The island of the serpent: the creative process

Max McDowell is a Jungian analyst who has been in private practice in New York for the past 23 years. Here he analyzes a story from ancient Egypt.
egyptian ship.jungian psychoanalysis
Egyptian merchant ship. 2550 B.C.E.
Picture: Armament history


A Count had to report to the Pharaoh (on a failed expedition?). The good attendant tried to lend him courage by relating his own ‘similar’ adventure:

On a voyage to the Mine Country the attendant’s ship and able sailors were destroyed in a storm and he was cast up on an island where good food grew.

A huge gold-clad serpent took the attendant in his mouth, carried him to his resting place, and made him tell the story of his voyage so far.

Then the serpent consoled the attendant by relating something similar that had happened to him: a star fell on the island and burnt up all his kin. Time heals.

The serpent told the attendant the would spend four months on the island; then a ship would arrive from the Pharaoh’s Residence and take him home to his family.

The attendant promised that the Pharaoh would reward the serpent with luxuries from Egypt.

The serpent laughed at his vanity, saying he (the serpent) was the Ruler of Punt, the home of myrrh and fine oil. When the attendant left, the island would disappear underwater.

When the ship came, the serpent gave him a fine cargo of African luxuries. The Pharaoh, in turn, rewarded the attendant richly.

The Count responded cynically. He expected to be executed.

How have others interpreted this tale?

What follows are some published interpretations summarized in wikipedia under The tale of the shipwrecked sailor:

For some the meaning is transparently that it is a tale intended as a source of inspiration or reassurance for the noble mind, perhaps similar to something like a courtly creation intended for the royal ear or otherwise for the considering of aristocratic persons. Nevertheless, interpretation of the story has changed from the naive initial understanding of the story as a simplistic tale of the folk tradition, into a sophisticated analysis, developed into which the narrative is shown to have complexity and depth: a shipwrecked traveller engages upon a spiritual endeavour (or quest), journeying through the cosmos, to meet a primordial god, thus providing to the traveller a gift of moral vision to return with to Egypt. Further, Richard Mathews writes that this “oldest fantasy text contains archetypal narrative of the genre: an uninitiated hero on a sea journey is thrown off course by a storm, encounters an enchanted island, confronts a monster, and survives, wiser for the experience.”, commenting additionally that the monster (snake) is the prototype for “the greatest fantasy monster of all time – the dragon, sometimes called the ‘wurm’.”

Such language is portentous but says little more than that the tale has archetypal themes. Those who offer such explanations are offended by this ancient story because, though it is vital, and obviously full of meaning, the meaning mostly eludes them. They retaliate by categorizing it, “putting it in its place”. For the same reason dreams are often dismissed as “nonsense”.

In order to go beyond such defensive explanations, we must pay close attention to the details of the images.

What follows is my interpretation, using Jungian techniques of dream analysis. In particular I ask the symbolic, psychological meaning of each image. This is not a purely intellectual thought process: it includes not only a rational analysis, but also the symbolic understanding sometimes needed to appreciate poetry.

Naive fairy tales are like poems. As in a poem, every detail has meaning. Analysis of repetition (the same idea is repeated by means of a series of different symbolic images) provides an internal check on the validity of the interpretation. Without such evidence, an interpretation might be only one of many plausible guesses. This is my contribution to a technique described by others. You must decide for yourself if my analysis convinces you.

The island of the serpent: the creative process

(Complete text with interpretation and footnotes)


.. And the good attendant1 said:

Good news, Count! See, we have reached home! The mallet has been taken in hand and the mooring-stake driven in, the tying-up rope having been placed on land. They are giving praise, and thanking God; they are all embracing one another. Our crew has returned in good order; there is none missing from our expedition. We reached Lower Nubia, we have passed Bigah.2 See then, we have returned in peace, we have reached our own land.

Listen to me, Count; I am not over-talkative. Wash yourself, pour water over your fingers. Then will you answer when you are addressed, and speak to the King with presence of mind; you will answer without hesitation. A man’s mouth saves him: his speech obtains indulgence for him. But do as you wish; talking to you thus wearies you.

