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Fishes, Insects, Animals, Reptiles and Birds
THE creatures inhabiting the water, air, and earth were held in veneration by all races of antiquity. Realizing that visible bodies are only symbols of invisible forces, the ancients worshiped the Divine Power through the lower kingdoms of Nature, because those less evolved and more simply constituted creatures responded most readily to the creative impulses of the gods. The sages of old studied living things to a point of realization that God is most perfectly understood through a knowledge of His supreme handiwork--animate and inanimate Nature.
Every existing creature manifests some aspect of the intelligence or power of the Eternal One, who can never be known save through a study and appreciation of His numbered but inconceivable parts. When a creature is chosen, therefore, to symbolize to the concrete human mind some concealed abstract principle it is because its characteristics demonstrate this invisible principle in visible action. Fishes, insects, animals, reptiles, and birds appear in the religious symbolism of nearly all nations, because the forms and habits of these creatures and the media in which they exist closely relate them to the various generative and germinative powers of Nature, which were considered as prima-facie evidence of divine omnipresence.
The early philosophers and scientists, realizing that all life has its origin in water, chose the fish as the symbol of the life germ. The fact that fishes are most prolific makes the simile still more apt. While the early priests may not have possessed the instruments necessary to analyze the spermatozoon, they concluded by deduction that it resembled a fish.
Fishes were sacred to the Greeks and Romans, being connected with the worship of Aphrodite (Venus). An interesting survival of pagan ritualism is found in the custom of eating fish on Friday. Freya, in whose honor the day was named, was the Scandinavian Venus, and this day was sacred among many nations to the goddess of beauty and fecundity. This analogy further links the fish with the procreative mystery. Friday is also sacred to the followers of the Prophet Mohammed.
The word nun means both fish and growth, and as Inman says: "The Jews were led to victory by the Son of the Fish whose other names were Joshua and Jesus (the Savior). Nun is still the name of a female devotee" of the Christian faith. Among early Christians three fishes were used to symbolize the Trinity, and the fish is also one of the eight sacred symbols of the great Buddha. It is also significant that the dolphin should be sacred to both Apollo (the Solar Savior) and Neptune. It was believed that this fish carried shipwrecked sailors to heaven on its back. The dolphin was accepted by the early Christians as an emblem of Christ, because the pagans had viewed this beautiful creature as a friend and benefactor of man. The heir to the throne of France, the Dauphin, may have secured his title from this ancient pagan symbol of the divine preservative power. The first advocates of Christianity likened converts to fishes, who at the time of baptism "returned again into the sea of Christ."
Primitive peoples believed the sea and land were inhabited by strange creatures, and early books on zoology contain curious illustrations of composite beasts, reptiles, and fishes, which did not exist at the time the mediæval authors compiled these voluminous books. In the ancient initiatory rituals of the Persian, Greek, and Egyptian Mysteries the priests disguised themselves as composite creatures, thereby symbolizing different aspects of human consciousness. They used birds and reptiles as emblems of their various deities, often creating forms of grotesque appearance and assigning to them imaginary traits, habits, and places of domicile, all of which were symbolic of certain spiritual and transcendental truths thus concealed from the profane. The phœnix made its nest of incense and flames. The unicorn had the body of a horse, the feet of an elephant, and the tail of a wild boar. The upper half of the centaur's body was human and the lower half equine. The pelican of the Hermetists fed its young from its own breast, and to this bird were assigned other mysterious attributes which could have been true only allegorically.
Though regarded by many writers of the Middle Ages as actual living creatures, none of these--the pelican excepted--ever existed outside the symbolism of the Mysteries. Possibly they originated in rumors of animals then little known. In the temple, however, they became a reality, for there they signified the manifold characteristics of man's nature. The mantichora had certain points in common with the hyena; the unicorn may have been the single-horned rhinoceros. To the student of the secret wisdom these composite animals. and birds simply represent various forces working in the invisible worlds. This is a point which nearly all writers on the subject of mediæval monsters seem to have overlooked. (See Vlyssis Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia, 1642, and Physica Curiosa, by P. Gaspare Schotto, 1697.)
