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Meaning in the Year of the Snake

February 3, 2013

“If the account given in Genesis is really true, ought we not, after all, to thank this serpent? He was the first schoolmaster, the first advocate of learning, the first enemy of ignorance, the first to whisper in human ears the sacred word liberty.”

- Robert Green Ingersoll

William Blake's painting 'Eve Tempted by the Serpent'

William Blake’s painting ‘Eve Tempted by the Serpent’

In honor of the Year of the Snake, which will arrive with Chinese and Tibetan New Year on February 10th, I decided to explore the snake as a symbol across cultures and history, just as I did with the dragon last year. If you’d like to read some of the predictions for the Year of the Snake based in the Chinese and Tibetan astrology systems, I wrote a bit on that over at Bellaonline.com. This post is more of a free-form exploration of the snake and the serpent as a symbol.  Symbols speak to us beyond words, on a visceral level, and can serve as shortcuts to meaning, or even doorways to other dimensions. This post is a meander through images and myths related to the snake, which I hope will spur insights for you about what you’d like your Year of the Snake to be about (it certainly did for me.)

The snake has so many different interpretations, but if there is any overriding theme it is one of consciousness – of good and evil, of choice, and of awakening to the power of this choice. The snake, across all cultures, is never seen as stupid. The snake is not only smart, but aware, and it brings awareness – sometimes at any cost. In Judeo-Christianity of course,  it’s the snake, or serpent, that convinces Eve to partake of forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The conventional interpretation is that this is a fall from grace, and over the centuries both serpents and women have suffered from this association, considered the root of all evil in the world.

Mystic and esoteric interpretations of Genesis have always been more nuanced, and seen the snake as a catalyst for Adam and Eve’s awakening – to their independence from God, to their own free will, to their sexual energies, or, as in the Ingersoll quote above, to the quest for knowledge and learning itself. Seen in terms of the spiritual journey, it is only through separation from God or Source that we can seek to come back to it. In this way, the snake is nothing less than the catalyst for our own enlightenment.

This is closer to my own primary association with the snake as symbol – as the ‘nadis’ or energy channels through which the spiritual energy of kundalini rises through the chakras as part of the enlightenment process:

Chakra Mapping, showing the two spiraling nadis as serpents.

As the kundalini rises – not just once but over and over – it triggers lessons, insights, gifts, and challenges associated with the stages of consciousness linked to each chakra. Sometimes we are engrossed in the lessons of one or more chakras for years – or lifetimes. Sometimes we move all the way through, and experience an awakening of sorts, before cycling back through to learn on an even deeper level, resulting in an even deeper awakening, and integration of that learning into a new self.

The awakening process depicted as human evolution through kundalini rising.

Awakening is a healing process as well – a healing of our intrinsic separation from Source. Often ‘dis-ease’, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual, is the spur for our seeking, and so it’s appropriate in that sense that the spiraling kundalini snakes were incorporated into the modern-day medical symbol in the West, albeit conventional medicine has moved far afield of its holistic roots (although gradually coming back to it these days – we hope):

Caduceus, symbol of American medicine

The snake, in particular the cobra, is linked not only to awakening in the East but also to the protection of enlightenment. Many versions of the Buddha’s life story tell of his protection by one or more cobras while sitting under the Bodhi Tree in meditation. This image represents not only protection but also the Buddha’s peace with all beings, as the cobra’s initially antagonistic instincts are quelled by the great peace emanating from Buddha:

Statue in Bodhgaya India of Buddha in meditation protected by a cobra. Source: trekearth.com

Cobras often also encircle the head of Vishnu, the Hindu god who plays the role of ‘preserver’ in the Trimurti of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Together they represent the never-ending cycle of birth and death, creation, destruction, and transformation.

Vishnu – Preserver of the Universe

This connection between snakes and protection is mirrored in the Hindu and Tibetan ‘nagas’ – serpent/snake deities featured prominently in the Indian epic the Mahabarata. Nagas play many different roles in this tale, and in related Buddhist mythology, but are almost always linked to water and the underworld, and often to the protection of natural forces and/or secret mystic knowledge. They are usually portrayed as benevolent to humans unless they are mistreated, in which case they strike back through natural disasters, often based in water. In some contemporary interpretations nagas are therefore sometimes thought of as protectors of the environment, with the disasters they are connected with seen as retribution for environmental destruction wrought by humanity.

nagas

Nagas portrayed as protectors of a shrine.

