Here in Canada, when I entered the post office recently to buy stamps I was reminded that 2013 is also the year of the snake. The stamps displayed elaborate and stylized images of the water snake in celebration of the Chinese Zodiac.
I’m told by followers of the Chinese Zodiac that people born in snake years always seem to have money flowing their way. They are described as intelligent, creative and adventurous. Chinese astrologers use the color black to depict this year. Black is the color of space, the arctic night and the darkness of the abyss and deep waters. The black snake, say the astrologers, will bring people unexpected changes, instability and change. In the wake of “the end of the world” and the dawning of a new age (the seventh golden age) this is not surprising (see my last editorial).
I was born in the “year of the horse” and checked out my prospects for the year of the snake. They were mixed: I was told that “horse people should do everything by themselves instead of turning to others. By that, they can get good fortune. Also the expense will not be that much. In general, their fortune will get better bit by bit.” (Oh boy! Looking forward to those bits!). Astrologers told me that my career life would not be smooth but that I would make good money (sigh with relief!). I was also advised that I should donate blood in early 2013 because I might have an accident in this “snake” year (oh dear!); a kind of karma-thing happening here, I guess! LOL!
Snakes can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Biologists recognize over 3,400 species, ranging from the 10 centimeter Thread Snake to the reticulated 8.7 meter long Python. Most species are non-venomous. Snakes are thought to have evolved from either burrowing or aquatic lizards during the mid-Cretaceous Period.
The snake remains a mysterious creature, steeped in controversy. Considered vile and “evil” by many, it often elicits strong feelings of dislike and fear. It is an elegant cold-blooded reptile, and smooth to the touch (contrary to what most people think: NOT slimy). The snake embraces a rich and metaphoric history, representing a wide range of symbolism that encompasses change, metamorphosis and transformation. In The Dictionary of Mythology (1961) Gertrude Jobes recites a long list of symbols that span from the wicked to the sublime. Perhaps her extensive alphabetized list serves a good representation of this, our year 2013: androgyny, circle, convalescence, cunning, danger, death, deceit, destruction, divine emanation, evil, false appearance fertility, guardianship, generation, grief, health, intelligence, jealousy, lasciviousness, malice, materialism, misfortune, phallus, pleasure, power, prophecy, prudence, renewal, revenge, self- creation, self -indulgence, self -sustenance sensation, sensuality, sin, subtlety, temptation, treachery, the unfathomable, universe circle, vexations, vice, wiliness, wisdom worldliness. Emblem of lightning, physicians, witchcraft.
J.E. Cirlot in A Dictionary of Symbols (1971) suggests that, “If all symbols are really functions and signs of things imbued with energy, then the serpent or snake is, by analogy, symbolic of energy itself—of force pure and simple; hence its ambivalence and multi-valencies. Another reason for its great variety of symbolic meaning derives from the consideration that these meanings may relate either to the serpent as a whole or to any of its major characteristics—for example, to its sinuous movements, its common association with the tree and its formal analogy with the roots and branches of the tree, the way it sheds its skin, its threatening tongue, the undulating pattern of its body, its hiss, its resemblance to a ligament, its method of attacking its victims by coiling itself round them, and so on.”
The serpent’s portrayal as the most common symbol of God—in human psychology and spirituality from Moses, to the Freemasons, Baptists and psychologist Carl Jung and many others—has puzzled anthropologists for years. To Jung, the serpent reflected the Omnipotent and Omnipresent power of God that lives within every human: “The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life… I have united with the serpent of the beyond. I have accepted everything beyond into myself.”
The ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead tells us that the darker side of one’s own nature may reveal itself in serpentine form in the afterlife. It becomes a mirror through which a person may encounter the feelings or thoughts they repressed when alive.
Chaldeans had only one word for life and snake. The snake’s elegant undulating form symbolizes both soul and libido. In the Hindu tantric belief, it represents the lotus of Kundalini, the coiled force of transcendence that begins at the base of the spine and travels up the chakras toward enlightenment. In Indian mythology, Lord Vishnu sits on a thousand-headed snake, which sets off the primal vibration and the vital source of the Universe. Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that the symbol of snakes coiled around a staff represents the Kundalini physiology. The staff represents the spinal column with the snake(s) being energy channels. In the case of two coiled snakes they usually cross each other seven times, a possible reference to the seven energy centers called chakras
In religion, mythology, and literature, serpents and snakes represent fertility and/or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing they symbolize rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Snakes embrace the paradox of creative-destruction in the form of an Ouroboros, the serpent biting it’s own tail. It reflects a cyclic sexual union within itself, a constant self–fecundation and a perpetual transformation from death to life. The serpent represents sexual desire and passion in the Abrahamic religion and Rabbinic tradition. The circle of the Ouroboros symbolizes eternity but only through the perpetual cycle of regeneration: life from death. The Ouroboros is a ubiquitous symbol of the “all-in-all”, the totality of existence, infinity and the cyclic nature of the cosmos. Believed to have been inspired by the Milky Way (“the serpent of light residing in the heavens”), Ancient Egyptians associated it with serpent gods Wadjet and Hathor. Jormungandr, the World or Midgard Serpent of Norse mythology encircled the world in the ocean’s abyss, biting its own tail.
Every night the Sun enters the underground world ruled by serpents, to become the serpent itself in order to fight them and to reborn in the morning. The Vision Serpent of Mayan mythology lies atop the World Tree as a symbol of rebirth.
Christianity portrays the serpent negatively but sacred texts testify its double aspect. The regenerating Christ itself is sometimes represented as a serpent on the cross. During Medieval times the serpent on the cross was interpreted as the serpent of Eve.
The serpent-encircled staff of Asclepius, the God of medicine and healing, has become the symbol of modern medicine. The snake’s venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that can heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness. The snake was often considered one of the wisest animals. Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.
Serpents often guard temples, sacred spaces and deities. At Angor in Cambodia, numerous stone sculptures present hooded multi-headed nagas as guardians of temples and other sacred sites.
In Ancient Egypt, Ra and Atum became the same god, which took on the form of a serpent: The two-headed serpent deity Nehebkau (he who harnesses the souls) guarded the entrance to the underworld. He is often seen as the son of the snake goddess Renenutet or Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra, the patron and protector of the country.
In many myths the chthonic serpent lies coiled around a Tree of Life in a divine garden. In the Genesis story of the Torah and Biblical Old Testament, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil sits in the Garden of Eden together with the Tree of Life and the serpent. In Greek mythology Ladon coiled around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, protecting the entheogenic golden apples. Nidhogg, the dragon of Norse mythology, eats from the roots of the Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Lastly, the Buddha sat in ecstatic meditation under the Bodhi Tree of Enlightenment. When a storm arose, the mighty serpent king Mucalinda rose up from his place beneath the earth and enveloped the Buddha in seven coils for seven days, not to break his ecstatic state.
The image of the serpent as the embodiment of the wisdom transmitted by Sophia was a Gnostic emblem.
OK. So, what does all of this have to do with you, 2013 and the Year of the Snake? Why, nothing… Perhaps everything. It depends on whether you are mindful of the symbols around you; whether you think and write metaphorically; whether you are fanciful and whimsical; whether you appreciate the ancient wisdom of humanity and its link to the divine… Whatever your inclination, I wish you a wonderful and productive year of transformation and wonderful surprises. I for one am looking forward to 2013. I’ve decided to embrace the multi-faceted and transformative energy of the snake and intuitively let my muse lead me here. Last year I began to research and this year I will be writing two books whose subjects are “medieval wisdom in healing and wellness” and “water”. Appropriate, don’t you think?
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.
Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, and serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and published byEditura Paralela 45.