Ellen F. Franklin, PhD
Oriental Medicine Journal, New Year/Year of the Snake 2013
The ideas and principles behind archetypes are found in almost every scholarly, theoretical, and academic field, and are a cornerstone in the psychology of C.G. Jung. Jung viewed them as living organisms that transcend history, cultures, races, and time. Erich Neumann (1963) draws on Jung to identify archetypes as the structural dominants of the psyche that transcend consciousness and direct unconscious behavior. in the form of mythological motifs or symbols, archetypes impact “feeling, intuition, and sensation” (p. 17).
Archetypal theory as articulated by Jung evolved throughout his life’s work and was not without criticism. Post-Jungian scholars have taken archetypal theories in many directions. James Hillman (1976) identifies archetypes with the fundamental metaphors of life and as “the deepest patterns of psychic functioning” (p. xix). Anthony Stevens (2002) views archetypes as biological entities that evolve over time through natural selection. Jean Knox (2003) puts forward the conception of archetypes as image schemas. More recently John Ryan Haule (2011) establishes connections between Jung’s theories of archetypes and a range of scientific discoveries in diverse fields that lend support to the conception that archetypes guide the formation of perception and behavior. This article explores the relationship between myths and archetypes to provide a foundation for the deep symbolic significance of the snake. This powerful cross-cultural, archetypal, and mythic symbol is one of the most enduring. it is associated with life, death, rebirth, renewal, and healing.
Archetypes transcend scholarly, theoretical, and academic fields and appear in myths, dreams, religion, philosophy, and science. Whether you approach them with a Jungian lens or go back to Plato, archetypes aid in attempts to define the world in which we live. Jung states that the collective unconscious takes the place of the Platonic realm of eternal ideas; “instead of these models giving form to created things, the collective unconscious, through its archetypes, provides the a priori condition for the assignment of meaning” (1963/1970, p. 87). Although Jung’s theories and definitions evolved, he identified archetypes as both image and structure; they are primordial and numinous images that lend structure to the psyche. “The archetype is essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived, and it takes its colour from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear” (1959/1969a, p. 5).
Jung’s theories regarding archetypes began early in his career, between 1900 and 1909, while working at the Burghölzli clinic. He observed the presence of universal symbols in the delusions and hallucinations of his psychotic patients (Ellenberger, 1970, p. 670). This early experience led to life-long research into images found throughout history, in Eastern mysticism, and medieval alchemy (Hollis, 1995, p. 21). In 1919 he would categorize these consistent patterns found in myths, legends, and fairytales as primordial images and begin calling them archetypes (Samuels, 1986). Jung describes archetypes as a priori instincts common to man and animal, numinous, inherited, pre-existent, and autonomous. They are contained within the collective unconscious and are “patterns of instinctual behavior” (p. 43). Sonu Shamdasani (2003) states that Jung viewed age-old customs as deeply rooted in instincts. When they are lost, there is a sense of being uprooted; lost traditions contribute to the pathology of modern times.
“When traditions broke down, consciousness became separated from instincts and lost its roots. These instincts, having lost their means of expression, sank into the unconscious, causing it to overflow into conscious contents” (Shamdasani, p. 262).
