Healing Water:
Touching the Silver Serpent

by Megan Lindow

As the medium of life, water is a boundless shapeshifter that patterns the Earth and all its living beings with its continuous cycles of ebb and flow.

As I wrote previously, water flows through our cells, organs and tissues just as it flows across landscapes and through oceans, rivers, clouds, rocks, soils, underground aquifers and other living bodies in continuous movement and exchange.

As Joshua Michael Schrei observes in an episode of the Emerald Podcast that delves into our human relationships with water through a mytho-poetic lens:

Water is a flow, an evaporation, a seeping, a pervading, a cascading, a saturation. Because it is these things it is harder to hold, it’s harder to own, which is why until very recently it resisted being just another commodity. Water asks us: what do we do when faced with something that flows, something that pours from the sky even as it seeps from the ground? Something that is in the air that exists in quantities so abundant that until very recently it felt eternal? How are we in the face of the source of life itself, clear as crystal, ungraspable, eternally misting, condensing, evaporating, sprinkling, cascading, pouring forth?

In the ancient mythologies of the Greeks, the Celts, the Yoruba and others, water is revered as the sacred source of life, nurturing and healing, fearsome at times yet essential to wellbeing. Always to be treated with reverence and respect. Oceans, lakes, rivers and springs are powerful deities. In many cases, the sacredness of water is personified in a guardian being, a protector of a particular source or body of water.

I recently told the traditional Central African / Zululand legend of the Guardian of the Pool1 at a workshop on water in Cape Town. You can listen to my recording of the story here:

In this story, a river flows from a vast lake, and along this river a whirlpool of crystal clear waters is guarded by a silver water python whose skin holds magical healing properties. Anyone who is brave enough to enter the whirlpool, to plunge down to its depths and touch the skin of the python, can be healed of any pain or illness.

Preparing this story, I let myself dwell with the beauty and purity of water, personified by the snake; its endless forms and flows both shaping and being shaped in wider relationship to land and life. I imagined how water from the clouds high above struck the mountains overhead and then flowed and tumbled over rocks, and seeped and percolated through sand and rock, filtering into underground springs and feeding that vast lake.

I pictured crystal waters flowing and replenishing the lake, joyfully alive with singing frogs and dragonflies, butterflies and birds. Then I pictured the silver snake, a gentle and mysterious presence, coiled at the bottom of the whirlpool, looking up, watching the light dancing across the surface of the gyre, awaiting the arrival of those in need of his healing.

Conjuring this watery world of the story, I felt joy, delight and rejuvenation — but also sadness. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the pervasiveness of our modern-day assaults on water bodies large and small, from the vastest ocean to the smallest drop. In so many ways, from pollution by microplastic particles, chemicals, pharmaceutical compounds and sewage spills to the damming of rivers and paving over of wetlands — we are confronted with our manifold human failures to live in right relationship to water and to life itself.

The workshop was held to explore the possibilities of protecting Cape Town’s vulnerable and polluted yet critically important wetlands, waterways and coastal ecosystems. This urban metropolis of nearly 5 million people, of whom nearly 2 million are informally housed, was recently designated Africa’s second Ramsar Wetland City, after Ghar el Mehl in Tunisia, under a UNESCO treaty to protect crucial wetland habitats around the world2. What does this mean, and what does it make possible?

Like other cities around the world, Cape Town faces immense legacies of poverty, inequality, racial exclusion and inadequate infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people live in vulnerable flood plain areas with inadequate water and sanitation, threatened by waterborne disease and disaster.

As Schrei observes in his Emerald Podcast Episode entitled ‘Imagining Water Beyond Lines’:

Some of the starkest violations of nature are visible in our relationship with water, because of how central and how fundamental water is. There is nothing to me that more succinctly summarises the state of human inequality than water disparity. Some luxuriate in private swimming pools while others have no access to running water at all. And what was once the source of all life, potable water clear and pure, becomes a carrier for death and disease.

Exploring the seasonal wetlands surrounding a great lake called Zeekoevlei during the workshop, we saw the African fish eagle circling above the blue gum trees and sand dunes, and a 60 meter high garbage dump looming in the background, silently leaching toxins into the wetland in its meanderto the sea. We could not see the wastewater treatment plant or the huge informal settlement from where we stood, but we felt the weight of their presence, reflecting how a growing city shaped by the rigidity of modern thinking and the inadequacy of urban planning imposes itself on the natural landscape and its patterns and flows of water.

While other parts of the world boil and swelter, the Cape winter has been notably cold and wet. The night before the workshop, a vast atmospheric river formed over the Atlantic and swept in over the Cape Peninsula, inundating us with rain.

Sloshing around the marshy seasonal wetland in our gumboots, we met with joyful choruses of singing frogs, reveling in an abundance of fresh, clean water flowing forth. Some of this water fell recently as rain, and some of it may have seeped and percolated for as long as 30 years in its journey from the top of Table Mountain, visible in the distance, to reach this seasonal wetland. The pure mountain water — stained tea-brown from the tannins in the roots of the fynbos — flowed freely through toad tunnels installed beneath the hard surface of the road. But further on where the fresh, pure water flowed into a very sick lake contaminated by successive sewage spills, the frog voices receded and a haunting silence fell.

