O you who goes on his belly, your strength belongs to your mountain. But watch me as I go off with your strength in my hand!—Egyptian coffin text
“Why in the world are you reading a 600-page book about snakes?” Jonesy, my friend since the 2nd grade, asked this question while flipping through a text I’d brought along on our annual winter trip to Vermont. As I considered my reply, it occurred to me that I was with him the last time I killed a snake, some forty years ago. But I didn’t mention this shameful, ugly memory when I answered him. Later that evening, he told me that he’d once shot a diamondback rattlesnake while walking a trail in west Texas with his young son. “Gave me nightmares,” he said, then solemnly shook his head.
I’ve had a lifelong dread of snakes. One of my earliest memories is of an encounter with a small snake when I was 2 or 3 years old. I doubt that I’d ever heard about snakes or even seen a picture of one at that young age, but I remember being frightened and unnerved by that harmless creature. Naturally, hoping to be soothed, I ran inside to find my mother. Since I hadn’t been taught to fear snakes, I would say that the terror I felt was an instinctual response to a powerful primordial archetype. For decades, disturbing encounters with serpents were a regular feature of my dreams – and inevitably, my outdoor ramblings.
Like the time, while doing work in the yard, I nearly stepped on a garter snake which had the head and front legs of a live frog sticking out of its mouth. My sympathy for the frog overrode my usual inclination to refrain from meddling in the cruel realities of nature. I poked the snake with long-handled implement, and it immediately let go of its meal. As the frog hopped off into the weeds, I felt like quite the hero – a reluctant Beowulf, wielding not a sword but a gravel rake as his emblem of victory and vengeance. My phobia began to take on a shade of nuance after I came down with shingles four years ago. As dreadfully unpleasant as that illness was, it also brought about a time of personal transformation. Today when I recall how the blisters dried up and the skin sloughed off my body, I can’t help but compare the experience to what a snake undergoes. Ecdysis, the process by which the snake sheds its skin, points to its capacity to rejuvenate and revitalize itself.
On my regular morning walk to Cascade Lake a few years ago, I came upon a timber rattlesnake that had come out of a small bog along the side of the road. I moved within eight feet of it as it crept across the asphalt toward the sloped terrain on the far side. It was roughly three feet long and rather robust. The snake’s triangular head oscillated as it slithered forward; the tip of its tail was angled upward so that the rattle segment did not drag on the ground. The sunlight coming down through the leaves of the trees was such that, at a certain angle, the viper’s tan and brown scales seemed to reflect a strange golden-green light. The snake seemed oblivious to me, although it did not seem possible that it could have failed to sense my presence. As I stood near it, the snake continued toward the higher ground without altering its speed or direction: it was neither hurried nor sluggish; not exactly tentative, but both cautious and relentless.
Until recently, my fear of snakes never failed to provoke in me an urge to kill them whenever I saw them. But rather than act on that impulse, I invariably recoiled from the horror of the images and sounds that came to mind: the heavy thump of a blunt object destroying flesh and bone, the brilliant flash of gaping fangs, the dreadful hiss and rattle, the vivid color of excited blood exposed to air, the hideous writhing of a legless creature attempting to escape, the annihilation of life through the infliction of mortal pain, the full spectacle of abject savagery.
I know a thing or two about pit vipers. A bite from a timber rattlesnake is what my doctor friend would call a serious medical event. I kept my distance as I monitored the snake. As the rattler left the pavement and slowly progressed toward the leaf clutter and fallen branches at the roadside, I did feel the impulse to pick up a large stone and drop it on the snake’s head. But it wasn’t the horror or the criminality (timber rattlers are a protected species) of such an act that held me back. Rather, it occurred to me that the snake, despite its ability to inject toxic venom into my flesh, was at that moment completely vulnerable and defenseless. A passing motorist might have come along and crushed it beneath the tires of his automobile, or some brute with a long, heavy stick might have killed the snake without exposing himself to any risk. I stood still and watched the viper pass silently into the forest to live another day. The snake no doubt came to a shady place alongside a downed tree, where it concealed itself and lay in ambush for an exquisite songbird or an adorable chipmunk. Tell me, friend, are you pleased with that outcome? I was not entirely pleased, but I accepted it. I had no choice in the matter. The following is not a proposition but an irrefutable fact: Rattlesnakes exist.
