The Metaphor of the Snake is Timeless
So why snakes? Why have snakes made such a powerful impact on the human religious imagination, and what exactly is the spiritual significance of their frequent appearances in people’s dreams? What is it about this particular animal that has made it so prominent a figure not only in dreams but in myths, folklore, and art from all over the world? [xvi]
Looking at their “natural” characteristics, snakes are genuine dangers to people, posing a deadly threat either from the quick, poisonous bite of a rattlesnake or the slow, suffocating squeeze of a boa constrictor. At the same time, the capacity of snakes to shed their skins conjures up the image of regeneration, re birth, and new life. [xvii] Thus, snakes combine the threat of death with the promise of life. Another “natural” feature of serpents is their lidless eyes; humans find the unblinking gaze of snakes to be both captivating and horrifying, both transcendent and inhuman. This unnerving stare evokes in many people feelings of awe, mystery, and dread.
An obvious explanation refers to the central role that the serpent plays in the book of Genesis. Anyone who is at all familiar with the Bible knows that the serpent is the great tempter, the one whose seductive promises of power persuaded Eve to taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowl edge. The serpent brings evil into the Garden of Eden, but also brings the possibility of knowledge: “when you eat [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [xviii] When God discovers what has happened, he ordains that man and serpent shall be eternal enemies.
Another, more “modern” explanation draws on the psycho analytic theory that snakes symbolize the phallus. Ernest Jones, one of Freud’s early followers, says with custom ary psychoanalytic modesty,
“The idea of a snake, which is never consciously associated with that of the phallus, is regularly so in dreams, being one of the most constant and invariable symbols: in primitive religions the two ideas are quite obviously interchangeable, so that it is often hard to distinguish between phallic from ophitic worship…very rarely can it also symbolize the intestine and its contents, but as far as I know, nothing else.” [xix]
For Jones, the snake is such a common dream symbol be cause it enables us to express our strong unconscious feelings about the phallus: the phallus is at once an object of desire and of fear, an object of proud potency and of dreaded impotency, an object that brings great pleasure but that can also bring great pain if it is cut off (as psychoanalysts say men continually fear it will be). The snake’s physical shape makes it a uniquely convenient way of representing (and yet disguising) the phallus in dreams, myths, and art.
Each of these explanations makes some sense, but none of them adequately answers the question of why snake dreams so often have such a strong spiritual impact on people. The “naturalistic” explanation does not account for the vivid dreams of people who have had little direct contact with snakes. The biblical explanation says nothing about the dreams of people who have never had any contact with the Bible. And the psycho analytic explanation merely side steps the question, rightly pointing to the symbolic connection between snakes, penises, and power but failing to relate any of this to people’s experiences of the sacred. [xx]
We gain a better understanding of snake dreams when we refer to the research of histo rians of religion like Rudolph Otto and Mircea Eliade. They have found that humans universally feel an ambivalence towards the sacred. In virtually all religious and spiritual traditions the divine is portrayed as both enchanting and terrifying; Otto says “the daemonic-divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm.” [xxi] The power of the sacred is ambivalent in the true sense of the word–it is both good and evil, creative and destructive, attractive and frightening. If we consider snake dreams in this light, we see that these dreams portray the profoundly ambivalent nature of the sacred. Dream experiences involving snakes have provided people with intensely numinous manifestations of sacred powers that can appear beneficial to the dreamer but can just as often appear evil, violent, and highly destructive. Snake dreams reveal the potential of the sacred to be both a helpful and an antago nistic force in human life.
One way to appreciate the spiritual dimension of snake dreams is to contrast them with dreams of the dead. If dreams of the dead guide us into a better relationship with the sacred, dreams of snakes confront us with the raw energy, the primal potency, and the antagonistic power of the sa cred. Dreams of the dead tend to emphasize the beneficial gains that can come from con tacting the sa cred; dreams of snakes, by contrast, tend to emphasize the dangerous threats that can come from such con tact. The contrast is not absolute, of course, because some snake dreams have quite positive aspects. But on the whole, this type of dream brings the dreamer face to face with the darker, more evil aspects of the sacred.
While pursuing my graduate studies in Chicago I made a weekly visit to a small child-care center, operated by the mother of a good friend of mine. Her English was not especially good, so I helped her by reading stories to the children. Each visit I would read two or three books to them, and then ask each child to share his or her own story to the group. The kids would usual ly improvise a version of one of the books we had just read, or perhaps describe what they’d eaten that morning for breakfast. One day, however, a three-year old boy named Sam shared a dream with our little group: he said, in an even but intense voice, “I dreamed that there was a snake monster inside grandpa’s back, and it broke out and killed grand pa.” The other children were fascinated by this brief, powerful dream; after a moment of reflective silence, they all began clamoring to tell their own stories of dangerous snake monsters.
I later learned from my friend that Sam’s grandfather had indeed died recently (although she didn’t know what caused his death) and that Sam was quite upset by it. She said that Sam had told her the dream earlier in the day, with the same intensity he had expressed during story-time. I’ve often thought of Sam’s dream of the snake monster, and of the ways that death is like a snake monster–powerful, mysterious, and ferocious, tearing the people we love away from us forever.
[i].. Van de Castle 1994, pp. 304-310.
[ii].. Park 1934, p. 101.
[iii].. Padwick 1939, pp. 208-209.
[iv].. King 1942, p. 232.
[v].. Oppenheim 1956, p. 251.
[vi].. Dronke 1984, p. 2.
[vii].. Eggan 1955, pp. 450-451.
[viii].. O’Flaherty and Greene 1989, pp. 113-114.
[ix].. Shaw 1992, p. 45.
[x].. Hosain 1932, p. 581.
[xi].. Holy 1992, pp. 93-94.
[xii].. Foster 1973, p. 111.
[xiii].. Driberg 1927, p. 142.
[xiv].. Artemidorus 1975, pp. 97, 213.
[xv].. Achmet 1991, p. 237.
[xvi].. See Mundkur 1983 for a detailed examination of snake worship around the world.
[xvii].. See Eliade 1958, pp. 164-171.
[xviii].. Genesis 3:5.
[xix].. Quoted in Mundkur 1983, pp. 263-264.
[xx].. Except, of course, in order to reduce people’s experiences of the sacred to psychoanalytic categories like “wish-fulfillment”, “illusion”, and the “cosmic narcissism”.
[xxi].. Otto 1958, p. 31.