It didn’t happen on a rocky outcrop after a long, dusty climb. We weren’t in the muck and ooze of a carboniferous swamp or in a cave following the sheen of a promise of water. I wasn’t a leader or follower in a tattered line of explorers. I was bitten by the copperhead when I stepped off the deck after a party. Friends have asked me to write about what the bite was like physically and what it meant spiritually.
The ordeal began with a premonition. Although it was late August, the weather was rather cool. Preparing for my son’s surprise 40th birthday celebration, we went ahead and stacked a fire, not wanting anyone to go over to the kindling pile in the dark, because I sensed a copperhead might be there, even though we’ve seen only two here in thirty years.
Cleaning up after the party, I took out a large aluminum pan that had held cupcakes to shake off some stubborn sugar-sprinkles. I stepped from the deck onto the pine needles wearing flip flops and was tapping and whacking the tray when I felt a terrific sting. Thinking it was some huge wasp, I looked all around, but saw nothing.
When the pain worsened and the swelling moved from toe to foot, we went to the emergency room. We spent the night there as doctors attentively monitored the rise of the swelling. With black marker they drew lines and noted the time on foot… then ankle… then leg and pushed me to take antivenom. We live in a college town with a large teaching hospital in the snaky south, but they didn’t seem to know what else to do with a snake bite. They didn’t clean the site, never asked if I was in pain, and couldn’t tell me why the antivenom was necessary.
At $2,500 a vial, six vials required, and who knew if insurance would actually pay, we needed to know the benefit. We had been warned that it can cause more harm than good. After they kept asking me to take the antivenom or tell them why not, we insisted they give us more information. Finally someone found a study in which the CDC said that after 2 weeks they couldn’t detect a difference in healing between people who got it and those who didn’t. I refused.
Back at home, over the next few days big colorful bruises steadily proceeded to climb all the way up the leg to the groin. The doctors hadn’t warned us about this, so we rather frantically searched for information about what was happening. Most internet sources simply repeated that the bite of a copperhead caused “redness and swelling at the site.” Finally we found an explanation: “Snakebites contain venom, not poison. This venom damages the lining of the blood vessels and lymphatic system. It makes vessels permeable so that they leak red blood cells. The venom spreads through the lymphatic system.” It was comforting to know that this painful bruising, traveling so far away from the site, was, um, normal.
Copperheads give birth in late summer. Juvenile copperheads have a yellow tail to attract small prey. Young snakes don’t yet know how to control their venom, so they release it all, whereas an adult pit viper might strike “dry” as a warning. Most likely, a young copperhead was near the path, and I threatened it so badly with all the noise and flashing of aluminum, that it bit me quick and got out of there. I was thankful it was me and not one of our guests.
An herbalist friend who had been bitten by a copperhead suggested sassafras root tea. Another suggested an echinacea root decoction and plantain poultices. Strangely, I had been particularly aware of tending all three of these plants in our garden over the past month, so it felt auspicious to try them. I made and drank the plant medicines. They helped for sure, but it was the poultices of plantain leaf that reduced the pain and swelling and were very soothing and comforting.
Earlier that summer, on a trip to my husband’s ancestral Ojibwe reservation in northern Wisconsin, we had learned about native food and medicine plants from our cousins and others in the food sovereignty movement. A month later the snake was making me receive healing from native medicinal plants! The medical establishment had nothing to offer, a void into which stepped echinacea, sassafras and plantain. On the reservation we were taught the respect required to use plant medicines, then had to put this knowledge to good use. Sprinkling some tobacco around the periphery of the site, we asked the copperhead to leave, thanking him for having made his penetrating point.
