The Serpent and the Land
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!
Serpent 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.