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 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 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.
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.