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Snake Herstory

Who is Snake?  For the patriarchy, snake has been associated with Eve, and both have been the symbols of evil and the “Fall of Man.”  Eve was identified with the Snake by the “church fathers,” and they both have received the fearful projections of all that isn't known or understood about the Feminine, the Great Mystery, and that which lies beyond the comprehension of the rational, egoic, mind.  The snake was one of the most widely used symbols associated with the goddess in many cultures of the Near East, where the Eve mythology had its roots.  Ancient maps often depicted great serpents at the outer edges of the oceans, warning men not to dare to sail their ships beyond the known, lest they meet with a terrible serpent and succumb to certain death.  It is interesting that ancient men used the same symbol as the symbol for the goddess to depict death, the unknown, and the uncharted.

In The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983 ), Barbara Walker points out that practically every culture has a snake in its mythology, and most often it is seen as a symbol of wisdom, healing, initiation, and secret knowledge, or it is associated with eternal life and ongoing renewal.  Snake is the archetypal symbol of the Great Mother Goddess, incarnate in one of her most universal forms.  It is also a symbol of the Kundalini Shakti energy, the cosmic feminine energy that ignites and fuels our spiritual awakening process.  Kundalini is a Sanskrit word meaning  “coiled up," according to Ajit Mookerjee in Kundalini, The Arousal of the Inner Energy (1982).  Erich Neumann, in The Great Mother (1963) writes that “…the uroborus, the circular snake biting its tail, is the symbol of the psychic state of the beginning, of the original situation, in which man’s consciousness and ego were still small and undeveloped.  As a symbol of the origin and of the opposites contained in it, the uroboros is the ‘Great Round,’ in which positive and negative, male and female, elements of consciousness, elements hostile to consciousness, and unconscious elements are intermingled.” 

The archetypal relationship between woman and snake goes way back.  Our ancestresses, the ancient Indo-European women, knew about the snake's connection to spirituality and the Great Goddess.  Images of snakes and spirals abound in the archaeological discoveries of the matristic cultures of the Paleolithic and Neolithic sites in Western Europe.  The late archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas, documented this in The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), and The Language of the Goddess (1989).  Gimbutas uses the word matristic instead of matriarchal to indicate that, while these cultures were matrilineal, they were definitely not female versions of patriarchy, with women ruling over the men in a hierarchical structure.  Indications are those women and men were equal in these societies, even though the primary focus of worship was the goddess.  The lives of these people, first as hunters and gatherers, and later as the women developed agriculture, were lived in close connection to the earth, and completely intertwined with


 Eve by Sheila Foster

the seasons and cycles of nature.  The life-giving, nurturing, death-giving, and renewing aspects of nature were the basis of belief in a divine feminine who gave, sustained, and then took life back into her.

The snake symbolized this cyclical process for the ancients, as it still does for us.  Snakes and spirals were carved into pots, painted in caves and on temple walls.  Among the artifacts, there are images of women holding snakes, wrapped in snakes, and with snakes for hair.  There are snake spirals and designs carved on the bodies of female figures, and little icons of women with snake bodies.

There are also numerous images and statues of women where the snake or spiral is used in combination with bird's heads, symbolic of soul flight and shamanic travel into other realms of consciousness.  When the Snake power, the kundalini energy, becomes active in a woman, the veils of ordinary consciousness are lifted, and awareness of other dimensions is opened.  By-products of the initiatory journey for many women are the ability to shift consciousness from one dimension to another, and the ability to engage the energies and beings of these other realms for healing, empowerment, guidance, and information.  This is the shamanic aspect of Sacred Feminine initiation.

Personal ritual: Take a walk in the woods, go into your garden or down the street, walk on a beach, go in the grocery store, and look for spirals.  Gather some objects with spirals on them, or meditate on the spiral.  Samyama the spiral.   Image a spiral in your heart center.  Allow yourself to open to its energy, feel it in your body.  Feel what it feels like to move your body in a spiral.  Begin at your head and spiral down.  Begin at your feet and spiral upward.  Find the spirals of movement in your hips belly, breasts, head, arms, and hands.  When you feel ready, use art materials to make something with a spiral motif.

Snakes in Mythology

We have become familiar with the snake mostly through our creation myth and through the myths of Greece—all mythologies of patriarchy.  These are the mythologies that have shaped the treatment of women for a very long time.  Snake appears in Sumerian and Babylonian mythologies, which contain elements akin to Genesis.  In these, the serpent is often dual in its nature: good and evil, tricky and truthful, hostile and benevolent.  Snake’s role is often that of the gatekeeper to the supernatural, the immortal. 

In one Greek story, it is said that Apollo killed the mighty python that guarded the cave of the Oracle at Delphi, which means “womb,” and killed the high priestess Delphyne as well.  Originally, before patriarchy, the Oracle at Delphi was a holy place tended by priestesses of the goddess, called pythia or pythonesses, and the wisdom of the Great Mother was given through the priestesses to seekers.  Once the python was killed, and the priestesses of the Mother were banished, the only priestesses allowed to sit on the oracular seat were the consorts of Apollo, those women who relinquished their deep connection to the feminine source of wisdom and spoke for the patriarchy.

Snakes were kept in the healing temples of Aesklepius, the god of medicine.  When people came to the temple for a healing, they were invited to ask for a healing dream.  If they were lucky, they would dream of a snake, which they believed to be Aesklepius himself, offering a healing.  The caduceus, two snakes intertwined, is the symbol of the medical profession today.  It was the symbol of Aesklepius, and according to Barbara Walker in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (1988), the symbol goes back to 2000 BC Mesopotamia, where the “intertwined snakes represented the healing god Ningishzida, one of the lovers of the Goddess Ishtar.”  The Greek god Hermes, messenger of the gods, had a magic staff entwined with snakes and surmounted by wings, which was said to be so powerful that it could raise the dead from Hades.  Hermes’ job was to conduct the souls of the dead to the underworld and he was believed to possess magical powers over sleep and dreams.

The Snake Dance ceremony of the Hopi or Moqui people of northeastern Arizona, includes the skilled handling of live snakes. The ceremony is held every two years near August 20. The celebrants are the Snake and Antelope fraternities of the Hopi tribe. The dance, which is performed in public after eight days of secret ceremonies, is a petition to the nature gods to bring rain. The Hopi believe that snakes are their brothers, the children of their ancestors the Snake Maid and the Snake Hero, who were changed into snakes, and that they therefore have special powers of intercession.

In the Catholic Church, there are statues and paintings of the Blessed Mother, Mary, shown with one foot upon the head of a snake.  We were told in Catholic school that she was crushing the snake, symbol of evil.  If you look closely at some of those statues and paintings, it doesn't look as if anything so violent as crushing is going on.  Snake seems friendly, sometimes affectionately wrapped around Mary’s ankle.  I recently saw a forty-year old statue with Mary with a snake with an apple in its mouth.  Mary’s foot is gently placed upon the snake, her face is peaceful, and her hands are open as she looks down at the snake.   In this we see Mary’s connection to Eve, to the ancient Mother Goddess, to the earth, to the body, to ancient wisdom, to the Kundalini Shakti.

There is only one Great Mother, and she wears many disguises.  She continues to make Her presence known to us in numerous forms: goddesses and hags, human women and snakes, and trees, birds, rivers, stones, mountains, and the earth herself.  She has been honored and worshipped by women from the beginning in all of these forms and more.  She is right here, if we only have the heart and willingness to open to Her presence.

© Sheila Foster 2005