What do you think of when you see the image of a snake? What ideas or beliefs come to mind? Chances are they will be associated with temptation, cunning, deceit, danger, vengeful behaviour and even the concept of sin or the personification of evil itself. Yet serpents have featured prominently in human culture from the earliest of civilizations and have not always been solely associated with negative forces. In fact the snake, or serpent, is one of the oldest and perhaps most conflicted of symbols known to humankind, used in ancient ritual and mythology on almost every continent. By delving into its rich history, an intriguing and mystifying creature begins to take shape.
The Snake in the Tree
Perhaps the most infamous account of the serpent is the Christian story, from the book of Genesis, where Satan - the enemy of the Christian God, appears as a snake. He tempts the first humans in the Garden of Eden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, thereby obtaining awareness. This incident is said to have led to the fall of mankind, in that humans were subsequently cast from paradise so as not to eat from the Tree again. It is also known as the original sin or the act that introduced humankind to sin, corrupting the natural world. Eating the fruit only made Adam and Eve more aware, which in itself is not necessarily bad. But if they (early humans) were not ready to comprehend what God knew then it could have lead to trouble - akin to handing children advanced technology, beyond their understanding, without any instruction or guidance.
Nevertheless the idea of the snake, as an embodiment of evil, has continued to hold sway for centuries due to the spread and dominance of Christianity. It is fair to say that the symbolism of the serpent has been somewhat tainted by this story - although perhaps intentionally and for a good reason? Other religions and older cultures, however, did not always view the snake in such a black and white manner.
The Gnostic version of the story actually thanks the snake for bringing knowledge and freeing humans from the controlling Demiurge (a kind of creator deity). Conversely, Islam tradition tells that Adam and Eve are deliberately duped into eating from the Tree by Shaitaan, the devil, who tells them that they will become immortal. In Judaism (and some parts of Christianity) the snake is seen as a healing agent known as the Nehustan, the serpent of brass or bronze on a pole. Moses uses the Nehustan to heal wounds from the seraphim (or 'burning ones'); six-winged beings that are part of the angelic hierarchy and fly around the Throne of God. In the Hebrew Bible, Jesus also makes a comparison, in the Gospel of John, between Moses raising up the serpent as a sign of salvation and God raising up the Son of Man, suggesting that this 'raising of the snake' is somehow linked to the idea of humans ascending or reaching a higher state of awareness.
The Snake in Myth, Culture and Beliefs
The serpent is by no means exclusive to the Abrahamic religions. In fact snake worship and cults can be found in texts dating back to the Bronze Age (c. 3,300 BCE). This is particularly evident in the Middle East, with the Mesopotamian cultures, including the Canaanites and Babylonians; archaeologists have unearthed serpent cult objects, shrines and temple imagery belonging to these peoples. The Mesopotamians believed snakes to be immortal because they shed their skin, appearing ever-youthful.
In Egypt, the patron goddess Wadjet is represented by a cobra or cobra-headed woman. She was protector of the land and in particular kings and women in childbirth. The symbol of a snake with a sun disc became a popular emblem in Lower Egypt, where it was used on the crowns of rulers. Conversely, a snake-like demon also featured in Egyptian myth, called Apep (Apophis in Greek), who attempted to devour the Sun god Ra each night. He in turn was battled by another snake-deity Mehen, protector of Ra, exemplifying the dual nature of serpents as good and evil.
There is also another depiction of Wadjet as a cobra coiled around a papyrus stem. This draws parallels with the Caduceus, the staff of the Greek god Hermes (the Roman Mercury), messenger of the gods, showing two snakes entwined about a staff and sometimes surmounted by wings. This in turn is often confused with the Rod of Asclepius - a single serpent around a rod carried by the god of healing and medicine. Consequently, the Caduceus is sometimes erroneously used as a symbol for medicine (especially in the USA).
Greek and Roman mythology have many accounts of serpents. The most notable is perhaps the story of the Gorgon, Medusa, who had a head full of venomous snakes that could turn anyone to stone. The race of Gorgons, however, were said to guard the most sacred rituals hence their frightening appearance. Their faces became a symbol of protection, adorning many buildings, temples, tombs, shields and coins. Similarly, the nearby Minoan civilization of Crete had a snake goddess, who held a serpent in each hand and protected ancient knowledge.
