Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year of the Snake

On this last day of 2012, which is already the first day of 2013 for some of my readers, I take this means to wish you all a very happy and healthy new year.
In East Asia, 2013 is the Year of the Snake, although in China and those countries that still follow Chinese customs the new year doesn’t begin until February 10. While in the West a snake usually conjures up bad images and is sometimes a symbol of evil, that is not the case in East Asia.
In several ancient cultures, snake worship was a common practice, and the ancient Egyptians saw the snake as a symbol of wisdom. Similarly, to the Chinese of the past and many of the present the snake is a symbol of good fortune.
Still, the snake is my least-liked of the twelve Asian zodiac symbols. I have never liked snakes of any kind anywhere.
In the English-speaking world, “a snake in the grass” is an idiom used for “a sneaky and despised person.” And “killing snakes” is a metaphor sometimes used to describe energetic effort in getting something done; usually it means going overboard, being a bit overzealous. In these and other western expressions, snakes are seen negatively.
In its first edition of the year, The Economist magazine wrote, “So in Tokyo it is already the year of the snake. In the East these animals are associated with good fortune. Japan’s politics being what it is these days, the western meaning may be more suitable.”
That was in written in 1989, two cycles ago; some things don’t change much! (I don’t have many positive feelings toward the new Prime Minister of Japan who was elected earlier this month.)
But it is true, in East Asia the snake is a symbol of good fortune, and those born in the Year of the Snake (for example, those born in 1941, 1953, 1965) are usually kind, vibrant, introspective, and refinedor so it is said.
So this is a special year for people born in those years (and there may even be some readers who were born in 1929). I hope it will be an extraordinary year for all of you born in the Year of the Snake, even if you don’t live in Japan or China.
Who knows, though, what will happen in our world, on in our personal lives, between now and the beginning of next year, the Year of the Horse. Some of you reading this may no longer be here next year—and neither may the one writing this. (My daughter Kathy’s father-in-law suddenly passed away last week—just three days after they saw him “hale and hearty” in Louisville; he was several years older than I, but still . . .)
So perhaps the beginning of the new year is a good time to recall, and to pray, the words of the 1974 hit song that contains these important words,
Yesterday’s gone, Sweet Jesus,
And tomorrow may never be mine.
Lord, help me today,
Show me the way,
One day at a time.
I pray that you will, indeed, have a happy new year, one day at a time.


  1. About 15 minutes ago, a local Thinking Friend wrote,

    "A fitting intro to the New Year. Even Jesus’ first commission in sending out his disciples included the expression to them to be 'wise as snakes and innocent as doves.'”

  2. A marvelous essay for us on this last day of the year! Thanks. And perhaps we should redeem the snake in the West. After all, in spite of centuries of layering complicated, dogmatic, and orthodox interpretations on top of the Book of Genesis, when you read chapter three closely, one realizes: indeed, the snake was telling the truth!

    1. Anton, thanks for the complimentary words. But I don't think I can agree with your suggestion about "redeeming" the snake.

      I still am in basic agreement (I think, it has been a very long time since I read it) with what Harvey Cox wrote in his important book "On Not Leaving It To the Snake" (1967).

  3. I agree with Anton that Christian readings of Genesis tend to obscure the message of the snake. Indeed, it is a short journey from rejection of that first serpent to the no-nothingism of fundamentalism. In most of the world's cultures the serpent represents health and wisdom. Two copulating snakes are featured on the caduceus of Hermes, and one snake is on the rod of Asclepius, both widely used as medical symbols (the caduceus especially in North America, per Wikipedia in other parts of the world it is more generally associated with merchants). The trees of life and knowledge in the garden are the serpent's traditional business!

    Jesus' comment about the doves and serpents has an interesting parallel in the New World where the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is literally "the feathered serpent." It even dates to about the same time as Jesus. Quetzalcoatl also had to do with merchants, arts, crafts and knowledge.

    Joseph Campbell in "The Mythic Image" has a section titled "The Serpent Guide" (pages 281-299), where he seems to be somewhat gleefully reporting that some early Ophitic Christian sects considered the serpent in the garden to be the first appearance of the Savior. He goes on to point out the comparison between the fiery serpent Moses erected to save the people from ordinary serpents of the kind with poisonous bites, and the crucified Christ, also raised to draw the people unto himself. Which leaves Jesus in a somewhat awkward position when we get to the part of the Bible where Hezekiah destroys the serpent of Moses as an idol. Compare Numbers 21:5-9, II Kings 18:1-8, and John 3:14.

    Personally, I would prefer to see both positions in juxtaposition, with serpents seen as ambiguous symbols fitting the challenge of a modern world where we have both abolished smallpox and unleashed hydrogen bombs. In this blog we have repeatedly discussed different aspects of the failings of the "science" of economics. Perhaps the world would be a better place if economics were a subset of theology in the religion department! How many economists can dance on the head of a dollar? Does George Washington care?

    God knows something more important than either health or wisdom. God knows the good. That does not make health and wisdom bad, just relative. And yet, in knowing, God is using the tool of the serpent, knowledge. Perhaps what we have here is more of a dance than a battle. Indeed, Campbell points out that symbols of Yahweh frequently incorporated snake motifs. Perhaps we are once again just catching up with ancient faith.

  4. Wow! Thanks, Craig, you taught me a lot about the snake that I did not know and posed ideas that beg for further consideration.

    I like your suggestion that economics be "a subset of theology" -- although I would prefer that religion also be a subset of theology in the theology department.

    And speaking of ancients, maybe the theologians of the past had it right when they talked about theology as the queen of the sciences.

    I am not sure I follow your line of thought in referring to the "short journey from rejection of that first serpent to the no-nothingism of fundamentalism."

    The temptation of the snake in Genesis has usually been interpreted as the sin of pride--and it seems to me that that has often been the sin of fundamentalism. (Like thinking they should, and could, take over the U.S. government.)

    But I like Cox's book (mentioned above) partly because of its emphasis on sin as irresponsibility, refusing to make one's own decisions. So sin is not just pride, it is also sloth. That is why he wrote about "on not leaving it to the snake."