On the way up to the reservation the following summer, we stopped at the great Serpent Mound in Ohio to pay homage and make peace with Snake. Created sometime between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, the Shawnee regard it as ancestral to them, and it is held sacred by many other contemporary Native Americans. In the profound green quiet and slanting radiance of the early morning sun we made our offerings. The Serpent is a 1,350 ft long sculpted figure created by people who carried soil in woven baskets and shaped the earth into a slithering ceremonial snake representing the Great Serpent, the master of the watery underworld below lakes, streams, and springs. The Serpent undulates like a river along the flat plateau of a high bluff, bordered on both sides by the snakelike meandering creeks below. The serpent’s subtle body felt to my body like the animated energies of earth and water awakening, unwinding. Its tail still tightly coiled in a sunwise triple-spiral, it holds an egg in its mouth. The sinuous curves felt like the continuous movement of life itself from birth to death to rebirth.
Nevertheless, we were still booked for a trip to Ireland, and I was determined we should go. Never mind that I could only fit my big foot into David’s very big bedroom slippers. In wet, boggy Ireland—what was I thinking? We were at the airport and would have left if not for getting bumped off not one but two flights and Hurricane Florence getting upgraded to a category four, bearing down on a path straight towards us. Instead of leaving on a flight the next day, we gave in and cancelled, finally getting the message that perhaps we were being warned away from some worse disaster.
My husband and I are profoundly drawn to Ireland for many reasons, but to encounter animals in the wild, other than birds, is not one of our goals. Ireland was early cut off as an island, and the glaciers were late to retreat, so there are not many animal species. Take reptiles. There is only one reptile species in Ireland, the common lizard. No turtles and no snakes, because of the glaciers, not because of St. Patrick.
I am always amazed at how many native animals we are blessed to have in this country. We take the abundant life around us for granted. Oh that we would appreciate how biologically diverse this land still is. There are 38 species of snakes in our state, North Carolina. Our backyard alone is populated with 12 reptiles—four species of lizards, two species of turtles, and six species of snakes, only one of which is poisonous. Besides habitat loss, many people fear and kill any of the larger snakes, so we are in danger of losing them. As part of resacralizing this place I feel honor bound to celebrate the animals, the first-ones of this land, and the messages and medicines they bring to us human animals, by telling the stories of our encounters with them. Rather, by telling the stories of their encounters with us, as they animate the outer wilds of this sacred land and the inner landscape of our imaginations.
James Hillman tells us when we dream of an animal, we should not just think about what it means for us, symbolically. We should stick close to the life of the animal who comes to us, so as not to offend its soul. After all, the snake is another intelligent being. It would be respectful to invite him to speak or to imagine being in his body to see things from his point of view.
I am the colors of the light and shadow of pinestraw and all the nuances between. I am invisible, unhearable. I don’t exist most of the time. I make no noise as I silently move out into evening after the heat of the summer day. I am cool and as dry as bone. Not the slightest mote sticks to me to slow me down. I am ground and underground. I can barely distinguish between my body and the bodies of rocks and soil. I am exquisitely sensitive to the sensuous throb of the earth, the thrum of insect legs scraping upon it. I detect vibrations and sense whether to sidle towards them, or not.
I’m scared of all the flashing light when darkness was my cover. Flicking my tongue I taste an unnatural smell. I feel the air slam my body and suck back, slam and suck, slam and suck. I won’t crawl up that warm creature. It’s one thing to be stepped on, but entirely different to slither skin on skin. That’s not my way and way too slow. I wish I could wrap my body around it and squeeze it to stop, but I bite instead, so I can slide quickly into the shadows. I don’t like to waste my precious medicine. I didn’t even want to have to move this fast. I just ate a fat caterpillar, am still full, digesting it. But I strike to protect myself.
You should strike like this to protect what you love, to save me. I am the Earth. Slow down, in silence, muse on why else I pierced you.
Having had the copperhead premonition and tended the copperhead cures, I suspected being bitten by Snake was a meaningful event. People said it was a shamanic initiation. Yes, often these do involve pain. I’m wary of taking the term shaman too lightly, but Snake does seem to be a shaman-like teacher or guide who for some reason is interested in playing a part in my healing.
