Theosophical University Press Online Edition
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“Object of horror or of adoration, men have for the serpent an implacable hatred, or prostrate themselves before its genius. Lie calls it, Prudence claims it, Envy carries it in its heart, and Eloquence on its caduceus. In hell it arms the whip of the Furies; in heaven Eternity makes of it its symbol.”
The Ophites asserted that there were several kinds of genii, from god to man; that the relative superiority of these was ruled by the degree
of light that was accorded to each; and they maintained that the serpent had to be constantly called upon and to be thanked for the signal service it had rendered humanity. For it taught Adam that if he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he would raise his being immensely by the learning and wisdom he would thus acquire. Such was the exoteric reason given.
It is easy to see whence the primal idea of this dual, Janus-like character of the Serpent: the good and the bad. This symbol is one of the most ancient, because the reptile preceded the bird, and the bird the mammal. Thence the belief, or rather the superstition, of the savage tribes who think that the souls of their ancestors live under this form, and the general association of the Serpent with the tree. The legends about the various things it represents are numberless; but, as most of them are allegorical, they have now passed into the class of fables based on ignorance and dark superstition. For instance, when Philostratus narrates that the natives of India and Arabia fed on the heart and liver of serpents in order to learn the language of all the animals, the serpent being credited with that faculty, he certainly never meant his words to be accepted literally. (See De Vita Apollonii, lib. 1, c. xiv.) As will be found more than once as we proceed, the “Serpent” and “Dragon” were the names given to the “Wise Ones,” the initiated adepts of olden times. It was their wisdom and their learning that were devoured or assimilated by their followers, whence the allegory. When the Scandinavian Sigurd is fabled to have roasted the heart of Fafnir, the Dragon, whom he had slain, becoming thereby the wisest of men, it meant the same thing. Sigurd had become learned in the runes and magical charms; he had received the “word” from an initiate of that name, or from a sorcerer, after which the latter died, as many do, after “passing the word.” Epiphanius lets out a secret of the Gnostics while trying to expose their heresies. The Gnostic Ophites, he says, had a reason for honouring the Serpent: it was because he taught the primeval men the Mysteries (Adv. Haeres. 37). Verily so; but they did not have Adam and Eve in the garden in their minds when teaching this dogma, but simply that which is stated above. The Nagas of the Hindu and Tibetan adepts were human Nagas (Serpents), not reptiles. Moreover, the Serpent has ever been the type of consecutive or serial rejuvenation, of Immortality and Time.
The numerous and extremely interesting readings, the interpretations and facts about Serpent worship, given in “The Natural Genesis,” are very ingenious and scientifically correct. But they are far from covering the whole of the meanings implied. They divulge only the astronomical and physiological mysteries, with the addition of some cosmic phenomena. On the lowest plane of materiality the Serpent was, no doubt,
“the great mystery in the mysteries,” and was, very likely, “adopted as a type of feminine pubescence, on account of its sloughing and self-renewal.” It was so, however, only with regard to mysteries concerning terrestrial animal life, for as symbol of “reclothing and rebirth in the (universal) mysteries” its “final phase”* — or shall we rather say its incipient and culminating phases — they were not of this plane. They were generated in the pure realm of ideal light, and having accomplished the round of the whole cycle of adaptations and symbolism, the “mysteries” returned from whence they had come — into the essence of immaterial causality. They belonged to the highest gnosis. And surely this could have never obtained its name and fame solely on account of its penetration into physiological and especially feminine functions!