In Nordic mythology, Jörmungand is a large sea serpent tossed into the ocean, by the god Odin, which surrounds Midgard (the middle world, where humans reside). Jörmungand grows so large that it surrounds the entire earth and meets its own tail, becoming an ouroboros. This is another ancient symbol, of a snake or dragon eating its own tail, which represents the cyclical nature of life and the cosmos. It is said that if Jörmungand lets go of its tail, the world will come to an end. Serpents also feature elsewhere in Norse mythology, as Odin states that eight lie coiled around the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. Here again we have the motif of snakes and sacred trees.
In Ireland there is the rather unusual story of St. Patrick, who apparently drove all snakes from the island hence their absence. This myth is perhaps best understood as an analogy of the arrival of Christianity in Ireland (St. Patrick) eradicating the old pagan beliefs and specifically the Druid priests (the snakes), who carried the wisdom and secrets of the ancestors.
Mesoamerican cultures are another to feature serpents quite prominently, in particular the Mayans and Aztecs. The famous deity Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan to the Maya), meaning beautiful or winged/feathered serpent, adorns ancient temples and pyramids in the region. The myths of Quetzalcoatl also embody the dual nature of the serpent; here is one that can slither along the earth among humans and other terrestrial creatures but also possesses wings that enable it to soar through the heavens. Quetzalcoatl is a creator deity, inventor of the calendar and books and a symbol of death and resurrection. He is similar to the Maya Vision Serpent, a revered creature to the early Maya, which represented rebirth and renewal. This Serpent served as a link between the physical and spiritual realms, a conduit for humans to connect with the gods, specifically during rituals and meditation. It was usually connected to the Maya World Tree, prevalent in many Mesoamerican cultures. Like other ancient civilizations, it represents the 'axis mundi' - the cosmic or world axis that connects the Underworld and Heaven to Earth. Again there is another representation of the snake and tree as a conduit between different realms of existence.
The Australian Aboriginal myths feature a similar being, the Rainbow Serpent, a benevolent creator deity with a destructive side. The Rainbow Serpent represents the cycles of the seasons and water, such as rivers, seas, floods and monsoons. It is also closely related to fertility and the female menstrual cycle, in essence, factors that contribute to creation. The Rainbow Serpent's destructive force appears when disrespected, in which case it is said to devour the offender. It is also associated with rebirth rituals and times of transition, such as from adolescence to adulthood.
Already, a more rounded picture of the snake is emerging. It is not simply an embodiment of evil but a creator and destroyer - a god in itself; this is said to be one of the longest continuing beliefs of humankind. It is also a symbol of fertility and renewal, of protection and hidden wisdom, death and rebirth, which nevertheless presents an inherent risk - the potential for corruption and ruin.
Serpents in the East
Journeying to the Eastern world, our slithery friends continue to have prevalence in ancient stories with important roles in many cultures and religions. From Chinese mythology to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, there is much emphasis placed on snakes and their allegories.
A common and widespread entity in the Eastern world is the Nāga or Nāgiṇī - great snake deities. These feature in many temples and structures, most notably in India and Southeast Asia and are thought to be inspired by the king cobra, the world's longest venomous snake. Fans of the popular Harry Potter series will no doubt recognise Nagini as the name of the primary antagonist’s Familiar.
In India's great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, snakes are usually depicted in a negative light. This might relate to part of the story, which tells how a Kuru emperor, Janmejay, ascended to the throne after his father died from snakebite. He had been cursed by a sage to meet this fate and consequently Janmejay decided to wipe out all snakes using a great sacrificial fire ritual. However a young Hindu sage appeared, Astika, son of the serpent goddess Manasa. He managed to halt the massacre, after Janmejay listened to his wise and eloquent words about his people and granted him a favour. Astika requested that the sacrifice be stopped and Janmejay had to concede. After this he declared peace between the Kuru and Naga (the snake people).
