In the last Blog, I tried to communicate the ineffable nature of the Dragon, which may have been confusing, and I’m afraid the Snake may be worse. The Dragon may be ineffable due to its unlimited potential, but it is the Yang version of potential, meaning it is the result of full manifestation, EXTREME YANG, and is therefore easier for us to understand in this Yang culture. As a culture, we get “doing,” but “being,” on the other hand, is a mystery. The Snake represents this Mystery—the Yin to the Dragon’s Yang.
Yin is manifestation, the condensation of everything into apparent form, which turns into Yang, the expression of form through movement and dynamism. As Yin expresses into Yang, it opens, expands, and rises to Heaven, becoming more and more transparent, heading back towards the un-manifest. Dragon Qi symbolizes the height of this expression and movement—all of manifestation integrated, directed, and flying free, Yin going all the way to Extreme Yang.
Yin-Yang Theory teaches that Yin and Yang turn into one another and that Extreme Yang gives way and turns into Extreme Yin, which is symbolized in the Chinese Zodiac by the Snake. The Snake is EXTREME YIN, the flipside of the Dragon. In the Dragon, the entire Zodiac is manifest and expressing. In the Snake, the entire Zodiac is in seed/potential form having been expressed fully and then having disappeared, leaving behind a complete, open, and transparent vacuity. Snake is the Emptiness, Potential, and Openness that hosts all Form. Snake Qi is the empty spoke in the center of the turning Wheel.
Pig Qi, which is where we began our exploration of the Zodiac, while similar, is Snake’s opposite. Pig Qi expresses Yin Water, the dissolution of everything at the end of the cycle. Snake is not a dissolution, for dissolution is a gradual process. Snake is not gradual. Snake is the sudden and extreme flip from Yang to Yin, sort of like the popping of a bubble, or a Snake striking its prey. Dragon Qi expands until…pop! This sudden flip from everything to nothing is said to represent Yin Fire, the native element of the Snake.
Even in the appearance of complete emptiness, total vacuity, there is Yang, a spark, an ember, a warmth pulsating, undulating in the Void. For all Emptiness is pregnant with unlimited potential. Emptiness is said to contain all potential. Every possibility is inherent in Emptiness; the entire universe resides in and emerges from space. In Tantra, Space is called the Inexhaustible Treasury. Everything comes from Space, yet Space is never altered, stained, harmed, or destroyed. It is Indestructible— “Vajra,” immaculate and pristine. Of all the Twelve Animals, Snake is said to be closest to this pristine, open, spacious quality of life. Snake, Yin Fire, is the warmth, the radiant nature of Life present in the Void.
Yin Fire also represents the nature of Snake Hour, from 9 am to 11 am—the time of day after the Sun has appeared and begins to slowly warm the Earth. Snake Hour is bright and transparent; it is the gap between the great manifestation of Sunrise (the Dragon) and the productivity of Midday (the Horse). Snake Hour is said to be a time of revelation, transparency, and reflection, where we process and gather ourselves before being productive. If you were born during this time of day, then you are part Snake.
Yin Fire is the slow smoldering transformation of a simmering fire, like a crock-pot as opposed to a BBQ. It is the catalytic force of alchemy and cooking—stimulating, energizing, yet still, pulsating, warming, consuming, mesmerizing; it is internal rather than external vigor. The Snake is a symbol of the Heart, the Shen, the still, warm beating center of things, awake and alive, yet passive/yin, for the Heart beats without effort.
The symbol of the Snake is immensely old and traces itself back to China’s “Shamanic” roots. The Snake symbol is universal, and its expression is similar across cultures. Unlike some cultures, the Chinese conception of the Snake is not evil or sinister—it is Yin. It represents the unknown/unknowable world, the subterranean, the submerged, the unconscious.
There is no “evil,” in the Chinese view of Life, but Yin does have a dark side, and the Snake can be a symbol of darkness. This darkness, however, is the basis for transformation. We cannot truly transform unless we consider all our dark places; we must turn up all the rocks and look at the creepy crawlies beneath the surface. Snake is what lies beneath the surface.
