Some Religious Symbols in D. H. Lawrence’s Novel “The Plumed Serpent”

  D. H. Lawrence is one of the important modern English writers, whose works are characterized by a traditional style and variety of daring erotic scenes. Thanks to these characteristics, his works are popular and easily perceptible. Though a variety of religious symbols and themes and their individual interpretations by the author are inherent in the text, whose elucidation and analysis clarify the depth of the author’s philosophy. This article analyzes some religious symbols given in D. H. Lawrence’s novel “The Plumed Serpent”, which alludes to the essence of the main character’s journey in Mexico. The journey itself is the process of self-determination and quest.

The novel mainly narrates about Kate’s journey at the time, when two Mexicans - Cipriano and Ramon – are trying to revive Aztec God cult so that the old primitive religion could return its natural position and banish imperialist Christian religion. Therefore, three Aztec gods  appear in the novel - ‘Quetzalcoatl’ personified by Ramon, Cipriano as Huitzilopochtli and Kate as Goddess Malinzi.

Aztec God ‘Quetzalcoatl’ -  which means ‘a plumed serpent’ in translation - was chosen as the title of the finished novel by Lawrence. This God plays an important role in Aztec religion. His name appeared in the 7th century AD and a bit later, it was connected to one of the Aztec kings. ‘Quetzal’ is the widespread name of the bird (Pharomachus mocinno) in Central America and ‘Coatl’ means snake, which represent the metaphors of the earth and the sky. Rising Serpent to the sky represents the symbolism of the revival from death, resurrection and rebirth [Kaplan, 1999]. We should not forget the fact that a snake changes its skin several times, which also hints to an eternal revival. Even in Georgian literature, we have got Grigol Robakidze’s novel ‘”The Snake’s Skin”. In Greek Mythology a snake biting its tail and thus forming the circle symbolically represents the eternity. Consequently, symbolic and metaphorical meanings of the name of God ‘Quetzalcoatl’ include the eternal circle of human’s fall and rebirth. Kate’s journey from Europe to Mexico or from modern civilization to the primitive one is also exactly one of the presented examples of this eternal circle. In Lawrence’s works, modern European civilization with its over-powerful rationalism is the source of collapsed values and a lost individuality. Mexico with its forgotten ancient religion keeps the knowledge about forgotten irrational unconscious powers. Therefore, going into the depth of the unconscious and finding your real ‘self’ or being reborn is the main idea of the novel. The article aims to analyze the symbols, which represent the main idea of the novel.

The main character’s journey in Mexico and the Mexicans’ attempt to change into the rails of Aztec religion somehow indicate to the fall and collapsed values of the western civilization and the feeling of the necessity of escaping appears in an individual. Accordingly, in the beginning of the novel, Lawrence parodies the sacrifice of Christ and the bullfight. It is also worth noting that Lawrence was not the only one who noticed the similarities between the symbolism of Christianity and other ancient religions. Jung in his collected works “Psychology and Religion& Answer to Job” states that each archetypal symbol is the phenomenon itself, but existing similarities could be explained by the common roots in human psyche: “Although the Mass itself is a unique phenomenon in the history of comparative religion, its symbolic content wound be profoundly alien to man were it not rooted in human psyche. But if it is so rooted, then we may expect to find similar patterns of symbolism both in the earlier history of mankind and in the world of pagan thought contemporary with it” [Jung, 1958:222].

Shirley Bricout in her article “Ritualization of emotions in ‘Quetzalcoatl’ and ‘The Plumed Serpent’” analyzes in detail the meaning of the symbolism of the bullfight and its similarity to Christian sacrifice. She states that the beginning of the novel with the bullfight has its meaning. She explains that the bullfight had a mysterious meaning, which was presented by the mystic communion between a torero and a bull.  This mystic union aroused certain spiritual emotions in spectators and made them share this experience. Though Lawrence, in the first chapter of the novel, apparently parodies the bullfight and there are numerous examples: „She had always been afraid of bulls, fear tempered with reverence of the great Mithraic beast. And now she saw how stupid he was in spite of his long horns and his massive maleness Blindly and stupidly he ran at the rag, each time, and the toreadors skipped like fat-hipped girls showing off“ [Lawrence,1987:10]. Therefore, the author of the article states that it is no longer possible to get a mystic communion between the bull and the torero and a common passion aroused by it: „As a consequence, the Lawrentian arena is no longer a place where passion is fulfilled, and where communion can take place, but rather a vortex of unleashed emotions that the parody of a ritual can no longer channel” [Bricout, 2011: 10, 1:3]. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Kate is shocked by seeing such a scene and is eager to escape: „Kate knew if she saw any more she would go into hysterics“ [Lawrence,  1987 :15]. From Shirley Bricout’s point of view, this scene makes the main character dissociated and puts her into hysterics. According to the author of the article, the inner tunnel with which Kate has to leave the building symbolizes the path to rebirth, but this process is delayed by the rain. For Shirley Bricout, rain in the novel represents the symbol of purification, but in the opening scene the main character’s delay in the inner tunnel, because of the rain, indicates to the spiritual non-readiness to rebirth: „the rain symbolizes purification, but in the opening scene Kate isn’t ready for rebirth just yet as she will be when she marries Don Cipriano” [Bricout,2011:239-254].  Primarily, it is important for the main character to have the desire for rebirth.