As a symbol, the Serpent had as many aspects and occult meanings as the Tree itself; the “Tree of Life,” with which it was emblematically and almost indissolubly connected. Whether viewed as a metaphysical or a physical symbol, the Tree and Serpent, jointly, or separately, have never been so degraded by antiquity as they are now, in this our age of the breaking of idols, not for truth’s sake, but to glorify the more gross matter. The revelations and interpretations in “The Rivers of Life” would have astounded the worshippers of the Tree and Serpent in the days of archaic Chaldean and Egyptian wisdom; and even the early Saivas would have recoiled in horror at the theories and suggestions of the author of the said work. “The notion of Payne Knight and Inman that the cross or Tau is simply a copy of the male organs in a triadic form is radically false,” writes Mr. G. Massey, who proves what he says. But this is a statement that could be as justly applied to almost all the modern interpretations of ancient symbols. “The Natural Genesis,” a monumental work of research and thought, the most complete on that subject that has ever been published, covering as it does a wider field, and explaining much more than all the symbologists who have hitherto written, does not yet go beyond the “psycho-theistic” stage of ancient thought. Nor were Payne Knight and Inman altogether wrong; except in entirely failing to see that their interpretations of the “Tree of Life,” as the cross and phallus, fitted the symbol, and approximated it, only on the lowest and last stage of the evolutionary development of the idea of the Giver of Life. It was the last and the grossest physical transformation of nature, in animal, insect, bird, and even plant; for biune, creative magnetism, in the form of the attraction of the contraries, or sexual polarization, acts in the constitution of reptile and bird as it does in that of man. Moreover, the modern symbologists and Orientalists — from first to last —
* The Natural Genesis, by Gerald Massey, Vol. 1, p. 340.
being ignorant of the real mysteries revealed by occultism, can necessarily see but this last stage. If told that this mode of procreation, which the whole world of being has now in common on this earth, is but a passing phase, a physical means of furnishing the conditions to, and producing the phenomena of life which will alter with this, and disappear with the next Root-Race — they would laugh at such a superstitious and unscientific idea. But the most learned Occultists assert this because they know it. The universe of living beings, of all those which procreate their species, is the living witness to the various modes of procreation in the evolution of animal and human species and races; and the naturalist ought to sense this truth intuitionally, even though he is yet unable to demonstrate it. And how could he, indeed, with the present modes of thought! The landmarks of the archaic history of the past are few and scarce, and those that men of science come across are mistaken for finger-posts of our little era. Even so-called “universal” (?) history embraces but a tiny field in the almost boundless space of the unexplored regions of our latest, fifth Root-Race. Hence, every fresh sign-post, every new glyph of the hoary Past that is discovered, is added to the old stock of information, to be interpreted on the same lines of pre-existing conceptions, and without any reference to the special cycle of thought which that particular glyph may belong to. How can Truth ever come to light if this method is never changed!
Thus, in the beginning of their joint existence as a glyph of Immortal Being, the Tree and Serpent were divine imagery, truly. The tree was reversed, and its roots were generated in Heaven and grew out of the Rootless Root of all-being. Its trunk grew and developed, crossing the planes of Pleroma, it shot out crossways its luxuriant branches, first on the plane of hardly differentiated matter, and then downward till they touched the terrestrial plane. Thus, the Asvattha, tree of Life and Being, whose destruction alone leads to immortality, is said in the Bhagavatgita to grow with its roots above and its branches below (ch. xv.). The roots represent the Supreme Being, or First Cause, the Logos; but one has to go beyond those roots to unite oneself with Krishna, who, says Arjuna (XI.), is “greater than Brahman, and First Cause . . . the indestructible, that which is, that which is not, and what is beyond them.” Its boughs are Hiranyagharba (Brahma or Brahman in his highest manifestations, say Sridhara and Madhusudana), the highest Dhyan Chohans or Devas. The Vedas are its leaves. He only who goes beyond the roots shall never return, i.e., shall reincarnate no more during this “age” of Brahma.
