Snakes, Serpents

October 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

The snake, or serpent, is symbolic of energy itself, of pure force. It is also commonly associated with the tree and its form resembles that of roots and branches. Snakes appear everywhere, some inhabit the woods, they can be found in deserts, as well as in water.

The snake, because of its ability to strangle and because of its aggressiveness, signifies strength. Because it sheds its skin it has been associated with symbolism of resurrection and rebirth. The combination of the ability to rejuvenate and the power to kill, it has power over both life and death. Snakes are also mediators. They mediate between life and death, this world and the underworld, between cosmos and divine space. The ambivalence of the snake (of the positive/negative, constructive/destructive) is expressed in the Gnostic symbol of the heavenly snake Ouroboros. In the Ouroboros symbol the snake is connected to the symbolism of the Wheel, representing cyclic eternity. The symmetrical placing of two snakes like in the caduceus of Mercury, indicates an equilibrium of forces, representing good balanced by evil. The snake then, is cause of both the illness as well as the cure. This is mentioned by Pliny who says that it is a well known fact that all injuries inflicted by serpents, even those of an otherwise incurable nature, can be cured by applying the entrails of the serpent itself to the wound. He also says that someone who has eaten a viper’s liver (boiled), will never be attacked by serpents again (Book 29, Ch 22). The fat of some snakes will also repel venomous creatures.

J.E. Cirlot mentions that the snake was an important symbol for the Gnostics, especially for the Naasenes sect where the snake was said to live in all objects and all beings. He also makes a connection between this idea and to the Kundalini concept (of Yoga) where the snake is an image of inner strength, where Kundalini is represented symbolically as a snake coiled up in the base of the spine.

Ingvil Saelid Gilhus writes that of all animals in the Graeco-Roman culture, the snake played a special role, in relation to gods and goddesses, and it was associated with a number of cults. Snakes were seen as guardians of sacred places as well as private houses, they were used as symbols of the souls of the dead, they symbolized transformation, and had healing powers, as well as prophetic powers (one example is the cult of Glycon).

Pliny mentions that there are numerous remedies that can be derived from serpents, which also is why it has been consecrated to the god of medicine, Æsculapius. There are also other beneficient effects that can be made from preparations of snakes, for instance, Democritus claims there is one preparation that makes one understand the language of birds. (Book 29 Ch 22). Pliny mentions the “dragon”, a serpent destitute of venom, and probably talks of the boa. The head of this serpent is placed beneath the threshold of a door, which will ensure good fortune to the house. The eyes of this snake can be prepared (by being dried up and beaten with honey) and made into a liniment which will protect against terrors of spirits and spectres by night. Other parts of this snake can ensure success in lawsuits, give access to persons high in office, and can render masters indulgent and rulers gracious. The most powerful potion to be made from this serpent though, says Pliny, is the one that magicians claim can make a person invincible. The tail and head of the snake, together with the hairs of a lion’s forehead and lion’s marrow, the foam of a winning race-horse and the claws of a dog, are tied together in a deer’s skin.  (Book 29, Ch 20).

There are many remedies for the eyes which are prepared from snakes, for instance, against  cataract and films upon the eyes. A burnt viper mixed with salt, applied to the tongue will improve eye-sight; slough that was cast off in spring will also improve the sight. The fat of snakes heals ruptures of the cuticle of the eyes. (Book 29, Ch 28). Tooth-ache and other ailments of the teeth can also be cured with the help of snake remedies. When tooth-ache affects upper jaw, two upper teeth of the male white serpent are attached , and two lower ones for tooth ache in the lower jaw. Another efficient cure is to eat a snake’s heart, or to wear it attached to the body. The ashes of a serpent, burnt with salt and injected with oil and roses, injected in the ear are goof for the gums. Injected into hollow teeth, makes the tooth come out without pain. A snake’s tooth worn as an amulet allays tooth-ache. (Book 30, Ch 8).

Some remedies against snake bites include swallow-wort (greater celandine) given in wine and betony as external application to the wound. If a circle of betony is traced around a serpent, the powers of the plant are so strong that the snake will lash itself to death with its tail (Book 25, Ch 55). Another plant harmful to snakes is the ash tree. Pliny states that no serpent will ever lie in the shadow thrown by an ash tree, but keep as far away from it as possible – it will rather throw itself into a lighted fire than encounter the leaves of the tree. There is no better cure against snake bites, according to Pliny, than drinking the juice extracted from these leaves and to apply them to wounds. (Book 16, Ch 24)

Snakes in art

Landscape with a Man killed by a Snake (Poussin)


September 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Circle, or Disk, has come to stand for perfection and unity; oneness. It is also a symbol for infinity/eternity or heaven and the celestial. And because of its likeness to the sun and the moon, also representative of these celestial bodies.

