Letter to a Friend: Serpent Dance

Jacques Varian

You asked:
"What is the dance of of the World Serpent?"

Well, first, you should know that during our six weeks in Paleohora, Rinpoche taught many things, but when he tried to teach Movement, after ten minutes he was disgusted and cancelled the class. We were hopeless. He'd told us to become trees and I guess there were too many saplings turning into giants in three seconds flat, or rootless willows prancing. "Trees are STILL!" he thundered. And they grow s l o w l y.. Go take a shower or something. Just get out of my sight."

Now, around the Aegean the Serpent would be in some of the older forms of the village dance, particularly the one in which the black-frocked, tall-hatted priest starts it off, then invites one of the old women, a matriarch also in black, to join him. Then, in due but languid course, another of the family, and another takes the white kerchief raised in hand until the nearly the whole community - sitting at tables variously strewn across the dusty street in front of the cafe which, perhaps, is being given by its owners to their son - has joined the dance: a growing chain of quiet celebrants that spirals in and out and weaves with dignity towards midnight and a solid, ancient extasis that makes dry hills sigh and the full moon at mid-heaven weep with joy over the the glistening Livikon Sea.

And then there was one Friday evening on Samos, back from the shore, inland among deep shadows of colossal trees and a moonlit waterfall, at a taverna known only to the isolate denizens of Agios Nikolaios and not to the foreign visitors who had found themselves staying by the sea at the Hotel Paradisos, whose manager was an ass in more ways than one insofar as he seemed possessed by the animal spirit of a donkey cult whose roots go back far in times behind mind..

But I have no cause to unsettle your equilibrium so soon, and should remain silent for the time being on such a topic, whose baleful Sethian magic might gel the soul. Your blood, for now, should remain warm and happily flowing, and not be chilled by chaos primeval! There will be time for that when your Canadian winter comes.

Instead, let us consider what preceded the priest who began the dance: the earlier epiphany.

The Sun was setting and our meal at Georgios was finished with no remainder except for the salt-whitened, empty shells of the peanuts we'd eaten with ouzo. A friend came to our table with news that the outdoor cinema was up and running, and the feature tonight would be "20001: A Space Odyssey". We'd seen it years before, but the notion of it being shown here was attractive, especially after weeks of immmersion in the mythos of Minoan culture amidst the stones and ruins of summery Crete.

The screen was small and hardly capable of doing justice to the Blue Danube in outer space, but it was framed by palm trees, the Libyan Sea behind, stretching darkly into the star-twinkling distance. And from the arid, thyme-fragrant hills, the sea-seeking breeze wafting over and around us made the unsilvered screen tremble and fondled fronds in passing.

But this distraction became slighter and before long I was entranced once again by Kubrick's realm and was lost in cosmos until near the end when that climactic syzygy births three orbs from one during the triumphant cadence of Zarathustra.. Yah Dum da-DA! Doo-ee.. as from behind the blue marble Earth in space, the white-mirror Moon is extruded above, then near screen-top, suddenly from Moon the Sun blazes forth, pulling one's gaze higher still; but my ascent was further - drawn right off the screen in a leap beyond to the real Moon in the sky, floating exactly in line with the pale, tripling image below.


A neat return to reality.

Heavens above and Earth beneath! What can we do to top that?

The night was still young, hardly nine o'clock, and so, somewhat aimlessly, we sauntered townward. That's when we came upon the tables, set out all over the street. The party at the cafe was just beginning.

This was not a night I danced. I was audience. I sat. But long after my companions had left, I remained, having stubbornly waited out a tide of almost overwhelming boredom.

A Cretan village dance, you see, is not rock'n'roll, and to a stranger from the wild New World, or even I suppose to a youth from Athens or a city of any sort, it no doubt can seem excruciatingly old-fashioned and tame. There were no raised voices, no thumping drum-beats - just strings and clarinet.

No drunken revelry and no voracious chugging, swinging bodies. The continuum of rhythm and tunes and dancing pulsed without ceasing, but calmly and in an orderly manner, on and on into the night. There were no highs and lows in the passage of time and in the collective mood. And it didn't feel like it was GOING anywhere.

Then some people began leaving.

That's when my friends left, and my boredom peaked. I wanted to see how it all ended, but it didn't end. There wasn't one.

And there isn't.

There was no "So long, that's it". No bong or bell. No announcements, no customary or ritual salute. Not that I was waiting for anything quite like that. I just expected some kind of.. signal. But people just kept leaving, very gradually, until only the immediate family of the owner remained. They began taking the tables from the street. Then there was just the son - the new owner - and his wife. They locked the front door of the cafe and vanished, but the ground in front stayed warm and musical, still throbbing, inaudibly.

I was puzzled. Stood there alone, scratching my head. Something had happened but I wasn't sure what. Yet I was in the midst of the most confident, stable, solid high that I'd ever felt. I figured this must be a clue to "crete".. as in concrete, discrete.

Upon reflection, however, I realized that I'd missed the build-up because it had been so subtle despite its strength. I was simply not familiar with this sort of gradual empowerment, ingrained over thousands of years as habit in a people who had always lived here, living the land. There HAD been a climax, but one so gentle, so present, that it had caught me unaware.

I slept deeply that night in my empty white-washed room with a cool marble floor, across from the more expensive Hotel Livikon in a family's spare upper-room for visitors, and my waking before dawn was extended for what seemed hours as the all-night chirping of tree-frogs outside the window were joined in measured sequence by the distant crowing of a rooster then dogs barking, donkeys braying, birds whistling; each animal voice in turn saying something different, natural, simple, and profound. And the volume and harmony of the chorus built slowly towards first light when my white room was aflood with sunlight and voices of human beings reached upward from the street below.

"Eh? Pavlo?"
"Kalimera! Kalimera!" Good Morning, indeed, one and all.

But it was a machine that got me up: the day's first bus. The dusty rusty hulk just in from the ferry coast, hours northward by barren brown mountains, and bringing a load of exotic supplies: toilet-paper, maybe a magazine in English, and a draggle of young German tourists looking for edgey delights and the homemade raki ("ratz") that makes schnapps seem like water.


Spin a world globe slowly. During a year the zenith Sun traces a spiral upward from the Tropic Capricorn to Cancer & back down. This is the solar serpent, coiling and uncoiling around its world-egg: an Orphic ophic mystery. But go slowly, naturally. One dance-step at a time. Feet together to start. Wait. Feel what that's like. Then one step forward. Wait, feel that. Next foot forward, the other back and behind, forward again; now back, back, swing and return. Wait after each move until you are exactly where you are.

You know how it goes. If you get it right, you'll never forget: introduction and greeting.. without talk. Just body, gesture, and a clear mind.

Silly to try putting this into words, isn't it?

Your friend,
Jack V

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