It is only when its pure boughs had touched the terrestrial mud of the garden of Eden, of our Adamic race, that this Tree got soiled by the contact and lost its pristine purity; and that the Serpent of
Eternity — the heaven-born Logos — was finally degraded. In days of old — of the divine Dynasties on Earth — the now dreaded Reptile was regarded as the first beam of light that radiated from the abyss of divine Mystery. Various were the forms which it was made to assume, and numerous the natural symbols adapted to it, as it crossed aeons of Time: as from Infinite Time itself — Kala — it fell into the space and time evolved out of human speculation. These forms were Cosmic and astronomical, theistic and pantheistic, abstract and concrete. They became in turn the Polar Dragon and the Southern Cross, the Alpha Draconis of the Pyramid, and the Hindu-Buddhist Dragon, which ever threatens, yet never swallows the Sun during its eclipses. Till then, the Tree remained ever green, for it was sprinkled by the waters of life; the great Dragon, ever divine, so long as it was kept within the precincts of the sidereal fields. But the tree grew and its lower boughs touched at last the infernal regions — our Earth. Then the great serpent Nidhogg — he who devours the corpses of the evil-doers in the “Hall of Misery” (human life), so soon as they are plunged into “Hwergelmir,” the roaring cauldron (of human passions) — gnawed the World-tree. The worms of materiality covered the once healthy and mighty roots, and are now ascending higher and higher along the trunk; while the Midgard-snake coiled at the bottom of the Seas, encircles the Earth, and, through its venomous breath, makes her powerless to defend herself.
They are all seven-headed, the dragons and serpents of antiquity — “one head for each race, and every head with seven hairs on it,” as the allegory has it. Aye, from Ananta, the Serpent of Eternity which carries Vishnu through the Manvantara, from the original primordial Sesha, whose seven heads become “one thousand heads” in the Puranic fancy, down to the seven-headed Akkadian Serpent. This typifies the Seven principles throughout nature and man; the highest or middle head being the seventh. It is not of the Mosaic, Jewish Sabbath that Philo speaks in his Creation of the World, when saying that the world was completed “according to the perfect nature of number 6.” For, “when that reason (nous) which is holy in accordance with the number seven, has entered the soul (rather the living body), the number six is thus arrested, and all the mortal things which that number makes.” And again: “Number 7 is the festival day of all the earth, the birthday of the world. I know not whether any one would be able to celebrate the number 7 in adequate terms.” . . . (Par. pp. 30 and 419). The author of The Natural Genesis thinks that “the Septenary of Stars seen in the great bear (the Septarshis) and seven-headed Dragon furnished a visible origin for the symbolic seven of time above. The goddess of the seven stars,” he adds —
“Was the mother of time, as Kep; whence Kepti and Sebti for the two times and number seven. So this is the star of the Seven by name. Sevekt (Kronus), the Son of the goddess, has the name of the seven or seventh. So has Sefekh Abu who builds the house on high, as Wisdom (Sophia) built hers with seven pillars. . . The primary Kronotypes were seven, and thus the beginning of time in heaven is based on the number and the name of seven, on account of the starry demonstrators. The seven stars as they turned round annually kept pointing, as it were, with the forefinger of the right hand, and describing a circle in the upper and lower heaven.* The number seven naturally suggested a measure by seven, that led to what may be termed Sevening, and to the marking and mapping out of the circle in seven corresponding divisions which were assigned to the seven great constellations; and thus was formed the celestial heptanomis of Egypt in the heavens. . . . When the stellar heptanomis was broken up and divided into four quarters, it was multiplied by four, and the twenty-eight signs took the place of the primary seven constellations, the lunar zodiac of twenty-eight days being the registered result.† . . . In the Chinese arrangement the four sevens are given to four genii that preside over the four cardinal points. . . .” (In Chinese Buddhism and Esotericism the genii are represented by four Dragons — the “Maharajahs” of the Stanzas.) “The seven Northern constellations make up the Black Warrior; the seven Eastern (Chinese autumn) constitute the White Tiger; the seven Southern are the Vermilion Bird; and the seven Western (called Vernal) are the Azure Dragon. Each of these four Spirits presides over its heptanomis during one lunar week. The genetive of the first heptanomis (Typhon of the Seven Stars) now took a lunar character; . . . in this phase we find the goddess Sefekh, whose name signifies number 7, is the feminine word, or logos in place of the mother of Time, who was the earlier Word, as goddess of the Seven Stars” (“Typology of Time,” Vol. II. p. 313, Nat. Gen.).
