What do Dreams of Snakes Mean?

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean? by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is a chapter about the history of snake dreams, using psychology and religious studies to explore their meanings.  It comes from my book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey.

If you are interested in how to interpret a dream of a snake, you might take a look at this post.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said about snake symbolism in The Red Book, read this post.

To learn more about actual snakes, check out the East Bay Vivarium.

Chapter 2: Snakes

Animals of various kinds appear in spiritually meaningful dreams. Birds, dogs, bears, wolves, fish, and even insects have come in people’s dreams to deliver important messages from the divine. But the animal that makes perhaps the most powerful spiritual impact in dreams is the snake. People from cultures all over the world report dreams in which they have intensely vivid encounters with snakes. Content analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency. [i] Many reports of snake dreams emphasize their strange, uncanny quality; the dreamer feels both attracted to and yet repelled by the serpent. As the following examples suggest, many people through history have regarded snake dreams as deeply spiritual experiences–for these dreams reveal the ambivalent nature of the sacred, its capacity to be a force of joyful creativity and violent destructiveness in human life.

1) A fifty year-old woman named Rosie Plummer, of the Paviotso people living on the Walker river reservation in Nevada, told anthropologist Willard Park of her shaman father. Rattlesnakes frequently came to him in his dreams and told him how to cure snake bites and other illnesses. Eighteen years after his death, Rosie started to dream about her father. “She dreamed that he came to her and told her to be a shaman. Then a rattlesnake came to her in dreams and told her to get eagle feathers, white paint, wild tobacco. The snake gave her the songs that she sings when she is curing. The snake appeared three or four times before she be lieved that she would be a shaman. Now she dreams about the rattlesnake quite frequently and she learns new songs and is told how to cure sick people in this way. [ii]

2) Lilias Trotter, a Christian missionary who worked in Algeria in the early part of the twentieth century, had these two dreams reported to her by Muslims who were converting to Christianity. A) Trotter says that an Algerian she knew named Boualem had been involved in an angry conflict with a neighbor. She wanted to help Boualem, but didn’t know how; then she says, “now God has dealt with the matter. Boualem told us that a dream had come. ‘I dreamed that a great snake was coiling round my foot and leg, and you [Trot ter] were there, and in horror I called to you. You said to the snake: “In the name of Jesus, let go.” It uncoiled and fell like a rope, and I woke almost dead with joy.’ And the shining of his face told that his soul had got free.” B) Trotter says, “Blind Houriya came this morning with ‘I want to tell you something that has frightened me very much. I dreamt it Saturday night, but I was too frightened to tell you yesterday. To-day my husband told me, “You must tell them.” I dreamed that a great snake was twisting round my throat and strangling me. I called to you [Trotter] but you said: “I cannot save you, for you are not following our road.” I went on calling for help, and one came up to me and loosened the snake from off my neck. I said: “And who is it that is saving me, and what is this snake?” A voice said: “I am Jesus and this snake is Ramadan [the Muslim ritual fasting period].”‘” [iii]

3) Henry Shipes was the son of an English father and a mother from the Maidu Indians of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Califor nia. He grew up at the end of the nineteenth century, during the gold rush era, when the indigenous Maidu culture was coming into conflict with white culture. Henry told anthropologist Arden King of various dreams in which he fought against native shamans who were jealous of his power. In one of these dreams, Henry “had a dream contest with a shaman who was also the headman at Quincy [a Sierra Nevada town]. In this dream Henry and the shaman were contesting with each other to see who had the most power. This was a fight to the death. The shaman acted first. He loosed a snake which pursued Henry Shipes, but was unable to catch him. Henry then tried his white power. This was stated by him to be specifically white. By ruse he caused the shaman to attempt the lifting of a bucket. The bucket exploded and the dream ended.” [iv]

4) The Egyptian Pharaoh Tanutamon is reported to have had the following dream experience in the first year of his reign, as presented by philologist A. Leo Oppenheim in his work on dreams in the ancient Near East: “His majesty saw a dream in the night: two serpents, one on his right, the other on his left. His majesty awoke, but he did not find them. His majesty said: ‘Why has this happened to me?'” His interpreters told him that the dream means that both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt now belong to him. “Then his majesty said: “True indeed is the dream; it is beneficial to him who places his heart in it but evil for him who does not know it.” [v]

