The Serpent and the Lindworm—New Year's Day 2017
From 2016: Year of the Serpent
by Paul Kingsnorth, 13th December, 2016
Last weekend, I was sitting in a packed room in the middle of a wild and wet Dartmoor listening to the mythologist Martin Shaw tell an old northern European story called The Lindworm. It is a tale about an unhappy kingdom. The king and queen want a child, but no child will come. An old wise woman tells the queen what she must do to conceive. She must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child.
Of course, the queen is unable to resist eating the red flower too, despite all the warnings. The king and queen agree to tell no-one of the transgression, and the queen duly falls pregnant, but at the birth something terrible happens. The queen gives birth to a black serpent, which is immediately caught and flung in horror through the window and into the forest. People act as if nothing has happened, and the serpent is quickly followed by a healthy baby boy. But when the boy becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.
It’s a strange and disturbing story, and if it contains a lesson, it is, suggests Martin, that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences.
[. . .]
In the story of the Lindworm, it is not the king or the queen, nor a heroic knight on a white charger, who finally draws the serpent’s threat like poison from a wound. It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature [i.e a brother prince], and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.
From Atheism in Christianity
by Ernst Bloch (Verso Books, 2009, pp. 72-73)
The man who can speak for himself will not be fitted into other men’s plans. New things always came from below, setting themselves up against established custom. The beginning above all is the time when the goad gets kicked against. Even in the touched-up Scriptures this kicking was not entirely eradicable, so people just called it names. And it stayed for that very reason, because anyway the punishment did not come, with its hoped-for intimidation.
The serpent sets the tone—seductive but also rousing. In none of its appearances is its image simple. It bears poison within itself, but on the Aesculapian staff, healing. It is the dragon of the abyss, but, at another moment, the lightning high-above. And long after it is meant to have brought sorrow on our first parents, the sight of the serpent-idol held aloft heals the children of Israel from leprosy. Nor did it tell lies, as befitted the most cunning of all the beasts of the field, at least not in the most important point of its promise. For it promised Adam he would be like God; and when Yahweh saw him afterwards he said, “Behold, the man is become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3. 22). What sort of sin is that, wanting to be like God and to know good and evil? So far is it from being unambiguous, indeed from being sin at all, that countless pious people from that time on would most likely have taken unwillingness to be like God as the original sin, if this text had allowed it. Is not knowledge of good and evil the very same as becoming a man?—as leaving the garden of beasts, where Adam and Eve still belonged? And what a disproportion between Yahweh's punishment (the expulsion, the death-blow) and a crime which, for the “image of God,” as the Jahvist [sic] earlier calls him, cannot in the end be called a crime at all. Unless it was that this fault just suited the text very well (as it has all later whitewashers of the On-high), in that it brings in the first really black scapegoat. But precisely in this passage, the most outstanding passage in the whole of the “underground” Bible, the glint of freedom is ill-concealed. And all the less concealable in that the forbidden fruit which opens men’s eyes is not deadly nightshade, but the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and that tree “was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3. 6). Again and again in the underground Bible, the serpent stands for an underground movement which has light in its eyes, instead of hollow submissive slave-guilt.
During the last few weeks two things have come together which have provided me with the material and motivation to write this hope-full New Year address.
The first was an invitation from the Dean of Emmanuel College to give the sermon at Evensong on 5th February 2017 on the subject of the “Radical Bible.” I have chosen to write something about the German Marxist, Ernst Bloch’s radical use of the Bible under the title of “Ernst Bloch, Hope and the Bible.” I’ll offer you that address here on the morning of 5th February. As I began to prepare for writing that I reread the passage about the serpent you heard earlier.
The second was reading a new piece written by Paul Kingsnorth for the Dark Mountain website concerning the contemporary relevance of an ancient northern European folk-tale about “The Lindworm” — a story which involves, as you heard, another serpent. I’ve been quietly following Paul Kingsnorth and his colleague Dougald Hine’s Dark Mountain project since its inception in 2009 and, should you be interested, I’ll be trying to organise a Dark Mountain connected event in Cambridge which I hope will take place at this church sometime during the coming year. The project self-describes as:
. . . a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it. The Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary literature and art were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning the foundations of the world in which we find ourselves.
It seems to me undeniable that any radical, liberal religious tradition such as our own must, today, consciously acknowledge and act upon the truth of these words. Any message of hope we, I, may have would be rendered false were these words not heeded. And the contingent, but nevertheless graceful, coming together of Bloch’s thoughts about the serpent and Kingsnorth’s about the Lindworm help me bring before you today what seems to me to be a realistic message of hope for the future one that, at the very least, offers us a meaningful and purposeful way to proceed in the coming year.
Let’s begin by observing that Bloch was very concerned to avoid adopting sterile dualistic either/or positions. As a contemporary British commentator on Bloch’s work, Peter Thompson, writes, this was because “it disables our critical faculties and our ability to recognise that the contractions within a situation carry with them the potential solution of that situation and that the surplus of one carries over into the corpus of the other” (Atheism in Christianity p. x).
Kingsnorth has perspicaciously recognised how our culture’s current and growing obsession with adopting dualistic either/or positions, which always brings with it an associated disabling of our critical faculties, can be spoken to by reference to the story of the Lindworm. He introduces his thoughts on this matter by noting:
Anyone who has tried to talk to someone with different opinions about the election of Donald Trump, or the British exit from the European Union, or climate change for that matter, will know that there is a madness in the air right now which goes far beyond the facts of any particular case, and which engulfs them until they are lost in the fog. When people argue about Brexit, they are not really arguing about Brexit. When they fight about Donald Trump, they are not really fighting about Donald Trump. These things have become symbols, archetypes of the kind of future we want and don’t want, the kind of people we think we are and the kind of people we think others are. It’s as if we are fighting over myths, stories, representations of the world as it is and as we want it to be.
