IV — THE SERPENT
This symbol, like the others, condenses a number of meanings into one; and of these meanings we have already touched upon one in the article on the Circle (Feb. issue). It was there mentioned that the Serpent is often shown swallowing its tail, as an emblem of the return of cycles upon themselves, and the union of ends and beginnings. It was also shown that, if the ends of the circle pass one another instead of meeting, a spiral curve is formed, which still farther expresses the course of evolution. This spiral curve is often shown as a Serpent, so that one meaning of this symbol is that of the spiral course of evolution.
It will be well to say here, with reference to the Serpent, as also to many other symbols, that there is a dual meaning. A knowledge of this fact removes many obscurities in the interpretation of symbols; we saw for instance, last month, that the Cross may represent the interaction of Cosmic Mind and Cosmic Matter on the highest plane, or the union of physical forces on the terrestrial plane. Similarly we hear of good and bad Serpents, and in our own Bible we are told in one place to be wise as Serpents, and in other places to beware of that old Serpent the Devil. Bearing this dual nature in mind, we shall avoid such confusions as theology has made in confounding the Serpent of Genesis, who taught mankind wisdom, with that Devil who is the personification of man's evil passions.
We read in The Secret Doctrine that Fohat, Divine Messenger, Intelligent Cosmic Electricity, who at the Divine Word proceeds forth to create worlds and the beings thereon, moves in a serpentine course, generates spirals; and this spiral plan of evolution is imitated throughout nature, from the nebulae to the spiral growth of plants. The Serpent means Divine Wisdom, Creative Intelligence; and Masters of Wisdom are called Serpents — which gives a new meaning to the injunction 'Be ye wise as Serpents.' Hermes or Mercury carries the caduceus, a wand with two Serpents entwined on a staff; the Chinese made the Serpent the emblem of their emperors; the Druids called themselves Snakes; serpent-emblems called Dracontia once covered the globe and are still found; Quetzal-Cohuatl was the snake-deity of the ancient Mexicans; Dragons are found throughout ancient symbology with the same sense. But we also hear of evil Serpents. The Gnostics spoke of an Agathodaimon and a Kakodaimon, or good and evil divinity, represented as Serpents; Hercules slays Python; Apollo at birth overcomes a Serpent, but does it by means of another Serpent — the higher wisdom in man overcoming the lower. The two nodes of the moon, Rahu and Ketu, are called the Dragon's head and tail. So the Serpent can represent the duality of human nature — which is but a copy of the duality in Cosmos. There is the Serpent of Spirit and the Serpent of Matter, the Heavenly Wisdom from above and the earthly wisdom from below, of which Paul speaks so often. These polar forces throughout all creation make the eternal contrast by which growth is promoted and equilibrium sustained. The lower Serpent of matter is not evil in itself, but becomes evil to man when he sets himself in a wrong relation to it. Man's compound nature enables him to endow the forces of nature with intelligence and thus to create bad Serpents, which impede his progress, but in the long run give him the victor's strength; and cosmically speaking, the descent of Spirit into Matter has engendered fearsome creatures that prey on one another, and deadly poisons and pestilences. So the Serpent or Devil may very well stand for the lower nature of man, which (as we know) is a dire and dismal reality, a specter we have ourselves raised and must lay; and the Serpent may just as well stand for man's Savior, the Divine Wisdom from above. Only let us not personify them into a Jehovah and a Satan; and let us remember that our body is the Temple of the Holy Ghost, even though we may have desecrated the shrine.
The Serpent is closely associated with the Tree — sometimes the Cross — and, as said in our last article, denotes the creative forces circling through the planes of matter. The children of Israel are bitten by Serpents, which causes a pestilence, and are healed by Moses (a magician) setting up a brazen Serpent. The Serpent is the Teacher of man, as are the Christos, Prometheus, Lucifer, and the Savior under various other names. But he is also the Tempter — or rather, the one who tries and tests man. For how is man to exercise the Divine prerogative of free will unless he is given a free choice? Therefore the Teacher is rightly called a Tempter, but not in a malign sense.
As this is Easter, it is appropriate to mention the Serpent in connexion with the Egg. In various parts of the earth are found Serpent Mounds, often with a mound representing the Egg near the mouth of the Serpent. These two symbols are naturally associated; for the Egg symbolizes the womb of nature. Its form is spheroidal, so that it stands for the same as the Circle; but it has a germ inside, from which will spring, in stage after stage of unfoldment, the complete being. For some people this may be a mere 'analogy' — little more than one of the figures of rhetoric in the back of the grammar book. But analogy is the great key to the interpretation of cosmic and human mysteries. The ordinary hen's egg is actually a faithful miniature of the great Cosmic Egg, and it is possible to trace the most wonderful analogies throughout all the stages of the embryo which biologists study. The custom of exchanging eggs at the time of the year's rebirth was observed by many nations and has been adopted into Christianity along with other 'Pagan' customs.