Other Applications

Pastoral Staff


Rod of Asclepius




The Americas





The serpent is best interpreted to be a symbol of the earth. As a political symbol it ranks with the symbols of the empire, the state and the ruler, the two first symbolized by the celestial bodies of the sun and the moon and the third symbolized by the worldly serpent. 

The serpent-symbol is wide-spread on all of the Eurasian continent. In the Americas the serpent plays an important role in the indian religions.






The serpent-symbol apparently has been invented in Ancient Egypt. From the outset it has been associated with the ruler. The first ruler who used the snake as a royal symbol was King Snake, the third king from the 1st D. (3050-2890 BC). The tomb-stone of this King Djet has been found in Abydos and is 1,43 m high. The stone depicts a palace-wall (serekh) with a snake above. On the cartouche on which these symbols are carved is a falcon which can be interpreted as the symbol of the supreme commander of the army. Such a falcon appears after king Narmer of the 0 D. (3150-3050 BC). Falcon, snake and palace-wall make ‘Supreme Commander King Snake (of Abydos)’.

From the reign of King Cheops (2589-2566) a cobra (Naje haje -Lapinæ) appears in the oval cartouche bearing the Royal name.

Royal Name of Cheops


From the 4th D. the snake is a part of the royal headdress named nemes. The first pharao who wore such a nemes was Djedefre (2566-2558) and after him all pharao’s have worn it.



Red quartzite head of Djedefre, wearing the nemes headdress.

From Abu Roash (Louvre, Paris)


Cobra-jewel from the time of  Tutanchamen

The snake appears also in other combinations such as a supporter or supporters of the Egyptian red imperial sun.




The serpent as an ensign appears on the shields of some ancient Greek and Parthian warriors. Roman auxiliarii of the 4t-5th century AD bearing a shield with a snake are documented by the Notitia Dignitatum.




Greek, Partian and Theban shield charged with serpents


The use of a snake as an ensign in the middle ages is quite exceptional. Most examples thought to be serpents are no serpents but fish because having a tail-fin. Also, a serpent is easily confused with a dragon, the difference being that a dragon always has feet.  A famous example and exception is the coat of arms of the Visconti family which shows a crowned serpent devouring a child. 





In Northern Europe the serpent played a role in norse cosmology. It lived in Midgard, the earth, and was called Midgardsormr (worldserpent). Norse saga’s tell about the fight of Sigurd with Midgardsormr.


Rune-stone from Ockelbo showing the earth encircled by the Midgardsormr

At the top Sigurd is piecring the snake with a sword.


In an exceptional case the serpent is associated with kingship and we are informed that “The Long Serpent” was the name of the celebrated longship built by King Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), ‘the best-fitted and costliest ship ever built in Norway’, according to Snorri Sturluson”.[1] Generally however the Norse drakkars were decorated with a dragon’s head.


Christian Symbolism


The serpent in the Christian world is generally seen as the great deceiver (and probably symbolizing the Egyptian Pharao) because of  the role it played in the Genesis story of the driving away from paradise of Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3).  Eve, called to account by God after presenting the apple of knowledge to her husband said: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”


14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

 “Cursed are you above all livestock

and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly

and you will eat dust

all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity

between you and the woman

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”


Photo Irene Basc

La Colonne del Serpente

Basilica di S. Ambrogio, Milano

Symbol of the Old Testament, on the pillar on the other side of the nave a square cross, symbol of the New Testament. The Basilica di S. Ambrogio was build at the end of the fourth c. AD.


In the middle ages the serpent became the symbol of the Old Testament and when antisemitism was sanctioned by the church of Rome of Judaism in general. For that reason the serpent is crushed by the warrior Saint George in Christian iconography. In the twelfth and thirteenth century the serpent St George crushes evoluated to a dragon. [2]


Two Kievan saints crushing serpents

Kievan Rus, mid 11th-12th century. [3]


Other Applications




Snake Rods

From left to right: Russian Orthodox Pastoral Staff,  Caduceus (Roman) [4], Asclepian Rod, Armenian Pastoral staff.


