This morning we found a snake by the back door. Couldn’t be sure, from our timid distance, whether rattler or bull snake. If rattler, we’d grab hoe and chop. If it were in the wild, we’d leave it be, but this close to house, close to tender bare feet and curious dogs, it’s too dangerous. If a bull snake, we’d welcome it to make its home in the crawl space under the house. They’re harmless, handy actually, for eating rodents.
Since we couldn’t tell, we let it slither away.
I grew up thinking, and feeling quite emphatically in my gut, that snakes were evil. Satan’s other name was “serpent,” so the slinky reptiles must be inherently bad, I reasoned. My brother delighted in surprising me with his rubber cobra, inspiring predictable screams. I fantasized of moving to New Zealand where they have no snakes. Or Ireland from whence St. Patrick had banished them. That snake in the garden started it all, deceptive thing. God took away their wings and made them crawl in the dust as punishment for being so wicked.
But some time ago I discovered that in most other cultures, snakes are highly revered. Some Hindu deities appear as snakes or wearing snakes. In many parts of Africa snakes are seen as deceased relatives reincarnated. Snakes are symbols of eternity—portrayed in numerous images of a snake with its tail in its mouth, forming a complete ring.
They represent healing; though venom can kill, it also has uses as medicine. Thus the significance of Asclepius’ rod entwined with a serpent. Even Judeo-Christian tradition holds a place of honor for the reptile. Moses lifted the bronze snake as a Christ-figure: look and be healed.
Snakes, even the poisonous ones, are critical to the diversity and balance of their ecosystems. They carry in their scales and skin the cyclic nature of the cosmos, the promise of resurrection. Life and death and life again.
The snake is a protector and guardian totem. Mucalinda, the great king of snakes, shielded the Buddha from the elements as he sat meditating. Cobras and rattlers hold their ground in a threatening display followed by attack rather than retreat. Snakes are often paired with a sacred tree, guarding a holy place. Stone serpents watch over Cambodia’s temples at Angkor.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks of the old meaning of the word “danger” as “shelter.” “Stand in my danger” meant to protect something that should not be allowed to pass away from this earth. The “Dangerous Old Woman” is “she who stops at nothing to nourish, protect, and guide.”
Medusa is Greek for protectress and guardian. When Perseus beheaded Medusa, Pegasus and Chrysaor burst free—winged beauty and large strength birthed from Medusa’s severed head. Snakes symbolize transformation. And still Medusa’s monstrous head, when looked upon, had the power to turn the gazer to stone. Dangerous mother.
I pick myself up by the tail and become a staff, like Moses’ rod, to wield in protection of the sheep, the children. I bite my tail and the world is whole, complete. I embrace and encircle all. All of myself, terrifying strength and potential danger. All of the unknown, misunderstood beings of Earth.
And I know myself and this world simultaneously encircled by a much larger Wholeness, by Godself, the very source of healing, protecting, eternity, transformation, resurrection.
There is holiness in this fearsomeness.
I invite you to reflect on snakes—metaphorical, natural, spiritual—in your own experience and your familiar stories, from childhood, scripture, mythology, fairy tales.
What is your immediate, unfiltered reaction to snakes? Where does this thought, feeling, or physical response come from?
What of the snake’s qualities do you see in yourself?
Do you recognize any of these traits in God’s character?
How can you know the difference between good snake and bad snake? What makes a snake good or bad?
Here’s another meandering thought-trail from my own reflections on snakes….
Aunt Vera liked to keep rattlesnakes in her freezer for the unlucky
to find when getting ice-cream for dessert, a sermon on the soft gray
lines between good and bad, poison and sweet. Her daughters put
a snakeskin in her casket
when she died. The serpent in the tree spoke of knowledge to make one wise as God, fact
of good and evil, insidious duality not before known in the garden where now God
promised to crush its head
under Foot. Vipers came slithering, where once they flew, to the wanderers in a desert
far removed from Eden, lush and tree-inhabited. They bit the complainers who tired of
manna, mystery-God in a cloud,
and missed the familiarity of Egypt. Bite for bite: Eve’s of the apple, snakes’ of flesh. And an
antivenin also of reptilian class, bronzed and draped for all to see on a cross where
vertical and horizontal intersect.
Like Aaron’s rod that ate the magicians’ snakes, a snake to devour all snakes. A snake on
steroids, small though, in comparison with the dragon, the devil, of prehistoric proportions who is
wroth with the woman. Two
women, one in white, one in red, each with an angry pursuer after her. Flicking tongue, undulating
silver scales, relentless. Which is which? That serpent or the other the one to destroy, cut with sharp
honed hoe? Wage war, but
beware the enemy comes wearing snakeskin shimmering like His, and you know not
who you battle. The Ally too has the foe’s form, having left empty tomb, the shed skin, for
new, fresh scales that glisten alive in the dark light.
Joelle Chase is Director of Messaging for the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Joelle graduated from Andrews University with a Bachelors in Elementary Education and spent two years teaching in a one-room Adventist school in Montana before moving to Albuquerque. She and her husband, Peter, are putting down roots on a small urban homestead with their two dogs, fruit trees and water cisterns.
Photo of Navajo painting at Mesa Verde National Park
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5364