Jung distinguishes between the personal unconscious, which contains complexes, and the collective unconscious, which is made up of archetypes. He identifies the collective unconscious as containing the spiritual heritage of mankind's evolution, “born anew in the brain structure of every individual” (1960/1969b, p. 158). He expands on this when he connects archetypes with the chthonic aspects of our nature and our ability to adapt:
Archetypes are systems of readiness for action, and at the same time images and emotions. They are inherited with the brain-structure—indeed, they are its psychic aspect. They represent on the one hand a very strong instinctive conservatism, while on the other hand they are the most effective means conceivable of instinctive adaptation. (1964/1970a, p. 31)
Jung proposes that the most powerful ideas in history, which include religion, science, philosophy, and ethics, relate to archetypal ideas. He addresses the question of where archetypes originate by stating that you must consider them empirically, “the archetype did not ever come into existence as a phenomenon of organic life, but entered into the picture with life itself” (1958/1969, p. 149). Extrapolating from Jung, Haule (2011) provides the following concise summary of archetypal theory:
An archetype is a module of inheritance recognizable by typical patterns and images. It is the instinct’s recognition of appropriate conditions and goals. Subjectively, it manifests as a powerful emotional charge that invests what we see with over-whelming significance. Although it manifests in lower phyla as automatic and inflexible patterns, greater brain complexity gives animals increasingly greater freedom in adapting those patterns to individual circumstances. (pp. 14-15)
Jung’s theories regarding archetypes remain controversial not only in the Western medical approach to psychology but in analytical psychology where disagreements about the nature and role of archetypes in psychic functioning and the therapeutic relationship have resulted in the formation of different schools. Theories abound about whether archetypes are universal in nature, conscious or unconscious, innate and a priori, hereditary or biological. Stevens (2002) identifies connections between the biological and psychological functions of archetypes and links them to species survival:
Viewed from the strictly biological standpoint, the archetype is an ancient, genetically determined releaser or inhibiter. From the purely psychological point of view it is, of course, a good deal more than that, since the survival of the species, and the life of each member of the species, depends upon our capacity to 'know' situations, to recognize the essence of what we may find ourselves up against, and our ability to select from a vast repertoire of possible responses the behaviour and strategy most suited to the problem in hand. (p. 61)
Gray (1996) dismisses views of the archetype-as-such and identifies them with living systems, the basic attributes of life, whose continuous resonance and recurrent patterns touch all aspects of life. They impart a means to understand the universe that enriches lives. Hillman (1975) places so much importance on archetypes that he developed a distinct approach, which is called Archetypal Psychology. He embraces the idea that archetypes contain a multiplicity of meanings and must be viewed metaphorically. He views the psyche as an expression of specific archetypes that represent the names and stories of mythic Gods. These include the Hero, Nymph, Mother, Senex, Child, Trickster, Amazon, and Puer. He identifies these as root metaphors that impact all of our psychic functioning. They provide access to the roots of the soul, which governs our perspective of the world:
These persons keep our persons in order, holding into significant patterns the segments and patterns of behavior we call emotions, memories, attitudes, and motives. When we lose sight of these archetypal figures we become, in a sense, psychologically insane: that is, by not “keeping in mind” the metaphorical roots we go “out of our minds”—outside where ideas have become literalized into history, society, clinical psychopathology or metaphysical truths. (p. 128)
Hillman’s view of the psyche is in alignment with Plato’s concept of eidos, in which all knowledge is viewed as an expression of ideas “that have psychic premises in the archetypes” (1997, p. 132). He believed that a deeper understanding of myth and archetypes aids in our personal development. Donald Kalsched (1996) in his work with trauma builds on Jung’s theories of the psyche’s numerous complexes and articulates that each complex has an archetypal image at its core. He links archetypes to the body’s self-care system, which, like the immune system, will attack what it perceives to be dangerous. Severe trauma will activate these primordial motifs, which are bipolar and dynamic. In the body they represent instinct and affect; in the mind there is a spiritual or mythic dimension. Lionel Corbett (1996) supports the perspective articulated by Kalsched when he identifies complexes at the root of emotional and physical suffering, which cluster around an archetypal core, influencing perception, behavior, and powerful emotions.
Goodwyn (2010) refutes the significant debate in Jungian circles regarding the innate a priori structure of the archetype. He cites examples from deniers who view Jung as misguided and provides evidence for the recognition of the evolutionary adaption of innate structures, which includes “innate predispositions, perceptual biases, recognition mechanisms, emotional and expressive subroutines, behavioral urges, and more” (pp. 517). In Neurobiology of the Gods, Goodwyn (2012) expands on these views to link archetypes to perception, instinct, and symbolic images, building a case from the findings of neuroscience. “Archetypal symbols are non-random, emotionally laden metaphorical constructs originating in the deep layers of the brain/mind as it interacts inextricably with the environment…these symbols (among others) can affect brain/body health” (p. 175).
Jung recognized that science does not accept or understand the significance of these primordial images, yet he views them almost like psychic organs that must be treated with the utmost respect:
It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them. It is a question of neither belief nor of knowledge, but of the agreement of our thinking with the primordial images of the unconscious. They are the unthinkable matrices of all our thoughts, no matter what our conscious mind may cogitate. (1960/1969b, p. 403)
Achterberg (1994) states that the practice of medicine is filled with symbols that play an active role in healing. “If we take seriously the historical, multicultural, and scientific evidence for the role of imagination in both health and disease, it behooves us to begin to develop an ontology, or at least a taxonomy, of healing symbols.” She proposes that there is a biological, psychological, and transpersonal basis to explain the efficacy of symbols to represent what cannot be seen but is deeply felt and basic to all medical and spiritual traditions. "The activities of healing rituals invariably create nonordinary states of consciousness, and out of these states emerge the images and their symbolic overlay that fosters the wisdom, growth, beauty, and evolution of humankind.”
