6) In the 1930’s anthropologist Dorothy Eggan collected a number of dreams from a Hopi Indian man she calls “Sam”. This is one of Sam’s dreams, as recorded by Eggan: He becomes aware of a woman’s dance being per formed in the plaza. This bothers him, because he believes that performing this dance at this time of year can harm the crops. The people in the plaza ask him to join them, but he refuses and goes to sit under a tree. A crowd gathers around him, whispering curiously, and finally an old man tells Sam that behind him there is something that the people fear. Sam says he isn’t afraid of anything, but he gets up and looks: “There I saw a huge snake coiled up. His head must be the size of the mountain lion and around the neck I saw four Pahos (prayer feathers) hang ing down. It seems to me that [it] is a sacred snake. “Lay down,” said a voice. “Sir, is that you speaking, Snake?” “Yes, I am not going to harm you. You must obey me.” I lay down again in the shade and didn’t pay any attention to that snake. Well the snake stuck his tongue out and began licking my face and hands. At first I [was] kind of scared, but remembered that the snake would not harm me. Soon the snake put his body over my belly button and was very still. The snake must be around four hundred pounds. Well the snake began to move up to my head and put his nose close to my mouth, but I have to stand it. I remember he is not going to harm me. Well by and by X___ came along, and he must have seen that huge snake over my body. He ran to me and took a stick and try to chase that snake away, but the snake is too quick for him. He bound X___ round and round and was ready to crush him, but instead of killing X___, he sank down into the earth. I get up quickly and look down in the hole where the snake sank down into. I can see the movement of the water, a wave, like a boiling water. I notice the ground is shaking and the wind coming up. Everybody who has seen the snake take X___ down into the hole, they get after me. Some are crying. Then the people are running away in order to get away from me. Well I left that hole and went into my house for I wanted to be with my wife and see if the world has come to end. I woke up and find that it is windy.'” [vii]
7) In his trilogy of plays known as The Orestia, the fifth-century B.C. Greek play wright Aeschylus told the story of Orestes, whose mother Clytemnestra killed his father Agammemnon for having sacrificed their daughter (and Orestes’ sister) Iphigenia on the eve of the Trojan war. The following dialogue is from the middle play, The Libation Bearers, after Orestes has watched his other sister Electra reluctantly bring offerings from Clytemnestra to the grave of Agammemnon:
Chorus: That godless woman [Clytemnestra] was driven by dreams and by night-wandering terrors to send these offerings.
Orestes: Did you find out about her dream, to be able to tell it rightly?
Chorus: She thought that she gave birth to a snake–that is how she told it.
Orestes: How did her story end? How did it come out?
Chorus: She wrapped the snake in swaddling clothes, like a baby.
Orestes: What food did it need, this newborn monster?
Chorus: She gave it the breast, in her dream.
Orestes: How did the hateful thing not hurt the nipple?
Chorus: It did. It drew clots of blood with the milk.
Orestes: This is not meaningless! It is a vision of man.
Chorus: She started out of her sleep and cried in te ror, and many a lamp that was blinded in darkness blazed in the palace walls to pleasure its mistress. And after that, she sent these funeral offerings; she hoped that they would cure all that was wrong.
