The Serpent

by Helen Valborg @ Theosophy Trust


From out of the depths of endless heaven uncoiled the shrouded serpent, his sinuous neck and darting tongue alive with grace and power. There was no corner of the world he did not penetrate, no race of man who did not bow in awe before him. In all cultures there are ophiolatrous practices and serpent carvings exist from early Paleolithic times. Serpent worship has taken myriad forms over the millennia, from the python worshippers of Africa, where God in serpent form is guarded by priest-attendants, to the sanctification of cobras in India and the snake-handling cults of the southern United States. In Greece the sacred serpent of Athene had its abode in the Acropolis, and at Epidauros serpents were fed at the temple of Aesculapius. The ancient Hebrews kept seraphim or serpent images in their household shrines, while the Ophites in the second century maintained a 'Brotherhood of the Serpent,' worshipping them as saviours, representations of the Christos principle. Every tribe of American Indians practiced a form of serpent worship, usually in connection with the sun. In ancient Egypt the headdresses of kings and gods were often capped with the disk of the sun out of which a serpent emerged.

The Uraeon – a hierogram of a disk, wings and serpent – has been found all over the Middle East, Asia, the Mediterranean, and Mexico. In England it was inscribed on the walls of the Druidic temple of Abury, which consists of two giant stone serpents, 1400 feet in diameter and two miles long. The word Abury itself derives from auh, meaning 'serpent,' and aur or ur, meaning 'light.' Similarly, the name Carnac comes from the words cairn and hac, meaning 'serpents' hill.' The Druidic Carnac was patterned after Karnak in Egypt, built by hierophant-priests of the Solar-Serpent Race in still more ancient times. Each stone of the wondrous monument was put in place by successive priest-adepts. The serpent walls of China are impressive in size, but an overwhelming expression of serpentine form can be found at Angkor Wat. Giant serpent causeways span moats to meet with intricately carved temple walls whose every angle and panel is adorned with seven-headed serpents. Just so do the mighty plumed serpents of Mexico impress by their bold size and number. The efforts of ages, of millions of human lives, have gone into the carving of these awesome figures.

As a symbol, the serpent has inspired a wealth of interpretations. The encircling serpent, eating its own tail, is a widespread symbol of eternal life, just as the sloughing of its skin signifies resurrection. This was so for the Old World as well as the Americas, the Gnostic Ouroboros being essentially the same as the Hopi encircled serpent. The Egyptians and Gnostics related this to the Wheel of Life, determining birth and rebirth. The serpent also symbolizes wisdom, a universal idea reflected in the admonition of Jesus: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

In any guise, the serpent is a powerful symbol of the unknown, the primordial abyss of chaos or the unconscious. This reflects its association with water, the primeval and dark currents of the underworld, going back beyond time to a primitive stratum of life. The serpent was the first to acclaim Ra when he appeared above the surface of the waters of Nun. Physical serpents evolved in carboniferous times, some 250 million years ago, and were the first animal form to develop the amniotic egg covered with a fibrous shell, a trait which persisted through successive forms of life, the shell being lost only with mammals. It was also the first form of life to require internal fertilization in order to produce its eggs.

The Gnostics related the serpent to the mysterious energy of the primordial waters symbolized in the waves of the undulating serpent as well as the stirrings within the serpentine spinal cord of man. The stirrings surface from the abyss of the unconscious, sometimes unexpectedly and with peremptory and terrible effects. Jung related the serpent to the overwhelmingly destructive potential of the unconscious and recorded a great variety of serpent dreams experienced by his patients. Just as the mythical serpent of Midgard sleeps before it awakens to destroy the universe, so the frail vessel of waking human consciousness veils the unchartered depths of the unconscious. Dreams, or perhaps great courage, deliver some into the gorge of the abyss, but for most the serpent sleeps – even among those who worship him.

Related to the idea of the maternal ocean of life is the feminine principle in nature represented by matter. The serpent of the deep became a symbol for the feminine aspect of manifestation and was a common emblem for goddesses in the Mediterranean world. Eve in the Garden of Eden is intimately linked with the serpent, and the serpent seduction of Adam only recapitulates that of Jason by Medea and Hercules by Omphale. Thus, in many traditions the serpent is interpreted as a symbol for temptation, the seduction of spiritual strength by matter. In ancient times goddesses with serpent names, and mortal women who tempted the Gods, were linked with the idea that through woman, spirit falls into matter.

