Snakes and Symbols

 

And there the snake throws her enamelled skin. . .
(Shakespeare)

A few days ago, I watched Grimm’s fairy tale The White Snake. It made me think. Perhaps, because the film version was beautiful and went beyond the original narrative, adding new psychological levels. I must add that the subconscious plays a huge part in any fairy-tale, but the adaption made this point beautifully.

Why present snakes such a powerful image of the subconscious?

This is what I want to find out. One thing is clear: snakes appear in almost every religion from Old Norse to Christianity. A snake protects the Buddha from a storm, while he meditates. Lord Vishnu sleeps safely on the serpent Shesha, floating on the cosmic waters. In other words, the snake belongs to a universal language.

It is no wonder that Koronis killed his son Asclepius when one considers he learned to renew life from a snake. Therefore, snakes became a symbol of healing as well as for death and rebirth. Modern medicine has adopted the emblem, but maybe it is no wonder that Asclepius’ rod sometimes gets confused with the Caduceus. Both are powerful images, but Asclepius had only one snake entwining his rod. Is it the wit of our ancestors that let Hermes, the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves carry the Caduceus? It seems to put medicine and commerce too close for comfort.

 

 

Also, it seems that both myths are entwined:  Asclepius killed a snake and observed its partner bringing it back to life, whereas the Greek mythology tells us that the Caduceus is part of Tiresias story. He found two snakes copulating and killed one of them. As a result, Tiresias was transformed into a woman and remained female until he killed the other, the male snake. Later his staff went to Hermes, along with its transformative powers.

The Ouroboros, the snake that eats itself is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. It isn’t difficult to link rebirth and transformation to the fact that snakes shed their skins through sloughing. They renew themselves and that fascinates us to this day.

And I haven’t even touched upon the sexual issue. Snakes represent fertility and sexual desire. A powerful example of that is the Kundalini, a coiled serpent placed at the bottom of our spines. It raises and empowers pure desire.

 

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn;
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream

(Shelley)

 

© HMH, 2018

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