Orestes: This is my prayer, by this land, by my father’s grave: may this dream find fulfillment for me! I judge it will, too; all of it fits. For if the snake came from the same place I did, and wore my swaddling clothes, and sucked the breast that gave me sustenance, mixed the dear milk with clots of blood, and she was terrified at what happened–then, it must be so that, as she raised this fearful monster, she must die violently! For I that became that very snake will kill her, even as the dream has said.” [viii]
A Figure of Strength and Potency
The snakes in these dreams are powerful–in every case the snake is a figure of strength, energy, and potency. Sometimes, the dreamer struggles against the snake, trying to fight its power. The Algerian Muslims fight to free themselves from the grip of the snake (2.2), Perpetua confronts a dragon-like creature blocking her way up a ladder to the heavens (2.5), and Henry Shipes fends off the snake loosed at him by an antagonis tic shaman (2.3). But sometimes the dreamer becomes an ally of the snake, and is allowed to draw upon the snake’s power. Rosie learns how to become a shaman from a rattlesnake (2.1), Sam is physically cared for and protected by the sacred snake (2.6), and Pharaoh Tanutamon extends the range of his kingdom by “plac[ing] his heart” in his dream of the two snakes lying beside him (2.4). But even in these latter cases, where the snake’s power has a positive quality, the dreamer feels wary of the snake: it takes three or four dreams for Rosie to trust the rattlesnake’s message, Sam must continually remind him self in the dream that the great snake promised not to harm him, and Tanutamon notes that such a dream would bring evil if it was misunderstood or ignored.
Turning to the various interpretations that the world’s cultural and religious traditions have attached to snake dreams, we find this same complex of reactions:
8) The Temne of West Africa believe that if a person has sought the aid of a personal river spirit to gain wealth or children, the spirit may appear in a dream as a snake and reveal its name. [ix]
9) A Muslim treatise on dream interpretation dating from eighth-century Persia states that “If you see a small snake in a dream know that you will be in the midst of treasure; and if you see a big snake, you will be at war with your enemies.” [x]
10) Among the Berti of Africa, snakes in dreams are interpreted as indicating enemies. To dream of killing a snake indicates that the dreamer will defeat an enemy or win a dispute. This dream can also indicate that a village child will die or a pregnant woman will miscarry. To dream of being bitten by a snake means that the dream er will lose a dispute or fall to an enemy. [xi]
11) For the Tzintzuntzan people of Michoacan, Mexico, to dream of “a serpent means one is ‘in a state of mortal sin’.” [xii]
12) The Lotuko-speaking Lango of Africa believe that “to dream that a snake bites one is a very bad omen. Immediately on waking one bites a piece of charcoal and spits it out and pricks oneself with a thorn. This will avert the omen and even if one meets a snake, as one surely will, it will not bite one.” [xiii]
13) In the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, the second-century Greek text that has so profoundly influenced Western dream studies, it says that “a serpent signifies a king because of its strength. It also signifies time because of its length and because it casts off its old skin and becomes young again…. It also means wealth and possessions, since the serpent guards treasures…” Artemidorus says that if a serpent approaches the dreamer and gives, speaks, or reveals something that is not bad, it means good fortune from the gods. But if the serpent does the opposite, this means bad fortune. Serpents in dreams can portend death, because the snake is a “child of the earth” and thus suggests the burial of the dead. He goes on to say that “A snake signifies sick ness and an enemy. The way in which the snake treats the dreamer determines the way in which the sickness or enemy will also treat him.” Artemidorus also gives a long list of possible interpre tations for a pregnant woman’s dream that she gives birth to a ser pent. [xiv]
14) According to the Oneirocriticon of Achmet, a Chris tian from tenth-century Byzantium who patterned much of his work on that of Artemidorus, “The dragon signifies a king, while snakes denote enemies who are very powerful or insignificant in propor tion to the snake’s size…If someone dreams that he was fighting with a snake and killed it, he will cut down an enemy whose power is proportionate to the mightiness of the snake he saw in his dream; if he dreams that he cut or split the snake in two, he will receive from his enemies wealth in propor tion to the cut…If someone dreams that he was eating snake meat, he will find in crease of wealth and exult over his enemies.” [xv]
These different interpretations of snake dreams correspond closely to what we find in the dream experiences themselves. There is, first and fore most, a recognition of the power of the snakes that appear in dreams; there is a tendency to regard such dreams as very negative, as indicating strife, illness, and defeat by one’s enemies; there is also a tendency to see snake dreams more positively, as portending wealth, success, and victory; and there is almost always an undercurrent of wariness, fear, and even dread regarding the appear ance of snakes in dreams.