The Snake of Dreams

Rewritten from a Georgian Tale by Hugh Lupton. (© Hugh Lupton 2002).

Many years ago – and it was neither my time nor your time – there lived a great king.

And one night that king dreamed a strange dream.

He dreamed that a fox was hanging by its tail from the ceiling above his golden throne, a red fox, snarling and snapping, suspended by its red brush.

When the king woke up he called all of his advisers and wise men.

“What could be the meaning of such a dream?”

But they all shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders and not one of them could find an answer to that question. So the king ordered every grown man and woman in his kingdom to gather before the palace.

“Surely”, he thought to himself, “there must be someone in this great country who can unriddle my dream.”

So the people came from north, south, east and west. And among the many there was one, a simple farmer who lived among the mountains far in the north. As he travelled towards the king’s palace he came to a narrow pass between two mighty mountains, and curled in the dust of the road there was a snake. As the farmer drew close the snake lifted its thin head:

“Aaaaaah, traveller, stop, and tell me, where are you going?”

The farmer stopped in amazement.

“I…I…I’m going to the palace, the king has had a dream.”

“And traveller, do you know the meaning of this dream?”

“Me, I’m just a farmer, I know nothing about dreams.”

“Well, traveller, I can tell you its meaning, and if you tell the king he will reward you well.”

“Then tell me snake, tell me now!”

“Aaaaaaah, traveller, nothing comes from nothing, I will tell you only if you promise to share half of that reward with me.”

“I promise snake, now tell me.”

“The king has dreamed of a fox, hanging above his throne, and the dream means thisssssss”

The farmer crouched and the snake lifted its thin head and whispered into his ear.

The farmer listened, nodded and continued his journey, and after some days he joined the massing crowd before the king’s palace. A trumpet sounded, the king’s dream was told, and a great hush fell on the people. No-one could unriddle the dream.

But then, from the back of the crowd, came a voice:

“Majesty, majesty, your dream means this….”

“Bring the man forward!”

And the farmer was brought before the king.

“Majesty your dream means this: These are times of cunning and treachery, no-one is to be trusted, your kingdom is like a den of foxes.”

The king nodded and smiled.

“The dream is well read.”

From beneath his throne he took two bags of gold and gave them to the farmer.

And the farmer set off for home, but he was careful to avoid the pass between the mountains, he went the longer way round and kept all the gold for himself.

And time passed.

Then one night the king dreamed a second dream.

He dreamed that a sword was hanging by a hair from the ceiling above his golden throne. A sharpened sword, flashing and spinning, suspended by a fine thread.

And when he woke he called his messengers:

“Go and fetch that farmer from the north!”

When the farmer received the king’s message his heart sank, but he knew there was only one thing for it, and he set off along the narrow pass between the two mountains.

“Snake, snake!”

There was no answer.

“Snake, snake, I need your help again!”

“Aaaaaah, traveller, I am here.”

“The king has had a second dream.”

“I know, and I will tell you its meaning, but only if you truly promise to share half of your reward with me.”

“This time snake, I truly promise.”

“The king has dreamed of a sword, hanging above his throne, and the dream means thisssss…..”

And the snake whispered into the farmer’s ear.

The farmer continued his journey, and after some days he was standing before the king’s throne.

“Majesty, your dream means this: These are times of anger and warfare, your enemies are preparing for battle, your kingdom is bristling with sharpened swords.”

The king nodded and smiled.

“The dream is well read.”

He gave the farmer four bags of gold, and he prepared himself for battle.

As for the farmer, this time he followed the narrow pass between the mountains, but when he saw the snake curled in the dust of the road waiting for him he was filled with anger and he drew his knife.

“Haaaaa, traveller, you have brought me my share!”

“You’ll have nothing but a black stone and a cinder!”

He chased the snake and hacked off its tail with his knife.

And he kept all the gold for himself.

And time passed.

Then one night the king dreamed a third dream.

He dreamed that the carcass of a sheep was hanging by its legs from the ceiling above his golden throne. A fat, dressed carcass, skinned and split like meat in a butcher’s shop.

When the king woke he sent his messengers to fetch the farmer again.