The author shows that it was the goddess of the Great Bear and mother of Time who was in Egypt from the earliest times the “Living Word,” and that “Sevekh-Kronus, whose type was the Crocodile-Dragon, the pre-planetary form of Saturn, was called her son and consort; he was her Word-Logos” (p. 321, Vol. I.).
The above is quite plain, but it was not the knowledge of astronomy only that led the ancients to the process of Sevening. The primal cause goes far deeper and will be explained in its place.
The above quotations are no digressions. They are brought forward as showing (a) the reason why a full Initiate was called a “Dragon,” a “Snake” a “Naga”; and (b) that our septenary division was used by the priests of the earliest dynasties in Egypt, for the same reason and on the same basis as by us. This needs further elucidation, however. As already stated, that which Mr. G. Massey calls the four genii of the four cardinal points; and the Chinese, the Black Warrior, White Tiger, Ver-
* For the same reason the division of the principles in man into seven are thus reckoned, as they describe the same circle in the human higher and lower nature.
† Thus the septenary division is the oldest and preceded the four-fold division. It is the root of archaic classification.
milion Bird, and Azure Dragon, is called in the Secret Books, — the “Four Hidden Dragons of Wisdom” and the “Celestial Nagas.” Now, as shown, the seven-headed or septenary Dragon-Logos had been in course of time split up, so to speak, into four heptanomic parts or twenty-eight portions. Each lunar week has a distinct occult character in the lunar month; each day of the twenty-eight has its special characteristics; as each of the twelve constellations, whether separately or in combination with other signs, has an occult influence either for good or for evil. This represents the sum of knowledge that men can acquire on this earth; yet few are those who acquire it, and still fewer are the wise men who get to the root of knowledge symbolized by the great Root Dragon, the spiritual logos of these visible signs. But those who do, receive the name of “Dragons,” and they are the “Arhats of the Four Truths of the 28 Faculties,” or attributes, and have always been so called.
The Alexandrian Neo-Platonists asserted that to become real Chaldees or Magi, one had to master the science or knowledge of the periods of the Seven Rectors of the world, in whom is all wisdom. In “Proclus in Timaeus,” b. 1, Jamblichus is credited with another version, which does not however, alter, the meaning. He says that “the Assyrians have not only preserved the records of seven and twenty myriads of years, as Hipparchus says they have, but likewise of the whole apocatastases and periods of the Seven Rulers of the World.” The legends of every nation and tribe, whether civilized or savage, point to the once universal belief in the great wisdom and cunning of the Serpents. They are “charmers.” They hypnotise the bird with their eye, and man himself, very often, does not feel above their fascinating influence; therefore the symbol is a most fitting one.
The crocodile is the Egyptian dragon. It was the dual symbol of Heaven and Earth, of Sun and Moon, and was made sacred, in consequence of its amphibious nature, to Osiris and Isis. According to Eusebius, the Egyptians represented the sun in a ship as its pilot, this ship being carried along by a crocodile “to show the motion of the Sun in the moyst (Space)”; (Prepar. Evang., 1, 3, c. 3). The crocodile was moreover, the symbol of Egypt herself — the lower, as being the more swampy of the two countries. The Alchemists claim another interpretation. They say that the symbol of the sun in the ship on the Ether of Space meant that the hermetic matter is the principle, or basis, of gold, or again the philosophical sun; the water, within which the crocodile is swimming, is that water or matter made liquid; the ship herself, finally, representing the vessel of nature, in which the sun, or the sulphuric, igneous principle, acts as a pilot: because it is the sun
which conducts the work by his action upon the moist or mercury. The above is only for the Alchemists.