In this sense, the Snake is like the Rabbit, but taken to another level. The Rabbit is submerged in the unconscious subterranean world, but the Snake is that world; it sees through it unattached, where the Rabbit innocence is potentially lost in the static of the ethers. Snake Qi sees through the nature of appearances, and so Snake Characters are said to lead lives that are uniquely self-reflective and insightful. It is in the Character of Snake to reflect, to mirror, to question, and to peak behind the curtains.
The impulse of Snake Qi, Big Yin, is sinking, gathering, descending, internalizing, seeking stillness, silence. Like Snakes in the wild, Snake Qi seeks to be hidden, unseen, to blend in with the environment. Snake people, therefore, have a natural inclination to “disappear,” to hide, to renounce, to recede from the world by blending in with the surroundings. A Snake might look like a vine on the tree, so it is there, present in the world, but it is not the vine, not what it appears to be.
Snake Qi is by nature not what it appears to be; it is unknowable and ineffable. Big Yin defies all labels and definitions. Emptiness, by “definition,” is beyond conceptual elaboration, as the Buddhists say. As I mentioned in the last Blog, the Snake represents the inner open capacity at the heart of the Zodiac to become any of the other 11 Characters without being defined by them, while the Dragon actually is all 11 Characters embodied.
This unknowable quality is said to be the source of an unmatched charm. Snakes have the capacity to become anything and anybody without being attached, for they represent all potential. They have all the Capacity of all 11 Characters available, like the Dragon, but they are not defined by nor do they take pride in what they display. They are mystery even to themselves.
Their instinct is to hide, but they can hide in a crowded room, because they are inwardly unknowable. You can “know” a Snake for years and still not know who they are. And this is not deceptive, because they aren’t anybody (no one is really), and this is their power.
Snakes are a mystery, to themselves and to other people. They cannot be known. Remember this as I get into the Key Words. We may use words to describe Snake Qi, but Snakes are not these words. The Snake symbolizes the reality that no one is what they think they are, nor are we how others perceive us. We are all a mystery. You can never really know another person—not really. We are all symbols to each other.
In China, the Snake is the Sorcerer Philosopher and symbolizes the process of Alchemy and inner transformation, for the Snake sheds its skin. It is always in the process of becoming something else. They also represent what Liu Ming called “striking force,” like Muhammad Ali (a Snake), an aspect of the Fire Element, the ability to remain perfectly still and then strike, act, seemingly out of nowhere like a snake paralyzing its prey.
Social-political pundit John Oliver, a Fire Snake, the Natural Snake, is a great example of Snake Qi. On camera, he is charming and yet venomous; his ability to see through appearances to the reality of situations and then strike with deadly force is mesmerizing. Yet, if you watch interviews with him outside of his show, he appears to be a completely different person. He claims not to be a journalist, not to have political motivations; he completely embodies his role and is unattached; he is not what he appears to be, which is not to say he is deceptive. On camera, he becomes a role and then sheds his skin. The Snake succeeds when they have fooled everybody into thinking they’re a certain way yet secretly they remain unattached and beyond everything.
Bernie Sanders, a Metal Snake, is another great example of Snake Qi with his vision, wisdom, insight, and ability to see through social structure to the heart of things. He, too, displays the striking force, delivering political statements so penetrating and direct that he inspires millions. He is fully in the world yet not “of it.” He cares deeply but is unattached, which is why I think he has maintained his unrelenting integrity for so many years without losing heart.
The Key Terms for the Snake are, again, how they appear, but not actually how they are. You may know or be a Snake and not identify with these labels, and that’s fine. No person is truly their Character; it is merely a pattern, a tendency of our Qi to display. Snake Qi is symbolic of the idea that we can all transcend our limitations through detachment.
The first Key Term, then, is deeply reflective. In many ways, it is not easy to be a Snake. Snakes are natural mystics in a non-mystic world. Snake Qi can be called penetrating insight. Without trying, Snakes have the tendency to see through things, through the nature of appearance to essential qualities. Since Snake Qi is naturally open and empty, it is natural for Snakes to reflect on life and on their situation, for their Qi display is in direct contrast with what society tells us. With training, this can lead to insight. But if Snakes are told from an early age that the world is solid, that people are real, that situations are concrete, and that they must “be somebody,” then they will fake it and pretend, while internally they may experience deep depression, resentment, and even fear.
