Sunday, July 23, 2023

Snake pit of dream interpretations

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


Diana said...

Robert, A little rhyming - at noon time I had an appointment with my new hairdresser; this was my third time seeing him. Today we discovered that we both are dreamers. He told me that a major area of interest for him is dreaming and the Kabbalah. I told him about you and he took down your website address. Diana

Unknown said...

James Hillman has a great little essay in Dream Animals called, "A Snake is not a Symbol." He asks therein, "Why must we exchange the living image for an interpretative concept? Are interpretations really psychological defences against the presence of a God?" Later he asks: "Have we psychologists become taxidermists, disemboweling the snake, stuffing it with concepts, and preserving it as a carefully fixed meaning?" Heaven forbid! These questions have stuck with me when it comes to my own animal dreams. I had a conscious dream once in which I encountered a dead snake biting its tail--a more classic Jungian symbol there could not be. But it was not content to remain a dead symbol. I knew it was about to come to life and felt fearful, then calmed myself. As it indeed revived, grew in size and undulated toward me I attempted to turn it into a pig; it turned into a frog instead. I regret my decision now. I wish I had let a snake be a snake.

Unknown said...

Snakes have always been transformative in my dreams.

I had many dreams of a small green snake that would curl up on the top of the refrigerator. When I approached the frig to get something out, it would wake up and smile and as it smiled the forked tongue would pop out and make me laugh. It was a jolly snake. At this time in my life, around the summer of 1993 there was a huge ground shift in terms of dreams.

I wish the green snake would come back.

Unknown said...


I love the image of your green smiling snake on the fridge top. It reminds me of an experience a friend related to me about a "kundalini" awakening she had. The after-effect was that when she was near certain machines, and particularly the fridge, her body would vibrate with its vibration--hum in unison with the fridge.

Teresa L. DeCicco said...

The snake has been such an important symbol and creature from the beginning of time. We read about it everywhere (e.g. the bible, literature, popular novels) and we see it everywhere (e.g. art, movies, horror shows). This creature and the symbol of this creature is surely an important element in the human psyche and in human evolution. When my patients/clients/progam participants do dream interpretation on their own symbol of a snake many important meanings emerge-sexual, fear, courage-of course meaning always depends on the dreamer and the dreamer's life experience. The result, however, is always salient.

Robert Moss said...

Thanks for all these snake-y reflections and experiences. Yes, Lisa, I agree that it's very important to let the wildlife of our dreams be more than symbols - we want to EMBODY the energy and healing, when available. Naomi, I love your jolly little refigerator snake. I wonder whether it will come back if you focus on eating the thigs you were getting out of the box when it was beaming on you. Terea, you are right to remind us of how the snake is omnipresent in the collective databank of the human imagination and Earth experience. We need to remember that there is a profound reason why the emblem of the medical and healthcare professions is still that of Asklepios, lord of dream healing in the ancient Mediterranean. His serpent-staff evokes the raising of the serpent force for healing.

Amy Brucker said...

Great discussion! My favorite snake dream occurred right before I was ordained. It was a visual dream, but also highly tactile. I am standing ankle deep in a river and come upon a giant egg that is about 2 feet long and 1.5 feet wide. The egg is resting on top of a giant snake head. The snake body is immersed in the water and I can't see it. I feel a moment of panic because I know I have to let the snake eat me. The scene shifts. I am inside the snake body and can feel the humid moisture of the tight muscles as my snake friend eats me. I am uncomfortable, to say the least, as the muscles pull me through the snake's digestive track.

Even though I agree with Hillman and you, Robert, and even though my preference is to engage with my dream animals and characters on a personal level, I still like to contemplate the history of their symbolic meaning. But, whenever I do this, I always read the symbolic "interpretation" and filter it through my personal "aha" meter. If I don't resonate with the symbolism on a personal level, I simply enjoy the symbolism as a piece of history, not as something that is relevant to my dream. I like to approach dreams from every imaginable angle: literal, symbolic, personal, archetypal, prophetic, etc.

Amy Brucker said...

By the way, "Amaryla" is Amy Brucker. Not sure how my nickname got on there!

Robert Moss said...

Hi Amy - Grand to have you joining in our dreamplay under any name :-) Thanks for sharing your thrilling dream of initiation and rebirthing, deeply shamanic (for me)and engaging all of the inner senses. In one of my first public dream workshops, long ago, a woman described how she was frozen in terror inside a dreamscape when she came to an archway through which she saw a form of the Goddess with a great serpent writhing around her. When the dreamer found the courage to re-enter the dream and step up to the arch, the serpent devoured her - and she was reborn from within its body to claim something of her Goddess self.

Amy Brucker said...

Thanks for sharing about the Goddess/snake dream. I found the snake dream thread because my aunt and I have been discussing our family's tendency toward hypnagogic dreaming. She recently told me that she saw (hypnagogically) antique bicycle tires in her bedroom. My aunt is particularly curious about the bike tires, and since I had just read your blog entry on the "trainer bikes for dreamers" I wanted to send her the link. More "rhyming", I suppose! :) It's great to connect again. I just taught a dream class on using shamanic drumming for dream reentry. I think of you every time I teach this class. :)

Robert Moss said...

Amy, The hypnagogic state - which I often call the twilight zone and which the French used to call "dorveille" - is a wonderful space to hang out in. In my research into the history of creative breakthroughs, I have found that it is in this liminal state, even more than in sleep dreams, that big discoveries are made. In my discussion of creativity in science in my "Secret History", I call this in-between realm of consciousness the "solution state". It's also a wonderful sandlot for conscious dreamers in the making.

Miss Emmie said...

Hi, this is the first time on this site. I am a dreamer. I constantly have vivid dreams, so dreams I can remember from when I was a child. Last night I had a dream about a snake. It reminded me of a coral or king snake... red, yellow, black bans. I felt as though I was in a boat... I remember sensing water and I was inside a wooden vessel type thing. Anyhow... the snake came from behind me and wrapped itself around my ankle and latched on. Frighten I pulled the snake off my ankle, which was now bleeding, and I can recall the pain the snake's fangs made when I pulled him off at the head. Never had a snake bite me in a dream before... usually they are in water, chasing, or on tables in business meetings. I usually try to kill them in the dreams. This one I just tossed to the side. I'm lost on the meaning. Help?