Different species of snakes would have different specific meanings. For example, the cute, harmless little worm snakes we find in the soil or leaf litter of our deciduous woods would not carry the same meaning as a venomous copperhead. Books suggest some of the many rich archetypal themes that snakes in general might symbolize, such as death of the old and rebirth of the new, or transformation and rejuvenation, because they shed their skins. The ability to shed a too-small skin and become bigger, more powerful, and bolder might sometimes be what is called for.
Snakes might symbolize visionary experience, because their eyes cloud over when they are about to shed. In trance we can move between the worlds of the living and the dead for wisdom and healing—very useful for contacting spirit beings or the deep-time ancestors. Or for opening to non-ordinary reality to gain vision and inspiration from the water, the land, the spirits of animals. The appearance of a snake might signify the ability to transmute toxins. Having the skill to convert political poisons into potency, to keep hoping and keep effecting change, rather than being debilitated by them, would be useful in this country right now.
Snakes are ancient symbols of feminine magic and the Goddess, such as the Greek goddesses Athena and Hecate, and the Phoenician goddess Astarte. The images that most astound me, however, are those in many devotional books of hours from the Netherlands, Germany and France from the 1200’s through the 1600’s. In my biblical upbringing I was never taught this! These painted miniatures show Adam and Eve at the Tree of Life, Eve being given an apple by the Serpent, but the snake coiled around the tree of knowledge is a goddess! The Bible doesn’t say the Snake is female, and certainly not a goddess, yet a deep pagan or folk belief in feminine wisdom persists.
The symbols that fit most closely my experiences of Snake are the rod of the Greek god of medicine, Asklepios, with its one spiraling snake for healing, and the channels of Kundalini, which means “coiled serpent,” with the feminine energy moving as a snake, sometimes two snakes, up through the chakras, the seven energy centers of the spine. Dreams and synchronicities involving snakes began many years ago. As a child I suffered traumatic abuse and losses. In my twenties snakes began appearing to help me through debilitating depressions. When my mental, emotional and physical energies would drop into an abyss, Snake would find me and remind me to regain my naturally embodied soul by moving, snake-like, and dancing. I called this depression-lifting process ‘getting the energy to move.’
Periodically I still sink into short depressions, become numb and empty, lose my soul. I withdraw from my body and almost literally stop breathing. Snake is the animal of my root chakra who helps me regain the flow of my feminine somatic energies. Movement is necessary for me to recover breath. Breathing, I begin to remember rhythm. How could I forget? Rhythm is the pulse of my somatic heartbeat. Dancing to rhythmic drumming, moving improvisationally in Authentic Movement groups, and years of studying drumming have been essential for me to come back into engagement with the lives around me, human and other-than-human.
Here’s an example of how Snake loves for me to be in rhythm: When I was studying drumming intensely with Layne Redmond, who wrote When the Drummers Were Women, I was practicing some pieces on the frame drum, like Seeds of Fire. I played Rattlesnake and Baby Snake compositions on tambourine a couple of times. Then on wooden claves I began playing Layne’s pattern in six called Candomblé, which means “dance in honor of the gods.” Wanting to continue this rhythm while adding movement, I turned and was about to take a step, but paused and looked down. That step would have been right on the head of a black rat snake, about 3½ feet long, heading straight for my leg! We both froze.
The snake got scared and scooted under the music system, became mixed up in some wires, and we spent twenty minutes trying to catch her. Her tail drummed on the floor and then again out in the leaves when we finally got her outside. Her drumming was low in pitch and fast, sounding very much like a speeded-up rhythm in six. Was she attracted to the sound of the claves? Perhaps she was drawn by the rhythms of Rattlesnake and Baby Snake! What would she have done if I hadn’t turned—crawled up my leg? Possibly. Rat snakes are very adept at ascending trees. Was this some kind of strange reciprocal exchange? Snake heals me with rhythmic movement and enjoys receiving rhythmic vibrations in return?