I will relate to you, then, something similar which happened to myself when I went to the Mine-country for the Sovereign.

The Count feared to tell his story to the Pharaoh. The attendant told his own story to the Count. Within that story, the attendant recounted how he told, to the serpent, the story of his voyage thus far and how the serpent, in turn, told his story. When he returned from his own voyage, the attendant told his story to the Pharaoh. Amen’o, son of Ameny, transcribed the over-arcing story that we read. These many stories within stories (an example of repetition) show that story-telling is one of the main themes.

A story has meaning at both the literal and the symbolic level. At the symbolic level a story succeeds if it works through unconscious potential and brings it closer to consciousness.

In the attendant’s story that process – working through and bringing closer to consciousness – is also specifically portrayed by the images themselves (repetition). Luxury oils and scents (psychologically evocative material) were found in a mysterious island (an unknown realm of awareness which is distinct from the main realm, that is, unconscious potential) and brought back to the mainland. The island then disappeared underwater (became more deeply unconscious).

The island was ruled by a serpent. A serpent travels from one world to the next by slipping through narrow spaces, just as unconscious potential slips through repression barriers into consciousness, for example as a dream.

Thus repeated images confirm that the attendant’s story is about expanding consciousness through a journey into and out of unconscious potential.


The attendant’s story began with his boat’s measurements and the number of sailors and their strengths:

I went down to the sea in a ship of 120 cubits in length and 40 cubits in width,3 in which were 120 sailors, of the best of Egypt; whether they looked at the sky or whether they looked at the land, their hearts were stouter than lions’. They foretold a storm before it had come, and foul weather before it had arisen.

large ship.jungian psychoanalysis

Egyptian ship
Picture: source unknown

Here consciousness was overdetermined. Threatened by this voyage into unknown worlds, it needed to reassure itself that it has everything under control.

No sooner had the sailors’ ability to foretell storms been asserted, than the ship was surprised by a storm.

The storm broke out while we were yet on the sea, before we could make the land. The wind arose and made a great noise, with waves eight cubits4high. The wave even struck the mast.5


Storm at sea
Photo: ©, 2008

The ship perished, and of those that were in it not one survived except me. Then I was cast on an island by a wave of the sea.

So much for conscious control! This idea is repeated later when the serpent laughed at the attendant for promising that the Pharaoh will send luxuries to Punt.

In the beginning of therapy, anxiety about conscious control is common. A businessman wants to be sure our work is productive. He asks for clear guidelines. I tell him that our meeting is unique and we cannot know how it will unfold: we’ll have to see.

Natural bounty

The attendant hid.

I spent three days alone, with only my heart for my companion, lying within a shelter of wood, and I clung to the shade.6

Abandoned by his conscious strengths, he was in shock and had to wait. Then he was driven out by an instinct (rather than conscious will).

Then I got to my feet to find out what I could put in my mouth. I found figs and grapes there, and all kinds of fine vegetables; sycamore figs of two kinds were there, and cucumbers as though they were cultivated. Both fish and fowl were there; there is nothing that was not in that island. Then I ate my fill.

man hunts birds.jungian psychoanalysis

Photo: source unknown

The idea here is ‘The Lord will provide.’ When we trust and let go of control then unconscious potential takes care of us with its natural bounty, which was there all along though we were blind to it…

… I put food aside, because I had so much by me, and having shaped a fire-stick I kindled fire, and made a burnt-offering to the gods.

The above interpretation is confirmed by his burnt offering, by which he gave credit where it was due (repetition).

The serpent

Then he met an astonishing beast. Again, his conscious knowledge of things proved inadequate.

Then I heard a thunderous noise, which I felt sure was a wave of the sea: the trees were splitting, the earth was shaking. When I uncovered my face I found that it was a serpent that was coming. He was thirty cubits long, and his beard was more than two cubits long.7 His body was plated with gold, his eyebrows were of real lapis lazuli; he was extremely intelligent.


