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Lions Roar : January 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2012 71 It may also explain how the Rod of Asclepius, entwined by a sin- gle serpent, became the symbol of medicine. And there’s a more ambiguous link between snakes and medicine: The earliest phar- maceuticals, which included venom, could be lifesaving or lethal, depending on dosage (and luck). A serpent thus provided a good allegory for the medical profession, with its mixed success rate. The strangest nod to serpents that I’ve come across, in Western spirituality at least, is found in gematria, a form of Hebrew writing inspired by Greek geometry. In this mystical system of Jewish wis- dom, each Hebrew letter is assigned a number. A common exam- ple is chai, which in Hebrew means “life” (as in l’chaim, “to life”). The two letters that make up the word have a combined value of 18, a highly auspicious number in Jewish tradition. Every word in Hebrew thus has an occult numerical value—and a strong (not to mention divine) relationship with words of identical values. It turns out that the numerical value of the word for “serpent” is 358: identical to the value for the word “messiah.” Some Christians might bristle at this, but it makes perfect sense. Both snakes and messiahs, after all, are masters at the art of lib- eration. A snake literally sheds its skin, emerging as a rejuvenated being. A messiah offers the same opportunity, metaphorically: a chance to reinvent ourselves, and emerge with an overhauled soul. There’s even a biblical root to this bit of wordplay. In one of the more controversial passages in the Gospels (John 3:14-16), Jesus himself is compared to a bronze serpent that Moses displayed on a pole during the Exodus to cure victims of snake bite: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” What these many and varied stories about snakes show, if noth- ing else, is that we have a surprising amount of control over our fears—even primal fears, conditioned by evolution and genetics. The key to this control seems to be the stories we tell ourselves, as individuals and as cultures. Sometimes, those stories trade one fear for another. If one believes what the Bible says, for example, fear of death is mitigated—but snakes become creatures of darkness. A few days ago, at the Oakland Zoo, I stood by the snake enclo- sure and watched as parents brought their children up to the glass. Terror and fascination were common first responses, but the chil- dren usually calmed down when the parent read the descriptive notes about the reptile’s diet, lifestyle, and love of climbing trees. It makes sense. In the West, the stories we’re read about bears, lions, monkeys, and elephants have tempered our fears about those sometimes dangerous animals, and motivated their pro- tection and conservation. But there are almost no stories featur- ing benevolent snakes. My guess is that it will take the serpentine equivalent of Winnie the Pooh or Curious George to dispel our ancient loathing and welcome Ophidia out of exile. Meanwhile, a few of us will continue to honor these iconic ani- mals in our own way. Last week, walking alone in the Berkeley Hills, I saw a snake poised on the path ahead. Its head was held high; it seemed lost in thought. I felt a thrill pass through me, and crept forward to offer a few drops of my soy-based protein shake. This time, I was the one left feeling sheepish. It was only a stick. ♦