The Caduceus

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


 Hermes, personifying the dual powers of the Secret Wisdom, carries in his right hand a powerful symbol which represents the breathing in and breathing out of the cosmos and unites all the dual aspects of manifested existence. The caduceus of Hermes was said to have been given him by Apollo. It is a wand with two serpents twined round it, surmounted by two wings. The ancient Greeks believed it to exercise influence over the living and the dead, bestow wealth and prosperity, and turn everything it touched into gold. They called it Kerykeion, 'herald's wand' – it was the emblem of heralds and ambassadors, giving them power and inviolability. While the rod represents power, the serpents symbolize wisdom.

 The wings of the caduceus symbolize the 'winged radiance' of those who have achieved the dynamic equilibrium of the two lobes of the medulla, the petals of the third-eye chakra, as well as the lightning speed of Hermes as Messenger of the Gods. Like the twining serpents, Hermes is known as the equilibrator, balancing the pairs of opposites, inspiring the alchemist's belief that without him neither Isis nor Osiris could accomplish the Great Work. The caduceus also symbolizes the fall of spirit into matter from the archetypal world to the creative and formative worlds and finally to the material world. Thus it essentially represents the astral light, the means through which Hermes wields his great power of transformation. The astral light is variously described as an "ambient and all-penetrating fluid . . . a ray detached from the (Spiritual) Sun's splendour," – the girdle of Isis that twines around two poles, and the winged dragon of Medea as well as the double serpent of the caduceus. It is the vehicle of life, representing time and eternity: the tempter and the redeemer. The wings of the caduceus signify the spiritual transcendence of time and temptation.

 The rod of the caduceus is called a 'laya rod,' a central staff surrounded by the positive and negative energy of the serpents. It is the neutral Sushumna, the channel of the Sun's One Ray. All wands and staffs of power derive from this idea, just as the guiding power of Hermes is reflected in the prayer to the Christos which promises, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." The magician's wand, the 'baton de commandement' of ancient cave-paintings, and the lightning rod, are all aspects symbolic of a principle of controlled power.

 On the western pediment of the Temple of Artemis at Corfu is a gorgon figure flanked by two lions. She stands in a 'pinwheel stance' which conveys movement without locomotion. Around her waist are coiled two serpents, entwined at the front, their heads arching back to face one another at her bodice. She is a guardian warding off evil and protecting the goddess within. As such, this stone figure represents protection through balanced duality. For the Great Serpent in the Garden of Eden and the 'Lord God' are one. Or, as the ancients taught, "Demon est Deus Inversus."

Agathodaemon and Kakodaemon are offshoots from the same tree of being, and evil is a force which is antagonistic but essential to good, giving it vitality and existence. These two entwined serpents, symbolizing the astral light which is not only the vehicle of life but the auxiliary of good and evil, reflect that matrix which ever seeks equilibrium. As long as nature remains 'untamed,' the opposition of the two forces (quicksilver and sulphur) manifests in a destructive mode. Hermes (Mercury) introduces the equilibrating element. The Hebrews called the astral light OD-OB-AOUR or 'Great Agent of Life.' The magnetism directed by the active will represented the right-hand serpent of the caduceus or OD. The left-hand serpent symbolized the passive OB. The golden globe at the summit of the rod was AOUR or 'equilibrating light,' the neutral point. The secret of magnetism could be mastered through ruling the fatality of OB with the intelligent power of OD, thereby gaining the perfect equilibrium of AOUR.

 The solar and lunar spirals describe forces unfolding outward and simultaneously turning inward. They represent the expanding and contracting forces of nature, the alternating yin and yang, the two halves of the world egg as well as of the brain. A continuous oscillation between the two serpents accompanies the involution and evolution of spirit. The involution of spirit into matter is a progressive downward cycling, the 'sliding down of Aeons' of the Alexandrian Gnostics. The 'Downfall of Pleroma' (Gods and Devas) is allegorized as 'the desire to learn and acquire knowledge.' The seven 'rectors' break through the 'seven circles of fire.' These are the seven Devas who were born to act in space and time, to break through the seven circles of the super-spiritual planes into the phenomenal world. Allegorically, they rebelled against God.

 In the nineteenth century 'primitive matter' was thought to have been formed by the act of a 'generative force' throwing off atoms endowed with varying forms of energy. It was believed by some that lowering temperatures and electricity within the 'original protyle' conferred upon newly-born elements their particular atomicity. Sir William Crookes, an intuitive chemist, pointed out that double spirals describe the process by which the elements originate. Such a figure would comprise three simultaneous oscillating motions, each at right angles to the other. Projecting this figure in space, curves describe loci where various chemical elements form within one cycle of oscillation. In the next cycle, conditions of temperature and time would have changed and the atomic groupings would be lineal descendants of the first group; and so the process would continue. Projected in space, the curve shows a central neutral line relating to electrical and chemical properties, with a positive spiral on the north, a negative on the south. This strongly echoes the metaphysics embodied in the caduceus. Though limited to material genesis, scientists have suggested that eventually matter would be reabsorbed into 'the point neutral as to electricity' or the 'zero point' analogous to the neutral globe at the summit of the caduceus rod – what The Secret Doctrine terms the "Inter-etheric point" upon which the universe revolves, a laya point, "which hiding place can be traced in the world of matter." Rotating neutral centers fixed by Fohat carry the full load of accumulated atoms from the start, and remain balanced.

