The snake has fascinating connotations in religious and spiritual mythology of many traditions. While in the Bible the snake is associated with evil, this is not the case in all mythology. There is a trend of dragonish or serpentine figures being slain in acts of heroism in some folklore. I find the similarity between the serpentine symbolism in the Biblical Garden of Eden and the Garden of Hesperides in Greek mythology particularly remarkable, although in the latter the dragon is not associated with evil. In both cases there are fruits that need to be guarded, a tree and a serpentine creature associated with the fruits, although the story is different in each case. These are just two of the many myths. I will look at a few other mythical examples before offering my own reflections on the symbolism of the snake.
|Image By Geoff Gallice (from Wikimedia Commons)|
The Greek poet Nicander of Colophon told a story concerning a snake in his work Theriaca (On Harmful Animals). The venom of the snake under discussion would cause an inordinate amount of thirst in a victim that has been bitten, to such an extent that they would drink water until their belly bursts without finding relief. The description of the harmful animal is then followed with a myth concerning the snake. The god Cronos gave humans immortality, but they became weary because of its weight and gave it to a donkey to carry. The donkey ran off because it was thirsty and encountered the snake, which it asked to help it. The snake took the donkey’s burden but also acquired its thirst, which explains why its venom causes so much thirst and also how humans lost their immortality. Since the reign of the god Cronos is associated with the Golden Age, this myth can be considered a variant on the fall from grace. It also suggests a link with the snake’s association with alchemy.
The myth of the Twelve Labours of Hercules is an example of the theme of serpents being slain. One of Hercules’ tasks was to slay the Lernaean Hydra, a monster with several serpentine heads of which one was immortal. During the battle each head, after being severed, would be replaced by two more. Hercules eventually succeeded by scorching the stump of each severed head using fire. He severed the immortal head using a golden sword and buried it under a rock. Interestingly, Lerna is also the site of the Danaids in Greek mythology. These women were condemned to spend eternity in the underworld carrying water in sieves. The association of leaking water brings to mind Nicander’s notion of excessive thirst, although the connection is not direct. The theme of gold also shows up in this myth through the sword.
The story of Medusa is one of a woman with serpentine hair whose stare would turn people to stone. She was beheaded by the hero Perseus, after which the severed head was used as a weapon. Symbolically I think there is a deeper meaning to Medusa’s death stare since the eyes are the windows of the soul. To me Medusa (meaning guardian or protectress) had the power to disarm people because she could see through them, peering into their souls, which made them powerless against her. Looking at it that way, the serpentine connection with the garden and the tree with fruits either of knowledge or of immortality becomes clearer. Medusa’s disarming death stare implies knowledge of an order beyond what the normal eye can see.
In the more recent literature of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the serpent is associated with great evil. One of the central themes of the work, however, is the choice between good and evil which boils down to the power of love or the love of power. Lord Voldemort is the evil wizard who strove for immortality and corrupted his own soul in his quest for power. Harry is his counterpart who also has the rare gift of being able to talk to snakes. Unlike Lord Voldemort, Harry is a fairly ordinary wizard who has love and courage on his side, which enables him to achieve victory against evil together with his loved ones. In this case also, some form of extra-ordinary knowledge is implied in the gift of being able to communicate with snakes. The duality of choice is emphasised, which reminds of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s awareness of self is symbolised by the realisation that they were naked. Ego consciousness implies limitation, which is also necessary to define oneself through one’s actions. The different possibilities that this presents gave rise to evil being released in the world.
In my personal meditations, the snake communicated to me the origins of our existence as souls taking material form. In many cultures, the snake is associated with healing and wisdom. When asking why this theme showed up and what its use was to me at this point, I received the message that the snake teaches about essence. The choice is not necessarily between good and evil or even fear and love, but about being true to the deeper levels of one’s being or not. When rooted in one’s spiritual essence, balance is easier to achieve in the physical world. The choice then is not about manoeuvring between what makes more or less sense in the practical world or choosing right over wrong; rather it’s a matter of interacting with one’s surroundings in a way that reflects one’s personal truth.
This brings me to the next point: the snake’s habit of shedding its skin. We often think of growing in terms of painful learning processes or moving away from things that no longer work. The snake however teaches that although it sheds its skin when it is time for it to do so, this happens when there is more of the snake. The snake literally becomes too large for its old coating, after which it forms a new one to accommodate its larger size. This is a never-ending process happening in regular intervals throughout the snake’s lifetime. I like to think of it as assimilating experiences into the self, consequently having more at one’s disposal to use and apply on one’s path while also becoming stronger in the process. For a week or two before each shed the snake enters a period of inactivity, associated with impaired eyesight and general dullness, sometimes aggression. After shedding its skin, the new skin is somewhat vulnerable until it is adapted. Symbolically this sounds a lot like the human personal growth process to me. After shedding its skin, some snakes defecate or drink water, which brings to mind purification and also connects with Nicander’s story of the snake’s thirst.
To me the message was useful because of the personal conflicts I have with career, work and personal convictions. I am at a point where I feel I have to find a way of aligning work with purpose. It is no use waiting for someone to encourage me, give me opportunities or tell me that it’s right. I have conflict with the idea of selling myself, not only because it is easier to respond to an advertisement knowing that a service is needed, but possibly also because I have grown up with the idea of a standard being set by someone and everyone can compete. According to this notion, an independent judge or objective measurement will be the arbiter of who has done best, which makes obtaining something fair regardless of the players’ (possibly questionable) tactics. I now realise that my choice comes down to living and acting my beliefs on one hand or hiding them where they cannot be criticised on the other. If I don’t want to sell myself because of my negative associations with the concept, I will promote someone else’s beliefs without giving thought to whether it is beneficial for me or anyone else. My challenge is therefore to be as authentic as possible in everything I do, not only the areas where I consider it safe or where I feel the rules allow it.
Spirituality is only useful if it can be applied in a practical sense. In the end everything we give energy to is spiritual because we build the world based on our beliefs and actions. The serpentine wisdom could be the knowledge that if we live our true essence, the immortality of the soul is our natural state of being. On earth we need to harmonise it with our material existence, but it does not need to be enforced. From my perspective, that is also the difference between the true kind of power and the one based on illusion.
Source for biological information on snakes: http://www.animalhospitals-usa.com/reptiles/snakes/snake-shedding.html
Source for literary and mythological information: Wikipedia and some ancient texts.