Introduction: The following vintage piece has been rewritten for our upcoming book of Animá, a discussion about the most misunderstood and misrepresented of reptiles, but also about what our fear of these secretive creatures says about ourselves. It isn’t just the possibility of a serpent’s bite that scares us, we also tend to be terrified of whatever we can’t clearly see or understand, the darkness and the unknown. This was driven home for me again yesterday on the trail by our cabin, when I involuntarily jumped as a small gopher snake wriggled up and over my bare foot… and when I then hesitated to pick her up, even though I could clearly see by the rounded shape of the head that it was a nonpoisonous species. Before being released back into the wild, our little friend proved to be not only passive but downright affectionate… an agent not of cold blooded evil but of the insistent anima, of life awakening into life. -Wolf
Serpent & Shadow
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Our lives are marked by moonless nights and sun drenched days as well as what artists call “chiaroscurro”: the delicate interplay of dark and light brought about by subtly shifting shadows. We paint with light as much as pigment, but make sense of what is illuminated one must explore the unlit depths of meaning and being. The dark serves us in the form of insightful pain, comforting silence, the stillness between periods of tiring activity, the death that begets life, and the blackness that gives birth to light. In spite of these facts, there is no element or force of nature more commonly associated with evil in Western societies than the dark hours of night, and no creature more demonized than the dreaded snake we imagine lying in wait for us there. To the degree that I have a different understanding of them – of learning from them and accessing their power – it is perhaps because of decades of deepened intimacy with a canyon as yet untouched by a bulb’s glare, and time spent in close association with the serpents housed there.
It was over twenty years ago that I spotted a rattlesnake swaddled in shadow a mere few feet from one of my playing infant daughters. I choked back the urge to shout a warning, afraid of causing her to panic and thereby alarm the four-feet long beast. It happened to be a black-tailed rattler, a species found only in a few mountainous areas of S.W. New Mexico and S.E. Arizona. But while known to be less aggressive than its cousin the diamondback, its poison is every bit as potent. A single bite to a child’s calf so far from medical assistance, could possibly mean her life. To my horror, she continued walking in its direction, singing a favorite song. A heartbeat later she stepped directly on the outstretched creature, and then over and past it without it ever coiling. I watched her go on her way, and then came as close to the unperturbed animal as I dared in order to proffer thanks to the reptile that had for whatever reasons opted not to strike.
My daughter demonstrated not only a level of blissful ignorance, but also her freedom from fear of the invisible and the not yet known. She learned to hesitate and shutter but not until she was older and in the city. At that stage she explored every dark nook, and still laughed as she stumbled without a flashlight in the thickest of night. We adults, on the other hand, all too often freeze at the blurred edge of the moonless evening or the sharp perimeter of the street or yard’s security light. We might mistakenly attribute both the snake and the blackness to evil entities, due to the way each reminds us of our vulnerability or triggers bone deep flight from the realization of our mortal life’s end. Or we may have learned to accept our biological limits as well as value what we neither can see yet nor understand, but what is most likely to send chills up our spine is still the terror of the unknown and the nearly universal fear of change.
No wonder it arouses strong feelings and critical dogma. The snake is an often concealed agent of mystery and danger, a representative of the shadow world and cross cultural symbol of unavoidable transition as it yearly sheds its skin. The meaning of life itself can be discerned from a reading of its meaningful molt, with the spirit and anima continuing on as our flesh and energy is repeatedly cycled back into the earthen alchemical cauldron from which it sprouted and branched. The snake’s molting skin is emblematic of our temporal creations and fragile illusions, as well as those exactly defined personas we pray will outlast all transition.
