Serpents are one of the most ancient mythological symbols and tales of them feature in most cultures. They are seen as symbols of fertility, wisdom, eternity, transformation, immortality, rebirth and healing by some, and evil, destruction and death by others.
The Hopi people of North America performed an annual snake dance to ensure the fertility of the land, this involved handling live snakes which were then released into the fields at the end of the dance. Other native American tribes revere the rattlesnake as King of the snakes who can cause fair winds or storms.
In Ancient Greek myths, both Hermes, messenger of the gods and Psychopomp, and Asclepius, the god of healing and medicine carried a caduceus, a staff with 1 or 2 snakes entwined upon it. The image of a caduceus is nowadays used as a symbol of modern medicine and healing.
Typhon was a monstrous storm god and seen as the most deadly monster in Greek mythology. He was said to have two coiled serpents instead of legs, and a hundred serpent-heads for fingers.
The Gorgons were three powerful female monsters, Medusa, Sthenno and Euryale, they had hair of living venomous snakes. The hero Perseus killed Medusa by cutting off her head.
The image of a serpent with its mouth in its tail, the Ourobouros is a common Ancient Greek image. It represents infinity and the cyclic nature of the cosmos.
In the myths of Ancient Egypt , Apep was a terrifying serpent and a symbol of chaos and destruction. Each day, as the sun god Ra crossed the sky in his boat, Apep would attack him. The return of the sun the following morning represented the triumph of life over death.
Norse mythology tells of Jormungand, an enormouse serpent, also referred to as the Midgard serpent or World serpent. He was the son of Loki and the giantess Angrboda. After Odin threw him into the ocean he grew so large that he encircled the earth and grasped his tail in his mouth.
St Patrick is famous for driving snakes out of Ireland. The snakes are said to represent the early pagan religion that people worshipped long before Christiantity. In the bible the serpent in the garden of Eden lured Eve to eat an apple from a tree that would give her forbidden knowledge.
In Hindu mythology, Kundalini is a serpent goddess who lies asleep at the base of the spine, coiled three and a half times around the first Chakra. The Kindalini awakens under certain circumstances and rises through the body, opening the chakras and releasing any blockages. Kundalini is a Sanskrit word meaning either 'coiled up' or 'coiling like a snake'.
Kaliyah was a serpent king in Hindu myth, who poisoned the land and water around the river Yamuna. Krishna defeated him in battle , but spared his life if he promised to leave the area with his wives. Once they had left the river and surrounding area were restored.
This is just a small example of some of the myths about snakes and serpents, there are many more and if you are interested it is well worth doing some research on this most complex and widespread symbol.
The encyclopaedia of world mythology - Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm.