Right now it’s easy to feel survival fears, to observe deeply ingrained panic behaviours and to hear people talk about ‘these strange times.’ I understand the sentiment, but I think it’s strange that so many of us have become used to unsustainable and imbalanced ways of being; where our grocery store shelves and medical centres rely on supplies shipped from across the planet, where in countries like Australia the government has created a “free market” (more accurately a corrupt gambling scheme) for one of our most precious elements: water; and where ultra-deep sea mining and drilling is going into the Earth’s crust in our seemingly endless exploitations of this planet.
I’m reminded of a beautiful book called Singing the Land, Signing the Land written by European-Australian researchers in collaboration with Yolgnu indigenous scientists and traditional knowledge-holders. The researchers remind us that in the European Middle Ages, “nature actually was a book to be read, like the Bible, in order to discover God’s purposes. There were ‘books in the running brooks, sermons in stones’.” And the Yolgnu hold up a very telling mirror when it comes to how they, and their European-Australian counterparts, see the crocodile (which the early Australian-European explorer quoted below mistakenly referred to as an alligator). Consider these two very different views:
I see a crocodile as an animal that is part of me and I belong to him, he belongs to me. It’s a commoness of land ownership. Everything that I have comes from the crocodile. Crocodile, he’s the creator and the land giver to the Gumatj people. In my group of people, and the forefathers, we have always treated crocodile in a way that it is part of a family…Aboriginal people, through thousands of years of living with crocodiles, never have considered that they are dangerous animals. We have always lived with them. They lived their own life and we lived our own ways, as long as there is common respect for each other.–Gularrwuy Yunupil’u
I had stripped to swim across a creek, and with gun in hand was stealthily crawling to the outer edge of the flat where my intended victims were, when an alligator rose close by, bringing his unpleasant countenance much nearer than was agreeable … My only chance of escaping the monster was to hasten back to the boat, and to cross the last creek before the alligator, who appeared fully aware of my intentions…the race began. I started off with the utmost rapidity, the alligator keeping pace with me in the water. After a sharp and anxious race, I reached the last creek, which was now much swollen; while the difficulty of crossing was aggravated by my desire to save my gun. Plunging in I reached the opposite shore just in time to see the huge jaws of the alligator extended close above the Spot where I had quilled the water. My deliverance was providential, and I could not refrain from shuddering as I sat gaining breath upon the bank after my escape, and watching the disappointed alligator lurking about as if still in hopes of making his supper upon me.–John Lort Stokes
(Image from the book, cited as art by Bede Tungatalum, Bathurst Island entitled Crocodile and fish, woodcut).
I was recently listening to an Aboriginal Australian view of the St. George & the dragon myth in which Europeans first saw their animal, primal nature as a scary monster, then attacked and tried to kill it. And then re-enacted that nightmare in the form of colonisation, slavery, exploitation, and all manner of destruction around the world. It reminded me of some of my previous learning about serpents. It is thought-provoking to consider how in Judeo-Christian mythology the serpent enticed Eve into mankind’s fall from Eden, whereas other cultural myths about serpents include:
- creation of life emanating from underground and water-dwelling part-human part-snake beings called nagas in Indian and Buddhist mythology;
- water, the coming of spring, resurrection and rebirth associated with meso-American winged serpent God Quetzalcoatl;
- the Hopi’s annual snake dance honoring serpent God Awanyu celebrating water, fertility, and the arrival of spring;
- the rainbow serpent creator God of Aboriginal Australians that controls the water;
- Fu Xi and Nu Gua who had male and female heads and snake bodies and created human life in Chinese mythology;
- the kundalini snake that animates the body and spirit in Vedic mythology; and
- Western medicine’s use of the Asclepius symbol of a snake wrapped around a staff to represent healing based on Greek and Roman mythology.
Interesting note for Western culture: Freud cited a fear of snakes as fear of the penis. While many cultures see snakes as wild and potentially dangerous, they are generally highly respected and seen to symbolise fertility, the creation and resurrection of life, springtime, and a connection with water and emotional wellbeing. On the medicine wheel, water is often connected with our emotional life, and since snakes are connected with water, a negative or fearful view of snakes is linked with negative or fearful emotion. (Image from the rainbow serpent link.)
These myths, and especially creation stories and the emotions they evoke are embedded into the foundation of a culture’s collective psyche. When creation stories evoke negative or fearful emotions, these emotions emanate beneath the surface of conscious everyday thought, and other aspects of culture are built on top of them. This is something for those of us carrying Western creation stories to consider. Tyson Yunkaporta points out that in Greek mythology the ouroboros was meant to represent infinity, but “how can this serpent be a symbol of infinity if it will eventually eat itself?” I too find this symbol disturbing and have a visceral memory of someone I was getting to know showing me a silver ouroboros ring she had made, which so repulsed me I must’ve expressed that in my energy because we never met again. I find the symbol to be celebrating sabotage or suicide, but it seems many people feel otherwise! I am trying to understand, for as the authors of Singing the Land, Signing the Land say, “The world is now too well connected to allow the luxury of alienation within one conceptual system.” I hope our current circumstances are helping remind us of this and of our innately interconnected primal nature.