Kingsnorth concludes that “[t]his is an easy time to take sides, and that is why it’s a good time not to.” Now I whole-heartedly agree with him on this matter but only when a necessary clarification is made. “Not taking sides” refers only to the principled refusal to pick-up and run with one or other of the binary choices currently on offer. Be clear, neither Kingsnorth nor I are saying we should simply sit around doing nothing in some imagined neutral state of passive, waiting. No! Not at all! What both of us are encouraging is the active revival and strengthening of our critical and imaginative faculties so we can be helped to see, as I have already noted, that “the contractions within a situation carry with them the potential solution of that situation and that the surplus of one carries over into the corpus of the other.”
Here’s what Kingsnorth thinks the story of the Lindworm may be saying to us about our own time:
2016, in the West, feels like the year the exiled serpent returned. Many things that were banned from the public conversation — many feelings, ideas and worldviews which were pushed under, thrown into the forest, deemed taboo, cast out of the public realm — have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection. Some people thought they were dead, but it doesn’t work like that. Dark twins can’t be destroyed; terms must be met, agreements made. The serpent must be accommodated.
And here is how Bloch put his thoughts about the serpent some forty years earlier:
The serpent sets the tone — seductive but also rousing. In none of its appearances is its image simple. It bears poison within itself, but on the Aesculapian staff, healing. It is the dragon of the abyss, but, at another moment, the lightning high-above.
Both Kingsnorth and Bloch intimately know that the serpent must be accommodated if we are to creatively and healthily to move beyond our current situation; but not only merely accommodated. Although the returning serpent has clearly seduced many people into seeing it as either simply good or bad we, in a community such as this, need to see the serpent as rousing, insurrectionary and change-inducing; a creature simultaneously highly poisonous and powerfully healing — one which carries within it the potential solution of the situation in which the surplus of one carries over into the corpus of the other.
|Hungarian Unitarian Church symbol with the serpent and the dove|
We need to see that the question which faces us is, as Bloch noted, “not of giving the death-blow to fantasy as such, but of destroying and saving the myth [of the serpent, the Lindworm] in a single dialectical process, by shedding light upon it” (Atheism in Christianity, p. x). Bloch knew that what would be swept away in such a process was not the myth of the serpent per se but, instead, the dangerous superstition that the serpent is either good or evil. As a church with its roots in the radical Reformation and radical Enlightenment tradition it seems to me that our sacred task in the coming year and beyond is not to kill the serpent that has returned to our culture after a long exile but, instead, to find ways to sweep away the persistent superstition that it is either good or bad. Why? Well, Kingsnorth makes that clear by reminding us that in the story of the Lindworm,
. . . it is not the king or the queen, nor a heroic knight on a white charger, who finally draws the serpent’s threat like poison from a wound. It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature, and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.
But, you may say, we are ourselves such a small and marginal religious community that there is nothing genuinely real and effective that we can possibly do. Well, here is what Kingsnorth has to say about that kind of thought:
I think we could make a case that most of the world’s great religions, philosophies, artforms, even political systems and ideologies were initiated by marginal figures. There is a reason for that: sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it. In the old stories, people from the edges of things brought ideas and understandings from the forest back in to the kingdom which the kingdom could not generate by itself.
In our different but connected ways what I, and what Paul Kingsnorth, Dougald Hine and the Dark Mountain project are trying to encourage is to create realistic, loving, creative communities on the margins of the current madness who are committed to telling each other new stories so as to get some real and new perspectives on the turmoil at the heart of things. As Kingsnorth makes clear this is “not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it.” [This is, of course, a form of restoration I spoke with you about last year under the title of “re-story-ation.”]
Which brings me to my final story concerning snakes told to me many years ago by a rabbi with whom I was teaching a class of students studying Jewish-Christian relations.
It concerned a group of travellers who were crossing a difficult and challenging landscape. Suddenly the ground below them gave way and they fell into a deep, vertical sided pit out of which they could not climb. Recovering from the shock they saw that poisonous snakes were beginning to emerge from dozens of holes in the side of the pit and to fall upon them. As they fell the travellers were forced quickly to grab them by their tails and throw them up and out of the pit. This was exhausting work for the flow of snakes did not in any way diminish. After a while they noticed that one of their number was not clearing snakes but was, instead, sitting on the ground in the middle of the pit deep in thought. Angrily her companions began to shout at her to get off her arse and start clearing snakes immediately. She calmly looked up at them and said:
“It is clear to me that these snakes are unlikely to stop dropping down upon us anytime soon. It is also clear to me that very soon you will all be exhausted and unable to clear-up the snakes anymore and we shall die. It is also clear, therefore, that unless someone takes the time to think of another way to get out of this situation then we are already lost. Leave me alone and let me think.”
I think that we, here, must become that woman in the pit and also the young woman in the story of the Lindworm who comes from the margin of the woods. To reiterate, our sacred task is not to kill the serpent but, instead, to “bring new weapons, and new cunning, into the court” and to do the job which the rulers of our kingdom have absolutely no idea how to do. Our new stories must begin to reveal the true nature of the serpent so as to change it and everything around it. We are here to force our kingdom to confront its past and to find ways to enfold the serpent healthily and creatively back into our culture.
I suggest that we begin, like latter-day conscientious objectors, by refusing during this year to take sides in the binary either/or madness that is upon us and I humbly request that we make this our New Year’s resolution and in it root and nurture our message of hope for the future.