There are also legends to the effect that long before the appearance of human beings there existed a race or species of composite creatures which was destroyed by the gods. The temples of antiquity preserved their own historical records and possessed information concerning the prehistoric world that has never been revealed to the uninitiated. According to these records, the human race evolved from a species of creature that partook somewhat of the nature of an amphibian, for at that time primitive man had the gills of a fish and was partly covered with scales. To a limited degree, the human embryo demonstrates the possibility of such a condition. As a result of the theory of man's origin in water, the fish was looked upon as the progenitor of the human family. This gave rise to the ichthyolatry of the Chaldeans, Phœnicians, and Brahmins. The American Indians believe that the waters of lakes, rivers, and oceans are inhabited by a mysterious people, the "Water Indians."
The fish has been used as an emblem of damnation; but among the Chinese it typified contentment and good fortune, and fishes appear on many of their coins. When Typhon, or Set, the Egyptian evil genius, had divided the body of the god Osiris into fourteen parts, he cast one part into the river Nile, where, according to Plutarch, it was devoured by three fishes--the lepidotus (probably the lepidosiren), the phagrus, and the oxyrynchus (a form of pike). For this reason the Egyptians would not eat the flesh of these fishes, believing that to do so would be to devour the body of their god. When used as a symbol of evil, the fish represented the earth (man's lower nature) and the tomb (the sepulcher of the Mysteries). Thus was Jonah three days in the belly of the "great fish," as Christ was three days in the tomb.
Several early church fathers believed that the "whale" which swallowed Jonah was the symbol of God the Father, who, when the hapless prophet was thrown overboard, accepted Jonah into His own nature until a place of safety was reached. The story of Jonah is really a legend of initiation into the Mysteries, and the "great fish" represents the darkness of ignorance which engulfs man when he is thrown over the side of the ship (is born) into the sea (life). The custom of building ships in the form of fishes or birds, common in ancient times, could give rise to the story, and mayhap Jonah was merely picked up by
From Picart's Religious Ceremonials.
The fish has often been associated with the World Saviors. Vishnu, the Hindu Redeemer, who takes upon himself ten forms for the redemption of the universe, was expelled from the mouth of a fish in his first incarnation. Isis, while nursing the infant Horus, is often shown with a fish on her headdress. Oannes, the Chaldean Savior (borrowed from the Brahmins), is depicted with the head and body of a fish, from which his human form protrudes at various points. Jesus was often symbolized by a fish. He told His disciples that they should became "fishers of men." The sign of the fish was also the first monogram of the Christians. The mysterious Greek name of Jesus, ΙΧΘΥΣ, means "a fish." The fish was accepted as a symbol of the Christ by a number of early canonized church fathers. St. Augustine likened the Christ to a fish that had been broiled, and it was also pointed out that the flesh of that Fish was the food of righteous and holy men.
another vessel and carried into port, the pattern of the ship causing it to be called a "great fish." ("Veritatis simplex oratio est!") More probably the "whale" of Jonah is based upon the pagan mythological creature, hippocampus, part horse and part dolphin, for the early Christian statues and carvings show the composite creature and not a true whale.
It is reasonable to suppose that the mysterious sea serpents, which, according to the Mayan and Toltec legends, brought the gods to Mexico were Viking or Chaldean ships, built in the shape of composite sea monsters or dragons. H. P. Blavatsky advances the theory that the word cetus, the great whale, is derived from keto, a name for the fish god, Dagon, and that Jonah was actually confined in a cell hollowed out in the body of a gigantic statue of Dagon after he had been captured by Phœnician sailors and carried to one of their cities. There is no doubt a great mystery in the gigantic form of cetus, which is still preserved as a constellation.