As it turns out, Reality can be frightening to glimpse. Imagine finding out that up and down are meaningless—this is called vertigo. My teacher calls this the “round world,” as opposed to the “square world.” In the round world, i.e. in Reality, we don’t have a leg to stand on; all concepts are relative, and nothing has any inherent meaning. If you do not grasp at solidity, then this realization liberates you, and emptiness becomes the source of much giggling. If you grasp, emptiness inspires terror, nihilism, and possibly suicidal tendencies. Snakes may feel that the world is meaningless, that everyone is a fake, that everything is make believe non-sense. And they may feel crazy because they see this and no one else does.
Depleted, Snake Qi can turn to paranoia. If they are not taught to trust their insight, their vision into what lies beneath the surface, they can get into trouble. Seeing signs, hearing voices—all very Snakey, like Rabbit Qi in this sense. The truth is that there are voices—the universe is full of psychic static, and people project their thoughts and emotions all over the place with little discretion. While Rabbits tend to feel the emotional, energetic, embodied quality of this static, Snakes tend to see into the more “psychic” mental dimension of things.
Snake Qi is transparent and clear, and Snakes are probably the most distant from the rich direct experience of the senses, embodied in Snake’s opposite, the Pig. Snakes can easily be disembodied and live in a flat mental world, which can turn to nihilism. They may mistrust the display of the world. On the other hand, this transparency offers insight.
If Snakes go with their insight, they become wise. The Snake is synonymous with wisdom. On the surface, this wisdom comes from a natural observant quality, which comes from the Snakes impulse to lie still, wait, and watch. Snakes tend to observe and attend very closely to details, which lends to profound intelligence. On a deeper level, Snake wisdom is both visionary and philosophical. In Buddhism, wisdom is identical to śūnyatā, emptiness; they are synonymous. Emptiness is another blog, but at the deepest level, Snake Qi represents this side of reality.
Snakes can be too smart for their own good, capable of immense calculation and planning. Of course, everyone can be intelligent, but Snake intelligence encapsulates the concept of genius. This kind of intelligence often goes hand and hand with depression. Snakes have the opposite of “ignorance is bliss.” Rather, Snake intelligence tends to obsess about how messed up the world is and about messed up they are themselves, leading to cynicism/skepticism, and very often depression. This depression does not need a cause, for Snake Qi is by nature depressed, sinking, and dark, energetically speaking. So, Snakes can appear moody and brooding.
The Snake tendency towards depression can turn to self-loathing, however, especially if their intelligence is not put to more creative outlets. Intelligence can easily turn to hatred either at the world or at themselves. When Snakes are not successful, when they do not find an outlet for their vision, they can turn bitter and negative, criticizing everything and everyone, picking apart their own faults as well.
Because of their visionary and creative qualities, Snakes make natural artists. Snakes want to leave the world behind. They want to follow their vision to the end and lose themselves beyond the horizon. They want to disappear. Snake Qi is a vision quest, a spirit journey into the unknown, the underworld. In their imagination, Snakes see through this world to others and realms beyond. They may even have tangible visions in their waking life.
So, Snakes can be a bit weird, although others may never know, for Snakes are the best at hiding. Snakes must find a way to express this weirdness, especially through art/creativity. The challenge for the Snake is to go out into the beyond and come back. They must bring their vision back to the ordinary world and share it with others. Snakes are often inventive innovators, and Snake years often produce breakthroughs in society. Without art, the Snake has no way of communicating Reality as they experience it, whether through painting or poetry or film, Snakes communicate the dreamlike nature of reality, such as Pablo Picasso or Edgar Allen Poe (both Snakes).