In Tibetan portrayals, nagas are sometimes also portrayed as protectors of termas, or ‘hidden treasures’. Within Tantric Buddhism termas are teachings planted by Tantric masters for eventual discovery by future adepts, at such time as they are ready for them. Termas are revelatory in nature, and only understood by those ready to receive them. They are linked to direct knowing of enlightenment, rather than intellectual understanding.

tibetanfemalenaga

Tibetan painting of a female naga, or nagini.

The cobra was also a powerful protection symbol in Ancient Egypt, and placed on either side of the sun (representing Ra) in some versions of the winged solar disk found above temple and pyramid doors:

Cobras as protection for Ra, sometimes called the ‘fiery eyes’ of Ra.

The cobra also came to symbolize Lower Egypt, and served as guardians in later tombs:

egyptcobra

Of course, there’s a shadow side to the snake in mythology – this is not an uncomplicated symbol. How could we talk about snakes, especially on a site largely devoted to women’s spirituality, without covering Medusa? In Greek mythology, Medusa has a hideous face and venemous snakes for hair, and her glance turns onlookers to stone. In more modern interpretations Medusa is often equated with feminine rage, and thus as a shadow that can be transformed through awareness into feminine power.

Bernini’s Medusa

Another ‘shadow’ representation of the snake is found in the Tibetan Buddhist symbol for aversion, the root of hatred or anger, which is one of the three root delusions or ‘poisons’ that leads to suffering. Within Wheel of Life mandalas, the three delusions are depicted as a snake, pig (ignorance) and bird (attachment):

threerootdelusions

The snake (aversion), pig (ignorance) and bird (attachment) in the center of a Wheel of Life. Together they keep us trapped in suffering until through mindfulness and awareness we break their hold.

Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec/Mayan ‘feathered-serpent’ god captured a lot of interest in 2012 as one of the gods associated with the Mayan calendar. There are a lot of different interpretations of Quetzalcoatl, but in all of them he is nothing if not intense. He is linked to both creation and destruction, death and fertility, and cycles of all types. Taken as a whole, the common thread running through Quetzalcoatl stories seems to be choice-points and redemption - the destruction of the past for the creation of a new future:

Quetzalcoatl – ‘feathered serpent’ God associated with the calendar, death and resurrection, water, fertility, and even secret knowledge by some.

Which brings us to the other main theme associated with snakes – that of rebirth, because of their ability to shed their skin and grow a new one each year:

Snake Shedding Skin by artist Alice Friend

This theme is common in Native American depictions, but is also perhaps related to the Ouroboros, a picture of a snake eating its own tale, representing cycles and eternal renewal in Egyptian and Greek texts, and later adopted by alchemists and even Gnostics to represent duality and non-duality (similar to the yin/yang symbol.)

Ouroboros – symbol of cycles, and the ‘eternal return’, here shown in a medieval alchemical tract

Because of this link to renewal, the snake has also often been connected to fertility, as with this Minoan snake goddess statue estimated to be from around 1600 BCE, making it one of the oldest such statues archaeologists have found:

snakegoddess

Minoan Snake goddess from 1600 BCE

So there  you go – awareness, awakening, choice, delusion, protection, esoteric knowledge, cycles, fertility, rebirth. There’s no shortage of snake mythology to draw upon when contemplating your Year of the Snake. For me, it seems to all add up to a moving inward, a necessary retraction after the fiery Year of the Dragon, for honest self-appraisal and inquiry. The result can be an emergence into a new level of awakening, a rebirth born of direct knowing, a cutting through past delusion, and a new level of alignment with both earth and Source.

This was a necessarily a subjective and limited view of the snake, there are so many different legends to draw upon! Feel free to share your own favorite snake symbols or myths, and your own interpretations too…Namaste, and Happy Year of the Snake.

38 Comments leave one →
  1. Nina permalink
    February 3, 2013 2:37 am

    Thank you Lisa, for all the care and research you put into this. I was just reading some of the interpretations of the Year of the Female Water snake but wasn’t finding anything that spoke to me. This gives me much more to work with. Kundalini- of course, I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that connection already. And I know snakes are associated with healing in many Native traditions- their venom can harm or heal. It’s an interesting metaphor…

  2. February 3, 2013 2:44 am

    Thank you Nina, for sharing that about snake venom being either harmful or healing. That plays so well in to the theme of knowledge and free will, which we can use for good or evil, self-awareness or self-destruction. That is really what tied so many of these themes together for me – this idea of self-inquiry, awareness and choice as the roots of awakening. I think it also ties into some of the more traditional predictions I read for the Year of the Snake – the snake in Chinese astrology is a very private, introspective, smart creature. That intelligence can be unstoppable if applied productively, or lethal if not. Coming on the heels of the Year of the Dragon, it’s like this is the year where we make the choices that count, based on how we interpret the more dramatic events of 2012.

