Meaning in the Year of the Snake
“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
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:
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.
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):
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
The cobra also came to symbolize Lower Egypt, and served as guardians in later tombs:
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.
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):
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:
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:
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.)
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:
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.