5) In Carthage in 203 A.D. Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of twenty-two years, and mother to an infant son, was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. As she waited in prison for the day when she and other Christians would be cast into the arena and killed by wild beasts, her brother came and told her to ask God for a vision to reveal her fate. Perpetua agrees, and says she’ll tell him what she learns tomorrow. “And I asked for a vision, and this was shown to me: I saw a bronze ladder, marvellously long, reaching as far as heaven, and narrow too: people could climb it only one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder every kind of iron implement was fixed: there were swords, lances, hooks, cutlasses, javelins, so that if anyone went up carelessly or not looking upwards, he would be torn and his flesh caught on the sharp iron. And beneath the ladder lurked a serpent of wondrous size, who laid am bushes for those mounting, making them terrified of the ascent. But Saturs [a fellow martyr] climbed up first… And he reached the top of the ladder, and turned and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you–but watch out that the serpent doesn’t bite you!’ And I said: ‘He won’t hurt me, in Christ’s name!’ And under that ladder, almost, it seemed, afraid of me, the serpent slowly thrust out its head–and, as if I were treading on the first rung, I trod on it, and I climbed. And I saw an immense space of garden, and in the middle of it a white-haired man sitting in shepherd’s garb, vast, milk ing sheep, with many thousands of people dressed in shining white standing all round. And he raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘You are welcome, child.’ And he called me, and gave me, it seemed, a mouthful of the cheese he was milking; and I accepted it in both my hands together, and ate it, and all those standing around said: ‘Amen.’ At the sound of that word I awoke, still chewing some thing indefinable and sweet.” Perpetua tells her dream to her brother, and they both understand that she is to die for her faith. [vi]

The American Dream

The American Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“The American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position….[T]he American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily.  It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to the fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

From The Epic of America (1931) by James Truslow Adams

Joe Lieberman’s Farewell Dream

Joe Lieberman's Farewell Dream by Kelly Bulkeley“He [Lieberman] was feeling loose now, so much so that he began telling aides about a dream he’d had the other night in which long-dead Democratic Connecticut Governor John Dempsey had walked across a stage and waved at him.  Lieberman was puzzled by the dream.  It was hard not to wonder what his unconscious was telling him: Was this the Democratic organization from the past wishing the senator well or waving goodbye?”

“Joe Lieberman’s War: The Hawkish Senator Finds Himself in an Epic Battle—With his Own Party,” by Meryl Gordon, New York Magazine, August 7, 2006.

On August 8th, 2006, Joseph Lieberman, the incumbent Democratic Senator from Connecticut, lost the Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, whose anti-war campaign stirred up sufficient liberal opposition to reject Lieberman and his unwavering support for President Bush’s campaign in Iraq.  His defeat seemed to mark the end of his career, a dramatic and precipitous fall given that just six years earlier he was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate alongside Al Gore.

Lieberman did not accept defeat, however.  Instead he ran as an independent in the November 2006 general election and handily beat Lamont, retaining his senate seat for a fourth term. 

From our vantage today, his puzzling dream visitation from the late Governor (Dempsey died in 1989) might qualify as a kind of prophetic anticipation of the political near-death experience he was about to endure  (Lieberman, an observant Jew, would likely know of his religious tradition’s long belief in the prophetic power of dreaming, especially in times of mortal danger).  Lieberman did indeed come within waving distance of his political demise.  A classic theme in visitation dreams is a welcoming gesture from the dead, which is often interpreted as a sign that the dreamer will soon depart this world and journey to the next. 

After he lost the primary, Lieberman could have accepted the Democratic voters’ verdict, followed the path taken by Dempsey (a loyal member of the state’s Democratic party who retired in 1971), and left the political scene.  Instead he fought against the Democrats, and won.  He survived the threat to his political life, but perhaps at the cost of losing connection with his ideological ancestors.

[I wrote the above in the summer of 2008.  Recent days have given new reasons to wonder about the psychodynamics of the Senator’s movement away from the Democratic party.]


American Dreamers: Defining “Conservative” and “Liberal”

Defining “conservative” and “liberal”

This is how I define the two terms in my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else:

In their common usage as adjectives the words “conservative” and “liberal” carry meanings that are more or less opposed to each other.  To be conservative means to safeguard something of value, to protect it for the future, to preserve its integrity against dangerous change.  To be liberal means to act with generosity, tolerance, and openness towards others.  Both terms come from Latin roots: servare, “to watch, keep safe,” and conservare, “to keep, preserve”; liber, “free,” and liberalis, “pertaining to a free man” (i.e., not a slave).

