Serpent Dreams: A Naturalist Encounter with Myth and Deity by Mary Lanham

Lately, I keep dreaming about snakes. These dreams aren’t scary, nor are they particularly momentous. Half the time I don’t even remember any plot after waking up. But I do remember the snakes.

One was big and green and had a den behind a bookshelf in my parents’ house. It came out and crawled around a bit and my dream family was like, “Ah yes, the library snake. She knows what’s not in the books.”

Another was a white python. My friends and I were at a bougie restaurant celebrating something (a birthday? a bachelorette?), and the python lay sprawled out among the glassware, periodically raising its head to peer at us or to sample the drinks.

Even though these dreams aren’t nightmares, my dream self is always a little uncomfortable when the snakes appear. Nobody else seems bothered, and I’m not exactly afraid of them, but I still wish they weren’t there. It’s like I know they’re an important interruption, a meaningful symbol that has no place in the current story, and I’d really rather not dignify such presumptive behavior with a response.

This implies the snakes are there to tell me something, and I’m doing the subconscious equivalent of covering my ears and humming.

I never thought much about snakes, symbolically or literally, until I started reading about Brigid. Three years ago I came back to mythology and religion after nearly a decade of default atheism. I’d been reading some ancient philosophy, which bled into ancient religious culture, which brought up old interests in the occult and Paganism. My studies weren’t initially driven by a desire to reject atheism. The fascination was emerging from a part of me where atheism—or more specifically, materialism—was just beside the point. 

This is the part of me responsible for weird dreams that feel true, for thoughts more accurately captured by symbols than by sentences. It’s the part of me that thrives on the fertile tension between what can be experienced and what can be proven.

There weren’t any dramatic signs leading me to Brigid. It was a practical experiment. I spent the first twenty-odd years of my life as a serious Catholic, and Brigid is, among other things, a saint. I live near a cathedral, and one of the stained glass panels is dedicated to her. One afternoon I went, reluctantly stuck a dollar in the slot on the votive stand and lit a candle. Then I knelt and dutifully folded my hands.

The window isn’t a very moving image: Brigid’s face is turned away toward the heavens with a distinctly schoolmarmish expression, as if you’ve just farted or thrown a spitball and she’s rolling her eyes at Our Lord and Savior like, “Thanks for leaving me to deal with these assholes.”

The whole experience was nostalgic, but not inspiring. I continued studying her, though. Some of her mythology was familiar to me, like the famous mantle story, or the one where she gouges out her own eye (sainthood is grisly AF). But I started understanding the stories as part of a deep symbolic language that extends beyond the dogma of Catholicism, and beyond the dry study of myths as mere relics of a less-enlightened past.

In this language, missing an eye can mark a body as otherworldly. A veiled nun can also be a divine hag. Mythic symbols can become an exploration of humanity’s place in the cosmos, of our relationships with (and responsibilities to) the life of the universe. Beneath the familiar modern faces of Brigid—stately saint, motherly goddess—is a web of cultural and ancestral history preserving and reshaping symbols too powerful to be lost.

Atheism, at least in its mainstream forms, requires me to dismiss all mystical pathways to meaning. But the more deeply I engage with the world, the more sterile this restriction becomes. So far, the best framework I’ve found to release me from that sterility of thought is naturalism. To me, naturalism is a middle path between the reductive perspectives of both materialism and supernaturalism. Instead of predetermining one definitive way of understanding truth, I can amass a toolbox of mental lenses, each suited for its own ways of exploring the natural world.

A mystical lens isn’t very useful in a chemistry lab. But the scientific method doesn’t help me access the experiential reality of imagination, or of reverence. Materialism by definition seeks for what’s concrete; its standard of truth rests on objective proof. Naturalism allows me the flexibility to engage with subjective and mystical experiences on their own terms. These realities can’t be quantified, but that’s not the kind of natural phenomenon they are. Their truth lies in meaning, not in proof—or even in belief.

Naturalism doesn’t ask me for credulity or rigidity. It does invite me to be open to the full range of reality, to everything humans are capable of experiencing, learning, and creating in our explorations of the cosmos.

As I kept studying religion, I gradually stopped reading and practicing solely from an academic, atheist perspective. I dedicated my meditation altar to Brigid for a year and a day. Another experiment. The results have been mixed. Sometimes, sitting at my altar, I just feel dumb, like I’m back kneeling in front of the underwhelming stained glass window.

Then the snakes appear. Mostly when I’m asleep, but sometimes in waking life as well. The visits are never dramatic, never something that can’t be dismissed. This is probably always how my spiritual experiences will be. Part of me is thoroughly a materialist, and that part insists divinity has no reality outside the human mind. But there’s also that other part of me, the one just as certain that materialism is merely one way my mind experiences what’s real.

In regions where snakes live, their springtime emergence from the ground is a symbol of Brigid and of cycles of renewal. The serpent travels easily between seasons, between the surface and the realms below, between material reality and the abstract places I’m reluctant to venture. But the snake keeps emerging, waiting patiently for me to stop resisting my own dreaming.

Only once have the dream serpents done anything you could describe as scary. I found myself sitting on the ground, arms and legs twined with tiny garden snakes. I started tugging them, trying to fling them away. The snakes, for their part, held on and bit me with little stinging teeth.

I woke from the vision of snakes and discovered my hand had fallen asleep, squashed under my body. I had to flex the pins and needles out of my fingers. There was a perfectly materialist explanation for the dream.

Another explanation is that Brigid—all the mystical, symbolic truths she embodies—is speaking to me in a language I can learn to understand. She is showing me the entrance to what lies below and within. I only have to be willing to travel there.

About the Author

Mary Lanham is a writer who is not entirely unlike a well-adjusted human being. She writes fiction about imaginary things and nonfiction about the ways we imagine. Her work has appeared in Luna Luna, Little Red Tarot, The Underbelly, and elsewhere. Mary lives in the Midwestern US, but grew up in the South; her accent is usually set to stealth mode. Her online home is subtleworkings.com.

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