Snake Dreams: instinct, energy, life force

 

Vishnu Vishvarupa, Victoria and Albert Museum, London Date approx. 1800–1820
Vishvarupa (notice the snakes at the feet of Cosmic Vishnu). c. 1800–1820. US Public Domain, Wikimedia.

A Dream:

“I am up in the hills and looking for a place to camp. The hills are golden-colored, rolling, as you would find in Northern California. I am walking along the hilltops for a while and then I come to a cave. I peek inside the cave and I see a little old hermit. I say to the hermit, “Hello.” And I ask, “Is there a place to camp up here upon the hilltops?” The hermit says, “No!” I look around and I say, “But there is so much room up here in the golden hills.” Then, as I am looking around, I see that at the entrance of the cave, there is a hill and the hill is the head of a huge snake. I shift my perspective and look into the distance: seeing that this snake spans into the distance, running for many miles over the hilltops.”

In the dream, we find the image of cave. In the Upanishads, a cave is found in the depths of the heart. In there, in the cave of the heart, the cosmic Self is discovered. The Katha Upanishad (1.11-13) says “he [the cosmic Self] dwells in the cave [of the heart] of all beings.”

The hermit is an important image. Nonetheless, in this post I focus on the snake and the meaning of the snake.  At the entrance to the cave there is a hill, and the hill is the head of a snake. The snake takes cosmic form, spanning miles.

In this dream, we find a link between the snake and the Self of the dreamer. A cosmic snake, along with a little hermit, guard the entrance to a great cave– an image of the Self. The dreams appears to be a dream of Self-realization, or the potential for Self-realization.

In the image above, we see the legs of Vishvarupa, as cosmic Vishnu or cosmic Self. Vishnu’s blue feet are called Pātāla. They form the subterranean realms of the great cosmic Self where the serpent beings (nagas) dwell. In the image, cosmic Vishnu stands on Shesha, the thousand-headed comic snake. Shesha is known as Ananta, meaning eternal. He is spoken of as the remainder. Shesha will remain after the end of the the aeon (Kalpa). Shesha is the destroyer of worlds: he vomits a venomous fire, which destroys all creation. [1] It is said that,  during intervals of creation Vishnu reclines on Shesha, meditating.

In the Vishnu Purana, Shesha is twisted on a churning stick, and used like rope so the deities and demons may churn of the Ocean of Milk. In Indian spiritual practices, the snake depicts the flow of life force energy. The snake is the image of Kundalini. Kundalini is creative energy. Kundalini is said to lie coiled like a sleeping snake at the base of the spine. Through meditation, this energy opens and the energy rises like serpent moving up the spine.

One of the core attributes of a snake is the way it slithers. Its movements are likened to a river, or as the creative life-force, to the forward flow of time. The snake is the image of the flow of energy that is purposive. Chrisp says: “The snake depicts the force or energy behind that movement and purposiveness–the force of life which leads us both to growth and death. That energy–like electricity in the house, which can be heat, power, sound and vision–lies behind all our functions.” (p.332)

Carl Jung understands snakes to be associated with the ‘psychic substratum’.  The substratum is the lower realm or even the foundation of something, so the psychic substratum would be the foundation of consciousness (the unconscious). These realms are also associated with the lower vertebrates or, in the image above, the lower part of the body.

Some snake dreams may indicate a deviation from instinct. In a passage from the Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung speaks of this possibility. Jung says:

“The lower vertebrates have from earliest times been favorite symbols of the collective psychic substratum, which is localized anatomically in the sub-cortical centers, the cerebellum and the spinal cord. These organs constitute the snake. Snake-dreams usually occur, therefore, when the conscious mind is deviating from its instinctual basis.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 282, emphasis added)

In Western society, with its Christian influence, it is likely that a snake dream would represent a deviation from instinct. Christian imagery often points to a deviation from the instincts. In the image below, we see a scene from Eden, depicting a relation to the serpent. Genesis 3:1 speaks of the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1). Nahash means serpent in Hebrew. The term is used to identify the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Nahash may be translated as “blind impulse of urges, such as our instinctual drives.” (Crisp, p. 332) The snake, as image of instincts, tempts Eve to betray the laws of God, and in doing so leads to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Instincts can be lower or higher, primitive or spiritual. Instincts can be raw sexual energy as Freud understood, or they can lead to the most profound spiritual sublimation and transformations as Jung contended.

The snake of Eden points to the lower, primitive nature of the instincts. ‘Beastly’ or conniving snakes most likely represent the temptation to engage in primitive instincts. Snakes are often found at the edge of the underworld, crawling out of chasms that lead into the depths. Images of repulsive snakes slithering from out of the ground may point to the emergence of sexual instinct. A ‘beastly’ snake that is found dead or mangled may represent loss of instinct. A caged snake may represent repression of instinct.

Not all snakes from the underworld represent primitive instincts. I have seen dreams of multicolored glimmering snakes emerging from the underworld. Such dreams might represent the emergence of creative psychic energy or the emergence of energy from the creative unconscious. Dreams of a beautiful and luminous snake crawling up a tree (image of the Self) might represent the emergence of creative energy as well.

When we are working to develop a spiritual interpretation of a dream, it is important to note the nature of the individual and of the culture. For some the snake is a frightful image of primitive instinct, for others an image of creative or spiritual energy. For others still, an image of emergent Self-knowledge.

In some dreams, snakes present themselves as a guides, showing us the winding path forward in life. For some the path forward would be precarious and for others full of promise. Murphy tells the story of the Algonquians.

“The Algonquians practice the yuneha, a snake dance that represented a snake shaped constellation, and they believed that the road to the afterlife was a bridge made from a giant serpent that could be crossed only by the faithful.” (p.11)

This myth points to a more spiritual or cosmic meaning of the snake. In the myth ‘only the faithful’ may cross. This is another indication that serpent dreams in particular must be interpreted in relation to the spiritual nature and spiritual faith of the dreamer. A snake for one person may speak to the ‘fall of mankind’ and for another it may be an image of ‘crossing over’ into greater Self-knowledge.

For a dedicated spiritual seeker, a presentation of the cosmic form of the snake may be a sign that one is making contact with the sacred nature of the Self. Images of a comic snake or thousand headed snake point to the psychic frontiers of Self-realization. A snake at the entrance to a cave might represent instincts as gatekeepers, as that which must be mastered in order to go deeper into Self-knowledge. A thousand headed snake would most surely be an image of profound Self-knowledge presenting in a dream.

In the dream presented at the beginning of this article, we find a rather cosmic form of the snake: ‘spanning miles’. It is important to note that this image is coupled with a hermit who tells the dreamer she cannot rest (camp) in the golden hills. The dreamer must go on. In this context, the dream may be an image of the potential for Self-realization. The dreamer must not rest content with their current level of knowledge, but go deeper into the heart of the matter. This will take a capacity to dream the cosmic serpent, as the creative power and life force energy of the instinct.

The creation of Adam and Eve in Paradise. From the Det Kongelige Bibliotek
The creation of Adam and Eve in Paradise. US Public Domain, Wikimedia

References:

  1. A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History By John Dowson
  2. Dream dictionary: a guide to dreams and sleep experiences by Tony Crisp – 1991
  3. Myths and Traditions in India: A Fusion of the Past and by Prabhakar Patil
  4. The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1)