The two words are used in non-political situations every day (e.g., “a conservative estimate,” “a liberal serving”), and there’s no big mystery about their meanings.  The difficulty comes in trying to fathom the alchemical processes by which their political connotations have shifted and morphed over time.  At first sight, the political application of the terms would seem clear.  Conservatives are cautious defenders of the status quo and liberals are free-thinking agents of progress.  Conservatism as a political ideology is usually associated with Edmund Burke’s anxious writings in the late 1700’s about the French Revolution and its violent attempt to create a new and better form of society.  From Burke onward, conservatives have been people who question the wisdom of grandiose plans for social engineering and who prefer to maintain the traditional, trustworthy ways of living that have developed gradually through history.

The political ideology of liberalism first emerged in the Enlightenment philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings played a central role in the fight to break free of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on political power in early modern Europe.  Since then, liberals have acted as champions of individual liberty in all spheres of life, envisioning a future of greater happiness and prosperity for everyone, a future that can be achieved by rational thought, cooperative effort, and scientifically-designed technologies.

Liberals, generally speaking, fear the stifling oppression of religious dogma and affirm the natural dignity and power of human reason. Conservatives, meanwhile, worry about radical, uncontrollable change and desire stability and tradition above all else.

That’s how it used to be, anyway.  In twenty-first century American politics the two terms have taken on rather different connotations.  Conservatives today still advocate the classic values of social order, moral discipline, and religious faith.  But most of them are also dedicated to the cause of free market capitalism, an economic system that is relentlessly destabilizing in its impact on communities and individuals (just ask anyone who’s working two jobs or has seen their position moved overseas).  Along with that, American conservatives stand out in their opposition to any real efforts to protect the natural environment—a strange position from an ideology supposedly devoted to preserving the heritage of the past from present and future dangers.  And would anyone who values stability, traditional wisdom, and cautious skepticism towards grandiose plans for change ever have launched the current war in Iraq?  Yet American conservatives did just that, and they continue to be the war’s most passionate advocates.  We’ve come a long way from Edmund Burke.

As for liberals, they remain forceful proponents of greater freedom of expression in American life and more generous care for the poor and underprivileged.  They question the authority of religion in the formulation of public policy, and they push for scientific rationality in solving the problems of society.   But in practice many of their methods have led to an out-of-control rise of state power and governmental interference with people’s lives, limiting individual freedoms in order to favor the interests of one group over another.  We can be sure that Locke and Rousseau would have been astonished at the gargantuan size and dizzying bureaucratic complexity of the American government today.  At a certain point the state apparatus of liberal governance expands to the point where it stops being an agent of change and turns into a self-perpetuating colossus whose inertial mass makes any real change almost impossible.

The upshot is that both terms have flip-flopped in their application to various political issues over the course of American history.  This is one of the many reasons why we must be careful in how we talk about conservatives and liberals in America today.  Ultimately I’m going to argue that everyone’s political attitudes are a mixture of both liberal and conservative ideals, and therefore it’s misleading to separate people into two absolutely distinct types of political personality.

William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1993).  For more on current research in political psychology, see David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis, ed.s, Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and John T. Jost and Jim Sidanius, ed.s, Political Psychology: Key Readings (New York: Psychology Press, 2004).  The International Society for Political Psychology also provides top-quality resources in this field (www.ispp.org)

On Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Chapter 2 of the book of my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else, is devoted to the impact of the “war on terror” (including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) on dreaming.

Three of the focus group members had a direct personal connection to the Iraq war: Dan, who was fighting in it; Sophia, his wife; and Lola, whose nephew had just joined the Army and been deployed to Iraq.  Here are three of their dreams, discussed at more length in chapters 2 and 6.

Dan:“I am an observer or advisor to a small military outpost.  We get attacked by an air assault, planes dropped tons of soldiers all over our camp.  It was men and women in our camp.  I was with a small number of soldiers who escaped, we were walking through the swamp, doing good, when another group of escaping soldiers ran right into us—bringing the enemy on top of us.  We all ran, and I found an empty refrigerator to hide in.  I remember pulling some seal off the door so it wouldn’t seal on me.  I shut the door and waited.  The enemy found me, the guy was mad at me for some reason—I wouldn’t tell him something or I lied—anyway he wanted to cut off my finger.  He asked if I was part of A11 (my company) and I said no.  I noticed a soldier from our camp who was now an advisor or emissary for the enemy.  He stood up for me and saved my finger, and my life.”