Pastoral Staff


A pastoral staff  with serpents is used as a badge of rank of orthodox Christian bishops. It is:

A tall staff of precious metal topped by two serpents with a cross in the center. This is a sign of the Bishop's authority. The serpents represent the visible and invisible enemies of the Church and the Cross symbolizes the power which Christ has granted to the Church and is entrusted to the Bishop. The staff also reminds us of the staff of Moses with which he led the Israelites to the promised land and the good shepherd tending to his flock. [5]



Such “pastoral staffs”, that is to say poles crowned with snakes respecting  can also be found on the shields of 4th-5th century Roman auxiliaries. This suggests that such staffs originally were standards or ensigns of army divisions and  that Christian religious leaders using such standards could also be army commanders. In the same way Christian bishops from the church of Rome used standards crowned with the XP-cypher, being the symbol of Christian armed authority. From these XP-standards the mediaeval croziers are derived.




A Caduceus (Staff of Mercury) is the emblem of Mercury/Hermes the God of Commerce. It consists of a winged staff  entwined with two serpents respecting.



Hermes / Mercury

Left: On an Attic vase, 6th c. BC.. Centre: On a fresco in Pompei (before 79AD). Right: 17th c.AD (Artus Quellinus)


Initially the staff of Hermes consisted of a rod crowned with an 8-shaped ornament. Later the ornament was opened at the top and still later both ends of the ornament were ended in a snake’s head. In Roman times the rod of Mercury was made winged.

Later the number of windings of the snakes was augmented. Modern rods of Mercury sometimes are crowned by the winged hat of Mercury


Rod of Asclepius


A rod of Asclepius is the emblem of physicians. It is called after Aesculapius, a famous physician in antiquity.


These staffs are probably of Mesopotamian origin. The serpents entwined are on a goblet from Lagash (ca 2500 BC) used for the Goudea-cult and showing the symbols of the god-physician Ningishizda. It shows two serpents entwined supported by two winged dragons, each keeping a noosed rod.




In Egypt a staff entwined with the royal serpent was an attribute of Thoth, the god of sciences and writing. On the relief of the Osiris-chapel in the temple of Seti I (1291-1278 BC) the god keeps two serpent-rods in his left, the first of the lotus of Upper-Egypt, the cobra crowned with the White crown and the other of the papyrus-flower of Lower Egypt, the cobra crowned with the Red crown.

Such a combination of a serpent-rod and a scientist is also found in the sculpture of Aesclepius.

The use by the Armenian bishops suggests that these priests presented themselves in the first place as men of learning (of the Script).


According to a 16th c. iconography of Cesare Ripa, a judge is depicted with a rod symbolizing judicial power, entwined with a serpent symbolizing  prudenza (caution). Such a rod was also used by Low-Countries bailiffs in the 16th century and later. It was an about two metres long twisting rod of ash wood. [6])




From China sculptures and pictures of snakes are known from the Hongshan culture (4700-2900 BC) and, even when we may assume that these belonged to rich and powerful people, we cannot conclude that they symbolized kingship. As a symbol of authority the snake was replaced by the dragon during the Han era (206 BC- 220 AD). This means that in the Han era the ruler qualified as the “son of the Earth” was replaced by “the son of Heaven” which is is a quite radical change of the legitimation of the authority of the ruler.  

A late jade example is from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).


A picture of the snake-god Fuxi can be seen on the shroud of Ma-wang-dui. On this shroud we can also see that the snake is in between the sun and the moon and for that reason can be interpreted as a symbol of the earth. Keeping in mind that the sun usually is the symbol of the empire and the moon the symbol of the state, the earth should be the symbol of (the worldly authority) of the ruler.


Shroud of Ma-wang-dui.


The sun-moon-snake-stars configuration of Buddhist origin as shown on the shroud, seems to have been maintained in the states surrounding China. This is demonstrated by the snake as a political symbol in the successor states of the mediæval empires of Khmer, Annam and Srivijaya which were in the direct sphere of cultural influence of the Chinese Empire.

It is a remarkable fact that the meaning of the Chinese and the Egyptian snake is almost identical though when we cannot prove any cultural interaction between these two ancient cultural centres.

The Naga and Nagni are serpent kings and queens, which are divine in their own right. They are depicted as either fully human, fully snake, humans with cobra heads and hoods, or as humans from the waist upwards and snake below that.




Hindu Naga-altar

showing a cobra in its typical 8-shaped attitude


In India the cobra has long been considered sacred, and even those cobras used by 'snake charmers' are not injured in any way, not defanged, and when they are used for a while they are safely returned to the wild. The word naga is a Sanscrit word which means “serpent”. The naga which is the divine aspect of the cobra is found in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Nagas are believed to live in palaces (Patala) in the underground city Bhogavati. They are considered the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. They bring rain (similar to the Chinese Lung dragons) and therefore fertility, but can also bring disasters such as floods and drought.

