When you think of snakes, what comes to mind?
Friendly, slithery little grass snakes slipping across your bare toes in summertime?
A python wrapped around your arm while you dance?
A cobra swaying to a snake charmer flute?
Do you conjure up water snakes or tree snakes, dragons, or evocative statues?
Rattlesnakes bravely protecting their young in the heart of the canyon? A friendly pet in a young boy’s room?
Snakes are found on almost every continent on earth. Sea snakes live in the deepest part of our ocean, and mountain snakes on its highest terrain. They are symbols of health and healing, sex and fertility, protection, transformation, and immortality. Putting any slight ophidiophobia aside, here are qualities of Snakes to inspire a new writing practice.
Health and healing: One of the oldest symbols of health and healing comes from the ancient Sumerians, who portrayed their deity Ningishzida, an ancestor of Gilgamesh, with two snakes coiling around a rod or staff. This serpent-god had the duty of taking recently-departed souls to their new home. Gilgamesh, as you may recall, was the epic hero who dived to the bottom of the lake to retrieve the plant of life so he could save his friend. But while he slept off his exertions a serpent came and ate the plant. Thus the snake became immortal and Gilgamesh did not.
A familiar—and contemporary—symbol of health is the caduceus: two snakes entwines around a staff. This image originated from Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing, who carried a staff with one serpent wrapped around it. The messenger god Hermes took over the symbol, thus the wings on top.
The dramatic story of Moses transforming a staff into a snake and then back into a staff was also a healing symbol: “Moses made a snake of copper, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a snake had bitten any man, when he beheld the snake of brass, he lived.”
And keep in mind that most medicines have the power to wound or to heal – just as the snake’s venom does.
Sex and Fertility: Many Ancient Greek myths depict the snake as a fertility symbol. The Gorgon in the Temple of Artemis on Corfu wears a belt of intertwined snakes, a fertility symbol as well as a healing one. The wise Minoan Snake Goddes on Crete wields a serpent in either hand. Pytho, the all-knowing earth-dragon of Delphi was depicted as a serpent. (Apollo later slew her and moved into her Delphic home, reconstructing her sacred cavern into his own oracle.)
Another familiar snake story representing sex and fertility occurred in the Garden of Eden, where the serpent entices Eve with the promise of forbidden knowledge of good and evil, a form of self-consciousness, without which she could not experience the fullness of life. The serpent promises everlasting life if she tastes the fruit.
Snakes are also symbols of protection: While the Buddha sat meditating under the Bodhi tree, a storm arose. The mighty serpent king Mucalinda cloaked the Buddha in seven coils for seven days, so that he could continue meditating.
In Greek mythology, Ladon is coiled around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, protecting the golden apples.
The Medusa and other gorgons were ferocious female monsters with hair of poisonous snakes whose were the protectors of the most ancient ritual secrets.
In many myths the Serpent lives in or is coiled around a Tree of Life. Nidhogg Nagar, the dragon of Norse mythology, eats from the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The biblical Serpent hides in a Tree of Knowledge.
Transformation and Rebirth: Snakes shed their skin and the concept of transformation and rebirth is perhaps their most important symbol. Hermes, the winged messenger of the Ancient Greek gods, who is often represented by the healing caduceus, had many roles in Greek mythology, one of which was his role of escorting the dead to their new abode.
Immortality and infinity is represented by the “ouroboros”—that universal symbol of a serpent with its tail in its mouth, forming a perfect circle. The origin and many meanings of this profound symbol is shrouded in mythology, history, psychology, but for this writing practice all you need to know is that it represents the “all-in-all”, the cycle of nature and the cosmos, of eternity, and of constant renewal and rebirth.
Writing Practice—The Year of the Snake
Before Buddha departed from earth, twelve animals came to offer their gratitude and devotion. He honored them by naming the years after them in the order arrived: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. We are completing our Year of the Dragon, and heading into … yes … the Year of the Snake.
The horoscope is also based on the rotating five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and wood) and this is the year of the water snake. The water snake is dark and deep: imagine gazing into that dark deep and seeing your personal reflection it. Be prepared for the unexpected . As we’ve said, snakes shed their skin, so they are a symbol of new beginnings. This is a year for transformation, healing, rebirth – and magic.
Here’s your writing practice:
Imagine all the things in your life that are like dead skin. I know that’s a horrible image, but it really helps to be realistic. We all carry much too much dead skin around with us. Old newspapers, clothes that we’ll never wear again, people who bring us down, a kitchen cupboard that cluttered with items we’ll never use.
Get rid of them.
And since you’re a writer, write down your “dead skin list.” Choose twenty-eight items/people/things/thoughts that you want to slough off this month. Look at old stories, projects, letters too. Do you want to keep those projects in a dusty drawer, or is it time for you to say, that’s it. Let it go. (Or finish it.)
But that’s not all there is to the practice. You don’t want to slough off the old skin and find yourself vulnerable, chilly, delicate… you need to visualize who you become once all the old and all that it symbolizes is cast off.
Imagine three qualities that you choose to become. These qualities will take the place of all the old matter that has disappeared. Do you choose courage? Do you commit to writing that story you always wanted to tell? Or are you determined to say no to the person who makes you depressed?
Write down at least three qualities you want to build up in yourself. Some examples: Kindness. Wisdom. Humor. Freedom. Joy … and begin to think about ways to cultivate those qualities in this magic year – the year of the snake.