Something I’m Working On: A Snake Painting

March 17, 2012 § 2 Comments

Trying out the Lana Lanaquarelle paper that I wrote about in an earlier post.

The Snake Belt

December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler – Ein Bild der Zeit (Fritz Lang, 1922)

Extracting Venom

December 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler – Ein Bild der Zeit (Fritz Lang, 1922)

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 Effects of Fear

October 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Nicolas Poussin: Landscape With A Man Killed By A Snake (1648)

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake is by some described as “a study of fear”. In fact, another title that has been used for this painting is The Effects of Fear. Poussin has created a scene where theatrical gesturing, poses and facial expressions creates a drama taking place in this otherwise serene landscape. The way the figures have been placed, and how the landscape have been constructed creates a diagonal movement in the painting, showing the workings of fear.

There is another way to look at how space is constructed here. The drama that has been described is connected to a diagonal movement on a horizontal axis: From the corpse and the snake in the foreground, via the terrified man and frightened woman, to the oblivious or indifferent fishermen in the background.

Looking at the vertical axis, however, we could regard the water surface as a divider between above/below. The mirroring water surface becomes a divider between the visible world above the surface, and the invisible below. The serpent, a harbinger of death, crawling over the corpse, could be seen as coming from the realm below the surface, from the underworld. The dead man is already on his way down to the underworld; lying next to the water he is “in between”, his body is still above ground, but his arm and his leg are partly submerged in the water, crossing the boundary between the world above and the realm below.

The reflecting water surface, both hiding what’s below and creating an inverted world through mirroring, becomes a reminder of that which is hidden or invisible, yet always present.

See also:

Snakes, Serpents

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