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)


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”.

Crystals, Diamonds

April 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

The general symbolism of precious stones, jewels and gems, is that they signify the spirit, and spiritual truths. The treasures and the riches that they stand for symbolize moral and intellectual knowledge. Hidden gems are symbols of superior knowledge; treasures in a dark cave signify intuitive knowledge that can be found within the vast darkness of the unconscious. In myth, these treasures are often guarded by a dragon or a serpent.

Crystals. The state of transparency of crystals, is a conjunction of two opposites: it is matter that exists as though it did not exist (since one can see through it). Its transparency offers no hardness or resistance to contemplation. Pliny writes that crystal is a kind of ice, because it “is only to be found in places where the winter snow freezes with the greatest intensity”. This is why, he says, in Greek its name is derived from the word for “cold” (κρύσταλλος, from κρύος). Rain-water and pure snow are absolutely necessary for its formation, he adds (book 37, chapter 9). Pliny also describes how crystal can be used in medicine, saying that the best method of cautery for the human body is a ball of crystal, acted upon by the rays of the sun.

Diamonds. The diamond is a symbol of light and brilliance; it often signifies the mystic Centre. Cirlot says that the word diamond is derived from the Sanskrit’s dyu, which means “luminous being”. Diamond, is usually traced to the word adamantine wich is derived from the greek word adamas, meaning “unbreakable”, “unconquerable”. In Natural History by Pliny, adamas is described as the substance that possesses the greatest value of all human possessions. Pliny writes that its hardness is beyond all expression and that it also is incapable of being heated, and can block the effect of a magnet. It is because of these indomitable powers it has received the name adamas in Greek. But Pliny also says that the stone’s power might be yielded if the stone is steeped in the fresh (and warm) blood of a he-goat, and subjected to repeated blows. But even then, it might break both anvils and hammers of iron. Pliny says that adamas overcomes and neutralizes poisons, dispels delirium, and that it can cure depression and prevent suicide. (book 37, chapter 15).

Other keywords: subterranean astronomy

The Diseases of Trees

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Like humans, trees can be attacked by maladies. Some afflictions are common for all trees, for instance, attacks by worms, or pain in the limbs. Trees can be afflicted with hunger or indigestion, as well as suffer from excessive fatness (and thus turning themselves into a torch-tree).We can also speak of their bodies as being mutilated.

Sideration, the ill effects caused by the heavens, inflict injuries upon trees. One instance of sideration is a certain heat and dryness that prevails at the rising of the Dog-star, and that causes grafts and young trees to pine away and die.

Both human beings and trees are subjects to diseases of the sinews. For both, the virulence shows itself in either the feet (the roots), or the joints of the fingers (the extremities of the branches that are most distant from the trunk). The first symptom is that the tree is suffering from pain, the affected parts becoming brittle and dry, then follows rapid consumption and ultimately death.

Injuries inflicted by the hand of man are productive of bad effects. Pitch oil and grease are highly detrimental if applied to trees. Trees may also be killed if a circular piece of the bark is removed from around them.  If the bark is removed from the fir and the pine, while the sun is passing through Taurus or Gemini, they will instantly die. In winter however, they are able to withstand the effects of it much longer. This is also the case for holm-oak, the robur and the quercus. If only a narrow circular strip is removed from these trees, there will be no visible injuries. But in the case of the weaker trees, the same operation, even if only performed on one side, will be sure to kill them.

When the roots of a tree are cut, the result should be death.

Trees will also kill one another. For example, by their shade, or density of their foliage. And ivy, by clinging to a tree, will strangle it. It is in the nature of some plants to injure other plants, for instance, the radish and its effect on the vine. It was from this observation that Androcydes used the radish in his antidote for drunkenness, recommending it to be eaten when drinking wine.

(Book 17, Chapter 37)

The Bark of Trees

December 12, 2010 § 2 Comments

The bark of trees has been used for many things; for instance, it has been worn as clothes or armour, it can be used to make ropes, or used as a surface for paintings and map-making. Various hallucinatory chemicals can be extracted from bark.

When writing about Germanic tribes, the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela mentions that the people of these tribes wear the hides of animals and bark as clothing (Christopher Wood, p. 129). The bark-as-clothes is a sign that connotes the symbiotic existence between the people living in the forest and the nature itself. Mela describes the people of the forest tribes as being wild, aggressive and as having hardy bodies and being insensitive to cold. The practice of wearing bark as clothes reinforces the image of their bodies as being robust and resistant; the wilderness of nature being incorporated in their very own bodies.

Pliny the Elder suggests that the physiological structure of trees are analogous to that of the human body. To Pliny, the bark of the tree is like the skin of the human body (book 16, chap 55 and chap 72).

In the chapter about how the bark of trees is used, Pliny says that when a spy has been sent out he often leaves information for his general written upon fresh bark. The bark of the beech is also used for certain sacred rites (book 16, chap 14).

Pliny lists a number of remedies where the bark of branches, roots and trunks is used. For instance, the red bark of the roots of wild pomegranate, taken together with wine, promotes sleep (chapter 61, book 23). The bark of the upper branches of the willow, reduced to ashes and mixed with water, is curative of corns and callosities and can also be used to remove spots upon the face (book 24, chap 37).

Famous Trees

October 27, 2010 § 2 Comments


Pliny tells of a grove in Tusculum; formed of beeches and consecrated to the goddess Diana. This grove contained an outstanding tree that excited the affection of the the distinguished orator Passenius Crispus, famous for marrying Agrippina and becoming Nero’s step-father. Crispus was so passionately attached to this beech tree that not only would he lie down beneath it, but he would also kiss and embrace it, as well as pour wine over it so that its roots would be moistened with wine.

Another tree near this grove, a holm-oak, were just as famous – for its trunk were no less than 34 feet in circumference, and sending out what looked like ten other trees of remarkable size, forming a wood of itself. No other holm-oak has ever been known to attain this size.

The Felling of Trees

September 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

“The state of the moon, too, is of infinite importance, and it is generally recommended that trees should be cut only between the twentieth and the thirtieth days of the month. It is generally agreed, however, by all, that it is the very best time for felling timber, when the moon is in conjunction with the sun, a day which is called by some persons the interlunium, and by others the moon’s silence.”

“Some persons say that the moon ought not only to be in conjunction, but below the horizon as well, a thing that can only happen in the night. If the conjunction should chance to fall on the very day of the winter solstice, the timber, they say, that is then felled will be of everlasting duration; the next best being the timber that is cut when the conjunction coincides with the constellations previously mentioned. There are some, too, who add the rising of the Dog-star as a favourable time”

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