Category: Animal Spirit & Medicine
Serpent is a very old, wise creature. As she sheds her skin and emerges anew, she teaches us about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. She teaches us about vitality, sensuality, and fertility. Humans have been making images that evoke snake’s spiraling energy since the upper Paleolithic times, in sculpture, paintings, on amulets and sacred tools, as part of their sacred sites, like the carvings on the stones at Newgrange in Ireland and the earthworks of Serpent Mound in Ohio.
Snake teaches us about flexibility and wise use of resources, her long body has at least 100 vertebra, and her elastic muscles allow her to move with sinuous fluidity and eat her food whole. The following begins to explore the wisdom of serpent’s winding trail, with hopes that it will plant seeds for your own exploration.
Guardians of Wisdom, Treasure, and Sacred Springs of Life
Many fairy tales and myths tell of great snakes or dragons guarding treasures, springs, and books of wisdom. The Nagas or Cobra People, were children of the Indian serpent goddess Kadru, who were given the task of keeping treasures of precious stones and secret teachings safe in underwater hiding places. In European folktales, goblins often took the form of winged snakes to bring treasure to the farm folk.
A serpent guarded the Egyptian Book of Thoth, written by the god of magical wisdom of the same name who would often incarnate as a serpent. The Uraeus, a serpent headband worn with the serpent’s head emerging from the third eye, was often worn by Egyptian deities and other initiates, represented “a state of inner sight and connection with the universe. The Egyptian hieroglyphic for Goddess was also the uraeus-snake
Even our celestial pole is guarded by the winged serpent Draco, an embodiment of the ancient bird and serpent goddess. Though Draco curls around pole star, Polaris, in 3000 BC Alpha Draconis, the dragon’s eye, was earth’s heavenly north pole. In ancient times this spot was seen as a doorway between ordinary reality and eternity. Serpent embodies feminine as well as masculine characteristics. Great serpents are the mothers of creation in many myths around the world, as well as phallic consorts of the Great Mother who “stir the uterine abyss of creation.
Union of Heaven and Earth
It is easy to understand the serpent’s connection with the earth for the serpent feels the earth as its whole smooth, dry, sinuous body slides over the ground. The linguistic roots for both serpent and snake honour her unique way of moving in the world, serpent with its root in the old French root, serp- which means “to creep,” and snake from the Proto-Indo-European root snag- or sneg- which means "to crawl.” Serpent’s close connection with the underworld comes from living in burrows in the cool soil and hibernating there during the long winter months.
Scholars studying snake’s unique physiology are divided in how her ancestors evolved into their sleek, legless, earless form, with a single scale protecting each eye. Some believe that ancient snakes burrowed into the earth, so smooth bodies without legs and arms made it easier to tunnel, the single eye scale protecting from scratching dirt. Others believe that these early snakes were aquatic, and adapted to that environment. Both these evolutionary tracks echo serpent’s long, deep connection with the feminine elements of earth and water, an understanding much appreciated by humans even in Paleolithic times where goddess figures were often adorned with snaky spirals, which also represented the rain and currents of water, the currents of life.
The ancient serpent goddess was closely connected to the bird goddess, often the two were one. Winged serpents bring the wisdom they gather from this close connection with the earth up to the heavens and back down again, as trees do.
The Mesoamerican feathered or plumed serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, is master of the winds and clouds. The beautiful Quetzal bird and the sacred, kundalini-like, serpent Coatl represent the balance of feminine and masculine energy and the connection of the earthly and heavenly realms. Quetzalcoatl is also connected with Venus as the Morning Star.
Wisdom Snakes Carry
Snakes gather wisdom from the earth and water, teaching us how to use our senses in ways we might not ordinarily be aware of. Watching with unblinking eyes, they collect smells from the air by tasting with their ever flicking tongues. They feel the vibrations created by sound or movement transmitted through the earth or water. Some snakes are able to sense changes in temperature with a pit on their heads, providing them a picture of the heat radiating from warm prey as they hunt. Snakes also have a different relationship with the sun than we mammals, relying on it rather than their food to warm their body. This means they are able to eat less frequently but have to bask in the sun’s warming rays before they are able to move. When snakes do eat, they swallow their prey whole and seem to become lethargic, though much internal activity is taking place as they work to digest the food that will nourish them. She is able to draw nourishment from almost every part of her prey, but needs time to do so. If threatened after just eating she may have to regurgitate her meal so she can escape.