In most traditions, however, the cosmic serpent is androgynous, symbolic of energy itself, or pure force which is neither good nor evil. The inherent double nature of the serpent arises with the manifested serpent which becomes either good or evil. It is constructive or destructive and can heal as well as kill. Its poison is a powerful medicine in the hands of the wise. Serpent charms and amulets have been worn for millennia as a protection against serpent bite or against the ultimate encounter with the evil serpent of the underworld. Egyptian followers of Isis went to their graves with serpent necklaces upon their breasts to protect them from Apep, the evil one. Asps were sacred to Isis whose priestesses wore their likenesses on headdresses and around their throats and waists. Significantly, Cleopatra delivered herself into the other world by using an asp as an agent of her own death. Until recent times Europeans believed that the wearing of serpent parts could protect against sorcery. If the skin of a snake were worn, it was said, all objects would appear in their natural form. But just as the serpent protects against sorcery, so it is a prime ingredient in its practice. Thus Lady Macbeth used her serpent lore. Milton compared Satan to the burning comet that 'fires' the constellation Serpentarius. Comets have frequently appeared in this constellation of Serpentarius, while four novas have been recorded as originating there in the past two thousand years.

Serpent venom has been used as medicine since antiquity, while at the same time it is estimated that its bite is responsible for the deaths of thirty thousand people every year. The venom is actually a digestive fluid with numerous proteins and enzymes which are either toxic themselves or enhance the spread of the toxins. They attack the blood cells, nervous system or other tissue and destroy them in varying degrees of rapidity. The most toxic venoms are the most successful medicines, an effect anticipated, perhaps, in the story of Moses, who commanded the fiery serpents to bite and destroy those caught in the grip of matter, whereupon he then directed the Brazen Serpent to heal them.

In ancient Greece people would ask the healing god Aesculapius for a dream indicating a cure for their maladies. His method is demonstrated in a bas-relief showing the god beside his serpent which is biting a man's diseased shoulder, following which the god heals the shoulder. Aesculapius not only retained the serpent symbol but was himself called a Serpent. His very name is composed of aish, meaning 'man,' shkul, meaning 'to instruct,' and aphe, meaning 'serpent.' The unregenerate serpent destroys like the wild snakes around Medusa's head. The controlled serpent becomes a force to be utilized for superior purposes. Medusa is finally overcome by Perseus who stands as a symbol for order.

The double-edged nature of the serpent is further revealed in its role of guardian. Legends tell of serpents guarding valleys or caves where diamonds or other precious treasure rested. In Egyptian and Hindu temples ophidian guards protected the offerings of worshippers and sanctified them by crawling over and around them. They kept watch at the entrances to Egyptian tombs and guarded the thresholds of initiation. But the old astral serpent rose up in its hideous form as the dweller upon the same threshold, gathering with it all the malignant venom of ages of spiritual failure, while Apep waited in the underworld to devour the unwary soul on its journey.

Ophidia are essentially non-gregarious and often experience difficulty in locating a mate. The male identifies the female serpent by her odor which he picks up through his flicking tongue. The repeated flickering of the tongue involves a chemical sampling of the environment. Tiny particles transferred to the roof of the mouth produce, through a connecting olfactory nerve, a sensation akin to smell. This is the serpent's most important organ of awareness. In utilizing his vision, the serpent must change the position of his lens in order to accommodate depth and variation. This, together with the fact that as the temperature fluctuates the serpent must move to maintain optimal internal temperatures, indicates that the whole of the serpent tends to bend and move in response to minute alterations in its environment. This is reflected in the courtship pattern of certain species where the male adapts to every curve that the body of the female serpent assumes. The European Aesculapian serpent engages in a nuptial dance which involves mutual coiling, raising of heads and the formation of a lyre-shaped figure. In fact, one is reminded of the caduceus pattern with the two snakes intertwined. Here nature seems to be reiterating the profoundly metaphysical process of combining the dual forces in the universe. The extremely fundamental sensory response of the serpent also seems to echo primordial modes of astral interaction. After all, it is the olfactory sense which has the most compelling psychic effect upon consciousness.

