Snakes fascinate and terrify most of us. Because of this near universal reaction, and because snakes have played such important roles in the mythology of just about every religion, we know they have relevance to the psycho-spiritual life of every human being.
Throughout history the connection between the snake and the feminine principle has been profound and intimate: from Eve to the Serpent Lady of Ashtoreth and Kadesh; from Ishtar, the Babylonian Lady of Vision to the Serpent Goddess of Crete; from Kebhut, the goddess of freshness who played a part in Egyptian funerary ceremonies to the asp that transported Cleopatra to the afterlife; from Greece’s ancient Earth Mother Gaea to the Golden Age’s Queen, Hera, and her step-daughter Athena, goddess of wisdom; from east to west, serpents have always tempted, personified, accompanied, awakened, transformed, and empowered women and goddesses.
A snake is one of the most versatile of all creatures. It can live in the ground or in a tree, in the desert or in the water, but it is primarily considered a chthonic creature, i.e. as pertaining to the earth and the spirits of the underworld. This accounts for its association with the physical death of the body; however, because it periodically sheds its skin and emerges as if reborn, it is also seen as a symbol of transformation and the perpetual capacity for renewal.
Psychologically, because of its phallic form, it is a masculine sexual symbol; yet, at the same time, because of its devouring nature, it also suggests feminine sexuality as well as extremely powerful unconscious feminine energies. In this latter regard, Jung noted that distressing dreams about snakes are symptomatic of anguish over a reactivation of the destructive potential of the unconscious. It is no wonder they are almost universally feared.
Snakes are also associated with divine revelation. Evidence from shrines and oracular sites of the Goddess in Babylon, Sumer, Anatolia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome suggests that sacred serpents were kept and fed by priestesses who were consulted for prophecy. Perhaps it is this association that led Philo of Alexandria to believe that the snake was the most spiritual of animals.
In sum, Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols notes: “If all symbols are really functions and signs of things imbued with energy, then the serpent or snake is, by analogy, symbolic of energy itself — of force pure and simple…” Thus is Hinduism’s Shakti personified as Kundalini, a Sanskrit word meaning “circular power.” It is said the sleeping serpent-goddess is coiled in the pelvis and can be awakened through spiritual exercises, especially yoga. When aroused, she rises up through the spinal chakras until she reaches the head, completely transforming the individual along the way.
Whatever we call this energy, spirit persons from every religion have reported powerful and often very distressing physical and psychological symptoms consistent with this symbolism. Like Indra’s diamond net which intuitively prefigured Jung’s collective unconscious, quantum physics’ holographic universe, and the worldwide internet thousands of years ago, the Kundalini goddess may well be an ancient expression of a scientific reality: to wit, the very painful but ultimately healing transformation of consciousness we see taking place all around us in the world today.