The serpent—representative of good and evil, poison and medicine, death and rebirth—has found powerful symbolic meaning dating back to ancient times. Both revered and feared by numerous cultures and religions for their mysterious duality, the snake has long been established as a poignant motif in jewelry and the decorative arts. If you are interested in learning about snake symbolism, you have come to the right place. This article will cover the symbolic meaning of the snake spirit animal and review the importance of snake jewelry throughout history.
Serpent symbolism has been depicted through ancient Egypt and beyond. In ancient Egypt, the Uraeus, or upright form of a cobra, symbolized sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority while also serving as a symbol for the early Egyptian deity Wadjet. As such, pharaohs wore the Ureaus snake symbol as a head ornament to legitimize their claim to the throne and evoke Wadjet's fierce protection. A pair of serpents may also be seen flanking the winged sun disk, a symbol known as Behdety. Much like the Uraeus, the Behdety functioned as a serpent symbol of defense and was sometimes worn as a protective amulet during the Ptolemaic period.
During the Graeco-Roman period, snakes were solely a positive symbol in jewelry, primarily representing fertility, regeneration, and the eternal—drawing upon the creature’s ability the shed its skin and be “reborn.” Additionally, the serpent served as a symbol of Asclepius, a deity affiliated with religion and mythology in ancient Greece and who was connected to healing—an association leading to the modern emblem of medicine.
Serpents used as decorative motifs, particularly in antique Victorian jewelry, experienced a burst of popularity during the Victorian era from 1837-1901. The resurgence of interest occurred after Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with the very first engagement ring, shaped into the form of a snake biting its tail with an emerald-set head. Here, the serpent's symbolic expression of eternity and eternal love, paired with Queen Victoria's status as a fashion icon, led to the ubiquitous use of the snake motif during the period.
Art Nouveau, a brief but brilliant reaction to 19th-century art, saw a fresh interest in the serpent motif with the help of Georges Fouquet and Jules Rene Lalique. Dismissing the symbolic value of serpents as secondary, Art Nouveau artists sought to emphasize the essence of nature, choosing to depict snakes for their highly fashionable curvilinear lines. According to Marie-Odile Briot, "The snake is the living abstraction of the line which Art Nouveau would see as the underlying 'biomorphic' structure of form." Learn more about the Art Nouveau style and its influence across all types of art.
In a similar vein, folk artists often employed the serpent motif, using the creature’s long slender form to decorate functional carved objects like canes and walking sticks.
As one of history’s enduring emblems, the serpent motif, with its array of symbolic interpretations and obvious allure, will undoubtedly continue to reign supreme for centuries to come.
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