archived 08-21-00
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donated by L. Savage

Symbolism of the Serpent

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Why did the ancients consider the serpent a symbol of wisdom, while today it is often associated with deceit and evil?

Why should the serpent, or the snake, have been called a 'liar,' 'deceiver,' and that pathetic figure of mediaeval theology, the Devil, be called the "Father of Lies"? Why should it have been thought that the serpent in the Garden of Eden which tempted the first human pair to evil-doing, was an imbodiment of or the symbol of Satan? Why should the serpent have become the symbol of insinuating evil, of evil doing, of deceit? Or on the other hand, why should the silent, creeping serpent with its slow sinuous progress have been taken as the symbol of Wisdom or of the Initiate, as in the expression attributed to a very lofty source in the Christian New Testament: "Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves"?

The answer is simple enough. Just as the forces of Nature are neutral in themselves, and become what humans call 'good' or 'bad' because of their use or misuse by individuals, just exactly so a natural entity when employed as a symbol becomes usable in either a good or a bad sense. Such use as a symbol depends upon certain characteristics or qualities which the human mind by force of association of ideas, chooses or separates off from other characteristics or qualities, and employs in a symbolic or metaphorical sense in order to depict either abstract or concrete ideas. This fact is shown for instance in the Sanskrit language, where Initiates of both kinds, i.e., of both the Right-Hand Path and the Left-Hand Path, are referred to in words conveying serpentine ideas or characteristics. The former kind, otherwise called the Brothers of Light, are more properly designated as Nagas; whereas the Brothers of Darkness or of the Shadows are more properly designated as Sarpas, this latter word from the Sanskrit verbal root srip, meaning 'to crawl,' 'to creep' in sly and stealthy manner, and hence metaphorically 'to deceive.'

We see here the main reason why the serpent or snake has in probably all countries, and certainly in all times, been used as a symbol or emblem on the one hand of the Brothers of Light and their servants, and on the other hand of the Brothers of Darkness and their slaves. The reason is obvious, because both the Brothers of Light and the Sons of the Dark are focuses of power, of subtil thought and action, of wisdom and energy in the former case righteously and lawfully applied, and therefore belonging to the 'right hand'; and in the other case, wrongly or evilly applied to the uses of the 'left hand.' But, mark you, both uses apply to the cases of initiates, because both the initiates of the right-hand and of the left-hand are alike in one thing: they employ subtilty, the forces of Nature, secret wisdom, or rather secret knowledge. The same powers of Nature were employed by both -- one class used these powers for impersonal and holy ends; the other class used these same powers and energies for unholy and evil ends. One class, as just said, are the Nagas, the spiritual 'serpents' of Light, who are subtil, benevolent, very wise, and endowed with the spiritual power to cast off the garment, i.e. the skin or body, when the initiate has grown old, and to assume another fresher, younger, and stronger, at will. This class are all kindly, always inoffensive, perpetually engaged in works of human beneficence, and are still and secret in their operations, partly in order to avoid the plaudits of foolish men.

The other class are insinuating, worldly-wise, worldly-shrewd, deceitful, venomous in motive and action, therefore very dangerous, and yet using the same powers as the former class, but used for evil ends. Thus it is that on the one hand you will find in all the greater of the old scriptures, 'serpents' spoken of as symbols of wisdom, of the Sons of Light, possessing power, knowledge, love, and glory, as being Sons of the Sun; and, on the other hand, why other 'serpents,' 'snakes,' are spoken of as being symbols of the dark, often called the Black Brothers, who are essentially from Nature's own standpoint wrongdoers, engaged in their unholy work of deceivers; of human hearts and minds, and all too often succeeding in their diabolic work by means of lies and misrepresentations.

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