The Divine Pyrnander teaches that "the Gods distinguished the Nature full of Seeds. And when all things were interminated and unmade up, the light things were divided on high and the heavy things were founded upon the moist Sand." When things were formed, they were sustained by Spirit and "Heaven was seen in Seven Circles . . . The Gods were seen in their Ideas of the Stars . . . and the Sphere was lined with air, carried about in a circular motion by the Spirit of God." Similarly, in modern astronomy, scientists speak of whirling gases made up of light hydrogen atoms evolving into heavier elements by 'spontaneous synthesis.' This cosmo-chemical process is described as unfolding in the same oscillating, caduceus-like pattern. Hydrogen atoms, the first of the series, are able to bind and to release a second electron, and in the absorption and emission of the necessary small amount of energy, all the wavelengths of the hydrogen spectrum are evolved. Since all further color distinctions are due to similar atomic and electro-magnetic variants, it would seem to follow that the potential for subsequent evolution exists at the earliest point. The unfolding spectrum can be related to the serpentine oscillation producing the original elements. In the language of the ancients, the Seven Devas break through spiritual planes into the phenomenal realms. Spirit involves into matter, its manifested spectrums circling down in series through the astral matrix.

 These dual forces conjoin at the center of the seven-fold nature of man. The full force of the conjunction of the lunar and the solar serpents is uniquely experienced in human nature, and the perfected man who has balanced these universal forces is, like Hermes, a God of the Crossroads and a Mediator between Two Worlds. At the point of intersection between the macrocosm and the microcosm stands man. This is 'the cave of the heart,' the battleground of the dual forces of life. The vertical axis is the road of descending and ascending power. The horizontal axis is the manifestation of this in the world. Strong interaction of the contrasting forces along the two axes produces a spiralling motion that is the basis for identifying the aspiring disciple with the uncoiling serpent, and the perfected men of all ages as Nagas or Dragons of Wisdom.

 Through his sacrifice the Serpent-Saviour initiates a new winding on the spiral of the next dimension, marking the beginning of a New Age. He is like The Redeemer on the cross. Through him man pulls himself up at the moment of death into the lunar foundations of the next world. The Adept who touches the earth like the serpent's tail sacrifices his life to lift up the whole in his journey back to his Spiritual Seat. He is the Spiralled Serpent of the Tree of Life.

 The trunk of the Asvatta tree grows from heaven and descends at every Beginning from the two dark wings of the Swan of Life. The two Serpents, the ever-living and its illusion (spirit and matter) whose two heads grow from the one head between the wings, descend along the trunk, interlacing in close embrace. The two tails join on earth (the manifested universe) into one, and this is the great illusion.

Ophios and Ophiomorphos, Apollo and Python, Osiris and Typhon, Christos and the Serpent, are all convertible terms, all Logoi. "One is unintelligible without the other." They are spiritual saviours and physical regenerators; the former ensure immortality for the Divine Spirit and the latter give it through regeneration of the seed. The serpent or saviour has to die because he reveals the secret of the Immortal Ego.

 Human consciousness is related to the balancing and flow of subtle energy currents. The Sakti of Siva actively revolves around the Siva lingham, the neutral rod of the caduceus. The lotus centers in the body are pierced by the Sakti energy passing into progressively finer vibrations. The Buddha termed this 'the untying of all the knots in the inverse order.' Man approaches the Divine through spiral stages of initiation. Apollonius of Tyana spoke of the Second Hour when "by the duad, the zodiacal fish chant the praises of God; the fiery serpents entwine about the caduceus and the thunder becomes harmonious." This is one of twelve zodiacal steps of successive initiation, another being to study the balanced forces in nature and learn how harmony results from the analogy of contraries, "to know the Great Magical Agent and two-fold polarization of universal light."

 The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus bears the following inscription "The power is vigorous if it be changed into earth . . . Ascend with the greatest sagacity from earth to heaven, and then again descend to earth, and unite together the power of things superior with things inferior." Such is the practice of theurgy which involves communication with, and bringing down to earth, planetary spirits and angels. Total purity of mind, heart and body is needed to perform this sublime magic. In the school of Iamblichus, priests who evoked gods during the Mysteries were Hierophants. Like the Brahman Grihasta, the Theurgist liberated his own astral body, which then took on the form of the God and served as a medium through which the "special current preserving ideas and knowledge of that God could be reached and manifested." Through theurgy, the initiated disciple ascends the spiral to communicate with the Augoeides rendered visible through the medium of his astral body.

 The magic of theurgy and the art of healing are alike based upon the principle of establishing an equilibrium of forces. Because human nature denotes the polarity of spirit and matter, a struggle between the two manifests. Since the centripetal and centrifugal forces are interdependent, if the action of one is obstructed, the action of the other will immediately become self-destructive. There must be a restoration of equilibrium so that the currents of life can perform their proper function in the body. The Navajo medicine man carefully delineates a design in colored sand which precisely combines the correct elements of color, symbol, direction and balance. In the center of this mandala the patient will remain seated throughout the lengthy chanting which, together with the sand-painting, will evoke the contrasting forces in nature necessary to re-establish the proper equilibrium in the patient.

 The knowledge needed to heal oneself is the same as that needed to ascend the spiral of initiation into the still center of the Higher Self. The great shadow of the astral light ever deludes man and the shadow-serpent entwined around him obscures his vision. Let man mark that serpent well and understand its essential force while turning his mind ever upward toward the Spiritual Sun. The ardent disciple strives to realize Siva through the balanced forces of his whole nature, thus embodying every aspect of the golden caduceus. This is the natural potential of man. The perfect balance achieved, the soul soars upward on radiant wings.