However the Nagas also appear on the side of good or with a mixture of traits. They are said to reside in the seventh realm of Patala and possess the elixir or life, of immortality. They often accompany Hindu deities, such as Vishnu and Shiva. Further east, the famous seven-headed Naga statues of Cambodia's temples are thought to represent the seven races or the realm of the Nagas. They are also associated with water, such as sacred rivers, notably the Mekong, where ceremonies and sacrifices are still performed. Likewise, in contemporary Indian culture, they are regarded as nature spirits and protectors of wells, rivers and other sacred places of water. Thus they bring fertility but also destruction in the form of floods and rainstorms, quite similar to the Australian Rainbow Serpent.
Ancient India also gave us the Upanishads, a collection of texts containing the core beliefs of Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. These are said to be 'revealed truths' about the very nature of existence and humanity. The Yoga Upanishads, in particular, discuss an inherent life force, or 'shakti', which resides in humans, called the kundalini. This is essentially the primordial cosmic energy. The Sanskrit word means 'annular/circular' and can also be found as a noun for 'a coiled snake'. It appears as early as the 11th Century, in Tantrism and later in the 15th Century as a yoga term for coiled power; the life-force or cosmic energy. It resides at the base of the spine, as a huge reservoir of energy and the potent power of desire, coiled like a serpent and ready to be awakened. This is the kundalini, as it is understood today, more so in yogic practices and the new spiritual movements of the Western world.
The notion of kundalini rising is a type of practice in the eponymous school of yoga. This type of yoga uses specific breath-work, meditation, mantras and asanas (yoga postures) to awaken and raise the kundalini energy. Doing so is believed to eventually lead to enlightenment, supreme awakening and connection with the Divine. This idea links with the beginning of our exploration of serpent energy and power - the stories of the snake in the World Tree, connecting the human and spiritual realms, guarding secrets of the gods or the divine that lead to greater knowledge and awareness, to freedom and enlightenment.
However, like the story in Genesis, where Adam and Eve partake of the Tree of Knowledge, in which the serpent resides, there is danger in raising the kundalini if one is not ready. The purpose of kundalini yoga, for instance, is to prepare oneself mentally, emotionally and physically for if the process is rushed or disregarded altogether, the kundalini can become stuck and manifest in negative desires. It can also overwhelm the nervous system and result in emotional breakdown, mental illness and even physical maladies. Herein is the concept of the serpent embodying good and bad - the benefit of wisdom and insight but at the risk of corruption and illness.
Awakening the Chakras
The practice of kundalini yoga, or intentionally raising one's kundalini through various practices, begins with the awakening of the Base or Root chakra at the tail of the spine. The chakras are points in the human body where energy intensifies, connected by nadi - or channels. The seven main chakras are the Base/Root (lower spine), the Sacral (around the belly button), the Solar Plexus (the midpoint between the bottom two ribs), the Heart (centre of chest), the Throat (around the voice-box), Third Eye (centre of forehead) and the Crown chakra (just above the top of the head).
Each chakra relates to different aspects of life and character. They can also be viewed as the World Tree, with the roots coming from the Base chakra into the Earth itself, our anchor and connection to the physical plane, whereas the Crown chakra is similar to the branches reaching up to the heavens and our connection to God/Divinity. Around the Tree is the serpent - the kundalini. It is initially coiled at the bottom of the Tree or the Base chakra. As we begin to grow and learn and experience life on the physical plane, the kundalini will naturally awaken and coil its way up the spine, eventually reaching the brain, much like the serpent coils around the World Tree or the caduceus. However it will rarely extend beyond the first few chakras without conscious effort and practice and thus it can become stuck, growing stale or corrupted by the ego.
The Chakras and Kundalini
If the kundalini never rises beyond the Base chakra, we tend to become wholly fixated on materialism, the physical body and mundane matters. A person with kundalini remaining at this chakra will usually only have concern for their physical well-being, for the so-called baser or lower desires - money and material objects, vanity and maintaining physical beauty and preoccupation with trivial or superficial matters. There might be a lack of awareness and a disregard for humanitarianism, the nature of the soul or any form of spirituality. A healthy manifestation of the kundalini at the Base chakra could be someone very grounded, with a sense of stability, a strong character, practical and hard-working and who is focused on the here and now.
