Adapted by Andre Heuer. Once there was a snake with a rather bad attitude. The small village near where the snake lived was very fearful of this snake. You see, this snake slithered through the grass, silently, seeking its victims, and without warning would strike and devour its prey. It was known to eat hens, dogs, and even big animals like cows. However, what was most upsetting to the villagers was that the snake was even eating their children.
The villagers wanted to be respectful towards all creatures but this snake had simply gone too far. They knew that something had to be done and they came together to get something done. The villagers gathered at the edge of the field, and with drumming and shouting, and sticks and stones, and with their minds made up started their search to find the snake and to kill it.
A holy man came upon this loud and angry crowd and asked, “What is this about?”
The villagers told him of the snake’s evilness and how the snake was even eating their children. The holy man asked, “If I make this snake stop, and it no longer eats your children, and hunts your farm animals, will you spare the snake’s life?”
The villagers argued among themselves. Some wanted vengeance and others were willing to let the holy man try. However, most of the villagers did not believe that the holy man would succeed and keep the snake from biting. However, reluctantly, they agreed to give the snake one chance.
The holy man entered the field and commanded the snake to come to him. And the power of the holy man caused the snake to crawl to the path and to the feet of the holy man.
“What issss it?” the snake hissed.
The holy man’s words were simple: “Enough! There is no need for this. There is plenty of food without eating the villager’s children or their animals.”
Now it was not so much what the holy man said but it was how he said it. There was a kindness and an authority in the holy man’s voice. The snake knew the holy man’s words to be true. The snake did not hiss a word but nodded in agreement and slithered away.
It was not long before the villagers discovered that the snake would not harm them. They were grateful that the snake no longer would bite. However, some of the villagers in their anger and hurt from what the snake had done and some in their meanness began to beat the snake with sticks and stones. Day after day the snake received more and more abuse until it could take no more and it hid underneath a large rock.
The snake hid underneath that rock, determined not to break its word to the holy man. However, the snake was very confused, and said to itself, “Why is this happening to me? I listened and followed the holy man’s words.” The snake was so fearful of leaving its hiding place it was soon dying from the villagers’ beatings and the lack of food.
One day, the weakened snake heard the footsteps of the holy man and with every bit of strength crawled out to meet him on the path. The holy man, seeing how terribly beaten and sickly the snake looked, asked, “What has happened to you?”
The snake with great effort told the story of the beatings and torment that it received from the villagers and how for days it had hidden underneath a rock to protect itself.
The holy man stood silently shaking his head. His voice was low as he said, “Oh, foolish snake, I told you not to bite but I did not say anything about hissing.”
And with this the snake understood and slithered away hissing.
I first heard this story over twenty-five years ago. I do not remember the person who told it nor the source of the story. A similar version of this tale is found in A.K. Ramanujan’s book, Folktales from India: A Selection of Oral Folktales from Twenty-two Languages. The title in the collection is simply “Nonviolence.” The story is also in That’d be Telling! an anthology compiled by Michael Rosen and Joan Griffiths, published in 1985 by Cambridge University Press. The story in this collection is The Yogi and the Cobra and attributed to Surya Kumari.
Ramanujan’s and my storylines are similar but in his version the motivation for the snake to change is slightly different.
…A holy man happened to pass that way and the snake rushed at him to bite him. He calmly looked at it and said, “You want to bite me, don’t you. Go ahead.”
The snake was subdued by this unusual response and was overpowered by the gentleness of the holy man… and so the snake agrees to change his ways. (Ramanujan, p. 233)
The details of our stories are similar and it is hard to imagine that we are not using storylines from the same tradition. However, the variations in the two stories are interesting to note. These similarities and differences raise many questions concerning the use of story for healing.
Story, Change, and Healing
In his preface Ramanujan writes:
“Every tale here is only one telling, held down in writing for the once till you or someone else reads it, brings it to life, and changes it by retelling it. These stories were handed down to me, and in selecting, arranging, and adapting, I’ve inevitably reworked them somewhat. So, consider me the latest teller and yourself the latest listener, who in turn will retell the tale. Like a proverb, a story gains meaning in context; in the context of this book, the meanings are made between us now.”
