The Meaning and Symbolism of a Snake in Native American Art



Snakes are long, segmented, slim-bodied reptiles of the class reptile. They can grow to be two to three feet long and weigh several hundred pounds. Like many other small amniotes, snakes too are ectothermic, covered in thick, overlapping scales. The word “snake” comes from the Greek word “sna,” meaning “foot.” In addition to their unusual looking bodies, snakes have other unique features such as jointed digits, curled claws, and spiral throat and tail.


The serpent symbolizes an aspect of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. The Greek god of healing, Aesculapius, often disguised as a snake, healed his disciples by dipping them in water. Later, the Roman god, Jupiter restored Aesculapius to health, but this god were also once a snake. Thus, snakes represent the divine aspects of both Greek and Roman religion.

The Egyptian god of magic, Osiris, also had snakes as a companion. This Egyptian god of magic, known as Thoth, was also a snake-like creature. Serpentine images of Osiris, including the jackal headdress, represent the serpent as part of the divine cycle of life and death. Serpentines are also associated with the sea serpent, the Phokolese, and the boat-serpent, Pangolin.

Cretan myths relate the serpent to the winds. The snake is said to bring bad luck on people who sail over its path. Another form of the serpent is the Hydra, a three-headed serpent who caused storms byashing his hooves against the ship’s mast. The ancient Greeks and Romans also made statues of Serpens, sometimes representing the deities Uranus, Atlas, and Neptune. Some priests wore amulets around their necks that were sacred to the goddesses of medicine, Apollo, and Castor.

Among the most ancient mythological characters, the serpent has been a favorite subject since the dawn of time. Serpent forms are always important to mythological stories. A good example is the story fiction, or the rising of Mount Everest. In this story, the hero Heracles was overcome with a fear of serpents that he killed his own brother, Panthro, with his bare hands. This act caused his untimely death. Since the serpent represents fear and evil in our modern culture, many artists have depicted her as the black snake or the cobra.

Many religions, including Catholicism, have taken a strong stance against reptiles and other denizens of the natural world. In Catholicism, any sort of animal, even rats and snakes, are considered evil. Thus, a priest would never kill a snake. A Hindu sacrifice to a Deva (snake) is considered absolutely sacrilegious.

In Greek mythology, the serpent Isbellis was the daughter of Lapeteus, a king of Troy, and the mother of Anchises and Iphigenia. She later took the infant Iphigenia away to Greece when her husband, Tyndareus, died. She left a daughter named Bellerikos who was half-blind and could not speak, but she somehow learned to speak by listening to the rattle of the snapping turtles. Through the ages, many artists have depicted her as a snake, often with scales, who taught Achilles the art of war.

Serpent images are also found in the works of several Native American tribes. One of these tribes, the Navajo, has an image of a snake called the “Basti” on their ceremonial drums. The Basti is believed to protect the wearer from disease and evil spirits. In the far south of Mexico, a Mayan carving called the Teotihuacan Tortle drums depicts a serpent-like creature with large wings, sharp teeth, and a menacing look. This creature was used by the Aztecs as a sign that good fortune would befall the person who would play it on a telegraph board.