Puberty, as a key stage in human development, is typically when the kundalini reaches and activates the Sacral chakra, the energy centre related to sexuality, the reproductive organs and creativity. This is when kundalini, as desire, can become fixated on sexual energy - and for many people it can remain there. The snake becomes the embodiment of temptation at this chakra, when not properly managed and channelled. Thus many people become addicted to sexual gratification and pleasure and indeed such imagery drives much of our society today. The Sacral is a potent place for the kundalini and it usually takes some form of awareness or practice to raise it above this chakra. The positive manifestations are of course fertility and reproduction, the drive to continue our race, as well as productivity and creativity. Anything we create or produce, whether art, fiction, technology or relationships, stems from the energy of the second chakra.
Moving on to the third chakra, the Solar Plexus, we see the kundalini express itself as personal power, our seat of courage and confidence, anxieties and fear. This is another common chakra where the kundalini remains trapped, manifest as attention-seeking and adoration, a desire for recognition and approval to attain feelings of false self-worth and confidence. It is perhaps evident in today's celebrity culture, broadcast talent shows and via social media, essentially providing everyone with their own virtual stage. It also becomes difficult to move past this chakra because it is the centre of fear and anxiety, which tends to predominate unless gradually exposed, confronted and resolved. Much of our external troubles originate from unresolved fears, just as anxiety and stress left unchecked will contribute to illness within the body. Positively, raising the kundalini to the third chakra can help in discovering inner courage and strength and facing our fears, which in turn contributes to natural self-confidence as we gradually overcome them. It helps us to recognise our innate talents and skills and to use them constructively, in adding our own special worth to society. Thus we can find our seat of natural expression and true self-worth.
The higher up the chakras we go, the more challenging it becomes to effectively raise and express the kundalini. The next stage brings one into alignment with the heart centre, where deep emotional issues reside. This includes unconditional love for the self and ultimately others, empathy, how we express tenderness and affection and manage rejection. It relates also to the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine and to devotion. Here one usually has to deal with any past emotional trauma, bringing it to the surface to be felt and released, with acceptance and forgiveness. For instance, there can be residual deep-seated rejection from childhood or from those who did not show us unconditional love. Self-rejection can be another manifestation of this chakra when blocked, finding it difficult to truly love and accept the self or aspects of the self. These rejected parts can then be mirrored by others who come into our lives. There is often a powerful urge to find a partner, leading to one relationship after another until we learn to find love within (after which it can be shared with another). Grasping the essence of unconditional love, empathy and forgiveness can be difficult lessons but this is perhaps the chief goal of raising the kundalini through the heart chakra. To have reached this level suggests a person has already attained a degree of good spiritual growth.
Next we encounter the Throat chakra, the seat of communication and the spiritual voice - our outward expression. When the kundalini reaches this chakra it can manifest as frustration in voicing our true needs and desires. Often there can be difficulty conveying our beliefs and opinions because they are either misunderstood or rejected. This can be especially evident if one is receiving knowledge or insight that is ‘ahead of the times’, that is, incompatible with outdated views still held by the majority. If one is continually being rebuffed, this chakra can effectively close down, making honesty and integrity difficult – in other words, thinking that opinions are best kept private. When the Throat chakra is tuned and the kundalini flows, strength of voice and veracity come naturally. Others are likely to listen more intently and take notice of what is said. Expression via other mediums also becomes possible, such as public speaking or writing and music. Words become more meaningful and powerful and carry greater weight and influence.
The Third Eye is next. Raising the kundalini to this level brings very noticeable changes to mundane life. It is the energy centre directly linked to the brain and holds the key to insight, inner wisdom and intuition. By this stage, one is developing a sixth sense, which can be subtle at first, such as noticing more coincidence or that seemingly random events appear connected. Perception becomes clearer, knowledge more accessible and the desire to discover one’s life purpose takes precedence. At its strongest, the Third Eye grants psychic insight, potent dreams and access to ancestral wisdom, as well as a powerful and influential mind. When blocked, this chakra can present a lack of insight and passion for life. One’s outlook can become stubborn, such as a refusal to change perspective or accept different views. A rejection of learning or searching for hidden wisdom can occur, leading to ignorance and resignation.