Snakes tend to be solitary and reclusive. All the Snakes I know, either by year or hour, tend to seek and enjoy time alone (of course everyone can), and some even dream of being hermits. Snakes take great pleasure when no one knows where they are or what they’re up to. Furthermore, they tend to be rather evasive, which is both positive and negative. The Snake tendency towards evasiveness can be a skill, knowing when to duck, avoid, and do nothing. To others, this evasive quality can appear distant, aloof, avoidant, and secretive. You’re never quite sure about them—think Snape from Harry Potter. Snake Qi is also very discrete, which again can appear both positive and negative.
Spiritually, it is a very good idea to be discrete, humble; showing off and making a big flap about yourself can create many challenges. Snakes tend towards the opposite; they tend to be quiet, never revealing their real experience to anyone, even when that experience is profound. Being discrete is the Snake form of camouflage, hiding in plain sight.
Since Snake Qi is Big Yin, and because its impulse is to disappear towards stillness and silence, Snakes are naturally calm, patient, and slow in their display. Chill is the word. Snake Qi is the opposite of scattered, and in its depleted state it can turn to laziness and lethargy. But in general, Snakes are relaxed and calm people; they have a big open capacity to host other people’s craziness. This calm nature can be called meditative. And many Snakes I know have a natural inclination towards meditation as an expression of their Qi, which also has an immense capacity for trance.
The Yin Fire nature of the Snake is also hypnotizing and trance inducing. Think Snake charmers. Snakes have an alluring charm because of their mysteriousness. People want to figure them out, and Snakes love this, because they love avoiding and evading people’s attempts to figure them out, to pin them down.
Snakes can play with this, and so they have a certain social capacity. They make great actors and can become anyone, like method acting. They can use this capacity for social advantage, which we call “Yin Power.” Yin Power is essentially manipulation, which is not inherently bad, although it can be used that way. It can be used for good too; like many Snake qualities, manipulation evades judgment…we’re just not sure about it.
Ming once told a story of a friend who learned to speak Chinese by simply becoming the teacher, imitating his mannerisms, dress, body language, and so on. Monkeys have this capacity too. Rather than learn the language, this person just became someone who already knew it—very Snakey.
Snakes can embody a social role for years, at work for example, even if it is not who they really are. They can work for years as a salesperson, and then one day become a carpenter. This changeability may sound bad, but not for Snakes necessarily, for they are unattached. Snakes can love and be fascinated by material things, and then sell everything they own without a second thought. Snake Qi loves to shed its skin, to change appearances, to transform, to drop attachments and move on. In the Chinese Tradition, the Snake, like the Rabbit, is associated with the practice of Inner Alchemy, refining our experience backward to Source.
The ability to become anything, take on any form, when depleted, can turn helpless. Depleted, Snakes can feel empty, without inner and outer resources, unable to manifest things in the world. The tendency to not take the “real world” seriously, can appear to others as lack of ambition, but Snakes don’t really have ordinary worldly ambition; their ambitions in life tend to reflect a deeper impulse, which is most often just to understand this strange world of appearances, this ephemeral dance we’re all born into; Snakes are perplexed as to why everyone takes the life game so seriously.
I mean why bother? Why bother constructing wealth and systems of value when everything falls apart? Of course, if a Fire Snake chooses to be successful, they can outdo everyone and make us all look like fools, but they would never believe in what they’re doing.
Hopefully this does not sound too negative. But negativity must be available in the cycle of time. We must remember that in the Chinese View, there is no real negativity/evil, but there is Yin. And all Yin Characters represent the necessity of darkness in the cycle of time. Darkness, depression, destruction, and so on, must be available in Time, otherwise everything would grind to a halt. Of course, not all Snakes are depressed, but they do represent that tendency.
The Snake symbol is rich and deep. In the collective imagination, Snakes conjure up primal, primordial, shamanic images, like Ouroboros, the Serpent eating its own tail. If you want to understand Snake Qi, simply look to these images, for they all speak the wisdom of the Snake.
I hope you enjoyed and were thoroughly confused by this exposition of Snake Qi! Stay tuned as Snake turns to Horse.
Tiger's Play--the View Teachings of Chinese Astrology
This page is your source for short, pithy articles on the view teachings of Chinese Astrology. Here, I will share everything I have learned about how to follow Astrology as a spiritual path.