How to Interpret Snake Dreams

How to Interpret Snake Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyI’m amazed at how many people have powerful dreams about snakes.  Serpents are truly the most memorable creatures of the dream world.  Their presence in a dream is almost always vivid, mysterious, and attention-grabbing.   

 When asked how to interpret people’s snake dreams, I struggle to say something that’s helpful without imposing my outsider’s view on the dreamer.  I can make general statements about traditional symbolism, but that always runs the risk of leading the dreamer away from the specific details of his or her experience, where the deepest personal meanings may often be found.

 As an alternative way of answering people’s questions about snake dreams, here is a dream I had a few weeks ago, on the night of February 25, plus the journal entry I wrote following the dream.  As you can see, I don’t come to a final conclusion about the dream’s message.  Instead I free associate about the personal web of memories and feelings that seem related to it, letting the power of the dream serpent guide my reflections.

 Title: The Big Green Snake Could Actually Eat Me

 I’m out on a green grass field….In the bushes nearby I see a snake….it has a big green head, in the green foliage of the bushes….I’m scared and start to run, but the snake quickly comes after me….It wraps itself so its head is looking at me around my left shoulder….I realize it’s big enough to eat me, actually….I try to figure out what to do, how to keep it from squeezing and eating me….It hasn’t made a move to try doing that, but I’m scared it might….

 Journal: This dream came the first night back from week-long family vacation, after a long drive and getting back into household duties.  During the day I enjoyed some fun creative work, but also some stress about tasks to do this coming week.  The snake is very big, and in my mind while dreaming I’m thinking out the physical details of how it would successfully consume me.  At the same time, I’m aware the snake has not yet harmed me.  I sense it may simply want to get close to me and check me out.  I can’t outrun it, I can’t fight it—I’m in its power.  Yesterday I read the first chapter of Harry Potter 7, in which Voldemort’s snake Nagini is invited to eat a person V has just murdered.  Nagini is portrayed as being about the same size as the snake in my dream.  So I’m like V, with the snake my close companion?  Or am I about to be a victim of V and what he represents?  All the green: it’s late winter/early spring around here, so lots of green foliage in our garden at home, and at the beach house while we were on vacation  —  Feb. 25 is the birthday of an old girlfriend, I just realized that  —  first love  —  an anniversary dream?  —  an early emergence of serpent power in my life?  Yesterday was like other days at the end of a vacation, feeling like a pivot time; I’m anxiously getting ready to spring back into action  —  and I have a lot of action awaiting me  —  a time of massive transition  —  creative potential  —  will the snake eat me, or won’t it?  Does it matter?  I’m wrapped up in its power, now and perhaps forever.  I don’t have a sense of the snake actually touching me; it’s coiled around me, but not binding me, just close enough so it’s head can get close to mine.  Its eyes can look into mine. I definitely feel it’s trying to connect with me, size me up.

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history and psychological theories about them, scroll down the list to see this post.  (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)  Also take a look at the comments, which include dozens of snake dreams people have shared that I’ve commented on.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said in The Red Book about the symbolism of snakes, see this post.

If you’d like more information about actual snakes, check out the website of the East Bay Vivarium.

A Lucid Dreaming Cautionary Tale: Graham Joyce’s “Dreamside”

A Lucid Dreaming Cautionary Tale: Graham Joyce's "Dreamside" by Kelly BulkeleyLater this month (3-23) I’m joining British novelist Graham Joyce at the Rubin Museum in New York City to discuss “Are Dreams Pure Fantasy?” as part of the museum’s “Brainwave” lecture series on dreams.  I’ve just read Joyce’s first novel, Dreamside, and it’s a hauntingly beautiful tale, both frightening and inspiring.  It raises vital questions about the perils and potentials of lucid dreaming.

Written in 1991, the novel accurately conveys the naïve excitement many people felt at that time about early psychological research on consciousness in dreaming.  The story concerns four college students who sign up for a study on the induction of lucid dreams.  The students form an unlikely team, each driven by very different motives.  Ella, a mercurial, sexually alluring spiritual seeker, will do and say anything to achieve transcendence. Lee, the central character, is a stolid, rather conventional guy painfully captivated by Ella’s erotic energy.  Brad, a medical student, has the most advanced innate skills at lucid dreaming, but he’s a cynical, drunken lout who can only express his sexual desires in the crudest of ways.  Honora, from Ireland, is the quietest and most innocent of the group.  Of them all, she is the most sincere in her desire to learn about dreaming.

Their guide from waking reality into Dreamside is Professor Burns, an elderly psychologist with a hobbyist’s interest in parapsychology and an ornery disregard for other people’s feelings.  Initially the lucid dream induction seminar is just a sham, as the Professor is in fact conducting a study of small group dynamics.  But when the students begin succeeding in their efforts—when they learn how to become aware in dreams, interact with each other, and perform various experiments to test their Dreamside abilities—Prof. Burns becomes excited, too, and pushes them further and further.

Without revealing any other plot developments, it may simply be said that everyone involved reaches a point where they deeply regret their blind rush into alien realms of psychic experience.

The moral of the story is not that lucid dreaming is bad.  Nor is it that Prof. Burns might have benefited from the input of a human subjects committee, though that’s undoubtedly true.  It’s rather that we need to ask the right questions about lucid dreaming.  The characters in Dreamside are so intent on figuring out how to induce lucid dreaming that they never ask themselves why they want to do so in the first place.  The “how” question is relatively easy, but if you haven’t reflected carefully on the “why” question you may find yourself woefully unprepared for what you encounter.

This is the same message that Hindu and Buddhist sages have taught for centuries: it is indeed possible to learn lucid dreaming techniques, but those techniques are best practiced within a context of spiritual training, guidance, and self-reflection.  The college students in Dreamside have grown up in the morally impoverished world of Thatcher-era Britain, and they have few cultural resources to help them make sense of their experiences.   Perhaps the greatest achievement of Joyce’s novel is that it provides what its characters lack—a wise and healthily cautious understanding of human dreaming potential.