With the recovery of movement, rhythm, and breath comes re-awakened passion and creative energy. At first, when the depression would lift, I had to learn how to modulate the return of energy, because it would rush back in, overwhelm, and scare me. I couldn’t keep up with the flow of ideas, and feared the response they would require of me. In our movement groups women often share that, on our own, we suppress the subtle energies and avoid dropping down into our bodies, fearing the intensity, refusing the spirit-help we have been given. But, despite our resistance, life seems to require that we let the subtle energies of our inner wildness meet and mix with the seen and unseen powers of the outer wild. Many of us have scant resonance with the wildness around us without movement, rhythm, and sound. We need to inhabit our souls’ bodies in order to sense spirit and pray. As humans have known for millennia, this is easier in groups, with the support of a community. We dance outside as often as possible to include the community of the plants and animals.
What is the wisdom of Snake injected into me through the copperhead? There is certainly a new level of species-intimacy. Snake has entered and become part of me. Before the snakebite I had two dreams about the Sacred Marriage, the marriage of the divine feminine to the archetypal masculine within, that Jung calls the conjunctio. One marriage was to a herpetologist. The other was to a healer who was also bitten by a copperhead. But, the dream emphasized, it remained unconsummated. The bite of the copperhead was the consummation of the marriage of the feminine sensibilities in me with the rational and mystical parts of myself, joined through love.
The depth of the divide between spiritual and material in our culture is so tangible, I tend to sense it and shut up, silenced, as if some invisible authority put his finger to his lips. The dreams of marriage to a strong eco-spiritual masculine within, confirmed by the snake, provided a vision of courage and personal power to write and speak what I sense is needed.
Snake bit to initiate me into the confidence to finally accept who I am as one fated to walk with one foot in the scientific and the other in the spiritual world, never really fitting into either, but always seeking to marry matter and spirit for the rebirth of a shared vision of Spirit-imbued Earth. Snake is a mentor, compassionately prodding me, us, to keep moving and keep inviting the community of nature beings, human beings, and spirit beings to come together in ceremony for healing our separations, before it’s too late.
The medicine story that Snake is telling us is this: in our bodies we are one with the body of the Earth. We flow with the energy that moves in, around, and between all bodies. We are energetic threads in the web of life. When we come into our wild animal bodies we are bodies among other plant and animal bodies, souls among other plant and animal souls. Visitations from the wild in the form of dreams, visions, and synchronicities are Earth herself reaching out to connect with us. Snake s-s-says using somatic empathy, somatic sensing, we can foster a sensuous relationship to spirited Earth so we can respond to her and share, through our various inspired forms of artistry, what we hear her saying.
Snake tells us to receive the creative energies of nature and our souls and let them move through us to reveal new visions. We can work somatically and compassionately with the scared and blocked energies of personal and cultural trauma to transmute and heal them. Through instinctual dancing, shaking, or undulating snake-like, however we need, with the safety of ritual support, our life-full energies can move and transform old outworn stories into new. Snake is here to foster the powerful creative and healing energies that are arising and are so needed at this time. This is our native human ecology as part Earth, part Spirit. When we activate our inner wild energies through ritual movement and dance or lose our judgmental minds in rhythmic stamping and shaking, the wild often responds with synchronicities and sequences of visitations and dreams that lead us towards a deeper relationship with the sacred body of the Earth.
Text ©2021 Betty Lou Chaika
Header: Copperhead image from Copperhead Field Guide https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/copperheads
Young Copperhead: herpsofnc.org
Serpent Mound, atlasobscura.com
Face of Baby Copperhead, newsweek.com
I’m grateful for the wonderful article “Serpent Goddess in the Tree” ©2018 Max Dashu http://www.sourcememory.net/veleda/?p=906
Mother Earth with Serpent and Herbs at the margins of a carved ivory psalter cover. Frankish, circa 835 CE is from Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100, by Max Dashu http://www.veleda.net/