Serpentessa picks me up at the Rosendale, New York, bus stop in her minivan. She is wearing a snake-print wrap shirt and a silver snake earring to match, with her hair fashioned in a small, regal pouf and braided down the back. She looks like an ancient Cretan queen. She is both warm and imposing in the subtle, sensual way that seems particular to women. We discuss spirituality on the short drive to the Center for Symbolic Studies, a farm complex of low, wood-paneled buildings where Serpentessa has rented, for the afternoon, the movement studio, a cool mirrored shaft piled with plush rugs. Once we arrive, we unpack: a few tote bags, a folding massage table zipped inside a black nylon case, and, finally, a blue Igloo cooler with holes drilled in its sides, bungee-corded shut. Inside are three adult boa constrictors, who will be our teachers and healers in a ritual massage.
The recipient of the massage will be Nadine, a friend of a friend. Serpentessa lays out a snakeskin the length of the massage table, a snake-printed shawl, and figurines of crowned, bare-breasted Minoan serpent goddesses. She tells me that one goal for today’s session with Nadine will be to relieve pain from a spinal injury. “I think she’s had problems with her neck and back, maybe broke it,” she says. “I’m going to find out more.”
Some clients use the massage as alternative medicine; some as a spiritual practice; some as a particularly extreme way of conquering their fear of snakes. The ritual satisfies all three. As to the risk, Serpentessa tells me that she can’t make any guarantees—these are wild animals, after all—but in her 36 years of performing serpent healing, in private sessions like this one and in workshops, her snakes have never injured anyone.
When Nadine arrives, we huddle on the rugs with mugs of tea, under a window framing a simple stone amphitheater downhill and desiccated trees against the cold periwinkle sky. We talk about her neck—after a herniated disc required spinal fusion surgery a few years ago, she still has problems with her nervous system. But we also talk about lunar cycles, the history of patriarchy, climate change, First Nations protesters at Standing Rock, past lives, and pregnancy. Serpentessa tells us what to expect from the snake massage. “Everyone’s entry ramp is different,” she says. “But everyone’s result is like, ‘Wow. This feels so amazing. I feel love for this animal, and I feel like it loves me. I feel so relaxed. The snake knew exactly where to go on my body.’”
Nadine sits on the massage table and Serpentessa gently loops a dark, diamond-patterned snake on her shoulders; then an albino boa named Eros with scales the color of clotted cream, then a male named Ember. She lies down and the snakes curl around her neck. Ember knots himself into a bundle near her feet, which are tattooed with a map of the world outlined in turquoise. At one point, Serpentessa sings. She suggests Nadine ask the snakes an unspoken question, which may be answered in a dream or in springtime, when their mating season begins. The ritual lasts about half an hour.
And then, sooner than I had expected, it’s my turn. Serpentessa describes herself as “snake priestess”—a teacher and spiritual facilitator for interspecies connection. She began working with the animals in the 1980s, bellydancing with a snake named Sophia as a member of New York City’s rock ‘n’ roll scene, and occasionally bringing the serpents onto the subway, wrapped around her arms. (She moved to Rosendale with her partner, Mikio, to expand their Grateful Dead T-shirt company in the late ’80s.) Serpentessa began to notice that snakes appeared sensitive to her endometriosis, wrapping around her abdomen and alleviating the pain. Then, one of her snakes unexpectedly gave birth. “I wasn’t able to have children,” she says. “When that became really clear, I had snake babies instead.” Now, she has 10 snakes, who live in her home in a room that is heated with propane to create a climate warm enough for the tropical animals. In the past, she has housed as many as 30 at a time. She describes them as “teachers” and “equal partners” in her practice.
Snakes have long been entwined with religious and spiritual ritual. The Rod of Asclepius, the symbol of a snake curled around a wooden staff used as a contemporary shorthand for medical services, takes its name from a minor Greek god of healing who could, according to myth, shape-shift into a serpent. At his shrines, non-venomous snakes covered the floors. Pilgrims co-existed with them in the search for cures to their illnesses, which were delivered in dreams. The god Quetzalcoatl, a winged serpent, appears across Mesoamerican legend as a creator. In the Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian creation myth, the serpentine mother goddess Tiamat is killed by the storm god Marduk, who bisects her body to build the sky. “He split her up like a flat fish into two halves,” the poem reads. “One half of her he established as a covering for heaven.”
