Buffie Johnson says: “The serpent serves as metaphor for the impenetrable manner in which our lives change, twist and renew themselves.” (The Lady of the Beasts, p. 128)
The serpent is the instinctive life-force and may be male, female or the self-created. It is a very old symbol.
When appearing as a phallic symbol, it is masculine, and associated with the spirit, but has initially been associated with the Great Mother, one of the earliest symbols of humanity.
The wavy pattern, by which it moves along, connected it to the watery principle of the unconscious. Its ability to shed a skin is associated with the cyclical mystery of death, rebirth, and eternal life. It is coldblooded, mesmerizing and poisonous, yet Jung saw the serpent as an example of the transforming substance (CW 12 par 173): it’s energy has the potential to bring about profound change.
A common manifestation of the serpent is the spiral. Double spirals signify the union of opposites. The tree and the serpent often appear together. The tree may be represented as a staff. The Caduceus consists of a winged staff with two intertwining serpents and was the earliest symbol associated with medicine, alchemy and transformation, and is still found in the medicine world today. The two intertwining serpents represent the integration of the opposites, an essential aspect of healing and inner growth.
The serpent and the dragon share the same symbolism, and the dragon was also called, ‘that old serpent’ or ‘the worm.’ Mercurius says of himself that he is the fire-breathing dragon; this is to say that the dragon is also the Self, the union of opposites.
The tail-biting serpent or dragon, known as the ouroboros, represents the ability of the life-force to eat itself and to renew itself by giving birth to itself anew. It is this process of self-renewal. It was also said that only something that is able to destroy itself, is truly alive.