In societies where nature is generally considered to be base, dirty or evil, the serpent is reviled. Indigenous peoples, peoples living near to the land, have never been as quick to abhor the rodent-reducing reptiles slipping through their granary roofs. Examples of snakes treated as a positive, informative embodiment of life are found among many primal cultures: coiled within the womb of the African “black goddess,” wrapped around the Celtic and Teutonic effigies, held aloft in rainbow colors by the carved image of the goddess Una in aboriginal Australia. The Sumerian “Great Mother Serpent of Heaven.” The Venezuelan Yaruro’s “Puana the Snake,” creator of all. The writhing passion of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of the Maya. Snake-hearted Paghat of the Near East. The serpent and the planet-body, the snake and the feminized Earth were seen as one indivisible entity. Thus for early Egyptians, the symbol of the cobra served as the hieroglyph for the word “Goddess,” and from her comes the egg, “Maat”: a word meaning both “matter” and “mother.”
The rattler is prominent in Native American mythology, marked by its propensity to warn us first with the distinctive buzz of its tail, the buttons of its rattle made of the remnants of its shed skins. They were often revered as agents of the Spirit who could avenge human affronts. Bites were punishment for sacrilege, or the harming of a fellow snake. The Comanche, on the other hand, would only kill one if it failed to rattle, presumably on a ninja mission of vengeance. Other tribes such as the Talawa and Tarasco wouldn’t hurt one under any circumstance. The Luiseno and Shoshoni regarded a snake-bit camp dog as a sign of failed spiritual duties. Most refer to them respectfully as “Grandmother” or “Grandfather,” in deference to their spiritual significance and power. Rattlers repay the Chitimacha of Louisiana for a historic favor by guarding their houses while they’re away.
Of all the known American rituals involving serpents, the Hopi Snake Dance is the most widely known. Many of the animals they use are rattlers, held in the teeth at a point five or six inches behind the head. This portion of the dance occupies less than a half-hour of the nine day ceremony for rain, but fascinates the snake fearing ethnologists and jumpy observers. They’re pulled from the enclosure called a Kisi one at a time by costumed participants until each one has been danced with, then they are placed in a circle of sacred cornmeal by the Antelope priests. Women scatter more white cornmeal over them, before they’re grabbed by the Snake priests in great handfuls and carried to the four directions to be released. It’s then the snakes’ job to reenter the underworld, and there ask the Thunder Gods to bring the much-needed rain.
By affirming snakes’ right to exist, we affirm proliferate, sentient, outlaw life. Sensual life. Sexual life. In the Yogic traditions the energy of life and transformation is known as Kundalini, serpent energy that rests at the base of the spine in the sexual chakra. It spirals in a timeless state, a unifying fire that extends upwards to that atrophied portion of the modern human brain, the source of shared instincts and dreamtime appropriately labled our reptilian cortex. The spine is the conduit for the life-force, the trunk of the sacred tree. It’s the arousal of the Kundalini serpent power that reunites the false dualities of good versus evil, spirit versus matter, body versus soul. It’s our conscious retrieval by the Garden of Oneness. It’s the re-membering of our selves, of our selves as the planet-body Gaia. With Kundalini we have both human nature and greater nature on the rise. With the Greek Oroboros – the snake with its tail in its mouth – we have a complete circle, nature forever consuming itself without diminishment, a corporal as well as spiritual homecoming.
Here is the source of mantism, telepathy, intuition and healing, the power of the Earth to know and to cure itself. It is the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl, breaking free from the hardening concrete. In spite of what you may have been told, the snake is velvet soft rather than slimy. It is a blessing. It is a teacher. It is a manifestation of anima and spirit provoking us to wake up and pay attention to the world under and around us, including those scaled and voiceless soothsayers living nearest it. We sing for her, stoop to apologize for any mistreatment and to praise her for her teacher’s role.
The serpent and dark are not threats so much as opportunities, with all manifestations of nature in and around us ready to inform and empower, and with darkness being the fecund womb from which all possibilities arise. Both the shadow world and its resident snakes are in ways always right here in front of us, unseen among the dried grasses and lichen-covered rock of our still wild souls. They wait not be to ambush us, but to welcome us back to the real world of inter-coursing dark and light. To wholeness and balance, to the wondrous cycling of death and life.
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(All photos (c)2009 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)