In mythology, snakes often have healing abilities and possess magical healing herbs. Dreams of snakes can also contain powerful healing, in fact a dream of being bitten by a snake is often thought to be an initiation or to call one to the path of a healer. The Rod of Asclepius, a staff with a single serpent twining around it, symbolizes serpent wisdom being used to heal. In Greek mythology Asclepius received training as a healer from the Centaur Chiron and held the blood from the serpent goddess, Medusa, which could bring healing or death. Asclepius was placed in the heavens as Ophiuchus the serpent holder, thirteenth sign of the zodiac (between Sagittarius and Libra). His healing temple was home to Asclepian snakes where ill people would come to sleep in hopes of receiving healing dreams, as well as recommendations for changes in diet and exercise from the priestesses and priests that lived at the temple. Modern medical practitioners and institutions continue to use the Caduceus of Hermes, a staff crowned with a pair of wings and entwined by two serpents as the symbol to represent their profession. Where Asclepius’ focus was on healing, his daughter, Hygieia (Salus for the Romans), was the moon goddess of continued health and prevention of sickness. She was often shown feeding a serpent who was entwining her body, or offering the serpent a drink from a jar she was carrying. Hygieia was another name for the Celtic Sirona, goddess of serpents and healing springs. The Bowl of Hygieia is one of the symbols for a pharmacy.
Part of serpent’s wisdom, like that of Medusa, is that healing medicine and the substances which can harm or even kill us can be very close in nature, even two sides of the same coin. This polarity between healing and death is a relatively modern phenomenon, where death is seen as a failure, to be avoided at all costs. Serpent can teach us how to transmute poison into healing medicine. Some Native Americans used this teaching about snake’s healing and transformation as part of initiation ceremonies. This is also the case in South American traditions, where Serpent represents the Path of the South, the path of release and forgiveness, showing us how to shed our personal history and the emotional attachments that no longer serve us. In Chinese astrology also, the serpent teaches us about using compassion, clairvoyance, charm, and forgiveness to balance superstition and possessiveness.
Sexuality, Vitality and Fertility
Even in ancient times, snake’s spiraling and coiling represented life force. A snake winding vertically reminds us of this green, wik energy rising from the earth, life reborn from the tomb, the tree of life. In eastern traditions snake represents the sexuality and creative potential that resides deep within us. The goddess Anahta, “Serpent Fire,” or Kundalini, rests coiled at the base of the spine. When awakened, as through proper yogic practice and other ecstatic activity, the Kundalini rises through the body, activating the body’s energy centers, drawing one into union with the divine, opening us to wisdom, healing and our innate creativity. The twining serpents around the staff of the caduceus are thought to depict the physiology of Kundalini energy.
In some cultures it was believed that menarche began after coupling with a supernatural serpent who carried a red jewel of immortality in its head. This tradition was carried to Germany where it was said the serpent living in the roots of a hazel tree whose head held the philosopher’s stone, a magical stone, sacred to the moon would bring eternal life to the one who possessed it. Menstrual blood is a divine substance, as people noticed how menstruating women were able to bleed and bleed yet survive, many superstitions and traditions grew up around menstrual blood, and it was often thought to have magical properties. Women’s cycles are tied to the waxing and waning of the moon, once both were revered for their monthly cycle of life, death, and rebirth. These cycles are seen in a women with her blood, the moon with her light as serpent is with shedding of skin.
The serpent energy that is in our bodies also runs through the earth. The ancient people of Europe honoured the Ley lines as sacred energy channels, much like the meridians in our bodies that Chinese Acupuncture works with. It is thought that many of the sacred sites where certain springs bubble up or stone circles were erected lay along these energy lines and in fact act as acupuncture points for the earth where the slow moving of this great serpent could be felt beneath the earth. These points would be activated at special times of the year during ritual, often solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter holy days where the veils between the worlds were felt to be thinner, the magical nodes of the calendar.