Cobra. Ancient Egypt
Photo: source unknown

The serpent Ruler was ‘extremely intelligent’ which means, paradoxically, that the center of unconscious potential has its own strong consciousness. This repeats the meaning of the above-the-water-level island itself (a bountiful realm of consciousness, distinct from what seems to us the main realm.)

While the idea of consciousness within unconscious potential seems fanciful, we are constantly confronted with evidence for it. Again and again we see that dreams are exquisitely tailored to communicate to us a new insight, one which we are ready to receive though it surprises us. Who or what tailors it? There seems to be another source of intelligence operating outside of consciousness.

Dreams and creativity

At least, this is how it looks from our conscious perspective. In my article Jungian therapy and biology, in the section Purpose and dreams, I argue that an ‘intelligent’ dream might be created by the following mechanism:

a) novel sequences of images spontaneously self-assemble;

b) a sequence which seems meaningful spontaneously self-selects by means of its affinity to conscious concerns;

c) the educated mind, operating outside of awareness, formulates that sequence into a dream.

There is evidence for this mechanism: Dreams sometimes use verbal language which must be generated by the educated mind; if we speak english, the dream uses english. Dreams also use irony and humor which are characteristics of consciousness.

In addition, we already know that creativity itself is the product of just such a collaboration: A creative person first educates his or her skills and then ‘forgets everything’ he or she has learned. Then images emerge from unconscious potential (meaningful images spontaneously self-select) already partly formulated by the skills which the creative person has learned.

An image in myth directly supports this idea: in the ballad Janet and Tam Lin (analyzed on this website), Tam Lin was once a mortal knight who was pulled off his horse and taken into the unconscious by the Fairy Queen. Had she kept him he would have been sent to hell (madness), but he was rescued by Janet, another mortal. While still trapped in the Queen’s world, he inseminates Janet with his sperm and talks to her, explaining how she can claim him for herself, again by pulling him of his horse. Thus the phallic spirit which resides in the unconscious – but which can be engaged in relationship – was originally derived from consciousness.

This explanation for dreams may seem heretical but it corresponds closely with what Jung himself said: that dreams are the product of the Self, which is the totality of the psyche and encompasses both conscious and unconscious activity.

Facing unconscious potential

The serpent demanded that the attendant tell his own story. The attendant fainted from awe and dread. This encounter represents the climax of the tale, the moment of greatest tension when consciousness first confronts unconscious potential.

A patient, ‘George’, had the following dream (more than 20 years ago; it is discussed with his permission):

In Manhattan, amongst skyscrapers, a group of crows set off in flight together. Above them a hawk watched, then followed, as though waiting to catch them. George and a native american man walked beneath them. The trailing crow circled down, afraid, and landed on the native american’s hand for refuge. The hawk circled closer. George slashed at it as it glided by. Then it came towards him and he realized it wanted to land on his hand. He held up his hand and a wolf-hawk chimera looked down at him as it landed. It seemed carnivorous, fierce, but intelligent and friendly.

When he woke George felt overwhelmed by the creature’s power.

George made several paintings of the wolf-hawk. Its head occupied the whole page: triangular, with pointed black nose, ears pointed up, and steeply slanted eyes. Behind were rough down-stretched bird’s wings. It stood on bird’s feet. It was first grey then red-brown.

The crow is Odin’s bird; it was associated with death and doom and with the ability to see the future. Apparently George had first to accept these qualities in himself (first the crow landed.) They were probably his mother’s witch-like qualities. George’s symbolic capacity – the ability to understand an image as the best possible representation of a reality which remains mysterious – had previously seemed limited. Because his mother had sometimes been crazy, he had feared symbolic thought as potentially crazy. Now he had to accept his intuitive, symbolic thoughts without being overwhelmed by a sense of doom.

As George painted the chimera, symbolic awareness seemed to come alive for him. He said that when the wolf-hawk landed he had been startled by the creature’s ‘realness’ and power. This may represent the sudden emergence of symbolic capacity. Certainly the paradox of the chimera demands symbolic rather than literal understanding.

For George, as for the attendant, the confrontation was a moment of greatest tension.

