In the past couple of weeks I had three encounters with snakes that left me scratching my head and asking myself, “What does it all mean?” I am wary of reading prophetic significance into every situation. Things can and do happen by chance, especially in the material realm. However, three sightings of snakes in a compressed time period seems noteworthy to me, not least because I have a visceral fear of these creatures that stems back to childhood. Besides, even if the repeated appearance of snakes is coincidence, there’s no reason I can’t use these occurrences as a springboard for contemplation, which is precisely what I intend to do in this post.
The three snake sightings began when I arrived home from a trip to Trader Joe’s (the closest one is 15 miles from my house. Sigh.) As I got out of my car and headed to the garage where my tiny little refrigerator is located, I saw a coiled, diamond-patterned shape out of the corner of my eye. While my brain registered what I was seeing, I froze, waiting for recognition to occur. After seconds that seemed like an eternity, I put it together. I was looking at an adolescent rattlesnake. I stared at this young fellow, inching my way backward, heart pounding in my chest. The snake flicked its skinny, black tongue at me and waited. I made my way back to my car, called my landlord and closest friend, and told her about the snake.
About half an hour later, I had to leave my camper/house to get some water. The snake was now stretched full length on the driveway, directly between my camper and my friend’s house. My friend came out to offer moral support and told me she’d asked Animal Control to move the snake to a less-populated patch of land. Fortunately, Animal Control arrived within a couple of hours and moved our friend to his new home.
The following night, I awoke at 5:00 AM and was unable to get back to sleep. I opened my Netflix account and started a documentary on people who keep exotic pets. Of course, snakes made their appearance. I was treated to visions of black mambas, cobras, and enormous Burmese pythons. I gave an involuntary shudder watching footage of large snakes wound around Animal Control officers before falling into an uneasy sleep.
My third and final encounter with a snake was on my drive home from Santa Barbara, CA where I’d attended a conference. I decided to take the 150, which wends its way from the 101 on the coast inland through the mountains that surround the Ojai Valley. As I rolled out of the mountains, I saw a snake stretched out full-length in the middle of the highway. While I fear snakes, I have no desire to harm them; I positioned the car so it would go over the snake without crushing it.
When I got home, I realized I’d had my third snake sighting in less than a week. I pondered what message the Norse gods might be trying to send me, but couldn’t think of anything associated with snakes. Then I had an A-Ha moment and remembered Jormundgand, the serpent offspring of the fire god, Loki, and Angrboda, the terse, fierce Etin Queen of the Iron Wood. I read up on Jormundgand to refresh my memory. I seldom work with Loki and his family. Angrboda, herself, politely but firmly informed me that she would not accept me into service and that my wyrd lay with the healers of Lyfjaberg.
In the online shrine to Jormundgand available at http://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/jormundgand/index.html, Raven Kaldera writes that Jormundgand can teach us much about liminality. As the guardian who separates Midgard from the other nine realms, Jormundgand is the perfect mentor for those who desire to experience the ineffable nature of liminal states. Kaldera also discusses the personal gnosis of pagans who have encountered Jormundgand in seidhr work. The recurring theme seems to be that encounters with Jormundgand defy the capacity of language to define or explain and instead leave the mortal wanderer with a powerful sense of the alien and the strange.
In reviewing the primal shudder I experienced in each of my encounters with Jormundgand’s emissaries, I concur wholeheartedly with those pagans who find Jormundgand alien, amoral, and wholly Other. Nor is Jormundgand Other in a way that allows one to project onto him those attributes of either an idealized or demonized alternative to hegemonic discourse. No, Jormundgand represents radical alterity, something so alien that it eludes any frame of reference.
Though I won’t be courting contact with snakes any time soon, I feel honored by the lessons Jormundgand has taught me. A reader recently told me that my guides want me to meditate on my shadow self as a way of releasing the fears and petty jealousies that prevent me from evolving personally. Jormundgand allowed me to confront my fear of physicality and of the instinctual drives originating in the reptilian brain. In confronting Jormundgand, I gained a real sense of the indeterminate. For me, it is the acceptance of radical alterity that is the real lesson in liminality. And for that, I owe Jormundgand a huge debt of gratitude.