Since they shed their skins and seem to be reborn, it was often thought that snakes did not die of old age. These lifetimes upon lifetimes allowed them to gather great amounts of wisdom. Snakes must shed their skin in order to grow. A new layer of scales forms beneath the old one at least once a year, as the time to shed draws closer the old skin seems dull and milky as it begins to separate. The scales that protect the snake’s eyes also become cloudy, it is harder for the serpent to see, and it becomes more withdrawn. During this time of turning inward, as the skin new skin is formed, the snake is more vulnerable and is quick to strike at what is felt to be threatening. When the time is ripe, the snake finds a place where it can keep its skin a bit damp and rubs its lips against rough bark or stone, the layers of skin begin to separate until the snake is able to crawl out, turning the old skin inside out as it goes, often in one piece. The snake is reborn, scales bright, eyes clear. Shedding the old skin completely is very important for the health of the snake. Not only may the old skin be home to parasites, the snake continues to grow while the skin does not, so unshed portions of skin at the tip of the tail will constrict blood flow causing that part of the tail to fall off, and unshed eye scales can cause the snake to go blind in that eye.
We watched snake and how she moves so closely with death, snakes became the keepers of death. The Hindu goddess and serpent mother Ananta the Infinite was the one who embraced the gods during the phase when they were dead.
Snakes were often closely associated with cows, like Brigit in Ireland and Hera in Greece. It was said that the Mother of Cows in Latvia appeared as a black snake and brought fertility to the cows and the fields, black being the rich color of life.
The deep wisdom that serpent gathers during her lives was often sought out by humans, oracles would open to the serpent to speak this wisdom for the community and pilgrims. In her snake form the Irish goddess Brigit embodies creativity, shape shifting, transformation, and the powers of divination. Snake emerged from the earth at Imbolc, the second of February, Brigit’s holy day when the sun is growing stronger and the first stirrings of spring begin in the land, an auspicious time to do divination. “Snakes were kept in Brigit’s shrines where her oracles were given out through communion with the chthonic energies of Bride the Serpent Creatrix.” Snakes were thought to live beneath oracular shrines dedicated to Brigit in Scotland, as did the Greek Python at Delphi, where a temple housed priestesses who would go into trance to become the voice for the divine.
The Price of Wisdom
As later cultures became more patriarchal, the wisdom of serpent became threatening. Stories of heroes slaying dragons or serpents, like Saint Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, were told to celebrate patriarchal cults overwhelming the goddess traditions that preceded them. In the Christian Garden of Eden the serpent encouraged women, and through her, humans to eat from the tree of knowledge and more fully know themselves. By doing this serpent suffered the wrath of God for bringing humans enlightenment, like Prometheus did for the Greeks.
The goddess Lilith is sometimes thought to be the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The first wife of Adam, she fled the Garden when he refused to honour her as an equal. She felt that since God had made them both from the same earth there was no reason for her to lie beneath him during sex. When Adam tried to force her, she flew into a rage and left the Garden as a whirling storm of dust to the shore of the Red Sea. God and his angels tried to pressure her to returning to the Garden, but she was not one to be strong armed and refused, reminding them that God had put all newborn human infants within her realm of influence, demanding that they respect her rights.
Lilith was a powerful, elemental force long before she was re-invented as Adam’s fist wife. In ancient Sumeria she was closely affiliated with the Goddess Inanna, and presided over rites of sacred sexuality. She was the one who would call men to the temple and initiate these rites. The vital power of women’s sexuality has long been vilified and suppressed by patriarchal culture, manifesting in and unhealthy relationships with pornography and prostitution, among other things. For both women and men, taking responsibility for our sexuality, honouring it for the creative, regenerating, connecting force that it is feels like the beginning of healing this division between spirit and our bodies.
Serpent’s embodied wisdom, sinuous and spiraling, gleaned from the earth through cycles of life, death, and rebirth is a great teacher for how to begin coming back into balance. The alchemical Ouroboros, the circle formed by the serpent with its tail in its mouth was probably first seen in the sky as the milky way as a great circle of light arching over us in the heavens, and can be found in cultures around the world, often as a great serpent encircling the world. Symbol of unity and oneness, of the ongoing cycle of life, death and rebirth, the snake seems to move counter-clockwise eating her own tail, or clockwise birthing herself anew. She teaches us to go deep within when digesting new experience or preparing for a new cycle.
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