Last night, I had a dream in which I was trapped in a room surrounded by snakes.
The first snake I encountered in my dream was a coastal python. Not surprising. The children had pointed out a beautiful resident coastal python coiled around a tree in our backyard one afternoon. Sleeping. The snake catcher informed me that it was harmless and we had the choice to leave it alone and it will find its way soon enough, or relocate it. Sure, it will soon find its way to our pet quails, no doubt, I thought to myself. Just an hour ago, I was lugging a bag of soil right under that tree. All this while, I had been looking down on the ground for snakes after we spotted a blue tongue lizard in the bushes. It never occurred to me to look up in the trees. As you can probably tell, this was my first physical encounter with a snake on our property, even though snakes are not unusual visitors to where we live. This young one looked like it just had its lunch, and decided to enjoy a siesta under the lazy afternoon sun.
My daughter exclaimed, “A pet snake! It’s SO cute! I wanna feed it and hug it…”
No, no, no… I silently screamed.
It took some measure of strength on the part of the snake catcher to pry it off the tree. When it was safely coiled around his arm, we were invited to touch it, and so I did.
To my surprise, I felt an earthly connection.
A feeling of power, beauty and mystery buried deep inside its strong, reptilian body.
I thought I would be terrified, but I wasn’t. I felt calmed.
I thought it would feel slimy, but it didn’t! It felt firm.
I thought it would feel cold, but it was warm to the touch.
I thought that maybe, just maybe, the next time if ever I see another harmless coastal python in the tree, I just might decide to leave it alone and observe it. Just maybe.
Across cultures, snakes are highly regarded — as powerful creatures featuring prominent roles — in both story-telling and mythology. In creation myths, Jörmungandr (Norse mythology), Nüwa (Chinese mythology), Vritra (Indian mythology) and the Rainbow Serpent (Indigenous Australian mythology) play a central role in bringing forth fertility and life. In Christian mythology, the snake Eve encountered in the Garden of Eden was evil and thereafter, it became associated with deception and temptation. Elsewhere around the world, snakes are symbols of wisdom, immortality, rebirth (due to the sloughing of their skins), healing, and they act as guardians and messengers between our world and the Underworld.
The second snake in my dream was a rainbow snake. It could have been the Rainbow Serpent. I have heard stories about the Rainbow Serpent, being a protector of water-holes on a drought-ridden continent, whose presence is said to bring rain. There were several other snakes coiled around the wrought iron gate that staked the room. A green tree snake and, what I believe, to be a venomous red-bellied black snake. When I woke, I started to ponder what my dream might mean for me at this time in my life, where several transitions happening right now are set right in the middle of a global pandemic.
We humans have, since time immemorial, done our best to make sense of our world, by ascribing meaning to signs, symbols and events especially when they cannot be explained to the rational human mind. From stories passed on from generation to generation to the re-telling (sometimes even improvisation) of myths and legends, meaning-making is an essential part of culture wherever we come from. Meaning-making shapes our realities by giving us purpose and direction. It calls forth the hidden to our banal existences to infuse our lives with beliefs, superstitions and faith. Dreams weave their way into our waking lives in the way they bridge to connect the unconscious with the conscious. Similarly, my dream of snakes arose from my unconscious processing my newly discovered conscious acknowledgement of my reverence for this powerful mythological reptile.
Dreams are only meaningful to the dreamer. The snakes in my dream are a reminder of my process of self-transformation. With the children at school this year, I am finding spaces of time to rediscover myself, in other words, to be me. The snakes represent my connection to the Earth. Unsurprising, since I have taken up a new hobby — that of gardening. Understanding the significance of dreams can shape our perception of all that is going on around us. A new understanding of a new stage in life. For as I have just started to view life as cyclical rather than linear is, like watching Jörmungandr slowly encircle the Earth to bite down on its tail.
Venomous red-bellied black snakes are native to Australia. Though I am unlikely to encounter this distinct species. The myth that snakes are aggressive is somewhat misplaced. They rarely attack unprovoked. The duality of their symbolism makes them a creature of ambiguity and mystery; and, that can frighten or intrigue people. As a symbol of evil, snakes have been used to represent temptation (in the story of Adam and Eve), and hypocrisy. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth tells her husband, in Act 1 Scene 5,
“To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.”
She urges Macbeth to portray himself as innocent, to appear like a flower, harmless, to conceal the truth of his devious intentions. The serpent imagery conveys to us the malevolent, deceptiveness and treacherous qualities in both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as symbols of evil, they would use their powers to silence others. In so doing, however, also paint themselves as blameless. One can visualise Lady Macbeth sitting alongside Medusa, with “snakes for hair”, both figures openly exude their contempt for femininity and at the same time are embodied with a terrifying presence. Re-telling mythologies that cast the symbol of the snake as evil deeply embed its imagery in social consciousness, which makes the association that snakes and serpents are dangerous.
Whether used for good or evil purposes, the snake symbolises renewed power because of its inherent nature as a powerful creature. Re-imagined in modern art, Garbatti’s sculpture of Medusa (2008) in Lower Manhattan shows a reversal of gendered power relations by its depiction of Medusa holding Perseus’ disembodied head — representing a “triumph for victims of sexual assault”. The sculpture, of course, is not without ambiguity.
Our feelings about snakes can reveal aspects of ourselves that require acknowledgement. How do you feel about snakes? Do you dream about them?
Do you perceive any of their representations in your life?