This was originally posted on October 38, 2014
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
BIO Laura Shannon is one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), holds an M.A. in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred from Canterbury Christ Church University (2020), and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucester (U.K.). Her research in Balkan dance highlights out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura is a longtime faculty member of the Sacred Dance department of the Findhorn eco-spiritual community in Scotland, an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild, Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, and Carol P. Christ’s choice to succeed her as Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications. Laura lives in Greece and the UK.
7 thoughts on “From the Archives: Serpent Healing by Laura Shannon”
Monty Python. I love it! Seriously, your description of your encounter with Monty is fascinating. Dr. Python. You had a fabulous healing adventure. That’s good. And I also enjoyed reading your history of snakes and how people used to honor them instead of treating them like scary vermin. Thanks for the history, too, and bright blessings to all your work.
Here in Costa Rica, coral snakes are symbols for shamans, as well as birds and butterflies because they can fly or dwell in other worlds. I loved the article and I also love Greece! I hope to return in 2023.
Laura, thanks for this fresh take on the snake. Much of my life work has been connected with snakes and i also had a boa constrictor for a while. I called my hands-on healing work “snake power” and published a magazine by that name in 1989-90. I have analogized women to snakes, as we shed the lining of the uterus every month; thus we are natural shamans practicing death and renewal regularly. Happy to see another woman (and another generation) taking a serious interest in the subject. Warmly, Vicki
Dear Vicki, I remember Snake Power!! And maybe 30 years ago, I remember seeing a gorgeous photo of you from behind with your python around your shoulders. I don’t remember where I came across it – was it in your Snake Power magazine or perhaps in WomanSpirit? – but in any case, this photo of you moved and inspired me very profoundly. In that same phase of my life, in the early 90s, I was living in London. One spring day, when I had recently returned from my first trip to Crete and was vibrating with the mystery of the snake priestess and Goddess figures there, I happened to encounter a 7-foot python on the street near Hampstead Heath. Bystanders had seen it emerge through the cat flap of a nearby house, and the snake was heading into the busy street with speed and purpose, but nobody had the courage to pick it up and keep it safe. *Because I had seen your photo* I was moved to rescue the python, to lift it in my hands (heavy!!) and keep it with me on the steps of the house until its human owner arrived about half an hour later. I remember that it moved in constant action, so that I had to keep directing its movement around my body to keep it with me, in a kind of dance. This encounter was hugely significant to me because of what serpents symbolised to me in my dreamwork, painting, and dance research at the time, informed of course by your insights and those of Marija Gimbutas whose books were still new and fresh. Really, it was your photo with your python which empowered me to take the step to pick it up and save the snake. I always wanted to tell you how you had inspired me in that concrete way, and am glad to have this opportunity, 30 years later! It’s especially significant that it comes up right now (I did not know FAR was going to republish this archive post) as my father is dying – I have found it difficult to stay grounded in these days and really appreciate this reminder of the life, death, and regeneration cycle, symbolised by the snake. THANK YOU.
Reblogged this on Druid Reborn.
When I was in fifth grade, a boy brought his pet snake to school. On the way home, I begged to hold it which he let me do. A few more children gathered around, and one of them said, “Wow, she’s a girl, and she likes snakes!” I loved the feeling of the snake muscles curving and curling in my fingers. It remains an indelible memory that helped me to develop my young sense of self. I can feel the whole experience even now.