Meditation: Snake Kin

Witches are kin with the uncanny and the strange.

Risa Dickens
Jun 1, 2023
13 min read
Photo by Jonathan Taylor

Feel the shiver up your snakey spine, and I'll breathe into the shiver in mine, and let’s begin.

We had just moved from Waterloo Ontario to Los Angeles California, and my mom, new stepdad and I went for a hike. It wasn’t too far a drive, I think my folks were just checking out local outdoor options, I don’t think they knew until we got there that this was a site of an annual tarantula migration. We were all jaw-dropped walking around the education center looking at pictures of that time of year when the big spiders break their routine, come out during the daylight. Driven by the scent of females in their burrows, the males go walking, hunting for mates, and the underbrush and trails rustle and writhe. The park ranger told us were we in tarantula migration shoulder season, so we might see a few but it wasn’t likely, be safe and enjoy!

We laughed nervously. We walked in. The sun filtered through the leaves, the forest was quiet. It smelled like only California woods can smell. We relaxed.

Photo by Jeffrey Keenan

I was in the shade of the oaks and walnut trees when I heard the sound. I had run ahead on the trail, the sound was in the woods, maybe 20 feet off the trail, it was up in the canopy, it was loud, dry branches cracking. It was moving.

My parents caught up with me where I had frozen in place, and my mom squeezed my hand as we stood in disbelief looking up at a massive, smooth long body rippling through the leaves. The biggest snake we’d ever seen. My mom whispered, Risa, Run. And she pushed me and I did, and a beat later they came running behind me.

Turned out the snake was an escaped pet. A Burmese python lost, but enjoying its freedom I bet. Caught and contained, carried away from home for someone's entertainment, objectified, owned, and now loose in the sage and sumac.

I felt a tightness in my little 7-year-old heart as I imagined what might happen to it next. I felt strange, transported, contained, let loose among the leaves.

I felt strange, transported, contained, let loose among the leaves.

I guess I have felt a snake in my heart ever since.

I am snake kin. Kin with the pythons let loose by hurricanes raging wilder with climate change, multiplying in the florida everglades as that place descends into a hell of fear and fascism. I am snake kin writhing, I am the haunting under the floorboards. I am kin with spiders migrating too, and the bats who live under my eaves and who at twilight I watch leave in their fluttering ghostly shadow traces toward the beach.

I am kin with the darkness, with spirits that speak shadow truths and strike deep unnameable fear.

Witch is a declaration of love and curiosity about all beings, all truths, especially those that aren’t cute or convenient or easily commercialized. Witches are kin with the troublesome and the uncanny and the strange.

Witches are snake kin, we’re tangled up with them in stories of our magic, our pleasure, our imagination, our defiance, and our ability to strike, or to disappear with a whisper as we choose. We’re reminded by them that nature isn’t all big-eyed deer  - as our covenmate Jenny said in a post on our covenstead. Sometimes it's snake pits, tarantula migrations, bat wings, toadstools, it’s a sideways grinning to the creepy and uncomfortable in ourselves and in the world, not just the love and the light. It is an openness to the medicine in every kin.

I want to slip into and interrogate the twinned, twining feeling of uncanny and terror AND awe and a desire to touch their softness, to be slithered on and known by a being who moves and knows their world through their belly skin right up against you, so exposed. Two feelings so deep in us, fear and excitement, curiosity and revulsion, a clue that whatever is happening here runs deep. Deep as ancient prophesy, as Nikki Sanchez told us last week:

So there's many, many different groups of Mayan people that span from southern Mexico into Belise and Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. I name my Pipil heritage.   That prophecy,  is a Mayan prophecy, but it's also one that I've been raised with.
The way that I was taught about it, what it marked was the end of the 12th back tune, which it was the  long count calendar and the beginning of the 13th baktun, which is a new long count calendar. What I've been taught about that is that, that beginning of a new era a new calendar actually marked.
An opportunity for a shift in the collective consciousness of humanity on the planet. And the way that IA had been explained, it is that for the first time, the eyes of the serpent could see through the eyes of the eagle and vice versa. And so the serpent for me and the way that I've been taught about it, she is the one closest to the earth because her entire body, her belly, her brain, everything is always on the earth, is always listening to the ground, knows  more than any other creature what the earth is feeling.
And the eagle, of course, flies the highest of any bird and can see from this great macro perspective.  In that prophecy, to see those two minds be able to come together and see through each other's eyes, I've always interpreted that as.  Coming together of different worldviews.
So we can talk about  a western imperial worldview and an indigenous worldview for the first time, actually being able to meet one another's consciousness.
And have the capacity, to lift, lift in and learn from one another.

In Genesis Ch 3 God says to the snake, “I will put enmity between you and the woman. She will crush your head and you will bite her heel.” According to the Gnostics, this was the flawed God, the scared god, the one who wanted to keep us safe by keeping us trapped. In the view of these ancient heretics, the snake in the story is the voice of the universe in everything, the holiness beyond.

