Before our very eyes, a deeply polarized America seething with hatred for the "other" side has erupted into a landscape of violence. As we stand on the brink of destroying ourselves from within, genuine healing is needed now more than ever. There could be no more fitting segue than the transition from the end of the Mayan calendar to the arrival of 2013, the Year of the Snake (the Chinese New Year falls between the solar New Year, Feb. 4, and the lunar New Year, Feb 10). There is still hope that the uncertainty and confusion that comes with the end of a vast cosmic cycle may yet be mitigated by the healing power inherent in the serpent and all that it promises.
Serpent symbolism is a near ubiquitous motif that stretches across all geographical lines and historical epochs. It is commonly associated with issues of spirituality and healing, and its influence is most apparent in ancient matriarchal civilizations. The serpent is a symbol that embodies feminine qualities such as patience, receptivity, intuition, compassion, communication, nurturing, and emotional awareness. Unlike the black and white masculine, it is comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Like the kundalini serpent goddess sleeping at the base of the spine, our feminine potential lies waiting to be awakened, ready to exert its healing and balancing effect upon patriarchal societies that live by the sword and die by the sword.
As we shall see, a fascinating paradox is embodied in the idea that the energy of the serpent contains both the power to wound and the power to heal. The solution is within, waiting to be accessed by those willing to take the risk. Here at the threshold of the Year of the Snake, all healers can benefit from becoming cognizant of the implications of the time, and the power inherent in the energy of the serpent.
The field of psychotherapy recognizes the appearance of snakes in dreams as common occurrences, especially in times of great transition. They are often harbingers of pent-up psychic energy looking to be expressed in more constructive and creative ways. They symbolize the possibility of transformation as old ways are shed in favor of the new, just as a snake sheds its skin. Thus, the grudge held against a loved one, for example, becomes an opportunity for forgiveness. An indigenous cultural perspective would view such a dream as more than just symbolic imagery of the unconscious. Rather than a mere dream, it would be considered an energetic manifestation or actual visitation from an animal spirit, a potentially powerful ally to be honored and consulted.
Having practiced homeopathic medicine for twenty-five years now, I am deeply aware of the healing power represented by the snake. For those less familiar, homeopathy is based upon the principle of similarity. A nervous, jittery, coffee-addicted person unable to sleep, for example, may respond quite favorably to a small energetic dose of homeopathic Coffea cruda derived from the coffee bean. Likewise, the angry, swollen, itchy, hive-like eruptions of an allergic reaction often relent quickly to a few doses of Apis mellifica made from the honeybee. Thus, the symptoms caused by a given substance constitute the potential therapeutic range of its applicability in healing.
A wise Jungian analyst, Edward Whitmont, once said that the serpent's pathology can be summarized as "the penalty of unlived life."(1) Now, there happen to be a good number of snake venoms that are routinely used in homeopathic prescribing and any experienced practitioner can tell you that the pathology encompassed by the snake venoms has to do with denial, projection, vengeance, and general black-and-white thinking. People who dig their heals in, refuse to hear the other side of the story, and blame others for their own miseries, are the ones who most closely approximate both the pathological effects and therapeutic potential of homeopathic serpent medicines. (Remember, a substance that can cause certain symptoms can also be used in homeopathic form to treat similar symptoms.)
The classic stereotype is the patient with high blood pressure, or morning migraines, or issues centered about the throat such as choking, gagging, or constricting sensations. I have seen any number of such persons over the years who, when prescribed an energetic dose of homeopathic snake venom, will experience a great deal of relief from this type of physical symptomatology. More importantly, the underlying psychic issues that accompany these symptoms also tend to resolve. Thus, patients may note that they feel less angry and defensive, less suspicious of others' motives, or more inclined to consider opposing viewpoints. Projections are withdrawn and personal responsibility becomes a real possibility.
Here we see the meaning of Whitmont's admonition. To the extent that we project blame upon another and refuse to acknowledge our own role at the root of a conflict, to the extent that we remain unconscious and fail to grow by virtue of the trials and tribulations inherent in interpersonal relationships, to the same extent we will be prone to suffer the mental, emotional, and physical consequences embodied by serpent pathology. A person can become entrenched in his or her own rightness, unable to give a fair hearing to another person's perspective, in essence, cutting the other person out of one's life, thereby having the net effect of bringing one's own maturation to a standstill.
We can also draw upon examples from history and myth to help illustrate some important principles regarding serpent energies and their potential. Asklepios, the Greek god of healing, was associated with the mythological serpent, although his staff was somewhat different from the short rod of the modern medical caduceus with its two snakes. Archeological artifacts depict Asklepios holding a long staff around which is wound only one serpent. It is instructive to note that Hermes was considered the god of commerce and patron of merchants, and it is his caduceus that has been adopted as the modern symbol of medicine. Some have attributed this to a mistake in printing by a publisher of medical text books who unwittingly switched the two symbols, resulting in the common usage of the caduceus rather than the staff of Asklepios. Perhaps this was a mistake, or maybe a synchronistic reflection of the modern attitude toward the marketing of medicine and the commodification of health care.