Lastly we reach the Crown chakra. Successfully raising the kundalini to the seventh chakra takes practice and ongoing commitment. As the chakra that connects to God, or Divinity, the so-called spiritual realms, it brings with it much responsibility. For those who reach this stage, there will likely be initial confusion. The ordinary world can begin to feel quite alien and strenuous, as intuitive ‘glimpses’ of other realms become available. The chakra can often remain partially blocked – unless one spends the majority of life in meditation. Many difficult feelings begin to arise, such as insignificance or a sense of pointlessness to life. If this becomes too difficult to manage, one might even disconnect from Spirit or God and return to the attachments of the physical world. To have a harmonious seventh chakra opened and flowing, silence and solitude are often preferred. Meditation becomes a daily practice and materiality largely unappealing. There is a greater feeling of meaning to life, of one’s soul-purpose and place in the cosmos. Comfort and contentment are then found in sensing the underlying unity of all life, human, plant, animal and spirit.
Raising the kundalini is not a straightforward or linear process. For instance, it can be unleashed suddenly during a traumatic or intense emotional experience such as an accident, childbirth or near death experience, after which it will return to the Base or lower chakras. One might succeed in raising their kundalini to a specific chakra, through spiritual practices but still experience periodic or ongoing minor blockages with other chakras, as deep-rooted issues continue to surface for healing. To have the kundalini flow through all seven chakras perhaps requires a different lifestyle, but it could be said that this is the price for aspiring to freedom from the ego.
For Good or Bane?
Perhaps there is good reason for the demotion of the snake in human history. Aside from the fact that many species are lethal to humans and we have an inbuilt fear to protect ourselves, could it also have been an intentional ploy? Learned masters in yogic practice and tradition would have been aware of the kundalini's potential, of its inherent dangers to the inexperienced and unaware. The demonizing of the snake, therefore, could have been a cautionary measure to prevent those incapable of managing the kundalini from succumbing to its desires and being corrupted - if people had an innate fear of snakes, it would deter them from attempting to awaken their kundalini. Furthermore, associating it with evil and the concept of sin, with the devil and temptation, blends well with the kundalini's initial strong desires for pleasure and gratification. For someone unwittingly raising their kundalini and finding themselves overcome with such urges, they might fear they've given into sin.
Of course there is another possibility - those in the know, seeking power and authority over the masses, would also benefit from discouraging the kundalini. This is more so evident in monotheistic faiths, which originally decreed intermediaries between common folk and God, like priests or holy men. If individuals discovered how to awaken their kundalini and connect personally with Divinity, religion might lose its control over the masses.
To raise the kundalini correctly is to attain gradual self-empowerment, by discovering one's divine purpose. This ultimately leads to enlightenment, connecting with Divinity and the cosmos at large. Even today, if the majority of people began this practice, it would soon threaten the hierarchies and structures within society. Understandably, those in positions of influence and power, leading privileged lives, might want to prevent such spiritual evolution for all. Conversely, it could be that enlightened beings are ensuring we don't attempt to access the power of the kundalini before we are ready, which could potentially lead to our demise.
The Serpent Reborn
Kundalini awakening has been likened to a fiery sensation, particularly when unimpeded, racing up the spine through the chakras and triggering the brain to awaken. Like the fiery angelic beings that surround the Throne of God, perhaps these are beings of intense radiance and light that have attained full kundalini awakening? For it might be that when the kundalini is wholly unleashed, we transfigure, shedding our physical form, like the snake shedding its skin and evolving physically into energetic beings. Yet if we are not prepared, the fire of the kundalini might easily consume us. Perhaps this is from where the fear largely stems; once common knowledge to ancient masters and mystics, lost over time, rediscovered and misinterpreted.
The serpent remains a complex and enchanting character, lodged deeply in the subconscious of humankind. Is it a saviour in disguise or a cunning oppressor, a tormentor of souls or a stringent teacher? Perhaps it is both, a multifaceted being that holds the key to the meaning of life, to wisdom and liberation with the ubiquitous price of encountering the darkest parts of our soul. Either way, we each have a choice in pursuing the kundalini and the potential to open our minds and free our souls.
Humanity is clearly in a time of great transition, of awakening in a new Information Age where our similarities are becoming more evident, our differences less divisive and our connection and dependence upon Mother Earth and Nature is being largely rediscovered. Perhaps the more of us who successfully awaken our kundalini and evolve our minds and souls, the greater the chance we have of entering a new age of enlightenment.