by K Lenore Siner
A visit to my room at Witch City Ink often prompts people to ask me “What is up with the snakes?” They are in the artwork on my walls, scattered around the room in line sheets of future and finished tattoos, a snake print leather covers my tattoo chair – not to mentioned that they are tattooed all over my body. The question is always met with a pause and a smile; when it comes to myth, symbolism and my personal story there isn’t anything I would rather share about.
Symbols have intrinsic, seeping power. Spend time with one and it will leave its mark on you the way spending time around a fire leaves you smelling of smoke.
Snake is connected to transformation, creation, wisdom, healing, the underworld, the circle, the spiral, the element of water and both death and eternal life. Snakes are an important part of the myth and symbolism of cultures around the world. There are dozens of serpent gods and hundreds of stories where they are featured. They show up as beneficent, troublesome, evil and sometimes a mix of all three. With such a rich history of myth and symbolism there is no way for me to do justice to it all. However, I would like to share a bit of why I personally love the snake as a totem and some reflections on why you might want to incorporate it into your next intentional tattoo.
I got my first snake tattoo more than a decade ago after participating in a woman’s initiatory ritual that involved a group of us building and walking a labyrinth (more on labyrinths here). At the labyrinth’s center was a woman holding a large, live python. As I took my turn walking the labyrinth I wondered what I should do when I reached this personification of the Divine in the center – should I kneel? Should I say something important? What do you do when you have the chance to meet god?
I kept taking the path and getting closer and still didn’t know. When I arrived in the center I felt something inside me shift and I stood up a bit straighter. I looked her in the eyes with that huge snake twisting around her neck and shoulders and I knew in that instant that there was no other choice but that – to meet her dead on, eye to eye, as an equal.
Meeting the snake priestess was my first experience of knowing my own divinity and it was an event that changed my life, enough so that I immediately went and got my first snake tattoo, to remember myself as divine through wearing the symbol of that experience in my skin.
Symbols are alive. Just like us they have different moods and manners depending on what they are in relation to. And just like us they are evolving and changing. As we develop a relationship with a symbol we write our own personal story with it.
Being raised in Christian culture, the earliest snake myth I ever heard was that of Eve in the garden being “tempted” by the snake. Here is a version of the story:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened.
Now I know this story is supposed to be about original sin and all that crap, but when I read it I cant help but think that this was a moment of empowerment! The snake shows up and directs Eve to consider that she has been given misinformation, she looks for herself and sees value in something that she had in the past ignored and when she engages it she becomes “like God”. This is not a story of sin, but a story of finding ones true will, and the power that goes with that – and the snake led the way.
In light of this myth, snake is connected to the acquisition of personal power and wisdom, specifically in the areas that we are told are dangerous or should be left alone. It is about listening to our intuition and acting on what we see as good and valuable – not just what we are told is true – and the transformation we encounter when we act on those impulses.
Another story – I had the terrifying pleasure of getting far too close to a rattlesnake while harvesting blue vervain in the hills of South Dakota a few years ago. I was out hiking miles away from any road or home and as I bent down to cut a plant I heard that distinct rattle sound from under a shrub a foot away. I was immediately still, focused, present and very aware of my heart beat, my life, as I backed slowly away.
In the presence of that snake, I got to feel the awe of being one false move away from a painful death. What has great power to transform has the power to destroy. In that, snake is not an easy friend. It means to invite death, to let go with each skin shed towards becoming the next version of us and its lessons often come to us as venom, the drop of poison that cures.
In the vast history of snake myth and meaning, these are my personal connections. So if you ask me “What is up with the snakes” the short story is that I love tattooing them as a reminder to embrace our divinity, follow our intuition even when it is contrary to what we have been taught in order to gain wisdom and power and to be able to come to terms with fear, death and letting go in service of our own transformation.
Do you have a snake tattoo that holds a particular intention for you? A favorite snake myth or personal story? I would love for you to share! Thinking of incorporating snake symbolism into your next tattoo? You know I would be more than happy to help, message me at @snakeoclock or call Witch City to set up a consult.