At the cosmic level is Ananta Sesha, a form of Vishnu, the Holy Spirit of Preservation, and a symbol of the Universe, on which it is supposed to sleep during the intervals of the Days of Brahma. The seven heads of Sesha support the universe and represent the Seven Logoi, primary aspects of the Universal Logos. The singular serpent-creator and its seven rays are beautifully alluded to in a fragment from the Popul-Vuh codex: "All was immobility and silence in the darkness of the night; only the Creator, the Maker, the Dominator, the Serpent covered with feathers, They who engender, They who create, were on the waters as an ever-increasing light." In Hermetic tradition the Eternal Serpent was called Kneph or Onuphis (On meaning 'sun,' ophis meaning 'serpent'), the same as Chnuphis or ΧΝΟΦΙΣ, indicating the Demiurge, the Architect of the Universe. Thus Kneph was often depicted as a serpent thrusting an egg from its mouth, while Ra himself was praised as the 'Egg within the Serpent's coil.' The first Serpent Rishis or Nagas were called the "sons of Will and Yoga" who ''matured in man-bearing eggs." The Nagas were oviparous as the Cobra Nag continues to be.

Naga means serpent in Sanskrit and the highest are like gods while their 'humanized' descendants are of Naga clans and tribes, keepers of ritual practices. Similarly, members of the Hopi Snake Clan perform magic in relation to serpent rituals. Every year the snake dance necessitates gathering serpents from the four cardinal points, bathing them, treating them, dancing with them and then releasing them as messengers to the four corners, to the gods of earth and sky, to the rain that fructifies the seed.

Nagas are Adepts, yogis and narjols, and according to The Secret Doctrine, the five continents and five races have always been under their tutelage. The title can be traced to Mexico where Nagals were the chief magicians of the Nahuatl-speaking people. Uragas is another word for Naga and was a name given to the chief teachers in what is now known as Uruguay. The Indian Nagarajas were guardian spirits of lakes and rivers. These serpent-men converted in great numbers to Buddhism and became Arhats. Nagadwipa was the Island of Serpents in ancient India, and Nagpur is thought to be its surviving relic. These Nagas were believed to be the ancestors of the Rajputs and were instructors of the Brahmins. In the Mahabharata the Naga people are described, and in the mountainous country bordering Kashmir the remnants of the Nagas survive as a tribe under the protection of Nila Naga. They worship Sesha and other serpent gods as deified rulers of an ancient people whose racial symbol is the Naga and whose God is the Sun. Such are the Takas or Kathas. Sakya Buddha himself was addressed by disciples as MAHANAGO or Great Naga. Stupas were erected over the relics of the Sakyas after the destruction of Kapilavastu. When they were opened they revealed a representation of a Naga on almost every relic. One contained a golden Naga and bore the name of Mahanaman, one of the Buddha's own family, who succeeded to the throne relinquished by Gautama.

The spiritual line of the Nagas continues intact through the influence of the Initiated Benefactors of mankind. Hermes was depicted as a serpent who "glides like that creature, noiselessly, without apparent exertion, along the course of ages," a representation of heaven and a foe of the evil serpent. The Hierophants of Egypt were called 'Sons of the Serpent-God,' while to the Romans Aesculapius said, "Be not afraid; I shall come and leave my statues, but see this serpent as it twines around the rod I carry: mark it well and learn it, for I shall be this serpent, only larger, like a celestial presence." Krishna made a finer distinction when he told Arjuna that "Of serpents Vasuki am I and I am Ananta of Nagas." Such great Serpent-Heroes have brought to all races knowledge of agriculture, medicine and harmony of living. Like Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, they are often rain gods linked with Fohat, the progenitor of lightning, bringer of rain.

These Serpent-Heroes descend to earth, taking on the coils of manifested existence. In doing so they engage in a great sacrifice which mirrors the archetypal 'War in Heaven.' The titan Prometheus, like Lucifer and Quetzalcoatl, rebelled against the gods and, with Venus as an ally, brought the light of knowledge to earth. A great struggle ensued wherein the evil serpent was fought and ultimately subdued. Thus did Kneph stand upon Mehen, the serpent of the lower astral light, Apollo slay Python, and Heracles the seven-headed Hydra ... all examples of the universal traditions describing heroes vanquishing reptilian monsters. Krishna fought the gigantic Kalli Naga or Kaliya in the River Yamuna. He finally succeeded in tearing off the hydra's heads, one by one, and trampling him underfoot. But still he lived, his wife and children worshipfully begging mercy for him. Krishna then released him into the abyss.