According to many scattered fragments extant, man's lower nature was symbolized by a tremendous, awkward creature resembling a great sea serpent, or dragon, called leviathan. All symbols having serpentine form or motion signify the solar energy in one of its many forms. This great creature of the sea therefore represents the solar life force imprisoned in water and also the divine energy coursing through the body of man, where, until transmuted, it manifests itself as a writhing, twisting monster---man's greeds, passions, and lusts. Among the symbols of Christ as the Savior of men are a number relating to the mystery of His divine nature concealed within the personality of the lowly Jesus.
The Gnostics divided the nature of the Christian Redeemer into two parts--the one Jesus, a mortal man; the other, Christos, a personification of Nous, the principle of Cosmic Mind. Nous, the greater, was for the period of three years (from baptism to crucifixion) using the fleshly garment of the mortal man (Jesus). In order to illustrate this point and still conceal it from the ignorant, many strange, and often repulsive, creatures were used whose rough exteriors concealed magnificent organisms. Kenealy, in his notes on the Book of Enoch, observes: "Why the caterpillar was a symbol of the Messiah is evident; because, under a lowly, creeping, and wholly terrestrial aspect, he conceals the beautiful butterfly-form, with its radiant wings, emulating in its varied colors the Rainbow, the Serpent, the Salmon, the Scarab, the Peacock, and the dying Dolphin * * *.
In 1609 Henry Khunrath's Amphitheatrum Sapientiæ Æternæ was published. Eliphas Levi declared that within its pages are concealed all the great secrets of magical philosophy. A remarkable plate in this work shows the Hermetic sciences being attacked by the bigoted and ignorant pedagogues of the seventeenth century. In order to express his complete contempt for his slanderers, Khunrath made out of each a composite beast, adding donkey ears to one and a false tail to another. He reserved the upper part of the picture for certain petty backbiters whom he gave appropriate forms. The air was filled with strange creatures--great dragon flies, winged frogs, birds with human heads, and other weird forms which defy description--heaping venom, gossip, spite, slander, and other forms of persecution upon the secret arcanum of the wise. The drawing indicated that their attacks were ineffectual. Poisonous insects were often used to symbolize the deadly power of the human tongue.
Insects of all kinds were also considered emblematic of the Nature spirits and dæmons, for both were believed to inhabit the atmosphere. Mediæval drawings showing magicians in the act of invoking spirits, often portray the mysterious powers of the other world, which the conjurer has exorcised, as appearing to him in composite part-insect forms. The early philosophers apparently held the opinion that the disease which swept through communities in the form of plagues were actually living creatures, but instead of considering a number of tiny germs they viewed the entire plague as one individuality and gave it a hideous shape to symbolize its destructiveness. The fact that plagues came in the air caused an insect or a bird to be used as their symbol.
Beautiful symmetrical forms were assigned to all natural benevolent conditions or powers, but to unnatural or malevolent powers were assigned contorted and abnormal figures. The Evil One was either hideously deformed or else of the nature of certain despised animals. A popular superstition during the Middle Ages held that the Devil had the feet of a rooster, while the Egyptians assigned to Typhon (Devil) the body of a hog.
The habits of the insects were carefully studied. Therefore the ant was looked upon as emblematic of industry and foresight, as it stored up supplies for the winter and also had strength to move objects many times its own weight. The locusts which swept down in clouds, and in some parts of Africa and Asia obscured the sun and destroyed every green thing, were considered fit emblems of passion, disease, hate, and strife; for these emotions destroy all that is good in the soul of man and leave a barren desert behind them. In the folklore of various nations, certain insects are given special significance, but the ones which have received world-wide veneration and consideration ate the scarab, the king of the insect kingdom; the scorpion, the great betrayer; the butterfly, the emblem of metamorphosis; and the bee, the symbol of industry.