Although spirited, sometimes rancorous, debate exists within all academic fields, a review of the literature regarding Jung’s archetypal theory is filled with a multiplicity of divergent opinions. Arguments and counterarguments fill the pages of The Journal of Analytical Psychology and many other peer-reviewed journals. Scholars seem so anxious to prove or disprove Jung’s theories that they fail to see the profound relevance of archetypes in healing and contemporary culture, and might well dismiss these views as “new age” or “Jung light.” Yet, archetypes and the work of Jung continue to have a profound influence on popular literature that addresses health and wellbeing and the very human desire to transcend the limiting beliefs that prevent personal growth and transformation. Perhaps Hillman says it most profoundly when he states that we have had a hundred years of psychotherapy and we are not getting better (Hillman & Ventura, 1992). Jung recognizes, perhaps through his own deep work, that there is an inborn desire to seek greater knowledge that will lead to unification of the conscious and unconscious, the body, mind, and spirit. He clearly understood that everything living strives to be whole. He elaborates on this when he writes:
Probably in absolute reality there is no such thing as body and mind, but body and mind or soul are the same, the same life, subject to the same laws, and what the body does is happening in the mind. The contents of the neurotic unconscious are strange bodies, not assimilated, artificially split-off, and they must be integrated in order to become normal. (Jung, 1984, p.20)
Stein (2005) acknowledges this drive toward wholeness which is integral to the process of individuation, in which images and archetypes may “expand individuality in the direction of the Self, i.e., psyche’s wholeness, and they offer totally new options for feelings and action” (p. 11) that lend support in the journey toward wholeness.
Jungian analyst Bolen (1989, 2001, 2004) introduces the concept of archetypes to a wide popular audience, using archetypal theory to define how major differences in inner patterns shape interpersonal and intra-psychic conflicts. Drawing on the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome, Bolen is able to articulate an accessible frame for personal growth and development that is found throughout the works of Jung and many Jungian scholars (cf. Neumann, 1970 & 1972; Edinger, 1972; Hillman, 1975; and Tarnas, 2006). Tarnas (2006), in his work Cosmos and Psyche, draws the connections between archetypes and numinous universal myths that are associated with the heavens:
The earliest form of the archetypal perspective, and in certain respects its deepest ground, is the primordial experience of the great gods and goddesses of the ancient mythic imagination. In this once universal mode of consciousness, memorably embodied at the dawn of Western culture in the Homeric epics and later in classical Greek drama, reality is understood to be pervaded and structured by powerful numinous forces and presences that are rendered to the human imagination as the divinized figures and narratives of ancient myth, often closely associated with the celestial bodies. (p. 80)
Throughout the Collected Works Jung makes references to body-mind as a unit and states that when a complex is activated the emotion is felt in the body (cf. Jung, 1955; Corbett, 2011). Through his exploration of both Western and Chinese alchemy, he develops his theories within a framework that acknowledges the opposites contained within each of us, ultimately striving for wholeness. Jung pushes for an examination of the false or lesser aspects of a person so that the true Self can emerge through the process he identifies as individuation:
Nobody who finds himself on the road to wholeness can escape that characteristic suspension which is the meaning of crucifixion. For he will infallibly run into things that thwart and cross him: first, the thing he has no wish to be (the shadow); second, the thing he is not (the “other,” the individual reality of the You); and third, his psychic non-ego (the collective unconscious)…This urge to a higher and more comprehensive consciousness fosters civilization and culture, but must fall short of the goal unless man voluntarily places himself in its service. (1954/1966 pp. 262-263)
Stevens (2002) also identifies the formation of symptoms with the process of individuation. He sees illness as a creative act, the result of the psyche’s push toward growth and development, even in abnormal circumstances. Neurosis is thus to be conceived as a form of adaptation -- albeit an inferior adaptation -- of a potentially healthy organism responding to the demands of life. Edward Edinger (1991) relates symbols to illness. He identifies the important role that symbols play in the development of the human psyche and in understanding the roots of many physical illnesses. He likens symbols to something living, products of the archetypal psyche that are carriers of psychic energy. In order to cultivate a healthy inner life we must have a healthy symbolic life, for symbolic imagery supports the release and transformation of psychic energy. When we understand the archetypal foundation of a symptom, we are able to see the symbolic image behind it.