Ramanunjan’s idea that a story changes in relationship to the teller and the context is important when using story within a healing context. My version of The Snake and the Holy Man is a tale that continues to transform and change as I tell it. The changes in the story are a result of the different contexts of where, when, and to whom I tell it. The story is not imposed on the listener in some set form but is transformed by the presence of the listener. The responsiveness of the teller to the listener, as the teller tells the story, is at the core of using story within a healing context. Stories are not prescriptions. They are not to be given in a certain way, at a certain time, and in a certain amount. Storytelling is a healing art and therefore, the teller must conform to the needs of the listener and not the teller’s need to control the story nor to what the story was in the past.
In the oral tradition stories are always personal in the sense that the stories are not separate from the person or the people telling or listening to the story. The idea of preserving a story separately from the people telling it is a rather new notion and in effect takes the story out of context. A story heals because it fills the spaces between the teller’s experience and the experience of the listener. It is told within the context of people. The context includes the circumstances, the teller, the listener, the content, the shape, and how the story is told. I would suggest that the very reason a story heals is because we are able to adapt a story as Ramanujan says to fit the teller and the context. The ability to change a story is what makes storytelling an organic, personal, and living healing art. When we feel free to adapt a story we mine the depth of the story and enhance the healing connection between the teller and the listener. In this sense a storyteller is a shaman.
A shaman works with symbols and perception. The shaman adjusts the symbols based on the need of the person, in order to create the conditions for healing. The shaman evokes healing by supporting an individual in moving out of their isolation and connecting with his or her self and with his or her community. The storyteller by telling a story establishes the context for healing by filling in the spaces between themselves and the listener with story. In the hands of a skilled teller this connection acts as a bridge to the larger community and most importantly enables the listener to reconnect with his or her life. This bridging with self and others is at the heart of the healing power of story. The book The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram is an excellent explanation of this process of the adaptation of symbol and the role of the shaman in healing.
We do need to acknowledge that most cultures ritualize and try to preserve certain stories. However, most stories do not fall into this category and in time even the ritual tales change. Stories change and are adapted because it is the nature of story to change as the environment and the culture change. (For better or worse) The Hmong, Vietnamese, and even the newer Tibetan community in my city of Minneapolis are examples of cultures that are now adapting their ritual stories within a new context of being in the Unites States.
Some may see this change as a lost but it is a natural evolution. Fortunately, we are able to record and preserve the different versions of these stories and there is a place for this preservation. What is important in our consideration of storytelling as a healing art is that we are now conscious of how stories change to fit into different contexts. This consciousness allows us to creatively adapt stories in response to the need for healing. It is the consciousness of this process and the skills to adapt story that makes one an artist in the healing aspects of storytelling.
In my experience the story of The Snake and the Holy Man is a healing story. As I tell this story, I continuously discover new meaning within the story and ways of using the story. In the spirit of Ramanujan I invite you to take my version, make it your own, and adapt it to the needs of your listener. This is the living tradition of storytelling as a healing art.
Using the Story
In this section I explore the use of Snake and the Holy Man within a group focused on issues of violence and with clients receiving psychotherapy.
A description of a typical group session using the Snake and the Holy Man:
Sixteen men fill a crowded small room. The men are both survivors and perpetuators of violence. They are participating in a six-week program called Respect that addresses the cycle of violence, the consequences of violence, how to deal with difficult people and situations, and alternatives to violent behavior. (The Respect Program was designed by me for use within a correctional facility.)
In this particular session the focus is on distinguishing the differences between passive, assertive, aggressive, and hostile behavior, and about respecting personal limits and boundaries. For many in the group there are only two options to violence and difficult situations, dominate or submit, and submitting doesn’t seem to be an option for most.
I tell the story of the Snake and the Holy Man. There are smiles, and some nodding in agreement say, “Cool!” Others remain quiet and reflective. The story stirs a discussion about the right to protect oneself.
One participant says, “When a someone messes with me, than I am going to mess with them. You know what I’m saying.”
There is quiet.