Viewed from another perspective, the trend toward separation of body and spirit that began with Hippokrates and which has reached alarming proportions today, may be metaphorically represented by the twin snakes of Hermes' caduceus. The staff of Asklepios, on the other hand, depicts one snake as an integrated whole, thus signifying the unifying power of true healing. Some modern medical institutions have initiated a trend in recent years toward restoring the staff of Asklepios to its rightful status, but this will amount to mere window dressing if it is not accompanied by meaningful reform in the actual substance of medical practice.
In the ancient world, a person in need of medical care could seek the counsel of the gods by visiting an Asklepian temple of healing. The physician-priests would guide the seeker in preparation for his or her encounter through methods of ritual purification, such as bathing and fasting. The person would then be instructed to enter the abaton, a type of sleeping or incubation chamber, where he or she would remain for hours or even days, waiting to receive a healing dream from Asklepios or one of his emissaries. This is not unlike Native American vision questing, where the seeker waits in the wilderness until a message from the spirit realm is received. This form of healing through dreaming was far from unusual in ancient times, although it tends to be viewed as superstitious, or even dangerous by modern standards.
Asklepios would often visit supplicants as himself or in one of his three main animal forms: the snake, dog, or cock. The dog as guide and protector from other side, or dreamworld, is a common motif in world mythology. And like the rooster's call at dawn, its appearance in dreams is a call to a new awakening and greater consciousness. The snake as cosmic messenger carries with it the multi-potentiality of light and dark, of positive and negative energies-and the shedding of its skin symbolizes the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The messages accompanying these cosmic emissaries, urging one toward transformation, may be ignored at one's own risk but, when heeded, can yield great rewards.
When the Romans were faced with a terrible plague that would not yield to the efforts of their priests, they sought the counsel of the gods through divination, whereupon they were advised to seek answers from Apollo's son, Asklepios. At Epidauros, in Greece, one of the Roman ambassadors received a dream in which Asklepios indicated that he would return with the delegation to bring his healing influence to the new land. This chapter in mythic history is summarized succinctly in The Mythology of All Races:
The outbreak of a pestilence at Rome in 292 BC turned the Romans to a consultation of the Sibylline books, where they discovered directions enjoining them to send a deputation of citizens to the healing shrine of Asklepios at Epidauros, the envoys bringing back a serpent as a living symbol of the god, and at the same time instructions for establishing the new worship. It happened that when their ship reached the city, the serpent leaped overboard and swam to the island in the Tiber, where the new shrine was built, the god's name being given the Latin form of Aesculapius. (2)
So now the Greek Asklepios had become the Roman Aesculapius. The reincarnated god continued to flourish in his new surroundings for centuries until the Roman Empire eventually came into conflict with the new religion of Christianity. During the reign of Constantine in the fourth century CE the old pagan gods and goddesses, including Aesculapius, came under attack. As the new patriarchal monotheism took root many statues and temples were destroyed, and the healing god and his cohorts were ultimately demonized and banished.
It is interesting to note that within the Christian Church the snake has assumed the role of representing the forces of evil. Prior to this, throughout human history the serpent had been a ubiquitous and sacred symbol indicative of themes relating to the goddess, soul, transformation, and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Its persistence as the modern symbolic emblem of medicine stands in stark contrast to its popular cultural and religious depiction of all that represents darkness and evil. Many statues of Mary, the Mother of God, depict her standing with her foot pressed against and crushing the serpent on the ground below. This image derives from the story of the fall in Genesis in which Yahweh discovers that the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge has been eaten. Adam then promptly blames the woman, Eve, who in turn blames the serpent.
By contrast, in the Old Testament the serpent is depicted as a force of deliverance and healing when God punishes the impatient Israelites with a plague of poisonous snakes. Moses is then instructed by Yahweh to place a "brazen serpent" on a pole, and told that those who gaze upon the image will be healed. This motif in which the source of an affliction holds the promise of cure for the very same affliction is an example of the wounded healer principle, and also a foreshadowing of Hahnemann's homeopathic system of treatment with similars. The writings of Paracelsus also echo this concept, and even Hippokrates argues that illness can be treated by either method-through the use of an agent capable of producing symptoms similar or opposite to the symptoms of the condition in question.
Even in the West the serpent is not always representative of evil, for it was Christ himself who warned his disciples as they set out to spread the news of his new doctrine of peace:
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. (3)
Here the message is clear: the serpent is equated with wisdom, and the disciples are enjoined to share that wisdom in an attitude of kindness and love.