Alfred Ziegler (1983), in his work Archetypal Medicine, does not try to attribute scientific empiricism to archetypal medicine; rather, he states that it is both speculative and farfetched and invites a different perspective on the examination of relationships between health and disease. He proposes that health is not always our normal stage; disease is as well. Although he does not specifically relate his theories regarding archetypal medicine to Taoism or the practice of Oriental Medicine, he clearly states that “everything presents itself in oppositions, as part of polarities,” which is a fundamental principle of both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Five Element Theory. “Above and below reverse themselves readily; health and suffering manifest changeable symptoms; the actual and the potential cannot be clearly distinguished” (p. 3). Ziegler is one of many who identify the energy of the archetype as both psychological and physical (cf. Whitmont, 1993; Kreinheder, 2009; Kalsched, 1996; Corbett, 2011). Kreinheder (2009) states that the touch of archetypal energy is both sacred and profane, a psychic and physical experience during which miracles of healing are possible. “[T]here is no intervention with effects as dramatic as what may happen when mind meets body, when ego meets archetype, to create soul” (p. 29).
Ziegler (1983) offers a way to examine the relationship between archetypes and disease syndromes that can be applied to the practice of medicine:
Through the archetypes, everything is related to everything else and demonstrates common characteristics, analogies, and kinships. Another way of stating the same phenomenon is as the “Sympathy of All Things.” …. The kinship of diseases winds through all existence and, correspondingly, can be enriched, amplified, and evolved from myths, philosophies, and folklore medicine which, from earliest times, has served mankind as a way of understanding all that befell him. These patterns are not merely intellectual or spiritual perceptions of man’s destiny but can be taken quite literally, and can apply to medicine as well. (p. 47)
Corbett (2011) views image and affect as equally important. When we focus exclusively on image there is likely to be a mind-body split. Yet, archetypal expression in the body is a reality, states Corbett:
Painful complexes produce feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, or depression, all of which express themselves as both bodily sensations and mental imagery. We tend to think of our complexes as psychological, for example, when we say that someone has an inferiority complex. However, when a complex is activated emotion invariably flares up and emotion is felt in the body. The presence of intense emotion automatically makes a situation meaningful. When a complex is activated, so too is the archetype at its core. This means that the archetype is not only a psychological presence; it is felt in the body in the form of the emotions generated by the complex. (pp. 277-278)
Edward Whitmont (1993) draws on the evidence contained in homeopathic proving to make the case for the relationship between the physical and the psychological. He identifies complexes as being contained in the entire body, including the acupuncture meridians and points. When the life force or qi flows freely, it is able to connect with the essence of the archetype so that healing occurs.
The Five Phases in Oriental Medicine offer an elegant, detailed, and multidimensional description of a therapeutic approach to wholeness. Each phase is related to specific developmental and life tasks, emotions, and psycho-spiritual issues. The qi within the five phases has a natural self-regulatory quality which, when sensed, takes us out of the autobiographical or conceptual narratives of our experience into direct experience of an aspect of our essential self (cf. Dolowich, 2003; Dechar, 2006; Kaatz, 2005; Beinfield & Korngold, 2003; Kaptchuk, 2000; Carey, et al., 2010; Whitmont, 1993). This process can take clients quickly beyond limiting conceptualizations of their psychological and physical symptoms into direct contact with their own innate healing intelligence. Gary Dolowich (2003) integrates Five Element acupuncture and Jungian archetypal psychology. He equates the elements with universal archetypal images contained within the collective unconscious. For more than twenty-five years his practice has embraced the concepts of Jung, who, he states, clearly understood the connections between ancient Chinese wisdom and archetypes. With the practice of Oriental Medicine from a Taoist alchemical perspective, the body mind split is recognized as pathological; it prevents the free flow of qi and the transformation of energy between yin and yang. These splits and blockages are the cause of disease (Dechar, 2006).
Jung wrote extensively about Christianity, the gospels, and alchemy, and delved deeply into the Gnostic texts, encouraged to do so after reading and commenting on the Richard Wilhelm translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower (Jung, 1931). This Taoist alchemical text had a profound impact on Jung in the development of his theories regarding the psyche and archetypes. The psyche is comprised of forces that seek mutual accommodation and balance. His theory of individuation, and the development of his hypothesis regarding synchronicity, grew out of his investigation of the I-Ching. Jung found common ground in the Chinese intuitive sense of grasping the whole of a situation, which was in contrast with the more analytical and reductive Western approach (Clarke, 2000). Jung (1960/1969) wrote: “Unlike the Greek-trained Western mind the Chinese mind does not aim at grasping the details for their own sake, but at a view which sees the detail as part of the whole” (p. 34).