Some speak to the hurt and pain caused by violence in their lives. They question their own behavior towards others. They share their experiences of violence done to them by parents and others. The discussion expands, focusing on handling difficult situations and people.
The discussion begins to center on the different behaviors of the snake. The group discusses how in the beginning the snake is hostile. They are in agreement that hostile behavior is usually self-defeating. The conversation focuses on the passive behavior of the snake. They all agree that it is not okay to allow someone to disrespect you. However, there is general agreement that at times lying low (hiding under the rock) is okay. They like the idea of the snake ‘hissing.’ They discuss ways of being assertive but they ask the question, “Is it ever okay to bite?” This leads to a long and intense conversation.
The participants associate two kinds of behavior with biting -aggressive and hostile. They decide hostile behavior is out of control and out of proportion to the violence being done, and it is an attempt to control. Aggressive behavior is a violent, controlled response that is enough to stop the violence being done. It is not long before most participants agree that the cost of hostile behavior is too high. However, for some aggressive behavior from their perspective is at times a matter of life and death, and they see no alternative.
The last two activities  of the session are interactive exercises demonstrating boundaries and limits, the consequences of violating personal boundaries, the need to set personal limits, and the responsibility to accept another person’s limits. The participants in the class break into groups of two and stand across from one another. Moving towards and away from each other they explore their personal space. Slowly, carefully, and respectfully the exercise unfolds. There is tension but also laughter. They discuss the exercise. A group member then volunteers to work with me.
The second exercise explores the roots of violent and disrespectful behavior, and alternatives. The exercise is very difficult and the tension is high. As I enter with permission into the volunteer’s personal space, he grimaces and naturally moves back to preserve his space. The group discusses this and the exercise continues. We explore several different scenarios. The snake’s behavior in relationship to the scenario is part of the discussion. There is bantering and teasing throughout the exercise. After twenty minutes it is over and everyone relaxes. Further discussion follows.
As the session ends we discuss the story, the exercise, and each group member agrees to practice for the next week a behavior learned in the session. Many decide to practice being assertive and like the snake commit to hissing but not biting.
The Snake and the Holy Man story is one of my favorites to use with clients. My clients are usually survivors of abuse or individuals who tend to be passive in their relationships with others. As they gain a sense of themselves I use the story to give permission to be assertive when faced with disrespectful people or difficult situations.
At times I have the client practice hissing as he or she imagines the individual toward whom they need to be assertive. The actual act of hissing often gives a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. There is also a humorous element that helps to reduce the client’s anxiety and to help her or him to see the offending person in a new way. The hissing itself becomes a symbol of his or her ability to assert him or herself and deal with difficult people.
This story demonstrates how story changes depending on the teller and the context, and how this is a natural evolution of story when used for healing. There are multiple practical applications of The Snake and the Holy Man. I have primarily explored the issues of violence, dealing with difficult people and situations, and assertiveness. I can see this story being used with young people in an education setting or with groups that are concerned about the ethical issues of violence.
I see Ramajunan’s story as a valuable alternative. His story in particular could well be discussed in conjunction with the story of the woman who rescues the snake (or scorpion) from the cold and is then bitten for her troubles. How much is violence part of the natural order? How much can it be controlled?
As we end this article a few questions can be asked. In what context would you use the story? How would you adapt the story to fit your telling style, your values? What changes to the story would you make to fit the context? These are the questions that help to make a story our own and to effectively use it as a healing story. I created the activities for this session using principles from psychomotor therapies as found in Pesso-Boyden Psychomotor Therapy.
Dr. Andre B. Heuer, LICSW, tells, writes, and evokes stories. He has taught and used storytelling within health care, corrections, a center for the book arts, hospice, justice circles, ministry, and social services. He is the co-founder of two regular venues A Company of Tellers and Experiments in Story. He has presented workshops on the use of story for the Family Therapy Network Conference in Washington D.C., the Northlands Storytelling Network Conference, and the Minnesota Hospice Organization Conference. He is a founder and on the board of the Northstar Storytelling League, a board member of the Healing Story Alliance of the National Storytelling Network His doctoral work in gender studies focused significant attention on the use of personal narrative in social research. You can visit Andre’s website at: www.andreheuer.com