Finding the Inner Serpent
Finding the Inner Serpent
Becoming a Snake Priestess
by Le’ema Kathleen Graham
Gazing up at an alabaster statue of the Virgin Mary as a young Catholic schoolgirl, my training with the Goddess began. Fascinated with the serpent at Her feet, it seemed friendly, rather than the foe the Church said it represented. The Virgin was supposed to be stamping out evil, but the serpent looked alive and happy.
Frequent warnings about the hazards of rattlesnakes in the desert outside my home increased my curiosity. I never developed the fear of snakes or their association with evil that the Church and my parents tried to instill. Instead, I became intrigued with this most maligned creature of the animal kingdom.
Several years into a career as a classical dancer of ballet, modern, East Indian Kathak and Middle Eastern belly dance, snakes began to permeate my consciousness. Frequently I would dream of serpents. While studying with Sufi master Adnan Sarhan, I had a vision of Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess, Mother of All. She appeared to me gloriously resplendent with snakes entwined in her crescent moon and sun disc crown, with the Uraeus, (golden cobra) springing from her forehead. She asked me to make a dance in her honor. That was the beginning of awakening into my priestess self, and the first solo in my repertory of Healing Goddess Dances.
Dancing with the Serpent Power
In 1987, I choreographed a duet with my husband and dance partner called “Kundalini Rising,” based on the divine lovers, Shiva and Shakti. This piece illustrates how the kundalini moves in the body up the spine like a snake. In Hinduism, shakti kundalini or (sacred life force) is seen as a cobra coiled at the base of the spine. When awakened, this serpent power moves up the spine, healing, clearing, and transmuting energy blocks. It is sexual, primal energy in the lower chakras that becomes awakened in the upper chakras as love, knowledge and wisdom. The practice of sexual, tantric lovemaking between two people as an act of meditation is one way to awaken and channel the kundalini energy for personal healing.
In 1989, after attending a Goddess Conference in New York with Merlin Stone, I became inspired by the Sumerian snake goddess Nidaba, and decided I wanted to dance with a snake. Although I had never seen a snake dancer before, it was as if something ancient was calling to be reborn in me. I became a snake keeper and a snake dancer with my spiritual focus on the Great Mother Goddess. Intuitively, I knew that this was a date with destiny and that my dance career would never be the same. I performed with my royal python, Nidaba, for the first time when I was nine months pregnant with my son, who was born in the Chinese “Year of the Snake.” Not surprisingly, I am born in the“Year of the Dragon”, another form of the snake. The dragon, or fiery serpent with wings, is also known as the angelic host of the Seraphim in the Bible.
After studying the Minoan culture of Crete, I was inspired by the Minoan Snake Priestesses. The Minoan snake priestesses were always shown holding a serpent in each hand. I began dancing with another python, Monty, and found that belly dancing with two snakes was even better than one. I felt an electromagnetic current move through my body that was exhilarating. The two snakes held by the Minoan Priestesses represent the polarized nature of all energies and the unification of these polarities within the body. The kundalini has two channels as it travels up the spine, the ida and the pingala, lunar and solar, or feminine and masculine. This energy formed the basis for snake dancing as a spiritual practice.
Dancing Deeper with Snake Power
I belly danced in trance with Nidaba and Monty pythons, invoking the spirit of the Minoan snake priestess, at a benefit for the National Film Board of Canada to raise funds for The Goddess Remembered films by Donna Read with Starhawk.
Later, I was invited to perform again for the National Film Board of Canada. With Nidaba hugging my stomach under my veils, I danced as the Black Madonna, liberator of the oppressed. The Black Madonna teaches us that suppression is but yet another form of illusion keeping us from the jewel of the true self. In this piece, I am wrapped in a turquoise, blue silk veil over my belly dance costume, and then completely covered with a black lace veil. As I enter, my energy is subdued, cloaked by the veil of darkness. Gradually, the veils come off, revealing me with her, my animal familiar, the snake. The veils disappear. The snake and I dance as one. I feel myself uplifted, transformed into an androgynous being. I am neither male nor female, but a unified essence of self. A doorway opens for me into the ancient mysteries of life.
Through my priestess eyes, I perceive the veil of the belly dancer as the symbol of Divine Mother’s message of impermanence. Life is full of change; nothing stays the same. The veil swirls, continually changing shape and form, hiding, obscuring or revealing the dancer’s body. Even the Hindu goddess Maya creates by manifesting through various forms of illusion.
When we mature spiritually, we drop these illusions, as depicted in the dance of the seven veils. Babylonian Ishtar, Sumerian Innana, Hebrew/Greek Salome, Tibetan Tara, and Mother Mary all teach the universal truth of dissolving our ephemeral veils of illusion to find our soul essence. The snake sheds its skin as an act of regeneration, sloughing off what is dead and no longer useful. Perpetually renewing themselves, the goddess and the snake teach us about the immortality of the soul.
In the summer of 1995, my journey with snakes took a new turn along the spiral path. I began going deeper into the shamanic core of snake power. The modern dancer in me put my belly dance costume aside and created a snake costume from a unitard. Face and arms painted like a snake, I danced with my two pythons as the serpent herself. A combination of meditative music, and the undulating, long, slow stretching movements of this dance, allowed a sweetness to enter my body that I had never known before. My spirit merged with the soul of the serpent, and I was forever changed.
Letting the Snake Dance the Priestess
Since that potent experience, I rarely perform with snakes in an Oriental costume. I began to notice how some dancers used their snakes as a prop, similar to a feather boa just wrapped around their neck, or they bring them out of a basket to display them as a curio/side show. This seemed disrespectful to the animals, as the creatures were being used as a gimmick to grab attention—objectified, rather than treated with the respect they deserve as a powerful totem animal.