Rosen (1996) identifies many parallels between Jung’s psychology and Taoism. These include Jung’s identification of the duality of human nature, “manifest by yin/yang, dark/light, shadow/persona, evil/good, and feminine/masculine; the Great Mother as the origin of all things, The I Ching and synchronicity, the Tao and the Self; and the Way of integrity and individuation” (p. 9). Jung (1954/1964) equates the development of personality with the Tao: “To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, one’s destination reached, one’s mission done; the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence in all things. Personality is Tao” (p. 186).
Myths are resonant frequencies that stand as powerful metaphors to connect us with the symbols, language, and gods of the heavens. They relate to specific religious, cultural, sociological, and psychological ideas; and they aid in understanding the nature of the universe. They serve as a binding force that lends order and structure, influences customs, and guides the development of behavior. Campbell (2007) states that, despite the cross-cultural differences, there is a common uniting theme in all myths, “a single symphony of the soul” (p. 221).
The value of myth is well articulated by James Hollis (1995), who states that in cultures with “vital mythic images” myths serve as a guide to aid and support the individual’s development of a sense of self, and they are initiated into their own soul mysteries (p.17). Moore (1996) reflects that myths rouse, promote deep emotions, and stir passion. “To live with a myth-tuned imagination is to see the world and one’s own life as enchanted and to have increased possibilities for a deeply based, passionate, and individual life” (p. 235). Krippner and Feinstein (2008) state that during this time of unprecedented change, it is of vital importance for psychotherapists to understand their personal myths and to aid clients in discovering the personal myths that shape their behavior. Although clinical relationships often encompass specific cultural roles and patterns that shape the relationship between practitioner and client, such as racism or social injustices, these too may be understood within the context of larger mythic and universal themes (Kirmayer, 2003, p. 253).
Corbett (2011) identifies the numinous quality of the archetype, calling it a spiritual principle “that embodies itself in the form of emotionally important, soulful experiences, which is a way that spirit enters the body” (p. 279). Through common language and themes, myths serve as guides to structure what unfolds in daily life, providing form and meaning. Jung further articulates the significance of myth in the creation of meaning:
The need for mythic statements is satisfied when we frame a view of the world which adequately explains the meaning of human existence in the cosmos, a view which springs from our psychic wholeness, from the co-operation between the conscious and unconscious. Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science. For it is not that “God” is a myth, but that myth is the revelation of a divine life in man. (Jung, 1961/1989, p. 340)
Richard Tarnas (2006) extrapolates from Plato to define myths as “absolute essences that transcend the empirical world yet give the world its form and meaning. They are timeless universals that serve as the fundamental reality informing every concrete particular” (p. 81). Hillman (1975) defines archetypes as mythic metaphors contained within the psyche that defy definition, although Jung might say that they are “unknowable in themselves.” Hillman contends that we know them “indirectly, metaphorically, and mythically” (p. 157). He expands on this and states that archetypes are the skeletal gods of the psyche, which defy definition and speak to the psyche in their own language: “[T]hey speak emotionally, dramatically, sensuously, fantastically” (p. 154).
Almost all mythology includes a creation story. In many, that creation story includes a great mother goddess or father god who represents the Earth. Virtually every culture has stories about creation, snakes and serpents, the sun and moon, water and fire, love, sex, death, and the underworld. The stories may vary, but the archetypes they represent remain the same. Stevens (2002) states that when we deepen our knowledge of myths and our myth making capability, we lend support to the quest for a more unified and cohesive world:
Myths provide an entire cosmology compatible with a culture's capacity for understanding, they establish a transcendent context for our brief existence here on earth, they validate the values which rule our lives, they ensure that cohesion of cultures and the worth of individuals by releasing an archetypal response at the deepest levels of our being, and they awaken in us a sense of participation in the mysterium tremendum et fascinans which pervades the relationship between the cosmos and the Self. (p. 41, italics in text)
Citing Jung, von Franz (1995) relates a story in which he stresses the importance of personal myths. “To have your own myth means to have suffered and struggled with a question until an answer has come to you from the depth of your soul” (p.12). She articulates that myths provide vital instinctive knowledge and our trust in them leads to health. Hillman articulates the relationship among archetypes, myths, and soul:
By setting up a universe, which tends to hold everything we do, see, and say in the sway of its cosmos, an archetype is best comparable with a God. And Gods, religions sometimes say, are less accessible to the senses and to the intellect than they are to the imaginative vision and emotion of the soul. (1976, xix)
Goodwyn (2012) identifies gods and spirits as powerful metaphorical symbols that originate from innate predispositions, which are often potent, highly charged emotional forces that impact thoughts, feelings, actions, and experience and can affect brain/body health. His investigation supports a neurobiological basis for many of Jung’s theories. This includes significant supporting research to demonstrate that “archetypal symbols are non-random, emotionally laden metaphorical constructs originating in the deep layers of the brain/mind as it interacts inextricably with the environment, which at its deepest level is highly conserved and universal” (p. 175).