The attendant had to assert himself

He addressed me, while I was on my belly before him, and said to me, ‘What has brought you, what has brought you, little one, what has brought you? If you delay in telling me what has brought you to this island, I will cause you to find yourself burnt up, having become one who cannot be seen.’ He went on speaking to me but I heard it not; I was on my belly before him and had become unconscious.

Then he placed me in his mouth and carried me off to his resting-place. He set me down, and I was unscathed; I was safe and sound, not being overpowered. He addressed me while I was on my belly before him, and said to me,

‘What has brought you, what has brought you, little one, what has brought you to this island of the sea, whose borders are in the waters?’

Seven times the serpent repeated his demand, threatening if he delayed to incinerate him, to make him ‘one who cannot be seen’. Later the serpent proved to be benevolent. Why was the serpent’s request repeated seven times and why was his threat so drastic? Nothing in this text is arbitrary or without meaning. The outcome of the whole voyage apparently hung upon the attendant telling his own story. Why was it so important that he tell his own story?

To understand the serpent’s demand, it helps to look at an amplification from a Hungarian tale called Pretty Maid Ibronka.

Ibronka spied through the keyhole of a church door upon her suitor, the Devil. He was eating the brains of corpses. The Devil demanded that she say what she saw.

The keyhole represents the narrow field of view by which consciousness may view unconscious potential: we see only a fragment of unconscious potential when we have a dream. (Thus, in the Egyptian story, the attendant could not listen to everything the serpent said.)

The Devil was doing something unspeakable, something incomprehensibly evil which, to preserve her human feeling, Ibronka could not relate. Had she succumbed to the Devil’s demand she would have been doomed. So she told her story from her own human perspective, omitting what she saw through the keyhole. Again and again she told her own version of her story and thus defeated and finally killed the Devil.

Ibronka shows that, when facing unconscious potential, consciousness must formulate its own point of view; it must not allow its view to be controlled by unconscious potential, least it (consciousness) be ‘made invisible’ or swallowed up.

When I first interpret a story I’m liable to be seduced by its beauty. I’m tempted just to retell it, feeling that it speaks for itself and needs no translation.

This is because, like a dream, an authentic story confronts us directly with the mental process of the unconscious. The siren of unconscious potential calls us to abandon consciousness, to drown ourselves. Odysseus had to chain himself to the mast.

How creativity works

I have to meet unconscious potential with conscious analysis – to allow a dialogue between partners that are equal but different. Then something new can happen.

All of this explains why, in our Egyptian tale, the attendant had to tell his own story:

Then I made answer to him, my arms being bent before him,8 and said to him, ‘I went down to the Mine Country, on business of the Sovereign, in a ship of 120 cubits in length and 40 cubits in width, in which were 120 sailors, of the best of Egypt; whether they looked at the sky or whether they looked at the land, their hearts were stouter than lions’. They foretold a storm before it had come, and foul weather before it had arisen. Everyone of them was stouter of heart and stronger of hand than his fellow; there was no fool among them. The storm broke out while we were yet on the sea, before we could make the land. The wind arose and made a great noise, with waves eight cubits high. The wave even struck the mast. The ship perished, and of those that were in it not one survived except me, and here I am in your presence. I was brought to this island by a wave of the sea.’

The serpent was sensitive to his fear:

And he said to me, ‘Do not fear, do not fear, little one, do not avert your face; you have reached me; see, God has preserved you that he might bring you to this island to please me. There is nothing that is not in it, it is full of all good things.

See, you will spend month upon month on this island until you have completed four months, and a ship will arrive from the Residence9 in which will be sailors who are known to you. You will go away with them to the Residence, and you will die in your city.’

Then the serpent got into the spirit of things by telling his own story:

How glad is he who relates what he has experienced, when painful things are past! Now I will relate to you something similar which happened in this island. I was in it with my kinsmen, and children were among them: we amounted to seventy-five serpents, my children and my kinsmen, without my mentioning to you the daughter whom I gained through prayer.10 Then a star fell, and these went up in fire through it. It chanced that I was not with them; they were burnt, and I was not in their midst. Then I died for them,11 when I found them to be a single heap of corpses.