And the farmer knew there was only one thing for it. Swallowing his pride he set out for the third time along the narrow pass between the mountains.

“Snake, snake!”

There was no answer.

“Snake, please snake, forgive me!”

There was no answer.

“Snake, I need you again.”

“Haaaaa, traveller, I am here.”

“Snake, I beg you to forgive me, the king has dreamed again.”

“I know, and I will tell you the meaning, if this time you swear to share your reward with me.”

“I swear, half will be yours.”

“The king has dreamed of a sheep’s carcass, hanging above his throne, and the dream means thissssssss…..”

When the farmer had heard, he continued his journey until he stood before the king’s throne.

“Majesty, your dream means this: These are times of ease and generosity, every belly in the land is full, your kingdom is like a fat carcass giving peace and plenty to all.”

The king nodded and smiled.

“The dream is well read.”

He gave the farmer six bags of gold, and the farmer made his way straight back to the pass between the mountains.

“Snake, snake!”

The snake came and the farmer knelt beside it with tears in his eyes.

“Snake, now you must take all these six bags of gold, for truly it is half of all that I have won…..and I have no words to tell you my shame at having treated you so badly.”

But the snake lifted its thin head and shook it sadly from side to side.

“Traveller, traveller, you have done no wrong, there is no blame. You are just one among many. When the kingdom was like a den of foxes, you too were treacherous and cunning and you went home the other way. When the kingdom was bristling with sharpened swords, you too were quick to anger and you cut off my tail. And now the kingdom is like a fat carcass giving peace and plenty to all, you too are suddenly filled with kindness and you offer me your gold. But, traveller, what use have I, the oldest of the old and the wisest of the wise, for your paltry gold? Keep it and go in peace.”

With that the snake slid into a crack in the rock and was gone.

And the farmer swung the bags over his shoulders and continued his journey – but suddenly the gold seemed heavy against his back.

SNAKE OF DREAMS was generously printed with permission by Hugh Lupton in England. He read a version of this Georgian Tale in a ‘wonderful old anthology called “FOLKTALES FROM ALL NATIONS.” (Published in 1931, George Harrap & Co. ltd. Edited by F.H. Lee). Another variant of the tale is known and told by Ben Haggarty, also of London, who heard it in a festival in Israel. Hugh is an excellent storyteller and writer who is also a respectful and thorough researcher of tales. Snake of Dreams is part of a forthcoming collection of riddle stories, to be published by Barefoot Books.

© Laura Simms 2002

Snake of Dreams is presented on the Forum as it was rewritten by Hugh Lupton. I consider it an important teaching story because it allows us to compassionately experience how our minds are shaped by the atmosphere or particular belief system we live within at a particular time or place. The tale, as any good story, reveals through the events of the story, rather than through a didactic explanation, leaving the responsibility for understanding and the imaginative adventure of living out the story to each listener as they hear the story. In this way it is a healing tale.

The kindness and the starkness of the story renders the listener the one who has undergone the entire journey of the heard story: becoming all the characters within their own inner conjuring; and uses humor to lead the listener incident by incident to a piercing realization. Recognizing that we believe something because it has been told to us, and that our view may be limited by projection, belief, fear or cultural assumption, has the possibility of releasing us from the strain of limited pain-producing systems of belief. We are invited to view our selves, and our world, from a vaster point of perception through the unfolding process of listening, so unique to storytelling.

Much physical and psychological illness is rooted in repeated and one-sided limitations of our patterns of habitual mind. Norman Cousin’s book on healing from illness describes how he cured himself with laughter by watching funny movies. I was once bandaged and bedridden after several surgeries for cancer in 1989, and asked a friend to find me four funny movies. Grabbing films from the shelf entitled “comedy,” she made her choices. Each film turned out to be more depressing than the last. Such a mad confusion of acccidental bad choices sent us into ripples of laughter and tears as we watched how intensely each character caused their own demise through belief, obsession, cultural norm, and fear. Oddly enough, watching with the expectation of humor cleared our ability to see these films from a different perspective. Rather than becoming entangled in the experiences as if they were our own, we were able to see them in a more detached manner. This experience released fresh air into my own experience of my illness. Instead of identifying with all my reactions and feelings, which left me stressed out, I maintained enough awareness to see how my mind refocused, obsessed, retold or shaped the story of my illness.