All of life originates in water, lakes, shallow pools, oceans, streams, and rivers; even human life emerges from the amniotic fluid of the mother. As the most primordial of creatures, the sinuous snake arises from the primal waters, imbuing our mythologies with images that are cosmic and sacred, depicting the creator, healer, and destroyer. As a symbol of eternal life, the snake has been likened to the moon shedding its skin to be born again, as it glides and undulates in and out of Earth’s watery depths. The serpent’s creative energy embodies the living substance of the Universe (Campbell, 1997). In our earliest creation myths it represents the feminine, our watery origins, and is the ultimate expression of yin.
Images of the serpent arise with the development of consciousness and the need to understand our origins. The heavenly serpent or uroborus, the circular snake biting its own tail, is an ancient symbol found in Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, India, Mexico, and in Navajo sand paintings. Erich Neumann (1954) identifies the uroborus as the round container, the maternal womb, the Great and Good Mother who provides nourishment, protects, and comforts. It is the union of masculine and feminine, “above and below, male and female, heaven and earth, God and world reflect one another and cannot be put apart” (p. 18).
Neumann also links the uroborus to the beginning time as depicted by the open circle of the wu chi. Walker (1983) links it with the Chinese pi-dragon, a symbol of the Universe that has been found carved on jade discs, which she states may have been an early prototype for the great Python and the Pythagoreans’ worship of pi as the mystic principal of the circle. The Aboriginal Negritos of southeastern Asia believed that the divine people known as Chinoi (Chinese) descended from the mighty serpent goddess Mat Chinoi, Mother of the Chinese. Her belly received the souls of the dead, and Shamans underwent the initiation of death and rebirth in her belly. Although the uroborus is often identified as a spontaneous expression of the snake, van der Sluijs and Peratt (2009) propose that its origins may be cosmological and may relate to an auroral phenomenon of plasma instability that occurred toward the end of the Neolithic period. These intense luminous and multi-colored lights of the aurora in the heavens may well have led to a near universal belief of a = Serpent God surrounding the Earth.
Regardless of her origins, the symbol of the snake is universal and deeply embedded in the human consciousness. Ancient cult images of a snake-headed Mother Goddess suckling her child were found in Ur and Erech and date to at least 4000 BC. Images of entwined snakes also appear frequently in Mesopotamian art and were carved in votive stones and placed near ponds to absorb the mana of the water (Haul and Puleston, 1996). Mesopotamians believed that the S shape of the intertwined snakes corresponded to sickness and convalescence, and was an omen and hallmark of sickness and the cure. This image, which reaches back to prehistory, is contained within all of us:
It has the shape of a double, serpentine spiral and contains the secret of life’s regeneration. It lies with us as a memory, a vestige, a reflection of the royal couple of snakes from whose union the world was born. (Szczeklik, 2005)
These images have come to represent the fecundity of Earth, the fertile ground and the sacred waters that offer healing. Kadru, an Indian Serpent Goddess, gave birth to the cobra people or Nagas, a race of snakes that guard the Earth’s waters and all the treasures and secret teachings. They were depicted as water-serpents or mermaids and mermen, male and female deities who were human from the waist up with long serpentine tails that were often entwined. Above them is a hood or canopy of multiple cobra heads. They were responsible for guarding the great treasures and secret teaching in underwater sanctuaries (Walker, 1983; Haul and Puleston, 1996). This imagery might be likened to that of Sedna, the Inuit goddess who resides at the bottom of the sea. Shamans even to this day will go into a trance and journey into the ocean’s depths to seek wisdom about the cause of an illness and petition for the needs of the living (Achterberg, 1985).