The Egyptian scarab is one of the most remarkable symbolic figures ever conceived by the mind of man. It was evolved by the erudition of the priestcraft from a simple insect which, because of its peculiar habits and appearance, properly symbolized the strength of the body, the resurrection of the soul, and the Eternal and Incomprehensible Creator in His aspect as Lord of the Sun. E. A. Wallis Budge says, in effect, of the worship of the scarab by the Egyptians:
"Yet another view held in primitive times was that the sky was a vast meadow over which a huge beetle crawled, pushing the disk of the sun before him. This beetle was the Sky-god, and, arguing from the example of the beetle (Scarabæus sacer), which was observed to roll along with its hind legs a ball that was believed to contain its eggs, the early Egyptians thought that the ball of the Sky-god contained his egg and that the sun was his offspring. Thanks, however, to the investigations of the eminent entomologist, Monsieur J. H. Fabre, we now know that the ball which the Scarabæus sacer rolls along contains not its eggs, but dung that is to serve as food for its egg, which it lays in a carefully prepared place."
Initiates of the Egyptian Mysteries were sometimes called scarabs; again, lions and panthers. The scarab was the emissary of the sun, symbolizing light, truth, and regeneration. Stone scarabs, called heart scarabs, about three inches long, were placed in the heart cavity of the dead when that organ was removed to be embalmed separately as part of the process of mummifying. Some maintain that the stone beetles were merely wrapped in the winding cloths at the time of preparing the body for eternal preservation. The following passage concerning this appears in the great Egyptian book of initiation, The Book of the Dead: "And behold, thou shalt make a scarab of green stone, which shalt be placed in the breast of a man, and it shall perform for him, 'the opening of the mouth.'" The funeral rites of many nations bear a striking resemblance to the initiatory ceremonies of their Mysteries.
Ra, the god of the sun, had three important aspects. As the Creator of the universe he was symbolized by the head of a scarab and was called Khepera, which signified the resurrection of the soul and a new life at the end of the mortal span. The mummy cases of the Egyptian dead were nearly always ornamented with scarabs. Usually one of these beetles, with outspread wings, was painted on the mummy case directly over the breast of the dead. The finding of such great numbers of small stone scarabs indicates that they were a favorite article of adornment among the Egyptians. Because of its relationship to the sun, the scarab symbolized the divine part of man's nature. The fact that its beautiful wings were concealed under its glossy shell typified the winged soul of man hidden within its earthly sheath. The Egyptian soldiers were given the scarab as their special symbol because the ancients believed that these creatures were all of the male sex and consequently appropriate emblems of virility, strength, and courage.
Plutarch noted the fact that the scarab rolled its peculiar ball of dung backwards, while the insect itself faced the opposite direction. This made it an especially fitting symbol for the sun, because this orb (according to Egyptian astronomy) was rolling from west to east, although apparently moving in the opposite direction. An Egyptian allegory states that the sunrise is caused by the scarab unfolding
The most remarkable of allegorical creatures was the mantichora, which Ctesias describes as having aflame-colored body, lionlike in shape, three rows of teeth, a human head and ears, blue eyes, a tail ending in a series of spikes and stings, thorny and scorpionlike, and a voice which sounded like the blare of trumpets. This synthetic quadruped ambled into mediæval works on natural history, but, though seriously considered, had never been seen, because it inhabited inaccessible regions and consequently was difficult to locate.
The flat under side of a scarab usually bears an inscription relating to the dynasty during which it was cut. These scarabs were sometimes used as seals. Some were cut from ordinary or precious stones; others were made of clay, baked and glazed. Occasionally the stone scarabs were also glazed. The majority of the small scarabs are pierced as though originally used as beads. Some are so hard that they will cut glass. In the picture above, A shows top and side views of the scarab, and B and B the under surface with the name of Men-ka-Ra within the central cartouche.
its wings, which stretch out as glorious colors on each side of its body--the solar globe--and that when it folds its wings under its dark shell at sunset, night follows. Khepera, the scarab-headed aspect of Ra, is often symbolized riding through the sea of the sky in a wonderful ship called the Boat of the Sun.
The scorpion is the symbol of both wisdom and self-destruction. It was called by the Egyptians the creature accursed; the time of year when the sun entered the sign of Scorpio marked the beginning of the rulership of Typhon. When the twelve signs of the zodiac were used to represent the twelve Apostles (although the reverse is true), the scorpion was assigned to Judas Iscariot--the betrayer.
