Snakes have the unfortunate privilege of being one of the most vilified animals in all of history. As a result, snake symbolism is inextricably linked to poison.
Snakes have the unfortunate privilege of being one of the most vilified animals in all of history. Especially in the West, snakes are associated with a whole library of terrible values, from treachery to murder. Thanks to the role of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Christians associate the snake with temptation and the devil. But the Christian symbol of the snake is not the only one. Snakes are generally unassuming creatures who tend to leave humans alone. Relatively few snakes are poisonous, and few of the poisonous snakes are lethal to humans. But some exceptions exist, especially in Africa, Australia and the American West, and there are poisonous snakes nearly everywhere there are humans. As a result, snake symbolism is inextricably linked to poison.
Older meythological systems tend to associate the snake with wisdom, fertility and knowledge.
Snakes are associated with fertility mostly due to their phallic nature, with wisdom due to their careful movements, and knowledge through their association with various version of the Egyptian god Thoth, whose portfolio included writing, math and technology. Egyptian views of the snake were echoed throughout the Mediterranean cultures that predated Judeo-Christianity. Perhaps the single most enduring symbol featuring the snake is not the serpent in the Garden, but the snake eating its own tail. The Egyptians named the self-eating snake Ouroboros, and to them it signified the cyclical nature of the universe.
Seasons turned, life cycled to death and back, and all things seemed to come from themselves.
While Ouroboros tattoo was an Egyptian symbol that spread into Western culture through the Greeks (especially the various Gnostic traditions and mystery cults) other cultures have featured different versions of the same symbol. The Norse believed there was a World Serpent, whose length circled the Earth. The World Serpent’s tail was stuck in its mouth, and when it finally freed its tail from its jaws, it would unravel the earth itself and lead to the end of times. Other cultures have had even more positive views of the snake. Several schools of Yoga revere the snake for its flexibility, most notably Kundalini yoga, which believes that there is a coil of spiritual energy in the body that resembles a snake. Freeing this inner snake leads to enlightenment. Kundalini yoga is also closely associated with Tantric sexual yoga, continuing the theme of fertility and virility that the snake is associated with. In Greek traditions, the snake was connected with the Moon and the goddess who ruled it. Knowledge, power and protection came from the moon and from her chose animals, the snakes. The Greek symbol for medicine is a staff with a pair of snakes curled around it (Caduceus).