In some passages of the Mahabarata, King Varuna is regarded as being among the most preeminent of the Nagas, and he is included in the discussion of these mythical divine serpents. (Mahabarata 1.26.1. and 25.4). Also the naga is a divine serpent who is a son of Kadru, the daughter of Daksha.

The Great Naga Kanya is the most common friend and companion of Vishnu and is often depicted as a  temple guard. Naga Kanya can also be seen with nine serpent heads with expanded hoods. As the great god Vishnu sits, his head and shoulders are protected by these nine serpent heads. Some say that this multiheaded snake is an animal counterpart of the sleeper himself.

In Malay myths nagas are many-headed dragons of enormous size. In Thailand the naga can have five heads, much like the Hindu Naga Kanya.

In Thailand, the naga is a serpent-god, a ruler of the netherworld who possesses much wealth. The avenue leading to the main temple at Ankhor Wat is lined with seven-headed nagas.

In Cambodia (Kampuchea) we have the legend that the kingdom was founded by a serpent king (or serpent kings).

In Burma, when the god Indra installed Duttabaung upon the golden throne as king of Burma he insisted that he take as one of his two queens, the Nagini Besandi, one of the nagas or divine serpent spirits.

In Tibet, naga are  known in their symbolic sense and are called Lu which is the Tibetan translation of naga.


We find the serpent in Buddhism as the god Magoraga, but the further Buddhism moved from its Hindu roots and the more philosophical it became ,the less room there was for any god, much less a serpent god. However, we do have this one story: After his period of sitting under the Bo tree (or Bodhi tree = Tree of Enlightenment) he sat for seven days under a great banyan tree. Then he left that tree and went to a tree called “The Tree of the Serpent King Muchalinda.” Muchalinda was a huge cobra who dwelt in a hole amongst the tree roots. As the Buddha meditated, unmindful of his surroundings, a large storm arose. Muchalinda crept out of his hole, wrapped himself seven times around the Buddha and, with his great hood, kept his head dry. The serpent in Buddhism represents a reconciliation between antagonistic principles, it symbolizes the force that motivates birth and rebirth, and the concept of savior.

Even in the extremely ascetic off-shoot from Hinduism, the Jains have a serpent tradition. The founder of Jainism, Nataputta Vardhamana earned his honorific title Mahavira (or “Great Man”) by overcoming a great serpent who guarded the ford which Mahavira saw as “The Way”.[7]





Naga’s in the claws of Garuda.  Java,  ca. 1000 A.D.

The sculpture depicts Vishnu riding Garuda.

It is accepted that the group dates from the time of Airlangga, raja of Kahuripan († 1049).

(National Museum, Jakarta)


The most striking occurence of the snake as a royal emblem is in the Indonesian archipelago. In Java they are also called Sesas. The meaning of the snake certainly is of Hindu-Buddhist origin and goes back to the Srivijaya Empire.

“One of the earliest examples of the naga's enhancement of royal power can be seen in the Telagu Batu inscription near Palembang, the probable site for the capital of the powerful maritime kingdom of Srivijaya, which dominated trade in the Melaka straits area from the seventh tot the eleventh century. This huge stone (now in the Museum Nasional in Jakarta), undated but from corroborating evidence thought to have been inscribed around the year 686, is addressed to all  the king's subjects. The stone is in the form of a shield carved along the top curve with seven naga heads.  In an inscription of 775 dedicating a Buddhist monastery  at Ligor in the north of the Malay Peninsula,  the Srivijayan monarch is described as “patron of the nagas, their heads halved by the streaks of the luster of gems.” [8]



Naga on the litter of the Balinese kings 19th century

(Museum Nusantara, Delft)


On Java and Bali the use of a snake as a royal emblem is most marked. It is always used in connection with a ruler. It accompanies a picture of the ruler himself or is the decoration of important pusaka’s like kerisses or lances. Naga can also be found on headdresses or crowns and as supporters of the national emblem or, as decorations of the royal litter, of the ruler himself. In the same way some royal barges are snake-shaped.  The centre of  the dispersion of the naga in the Indonesian archipelago is Central Java, the core of the former Majapahit Empire of which the 14th century royal achievement showed a sun charged with the ruler on horseback, supported by two naga.