A true conversation had arisen between the serpent and the attendant, in the course of which new and unexpected things emerged.

Now we can see that the tale shows how creativity works. Creativity arises from a conversation between consciousness and unconscious potential, a conversation in which neither has the upper hand.

For example, I only discovered this layer of meaning because I reminded myself that nothing in the tale is arbitrary (thus I let the unconscious speak through the details of images) and then asked why: why did the serpent demand so fiercely that the attendant tell his story? (Thus I let consciousness intervene).

The serpent continued:

But if you have enough patience you will embrace your children, you will kiss your wife, and see your house, and these things are best of all; you will reach your home in which you were, in the midst of your kinsmen.’

The serpent is a determined teacher. He reinforces his point by assuring that his advice will bring the attendant home safely.


What meaning do the two stories have in common? The attendant lost his ship and all its crew; the serpent lost all his kinsmen and children. Each loss was due to an act of god. Both the attendant and the serpent paid a high price to reach this bountiful island.

Both stories show that individual consciousness requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is imposed by a power greater than consciousness. Analysis is hard work and it does not begin until the person has already suffered.

The serpent’s story

star glows against moon.jungian psychoanalysis
Falling Star
Photo: © Bob Keck, 2002

Why this particular image – a falling star? Because the serpent was a god, it makes sense that his sacrifice was imposed by a star while the attendant’s was imposed by a wave. Though the two conversed back and forth they did not exist on the same plane: consciousness is individual, limited in time and location, while unconscious potential is universal, omnipresent and eternal. The contrast between star and wave emphasizes the staggering difference between them and thus emphasizes the difficulty of a creative dialogue in which neither partner has the upper hand.

The specific content of the image repeats and thus confirms this interpretation: a star from the heavens is falling to become a rock on the earth, moving between the two realms. It is like the image of Icarus falling which also emphasizes the tension between heaven and earth. Creativity is like a star falling to earth, a poetic image both simple and magnificent.


The attendant boasted how the Pharaoh might reward the serpent:

Crouching on my belly I touched the ground before him [with my forehead], and then said to him, ‘I will describe your might to the Sovereign, and cause him to be acquainted with your greatness. I will send you fine oils and perfumes, and the incense of the temples wherewith every god is propitiated, and I will relate what has happened, having in mind what I have seen through his [the Sovereign’s] might. Thanks shall be returned to you in the Capital, in the presence of the Council of the entire land. I will slaughter oxen for you as a burnt-offering, and wring the necks of fowl for you. And I will send you ships laden with all the luxuries of Egypt, as should be done for a god who loves men in a far country that men know not.’

Then he laughed at me, and at this that I had said as being vanity in his opinion, and said to me, ‘You have not much myrrh and every kind of incense12but I am the Ruler of Punt,13 and myrrh belongs to me. And that fine oil which you said should be brought is the chief thing of this island. And it shall come about that when you depart from here, nevermore will you see this island; it will have become water.’

This passage shows that consciousness has an exaggerated sense of its own power – it does not understand that it is created by, and dependent upon, unconscious potential.

At the collective level we deny that our survival depends entirely upon the health of our ecosystem.


Six times the attendant said he was ‘on his belly’ before the serpent. Why does the story insist that unconscious potential must be faced reverently, with awe, as the highest value?

Like dreams, fairytales compensate for one-sidedness in the attitudes of prevailing consciousness. The reverent attitude portrayed here probably compensated for prevailing consciousness which, even in ancient Egypt, exaggerated its own importance.


That ship came, even as he had previously foretold. And I went and set myself on a high tree, and I recognized those who were in the ship. I went to announce the matter, but found that he knew it. And he said to me, ‘Farewell, farewell, little one, to your house, that you may see your children. Let my repute be good in your city; see, that is all I require of you.’

Once the attendant had entered into dialogue with him, the serpent was consistently friendly.