  The author of the article interestingly continues the discussion and says that the irresponsive wave of the spiritual passion from the mystic bullfight gives way to a void in the belief that the characters seek to fill. However, an individual feels the same emptiness not only in Mexico, but in Europe as well. According to Bricout’s viewpoint, Lawrence parodies not only the bullfight, but the sacrifice of Christ. Lawrence in his work “Apocalypse” associates the bull with the lamb: “A Lamb it has to be: or with Mithras, a bull[Lawrence, 1980: 99]. The author of the article also pays attention to the beginning of the novel: “It was the Sunday after Easter, and the last bull-fight of the season in Mexico“ [Lawrence, 1987: 1], where the allusion to the Easter hints to the fact that the sacrifice itself is not an end.  Therefore, it is described how GodQuetzalcoatl’ comes into life and the new belief takes place after the parody of the bullfight or the sacrifice. We should not forget the meaning of ‘Quetzalcoatl’, which, as I mentioned above, represents the symbol of the revival-rebirth. Therefore, main character Kate and the Mexicans should revive spiritually.

Due to the fact that the whole novel represents the main character’s journey to renewal, we constantly come across the symbols connected to this process. One of the examples is ‘the lake’. The title of one of the chapters is ‘Lake’. Kate moves to live near it. A lake has various meanings. In Indian religion, a surface and the depth of a lake symbolically depict consciousness and unconsciousness of a human being.  It is also perceived as a mirror, where the sky is reflected. It is also the dwelling-place of Gods. Therefore, while Kate is crossing Lake Quetzalcoatl, the men are coming out of the water and reveal the revival of God to her. Kate feels the harmony of the lake, which represents the reflection of an unconscious desirable harmony: „she sensed a certain delicate, tender mystery in the river, in the naked man in the water, in the boatman” [Lawrence, 1987:67]. We should not forget Christian symbolism of water, which is connected to baptism or communion with the truth. The lake once more reminds us what Kate is looking for in her journey. In the novel, the symbolism of a boatman draws the parallel to the Greek mythology and makes an interesting allusion to river Styx and ferryman Charon, who carries the soul of the dead to the underworld. In Greek mythology, it is known that a coin was placed in a mouth of a dead person to pay Charon for the passage. In the novel, Kate pays the boatman to cross the river. All these symbols mirror the journey of the main character in the river of unconscious. This is a hellish process that Kate needs to go through to be reborn again. The part of this process is the dark energy of the unconscious “living” in the Mexicans. It makes a physical threat to Kate.

Ezekiel, who has brother Jesus, protects her from the night rampage of the bandits and murderers. It is not accidental that the choice was made on Ezekiel. The fear that Kate feels is not the spiritual one, but “the heart-wrench of blood fear”. In Lawrence’s works, a man of an ancient civilization had blood consciousness. Ezekiel was exactly the prophet, who had lived before Christ. His name comes from the Old Testament of the Bible and means ‘“God strengthens”. It is symbolic that Ezekiel protects Kate not only from the bandits, but also from the darkness of the night, which is associated with unconscious. It is interesting that Kate herself names the fear, felt at night, the blood fear, which differs from the fear she felt during the war in Europe: “In England, in Ireland, during the war and the revolution she had known spiritual fear“... “Now she knew the real heart-wrench of blood fear” [Lawrence, 1987: 127]. Understanding the existence of unconscious dark forces of the self and overcoming the fear coming from it represent the process of an inner renewal.

  It is not surprising that Lawrence has chosen God for the title of his novel, whose symbolism is given in the myths of all cultures and represents a symbol of renewal, resurrection and eternity. The writer knew about the symbol of serpent not only on a religious-mythological level, but on an esoteric level as well. In his work “Fantasia of the Unconscious”, he reveals a good knowledge of energy centers -  the so-called chakras. As it is known, with the opening of the final chakra, an individual consciousness merges the eternity. So-called Kundalini awakening symbolism is presented by the Greek snake symbol (mentioned at the beginning of the article), which is coiled and bites its tail. Its awakening and the process of raising to the final chakra is demonstrated in the symbol of  a serpent.

  It is also an interesting fact that the Serpent in the Bible is the first cause of the fall of Adam and Eve. In Nietzsche’s work “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, a snake and an eagle symbolically represent pride and wisdom. In Nietzsche’s works, a human being’s dualism is considered in this symbolism  -  a snake means earthly, destructive, while an  eagle means the heaven, resurrection similarly to Chinese Yin and Yang. The co-existence of these two opposing forces is characteristic to all living beings. Nietzsche’s influence on Lawrence is noticeable not only in symbolism, but also in the writer’s creative worldview, which is primarily demonstrated in doubting the values of the Western Civilization.

  Finally, it is noteworthy that all the religious symbols, which Lawrence uses in his novel “The Plumed Serpent” (like the symbol of a serpent as well as  the symbolism of water, the rain or the lake), belong to the archetypal symbolism of human’s eternal fall and rebirth. Due to the tragic perspective of the 20s and 30s of the 20th century, it is natural that Lawrence’s works are full of the reflections of the scars caused by the devaluation of Western Civilization, which in its way is presented in the fall of an individual. An eternal idea of rebirth is the purpose, hope and anchor for a fallen individual in the modern world.


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Kaplan R.D.
The New York Times: ‘It's a Bird! It's a Snake! (
Lawrence D.H.
Fantasia of the Unconscious. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lawrence D.H.
Mornings in Mexico and Other Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lawrence D.H.
The Plumed Serpent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bricout S.
The Ritualization of Emotions in Quetzalcoatl and The Plumed Serpent (