Sophia:“Long and horrible….Dreamt Dan was married to both my sister B and myself.  He was taking me to his place of work where we ended up going on a mission.  This work place was under the guise of a normal office with lots of employees, doing normal work—but he was actually a spy or undercover operative doing dangerous missions, but like a contract worker.  At one point I end up with him in a new helicopter vehicle that we have to jump out of.  He has tons of hi-tech vehicles and equipment and acts ambivalent through the whole dream.  I know that B is expecting him to come home later to take her out but the employees cook a huge feast and everyone sits to eat—but I am not invited to sit and I get extremely upset.  It escalates through the dream.  I plead and cry to him to take me home but he won’t.  The dream revolves around me wanting to go home but can’t.”

Lola:“A guy I work (B) with and his wife (V) and I are trying to cross a bridge.  We are on a flat cart with no sides sort of like a carpet ride.  The three of us are zooming very fast on a path.  We go up a big hill of water, down and up and over.  We come to a bridge that is being built.  There are men everywhere with weapons.  We try to reason with them to let us cross.  They take V away.  B and I are locked up in an open cage overlooking the construction of the bridge.  The men are ogling V.  B is getting crazy.  I tell him to keep his cool, that is the only way we are going to escape.  I look out and see a woman in the distance.  She is winking at me and motions for me to look down.  I see a way to escape…We find V and the woman in the distance winks at us to go.  We are back on the cart again on a wild ride.  Up and over we go…We see a big crowd ahead.  It is a stadium and President Bush is there speaking.  We glide right up to him and tell him he must pull the troops out of Iraq, because we have our own war going on right here.  We tell him about the men at the bridges that we just escaped.  He tells us not to worry; he will take care of it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closely associated with experiences of war and terrorism.  Recurrent nightmares are one of PTSD’s most common symptoms.  For more on the cause and treatment of PTSD, see the following:

Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans, Stanley Krippner

The Spiritual Side of Traumatic Stress Normalization, J. Michael Hakanson

Trauma and Dreams, Deirdre Barrett

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope, Kelly Bulkeley

Quiz: American Dreamers

Read the seven quotations below, and see if you can match them to the seven political leaders who spoke them.

A. President Richard M. Nixon, “First Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1969.
B. President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks about the Congressional Elections,” television broadcast, October 26, 1982.
C. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream,” sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.
D. Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, introducing the Democratic Leadership Council’s report on “Saving the American Dream,” July 19, 2006.
E. Governor and President-elect George W. Bush, speaking to the Texas Legislature, December 13, 2000.
F. Senator Barack Obama, speaking at a Democratic rally in Tempe, Arizona, October 23, 2006.
G. Steve Forbes, page 5 in A New Birth of Freedom, published October 25, 1999.
1. The American Dream does not come to those who fall asleep…. We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.
2. [T]he substance of that dream…is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a dream. It’s a great dream…. God grant that America will be true to her dream.
3. Deep down, this country wasn’t built on fear. This country was built on hope. This country was built on a belief in limitless possibilities, on a belief in dreaming big dreams.
4. For [more than 200] years, Americans have been united by a simple, common dream that tomorrow will be better than today. The promise of American life, handed on through a dozen generations, rests on this basic bargain: All of us should have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential, and the responsibility to make the most of it…. To remain strong in the world, the American Dream must be strong and alive here at home. And as we continue to navigate through these changing economic times, restoring the promise of the American Dream is the central economic issue of our time.
5. We believe in the American dream, because we’ve had a chance to live it. The American dream isn’t about the accumulation of material things. It is much deeper and more profound than that. The essence of the American dream is the understanding that we are here on this earth and in this land for a higher purpose: to discover—and develop to the fullest—our God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of the dream, we must fight. Anything that enhances the dream, we must support.
6. I have faith that with God’s help we as a nation will move forward together as one nation, indivisible. And together we will create an America that is open, so every citizen has access to the American dream; an America that is educated, so every child has the keys to realize that dream; and an America that is united in our diversity and our shared American values that are larger than race or party.
7. It’s time to stop playing on people’s fears and to begin asking what we can do together to make things better. None of us can afford to play politics as usual. We love this land of ours, because it’s a special place where people are free to work, to save, to believe, to build a better future. The cynics may call it corny, but this way of life we all cherish is best summed up in three simple words: the American dream. From our beginnings as a nation, that dream has been a living, breathing reality for millions. It still is. But it faces serious threats.


Answer Key: A-1, B-7, C-2, D-4, E-6, F-3, G-5