  3. February 3, 2013 3:05 am

    wow. that was quite a post! thank you for the time it took to organize and write this post! z

  4. February 3, 2013 3:17 am

    This post so reminded me of the head dress from our “Egyptian Mysticism Class” which I “saw” as we were meditating–a cobra on the front of the head dress. Thank you for all the different threads tied together so beautifully in your post.

  5. Pema permalink
    February 3, 2013 3:29 am

    I just want to say BRAVO to the work you’re doing. Makes me smile so much! :)

  6. February 3, 2013 3:43 am

    Well, you just covered the first year of my Mythological Studies program in one post. :)

    But seriously, thank you for this exploration. There’s a lot of really good material here, with a lot of tips for more in-depth study.

    For me, the snake is most closely related with healing and rebirth. The shedding of the skin as growth, rebirth, and renewal is very powerful imagery for me. On the darker side, growing up on the farm, and being something of a “wild child”, snakes were the only real danger I had to worry about. I spent 90% of my time alone in the woods, and I had to be mindful not to step on one or grab one by mistake. Twenty years before learning anything about Buddhism…snakes taught me mindfulness and awareness. :)

  7. Diasporations permalink
    February 3, 2013 12:23 pm

    Reblogged this on Justin Case.

  8. February 3, 2013 3:19 pm

    Thank you for posting this, it came as a charm to me and my husband while we had today a big conversation about snakes. Synchronicity how much I love you! Have a beautiful Sunday!

  9. February 3, 2013 4:54 pm

    Thanks so much all – Cate, yes I remembered that as I was writing! I think there is much more to the cobra in Ancient Egyptian mysticism than comes out in the historical analysis…it is more about transformation of shadow into power I feel – turning ‘poison’ into ‘nectar’. I didn’t go into that here, but I think it’s the real core of cobra mythology…

  10. February 3, 2013 4:57 pm

    Hi Jay, yes I almost did a section on fear, as our family spends a lot of time in the Utah deserts as you know, and rattlesnakes are our biggest worry there (and a very real one.) Lots of symbolic meaning to mine there too I think, as they are so hard to see, and the biggest challenge comes from stepping on them unwittingly, especially when they are shedding their skins in the Fall, as that is their most vulnerable time since they can’t move as freely. Lots we could say about that in terms of the vulnerability of going through a transformative period in our lives…

  11. February 3, 2013 4:58 pm

    Thanks for the reblog Diasporations, and thanks to everyone for their shares and comments. May your Year of the Snake be transformative and happy!

  12. February 3, 2013 8:05 pm

    This was simply awesome! Will be re-blogging!!!

  13. February 3, 2013 8:06 pm

    Reblogged this on Journeying to the Goddess and commented:
    We will be entering the Year of the Snake shortly. This is a wonderful piece depicting the significance of the snake throughout different cultures. The snake represents “awareness, awakening, choice, delusion, protection, esoteric knowledge, cycles, fertility, rebirth. There’s no shortage of snake mythology to draw upon when contemplating your Year of the Snake. For me, it seems to all add up to a moving inward, a necessary retraction after the fiery Year of the Dragon, for honest self-appraisal and inquiry. The result can be an emergence into a new level of awakening, a rebirth born of direct knowing, a cutting through past delusion, and a new level of alignment with both earth and Source.” – Mommy Mystic

  14. February 3, 2013 9:09 pm

    Thanks Lisa! This is full of great stuff. I’ll share it with my triangle blessing group (Alla and Laura) and use it for some thought in this final week before the year of the snake arrives.

  15. February 3, 2013 10:19 pm

    Thanks, Lisa! You’ve covered so much in this one blog… I’m going to share it. So glad I ignored the interpretation of one minister many years ago who told me to give up yoga, because of his association of the snake with the work of the devil.

  16. February 4, 2013 4:52 am

    Daughter Ravynstar and Elizabeth, thanks so much for sharing with others, I hope it spurs insights for all. It was really a pleasure to write.
    Becca, I’m glad you ignored him too!!

  17. February 4, 2013 1:33 pm

    I was born on the cusp of the years of the dragon and the snake, and the Chinese new year of the female water snake is on my birthday this year, so that must be significant! I love working with the nagas and naginis in Vajrayana, Shaivism and Himalayan shamanism.