The serpent is not only my personal totem, but the universal totem for all women. Because the snake sheds its skin with open eyes, it witnesses its own death and rebirth experience. During a woman’s menstruation, as she sheds the lining of her uterus, she too is consciously bearing witness to a death and rebirth experience. Symbolically, the serpent as our collective power animal is as strong an image as a religious icon, and to be treated with the utmost respect
Rather than choreographing a dance with the snakes, I began to experiment within the dance by allowing the energy of my snakes as sentient beings to move me. The costume evolved into a full body suit painted as a python. I invoke and embody the Goddess Lamia, Libyan snake goddess who comes up from the bowels of the earth to enlighten the people. There is no set choreography; rather, I improvise with the snakes as my guides, my teachers. I do not smile and try to entertain the audience with the coquettish ways of Oriental dance. I simply breathe deeply with my snakes in a meditative state, allowing their energy to shape and design the dance with the qualities of a sublime yoga practice. Sometimes, I simply sit down in a meditation pose, while the snakes slither around me. My spine radiates with aliveness like an electric wire, a snake standing upright.
It often feels as if the knowledge and wisdom of Gaia herself comes pouring through me. Filled with humility and quiet awe, I allow the gentle gliding of the snakes to dance me. It is beyond words, it is beyond performance, it is a healing. It is at once transpersonal and other worldly, and yet earthy and real. Visceral both to me and an audience, the dance evolves into a shamanic journey with snake for everyone present. The double helix spirals of my DNA quiver with awakening, and I begin to remember other lifetimes as a snake priestess. More than anything, I feel blessed, honored and privileged to be a channel for such pure energy, for the truth. The truth is that many of us in industrialized society, whether we know it or not, are longing for a return to the natural, instinctual resonance of our beings.
I believe the serpent in the Garden of Eden was with Eve, the first woman, as an ally, not as a seducer of evil. The serpent told Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge so that she could sustain life on this planet by understanding the truth. Knowledge of good and evil is absolutely necessary for survival, not only of the body, but of the soul itself. How would we ever become enlightened and find the key to immortality if we were ignorant of the truth? Ignorance is not bliss, it is misery; it is illusion at its best. Life, death, and rebirth is the truth. This is the teaching of the wise serpent whose mythological association is with physical and spiritual health.
The Serpent’s Healing Power
Snakes have a great healing power, which is why we still see them in the caduceus symbol in the medical industry today. The caduceus, Hermes staff with two serpents intertwined around it (the kundalini), came from ancient Egypt, belonging to the God Thoth/Tehuti, the ibis-headed healer and scribe of the people. One of its uses was to help women in childbirth; the undulating movement of the snake is similar to labor contractions.
I remember that during the labor and delivery of my son, the uterine contractions seemed very similar to the strong, squeezing movements of my python. Pythons are non-venomous. They kill their prey by constriction. Constrictors are so swift to kill that their prey don’t even know what hit them. Contractions came so quickly, I didn’t know what hit me. I had only two choices: I could resist the natural process of the body and create more pain for myself, or I could remember to relax and breathe through my whole body between contractions.
Snakes are the greatest teachers of the breath. They breathe with their entire body. Every vertebra reverberates with life force of the breath. From the top of their head to the tip of their tail, snakes inhale fully and deeply. It is a most exquisite meditation to hold a snake, synchronize my breathing with theirs, and feel the healing power of the breath. As a yogini and sacred dancer, I have learned that to be fully present in the moment is to be in the breath. When I remember to breathe deeply, my thoughts, feelings, and emotions align. Breath is the key to higher states of consciousness and good health. Some of my deepest meditations have occurred while sitting with my snakes. It is these inter-species communications with snakes that have led me to my work as a snake priestess.
Last year during an illness, reconnecting to my primal, reptilian energies helped heal me. My thyroid was out of balance, and I was so fatigued that I couldn’t dance or do my regular yoga practice. The snake guided me to create a new form of yoga that I call Snake Yoga.
This practice designed itself for the revitalization of the body through appropriate direction of the kundalini energy. It includes a specific snake breath that is deeply relaxing and nourishing. The postures are snake-like, on the belly or the back, with inversions and back bends. Each pose embodies the waveform of snake energy. Ouroboros, Rainbow Serpent, Caduceus, Serpent on the Tree of Life, and Sphinx are names of some of the poses.
It is a much richer experience for me to practice yoga focusing on my spine as a snake. The breath deepens, quieting the mind, allowing the self to sense the subtle body. I am not just moving muscle and bone in these postures. The kundalini can be felt circulating through my whole body.
The Snake Priestess in Every Woman
I am a priestess. I was ordained in the Temple of Isis and I serve the goddess Isis in her aspect as Hathor, goddess of love, music, dance, and pleasure. I dance with snakes. I teach and practice healing of body, mind and spirit through sacred dance.
I believe that a snake priestess lives inside every woman. She is that purely instinctual aspect of the self. She is the key to our survival as healthy, vibrant, whole women during these radically shifting times. She is the power behind living in our truth, as well as the power behind the choices and changes we make in our lives. It is now time for us to live more authentically with an acute awareness of the relationship between the environment and our bodies. Finding our inner snake can help us do this. Let us return to Eve’s garden-to the embodied wholeness of the Wise Serpent.
In addition to her work with serpent power as a snake keeper and sacred dancer, Le’ema Kathleen Graham is also a belly dancer, yogini, mystic and medicine woman, with expertise in the field of somatics. She has a B.F.A. in dance/theater arts, and twenty years experience on stage, television and film, and is internationally recognized in the Goddess movement. She is working on a book documenting her experiences. Le’ema lives with her husband and ten-year-old son and teaches in San Rafael, CA. www.snakeyoga.com