The snake has carried a projection of evil since it first upset the applecart in Eden, and, if anything, this phobia has grown stronger the more civilized we’ve become. Why do most people shudder when they see a sudden flicker of movement on the garden path? The snake evokes an instinctive recoil, a fear response from a part of the brain that scientists refer to as “reptilian.” In the long course of our evolutionary history that part of us has been disregarded or repressed.
Fear of snakes is not something we are born with—it’s linked to layers of education and acculturation. Earlier societies did not have such scorn for things that slither on the grass. In ancient Crete, the snake was a symbol of wisdom and fertility. In Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, the snake could grant the gift of immortality. In the tale of Glaucus, a serpent knows the herb for rebirth and resurrection. And of course, two snakes were intertwined on the shield of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. But there’s a strong domestic connection, too. In Attic culture, the serpent was the guardian of the house — a representative of the Great Mother who protects and nurtures all.
D.H. Lawrence was especially sensitive to ways we have been cut off from the natural world, and in his poem, The Snake, we see him struggling with his own cultural prejudice against the lower creatures. This piece was written while Lawrence was living in Sicily, at the foot of Mt. Aetna. As the poem opens, he is startled by a serpent on his early morning visit to the water trough.
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more….
Lawrence feels a growing fascination with the snake, yet he struggles with his
his own conditioning which tells him to despise it and to do away with it.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off….
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
As the snake begins to slip back into the rocks, Lawrence gives in to this dark impulse:
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
…And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Jungian analyst James Hollis observes that for most of this encounter, Lawrence is able to hold the tension between his cultural complex (“kill the snake”) and his native curiosity.
This skill is especially important now, as a pandemic calls up every primal fear we’ve inherited from the culture, and every traumatic narrative from our own childhood. Our most important task is learning how to face those terrors. If we don’t, we risk turning them our against our selves or projecting them onto others — and being unable to cope with the crisis at hand.
“When plague came to Europe in the mid 1300s,” Hollis says, “no one knew about germs and so the peoples’ worst fears were triggered. Their response was self-flagellation and targeting of minorities.”
We’ve been seeing similar reactions to the coronavirus. While some people are immobilized by anxiety and a host of negative emotions, others are projecting their own private terrors onto different individuals or social groups.
Because we are so inept at dealing with our reptilian brain, we need some special training. In a seminar, “A Coronavirus Response Plan: The Mythic, the Scary and the Healing,” Hollis deftly guides his listeners through the steps required to effectively confront their own collection of snakes and bogeymen. A wise and experienced therapist, he helps us to sift through our own personal stories for complexes that immobilize us or push us toward irrational behavior.
“We are pretty powerless in the face of what is happening now,” Hollis says. But from this experience, certain questions emerge “that can help us meet the crisis using all of our resources.” In the weeks ahead, Hollis suggests that we meditate upon the following:
- What are my fears?
- What do they make me do and what do they keep me from doing?
- Have I been living my life, rather than some fugitive existence?
- Have I shown up as best as I can in service to myself and to my values?
- Where has my journey been diminished by fear and where have I colluded with it?”
- How can I tap into the resilience of my ancestors? What did they endure
Facing the snake means consciously exploring the things we’d rather bury and that keep us from participating, wholly and fully, in this life. Right now that’s just the medicine we need.
Tune into Hollis’s lecture on Jung Platform to begin this inner work.
Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times by James Hollis (publication date June 23, 2020)
The Snake and Other Poems by D.H. Lawrence
The Two Million Year-Old Self by Anthony Stevens