The Serpent Comes from the Hill

Our Imbolc ceremony this year was held on a mountain called the Blue Dragon over which the Appalachian Trail crosses eastern Pennsylvania at the Delaware Water Gap.  We sang a Brigid song based on an old Scottish saying

Early on Brigid’s morn
the serpent will come from the hill.
I will not harm the serpent.
Nor will the serpent harm me.

There were perhaps about 25 of us singing, we repeated the verse numerous times, and I wondered what the lyrics meant to them.  Of course I had explained the “meaning” behind the saying before we sang.  That is, on this first day of spring in the Celtic calendar, people in Scotland looked for certain snakes to reappear from their winter holes.  It’s the same idea as the robin reappearing, or the ground hog coming out to look for his shadow (which also happens in Pennsylvania). In other locales natives look for their own local signs of spring.

I also mentioned a further “meaning,” in that the serpent in various cultures is seen as representing the Life Force. So at this time of the year the Life Force which has been relatively dormant through the winter weeks becomes more noticeable.  Serpents can also be viewed as representing the spring thaw since their movements are sinewy, liquid, and undulating, flowing similar to water now being released from winter ice. Dragons also represent the powerful Life Force especially in Asia.  So as we stood on the Blue Dragon that day with deep snow and ice covering the ground, we saw no snakes, but the sun shown strongly and we could hear the drip of ice melting.  If we had our inner senses tuned to it, we might have heard the Blue Dragon stirring and awakening back to life.

So what did all this “mean.”  I’m qualifying the word “meaning” here because there are two kinds of meaning, and either or both could have been experienced by the Imbolc singers on the Blue Dragon.

The first kind of meaning is symbolic. This is the kind of meaning I presented in my explanation of the lyrics’ reference to the serpent as a harbinger of spring. This kind of meaning appeals to reason and reinforces our sense of separateness.  To put it another way, we have a word, “serpent,” which is a noun that refers to a particular creature (which is not us). Then we have another symbolic overlay of meaning in that this creature can represent the Life Force. If the meaning of the song stays at this level, we could say we were using ego consciousness in which we as humans experience ourselves as separate from the rest of the world, and we can think about that world, and talk or sing about it with language.

A second type of meaning is mystical.  This kind of meaning appeals to the intuition or spirit and creates a sense of interconnectedness.  It is experienced rather than thought about.  It expands consciousness so that a unitive, rather than separated, type of experience results. This kind of experience is almost too profound to put into words. Language seems to fail.  We might still talk about it with ordinary words but the words become symbolic.  We end up talking about the mystical experience as a thing separate from ourselves which it really isn’t. Poetry can help overcome this dilemma.  If a poet finds the right words or images, the poem can convey the sense of what the intuitive, mystical, unitive experience was like.

But how would our Brigid song reflect this type of unitive consciousness?

As I said, we didn’t see any snakes. Of course, we could have just trusted that somewhere there were snakes emerging from their winter nests. So were the lyrics somewhat inappropriate for the experience? Were we singing a song that was not reflective of the occasion? Yes, if our faith in language is based only on reason and literalness. There were no serpents emerging from hills and holes. We didn’t need to sing about harming or being harmed.  The lyrics did not seem to fit the occasion. From a literal point of view why sing them?

To salvage the song for this occasion, we need to turn to the Algonquin peoples whose languages are more verb based than noun based as is our own.  In English nouns predominate. In Algonquin languages verbs predominate.  If we spoke an Algonquin language we would talk more about processes, movement, and transformation than about things. An example of this might be that if we looked at a garden we would say in English, “Look at all the flowers.”  The Algonquin speaker might say, “Look at all the flowering.” Another example: We look up at the night sky and say, “Look at all the stars.” The Algonquin speaker might say, “Look at all that shining.” (I’m making these examples up because I don’t know exactly how Algonquins would state them, but the idea is, I hope, faithful.)

In the early twentieth century when quantum physicists discovered the principles and nature of the subatomic world, they were at a loss for words to describe what they experienced. Some of them even said they should consider speaking poetry! Physicist David Bohm wanted to invent a new language for it.  Here too was a world of movement, processes, and transformation where it was difficult to separate the observer from what was being observed. Later in life Bohm met Algonquin-speaking elders and realized that they had in fact a language more suited to describing this subatomic world than physicists had.

So I think if we look beneath the nouns in our Brigid song, beneath the serpents and hills, and focus on the activities or verbs we find in the song, we will discover the secondary type of meaning.  There is “snaking,” “flowing,” “emerging,” “returning,” and “no-harming” going on both in the natural world and in ourselves. The day was warming up, ice was melting, a sense of spring was manifesting.  If we could intuit the meaning of this song in verbs rather than nouns, the lyrics fit the day beautifully.  We might take a lesson from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who said that the more important question is not “What is the world made of?” but “What is the world doing?”  In other words, not “what are the things out there?” but “what is happening out there?”  What is happening “out there” can be happening within ourselves, much like the quantum physicists finding it difficult to separate the observer from the object observed. So we experience interconnectedness with the natural world and its seasons when we can recognize those movements and patterns around us and within us.

Of course we will still have to grope for some words to describe the experience, especially if we plan to sing about it.  Serpents and dragons might be the best.  Not because they represent the returning Life Force but because they are the Life Force.  Just as we are.