Communion with the Serpent: Confronting Fear, Developing Reverence

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Photo Credit: Matt Stansberry, "Twin Spirits"

Trail running in late August can be miserable in the southeast. 

It was one of these kinds of days. A cloud of biting insects buzzed my neck, sucked the moisture from my eyes. The woods felt claustrophobic and dark, the heat and humidity rose from the damp ground.

In August, the dog star Sirius rises at dawn, marking the arrival of the Dog Days. The Dog Days coincide with the feast day of St. Guinefort, a French nobleman’s beatified dog that was mistakenly slain by its master. The nobleman found the dog covered in blood in his infant son’s room and had the dog killed. But he later found that the dog had been bloodied killing a viper that threatened the boy.

I scanned the ground obsessively as I ran. Ever since moving to the southeastern United States, I have spent some part of every single day preoccupied with anxiety about venomous snakes. And all of those moments led to this climax. 

The snake never moved a muscle. The serpent’s thick body bulged out at the sides like a flat tire, scales glinting in the patchy light on the trail. I launched myself into the air backwards, breaking midstride in my run, maybe a half-second before I would have stepped on the snake. My response was likely pre-conscious, autonomic. Primatologist Lynne Isbell writes in The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well, that humans respond physiologically to photos of snakes without being aware they had even seen the image. 

The copperhead stared ahead with its nose titled up, vertical pupil contracted to a tiny slit. The snake’s coloration blended perfectly with the spent leaves of the forest floor. The hunting strategy for the copperhead is to sit and wait, and they are unlikely to flee an approaching jogger. I imagined how close I came to stepping on this snake, practically invisible in the tan leaves. Frozen, the snake and I stared at each other. Both of us had much to lose if the encounter went awry.

Local news reports feature dozens of instances of people killing copperheads every year out of fear or sadistic impulses. And copperheads are responsible for more venomous bites than any other American snake. In North Carolina between 2013-2015, there were 2,080 snakebite related emergency medical situations. Over 90% of those bites were from copperheads. They are a snake that can get by in the city. In the densely populated Mecklenburg County surrounding Charlotte, copperheads bit 69 people in 2017. That was the year the Washington Post ran the story about a woman, bitten inside a Long Horn Steakhouse in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In June 2019, a man was bit reaching for a copperhead in a park in Patterson, New Jersey—less than twenty miles from Times Square in Manhattan. As cities like Raleigh and Dallas expand and we further sprawl into snake habitat, we will encounter one other. 

The copperhead has comparatively weak venom compared to a rattlesnake. But the aftereffects of the bite are incredibly painful. The venom is full of hemotoxins, which start to digest the affected tissue. Your flesh swells and then dissolves. Fewer than a dozen people die each year from snakebite in the United States, but tissue loss or amputation is a real possibility.  

And yet, I find myself perversely attracted to snakes. As much as I’ve dreaded this moment, the anticipation of our meeting isn’t wholly unwanted. Something was drawing me to this point. 

I look at the copperhead the way I often find myself leaning over a cliff, half-drunk with the possibility of falling. 

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Biologists will point out how much more likely you are to get run over in a mall parking lot than you are to die from snakebite. Or how much more likely you are to be crushed by a vending machine than eaten by a shark. Experts use statistics to convince a fearful public to stop needlessly killing beautiful, wild animals. But to state that a venomous snakebite categorically is not a serious risk to public health is ethnocentric and classist. In the United States, typically fewer than ten people per year die from snakebite, but venomous serpents kill 100,000 people annually, worldwide. In Asia and Africa, highly dangerous snake populations overlap with subsistence farmers who lack access to footwear and antivenom.

Also, to deny or ignore our inborn fear of snakes, and the danger they represent, strips something potent from our world. Harry Greene is one of the few herpetologists to address our inborn fear and repulsion. “Serpents strike from hiding, inflict pain, digest us from the inside out,” Greene writes in Tracks and Shadows, a memoir of his career as a field biologist. “Studying predators, I contemplated violence without evil, death without tragedy, as if when their fangs pierced another creature, I might accept my own simmering losses… as if confronting their deadly essence might solve more private riddles.” 

