Photograph by Edwin Giesbers / Nature PL

Sliding Scales

words by willow defebaugh

Both scientifically and symbolically, humanity’s history on Earth is intertwined with the serpent—and so is its future.

“You can’t rip the skin off the snake. The snake must moult the skin. That’s the rate it happens.”

Ram Dass

Out of all the creatures on Earth, few are as polarizing as snakes. For many, they are the subjects of nightmares. According to the World Atlas, ophidiophobia—the fear of snakes—is one of the most common phobias (they place it at number two, after arachnophobia). Lynne Isbell, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Davis, says this primal fear has evolutionary origins; as “the first and most persistent predators” of mammals, snakes are our ancient enemies. And yet, we may owe them; Isbell argues that snakes helped shape our ancestors’ brains by instigating the selection of traits to avoid them, like improving our ability to see and spot danger.


If our evolutionary relationship with snakes is complex, our cultural and spiritual associations are even more so. In the Bible, a snake tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, leading to their exile (Christianity later identifies this snake as Satan). Meanwhile, the Ouroboros serpent is an emblem of infinity, first found in ancient Egypt and then in many other parts of the world. In Greek mythology, the snake-bearer Asclepius is the god of medicine. And in Buddhism, the serpent-king Mucalinda protects the Buddha in a crucial moment. In all these stories of snakes, a few central themes emerge, each rooted in truth: wisdom, rebirth, healing, and guardianship.


The fruit that the snake encourages Adam and Eve to eat is from the tree of knowledge. Many other cultures have associated snakes with wisdom, raising the question: what’s the difference? Knowledge is the possession of facts; wisdom is the ability to discern what to do with them. Knowledge separates aspects of our world to understand them; wisdom ties them together. In the West, we have prioritized knowledge over wisdom. We have had the facts surrounding climate change for decades, while our leaders have lacked the wisdom to act on it. Snakes are experts at surveilling their surroundings, sure, but equally imperative is their ability to use that information to understand when it’s time to strike.


The Ouroboros of ancient Egypt, depicted as a circular serpent eating its own tail, is a symbol of continuous rebirth. This can be linked to ecdysis, the process by which snakes shed their skin. Roughly once a month, they will rub against something in order to slither out of their skin headfirst and slough it off whole. They do this for a few reasons, including to cast off unwanted parasites, but mainly because they have outgrown their old skin. Similarly, we are aware that the systems that support the Global North can no longer hold us. We must be willing to shed them in order for something new to emerge—a transformation that may take many moultings.


In ancient Greece, snakes were considered sacred and believed to hold healing powers. The demigod Asclepius was said to send his snakes to slither over the bodies of the sick at his temples and lick them, restoring their health. His serpent-wrapped staff, the Rod of Asclepius, has become a symbol for medicine in many parts of the world. And while snake venom certainly has the ability to take our health, some types do have the ability to restore it; the venom of the Brazilian pit viper is used to create the most commonly prescribed medicine for high blood pressure. We too possess the ability to poison and pollute, but also to remedy and rehabilitate.


In our last allegory, the serpent-king Mucalinda shields the Buddha from a perilous storm, encircling his body seven times and wrapping his hood around the Buddha’s head. This speaks to yet another aspect of the snake: that of the guardian. In temples across the globe, serpent statues can be found. From rattlesnakes that shake their tails to hooded cobras that make themselves larger, many snakes hold their ground rather than slither away when threatened, even if their foe is much bigger. It reminds me of those who are giving their all—the activists standing up to oil giants, the Indigenous land defenders outnumbered in the Amazon, the politicians pushing policy reform—to fight for what’s sacred.


If humanity’s history is intertwined with the serpent, so is its future. Climate denial has turned into climate delay, but one thing hasn’t changed: the fear that underlies both. We have the knowledge, but our leaders fear invoking the wisdom to act on it. Maybe it’s because they fear the level of rebirth required, how much we will have to shed. Maybe they’re afraid to heal, and that’s why they continue to choose poison. Maybe they’re defending these broken systems out of this same fear, instead of putting that energy toward protecting our planet which hangs in the balance. In any case, one way or another, the scales will change.

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