Snakes and ” The Light of Nature”
Where we live in northern California, late March into April is the time large gopher snakes come out of hibernation. This year, with the cold, wet spring, they are late. We have yet to find them laying in the sun in the gravel or in the mowed grass between the grape vines, some as long as four or five feet and thick as a child’s wrist. But when we do, we are careful to not hurt them. Each of them will eat many rodents each season, saving our vines’ roots. Sometimes in order to pass, we try to move one with a big stick. Often the snake will simply let out a large huff!— and not move. The snake gets its way. We wait.
Jungian analyst Dr. Joseph Henderson once told me that the serpent often represents a special kind of knowledge coming from a consciousness of the unconscious. This is an earthy knowledge, one coming from the body and instinct, not the head. The alchemist Paracelcus spoke of this knowledge when he talked about “the light of nature,” the lumen naturae. “…illumination comes not only from outside and above [revelation], but from the darkness within”(Henderson and Sherwood, Transformation of the Psyche: The Symbolic Alchemy of the Splendor Solis, p. 162).
This knowledge coming from the “darkness within” is non-thinking, body-based knowledge. The body becomes a kind of lamp, illuminating, making perception with the inner eyes possible. This illumination is the “light of nature.” Perception of this light reveals the body to be radiant, like a star.
Jung also spoke of knowledge derived from sources other than our left-brain ways and of its necessity for spiritual growth. In Vision Seminars he spoke of vegetative growth as it appears in dreams and visions, saying:
Plant -like growth… represents an entirely different psychological experience from that which we are used to, for we ordinarily think of our psychology in terms of warm- blooded animals, not plants. Yet it is a strange fact that spiritual development is symbolized by plant-life. It is the impersonal life of man, the life beyond his own psychology. And that kind of life has to follow other laws …quite unlike those arising from the mentality of the personal, warm- blooded life. (C. G. Jung, The Vision Seminars, Book 2, p. 403.)
Jung held that the “light of nature” is the quinta essentia, “extracted by God himself
from the four elements, and dwelling ‘in our hearts.’ The light of nature is an intuitive apprehension of the facts, a kind of illumination” (C.G. Jung, Collected Works, vol. 13, ¶ 148.)
When I come across these large gopher snakes, I become more alert. In that moment, the old stories come to me, ones told to me by my mother and grandmothers. They are stories that go back generations to the settling of the Illinois prairie: how as a child my great grandfather almost put his hand in a nesting cubby but dark knowledge said be careful! — and a prairie rattler was in the nest eating the eggs. How my mother discovered a snake in the basement shower and crawled up on a wall ledge buck naked, screaming until my father came. How you must leave a freshly killed snake on the road so it doesn’t come to life again because it truly dies at sundown. We laughed at these stories, united in our fear and disgust, but now their memory brings only sadness. The snake always looses. I stop to wonder what this portends.
So when I encounter the serpent, I’ve learned to listen. Not so much to the huff!! or the hiss (if there is that characteristic rattle, well, I better listen!) No, it’s not the outer sound so much as that energized place within that is suddenly one big sense organ. Time stops; the tongue flickers. The minor’s lettuces push stalks of delicate white flowers; the plant with tiny purple blooms hugging the ground has leaves like miniature coins. Somewhere is the melodic, sharp song of the red-winged black bird. The sun is very warm.