Most violent human-snake encounters are not meetings between predator-prey, but antagonistic responses to random collisions. Run-ins with venomous snakes are humans’ most common encounters with potentially dangerous animals. I imagine the horror of watching a child suffer from a venomous snakebite without antivenin—the burning wound, flesh swelling monstrously, cell walls weakening, blood vessels leaking, sweating and vomiting as the organs shut down. 

We can endure almost any pain if it is imbued with meaning. We use religion to transform seemingly arbitrary horrors like this into a coherent worldview. Serpents embody the ambivalent forces of nature that underlie our earliest cosmologies. Rather than denying or dismissing our fear, we should sit with this relationship and understand it. 

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Biologically speaking, fear of snakes may have made us fully human. We have been uneasily embracing each other for millions of years, as kin. Our desires and fears drive our co-evolution. It is not a stretch to say that ophidiophobia sparked the development of human consciousness: our ability to create art, read these words, think these thoughts. The serpent bestows knowledge. 

Nature is full of predator-prey adaptative one-upmanship. The evolutionary arms race between serpents and mammals predates anthropogenesis. Placental mammals’ earliest adversaries had been serpents, more so than raptors or carnivorans. Herpetologists theorize that snakes evolved large gapes—the ability to swallow larger prey—to take advantage of mammals as a food source. As for humans, a fear module of neural networks in mammalian brains evolved to react to elongate shapes and repetitive chevron patterns, triggering vigilance and alarm. There are common reports of non-primate mammals—everything from deer, goats, cows, horses—trampling snakes to death on purpose, displaying a deep ancestral mammalian fear. 

“Snakes had existed for 20 million years when the first lemur-like primates emerged,” writes Greene. “By the time bipedal apes began roaming the Pliocene African Savannas, roughly four million years ago, interest in and dread of snakes was already acute, preceding the use of fire, art and language.” Now anthropologists suggest that acute dread may be causally tied to our development of art and language. Isbell writes that primates are better at preconsciously detecting non-moving predators than other mammals. We anthropoids are especially good at spotting objects against a cluttered background. “I can’t think of any other object in the lower visual field that would have been more difficult to see, and more unforgiving if missed,” Isbell writes of venomous serpents. 

The visual acuity required to spot snakes required bigger cranial capacity and enabled the development of our oversized brains. The need to communicate hidden danger likely spurred the behavior of declarative pointing, a precursor toward the development of language. The co-evolutionary theory goes a long way towards explaining the prevalence of serpents in humanity’s origin stories in religion and myth around the world. 

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The ancient world teems with holy snakes. The most visible, from a Western standpoint, would be the serpent in the Garden of Eden. 

In the book of Genesis, at the emergence of humankind and the very creation of the world, a serpent more crafty than any other animal the Lord God had made emerges from the vegetation to tell Eve, the first woman, that she would not die from eating fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge in the middle of the holy garden. Rather, by eating that fruit she would become like God. 

She eats the fruit, gives some to her partner Adam, and then their eyes are opened. God finds the pair hiding in the garden in shame, learns what has happened and curses the snake, claiming man will forever crush the serpent’s head and the snake will strike man’s heel. God banishes them from the garden, but Eve’s special punishment echoes Isbell’s theme of dangerous serpents driving a gradual evolutionary increase of human cranial capacity. God punishes Eve by intensifying the pain of childbirth. Human babies’ oversized skulls are commonly too big to fit through their mother’s birth canal, causing great risk to mother and infant. 

Yet to live mutually cursed—humans and serpents—by an angry god is not the only story. The history of snakes in sacred cosmologies goes back much further than the Old Testament: to the chthonic serpents winding around the world trees of various ancient cultures; to Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent god of the Aztecs; to the beasts like the Babylonian goddess Tiamat, a primordial serpent slain by Marduk, hewed in half to form heaven and earth.  

