Personal & Archetypal Symbolism of Snakes & Serpents

Serpents, Snakes and Archetypal Symbols

by, Terra Wise

We let go in order to grow into the next phase 

A snake sheds its skin when its insides grow bigger than its outside. Some snakes shed more than once a year as new skin is formed beneath the old layer. Shedding is necessary because it allows for growth and is crucial for survival.

During its shedding cycle, a snake is vulnerable to injury and disease. Often it must rub its body against a hard rough rock to create a rip in the old skin to help begin the shedding process. The snake continues to work on the tear until it can shed the layer cleanly and completely. The eyes of a snake shed too, they become2snakes cloudy with a layer of old skin, a time when the snake is vulnerable to attack until they are clear again. 

Experts who work with snakes say that the sloughing of old skin, though natural and needed, is not an easy process for a snake, especially with the risk of wounds and disease if old fragments of skin become stuck. But despite the discomfort and danger, the process of shedding the old is necessary for growth and a healthy life. The snake has no choice but to let go of the old form or it will die.

Photo, Two Snakes. 1996 © Terra Wise

The symbolism of a snake’s shedding, the sloughing of the old as a necessity for interior growth, reminds us that the same type of process can occur for humans. We grow, we need to let go. Releasing what is no longer needed is not an easy task but it is an important part growth and development. The insights discovered and feelings of renewal are well worth it. 

Humans are capable of so much more than just surface sloughing of skin cells, hair shedding, and nail clippings. If we are to evolve we need to let go of what no longer works in our lives including old beliefs and patterns, attachments, closed-minded  biases and opinions and so on.

Most of us experience the ups and downs of life. We encounter struggles and cycles of development that create a type of friction urging us to respond. Some situations push us to transform, to cross a life threshold. These cycles help to shape who we are and who we can become. We look back on our lives and reflect on the many ways we have been challenged by events and emotions and how we are have changed over the years. We have grown and outgrown the old ways of life and living, we outgrow our former ways of perceiving to become who we are meant to be, for a time, in the current moment.


When we grow on the inside we need room to expand. Despite the discomfort, the process of shedding the old self is encouraged as a necessity for new growth and a healthy life to unfold.

By releasing what does not nourish us, including our thoughts and actions – those things that no longer support inner growth and well-being, we create an improved environment for a new refreshed self to emerge and thrive


Most people change as the years go by, one way or another we transform many times during a lifetime. No matter how hard the process, no matter how wounded we feel at the time of self-inquiry, eventually something shifts and the old way of being, the old skin, sloughs away in its entirety and we are freed.

Letting go of outdated and distressful patterns of behavior allows for the inner growth to move outward into the world. In this way we are similar to a snake in that as we grow bigger on the inside we must release all that is unhealthy so we make room to thrive.


 Snakes and Serpents: Archetypal & Mythic Symbolism

Serpents are the name given to a snake-like creature as described in religious and mythological stories. In the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West, the snake in the Garden story is associated with manipulation and sin for Adam and Eve, whereas in  many other cultures, snakes and serpents are aligned with healing, mystical and psychic powers, and regeneration.

Serpent themes are visible in architecture, in myth, and initiation rites from certain cultures. Healing power and mysticism are ascribed to snakes due to their ability to shed skin. The snake represents youthful vitality, an archetypal power of transmutation and immortality. Images of snakes appear in alchemical symbols representing vitality, healing and transformation, and the death/rebirth cycle of renewal. This similar symbolism is also seen in-depth psychology.

 Ancient and Esoteric Symbols

The alchemical image of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, is a symbol of wisdom. It is a symbol of the conjunctio, the union and wholeness of the divine marriage of the female and male principles.

The Ouroboros is associated with Alchemy. It represents the cyclical nature of things, eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end.

In some representations the serpent is shown as half-light and half-dark, echoing symbols such as the Yin Yang, which illustrates the dual nature of all things, but more importantly, that these opposites are not in conflict.

The Ouroboros can represent self-reflection, or something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as one ends Something like the Phoenix who rises from the ashes.

It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished. The ouroboros has been important in religious and mythological symbolism but has also been frequently used in alchemical illustrations, where it symbolizes the circular nature of the alchemist’s opus.


The uraeus is the royal headdress of the Egyptian pharaohs with the cobra image worn at the brow. It signifies a connection with divine power and protection.