The Serpent became the type and symbol of evil, and of the Devil, only during the middle ages. The early Christians — besides the Ophite Gnostics — had their dual Logos: the Good and the Bad Serpent, the Agathodaemon and the Kakodaemon. This is demonstrated by the writings of Marcus, Valentinus, and many others, and especially in Pistis Sophia — certainly a document of the earliest centuries of Christianity. On the marble sarcophagus of a tomb, discovered in 1852 near the Porta Pia, one sees the scene of the adoration of the Magi, “or else,” remarks the late C. W. King in “The Gnostics,” “the prototype of that scene, the ‘Birth of the New Sun.’ ” The mosaic floor exhibited a curious design which might have represented either (a) Isis suckling the babe Harpocrates, or (b) the Madonna nursing the infant Jesus. In the smaller sarcophagi that surrounded the larger one, eleven leaden plates rolled like scrolls were found, three of which have been deciphered. The contents of these ought to be regarded as final proof of a much-vexed question, for they show that either the early Christians, up to the VIth Century, were bona fide pagans, or that dogmatic Christianity was borrowed wholesale, and passed in full into the Christian Church — Sun, Tree, Serpent, Crocodile and all.
“On the first is seen Anubis . . . holding out a scroll; at his feet are two female busts; below all are two serpents entwined . . . a corpse swathed up like a mummy. In the second scroll . . . is Anubis, holding out a cross, the “Sign of Life.” Under his feet lies the corpse encircled in the numerous folds of a huge serpent, the Agathodaemon, guardian of the deceased. . . . . In the third scroll, Anubis bears on his arm . . . . . the outline of . . a complete Latin cross . . . At the god’s foot is a rhomboid, the Egyptian ‘Egg of the World,’ towards which crawls a serpent coiled into a circle . . . . Under the busts is the letter [[omega]] repeated seven times in a line, reminding one of the ‘names’ . . . Very remarkable also is the line of characters, apparently Palmyrene, upon the legs of the first Anubis. As for the figure of the serpent, supposing these talismans to emanate not from the Isiac but the newer Ophite creed, it may well stand for that “True and perfect Serpent,” who leads forth the souls of all that put their trust in him out of the Egypt of the body, and through the Red Sea of Death into the Land of Promise, saving them on their way from the Serpents of the Wilderness, that is, from the Rulers of the Stars.” (King’s “Gnostics,” p. 366.)
And this “True and Perfect Serpent” is the seven-lettered God who is now credited with being Jehovah, and Jesus One with him. To this Seven-vowelled god the candidate for initiation is sent by Christos, in the Pistis Sophia, a work earlier than St. John’s Revelation, and evidently of the same school. “The (Serpent of the) Seven Thunders uttered
these seven vowels,” but “Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not,” says Revelation. “Do ye seek after these mysteries?” inquiries Jesus in Pistis Sophia. “No mystery is more excellent than they (the seven vowels): for they shall bring your souls unto the Light of Lights” — i.e., true Wisdom. “Nothing, therefore, is more excellent than the mysteries which ye seek after, saving only the mystery of the Seven Vowels and their Forty and nine Powers, and the numbers thereof.”
In India, it was the mystery of the Seven Fires and their forty-nine fires or aspects, or “the members thereof,” just the same.
These seven vowels are represented by the Swastika signs on the crowns of the seven heads of the Serpent of Eternity, in India, among esoteric Buddhists, in Egypt, in Chaldea, etc. etc., and among the Initiates of every other country. It is on the Seven zones of post mortem ascent, in the Hermetic writings, that the “mortal” leaves, on each, one of his “Souls” (or Principles); until arrived on the plane above all zones he remains as the great Formless Serpent of absolute wisdom — or the Deity itself. The seven-headed serpent has more than one signification in the Arcane teachings. It is the seven-headed Draco, each of whose heads is a star of the Lesser Bear; but it was also, and pre-eminently, the Serpent of Darkness (i.e., inconceivable and incomprehensible) whose seven heads were the seven Logoi, the reflections of the one and first manifested Light — the universal Logos.
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