I was once speaking to a young man from West Africa who was completely phobic about homosexuals. He ranted about how homosexuals were not as intelligent or as sane as heterosexuals. I allowed him to continue on and on about his belief system which he had grown up with and accepted from his own background. I asked, “Can you immediately recognize someone who is homosexual?” He said without hesitation, “Absolutely, They are different.” I pointed out to him that three of my male friends, who he adored and spent time with in New York, were gay. He was shocked into silence. Later we talked about how his homophobia was an unquestioned system of belief, and not a truth based on experience. For the first time, he understood that prejudice was something he had learned. He had to consider changing his view, or giving up valued friendships. He had the bravery to expand his capacity of heart. Had he shut down, stuck to his opinion, his experience of life would have shrunk

What do prejudice, unconsciousness, and unexamined ideas have to do with healing? First, ideas and opinions accepted without experience or understanding, without compassion or intelligence, are a source of illness. They can create both a social illness and a personal rigidity that separates and causes a plague of hatred and fear as aggressive as any cancer. We can only heal the sources of such fixedness with daring awareness of how our own mind works. Listening to others and our selves, without bias, just listening, can reveal how we think. The stories we believe and tell ourselves, may be the inhibitors of nurturing energy, compassion, relationship, and vitality. To recognize that we can hear something we do not agree with and respond (while feeling discomfort) – rather than reacting based on punishment or accusation – can serve to awaken a new relationship to one’s own mind. This birthing of compassion for oneself and others is physical and celebratory. It is like opening a window in a stuffy room. All traditional peoples have reminded us that aggression leads to aggression, and listening leads to richness of experience, relaxation and more peaceful or dynamic negotiations.

Often, in the hospital setting, people do not know that they have alternative ways of asking questions or alternative ways of thinking about situations. They have no idea that they can question or disagree with a doctor, or choose not to undergo certain treatments. Often, there is so much fear and accepted information that there is no knowledge of how to perceive of one’s body and mind differently. Much of the healing that we all must do has to do with our minds. The telling of stories by a storyteller trained into a practice of awareness can help others open into the possibilities of situations. It is very poignant to help oneself and others gain a gentler recognition of who we are, and our actual situation.

When telling a healing story, the teller allows the whole journey of the story to unfold for the listener. The storyteller is not a single character, nor lost in the telling so that there is no teller present. In this dynamic unfolding, the listener becomes everyone and everything in the story and gains the perspective of theater director, as well as entire cast and stage setting. The coming to knowing is manifest, rather than described. Therefore the listener is left to reflect on the entire situation from a variety of viewpoints. Such open telling is healing in terms of creating space within for fresh insight or needed acceptance of reality.

I suggest telling the story as simply as possible, not taking any particular side or opinion, just letting the whole story live for the listener. There is no reason to make a neat explanation at the end or to find a moral to the story. Positing a moral at the end of the story moves the story out of the experience, into an anecdotal message or dogmatic narrative to prove one’s point, or manipulate the listener into seeing the content from one point of view. Let the entire story proceed as if it is happening in the mind of each listener, which it is. Therein arises a natural healing that engenders deeper listening and compassion.

The journey of the unfolding story is the meaning.

After the story, ask each listener what he or she thought about the story and how the story informed them about their own interpretations of experiences. The exercise of letting someone speak about a story is an interesting one. Try not to have any stake in a particular view or answer. You might help them along by pointing out their response, “So you are saying that…..?” Or, “That is interesting. I saw it differently.” Letting different answers live together promotes an expansion of perspective. For many people it is a long time since they were able to speak what they feel, and hear others’ varying ideas, without any judgment. Just listening.

Opinions stand between us and others. Our sense that there is only one right answer works against the teaching of the tale itself. The sound of the voice of the storyteller who speaks from the heart and allows the whole story to be heard/lived without becoming one’s favorite character, or disappearing into a spoken memorized text with no emotional resonance, short circuits intellectual abstract listening. Such performances serve to distance the audience from undergoing the story’s journey.

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