The scorpion stings with its tail, and for this reason it has been called a backbiter, a false and deceitful thing. Calmet, in his Dictionary of the Bible, declares the scorpion to be a fit emblem of the wicked and the symbol of persecution. The dry winds of Egypt are said to be produced by Typhon, who imparts to the sand the blistering heat of the infernal world and the sting of the scorpion. This insect was also the symbol of the spinal fire which, according to the Egyptian Mysteries, destroyed man when it was permitted to gather at the base of his spine (the tail of the scorpion).The red star Antares in the back of the celestial scorpion was considered the worst light in the heavens. Kalb al Akrab, or the heart of the scorpion, was called by the ancients the lieutenant or deputy of Mars. (See footnote to Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos.) Antares was believed to impair the eyesight, often causing blindness if it rose over the horizon when a child was born. This may refer again to the sand storm, which was capable of blinding unwary travelers.
The scorpion was also the symbol of wisdom, for the fire which it controlled was capable of illuminating as well as consuming. Initiation into the Greater Mysteries among the pagans was said to take place only in the sign of the scorpion. In the papyrus of Ani (The Book of the Dead), the deceased likens his soul to a scorpion, saying: "I am a swallow, I am that scorpion, the daughter of Ra!" Elizabeth Goldsmith, in her treatise on Sex Symbolism, states that the scorpions were a "symbol of Selk, the Egyptian goddess of writing, and also [were] revered by the Babylonians and Assyrians as guardians of the gateway of the sun. Seven scorpions were said to have accompanied Isis when she searched for the remains of Osiris scattered by Set" (Typhon).
In his Chaldean Account of the Genesis, George Smith, copying from the cuneiform cylinders, in describing the wanderings of the hero Izdubar (Nimrod), throws some light on the scorpion god who guards the sun. The tablet which he translated is not perfect, but the meaning is fairly clear: "* * * who each day guard the rising sun. Their crown was at the lattice of heaven, under hell their feet were placed [the spinal column]. The scorpion man guarded the gate, burning with terribleness, their appearance was like death, the might of his fear shook the forest. At the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun, they guarded the sun; Izdubar saw them and fear and terror came into his face." Among the early Latins there was a machine of war called the scorpion. It was used for firing arrows and probably obtained its name from a long beam, resembling a scorpion's tail, which flew up to hurl the arrows. The missiles discharged by this machine were also called scorpions.
The butterfly (under the name of Psyche, a beautiful maiden with wings of opalescent light) symbolizes the human soul because of the stages it passes through in order to unfold its power of flight. The three divisions through which the butterfly passes in its unfoldment resemble closely the three degrees of the Mystery School, which degrees are regarded as consummating the unfoldment of man by giving him emblematic wings by which he may soar to the skies. Unregenerate man, ignorant and helpless, is symbolized by the stage between ovum and larva; the disciple, seeking truth and dwelling in medication, by the second stage, from larva to pupa, at which time the insect enters its chrysalis (the tomb of the Mysteries); the third stage, from pupa to imago (wherein the perfect butterfly comes forth), typifies the unfolded enlightened soul of the initiate rising from the tomb of his baser nature.
Night moths typify the secret wisdom, because they are hard to discover and are concealed by the darkness (ignorance). Some are emblems of death, as Acherontia atropos, the death's-head moth, which has a marking on its body somewhat like a human skull. The death-watch beetle, which was believed to give warning of approaching death by a peculiar ticking sound, is another instance of insects involved in human affairs.
Opinions differ concerning the spider. Its shape makes it an appropriate emblem of the nerve plexus and ganglia of the human body. Some Europeans consider it extremely bad luck to kill a spider--possibly because it is looked upon as an emissary of the Evil One, whom no person desires to offend. There is a mystery concerning all poisonous creatures, especially insects. Paracelsus taught that the spider was the medium for a powerful but evil force which the Black Magicians used in their nefarious undertakings.
