The dreamworld without snakes would be something like a non-dairy milkshake. The prevalence of snakes in dreams – by far – exceeds the interest of the dreamer in reptiles. And maybe it is just the population I work with (mostly people in recovery from behavioral addictions). However, there are books, websites, and even fan clubs surrounding snakes in dreams. Kelley Bulkeley devoted a chapter to snake dreams in his book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey, where he notes that “analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency.” The novelist D.H. Lawrence was more succinct, saying “a rustle in the grass can startle the toughest ‘modern’ to depths he has no control over.” (Apocalypse, 1932).
There is something universal about snakes that attracts some and repels others, but leaves few people indifferent. Indiana Jones knows which camp he favors. Not a fan. “Snakes,” he says, just before he is lowered into a chamber with a few thousand asps and cobras, “Why did it have to be snakes?” Something deep within us, despite our relative lack of contact with them, does not like snakes. They have “bad press,” especially in the Western world, perhaps, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths can all trace original sin to the snake. Bruise the heel for generations forward, and all that stuff. Jung would probably say there is something deep in the collective unconscious of mankind that does not like a snake, just as Robert Frost tells us “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Now there are exceptions to the rule; many that like snakes, often these people have a few snakes at home and multiple tattoos of them. And often those are people who have been through a good deal themselves, people who know the underworld journey, people who know what it is like to claw their way out of a tight spot.
Snakes and the Underworld: Hillman
The underworld journey, indeed. A client recently came to me with a dream in which snakes were coiled around each forearm, biting into her wrist. She went to her brother for help, and he became frustrated both with the snakes (and his inability to help) and the
client, whom he told to “stop fidgeting around.” I suppose he could have told that to Indiana Jones with no effect as well. What she and her brother shared in real life is the loss of a sister, who lives now in the underworld, daily pulling at each of them, a biting, painful reminder of the seriousness of life and the finality of death. In her dream, there was no conscious awareness of her sister, yet processing the dream reinforced the significance of the coming birthday of her sister and the coming anniversary of her death, both on her mind and that of the family this time of year. Last year, four women shared one evening in a small group about snake dreams they had had – recently. They shared their dreams in sequence – two were positive, two might be called negative or dreams where fear was present. Many dictionaries will tell you the meaning of snake, but James Hillman (Inner Views) will tell you, “the moment you’ve defined the snake, interpreted it, you’ve lost the snake, you’ve stopped it . . . keep the snake there, the black snake…see, the black snake’s no longer necessary the moment it’s been interpreted, and you don’t need your dreams any more because they’ve been interpreted.” Hillman urges us to keep the snake alive by meeting the snake in its world – often the underworld, and not dragging it into the light where we lose its meaning. The task was not to find one meaning for Snake, but allowing each of these women to become snakekeeper, a snake goddess, or a snake charmer, as the case may be.
Hillman also said (June 2010 at a Library of Congress Symposium on the Red Book) that “Fantasy as imaginative activity is the direct expression of psychic life, and they are identical with Jung’s quote with the flow of Psychic energy.” For fifty years of Freud in America, a snake dream led to the inevitable phallic image and repressed sexuality embodied in it. We have grown out of that form of reduction and back into the primacy of the image as teacher. Hillman urges us to let the snake be a snake, do not dare reduce it to a sex part, the source of evil in the Christian World, or even the image of healing that winds around the caduceus. Admire the Snake in snake, and let it as image retain its identity and control over the message it brings, whether that be venom or medicine. So ends a brief post, and mostly just an excuse to put up a picture of James Hillman and to reinforce his message. Good night, Dr. Hillman.