Dances with Snakes


by Kerri Hikida
Originally published in Whole Life Times, July 2000

Snakes strike fear into our hearts. The evil serpent of the Adam and Eve tale, the asp that Cleopatra used to commit suided, and the warning rattle of the venomous rattlesnake are just a few of the frightening images we associate with snakes.

Ancient peoples, it seems, had a different perspective. Naturally, there has always been some fear when it comes to poisonous snakes, but in ancient times the snake was seen as ally, healer, a symbol of the goddes and her fertility, and an archetype of change, regeneration and spiritual attainment.

Goddess/nature and fertility worship was practiced in all four corners of the world before the advent of the major patriarchal religions. This was a time when the changing of the seasons, planting, harvest times and fertility were of primary importance, and all were associated with rebirth and regeneration, which the snake manifests symbolically in the shedding of its skin.


Illustration: Eric Bobrow; Photos: Theresa Jasinski

Factual evidence in the form of ancient figurines and various forms of artwork frequently feature goddesses with snakes. “In images of the goddess in every culture the serpent is never far away, standing behind her, eating from her hand, entwined in her tree or in the shape of the goddess herself,” state Anne Baring and Jules Cashford in The Myth of the Goddess (Viking Arkana 1991). Some examples: in the Sumerian cities of Ur and Uruk were found two very old images of the Mother Goddess and her child, both having the heads of snakes. A third century terracotta relief of Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, pictures Demeter holding wheat and snakes in each hand. One of the ancient hieroglyphs for goddess was the serpent, and Isis, the Great Goddess of Egypt worshipped for over 3,000 years, was sometimes seen as a serpent. Serpents belonged to temple priestesses as signs of their powers of prophecy, the authors say.

Before the tale of Adam and Eve came about, the serpent was often thought of as the source of life itself. According to The Myth of the Goddess, the serpent, with its fluid shape and movement, came to symbolize the dynamic power of waters beyond, beneath and around the earth and appears in many different mythologoies around the world as the creative source or generator of the universe. In Sumerian myth, Nammu, the great serpent goddess of the abyss, gives birth to earth and heaven. And in Bronze Age myths, the serpent is imagined as the consort of the goddess, who unites with her to bring fertility to the earth.

Sacred dancer and modern snake priestess Le’ema (Kathleen Graham), is one of many modern women who share the views of the ancient pagans – views that are very much alive in today’s Goddess movement. She also shares the ancients’ reverence for snakes. A multi-talented woman (she has a BFA in dance/theater arts, 20 years performing experience, and is a newly ordained yogini), Le’ema dances with snakes as part of her spiritual practice.

Several years into a career as a classical dancer of ballet, modern, East Indian kathak and Middle Eastern belly dance, snakes began to permeate her consciousness, and she would frequently dream of serpents, Le’ema said. One day she “had a vision of Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess, Mother of All. She appeared to me, gloriously resplendent with snakes entwined in her crescent moon and sun disc crown, with the uraeus (golden cobra) springing from her forehead. She asked me to make a dance in her honor. That was the beginning of awakening into my priestess self.”

Although she had never seen a snake dancer before, Le’ema heeded the request. “It was as if something ancient was calling to be reborn in me,” she said. She became a snake keeper and dancer, creating her dances with a spiritual focus on the Great Mother Goddess. She performed with her royal python, named Nidaba, for the first time when she was nine months pregnant with her son. (She and her son were both born in the Chinese “Year of the Snake.”)

“There is no set choreography; rather, I improvise with the snakes as my guides, my teachers,” she said. “I simply breathe deeply with my snakes in a meditative state, allowing their energy to shape and design the dance with the qualities of a sublime yoga practice. It often feels as if the knowledge and wisdom of Gaia herself comes pouring through me. Filled with humility and quiet awe, I allow the gentle gliding of the snakes to dance me. It is beyond words, beyond performance – it is a healing. Visceral to both me and an audience, the dance evolves into a shamanic journey with snake for everyone present.”

Her partnership with snakes was also inspired by her studies of the Minoan culture of Crete. “The Minoan snake priestesses were always shown holding a serpent in each hand,” Le’ema said. “I began dancing with another python, Monty, and found that danceing with two snakes was even better than one. I felt an electromagnetic current move through my body that was exhilarating. The two snakes held by the Minoan priestesses represent the polarized nature of all energies and the unification of these polarities within the body.”

The snake as a healing symbol is a timeless archetype that still holds true today. The caduceus (the symbol of a snake entwined around a staff) has ancient origins and continues to be used as the symbol of healing today as the approved emblem for the American Medical Association. And, the symbol of the two-snake staff is used by the army medical and public health services.

In the Western world, once the goddess-worshipping pagan religions were replaced by patriarchal Christianity, the snake was converted into a symbol of evil, as represented in the tale of Adam and Eve. This conversion also occurred in Greek mythology. “Accorcing to Joseph Campbell, Zeus was initially represented as a serpent, but around 500 B.C. the myths changed, and Zeus becomes a serpent-killer,” said Jeremy Narby in The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. “He secures the reign of the patriarchal gods of Mount Olympus by defeating Typhon, the enormous serpent-monster who is the child of the earth goddess Gaia and the incarnation of the forces of nature.”

Le’ema shared an alternative viewpoint on the serpent that lured Eve. “I believe the serpent in the Garden of Eden was with Eve, the first woman, as an ally, not as a seducer of evil,” she said. “The serpent told Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge so that she could sustain life on this planet by understanding the truth. Knowledge of good and evil is absolutely necessary for survival, not only of the body, but of the soul itself. How would we ever become enlightened and find the key to immortality if we were ignorant of the truth? Ignorance is not bliss, it is misery; it is illusion at its best. Life, death and rebirth is the truth. This is the teaching of the wise serpent whose mythological association is with physical and spiritual health.”

– Kerri Hikida is a staff writer and Associate Editor of Whole Life Times.