My recent realization about aging is actually turning out to be the perfect intro to the complex (and vast!) symbolism related to the snake. And the child archetype, the two are closely connected. It's somewhat ironic but I think aging, in our culture, represents the child/double snake archetype; it is what is unadapted to the outer world, repulsive even, but the source of renewal.
Just before his resurrection, the sun god is represented as an ithyphallic man lying on his back with erect phallus and around him is the snake which eats its own tail. The inscription merely says: "This is the corpse." You see therefore that in the underworld when the sun god has reached the moment when death and resurrection meet, when he is in his tomb at the depth of the underworld, he is represented as surrounded by this snake. According to the Egyptian text, the snake which eats its own tail is considered to be the guardian of the underworld and it is probably the snake which is invoked here.(Marie-Louise von Franz, Alchemy)
The first aspect of the snake that we see is a repulsiveness that inspires horror and revulsion. The snake represents everything that we fear, everything we try to run away from. The snake is the guardian of the Underworld; in mythologies around the world, the snake is the destroyer, killed by the Sky God in order to create a world for his people.
This is one of the most persistent themes in mythology, the antagonism of the Sky God and the Serpent. In myths around the world, the great Serpent battles the Sky God (Jörmungandr and Thor, Typhon and Zeus, Vritra and Indra, Leviathan and Yahweh, Tiamat and Marduk). The Sky God universally represents consciousness. The serpent is the chaotic origin of all life, out of which the hero God has to struggle in order to live... She's the Devouring Mother, but, at the same time, the source of all life. Leviathan "lives over the Sources of the Deep." Tiamat, the original Great Mother, who mixed fresh water and salt to produce the gods and was later split by Marduk to form the earth, the heavens, and humanity. Jörmungandr, Thor's nemesis, the tail eating "World Serpent" who holds the world together (another Ouroboros). Ophion incubating the primordial egg. And Amduat, the many coiled serpent from which all creation arose.
The other opposition inherent in the animosity of Sky God and Serpent is success vs. death, specifically the death of the ego. The Sky God represents the Sun at midday, at the zenith of it's power. But the Serpent is the fall from those heights; suffering in the deep, painful, humiliating Underworld. This is why the snake arouses such horror in us; it's everything we fear, everything we instinctively run away from. It's death... and suffering in the fires of Hell. The snake is the fire of our impurities... as well as devouring fire that burns all of our impurities to ashes.
[T]his bringing together of opposites means they are secretly one, for the fire has to be put out by fire, or has to be cooled, refrigerated, by its inner fire.(Alchemy)
[Emotion] transforms, cooks, and enlightens, that is the way in which fire brings light: if I am emotionally gripped by something I can understand it; if I am not emotionally wrestling with my problems, or something else, then nothing comes out.
[It] is hard to accept: the fire has to burn the fire, one just has to burn in the emotion till the fire dies down and becomes balanced. That is something which unfortunately cannot be evaded. The burning of the fire, of the emotion, cannot be tricked out of one’s system; there is no recipe for getting rid of it, it has to be endured. The fire has to burn until the last unclean element has been consumed, which is what all alchemical texts say in different variations and we have not found any other way either. It cannot be hindered but only suffered till what is mortal or corruptible, or, as our text says so beautifully, till the corruptible humidity, the unconsciousness, has been burnt up. That is the meaning, it is the acceptance of suffering.
Sitting in Hell and roasting there is what brings forth the philosopher’s stone; as it is said here, the fire is extinguished with its own inner measure. Passion has its own inner measure; there is no such thing as chaotic libido, for we know that the unconscious itself, as pure nature, has an inner balance. The lack of balance comes from the childishness of the conscious attitude. If you only follow your own passion according to its own indications it will never go too far, it will always lead to its own defeat.
The fire of the passion looks for that which will extinguish it, and that is why the urge for individuation, as long as it is a natural inordinate urge, seeks impossible situations; it seeks conflict and defeat and suffering because it seeks its own transformation.
Fire blinds us and burns us up, consumes us. But fire also creates light, which allows us to see. We must have fire (emotion) in order to understand a thing. Our fiery, burning impurities are the prima materia, the Fruedian unconscious; double in aspect (both good and bad). Despite problems it can and does create, it's the basic material needed for individuation. If left by itself it's useless; it needs consciousness. This is why need projection (passion, love, etc.), as painful, humiliating and crazy-making as they are; only in projection are these archetypes made conscious, and consciousness is necessary for transformation. Jung said that projection can either lead to growth, or murder. Fire and suffering are the only things that can bring forth the philosopher's stone. Fire transforms a thing into a divine substance.
This is definitely what I have been going through. It is only by suffering in the torments of our passions in the Underworld that that unclean, corrupted fire can burn itself, finally purifying itself. Everyone has that one area which we keep to the side, that one little area we don't want to look at. We're willing to make sacrifices, or do the work, in any area but that one... But you know what you have to do. It's that area in which you must make the sacrifice.
If left to our own devices, we would try to stay in the Sky God's light and hide from the Snake. But delaying one's journey to the Underworld too long is the cause of our neuroses, or even if we don't succumb to neuroses, it's where we constantly seem to trip ourselves up. We become our worst enemies. It's as if there's something - or Someone - inside us which is determined to wreck everything. In those situations, where we're resisting our growth, the Self takes on the guise of the devouring serpent, but that's only because we're resisting It. Not that burning in the fire isn't painful, but that's what we're here for: to burn, to be burned, until all that is corruptible in us is burned away and the beauty we long for is born from the ashes.