The serpent asked only that ‘my repute be good in your city’. He wanted to broaden conscious awareness. This repeats what is shown in many fairytales, that consciousness is an expression of unconscious potential.

Unconscious potential is a part of nature. Nature is forever promoting life and only asks that we relate to it. It is only destructive when we won’t relate to it. So it is with unconscious potential.

There are many images of relating: Four times the serpent called the attendant ‘little one,’ expressing his parental feeling (he also carries the attendant in his mouth as a parental serpent might). The serpent spoke lovingly of his own children and his grief at their death. Three times he reassured the attendant that he would again embrace his wife and children.

These repetitions, together with the conversation between equals already discussed, mean that the story insists upon loving relationship. Relationship may be with unconscious potential or it may be with other people: each of these forms of relationship supports the other. To relate is to expand consciousness.


Then I cast myself on my belly before him, my arms bent. And he gave me a cargo of myrrh, fine oil, various gums, essences and perfumes, eye-paint, giraffes’ tails, a great packet of incense, elephants’ tusks, swift hounds, monkeys, apes, and all good and costly things. And I loaded them on to this ship.

loading ship.jungian psychoanalysis

Loading cargo: Ships of Hatsu
Drawing: source unknown

temple reliefs.Deir el-Bahri.1473-1458.BCE.465x600.jpg
Loading cargo. Temple reliefs. Deir el-Bahri: 1473-1458 B.C.E.
Photo: source unknown

When I had cast myself on my belly to thank him, he said to me, ‘See, you will reach the Residence within two months and will embrace your children and grow young again at the Residence, and be embalmed [there].’

The serpent’s gifts show that the crafts and creative products which enrich consciousness are derived from unconscious potential – they must be revered as sacred.

The return

Then I went down to the shore, near this ship, and I called to the soldiers who were in it. I gave praise on the shore to the lord of this island, and those who were in the ship did likewise.

We sailed away northwards to the Residence of the Sovereign, and we arrived at the Residence in two months, exactly as he had said. Then I entered in to the Sovereign and presented to him these gifts which I had brought from this island. And he thanked me in the presence of the Council of the entire land. Then I was made an attendant, and was endowed with two hundred head of slaves.


Pharaoh Akhenaten, 1351-1337 BCE. Statue.
Photo: source unknown

In ancient Egypt consciousness appeared to be relatively open to the symbolic level. This may be why the attendant’s return with the serpent’s gifts was so easy. A modern person may feel intense conflict and anxiety – and lose sleep – when he or she incarnates unconscious potential.

A deeper explanation for the attendant’s easy welcome is that the story is about creativity. In the creative process consciousness seeks help from the unconscious and welcomes it when it arrives.

A plug for listening

Behold me, after I had reached land, after I saw what I had experienced. Listen to my utterance. See, it is good to listen to people.

Again, the attendant insisted, story-telling and listening to stories – having reverence for the symbolic realm – was important. It would help one to prosper.

The Count was not impressed.

Then the Count said to him, ‘Do not play the virtuous man, friend. Does one give water to a bird the day before when it is going to be killed in the morning?’

It has been copied from beginning to end, according to what was found in writing. Written by the scribe with clever fingers, Amen’o (may he live, be prosperous and healthy!), son of Ameny.


1. An attendant of the King; see the end of the story.

2. A small island at the southern frontier of Egypt.

3. About 206 by 70 feet

4. 14 feet.

5. According to the interpretation of Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient E-gyptian Literature, vol. 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), p. 215 n. 1.

6. For fear of being seen?

7. 51-1/2 and 3-1/2 feet.

8. A deferential attitude.

9. Namely, the city where the King and his court reside, which is not necessarily the capital of the country.

10. According to the interpretation of Lichtheim, 1:213.

11. An exaggerated expression for grief.

12. According to the interpretation of Lichtheim, 1:214.

13. A country on the African side of the Red Sea, most probably in the central Sudan and Eritrea, and one of the principal sources of incense and other exotic African products. Punt and its products are vividly depicted in a famous set of reliefs in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) at Deir el-Bahri.