The Egyptian God Thoth and the Greek God Hermes are also linked to serpents. Serpents guarded The Book of Thoth in an underwater palace (Walker, 1983). These serpentine images also influenced Hindu and Buddhist art and can be found in the extensive mythology about Vishnu who was known as Lord of the Waters. He sleeps on Sesha, the world serpent who forms a couch upon which Vishnu rests between the ages. This image is not so different from that of the Buddha sitting in deep meditation beneath the Bodhi tree upon a coiled up snake. The worship of snakes or Nagas in India preceded the Buddha by at least five hundred years. This is just one example of a blending of belief systems to gain acceptance of a new form of worship. (Additional examples are provided below.) Gimbutus (1998) identifies snakes as the guardians of life from prehistory and provides numerous examples of snake imagery from the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic period. In some myths a male serpent deity becomes the phallic partner of the Great Mother; as the mother’s original mate, he aids in creation through fertilization. However, his arrogance does him in. A Pelasgian creation myth dating to the Neolithic period describes just such a union.
Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, emerges from chaos and divides the sea from the sky to dance among the waves. Her fluid ecstatic movement forms the winds that flow around her. Reaching out with her hands she clasps the wind of the North, and the great snake Ophion is born. Carefree and wild, she dances on. Ophion, captivated by her fluidity, is unable to contain himself. He entwines himself around the limbs of the Goddess and impregnates her. In the form of white dove, she lays the Universal egg and instructs Ophion to coil around it seven times until it hatches and splits in half. It is from this egg that all life is formed. Although it is believed by some that they ruled side-by-side, it is written that Ophion oversteps his welcome when he claims authorship of all of creation. Greatly vexed, Eurynome banishes him to the Underworld and, without his assistance, demonstrates her true creative ability by giving birth to the planets (Graves, 1960).
In other creation myths, The Great Mother gives birth to herself and the cosmos through parthenogenesis. All life emerges from the egg, which splits in two to represent the polarities of the Universe— male and female, yin and yang, hot and cold, sun and moon, day and night, each a complement to the other and representative of the ever-changing balance that maintains harmony in the cosmos. The creator Goddess and her snake are so deeply a part of women’s culture that images are found in cave drawings, pottery, ancient coins, artwork, and jewelry from around the world. In Egypt, Uraeus is the divine cobra who protects the sun god Ra. The image of a golden cobra appears in royal headdresses and was part of ceremony and rituals. The iconic hieroglyphic image of the cobra also represents the Goddess. Isis, the principal goddess of ancient Egypt, was associated with the moon and also known as a serpent goddess. In one myth she sends a serpent to poison Ra so that he will reveal his name; with this knowledge her powers become even greater. Atum was also worshipped in Egypt as the great creator serpent emerging from primordial waters to create the world (Archer, 2008).
In Australia, the rainbow serpent regulates all of the waters above and below including the clouds and rain, pools, waterfalls, and floods. Grove (1999) finds evidence of a goddess religion equated with the Rainbow Serpent of mythology on sacred aboriginal land in the Northern Territory of Australia. This rock art is dated to between 6000 and 8000 years ago. One Rainbow Serpent myth describes the birthing process. The dollar bird releases the eggs from the Rainbow Serpent, and they rush from her body to all of the waterholes, where spirit children emerge. The Rainbow Serpent is also found in ancient myths as well as present-day religions in Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, where the rainbow is believed to be the celestial serpent creator of all things (Archer, 2008). In ancient Persia, the rainbow was identified as a celestial serpent; and Native Americans have called the Milky Way the path of the serpent.
Plains and Pueblo Natives refer to the Earth Navel from which sacred waters and spiritual strength emerge. Among the Tewa there is a legend of the horned water serpent that controls the water of the river. In Pueblo traditions the snake is often associated with fertility, springs, clouds, and water; and both the bird and snake are important ceremonial symbols. This association can be found among the Toltec as Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and in Kukulcan, the Mayan equivalent (Laski, 1958). A snakebird goddess was worshipped as early as 6500 BC in southeastern and central Europe. Images of the world tree, the snake, and the bird can also be linked to India and China. The snake, rising up the spine, floods the brain with illumination (Sjöö and Mor, 1987). Campbell (2003) links the most ancient tradition of Oriental mysticism to the serpent and the practice that is known as Kundalini, which means “the coiled up one.” The coiled serpent resides at the base of the spine, which is often pictured as a tree with seven centers of spiral energy known as chakras. The serpent rises from the base of the spine, up through each of the chakras to awaken us from spiritual slumber. The journey of the serpent is rigorous, requiring discipline, breath, meditation, specific postures, and engagement of the body, mind, and heart.