The historical rise of Christian institutions roughly paralleled the rise of rationalism and the development of scientific thought. The first healers and physicians to embrace analytical thinking and natural causation, nevertheless, held to a fundamentally holistic worldview in which the natural world was believed to be part of divine creation. Priest and physician were, for a time, one and the same. Eventually, the two predominant influences of the time began to lay exclusive claim to their own domains.
Science, logic, and rationalism gradually became aligned with the physical world, and hence the physical body. Supernatural and spiritual causes of illness were rejected in favor of natural and physical causes. As an understanding of the workings of the human body grew, the importance of the spiritual connection to the material world and to human health receded into the background.
On the flip side, Christianity became the authority on issues of the soul and matters of higher standing like God, salvation, and the afterlife. The physical world and the human body became temporary but undesirable way stations to be tolerated until life in heaven after death could be reached. Certain aspects of the material world and the human body became evils to be overcome only through embracing the higher principles of the spiritual life.
In essence, medical science became caretaker of the body, while the Church remained keeper of the soul. As science attempted to discredit religion on rational grounds, religion fought back with the weight of its moral authority. These two mighty forces created a fundamental split in the human psyche, a split that our modern world has been struggling with ever since.
These cataclysmic changes marked the rise of the masculine principle. The androgynous cosmic world of gods and goddesses was supplanted by the materialistic emphasis of both science and patriarchal religion. Science and Christianity were co-conspiratorial precursors to sweeping changes in human consciousness that led to the same net effect: the dualistic split between spirit and science, between mind and body. This division was coupled with the pervasive belief that the masculine principles of logic and reason were superior to the feminine principles of intuition and soul. This divorce of medical science from its spiritual roots carries with it profound implications for contemporary healthcare.
The time has come to re-establish balance, and society as a whole must begin to learn new ways to accomplish this. According to yogic discipline, the life force, or prana, also known as the kundalini or serpent goddess, rests coiled up at the lowest chakra at the base of the spine. When this life force is "awakened" through regular practice, it flows up the spinal column through the chakras and out the top of the head. Along the way, it invigorates, renews, cleanses, and contributes to health through the proper flow of life force. With the help of yoga, we can tune in to certain frequencies, develop resistance to potentially detrimental energies, and keep the overall energy of our systems fine-tuned and balanced.
The subtle anatomy of this yogic system consists of three main energy channels, or Nadis, that course their way up the spine. The Sushumna, which runs from the base of the spine to the top of the head, is the central channel around which winds the Ida, the feminine left channel, and the Pingala, the masculine right channel. Yoga provides a method by which yin and yang, female and male, can work together in balance and harmony for the benefit of health.
This yogic image evokes obvious structural parallels and is cosmically analogous to several topics that we have previously mentioned. The Western symbol for this, ironically, is the medical caduceus with its two snakes winding up the winged staff. The awakening of kundalini serpent energy also evokes the biblical image of Moses' people in the desert looking up to the fiery serpent on the pole in order that they may be healed. Similarly, the serpent of wisdom is associated with the axis mundi, the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. And finally, the structural lattice that encodes all life forms derives from the double helix of DNA, like two serpents interwoven, creating the dance of polarities in the mystery of life.
The same balancing of energies can be accomplished with many other practices such as prayer, drumming, meditation, intention, ritual, and guided imagery. Likewise, various forms of energy healing such as homeopathy, acupuncture, Reiki, and many more, can serve to re-establish balance in times of illness. What physicists refer to as energy, techies call information, mystics know as spirit, and New Agers call consciousness. The human being is the most exquisitely designed receiver and transmitter of energies in the created world. We are conduits for energy, and it is potentially unhealthy to get our frequency channels jammed.
The energetic imbalance of Western culture, in general, is tilted toward the masculine. Black and white thinking is inherent in all forms of fundamentalist belief. This type of single-minded devotion to one's beliefs, whether they be religious, scientific, or militaristic, is the source of most human strife and conflict. If we are to heal ourselves as a culture, this pervasive imbalance must be rectified.
Not only is it the Year of the Snake, it is more specifically the Year of the Water Snake. Both snake and water are feminine symbols. Water is a symbol of the unconscious and is used in purification rites and healing ceremonies. The time is ripe for embracing the feminine once again. Masculine and feminine, left-brain and right, must find a way to work in harmony and balance. We are at a crossroads where the health of society as a whole may depend upon it.
1. Edward C. Whitmont, Psyche and Substance: Essays on Homeopathy in the Light of Jungian Psychology, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1980, p. 132.
2. William Sherwood Fox, PhD, The Mythology of All Races, Volume 1, Greek and Roman, p. 301.
3. The Bible, King James translation, Matthew 10:16.
* Portions of this essay were adapted from Green Medicine: Challenging the Assumptions of Conventional Health Care.
Image by Lawrence Chard, courtesy of Creative Commons license.