Serpent is used in the bible to refer to Egypt (Jer 46:22), and the King of Babylon. The snake that women will crush is the one they’ll no longer revere. The snake represents places where women’s role - through still constrained and lives still not their own - did have a sacred escape route to power. A woman could become a priestess in Egypt and Babylon, where she could study, wield power, live in some prosperity and peace, gather taxes and build more spaces of worship and safety… and honour ancient snake river gods, gods of the underworld and intestines, the ropes that run inside, the kinds of power that exceed and transgress the limits of the ordered, cage-like world.

Serpents recur throughout ancient cultures and symbol systems all over. They are sumerian fertility gods of healing and magic. Minoan Snake Goddesses that protected the house. Wadjet, ancient Egyptian snake-headed goddess began as a protector of mothers in childbirth, and became used as a symbol of the holy power of kings.

December 25th, on the Egyptian calendar, was considered to be the going forth of the Goddess, while April 21st was her feast day. The many days when Wadjet is honored culminate during her month, Epipi, the harvest or summer month. This corresponds to mid-May through mid-June on the Gregorian calendar.

So right now is the snake goddess time, of course, all hail the queen.

The Serpent is a trickster, one of only two animals that talk in the Torah. God told Adam and Eve they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree, but the snake says:  "your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5) Eve chooses a life with eyes opened, she chooses to know good and evil both. And so does Adam, right, he’s right there with the God and the snake, he’s an adult he makes his own fucking choice. They eat and see the world and themselves anew, their context is expanded. But they haven’t eaten from the Tree of Life yet so God kicks them out before they get that power too.

In many cultures the snake is tangled up with eternity, maybe that was her next gift, know good and evil and then choose to live forever anyway, if you want to. The snake as symbol of eternity is a leitmotif across cultures, the ouroboros of time looping, the infinite that flies away into the limitless universe also always bends back. In projective geometry all lines meet eventually, the limitless outside meets the limitless inside and it does so in the shape of our sister the snake.

Some Hebrew interpretations see the snake in the Adam and Eve story as simply representing how all humans must learn to navigate sexual desire. Desire that can lead us into disaster, or into transcendence, the twinned nature of our own desiring selves.

When I was in cegep, a friend asked a table of day-drinking 19-year-olds, liberal arts nerds asking their first questions aloud about philosophy and sexual identity, whether animals figured our dreams or fantasies, and in my memory we looked at her blushingly, a little blankly and then she said, you know, like snakes. And then we all nodded then and smiled. If we hadn’t dreamed in that direction before we were about to.

Twinning snakes and desire is not a stretch, they are phallic, but not hard, slippery and curved, licking forward, investigating small dark places.

They move through, above, and below worlds. They move sidelong, not straightforward.

For some scholars, the snake in the Genesis story symbolizes Imagination itself, and the snake is not a devil or a deity, she’s just a wild animal with a gift: one of only two animals in the Torah that can speak. Maybe that’s why they were keystone species in mystery schools all over the world, maybe they used to whisper to us in a language we could understand and help us imagine perspectives beyond our own.

In the hands of Christian imperialism, the snake story becomes part of a rhetorical arsenal directed at demonizing resistance, controlling wild spaces and common lands, architecting scarcity and dependence, and an excuse to keep the procreating gender shamed and under heel. Snake gets caught in the small boxes of colonizer Christian patriarchy, used to shame sexuality, and blame and control women and heretics.

But the serpent's sacredness exceeds that particular cage and narrative, their stories and selfhoods are vast and spiraling.

In Mayan mythology, the Vision Serpent appears to those in a vision state, emerges in the coiling smoke after a sacred ritual, pushed out of your usual body/mind, the vision snake appears, a song of death and rebirth, of shedding and transformation.  In Maya mythology serpents are the vehicles by which sky beings, sun and stars, cross the heavens. Snakes might have been a way of telling stories about asteroids, what might happen when they passed us by, or when they crashed headfirst into the world we thought we knew.

Witches are kin to the beings of visions.

Witches are kin to the beings of visions. 

In Australian Aboriginal culture, the Rainbow Serpent created the world, and then rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water.

In Hindu culture, the divine serpent Naga protects the wisdom of the natural world.

In the sacred Hopi snake dance, the snakes are lightning kin who can cross to the spirit world and bring messages with them, and bring back rain and fertile harvest.

Snake effigies have been found, scraped and shaped out of the earth, all over the world dating back thousands of years. The largest known massive ancient snake sculpture winds its way around a bluff near Peebles Ohio, and it’s sacred story purpose is unknown but it aligns with the solstices and sings of a deep knowledge about the winding passages of time. In it’s mouth it holds the sun, or perhaps a frog thinking about life and death stuck in the jaws of what comes for us all.

In Norse mythology, the World Serpent circles the world in the deepest parts of the world waters, its tail in its teeth, when it releases hold the final battle - Ragnarok - will begin. The world will burn and then be washed in rising tides, and then be born again.

The snake represents truth-telling, desire, imagination, lightning, rivers, rain, forces able to create the world and to destroy it, the dangerous edge of the living world.