Certain plants, minerals, and animals have been sacred among all the nations of the earth because of their peculiar sensitiveness to the astral fire--a mysterious agency in Nature which the scientific world has contacted through its manifestations as electricity and magnetism. Lodestone and radium in the mineral world and various parasitic growths in the plant kingdom are strangely susceptible to this cosmic electric fire, or universal life force. The magicians of the Middle Ages surrounded themselves with such creatures as bats, spiders, cats, snakes, and monkeys, because they were able to appropriate the life forces of these species and use them to the attainment of their own ends. Some ancient schools of wisdom taught that all poisonous insects and reptiles are germinated out of the evil nature of man, and that when intelligent human beings no longer breed hate in their own souls there will be no more ferocious animals, loathsome diseases, or poisonous plants and insects.
Among the American Indians is the legend of a "Spider Man," whose web connected the heaven worlds with the earth. The secret schools of India symbolize certain of the gods who labored with the universe during its making as connecting the realms of light with those of darkness by means of webs. Therefore the builders of the cosmic system who held the embryonic universe together with threads of invisible force were sometimes referred to as the Spider Gods and their ruler was designated The Great Spider.
The beehive is found in Masonry as a reminder that in diligence and labor for a common good true happiness and prosperity are found. The bee is a symbol of wisdom, for as this tiny insect collects pollen from the flowers, so men may extract wisdom from the experiences of daily life. The bee is sacred to the goddess Venus and, according to mystics, it is one of several forms of life which came to the earth from the planet Venus millions of years ago. Wheat and bananas are said to be of similar origin. This is the reason why the origin of these three forms of life cannot be traced. The fact that bees are ruled by queens is one reason why this insect is considered a sacred feminine symbol.
In India the god Prana--the personification of the universal life force--is sometimes shown surrounded by a circle of bees. Because of its importance in pollenizing flowers, the bee is the accepted symbol of the generative power. At one time the bee was the emblem of the French kings. The rulers of France wore robes embroidered with bees, and the canopies of their thrones were decorated with gigantic figures of these insects.
The fly symbolizes the tormentor, because of the annoyance it causes to animals. The Chaldean god Baal was often called Baal-Zebul, or the god of the dwelling place. The word zebub, or zabab, means a fly, and Baal-Zebul became Baalzebub, or Beelzebub, a word which was loosely translated to mean Jupiter's fly. The fly was looked upon as a form of the divine power, because of its ability to destroy decaying substances and thus promote health. The fly may have obtained its name Zebub from its peculiar buzzing or humming. Inman believes that Baalzebub, which the Jews ridiculed as My Lord of Flies, really means My Lord Who Hums or Murmurs.
Inman recalls the singing Memnon on the Egyptian desert, a tremendous figure with an Æolian harp on the top of its head. When the wind blows strongly this great Statue sighs, or hums. The Jews changed Baalzebub into Beelzebub, and made him their prince of devils by interpreting dæmon as "demon." Naudæus, in defending Virgil from accusations of sorcery, attempted a wholesale denial of the miracles supposedly performed by Virgil and produced enough evidence to convict the poet on all counts. Among other strange fears, Virgil fashioned a fly out of brass, and after certain mysterious ceremonies, placed it over one of the gates of Naples. As a result, no flies entered the city for more than eight years.
The serpent was chosen as the head of the reptilian family. Serpent worship in some form has permeated nearly all parts of the
The bee was used as, a symbol of royalty by the immortal Charlemagne, and it is probable that the fleur-de-lis, or lily of France, is merely a conventionalized bee and not a flower. There is an ancient Greek legend to the effect that the nine Muses occasionally assumed the form of bees.
From Paracelsus' Archidoxes Magica.