20th century Javanese gong-stand showing naga supporting a crowned emblem


The Americas


In the Americas serpents can be found in the Inca- and Mesoamerican Empires. The serpent-gods enjoyed a comprehensive worship and possibly the serpent was associated with worldly authority.




About the snake in Inca heraldry it is remarked [9]:

“Mayta Capac, the fourth Inca (1171-1226) is the ruler to which the creation of Inca heraldry is attributed. When on an expedition in the forests of Antisuyu he killed a feathered serpent and adopted it as one of the charges of his blason besides a club and a sling which he had used during his hunt. The serpent is the most characteristic and lasting element of the Empire of the Sun and is on the majority of the coats of arms mentioned by the chroniclers and also the grant of 1544. It seems that the serpent, associated with a lightning-cult, dates from and earlier period  and that its cult was widespread throughout a large part of South America. [10] So, in pre-Inca coats of arms for example there were serpents and, according to Uhle and Stübel [11]  it is among the symbols of the Gate of the Sun, in that special case depicted as a fish. The serpent, the condor and the puma are the three primitive totems of the Tiahuanaco civilisation in the Lake Titicaca basin.

Uturuncu (serpent tigre) corresponds with the title of the Inca: Uturuncu Amari Inca

Amaru is of the same origin [...] Jijón y Caamaño remarks that, according to Cobo, seven ritual stones of the Cult were dedicated to him. He was worshipped, he says, under several forms of which the colibri-serpent and the blue serpent were the most important. As said before the serpent occurs also in the individual totems of the different Inca’s, be it in its original form or be it as a fish

A coat of arms with serpents was granted by Charles V to Prince Paullu, the son of Huayna Capac (1493-1524) on 9 March 1944 and to the last Inca’s on 9 May 1545. Later, serpents often occur in the coats of arms of Indian families.





Two-headed serpent

Aztec/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD. Height: 20.5 cm Width: 43.3 cm


The serpent played a very important role in Aztec religion. It is associated with several gods such as Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent), Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) or Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt), the mother of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. The word for serpent in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, is coatl.



Of these Quetzalcoatl is sometimes associated with a ruler:


“In the era following the 16th-century Spanish Conquest a number of sources were written that describe the god “Quetzalcoatl” and relates him to a ruler of the mythico-historic city of Tollan called by the names “Ce Acatl’, “Topiltzin”, “Nacxitl” or “Quetzalcoatl”. It is a matter of much debate among historians to which degree, or whether at all, these narratives about this legendary Toltec ruler Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl describe actual historical events. Furthermore early Spanish sources written by clerics tend to identify the god-ruler “Quetzalcoatl” of these narratives with either Hernán Cortés or St. Thomas - an identification which is also a source of diversity of opinions about the nature of “Quetzalcoatl”.


......But the specificity of this association, and the fact that it only occurs after Spanish Conquest  does not make Quetzalcoatl a classificatory symbol like the Indonesian serpent.



The picture of an adder (Vipera berus- Viperidæ) in the head of this essay  is from: Lore of the Adder



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© Hubert de Vries 2010-12-14

[1] ) King Harald’s Saga. Penguin Books L183. 1966. P. 108

[2] ) This saint has its predecessors in the ‘Victor Crushes his Enemy’ reliefs and statuettes of antiquity.

[3] ) National Architectural Conservation Area “St. Sophia of Kiev”. Kiev (SMAA 8616)

[4] ) Detail from the Punishment of Ixion fresco in the Casa dei Vettii in Pompei

[5] ) ... od=display

[6] ) Koldeweij, A.M. (1982) Het stocxken van die Justicien. 82/1 Spiegel Historiael 38-43, afb. 8 Also: Schreiner, Agnes: Recht Spieghel. In: Tableau Fine Art Magazine 91-96. Internet: Roede van Justitie.

[7] ) This is and adaptation of  'Naga' Worship in India and South East Asia

[8] ) Hall, Kenneth R.: Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia. Honolulu, 1985 p.  83.

[9] ) Binayán Carmona, Narciso: L’héraldique Inca. In: Archivum Heraldicum, 1963 pp. 30-36.

[10] ) Jijón y Caamaño, Jacinto: La religion en el Imperio de los Incas. Quito. p. 397.  Tello, Julio C.: Wira Cocha. En: Revista Inca de Lima, 1923.

[11] ) Cited by Jijon y Caamaño.