My own religious upbringing was so focused on the story of the serpent in the garden, I did not have any context to understand the much broader symbolism and meaning found in our relationship with snakes. So I called my friend Gordon White, an Australian chaos magician and author living in the land of the most dangerous venomous snakes on the planet, to help me balance fear with reverence. 

“When you see snakes moving through dirt or sand, you see the shapes left behind look like landforms, mountain ranges, river valleys. You have the snake as a stand-in for geological processes,” White said. “But more importantly, the snakes are present in the inner journey of shamanic practitioners. The morphic snake-shaped patterns are part of a shared experience of humans taking entheogens, DMT, and psilocybin. The snake is the facilitator of the interior journey.” We discussed how indigenous Australians have worshiped a rainbow serpent creator god for 50,000 years, and how the earliest ritual action for which we have any archeological evidence is the worship of a giant snake. 

In 2006, University of Oslo archeologists discovered a cave in Botswana where ancestors of the modern San tribespeople performed rituals for a snake deity 70,000 years ago, sacrificing 13,000 spear points to a carved stone python. “The python is one of the San’s most important animals. According to their creation myth, mankind descended from the python and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water,” writes Yngve Vogt, in the science journal Apollon

Serpent rituals are still held to this day, in places that might seem unlikely to foment a cult of the serpent. The rattlesnake roundups in Texas have all the features of a highly sacred, orgiastic ritual. Hunters at the notorious Sweetwater Jaycees Rattlesnake Roundup gather thousands of Western Diamondback Rattlers each spring over a few days in March. The live vipers are kept in a pit, where high school beauty queens will behead them, skin them for garments, milk their venom, paint a wall with their blood, and eat the serpents. The small town’s community leaders tout the ritual as vital to continued prosperity of the town. It is an ecological nightmare, and a blatant display of performative animal cruelty. But this is also a modern snake cult thriving in the heart of the Bible Belt. 

Our sense of what is holy is tied to what we fear. Serpents strike at the heart of the religious impulse. There is a flash of pain in my chest when even a harmless garter snake wriggles across my path. And yet, after the initial shock I am calm in the presence of live snakes. The adrenaline rush subsides, and I am enraptured. 

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On a trail in the days after my encounter with the copperhead, I found a black rat snake slowly cruising along the woods. My heart skipped when I saw her, and then I got down on my hands and knees and followed alongside, moving amiably in parallel over the forest floor. I stared into her liquid black eye, studied the white scales under her chin as she sniffed the base of a tree like a dog. 

I wanted to reach out and touch her body but held back. The sinuous movement, the intricate scale patterns, the texture of its muscle, the flickering bifid tongue—the serpent is sensually pleasing. You don’t need to be a Freudian to intuit how snakes represented fertility to our ancestors. 

Despite the massive difference in our morphology, we speak a shared language. You know when a snake feels threatened, and when she does not. Snakes seem to be flickering outposts of consciousness within that greater fabric of life, with minds like our own. A snake has a sense of herself, and a sense of you as well. 

Fear is a valid and common response to facing something sacred. Rather than invalidating that fear with statistics, we would be better served to explore what is beyond that fear. Might we find relief or joy to encounter some separate, non-human intelligence that will not submit to our ego, to remind us that we have boundaries we should not cross? 

Perhaps we can find more meaning in our lives if we were to recognize the dualistic role of serpents, our mythical co-creators throughout existence. Each encounter with a snake is an opportunity to consider our shared journey, to feel awe, to make meaning from these interactions to help us keep the sacred and profane present in our minds. 

There are so few opportunities to sit with wild creatures, to have them so close at hand as to look each other in the eye. As my heart slowed and the fear subsided with this snake just a few feet away, moving slowly, I felt euphoric joy in the presence of this profoundly beautiful animal.  

The serpent, our partner going back since the beginning, is still trying to expand our minds. They would show us how fear and joy are co-existent. They would have us learn to pay attention, to respect boundaries, and to face our fears with compassion. 

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