Pentecostal Holiness Snake handlers today, in small isolated churches, still hold to a faith that tells them that the called can hold venomous snakes and god will protect them, a hope so many of us would like to cling to, that there’s some magic amount we can do that will spare us from the suffering that is being human in an unjust world. Usually accompanied by wild music, the practice is a kind of balm in places of extreme poverty and resilience, though it’s one that requires turning a blind eye to the deaths of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters by snakebite. The snakes themselves live without dignity, kept in small, sickening wooden boxes. A sacred relationship turned to trauma reenactment. A common Hunger.

I am kin to the hunger too.

I am hungry for more freedom, more joy, more justice, more gentleness, more wildness, more freedom, less shame. I want to be kin - not just with snake as symbol - eternity, connection, renewal, the infinite, rainbow serpent, wadjet - I want to somehow feel a body kinship with actual snake neighbours too.

One summer when our kiddo May was just toddling, we woke and went puttering around the house, surveying the endless skin-shedding renovations, and found a snake, black with yellow patterned bands, just and eastern garter snake, over a metre long, steps from our front door, right in the middle of our stone path, with a large frog moaning halfway down its throat.

What could we do but watch. The act took hours. It was awful and fascinating. Our neighbour was picnicking, our neighbour was breakfast, our lives are only a few gulps removed from this same drumbeat of hunter or hunted.

Here, we are the invasive species, and trying to pull a frog out of a snake's jaw won’t help anyone. Months later talking with a city friend, a parent, about big topics looming on the horizon of life with our kids I said well May has some notion of death, and they were shocked, what? And I realized oh, this is a strange dark gift the snake has given us. A knowledge of the fact of death in the world. A knowledge we would need in the pandemic and cancer years ahead. A painful but ultimately unavoidable medicine.

In an interview with CBC, Dr. Nicholas Reo, an assistant professor of Native American and environmental studies at Dartmouth College and citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, said:

Indigenous knowledge sees "intruder" plants and animal species as nations in their own right... Indigenous communities seek to build relationships with them.
We're part of a broader kinship network, or a family network, that includes not just humans but other beings as well.
So, if a new plant or animal moves into your home place, how do you fit it in?

Snake kin, how do we fit each other in?

Maybe we take lessons from the tales of snake twins?

In the 1980s a Dr Ebermut Rudolph sent multiple first-hand accounts and transcribed tapes to the Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society from his travels throughout the Philippines, gathering stories of Snake Twins - people who had somehow become mirrored with a snake, who felt pain when it was hurt, who could speak to it in whispers and who became renowned herbarios for their unique abilities to cure snake bites. In some of the stories, snake twins are born from the same human mother as their human sibling, in others they seem just to appear and always live nearby bringing blessings and curses as they see fit to protect their twin. In one a “too smart” young man tells of a trip to a crystal cave to meet the king of kings of snakes.

I’m not as interested in the impossibility of fact-checking stories told in small forest towns fifty years ago as I am in feeling into the fact that - in a place where large and deadly snakes are lurking commonplace - there exists a mythology of partnership, not just partnership but a living sympathetic magic, instead of fear and extermination, a communion. How do we fit in?

I am snake kin, I imagine them in the culverts, the stone wall by the lakeside, secretive and protecting secrets. I see them in my spine, in the curling smoke and curling breath, in the curves of my drive home, snaking around the mountainside, in the rivers that carve through the red sand, the stone shield, that remember their ancient names.

In the season of meteors we lie on our backs at night and watch messenger serpents pierce the sky.

I visited a friend's snake last week, she had seen them in a gross pet shop window, dying, and brought them home and they have lived with her for 9 years now, like a brother she said. They were dark-eyed when I got there and hiding, she said they were preparing to shed, she told me they look dimmed and tired and don’t eat much until the time comes to shed the visible part of the self that no longer serves, and then they emerge brilliantly coloured and ravenous.

Listener, friends, witches, snake-twins this I know: we will go dark sometimes, curl up under a rock and feel the strangeness coming. Mourn and fast and feel the weight of inertia, the heavy gravity of who we were pulling against the new brilliant odd coiling that builds its momentum from within us to emerge. We’ll be in that inbetween, troubled and exhausted in the discomfort of it and wonder what the fuck is happening to us, why do we feel so heavy, why can’t we order, organize and plan for what will happen next. I notice myself seethe when I can’t see from my sky eyes what is happening to me, what is coming next, I’m scared and Angry at being out of control.

But we are snake kin. We need to feel our way through belly-first sometimes, and the old can’t slip off until the new is formed beneath.

Take your time, I call out to myself, my sister, my coven at large. Feel it belly first. You are snake kin and change is coming. You are related to the coiling that keeps the world from flying apart. You are running in the waters and fires deep underground. You are smiling at infinity, one with the future and the past, starting to trust in the coming new skin.

Rest, breathe in. Trust in the rhythm of shedding, again and again. Trust in your changing self as medicine.

Witches, we are snake kin.

We come through death bright with new skin, ready to begin again.

Goddetc bless our writhing sympathetic twin, our belly selves, our sky selves,

And happy snake season.

Photo by Michał Mancewicz,symbol%20of%20rebirth%20and%20renewal.

“You have to learn respect and care around snakes! They help me remember that nature is not all sweetness and light and big-eyed, long-eyelashed deer, but mystery and danger as well.” Jenny H.

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