The Serpent and the Land

Great Serpent Mound near Peebles, Ohio

Today is the day of Bride;
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

On February 2nd it will be Imbolc. Here in North America it will be Groundhog Day. Whether it’s sunny or cloudy when the groundhog comes out of its hole will determine the weather for the rest of winter. In Scotland it was once the serpent who was the oracle this day. “Candlemas day, gin ye be fair, the half o’ winter’s to come and mair; Candlemas day, gin ye foul, the half o’ winter’s gane at Yule.” Snakes were associated with the goddess Brighid, the moon, the sun, the underworld, mounds, and the land. In cold climates like Scotland, snakes hibernate during winter. They disappear into their holes in the earth like the sleeping roots of plants and trees. This brings literal truth to the legends of great serpents sleeping beneath the roots of sacred Rowan trees associated with Brighid. On Bride’s day a strange old custom documented by Alexander Carmichael included beating the earth with a piece of peat in a sock while reciting a rune like the one above. No doubt this practice was meant to awaken the sleeping serpents and therefore the land to let them know spring is coming and it is time to wake up. It is uncannily similar to the ancient Greek method of invoking Hades by slapping ones hands on the bare earth to get his attention for a petition.

Wake up for we are sick of winter and the cold!
Wake up for the Sun is strengthening!
Wake up for it is time to grow green again!”
You have shed your skin in autumn
and now it is time to be reborn!

HekateSerpent cults once abounded in preChristian faiths, but due to a misunderstanding of the Book of Genesis in the Bible the snake was painted as evil and associated with the Devil instead of the wise creators and tricksters of the Pagans. The stories of St. George slaying the dragon and St. Patrick chasing the serpents out of Ireland are metaphors for the destruction of Pagan worship. Serpent mounds are found in Scotland (Loch Nell), Canada (Keene, Ontario), and the United States (Ohio). How many more mounds around the world are lost to the sands of time we’ll never know, but there are other remnants of serpent worship: Pictish serpent stones, prehistoric cave paintings of snakes, the serpents of Cernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron, the serpents of Hekate on ancient amulets and medallions, and the many myths worldwide of serpents as creators, healers, psychopomps, underworld messengers, and great magicians. There are also many folktales in North America of dangerous and powerful serpent spirits believed to be masterful magicians and shapeshifters such as Sisiutl, Jipijka’m, Weewillmekq’, Angont, and many others. Most of them are sea, lake, or river serpents, but were believed to be able to travel on land. Almost all of them were horned which again links them to the mythological serpents of Europe like the Slavic god Veles. Great horned serpents who can travel between the three realms of water, earth, and sky reminds one an awful lot of dragons does it not?

The serpent is the very essence of genius loci. It is the spirit of the land and the land itself. It is easy to see how our ancestors came to this conclusion; both are dependent on the warmth of the sun, the serpent sheds its skin, the earth sheds its greenmantle, and both are reborn anew. Crumbled brown leaves and crumbled dried skin. When the Earth turns her face away from the sun all the vegetation dies and its spirits retreat into the roots and to the underworld deep in the Earth like the snake into its hole. Like reptiles, without the warmth of the sun, the Earth too dies.

Most Pagans I know are lost when it comes to celebrating the festival of Imbolc. They perform mystery plays of the Cailleach, the old hag of winter, being defeated by Brighid, but this tale is an invention by Donald A. McKenzie looking to add national lore to Scotland even if it was fakelore. Brighid is not a goddess of Spring. She is the Earth and sees herself reflected in the cycles of the Sun and the Moon. Others stick to safer activities like making Bride’s bed, candlemaking, and cooking with lots of eggs and dairy. What if you shook things up this year and held a serpent ritual instead? An outdoor spiral dance with pounding feet to both awaken and imitate the serpent sleeping beneath with invocations to your local land serpent or ancient gods like Hekate or Cernunnos, runes of petition sung, and offerings given (snakes love eggs and raw meats). Perhaps you’ll even cook a snake and ritually eat of its flesh to align with this sacred creature and afterward craft a ritual necklace of its bones as an offering to your deity. Whatever you do, a blessed Imbolc to you.

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  • lancemfoster says:

    That’s an interesting idea. It’s far too cold here in Montana for the snakes to awaken from their wintersleep. We told our stories in the old days only when the snakes slept in the winter, for they were the guardians of the stories and would bite you if you revealed the sacred.

    We don’t kill snakes. They guard sacred places. When I was a kid I used to catch snakes and even took wild snakes to school, wrapped around my waist inside my shirt. Our tribe had a snake clan, and at the clan feast, the members would crawl on their stomachs. Also we had Snake Doctors, who would cure snakebites, and when establishing a new village, they would determine the site, then go up on a hill to ask permission of the snakes and give them tobacco.

    There was another snake mound at Blood Run National Historic Landmark on the Sioux River between Iowa and South Dakota, but the white farmers destroyed it. Lots more lore. There is a connection between not only the snake and the underworld, and as a genius loci, but with the wiggling pattern of lightning, and the Thunders.

  • Mist says:

    Damn, Sarah, you beat me to the punch. :) I was just starting a post on my evolving Candlemas rituals. Since moving to Ohio five and a half years ago, the serpent has taken on much greater significance for me for obvious reasons. The Serpent Mound is breathtaking.

    Nevertheless, you have some wonderful ideas here that I hadn’t thought of. The idea of pounding the ground to wake up the snakes may have to be incorporated into this year’s festivities.

