve a great serpent as a creator figure or at least as a powerful water God. Greek and Egyptian myths also include stories of a snake existing before the Earth and having an important role in the Earth's creation. Snakes in mythology are also sometimes used to represent immortality or wisdom and are often closely related to water.

A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.

Judeo-Christian culture has a very different view of the roles of snakes in mythology. One of the best known Biblical stories involves the devil taking the form of a snake and tricking Eve into partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was forbidden by God. For cultures primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions, then, snakes in mythology are commonly representative of deception and evil. St. Patrick, for instance, was said in Irish religious legend to have banished all of the snakes from Ireland after they assaulted him repeatedly while he was fasting.

A shed snakeskin.
A shed snakeskin.

Snakes in mythology have provided a great many associations that modern writers continue to use. It is important to understand the culture to which writers belong and for which they are writing before attempting a symbolic interpretation of snakes in literature. Snakes in Western literature are often representative of evil and deception because of the strong Judeo-Christian influence on Western culture. Other writers, however, still use snakes to symbolize fertility, life, immortality, wisdom, and a variety of other traits that have nothing to do with deception or evil.

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Discussion Comments


The snake in a circle can also be symbolizing the Hoop Snake from Australia. It bites its own tail and rolls along.


Concerning snakes and pharmacy symbols, it is due to the medicinal uses from the venom of snakes, and this is also attached to the idea of the 'elixir of life'. There is also the aspect of the fact that the snake is seen as an eternal figure due to the fact it heals itself, shedding its skin and becoming new.

And the image of the snake in a circle, eating its own tail is connected to what I have said. It is a symbol of the eternal. Just as the moon sheds its skin from a new moon, full moon to darkness etc. and it repeats the cycle over and over again.


@chivebasil - Interesting question. I wish I could provide an answer but I am just going to ask another question. Do you guys know the image of the two snakes intertwined in a double helix pattern that often appears on the logos of doctors and other health care professionals? Even if you don't recall it at the moment I am sure that you have seen it because it is a ubiquitous image.

What is this supposed to symbolize. Snakes and doctors are something I never would have connected together.


I have seen that image of the snake with it's own tail in it's mouth. Where does that come from? It seems like it must be some kind of ancient symbol. Is the snake devouring itself a good thing or a bad thing?


The article does a good job of showing the contrasting ways that snakes have appeared in mythology over the years. But in spite of their occasionally positive representations, I usually think of the mythical snake as being something evil, dangerous and duplicitous.

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    • A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
      By: fivespots
      A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
    • A shed snakeskin.
      By: Ekaterina Fribus
      A shed snakeskin.