Serpents and snakes have a varied but resonant pedigree within the human imagination. Their undulating motion suggests a power supple, muscular and sensuous, like the natural movements of water, wind and sand made flesh. Heroes battle them, shape shifters turn into them, magicians and healers master them, yogis sit enlightened beneath their raised and unfurled shade. Serpents tempt, and dragons guard treasure. Even in our childhood games, we all know where we’re going in Snakes and Ladders, right? A single snake curled round Asclepius’ staff speaks of the ambiguity of poison and medicine. The caduceus crowns entwined snakes with light. The path of the serpent up the Tree of Life is the path of magical wisdom. Their shedding skins make them abiding symbols of transformation, while their shape is often wondrously phallic. Even Harry Potter’s most interesting and complex characters belong to the serpentine house.
Where do we feel the serpent’s movement within us? In what we desire, or what we fear? When I think of the inner serpent, I think of something deep and powerful, something felt and not thought. The snake moves and things look and feel different. We remember something about ourselves, something that speaks a language so basic that it virtually speaks us. We often associate this with sexuality and magic, with the depths of creativity and longing, something that touches our most particular sense of value, and our deepest sense of inadequacy in its denial. It comes so close to the root of our sense of individuality, yet its stuff is quite transpersonal also. It is a deeply intoxicating power that can easily turn to narcissism, glamour and entanglement, yet what it truly calls to is a sense of freedom and innocent fulfilment. To feel the snake’s movement and not identify is a bit like eating without chewing – it takes a lot of unlearning. Its road to wisdom has real rewards and real risks all too often, which is to say, it is more nakedly like Life than most things let themselves be.
When we know nothing else, our snake knows why we came here, and what for. Not in the language of reason and ordinary conscious mind, but in its instinctive, dreaming sense. Buried within us, it is the most basic union of instinctive will and love, desire and imagination. We have to learn how to honour this without harm.
In the magical Qabalah the Hebrew letter “teth” has the meaning “a serpent”. It is associated with the sign of Leo (ruled by the Sun) and the tarot trump “Strength” (also called “Lust” in the Crowley Thoth deck). “Strength” shows the great inner power of spirit, and is one of two tarot trumps that feature the sign for infinity in their design.
As if to underscore the importance of serpent symbolism, in astrology the “head” and “tail” of the dragon, Caput and Cauda Draconis, are key points in the chart, indicating notably karmic areas for the individual. These points in the horoscope are always opposite each other, and if the Sun and Moon are in opposition, or conjunct each other on these points, then there will be a lunar or solar eclipse. In modern astrology these points are known as the Moon’s Nodes, and the head of the dragon is the North Node, while the tail of the dragon is the South. The North Node shows a very significant area which can be beneficially developed, from a spiritual-holistic point of view for the individual. It’s not something that comes naturally, but it often proves to be the missing part of the puzzle that frees up so much else in the whole life. The South Node in a sense shows where we have come from karmically, an area we have a tendency to fall or be pulled back into, what we have already developed in a past life or the past of this life. It is much more recognizably “inherent nature” right from the beginning, a natural strength which is yet also a weakness by the very same virtue. The trick is to recognize and develop the one, without turning our back on the other, for the South Node is a great resource if used wisely, and a source of wisdom if its lessons have been learned. Yet there is no question, the head of the dragon is where we are going, and where we benefit most greatly, broadly and profoundly.
I think this shows the scope of the serpent. We need the serpent, to be ourselves, to truly live, and to know why we are here. Its perils are those of life and consciousness, and personhood – one that isn’t “unplugged”. It may slither and undulate, contract and dilate, weep venom and elixir, taste the future with its tongue, be born again and again even in one life, but it ever shines, between light and shadow. It’s the juice without which spirituality is a shroud, and life a dress rehearsal. It is a naked predicament, and a naked soul.
It is Life’s love of the very chance of Union.
Snakesun: collage created from images by Vassil (in public domain) and Bernhard J. Scheuvens (under creative commons 2.5 license). Collage under creative commons 2.5 license, as per source material license.