The shedding of the snake’s skin has come to be associated with renewal, rebirth, and immortality. Even modern Western medicine is imbued with symbols that include the snake-entwined staff, or caduceus, attributed to both Asclepius and Hermes. The winged staff entwined with two snakes was given to Hermes by his brother Apollo and has been used as a symbol of medicine for hundreds of years. However, like many symbols, this image may well go back to ancient Egypt and the Ibis-headed god Thoth. Hermes acquires both the qualities of the bird and the more chthonic serpent-like abilities. He flies swiftly between the worlds and transports souls to the underworld. Hermes’ winged intertwined snakes may also be viewed as a symbol of harmony and transcendence; the serpent is equivalent to Earth and the bird to air, which, when combined, miraculously transform polar opposites to a complementary and harmonious union (Henderson, 2003).
Apollo was also known as the god of healing and death; and one of his attributes was the snake. However, it is his son Asclepius who comes to be known as the Greek god of healing and takes this position from his father around the fifth century BC. His emblem is the single wooden snakeentwined staff. Asclepius may have originally been a snake-god; when shrines were dedicated to him, a snake was part of the dedication ceremony. His oldest known temple was in Thessaly; his daughter was Hygeia; and he was fostered by and learned the art of healing from the wise centaur Chiron. The lasting legacy of his teacher is that of the wounded healer, who transcends his own wounding. The mythic and archetypal qualities of Chiron provide a framework to aid in understanding the urge toward wholeness. Chiron represents the desire to address deep psychological wounds, physical and psychological scars, abuse, trauma, injuries, or illness that are slow to heal, and old patterns that inhibit personal progress (Franklin, 2011; Carey, et al., 2010).
The staff of Asclepius may well represent the sacred tree. In chthonian religions of ancient Greece, the tree was a link between the underworld and life on earth, and the snake were revered as a symbol of life, growth, health, fertility, and eternity (Ménez, 2003). Asclepian dream temples were sacred, located near springs and waters; and the snakes that were incorporated into healing may have been kept in labyrinths beneath the temples (Kirmayer, 2003). Doctors in antiquity called themselves asclepiades.
However, with the suppression of both pagan and female cultures, serpents began to take on a more negative connotation and lose their connection to healing and creation. This can be found in the Greco Roman Myths and in the changing nature of both Judaic and Christian doctrine. Among these myths is the story of the great Python, a child of Gaia charged with protection of Delphi, including the sacred springs, the Omphalos (navel stone) of Earth, and the prophetess Sibyl. Apollo slays the Python and takes control of Delphi away from Gaia. Another classical myth describes the evil Gorgon Medusa who turns men to stone; beheaded by Perseus, her head is brought back to Athens. Far earlier stories of Medusa identify her as the serpent-goddess of the Libyan Amazons who represents female wisdom and was the mother of all Gods. The story of Perseus may have been invented to account for Medusa’s head being on the shield of Athena. Classically, Athena is represented as a goddess of wisdom, arts and crafts, and a great strategist. This is likely an attempt to redefine the pre-Hellenic Goddess who was called Neith in Egypt and Athene in North Africa. Born of the Three Queens of Libya, this Triple Goddess was believed to be the mother of all Gods. “A female face surrounded by serpent-hair was an ancient, widely recognized symbol of divine female wisdom, and equally of the ‘wise blood’ that supposedly gave women their divine power” (Walker, 1983, p. 692). Similarly the serpent was worshipped in Palestine among the early Hebrews. The Leviathans were known as the sons of the Great Serpent, who was worshipped in combination with the Goddess of the moon. The Hebrew word Seraph has been translated to mean a divine fiery serpent, but it had a much earlier definition as an earth-fertilizing snake and later came to be identified as an angel. The Pyramid texts identify the serpent as offering the knowledge of eternal life, and the Gnostic texts praised the serpent of Eden for bringing knowledge to humanity (Walker, 1983). However, the serpent ultimately is cast as evil, leading us to temptation. The story we most remember is Eve being led astray by the evil serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Despite the denigration of the snake, it stands as a universal symbol that is deeply embedded in the human psyche and remains a powerful feminine symbol of creativity and healing. Jung (1984) identifies snakes as relating to the Earth, the chthonic side of our psychological life and the sympathetic nervous system. He also cites the Gnostic belief that the snake is a spiritual God who teaches people to escape the curse of the unconscious. Jung equates the snake with an unfolding of the mind and with the potential to be the greatest benefactor of knowledge to deepen our understanding of life itself. Archetypes, symbols, and myths provide us with the language and images to remember the wisdom of the ancients and unite the arts with medicine.
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