In her dream, a woman enters a clear mountain stream to bathe and finds it is teeming with snakes. She regards snakes as allies rather than adversaries, but there are so many in the water that she becomes fearful. When a huge snake approaches her, she manages to grab it behind the head and uses it to hold the other serpents at a manageable distance. She wakes with a sense of accomplishment.
In a dream of my own around the same time, I am walking in a woodland setting with a woman who decides to use an outhouse on the far side of the clearing. As she starts crossing a swampy patch with many fallen branches, I see that the water is full of snakes and I become concerned for her safety. It's too late to stop her. She crosses without mishap, and I study the snakes. They are of many colors. An inner voice tells me the black and yellow ones are the most dangerous. There is also a vivid crimson snake, and a pair of duller reddish and blueish hues, near the edge where I am standing. I push them down with my stick - which proved to be a very large staff I use to help the woman return safely.
Both dreamers were alarmed by a mass of snakes in the water, but our response strategies were different. The woman dreamer waded right in, while I kept a cautious distance. We both sensed that the snakes in these dreams might mirror somatic conditions - in the case of my dream, that of another person I might be called on to help.
The snake in someone else's dream is not the snake in your dream. That's something I often say when people ask me about dream symbolism.
The theme came up for me again as I did some research to follow leads in a dream in which I was scouting out an impending visit to New York City. In my dream, an excited group of younger New Yorkers were quizzing me about the importance of dreaming and dream interpretation in early Jewish tradition. I spoke to them about Joseph and Pharaoh, and about rabbinical discussions in the Talmud, and about Philo of Alexandria, and about Gabriel, the archangel of dreams for all three Peoples of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims).
I opened an old folder on Jewish dream traditions, and found notes I had made on some observations by Rabbi Gershon Winkler (always good value) on dreams in the Talmud. He quoted the following Talmudic interpretation of snake dreams: "One who sees a snake in their dream, it is a sign that their livelihood is at hand. And if the snake bites, it means their income will increase two-fold. And if the dreamer kills the snake, it means they will lose their livelihood." [Talmud, B'rachot 57a] The rationale for this reading (as expounded by the famous 11th century rabbi known as Rashi) was as follows: the snake slithers across the ground, where all sorts of food is easily available, hence it brings the promise of sustenance.
However, another rabbi, Rav Shei'shet, rejected this approach. He contended that, on the contrary, if you kill a snake in your dream it means your income will double. It seems Rav She'shet had a vested interest in this outcome; he himself had dreamed of killing a snake.
In reading our own dreams, we get out of the snake pit of casuistry and conflicting interpretations by cleaving, first and last, to our feelings. If you are bitten by a snake and your feel neutral or even blessed, that dream is clearly very different from a dream with the same apparent content that leaves you feeling frightened or drained. Poison may be medicine, medicine may be poison.
"The dream follows the interpretation" says a famous midrash (Midrash B'reisheet Rabbah 39:8). Let's make sure that we base our interpretation, not on external authorities, but on our feelings and instincts, supported by careful exploration and the right kind of feedback from others (which should always be offered in non-authoritarian mode, "if it were my dream").
In my personal dream life, the snake has often been a powerful ally in healing. On one of the nights when I practiced dream incubation, asking for healing, the great serpent that came and fulfilled my request would have been quite familiar to the therapeuts and supplicants at the ancient templles of Asklepios. You can read that story here.
Journal drawing by RM with digital effects