Today’s column is from Sheri Barker, who is joining The Wild Hunt this month as a regular columnist. Welcome aboard, Sheri!
As it often does, Spring arrived early in the mountains of western North Carolina, so I have spent a great deal of time these past few weeks outdoors preparing garden beds and soaking up fresh air and daylight. Much of that work has involved pulling weeds and digging some disturbingly prolific kind of wild garlic out of a 30’ x 20’ flower garden, which means I spent hours sitting and even lying on the cool earth. My hands were often moving dirt just inches from my face, and sometimes the bugs and worms I disturbed were up close and personal.
Being that close to nature deepens and strengthens my connection to the divine, and during this time of year invariably reminds me of how my personal relationship with goddess has often been infused by her sense of humor. She sometimes uses that humor to draw my attention to certain topics, or even to metaphorically slap me upside the head when she thinks it is needed.
Some years ago on Ostara I was experiencing a significant life crisis. For reasons I do not remember I decided to go searching for answers in the upstate New York cemeteries where my ancestors are buried. As the day went on my mood deteriorated. I was certainly not getting answers from my gone-befores as I was cleaning their grave sites, and I started to feel angry with the goddess. Toward the end of the day I was in a little clearing bordered by woods, and I wandered to the farthest edge of it, away from the graves. I began pacing back and forth, talking more and more loudly to the goddess, and finally I threw my fleece jacket and then myself down onto a log and shouted a challenge to the sky. “I don’t even know if I believe in you anymore! How can these things be happening in my life if you are real? Just give me a sign, Goddess! Do something to let me know you are real!” Angry, deflated, and tired, I slumped down on my seat just inches from the ground.
I had been sitting for less than a minute when I heard a loud hissing sound, like steam pipes or an old-fashioned radiator. The sound got slowly louder, and I looked around to try to figure out where it was coming from but could not see anything. Then I looked behind me at the six-inch thick layer of loam and leaves piled up against the log on which I sat, and that was when I saw the very thick body of a very long snake moving through the debris, gliding along the bottom edge of the log. The hissing sound was produced by the snake’s body moving slowly through the leaf litter.
I may have shouted in the instant that I jumped up. Maybe I yelped. Maybe I screamed a scaredy cat kind of scream. I’m not really certain about my instant vocal reaction, but the next thing I knew I was laughing and saying “Okay! All right! I see you here and you are very definitely real. Thank you for answering me!”
She’s like that sometimes. With one bold, funny, in-my-face move she let me know that she was with me, that she has always been there, and that she does, indeed, listen. Snake is one of the oldest known representations of the goddess, and I had no doubt that she was making herself known to me. With her choice of form, she pointed me in a direction of study about the history of snake in Pagan mythologies, and the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth as it pertains to the challenges and changes of ordinary life. It was a good solution for dealing with the problems I was experiencing then, and it is a solution I am revisiting during these current difficult times.
From my perspective as a Pagan, and in the Celtic roots of my traditions, the symbolic meanings for the snake stem from two different events: snake’s hibernation during the cold season, and snake’s ability to shed her skin.
In the realm of spirit, hibernation symbolizes snake’s ability to move between the worlds. During the cold, dark days of winter, she dwells safely within the body of the Earth, although my long-ago ancestors probably thought she died during the winter months. With the return of warmer days, she answers the call of the Sun and comes once again to live on Earth’s surface, ready to be reborn.
This is the same pattern I follow when I manage my spiritual practice so that I stay in tune with the turning of the Wheel of the Year; beginning with Samhain when I acknowledge the time for self-reflection and introspection, and going until the turning of the Wheel carries me to the vernal equinox and the time for new or renewed growth.
In considering hibernation in terms of its relationship to the Wheel of the Year, I see the act of shedding skin as symbolic of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It is by shedding her skin that Snake is able to be reborn. So the ancient Celts believed and so can I even now see the spiritual truth of this belief. The most amazing part of this concept is that there is no limit to the number of times rebirth can occur. Snake sheds her skin not just once in a lifetime but does so time and again as she grows and changes throughout her life. With each transformation she casts off her old self and emerges renewed and reenergized.
These patterns are also apparent in the ability to recognize periods of dormancy in my life when they occur outside the scope of the Wheel, and to accept those periods as being necessary to my ability to look within myself in order to define my expectations for my own renewal and transformation rather than looking to external sources. These challenges and choices are presented now, to society and humanity as a whole, in conjunction with their usual appearance at this time of year. My time in the gardens allowed for a great deal of reflection on the similarities between isolation, quarantine, and how society will emerge from these times, and the hibernation and eventual re-emergence of snake.
Rebirth. Renewal. Transformation. I see countless possibilities twisted together like the Celtic knot images of snake in a flowing, ceaseless, endless beauty.