The Circle is of course also connected to the circumference and circumferential movement. The cyclic movement can be represented by the Wheel. Both the Disk and the Wheel are circular; however, the disk is immobile while the wheel rotates (although within the structure of the wheel there is a duality, since the center is still and the perimeter moving). The circumference  suggests a limit, an enclosing, a border, but at the same time the circular movement is a representation of time, an eternal cyclic movement. Time, and the continuity of life, can be symbolized by the Ouroboros, the serpent/snake/dragon who is biting its own tail, forming an “O” with its body. (See also: Snakes, Serpents)

The Wheel is a symbolic synthesis of the activity of cosmic forces and the passage of time, which is rooted in solar or zodiacal symbolism. The rim of the Wheel are often divided into sectors illustrating phases in the passing of time. However, to move instead in the direction from the outside of the wheel towards the central point (instead of moving circumferential) is to travel towards the mystic “Centre“, which is non-spatial and timeless.  It could also mean going through a transmutation, an ascending metamorphosis.

The Centre

September 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The intention of symbols representing the “mystic Centre”, is to reveal the meaning of the of the primordial state; to make it possible for man to identify with the supreme rule of the universe. In many religions God resides in the Centre, and in diagrams of the cosmos the center spot is reserved for the Creator, sometimes surrounded by concentric circles spreading outwards. This formation, concentric circles spreading outwards, is in some cultures also a symbol of infinity.

Many rituals acts are partaken in with the intent of finding the spiritual Centre of a location. The purpose of many pilgrimages is to reach the Centre, to reach the paradisal state. As has been mentioned before, the symbolism of finding the center of a maze or labyrinth is connected to the idea of the Centre, where the answer, or origin can be found in the center.

In a cross, the Centre is located at the intersection and conjunction of crossing lines. In this position it expressess the infinite depth of space. Moving towards the Centre, could also symbolize transformational process.

See also:
Wheel, Disk

Sirius, the Dog-star

September 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sirius, the Dog-star, is the brightest star in our night sky.  In ancient Egypt the star was known as Sopdet (Greek: Sothis).  Sothis was identified with the goddess Isis, who formed a trinity with her husband Osiris and their son Horus. The ancient Egyptians based their calendar on the heliacal rising of Sirius, which matches the length of our solar year.

The most commonly used proper name of this star comes from the the latin name Sīrius (derived from the Ancient Greek Σείριος, “seirios”, meaning “glowing” or “scorcher”). In Ancient Greece they observed that the rising of the Dog-star is during the hottest part of summer.  Because of its brightness during the hot summer, the star was thought to cause malignant influences during this period, people were said to be “star-struck” (αστροβολητος, “astroboletos”), described as  “burning” or “flaming” in literature. Pliny says that “The most powerful effects are felt on the earth from this star.” When it rises, the seas are troubled, the wines ferment, and still waters are set in motion (Book 2, Ch 40).  The whole sea is sensible to the rising of the star, in some places sea-weeds and fish can be seen floating on the surface because they have been thrown up from the bottom. Among the river-fish, the silurus is said to be particularly affected by the rising of the Dog-star (and at other times set to sleep by thunder) (Book 18, Ch 58). Sirius’ effects on trees has been mentioned before here, regarding favorable times for the felling of trees, and that it causes grafts and young trees to pine away and die (see: The diseases of trees).

Pliny also says that dogs are particularly prone to become rabid during this period. He claims that canine madness is fatal to man during the heat of Sirius and that this is proven by the fact that those bitten have a deadly horror of water. (Book 8, Ch 63). The 30-day period following the star’s appearance came to be known as the Dog days. There are accounts of sacrifices of puppies offered to Sirius, to lessen the malignant emanations of the stars.

In Chinese astrology Sirius is known as the star of the “celestial wolf”.

The Red Knight

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Parsifal (Perceval, Percival) of Chrétien de Troyes, becomes a red knight after defeating the Red Knight. On one of his early travels, Parsifal meets a knight in red armour; the knight is riding on a black horse with trappings and furniture in red. He fights the Red Knight and kills him, taking over his horse and his armour.

A Red Knight is the knight who has mastered the steed and defeated the monster. He is clothed in red garments, because he has come through war and sacrifice, sublimated through every possible trial, now deserving of ultimate transmutation (gold).

Forest and Architecture

May 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

In descriptions of the primeval forest, architectural terms are often used to describe these natural surroundings. According to Simon Schama, this is because there isn’t any way to describe the primeval forest in terms of its own. So, one turns to vocabulary pertaining to human culture. The forest could be described as a large room holding many pillars. Or, tall trees with bending trunks and bending branches, could be said to form entrance portals and vaulted ceilings. The architecture of the primeval forest is often an architecture in ruins… broken, knocked down columns, remnants of torn down buildings, wall fragments… splintered, shattered, decaying, overgrown.

As one travels further into the woods, the language used to describe the surroundings becomes more aggressive, more militaristic, Schama notes. Tree roots and tree stumps are fortifications and there are palisades formed by thorny shrubbery. Through the dense silence and darkness at the heart of the forest, the hammering of woodpeckers can be heard, like gunshots echoing between the trees.


May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mud, is the solid element (Earth) when fused with the transient and transforming element (Water). Mud, clay – possible to mold and shape, a medium for creating new forms; emergence of new matter. Mud symbolizes a nascent state; but marshlands, also a fusion of water and earth, represent the opposite – decay and decomposition.

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