Naga is Sanskrit word for a deity or a group of beings that take the form of ‘the Great Snake’ the King Cobra. These entities are found in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Hindu iconography includes the cobra as a symbol of awakened consciousness surrounding the head of many deities. The yogic concept of Kundalini Shakti, sexuality, power, elevation of consciousness, the serpent energy rising up the spinal centers emerging from the crown chakra in divine union with pure Shiva consciousness.

Tibetan and Chinese traditions, including feng shui theory and the wisdom of the snake, serpent and dragon as symbols of protection, good fortune and health.

The ritual rattlesnake dance of the Hopi Snake Clan people is done as an invocation to bring the rains.

We also have stories of the Dragon (a relative of the snake/serpent) in Merlin Lore we have the dragon, medieval stories and around the world.


The feathered winged serpent-god of Central America, a supernatural deity. It is said the feathered aspect represents its ability to fly as a sign of its divine nature and the serpent aspect represents its human aspect, the ability to move on the ground.


Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine, healing, and dreams,  known for his staff, the single snake coiled around it. It was believed that a dream of a snake signaled healing and a union with god. Python was sacred to his cult.


 The caduceus is a symbol of modern Western medicine. Two snakes entwined around the winged wand of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, implying healing, harmony, and symmetry.


A Snake Charmer





John Lennon

At the time of this original writing it was 25 -years since Lennon’s death.




Remembering John Lennon on Dec 8, 2005

Some memories stand out because of the joy they bring, and sadly many stay with us because of the terrible shock and sorrow that surrounds them. Certain losses are felt by an entire culture as a tragedy.

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. I was a child living in Toronto, just shy of my sixth birthday, but even at such a young age I knew something serious had happened. Walter Cronkite broke into the regular television programming to announce that JFK had been shot and killed. The illusion that the world was a safe place, even from the perspective of a young child, was shattered.  A great wave of sadness and disbelief overwhelmed people the world over. In the blink of an eye everything that seemed normal had shifted. It was like that for me  when Lennon was killed.

Today, December 8 2005, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the senseless killing of John Lennon, shot by a selfish man who wanted to be famous by being the person to silence one of our musical and cultural heroes. That day and those events are remembered by masses of people. His death stunned us. We can describe where we were, what we were doing, who we were with, how we reacted in the moments and days afterward. It seemed as if the world had experienced a deep shock, the kind that rips apart our sense of normalcy.

On the day it happened I was in California visiting a friend. We had been enjoying a wonderful evening out. When we returned her house-mate met us at the door sobbing and told us John Lennon had been shot and had died. My initial response was shock and anger.

I recalled the other times I’d received news of unexpected deaths of young family members and the initial feelings of anger and disbelief that accompanied it. I yelled, why on earth would you make up such an obscene and cruel lie? It seemed impossible to fathom, no way John Lennon could have been shot, let alone be dead!

We sat down to watch the news reports, we cried for hours. But more than that, it was a tidal wave of grief that swept over me. I felt saturated in a depth of sadness that lasted a very long time.

And yet, it also  served as an igniting spark that caused me to shift my life direction in significant ways. At   home again in Toronto, I was isolated, alone, and lonely on the night when I watched masses of people gather from all around the world to mourn John Lennon. Images of candle vigils and people singing his songs in cities everywhere was profoundly moving. I too lit candles, becoming a part of the community of people sharing in our grief and contemplation, and thankful too that we had been blessed by the creative genius of John Lennon.



We each have our own way of coping with powerful events. Many times these experiences send out ripples of change, breaking up stagnation and creating new life trajectories. My own life was altered in so many important ways after Lennon’s death. I had a miscarriage soon after arriving back in Toronto after my trip to California. I ended my marriage, and redirected my life and my choices. I began to think and live differently. 

And, I started to have John Lennon dreams, lots of them over the course of many years. The dreams had an uplifting tone to them, leaving me with a feeling of optimism. It was a curious mix though, the sadness about Lennon’s death with an excitement about the creative messages that came from him in the dream world.

And how about you? How did Lennon’s death impact you; are you living the life you want to be in the years since?

~ Terra

 Note: Dec 11, 2012. Today I read an article stating that the album signed by John Lennon, the one owned by his murderer Mark Chapman, is going up for auction. I wish that were not the case.

Dec 17, 2012 I watched a PBS documentary on Lennon’s years in New York and LA, through the 70s until his death in 1980. The next morning I dreamt about him once again.