  18. February 4, 2013 7:06 pm

    Reblogged this on One Rune and commented:
    Snakes are the beings who know boundaries best. They can wrap around others, around themselves, defend the barriers they wish, and twist through and out of any lines that could be blurred. The power to transform and heal boundaries can give anyone the power to pursue what they truly want in life. May this look into the history of snake teaching and symbolism be the beginning of many journeys to power and freedom.

  19. February 4, 2013 8:29 pm

    I am a snake.. and I remember well the last time it was ‘year of the snake’. TRANSITION. Deeper awakening. Kundalini.. Thank you so much. Really amazing post!! YEAH!Excellent.

  20. February 4, 2013 10:13 pm

    BlauSternSchwarzSchlonge – yes seems like the signal for a big year for you.

  21. February 4, 2013 10:24 pm

    Wheresmytower – thanks for the reblog and the comment. This really captured me “[snakes] can wrap around others, around themselves, defend the barriers they wish, and twist through and out of any lines that could be blurred.” So true and I had not thought of it in this way – how snakes move in and around things that might first be perceived as barriers. Another great connection for thinking about the Year of the Snake.

  22. February 4, 2013 10:25 pm

    Yogini Tiff – extra happy snake year to you then – this is your year!

  23. February 5, 2013 7:45 am

    Reblogged this on The Spirited Soul and commented:
    Here’s an interesting post, with beautiful images, by “The Mommy Mystic”. Here she examines snake mythology, spiritually and cross culturally, in honor of the upcoming Chinese New Year, Year of the Snake. I was born in the Year of the Snake, and not surprisingly I suppose, a peddling astrologer told me I had sad Snake eyes, and would return to India someday…I do, and I did. :) More transformation and rebirth on the way…Shed that skin, and let it go…

  24. February 7, 2013 7:55 am

    As always, beautifully written, well researched and backed up by innate wisdom.

  25. February 9, 2013 7:00 am

    Another wonderfully informative post that I will bookmark for reference! Transformation, healing energy, these are the gifts of snake to me. A totem in my dreams which gives me healing abilities. And, hurray!, it’s my year!! Thanks for the reminder!

  26. February 9, 2013 2:52 pm

    I like this so much I am going to reblog it and other links for the Year of the Water Snake which starts tomorrow into the next day, which btw is my birthday, lol.

  27. February 10, 2013 3:45 pm

    BlauSternSchwarzSchlonge – thanks for the reblog, and happy snake birthday:-)

  28. February 11, 2013 3:51 pm

    Wonderful blog <3 Thank you. Love to you <3

  29. February 13, 2013 2:57 am

    Thank you for sharing this post and it’s very interesting information. I’d never known the snake had so many different interpretations and was found in almost every ancient culture around the world. I wish you a very happy year of the snake :)

  30. February 13, 2013 2:57 am

    Reblogged this on Infernal Deity of a Psychotic Mind and commented:
    Thank you for sharing this post and it’s very interesting information. I’d never known the snake had so many different interpretations and was found in almost every ancient culture around the world. I wish you a very happy year of the snake :)

  31. February 15, 2013 3:03 am

    I went to the Buddhist temple to pray with my Vietnamese friend at midnight Feb. 9 into Feb 10 (Vietnamese New Year).
    Then, I celebrated the Chinese New Year on the evening of Feb. 10, with my friends from Taiwan. I was told by both groups, that I was born in the year of the snake (many years ago)….and that I am a water snake. I had always thought that being a “snake” had negative connotations. I am glad to see all of this information about the positive side! Thankyou.

  32. February 15, 2013 4:55 pm

    Hi Mary, Happy Year of the Snake to you! I don’t think of any astrological sign (in any system) as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ although I know some people do. I think they are expressions of energy that we can use in whatever ways we need, and part of what astrology does is show us the energetic ‘currents’ we are swimming in, so that we can best do that. The snake is not an easy energy to comprehend, it’s not straightforward, but it has a lot of hidden power in it I think.

  33. February 18, 2013 7:26 pm

    Thanks Juli Anne for your link!

  34. March 1, 2013 9:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Blazing Light, Love's Song and commented:
    Insight-full in many ways. Just have to re-blog it!

Trackbacks

  1. Love, Forgiveness & Clarity: Ways To Open Up The Heart | Sapphires & Sisters
  2. Let’s get Wet and Snakey | Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge
  3. Energy and Action in the Year of the Horse | Mommy Mystic

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