The scorpion often appears upon the talismans and charms of the Middle Ages. This hieroglyphic Arachnida was supposed to have the power of curing disease. The scorpion shown above was composed of several metals, and was made under certain planetary configurations. Paracelsus advised that it be worn by those suffering from any derangement of the reproductive system.
earth. The serpent mounds of the American Indian; the carved-stone snakes of Central and South America; the hooded cobras of India; Python, the great snake o the Greeks; the sacred serpents of the Druids; the Midgard snake of Scandinavia; the Nagas of Burma, Siam, and Cambodia; the brazen serpent of the Jews; the mystic serpent of Orpheus; the snakes at the oracle; of Delphi twining themselves around the tripod upon which the Pythian priestess sat, the tripod itself being in the form of twisted serpents; the sacred serpents preserved in the Egyptian temples; the Uræus coiled upon the foreheads of the Pharaohs and priests;--all these bear witness to the universal veneration in which the snake was held. In the ancient Mysteries the serpent entwining a staff was the symbol of the physician. The serpent-wound staff of Hermes remains the emblem of the medical profession. Among nearly all these ancient peoples the serpent was accepted as the symbol of wisdom or salvation. The antipathy which Christendom feels towards the snake is based upon the little-understood allegory of the Garden of Eden.
The serpent is true to the principle of wisdom, for it tempts man to the knowledge of himself. Therefore the knowledge of self resulted from man's disobedience to the Demiurgus, Jehovah. How the serpent came to be in the garden of the Lord after God had declared that all creatures which He had made during the six days of creation were good has not been satisfactorily answered by the interpreters of Scripture. The tree that grows in the midst of the garden is the spinal fire; the knowledge of the use of that spinal fire is the gift of the great serpent. Notwithstanding statements to the contrary, the serpent is the symbol and prototype of the Universal Savior, who redeems the worlds by giving creation the knowledge of itself and the realization of good and evil. If this be not so, why did Moses raise a brazen serpent upon a cross in the wilderness that all who looked upon it might be saved from the sting of the lesser snakes? Was not the brazen serpent a prophecy of the crucified Man to come? If the serpent be only a thing of evil, why did Christ instruct His disciples to be as wise as serpents?
The accepted theory that the serpent is evil cannot be substantiated. It has long been viewed as the emblem of immortality. It is the symbol of reincarnation, or metempsychosis, because it annually sheds its skin, reappearing, as it were, in a new body. There is an ancient superstition to the effect that snakes never die except by violence and that, if uninjured, they would live forever. It was also believed that snakes swallowed themselves, and this resulted in their being considered emblematic of the Supreme Creator, who periodically reabsorbed His universe back into Himself.
In Isis Unveiled, H. P. Blavatsky makes this significant statement concerning the origin of serpent worship: "Before our globe had become egg-shaped or round it was a long trail of cosmic dust or fire-mist, moving and writhing like a serpent. This, say the explanations, was the Spirit of God moving on the chaos until its breath had incubated cosmic matter and made it assume the annular shape of a serpent with its tail in its month--emblem of eternity in its spiritual and of our world in its physical sense."
The seven-headed snake represents the Supreme Deity manifesting through His Elohim, or Seven Spirits, by whose aid He established His universe. The coils of the snake have been used by the pagans to symbolize the motion and also the orbits of the celestial bodies, and it is probable that the symbol of the serpent twisted around the egg--which was common to many of the ancient Mystery schools--represented both the apparent motion of the sun around the earth, and the bands of astral light, or the great magical agent, which move about the planet incessantly.
Electricity was commonly symbolized by the serpent because of its motion. Electricity passing between the poles of a spark gap is serpentine in its motion. Force projected through atmosphere was called The Great Snake. Being symbolic of universal force, the serpent was emblematic of both good and evil. Force can tear down as rapidly as it can build up. The serpent with its tail in its mouth is the symbol of eternity, for in this position the body of the reptile has neither beginning nor end. The head and tail represent the positive and negative poles of the cosmic life circuit. The initiates of the Mysteries were often referred to as serpents, and their wisdom was considered analogous to the divinely inspired power of the snake. There is no doubt that the title "Winged Serpents" (the Seraphim?) was given to one of the invisible hierarchies that labored with the earth during its early formation.
There is a legend that in the beginning of the world winged serpents reigned upon the earth. These were probably the demigods which antedate the historical civilization of every nation. The symbolic relationship between the sun and the serpent found literal witness in the fact that life remains in the snake until sunset, even though it be cut into a dozen parts. The Hopi Indians consider the serpent to be in close communication with the Earth Spirit. Therefore, at the time of their annual snake dance they send their prayers to the Earth Spirit by first specially sanctifying large numbers of these reptiles and then liberating them to return to the earth with the prayers of the tribe.
