Seasonal Salon

Dancing With Snakes

Does the thought of snakes repulse or attract you? Because I love round, curly, curving shapes, I have always been fascinated by serpents. My first live encounter occurred during an elementary school field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History. The man from the museum staff asked if any one wanted to touch a snake. I immediately stepped forward and did so to the snake he had curled around his arm. When I realized that it was neither cold nor slimy, but rather warm and firm, just like a human arm, I was drawn to serpents even more. When I visited the Chinese snake godís temple on the Maylasian island of Penang in 1993, a place rarely visited by tourists, I once again had a serpentine opportunity to have wrapped around my head and shoulders, about five of the "retired" (and de-poisoned) yellow adders that are normally draped over tree branches on the main altar of the temple. Though a fleeting experience, it left me with intimations of being in some other dimension - one of quiet sacredness, and I loved it. I have pictures!

Since those days, I hadnít really given much conscious thought to snakes, except if I might come across one in my back yard or see an image in a magazine. That unconsciousness changed when I attended this yearís Spirit of Womongathering festival, held at a beautiful camp in the Pocono Mountains of upstate Pennsylvania. I attended the festival as a vendor, selling my goddess-centered jewelry and ceramic pieces. For reasons unknown to me at the time, I had begun to incorporate snake imagery into my work about two years previously. I did not give it much thought until the festival was over. My beloved spouse of twenty-eight years accompanied me to help support me in my vending efforts. In this I am truly blessed, because when I saw a three hour workshop in the program that I thought I might like to attend, Patricia graciously offered to staff the booth while I did so.

The world is blessed by the presence of a most holy woman named Serpentessa. She has practiced as a snake priestess for over fifteen years. With her nine magnificent boa constrictors, she combines belly dancing, ritual and workshops that utilize her serpentsí willingness to engage with humankind for education, healing and transformation. She created a ritual at Womongathering some years ago, which I had attended. The large hall where the ritual took place was packed to overflowing with about 200 women. We self-divided ourselves into the three groups of mother, maiden and crone, and, after standing in the hot building, in a very long, slow line for well over an hour, each woman got to briefly touch one of the three snakes there. It was, to say the least, disappointing. But, it was a chance to touch a snake!

This year, Serpentessa was back! The workshop she offered was called Journey with a Serpent. I assumed it would be similar to the one I had previously attended, and, even though I was not looking forward to standing in such a tedious line again, I did not want to miss the chance to "be " with a snake in whatever way was possible. My expectations were about to be refuted in a way I could never have imagined.

The workshop was held in one of the cabins that, for the duration of the festival, was designated as The Croneís Cave. This was obviously the cabin that the camp normally used for its dance activities. One whole wall was mirrored and in front of the glass was a ballet barre. Dark cloth that had been painted with spirals and other goddess-related symbols had been hung to create a circular space in the center of the cabin. Within those folds an altar representing the Crone had been created. On a round table, a round mirror had been placed. On top of a branch laid on the glass, perched two real, stuffed ravens and one snowy white owl, also stuffed and hauntingly real. A single candle glowed at the center of the altar, its light refracting in the mirror to cast flickering shadows around the sacred space. Not until I arrived at the appointed time did I learn that the number of participants was limited to fifteen. This news was most welcome.

When all were seated, Serpentessa greeted us and began to speak. She said that she always gives her "talk" at the beginning, because, once she brings the snakes out, no one hears a word she is saying. That certainly made sense to me. All that she shared with us about serpents was valuable information indeed.

Snakes live in the moment all the time, and, due to our inherent, instinctual response to reptiles, we too are in the present moment all the time when we are with them. Serpentessa uses boa constrictors because they are a species that is willing to engage with humankind in a benign and open manner. When a snake is placed on a human body, it is merely trying to find purchase on what feels to it like a moving landscape. Because these boas are only about seven feet or so long, they know that we are too big for them to even consider trying to eat. And, of course, Serpentessa makes sure they are washed, fed and given time to eliminate that meal, before introducing them into any interaction with people. So, if one of these snakes begins to wind around a personís neck, it is not trying to strangle or constrict them. It is merely trying to find a way to support itself around the personís shoulders. All one has to do is place oneís hand inside the snakeís coil and gently press its body outward and away from the neck. This sets a boundary that the serpent will accept.

The other fascinating thing about these creatures is that when entwined around a human, they will naturally gravitate to the part of the body that is experiencing issues...pain, injury or other kinds of stress. I did not think about that fact very much until later.

As the priestess spoke, I could feel the energy in the room accelerating into eager anticipation and great excitement. Finally - Serpentessa removed the cover of a large plastic container and began to remove three of her snakes. The silence in the cabin was deafening. I was blessed to be part of the first three member group to receive the serpents. Some women took off all of their clothing, the better to feel the boas against their skin. I took my shirt off.

As I received "my" snake, Asklepios, I felt a thrill that went so far beyond the physical that there really are no words to adequately describe it. The moment he began his journey up my arm, I was transported to a place of pure sensation. Not only my body, but all of my sensory indicators were totally aware...definitely in the moment ! Initially, he settled himself around my shoulders, stretching his beautifully sculptured head out from my body in a weaving, searching motion. Serpentessa came to me and whispered, "Move a little...slowly. He is trying to lead you a bit." And then...I was dancing with snakes!

A snake is like a big muscle that flexes itself to move over your body. When its coils squeeze around you, it feels utterly a slow, languorous embrace. It was most definitely erotic, but so much more in the Jungian sense than the merely sexual. The erotic energy I felt was a sudden burst of that drive toward ultimate creation that lets us know that we are indeed alive. "Being" with that serpent was indescribably profound. While in a place most deep within myself, my entire being was at the same time stretching out into to the far corners of the Cosmos. I felt totally integrated in ways I have not felt since I was perhaps ten years old, and, I was filled with a serenity and peace that lulled me to release tears of pure joy.

For many weeks prior to Womongathering, I had been suffering with constant and fairly sever lower back pain. It was the flare up of an old condition that I have been living with for many years. I was not able to reach my chiropractor for an adjustment before coming to the festival, and, with the long drive and added physical stress of setting up my vendor space, I had was in a lot of pain and was feeling quite exhausted from it. Serpentessaís earlier words about serpents sensing areas of the body that are in ill-ease came back to me when, after being wrapped around me for only a few minutes, Asklepios moved with great purpose down my torso, coming to rest with his whole body wrapped around my waist. There he remained for the rest of my allotted time with him. He spent that time squeezing and releasing in that area of my body with a soothing, pulsing rhythm. Later, when I was sitting at dinner, trying to describe my experience with Serpentessa and her serpents to some friends, I became aware that my pain had subsided and my back muscles had relaxed. Once again, I felt delighted tears sliding down my face.

I have come away from my experience with Serpentessa and Asklepios subtly transformed. Some part of me was opened, or, perhaps, reopened, during those fifteen minutes of inter species communion. I can still touch that place of serenity so gently squeezed into the light by a benevolent serpent, and, I can still call up the sense of sacred wonder that enveloped me as I saw us, Asklepios and me, in that mirror, under the watchful eyes of the ravens and the owl, as we danced together across the Croneís Cave floor. Blessed Be!

Category: Fall Equinox 2010