Today, snake rituals, discouraged by custom or law, have slithered away from public visibility. In India, the use of the reptile for performance is banned by a 1991 amendment; for the nomadic Kalbelia tribe, who relied on snake charming as their primary livelihood, flashy, colorful skirts now mimic the role of the snake in traditional dance. Pentecostal preachers have brandished venomous snakes for more than a century in Appalachia, offering their resilience to the serpents’ attacks as proof of God’s protection. But the practice is now banned in every state except West Virginia. A recent effort to introduce the practice to a modern audience was marred by the death of one well-known preacher and the arrest of another for assault.
In 2006, in the small Indian village of Atala, a woman named Bimbala Das married a cobra who was believed to be the avatar of a local snake god named Debo, and who lived in an anthill near her family’s home. Das had long suffered from tuberculosis and other mysterious ailments, but one day, the snake god appeared to her in a dream: “I am with you. I am just testing you,” her mother paraphrased, according to an article in Harper’s. “Now, don’t worry, you will surely be cured.” When she married the snake, she was adopted by a high-caste family—a formality necessary to sanction the nuptials—and became a holy woman herself, dressing “like a goddess” in a yellow sari, with garlands of marigolds wrapped around her arms.
Serpents are so fretted with symbolism that linking oneself to them can be a path to power where traditional avenues fail, particularly for women. Perhaps this power is ontological: A person uninjured by snakes seems to know an alternate, rarer set of facts about reality, and is able to move differently through the world because of it. In her 2003 book, The Companion Species Manifesto, feminist theorist Donna Haraway describes interspecies relationships, borrowing philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of “hailing,” the way an ideology calls on individuals to fill prescribed roles—mothers, workers, citizens, outcasts. “Today, through our ideologically loaded narratives of their lives, animals ‘hail’ us to account for the regimes in which they and we must live,” she writes. “We ‘hail’ them into our constructs of nature and culture, with major consequences of life and death, health and illness, longevity and extinction. We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.”
That boa constrictors are very strong animals is obvious, but feeling three serpents wrapped around your neck is startling for the familiar human quality of that strength. It feels like a chiropractor kneading a sore muscle, both authoritative and esoteric. As the serpents formed a churning, tight corona around my head and shoulders, I reflected that, although I have never liked snakes, we’d only met briefly: the big mud-brown water serpent that had terrified me on a hike, and the garter snake I’d found while playing in the front yard as a child. Serpents set off a hardwired instinct to fight or flee, but once that threshold is crossed—and, I thought, as snakes slithered over my bare legs, I had clearly crossed it—the encounter is thrilling, a little awkward, and funny.
I once watched a YouTube video of a dog and a small monkey, both apparent strays, passing time together in a green and brown scene made dustier by the low-definition camera on which it was shot. Monkeys shore up social relationships by grooming, picking off ticks and twigs in a dis-play of altruism that, hopefully, invites reciprocal care. In the video, the monkey is gallantly rifling through the dog’s fur, expressing the dog’s importance in his or her monkey life, but the dog doesn’t get it at all. He keeps getting up and moving a few steps away, and the monkey returns and starts over. If the monkey is saying, “I am your friend!,” the dog seems to be responding, “I know, but what are you doing?”
Past terror, the playbook for how a human might interact with a snake is similarly limited by mistranslation and mutual bafflement. But, as the supple, serpentine muscles tightened over my throat, I thought that everyone involved seemed to be approaching the challenge with good humor. I laid very still, to avoid spooking them; their movements were steady, predictable. They bobbed their small spade-shaped heads agreeably, testing the air with split tongues. Before the massage began, Serpentessa had said that other clients had revealed afterwards that they “feel love for this animal,” and that they felt it loved them back. I am not sure how to define love with a snake, but I wanted nothing bad to happen to them, and they did not want to hurt me.
I did not approach the snake massage with a physical problem I hoped to heal, but during the ritual, I did ask the snakes a metaphysical question. It has not yet been answered, although I’ve had odd dreams since. In its small, strange way, the snake ritual models a good-natured attempt to communicate over the gulf of biological difference, reminding us that nature is not a limit-less and inert resource. Something Serpentessa said on the ride to the Center for Symbolic Studies has lingered with me, a message she was told during an ayahuasca ceremony by the hallucinogenic plant itself: “Your species are so fucking young. You’re like babies. You create things and then move on to the next toy,” she shared, then added, “We have to quiet the busy monkey mind down and think about the ramifications of what we’re doing.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.