Lessons of Snakes

In the Greek city of Delphi, there is said to have been a marble temple where great numbers of snakes spent the night.  In the center of the temple floor was a hole.  Each day, legend says, the snakes slid down the hole and crawled around the underworld, where they gathered up the great truths that we can no longer understand—the truths of the past and of the future, how to raise the dead, and how to heal the sick.  When night came, they crawled from the hole, their bellies smooth against cool stone, and gathered in heaps on the temple floor, whispering to each other.  All night they whispered with their flickering tongues.  People passing by could hear the hiss of their voices but couldn’t make out their words.

One night, Queen Hecuba left her daughter Cassandra alone in the temple.  The small girl, her skin golden in moonlight, lay still among the glossy snakes, listening as only a child can listen, and learned the great truths that the snakes had brought up from the underworld.  What, I want to know, did they tell her?

Maybe this: that there was a time when humans could breathe love and danger, when we could breathe the shape of strawberries and the presence of children, when we could breathe lions and sweet tubers, when the whole effervescent world poured into our consciousness like music.  If the snakes’ story is of this loss, I’m not surprised that Cassandra stood by the city gates and tore her hair and howled.

Or maybe the snakes taught Cassandra the importance of backward-pointing teeth, to keep dying mice from crawling out of her throat.  Or maybe they taught her the secrets of constriction: Hold on tight.  Swallow everything whole.  Or, do not be surprised when your skin itches and you want to be shed of it—maybe this.  Snakes, licking a child’s ears clean and closing her eyes. Snakes, with their soft flanks, smoothing the hair off her forehead.  Whispering.  Listen: You cannot make your own warmth.  You must go to warmth, you must accept it. The fires long ago went out in Hades.  The underworld is damp and cold.  Whispering.  Hide your head under the coils of your body and stick out your tail; better to have your tail bitten off than your head.  Whispering.  You once were as wise as a snake.  You have forgotten so much more than you know.

But the cells hold their memories.

Do not be surprised that the return of the light lifts your spirits.  Do not be surprised that warmth on your back calms you and makes you glad.  Feel your spirits lift as the sun rises higher in the sky: this is part of you, this snaky gladness, part of who you have been for a million years. Find the warm places; do not expect them to come to you.  When you find them, stay there and be still. Be still and watchful.  In this quiet, taste the air.  Lick up the taste of it.  Listen.  Listen with the full length of your body against the ground.

-Kathleen Dean Moore from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature

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