Like a river, our conversations flowed and meandered through the day, threading across many aspects of illness and health, pollution and purity, in water and in our own bodies, which are after all composed of water and laced with the very same toxins accumulating in water; in landscapes and in communities. All pointing at the underlying question: how do we shift our relationship to water? How do we learn, or rediscover, or reinvent in our current context how to restore health and take care of the water, so the water can heal and take care of us?

In the story, to touch the healing skin of the water python is an act of courage, not taken lightly. Just as confronting the extent of pollution, harm and toxicity that pervades water today requires courage. It is so easy to look away, so tempting to carry on with business as usual. But what do we do about the silence of the frogs? What will it take to restore the voices of the frogs to the lake? How do we find our way to a right relationship with water, amidst the invisible powerful presence of so much toxicity?

As it turns out, this human impulse to tame and claim and control water, to dam it, dump into it, bury it under hard concrete surfaces and interpret its flows as fixed and immovable lines in the landscape, lies at the root of many of the challenges we face today. This impulse runs deep.

According to landscape architect and ‘water visionary’ Dilip da Cunha, speaking with Schrei on the Emerald podcast, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus himself had once looked down his nose at the Egyptians because they could neither pinpoint the exact source of the Nile River nor explain why it ‘flooded’ each year. Their conception of water’s nature was very different to his.

Contrary to a worldview of seeing rivers as fixed points and lines on maps and in landscapes, ripe for conquest and exploitation, da Cunha conceives of rivers as ‘ubiquitous wetness’ and as ‘oceans of rain’ — an expression of a pervasive source that flows and seeps, saturates and recedes according to its own rhythms and cycles. The rise and fall of the Nile every year, in fact, provided the conditions for ancient Egypt to rise to prominence as the agricultural powerhouse of its day.

As Schrei relates:

For the Egyptians, inundation was the shapeshifting body of a god, Hapi, the god of the inundation event, lord of the fish and birds of the marshes; androgynous shape-shifter — a thin-waisted male in the winter and a wide-hipped, heavy-breasted woman in the summer. The seeping, swelling, rising, pervading water — changer of forms, crosser of imaginary lines.

But Herodotus needed to think of the river in terms of lines, so he asked, which is the ‘normal’ Nile? The swollen, vast Nile that stretched from desert to desert in the summer months, or the narrow Nile that flowed between confined banks in the winter?

As da Cunha argues, water cannot be understood through geometry — geo-metry — the language of the Earth. We cannot delineate water or try and force it to conform to the land-centric ideas of habitation and ‘development’ we have conceived, he argues. The language of water is the language of wetness, the language of the hydrological cycle. Water is always in movement through rain and evaporation, mist and dew, plants and soil, between different forms and different places.

This idea of water is expressed in his description of the Hindu goddess Ganga:

‘Ganga does not flow as the Ganges does, in a course to the sea. She is rather held in soils, aquifers, glaciers, living things, snowfields, agricultural fields, tanks, terraces, wells, cisterns, even the air. All for a multiplicity of durations that range from minutes and days to centuries and aeons. She soaks, saturates and fills before overflowing her way by a multiplicity of routes… Unlike the River Ganges, her source is not in a point or points, but in clouds. Also unlike the Ganges, her source cannot be drawn in a map, because the routes are too complex, emergent and changing across a vast depth. The only anchor she offers people is the moment of her descent, the coming of the Monsoon.’

In the podcast episode, Schrei explores the idea of our human relationship to water as that of care-taker, or guardian if you will. Drawing on the documentary film Putuparri and the Rainmakers he describes the negotiation between Spider, an Aboriginal Australian man and Kurtal, a serpentine spirit of the water hole.

As he describes, human negotiations with water beings are an intricate dance of ritual, story, protocol and conversation, with all the textures, tensions and complexities of any good relationship — ‘all informed by an understanding of the agency and centrality of water, of the personhood of water. It’s a water centric view of what will make the water happiest. Because when the water has a healthy move to it, then everything around will be healthy also.’

In the story of the silver water python that I told, The Guardian of the Pool, the snake is revealed to be a shapeshifter. It turns out he is part human. He is freed to take human form by the courage of a young woman, Ngosa, who overcomes her deep fear and reaches out her hand to touch his silver skin so that she can restore life to her dying mother. As the snake steps out of the water to meet Ngosa as a young man, their relationship is transformed. By day, Ngosa sits by the watering hole playing sweet music to the serpent. And by night she slips on her moonstone necklace and waits for the young man to rise from the waters.

In this story, I am reminded that the healing silver water serpent is both within us and of us, for we too are water. And as we are all of water, and water is everywhere, there can be no separation in our approaches to healing. If you could touch the silver skin of the python, what healing would you wish for? What health and wholeness would you restore?

This week I am paying attention to my own relationship with water. I am speaking with water and asking for its guidance to help restore right relationship. I imagine we need the help of all the water beings and spirits we can muster!

Does the story of the silver water python inspire you in any of your own water stories? Please do share them, I’d love to hear from you!

With love,


Article reposted with permission from Living Stories.


  1. Adapted from Madiba Magic: Nelson Mandela’s favourite stories, Tafelberg, 2018.
  2. Vanessa Farr, ‘From Day Zero to Ramsar City!’