Snakes have been considered sacred in Greece and the Balkans, as well as other cultures, since at least 7000 BCE. They are symbols of rebirth and regeneration, as they travel between our world and the world below, disappear and re-emerge from the earth in spring, and shed their skins in seasonal renewal.
The Cretan Snake Goddess from Knossos (ca 1600 BCE) stands serenely with serpents wrapped around her body, showing how snakes were considered benevolent and were revered, not feared. Snakes are also powerful symbols of healing. Recently, I had an extraordinary experience of ‘serpent healing’ after a serious injury.
Friends of mine run a yoga retreat centre in Mani, Greece, called The Spirit of Life, where their son keeps a number of snakes including a beautiful Royal Python named Monty. Monty and I have met on several occasions over the years, and whenever I have spent time holding him, I have felt a sense of great peace and calm. More than that, Monty has shown an uncanny ability to move directly to places of tension in my shoulders, and to gently yet firmly massage sore muscles in a soothing way.
Therefore, on a recent visit, I decided to let Monty go wherever he wanted, just to see where he might choose to move. I had had quite a bad fall from my bicycle several weeks before, resulting in multiple injuries, to my back and to my right elbow, hand, rib, shoulder, calf and foot.
First Monty went straight to my right elbow and spent quite a long time circling around it.
Next Monty wrapped himself around my right hand for several minutes.
After that he moved down the outside of my right leg,
and fully embraced my right lower leg. He stayed here for at least twenty minutes.
Next Monty spent half an hour attending to my right foot and ankle, where he was very active, circling and massaging the whole ankle and foot.
Monty continued with long visits to the ribs, shoulder and upper back. All of the places he gave his attention to were the exact places where I had been injured.
After more than two hours together, I seemed to feel him inform me that the healing session was over. He curled up into his usual ball shape and appeared to go to sleep. I felt very well afterwards, and since that day I have been remarkably free of much of the pain which had lingered since my accident. I am calling Monty’s healing technique Ophiotherapia, from Ophis, the ancient Greek word for serpent.
I find it interesting that Monty paid no attention at all to the uninjured parts of my body. My partner Kostantis’ theory is that injured areas, which tend to be inflamed, are just a tiny bit warmer than surrounding areas, and therefore might appeal to a warmth-seeking snake.
But it doesn’t really matter. Whatever the reason for Monty’s attention to my injuries, I found his presence to be tremendously helpful. We know that in ancient Greece, snakes were kept in temples for purposes of ceremony, healing and divination; in temples to Asclepius, the deity of healing, seekers slept a healing sleep in chambers where snakes moved around freely.
Numerous archaeological finds show priestesses holding sacred snakes, like the feature image. My own theory about this priestess’ tall headgear is that the snakes would have been taken from their cool homes in a torpid, nonmoving state, and placed inside the conical headdress. The heat of the priestess’s movements throughout the ceremony – in my imagination, particularly through dance – would eventually warm the snake and inspire it to awaken, emerge and move around the priestess’s body as depicted on this and similar votive figures.
I tried this once on a previous visit when we placed a sleeping Monty atop my hat while I was drinking tea with his caretakers…but he continued to snooze quite peacefully on my head. I guess he did not feel like moving around that day. Next time I shall try dancing.
Mani is a remote area of the southern Peloponnese, the closest part of the Greek mainland to the western tip of Crete. Christianity was established very late in Mani, after the twelfth century, and many archaic, pre-Christian customs remain, including the use of the serpent motif as a symbol of protection for the home, as seen on this 17th-C ceramic tile from Kardamyli.
My wise friend Niki, now in her seventies, keeps the old custom of welcoming and feeding a ‘house snake.’ It’s a wild snake, which visits daily; Niki gives it a bowl of fresh goat milk on her doorstep, and the snake sheds its skin by her door in exchange. Many herb women in Mani use shed snake skins for medicinal purposes.
They also make a delicacy for festivals, little cakes in the shape of snakes, just as women used to do in antiquity:
One of the few traditional dances still alive in the Mani region is the Tsakonikos, which features serpentine movements. One of the most ancient Greek dances, it is often danced by women only, following a pattern which spirals in and out, like the spiral motif found all over both ancient and modern Greece. This example is from an Cretan woven ritual cloth:
Both the spiral and the serpent symbolises life leading into death and again into life – the journey of healing and transformation.
This has been my journey too, at numerous times in my life, and again since my recent accident. I have had to go within, to a place of literal stillness, when at first it was not possible to walk at all, and then I could only walk with considerable pain and difficulty. After my serpent-healing session, I could walk without pain for the first time in two months. I am very grateful to Monty and his ancient gift, which helped bring me out of the still centre and back into the movement of life.
My heartfelt thanks to Monty and his devoted caretakers – and to our ancestors in ceremony, dance and animal communication who have left so many inspiring traces for us to follow. Thanks also to Carol Christ for bringing me close to the ancient serpent goddesses on her Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (www.goddessariadne.org) and for encouraging me to write about my experience of serpent healing.
Laura Shannon © 2014
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth.