The Serpent Dances
The Ancient Dance Partner
by Maya Karima (Keri Hikida)
Snakes strike fear into the heart of many. The evil serpent of the Adam and Eve tale, the asp that Cleopatra used to commit suicide, and the warning rattle of the venomous rattlesnake are just a few images easily accessible to the modern mind.
But the belly dancers who dance with snakes are another story. Speaking with some of these dancers revealed a great reverence, respect and sense of spiritual kinship with the oft-maligned reptile. Their reverence echoes a viewpoint held in ancient times: that of the snake as ally, healer, symbol of the goddess and her fertility, and an archetype of change, regeneration and spiritual attainment.
The snake as healing symbol seems to be a timeless archetype. The caduceus, the symbol of a snake entwined around a staff, has ancient origins and continues to be used as the sign of healing even today as the approved emblem for the American Medical Association. The symbol of the two-snake staff is used by the army medical and public health services.
An article in the Journal for the American Medical Association1 states:
Both archaeological and literary evidences indicate that in most ancient times a snake rod or staff was utilized in the craft of healing…Ancient Near Eastern documents cast the serpent in the role of one who possesses immortality and dispenses healing. In Israelite history during the reign of Hezekiah (circa 715 to 687 BC) the single serpent staff apparently had become an object of veneration and worship. In Greek stories related to Asklepios (the Graeco?Roman god of medicine) the snake is associated with his practice of medicine, and in the temples dedicated to him snakes were his assistants in providing healing services to all.
The Gnostic religious sect, which flourished in Egypt circa 250 BC to 400 AD, and whose influences were felt all over Western Asia, worshipped the serpent to whom they gave the name Chnoubis. He was looked upon as a god of healing and was symbolized by a mysterious emblem reminiscent of the serpent staff. Healing amulets with magical formulas were placed upon the body of the diseased and cures were effected in the name of the serpent-god Chnoubis.
Even older than these connotations is the relationship between the goddess and the serpent. Goddess worship was widespread before the advent of the major patriarchal religions. The changing of the seasons, planting and harvest times, and fertility were of primary importance, and all were associated with rebirth and regeneration, which the snake manifests symbolically in the shedding of its skin. The snake had numerous symbolical meanings in ancient pagan cultures but was most commonly associated with fertility. According to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford in The Myth of the Goddess2, the serpent, with its fluid shape and movement, came to symbolize the dynamic power of waters beyond, beneath and around the earth and appears in many different mythologies as the creative source or generator of the universe. In Sumerian myth Nammu, the great serpent goddess of the abyss, gives birth to earth and heaven. And in Bronze Age myths the serpent was imagined as the consort of the goddess, who unites with her to bring fertility to the earth.
Factual evidence in the form of ancient figurines and various forms of artwork frequently feature goddesses with snakes. In images of the goddess in every culture the serpent is never far away, standing behind her, eating from her hand, entwined in her tree or in the shape of the goddess herself.3 Two very old images of the Mother Goddess and her child were found in the Sumerian cities of Ur and Uruk, both having the heads of snakes. A third century B.C. terra-cotta relief of Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest, pictures Demeter holding wheat and snakes in each hand. One of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics for goddess was the serpent, and Isis, the great Goddess of Egypt worshiped for over 3,000 years, was sometimes seen as a serpent.
In the Western world, it was only after the goddess–worshipping pagan religions were replaced by the patriarchal Christianity that the snake was converted into a symbol of evil, as personified by the tale of Adam and Eve.
Modern-day snake dancers, however, continue to dance with nonpoisonous snakes—usually one of a wide variety of pythons or constrictors. Though some use snakes to inject novelty into their performance, others utilize them for healing and spiritual purposes, echoing the important symbolic position held by the serpent in the older Goddess religions.
Serpents have always been a symbol of feminine power and wisdom, said Suzanne Kali Shakti Copeland, a Studio City-based hypnotherapist, makeup artist and belly dancer who dances with her snake, Osiris. The first time she danced with a snake it seemed like an old memory. It was as if it was something I’d always done, and it was very familiar to me, she said. She found that her dancing abilities were enhanced as well:
When I danced with a snake, the movements of the belly dance became understood in a deeper way. My muscles were taut and became synchronized with the deep muscular undulations that the snake makes. When he made those movements as he was holding onto my body, it translated immediately into my muscles and nervous system. My body understood how to make those movements and it became a very fluid, natural, easy comfortable movement in the body. The more I do it, the deeper and stronger the movements become.
Mésmera, another Los Angeles belly dancer, also felt compelled to dance with snakes.
I had an irresistible attraction to serpents because their movements are so exquisitely beautiful—the grace and coordination, the precision with which their muscular contraction allows them to undulate and move seemed so kindred to this dance. It’s such a beautiful, organic, feminine movement that I was very fascinated by it and very drawn to them. My art books depicted things from Crete and ancient Egypt and the serpent theme was often in them; women were holding, worshiping or dancing with snakes, so it made sense and came together for me in that way.
Mésmera said partnering with snakes in dance is also very calming, as their energy quality is very primordial and in a state of at-one-ment.
When you link your personal magnetic or etheric body with the snake and hold them there is a transference of energy there that is very calming, and many people have told her it brings them peace and comfort and reduces stress.
Kali Shakti uses her snake in healing for herself and in circles with other women.
The snake is like a transformer and indicator of energy, and it’s very easy to go into a trance or light meditative state when you’re holding a snake, provided that you meet with it on its terms. A snake prefers for you to be quiet. It will work with you if you are quiet and still and go slowly into a meditative state. If you’re agitated, angry or upset, or are having a very colorful conversation, the snake wants to go away, hide under your skirt or go back into the basket. Once you’re in the meditative state, moving and working with a snake can be different than doing other types of meditation, she said.
When you’re moving and grounded with your body and muscles in action and you’re in meditation, the energy and creative power, the aliveness of all that energy is different from a sitting meditation. I’ve had lots of visions, memories of past lives, deep feelings in my body, feelings between the chakras. Very often different chakras will pulsate, and those seem to be the ones that need to be energized or are about the expression of that dance. Other times healing or transformation is taking place in the chakras, and I can feel the energy pulsating through much more powerfully than when I dance without the snake. The awareness in the body, and the transformative awareness in the body becomes heightened. The snake is like a transformer and indicator of energy.
Kali Shakti said she considers her snake, Osiris, to be a working snake, a temple snake akin to the ones ancient priestesses of the Goddess worked with in their temples. In the Minoan culture Delphi (which means womb) priestesses would work with temple snakes in ritual, a practice she pays homage to. In fact, Kali Shakti dances with a troupe who call themselves the Woman Mystery Temple Dancers, who combine the sacred with belly dancing.
When I work with small groups of people, there’s an enormous amount of fear, not always related to snakes, that leaves them. How the snake works to transform emotional states for people I don’t know. Many people come up to me and say, “I was so afraid of snakes, but I’m not anymore.” When I work with a ritual space in which the women go into a meditation and dance with the snake, they all give that feedback. They don’t understand how the snake could know what they were feeling and help them to process it. One example was a woman who had just broken up with a boyfriend and had a very painful heart chakra; she literally felt pain in her heart. The snake put its head over her heart area, over her chest. It vibrated its head, and as it did that, she felt waves of pain leaving her chest area.
Another woman said silently, “Osiris, will you help me work with my kundalini energy?” He laid down on the floor, put his body all the way across the back of her spine, and laid there in a straight line, from the base of her body to the top of her head. These are the kinds of things he does which absolutely amaze me. I get feedback from women about having had this or that problem that he responded to. I just listen in amazement and thank him, let him know I appreciate him, and he continues to do his work.
Judith Kali Evador, who dances with Kali Shakti in the Woman Mystery troupe and is an instructor of tantric dance (which she calls the Tantric Dance of Feminine Power), instructs women to tune into the kundalini, or serpent energy, of the spine.
What you’re doing is dancing the inner serpent. Something happens when you invoke the archetypal animal power of the serpent that awakens a certain knowledge in the body. Many times women will have visual and sensory experiences of the serpent in their body and of seeing them around themselves. The snake is all spine. It doesn’t have a torso or legs. The spine is what carries the electromagnetic energy of the human or any invertebrate. So the serpent is the consummate, supreme embodiment of electromagnetic energy. It’s that energy that heals us, that actually conveys the spiritual knowledge from higher dimensions to our body and to our conscious mind.
In applying ancient philosophies and techniques to working with snakes, modern-day serpent dancers have managed to overcome the pervading consciousness of fear regarding snakes. Their attitude toward the reptile is often one of neither complete fear nor adulation, but of respect for what many believe can be a powerful ally in our lives.
1. Journal for the American Medical Association, Nov. 13, 1967.
2. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, Viking Arkana, 1991, pg. 64
3. Ibid, pg. 499.
Maya Karima (Kerri Hikida) is a Middle Eastern dancer and writer based in Long Beach, California. She is a member of Sa’id Music and Dance Troupe and an associate editor of Whole Life Times, a holistic magazine in Malibu, Ca.