The great rapidity of motion manifested by lizards has caused them to be associated with Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods, whose winged feet traveled infinite distances almost instantaneously. A point which must not be overlooked in connection with reptiles in symbolism is clearly brought out by the eminent scholar, Dr. H. E. Santee, in his Anatomy of the Brain and Spinal Cord: "In reptiles there are two pineal bodies, an anterior and a posterior, of which the posterior remains undeveloped but the anterior forms a rudimentary, cyclopean eye. In the Hatteria, a New Zealand lizard, it projects through the parietal foramen and presents an imperfect lens and retina and, in its long stalk, nerve fibers."
Crocodiles were regarded by the Egyptians both as symbols of Typhon and emblems of the Supreme Deity, of the latter because while under water the crocodile is capable of seeing--Plutarch asserts--though its eyes are covered by a thin membrane. The Egyptians declared that no matter how far away the crocodile laid its eggs, the Nile would reach up to them in its next inundation, this reptile being endowed with a mysterious sense capable of making known the extent of the flood months before it took place. There were two kinds of crocodiles. The larger and more ferocious was hated by the Egyptians, for they likened it to the nature of Typhon, their destroying demon. Typhon waited to devour all who failed to pass the judgment of the Dead, which rite took place in the Hall of Justice between the earth and the Elysian Fields. Anthony Todd Thomson thus describes the good treatment accorded the smaller and tamer crocodiles, which the Egyptians accepted as personifications of good: "They were fed daily and occasionally had mulled wine poured down their throats. Their ears were ornamented with rings of gold and precious stones, and their forefeet adorned with bracelets."
To the Chinese the turtle was a symbol of longevity. At a temple in Singapore a number of sacred turtles are kept, their age recorded by carvings on their shells. The American Indians use the ridge down the back of the turtle shell as a symbol of the Great Divide between life and death. The turtle is a symbol of wisdom because it retires into itself and is its own protection. It is also a phallic symbol, as its relation to long life would signify. The Hindus symbolized the universe as being supported on the backs of four great elephants who, in turn, are standing upon an immense turtle which is crawling continually through chaos.
The Egyptian sphinx, the Greek centaur, and the Assyrian man-bull have much in common. All are composite creatures combining human and animal members; in the Mysteries all signify the composite nature of man and subtly refer to the hierarchies of celestial beings that have charge of the destiny of mankind. These hierarchies are the twelve holy animals now known as constellations--star groups which are merely symbols of impersonal spiritual impulses. Chiron, the centaur, teaching the sons of men, symbolizes the intelligences of the constellation of Sagittarius, who were the custodians of the secret doctrine while (geocentrically) the sun was passing through the sign of Gemini. The five-footed Assyrian man-bull with the wings of an eagle and the head of a man is a reminder that the invisible nature of man has the wings of a god, the head of a man, and the body of a beast. The same concept was expressed through the sphinx--that armed guardian of the Mysteries who, crouching at the gate of the temple, denied entrance to the profane. Thus placed between man and his divine possibilities, the sphinx also represented the secret doctrine itself. Children's fairy stories abound with descriptions of symbolic monsters, for nearly all such tales are based upon the ancient mystic folklore.
From Kircher's Œdipus Ægyptiacus.
The spinal cord was symbolized by a snake, and the serpent coiled upon the foreheads of the Egyptian initiates represented the Divine Fire which had crawled serpentlike up the Tree of Life.
GOOD AND EVIL CONTENDING FOR THE UNIVERSAL EGG.
From Maurice's Indian Antiquities.
Both Mithras, the Persian Redeemer, and Serapis, the Egyptian God of the Earth, are symbolized by serpents coiled about their bodies. This remarkable drawing shows the good and evil principles of Persia--Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman--contending for the Egg of the Earth, which each trying to wrench from the teeth of the other.