Snake, Serpent, Drake, Dragon

Ali and I almost jogged right over a great black snake in the park this morning. Alison said:

Black snake stretched, unwound across the path. We stopped to watch in the steam and sun-slant of morning as it melted back into the brush.

It was about three or four feet long, and a few inches thick. To me it looked like water: a jet-black trickle of liquid, flowing across the path, almost painfully slow. It brought to mind the discussion we had on our recent prodcast about Harry Potter, Nagini, and the Midgard Serpent.

What is it about snakes?… There is a passage I always think of, from Kipling’s Kim, in which a Tibetan lama and his disciple, Kim (the English boy raised by native Indians) stumble upon a cobra as they are seeking a mystic river.

“Look! Look!” Kim sprang to [the lama’s side] and dragged him back. A yellow and brown streak glided from the purple rustling stems to the bank, stretched its neck to the water, drank, and lay still — a big cobra with fixed, lidless eyes.

“I have no stick — I have no stick,” said Kim. “I will get me one and break his back.”

“Why? He is upon the Wheel as we are — a life ascending or descending — very far from deliverance. Great evil must the soul have done that is cast into this shape.”

“I hate all snakes,” said Kim. No native training can quench the white man’s horror of the Serpent.

“Let him live out his life.” The coiled thing hissed and half opened its hood. “May thy release come soon, brother,” the lama continued placidly. “Hast thou knowledge, by chance, of my River?”

“Never have I seen such a man as thou art,” Kim whispered, overwhelmed. “Do the very snakes understand thy talk?”

“Who knows?” He passed within a foot of the cobra’s poised head. It flattened itself among the dusty coils.

“Come thou!” he called over his shoulder.

“Not I,” said Kim. “I go round.”

Snake

Snake comes from Proto Indo European sneg or snag, meaning ‘crawl’ and ‘creep’. This became snakon in Proto Germanic, snaca in Old English, and snake in Middle English. For a long time people preferred to use the word serpent, borrowed from French; but eventually the native English word pretty much won out.

Snake is a word that carries intimations of increase and fertility, as well as grounding and dispersal of energy, rising power, and containment — all of which well fits a creature so close to the ground, but with the power to strike through the air suddenly.

Serpent

Serpent is from Proto Indo European serp, which meant ‘creep’ (just as sneg/snag did). Serp became the Latin verb serpere, ‘to creep’, and a thing that crept was a serpent. The word was borrowed into Middle English and almost replaced the native snake.

Spiritually serpent has the same sense of increase and fertility, but has more connotations of power directed at a point.

Drake, Dragon

These words come from Latin draco, ‘dragon’; drake was borrowed directly, and dragon came through French. The Latin word came from the Greek drakon, from Proto Indo European derk ‘to see’ (since Greek dragons had the Evil Eye).

Drake, like serpent, is a word of directed motion, but more associated with decision; and like snake, has connotations of rising power and containment. Dragon has a more luxurious energy — decisive motion, but towards grounding, gathering, Source.

Comments

  1. I see Dragons primarily as a personification of strong energetic currents. Fear of the Dragon is understandable as fear of being overwhelmed, but as a certain Someone said to me while I gazed at the full moon, “You are afraid of that which you seek.”

    Snakes, being more common in the sensible world, remind us of this, which is why we are so ambivalent towards them as well.

  2. Jeff Lilly says:

    Freeman — Very interesting! Why, then, do you think dragons are so often associated with wealth (in the East and the West)? In my own meditative work I’ve encountered a dragon once or twice, and it seems to be strongly associated with wealth, particularly windfalls and other lucky breaks. I’ve been working on my relationship with it, and I’ve definitely seen an improvement in my finances.

  3. I think part of the reason dragons have acquired an association with luck is their own rarity. Seems like the rarer something is, the greater significance it carries. As far as the wealth association, I think spiritual seekers are justifiably afraid of being overwhelmed by wealth or seeking it, since it seems to serve as a distraction for most. So that ties back to the dragon embodying strong energies and fear.

  4. Jeff Lilly says:

    Wesley — you may be right. Of course, there are other rare magical beings that are not associated with luck, so something else must be contributing to that. But I think you’re definitely on the right track with the danger of overwhelming wealth.

  5. Pitch313 says:

    Sometimes on my mountain bike rides in the California hills I would have to rouse, jostle, pick up and carry snakes basking in the sunlit and sun-warmed trails. Rather than ride over them. Some snakes can be stubborn about giving up warming direct sunlight.

  6. Hi Jeff –
    I chime in on this, if you don’t mind 🙂

    Dragons (as the winged or flying serpents) reveal the waterlike nature of the Tao, the way of universe. It’s an image of the unconscious and moves in and out of psyche’s darkness, showing only parts of itself. It’s also signs of aliveness and gleaming light and sees keenly as a symbol for the ‘eye of the unconscious’.

    It’s one of the oldest alchemical symbols we know of, and a version of Uroborus the self-fertilizing and self-devouring serpent. The perils of the dragon are inherent in the multiple powers; water, air, earth, fire, light, wind, storm, electricity, which all carry terrifying aspects if unleashed.

    But, the Dragon, as the divine round with its head in eternity, also encompasses, guards and gestates the treasure of Self. Whereas it is associated with treasure, gold (which in alchemy is the philosopher’s stone), elixir of life. But as humans we tend to shy away from powers of that magnitude, it’s demanding to be that powerful and without the temptation to misuse it for the detriment of others.

    But hey,maybe I am biased, since I am a Dragon in the Chinese astrology 🙂

    Thanks anyway for a great post.

    In’Lakesh, Michi

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    Michi, very insightful! Your characterization speaks powerfully to me. Recent events in my life seem to show my personal ‘dragon’ leading me into a more watery realm, as you say. (I’ll have a lot more to say on that eventually.) Thank you!

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