Think about this: What would it be like to be stricken suddenly with excruciating pain and then, with agonizing slowness, swallowed whole into the black pit of an ophidian nightmare? Can you imagine a more horrific end to your life, or a ghastlier disposition for your bodily remains? Despite being undeniably fascinated by this rare, deadly creature, I would have preferred to have forgotten all about the encounter, to repress my fear by pretending to live in a world without snakes. I certainly never set out to become a student of ancient serpent symbolism – not until a day last April. While alone on my regular walk up to the lake, I was overwhelmed by an uncanny feeling; it was not entirely unfamiliar, but I knew immediately that it was extraordinary. I happened to be walking past the very spot where I had encountered the rattlesnake. I stopped in my tracks and looked toward the little swamp beside the road. I raised my eyes toward the sky. Above the crowns of the bare trees, the sun shone down through a thin layer of pale clouds. As I looked at the veiled light, I was startled to discover that I was weeping. My diaphragm seized as though some massive object had slammed into me. I felt a perplexing confluence of emotions – ecstasy and solace; wonder and dread; serenity and the acute pain of longing.
Now I will admit to getting a little misty or choked up on occasion. Typically, this happens when I’m alone and listening to certain music, Beethoven or Bjork. My reaction on that April morning, however, was unprecedented. It took me several months before I discovered the appropriate terminology for what I had experienced. Theologian Rudolf Otto described it as the mysterium tremendum, the overpowering sense of awe that accompanies a direct encounter with the numinous.
I returned home from my walk feeling both grateful and unsettled. And I remembered the rattlesnake. I couldn’t shake the feeling that these two encounters – first with a venomous serpent and then with a numen; both in the same place – were related. But how?
That’s when I picked up the 600-page book about snakes. James Charlesworth’s The Good and Evil Serpent is an extended commentary on the meaning of John 3:14-15 and a treatise on man’s love-hate relationship with snakes since 40,000 B.C. In the scriptural passage at the heart of the book, Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent raised up by Moses in the wilderness. The Israelites had been stricken by poisonous snakes as punishment for their faithlessness; but through some kind of “homeopathic, or sympathetic, magic,” as Charlesworth puts it, any Israelite who looked up at Moses’ serpent would be healed.
What was Jesus doing comparing himself to the most reviled of creatures? It’s a perplexing passage for a modern reader, since nowadays, the rare images of snakes we find in churches are negative representations that emphasize the serpent’s “evil” nature: the cunning tempter in the Garden of Eden, the demonic creature who instigates humankind’s fall from grace.
But it wasn’t always so. In the ancient world, snakes became a symbol of wisdom because they are voiceless and have no ears. The snake’s inability to hear earthly sounds suggests “that it is attuned to otherworldly voices,” Charlesworth observes. The snake’s lack of a vocal apparatus “could imply that it lives in the world of silence in which the word of God alone can be heard.”
Because the snake has no eyelids, it came to symbolize vision, insight, intuition, and vigilance. The snake’s simplicity, beauty, and elusiveness (its power to remain nearly invisible in its surroundings, or to appear suddenly and unexpectedly) are qualities associated with divine beings – the gods or God. The ouroboros (the familiar circular image of a snake eating its tail) symbolizes unity, the cyclical nature of time, renewal, and the possibility of eternal life. Further, serpents are chthonic, or subterranean, creatures: the snake’s ability to disappear into crevasses and fissures, to vanish beneath our feet, has long signified that it is connected to the spirits of the dead.
Carl Jung observed how organized religions, through their insistence upon systematic theologies and their emphasis on dogma, do an outstanding job of shielding believers from direct experiences of the divine. As someone who spends time seeking moments of peace and transcendence in high places, rather than steeple-houses, I do a lot of rambling in the woods. These days when I come upon a snake in my path, I get rattled in an entirely new way. I find myself unsettled by the serpent’s deep mystery, and awed by its power to regenerate and endure.