  • secondchants says:

    I live in Ohio and I was just thinking the other day about going back to Serpent Mound this spring. It is mesmerizing to say the least. Thanks for the very informative post. I am sure I will incorporate some of your information into my practice. One of my most vivid dreams is of being a brown snake loosely coiled and hibernating deep within the earth – listening to the earth’s heartbeat and feeling so very safe and warm. Thanks for reminding me.

  • Selena says:

    Awesome post! It’s always a good thing to read something I haven’t seen before. Thank you!

  • hagofnaedre says:

    I’m one of the “lost” ones when it comes to Imbolc, heh. It’s always been a bit tough since I don’t include egg and dairy in my diet. This though, this resonates with me – as snakes are very dear to me.

    As always, thank you for the wealth of information you provide us!

    • Being a vegetarian is probably tradition for this time of year, lol. The most likely Scots feast would’ve been a Bride’s bannock, some jam from the fall, and of course whiskey. Plus there’s always whole grains, dried fruits, nuts, and root veggies. Snake-like ones of carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes etc would be pretty fitting.

  • An excellent post about the Serpent of the Land! Thank you for your insights, Sarah, they are always appreciated!

    I look forward to celebrating this year with some egg offerings and beating the ground!

  • Scylla says:

    Doing a public ritual for Imbolc next week. The premise is drawing the Slain god back from the underworld. We will tread the mill to open the ways, and bring back life in the land.

  • Seillean says:

    I’ve never been one to really get into Imbolc because it doesn’t seem to work well with my climate region and I have zero connection to Brighid. These however are very good ideas! Thanks for presenting them. I was already planning on celebrating Hekate this day in her lightbearer aspect, but this cements it even further… And there is a snake mound nearby I may have to pay a visit to! 😉

    • Same here. In Montana, February is not even close to Candlemas! That’s why it is so nice to be aware of the Land around you so you just kind of know when the time is right.

      • lancemfoster says:

        Yep, Seillean and TW, Candlemas isn’t really part of our climate. One of the falling outs I had with AODA when I was part of it. I don’t pay that much attention to defined dates of the wheel (except solstice and equinox)…I focus mainly on the weather and phenology of the valley and mountains here.
        A little too early for snakes, but the raptors are migrating through now. The other day a Gyrfalcon visited the house though, killing and eating a Sparrow here, while we watched each other about 50 feet away.

  • Glad it held something for you all! Hehehe, does this mean a serpent cult is starting? 😉

  • Skye says:

    Very interesting post!! Unfortunately, there are no parallels with the Norse tradition (that I’m aware of anyway) I think I’m gonna stick with the marriage of Freyr and Gerd tradition. However, I hope that everyone else has a blessed Imbolc.

  • Cory says:

    I don’t think I even have to say this, but you’ve written a truly stellar article here, and one I personally find incredibly useful. I incorporated a huge amount of serpent lore back at my Michaelmas celebration, so this makes a wonderful balance to the story.

    As always, thank you for a marvelous post!

    All the best,

  • I’m not sure about Brighid and the spring. She is definitely not *just* a Goddess of spring and new flowers, but she is heavily associated with that time of year. A lot of the traditions I’ve read about are very much connected to the renewed fertility of the land. Yet as someone who is very devoted to her, I do not just honor her at Imbolc and find her hand influencing just about everything. Although the Cailleach rules the winter, Brighid is still around. I always feel her very strongly in my kitchen and find myself keenly aware of her warm fire in the cold months. I also live in an area where winter extends into early April so her connections to Spring, to me anyway, are there but not as strong as they must have been to the Irish.

    I don’t agree with the stories in which the Cailleach transforms into Brighid, though. I’ve only come across that story once and I remember it being modern. Cailleach is a Goddess in her own right. I have seen many stories in which the Cailleach transforms into a younger woman, though. I’m intrigued by these but those women do not seem like Brighid at all.

    • It’s hard to remove the goddess Brighid from the Catholic and Celtic Christian trappings, but in doing so I found she had more in common with Isis, Artemis, and Baba Yaga than the saintly attibutes.

        “the one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely…” ~ Lady Gregory

      This bit of folklore may link her to Hela. It is my belief such descriptions are metaphors for the earth – one half is in winter with death and decay (the old woman or the rotting flesh) – and one is in summer with green and beauty (the comely maiden-mother). Besides all her healing and craft attributes, she also has assocations with death and Samhain. Quite a complex lady!

      • lancemfoster says:

        There is a Blackfeet tradition here in Montana of Winter Woman and Summer Man (the Cheyenne have them both men) advancing back and forth across the Land according to season. For my tribe, there was a Winter Family (Man, Woman, and Daughter).

      • Same here for the Coast Salish – Old Man rules the spring and summer and Old Woman rules the winter. Sometimes she’s called the Monster Woman of the Woods. Some say they are shamans who went into the woods and never came back. There’s a similar tradition in the Orkneys that’s reversed, the “Mither o’ the Sea” rules spring and summer and Teran, the old man of the sea rules the winter causes storms, and wars with her.

      • greycatsidhe says:

        Lady Brighid definitely has her dark sides. There are some accounts of her setting fire to peoples’ homes if they upset her. There was also the tradition of beheading a chicken and burying it in her honor for the fertility of the land. Not the sort of things most people associate with a saint! 😉

  • marie morgan says:

    loved this article, i was at a loss to do for imbolc this year..last year we had a baby blessing, before that i just lit candles through the house but this resonated perfectly with me this year as i am working more with things involving hedgecrossing and spirit animals…i promptly ordered some snakey things from your botanica and i think i will be putting those on my altar and working with some snake energies–thanks for the great inspiration you’ve given me!!

  • lancemfoster says:

    Our traditions are that the First Thunder wakes the Snakes, and then they sleep again at the First Snow.