There is a very interesting sequence of pictures marking the two main stages of Krishna's life. The first depicts him as suffering, bitten in the heel by an entwining serpent. The last depicts the disentanglement of Krishna, the serpent under his heel. The Buddha also was fastened seven times within the earthly serpent's coils but since it could not crush him, it became a youth bowing down before him. The control of the serpent by Horus is signified by a serpent ark which passes safely over the 'Old Serpent' flood while Horus, standing in the ark, kills the leviathan with his spear. The animals locked up in the serpent ark represent the human passions under control and indicate the great ordeals of initiation that have been passed. But the sacrifice is great, and more than one tradition describes the god drunk with mortal life and agonized by the spiritual loss suffered. Thus Quetzalcoatl becomes a drunkard before he manages to cross the divine water upon a raft of serpents at the end of his cycle on earth.

To understand the Naga, one must be initiated into the secrets of life. One must consciously rebecome Ba-ta, the omniscient serpent which, in The Book of the Dead, is made to say, "I am the serpent Ba-ta, of long years, Soul of the Soul, laid out and born daily; I am the soul that descends on earth." But it is not an easy task to unleash one's inner strength, the potential of the great abyss within one. To uncoil the serpent power within, with complete control, is the work of lives. But it must ultimately be uncoiled, stretching up through the chakras of the body, reaching finally to "that place between thine eyes" where man recovers his sense of the eternal. The process describes a serpentine or zigzag pattern reflected in Navajo designs as the lightning mediator between heaven and earth. It is also the pattern of the moving serpent, its sinuous undulations originating anteriorly, travelling toward the tail just as the power moves which will make of man a sage.

Many ritual initiations include being symbolically swallowed by a great serpent. Among several people of Africa a hut is made to represent the open maw of the serpent. In Australia aboriginal novices, being shut in a hut, are swallowed up by Julunggul, the Great Serpent who, during the 'Dreaming Period,' swallowed up the world. Medicine men are initiated in like manner, remaining within the serpent's belly for an indefinite length of time and emerging as 'a friend of the Serpent.' Just as novices are swallowed whole symbolically, so the physical serpent swallows his prey whole, allowing a good deal of time for the digestive fluids to work, which fluids are so powerful that almost all parts of the ingested organism are broken down and assimilated, including the bones. Analogously, on the level of initiation, this would represent a total dissolution of the old identity, of the personal self, and the emergence of a completely new state of being.

It is said that "the world materializes and man spiritualizes along the same spiral." The life of the man who would be initiated must involve a "conscious unwinding of the original coils of manifestation." The disciple must rise "in green coils from Malkuth to Kether," following creation in reverse. But the coils must be transmuted, not cut into pieces as Thor tried to do with the Midgard Serpent or modern science attempts to do with the Gordian knot. The serpent gets out of a knot by passing the knot along its body until it goes right off the tail. This is precisely what man must do in passing each ordeal of initiation, and he must do it by activating the inner serpentine power of his being. Man must become like that serpent which Thoth-Hermes described as "the most inspirited of all animals, and of a fiery nature, inasmuch as it exhibits an incredible celerity, moving by its spirit, without hands or feet, or any of the external members by which other animals effect their motion."

The dynamic equilibrium of opposing spiral forces was first activated by Vishnu who caused the demons and gods to turn alternately Sesha, wound around the world axis, and thereby churn the ocean of milk to produce Amrita, the elixir of immortality and the circulation of the subtle energies within the body of man. Unless the serpent power of polarity is balanced, it pulls man into a descending vortex. Great evil comes from great good, but greater good can come through great sacrifice. This is profoundly depicted in the heroic struggle between Osiris and his material aspect, Typhon. As a saviour and benefactor of mankind, Osiris encountered evil and, taking it on, did battle with it. But Typhon killed Osiris and became Apep, 'the Devourer of Souls,' the animal body left soulless, the evil serpent. It was Horus, the son of Osiris, who conquered Apep on behalf of the soul. This great sacrifice of Osiris took place on the seventeenth day of Hathor or November.

It is significant that this day marked the great sacrificial effort on behalf of mankind in the last century. Thus the Divine Teachers take on the sins of those they help. They carry the dead weight of ages of collective thraldom in the worldly serpent's coil. But from that sacrifice a few may see the winding path of the dual serpent forces which can kill or cure, thereby practising spiritual homeopathy, penetrating the redemptive mystery of Siva, 'the King of Serpents,' and blessed by the universal vision of Krishna:

Within Thy Form, O God, the Gods I see,
All grades of beings with distinctive marks;
Brahma, the Lord, upon his Lotus-Throne
The Rishis all, and Serpents, the Divine.

The world's great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.

Another Athens shall arise,
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of its prime;
And leave, if nought so bright may live.
All earth can take or Heaven can give.

Percy Bysshe Shelley