The Life, Death and Rebirth of the Coiled Snake(s)
Snakes are legless, coldblooded carnivorous vertebrates. Without crossing appendages extending off of their spine, they coil around objects, mostly that of trees. The coiled snake has become a well recognized yet elusive symbol within our modern times. The symbol of the snake and its meaning would change along with the symbol of a pair of serpents. Two perfect examples of how the lone snake and dual serpents are present in the arts are with the effigies of Hermanubus and Asclepius.
Statue of Asclepius, a freestanding effigy of marble over two meters tall, stands in contrapposto at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is a second-century Imperial Roman copy of an earlier Greek representation of Asclepius bare-chested holding a coiled serpent staff called The Bakteria.
Asclepius was the Greek demigod of Apollo who gave him the gift of prophecy, healing and the secrets of medicine using botanicals. He was noted for raising the dead using the blood of the serpent-haired Medusa. Cults of Asclepius have been worshiping him in the form of a snake since the fifth-century B.C.E. He is often represented with a dog at his feet and is sometimes associated with the cyprus, olive and pine tree.
Another statue of around the same height, medium, region and period stands contrapposto in the Vatican Museum in Rome. The Statue of Hermanubis bears the deity with the head of a canine jackal. He is a hybrid deity of Anubis of Egypt and the Greek God Hermes. During the Ptolemaic period when Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom ruled by Greek pharaohs, the two deities merged like the twin-coiled snakes wrapping the staff in which Hermanubis holds. The two gods shared the responsibility of guiding the dead into the underworld.
The statues of Hermanubis and Asclepius have many similarities. Oddly, the most notable connection is the staffs. The symbols have vaguely different ancient meaning yet merge as symbols with the common association of healing, symbols for the urge for vital health in life, death and rebirth.
When considering the symbology of the snake in modern times, it is almost always instantly in reference to the Abrahamic creation myth, the story of Adam and Eve. Eve is tempted by the nameless snake in the Tree of Knowledge to eat the fruit which leads to the fall of man, original sin and the exile from the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s law. Believed to be human’s discovery of morality between the dualism of good and evil, the serpent is considered to be the androgynous Lucifer, The Light Bearer, the fallen Angel who rebelled by not loving humans as God’s creation. One can see this serpent as a Promethean character who frees man of the restraints of God’s hidden knowledge. In this tale, there are two trees, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, but there is only mention of one snake. Others see this tale of creation as a retelling of much older myths.
The story is eerily similar to the tale of Apep. The ancient Egyptian Deity of Chaos, the opposer of light and enemy of Ra, is often depicted as a serpent in a tree. In the myth, Ra, in the form of the feline deity Mau, prevents Apep from taking control of Persea, the Tree of Life, by cutting off his head.
Another of the earliest known accounts of a deity represented as a coiled snake is that of Wadjet, The Green One, a goddess of Lower Egypt from the Predynastic period seen coiling a papyrus reed as a serpent with the body of a female or a female with two serpent heads.
The symbol of the serpent remains in the Abrahamic mythologies outside of the Adam and Eve tale, such as the Rod of God. In the Book of Exodus, God appears to Moses as a burning bush and asks Moses what he holds in his hands. When Moses responds with that of a staff, God turns the staff into a “fiery snake” then back into a staff. The Rod of God is often used to initiate the great plagues of Egypt. In the tale of The Brazen Serpent in the biblical Book of Numbers, God sends snakes to kill the people of Israel for speaking against God and Moses. God instructs Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole, the Nehushtan, and anyone who looks at it shall survive the serpent’s venom.
The crucified snake would transcend biblical context to a degree and enter the world of Alchemy. The Alchemical Cross or Flamel Cross is the symbol of the nailed or coiled serpent to a cross symbolizing The Fixing of the Volatile, an important step in the alchemical opus or process of creating The Elixir of Mercury, a mythological medical cure made by removing the poisonous elements within snake venom.
The image of the coiled snake is removed from that of the staff or tree and wraps around an Orphic Egg in the Greek Orphic religions of the Cosmic World Egg. Protogenos, or Phanes, was born of the Cosmic Egg and is most often depicted as an androgynous primordial God being coiled by a great serpent. The character of Phanes originates from the deity Mithras, also born of the cosmic egg, and Aion, God of Eternity, a Mithraic Leontocephaline God usually depicted as being enveloped by a coiled snake or pair of snakes. The Cosmic Egg is depicted surrounding Phanes, Mithras and Aion. Often depicted as a ring depicting the signs of the zodiac representing the death and rebirth of the solar year.
Other times, the circling Orphic Egg was depicted as the Ouroboros, a snake eating its tale. In a sense, the Ouroboros appears as a coiling snake from a forefront facing perspective.
The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he created thus; his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form which was designed by him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and to the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet. -Plato
The Ouroboros has been a symbol of the cycle of time spanning centuries, religions and continents. Ancient myths globally refer to a “serpent of light” residing in the heavens, leading many to believe the Ouroboros was inspired by the Milky Way Galaxy or the Ecliptic Plane of the Sun. Alchemists consider it a sign of the rebirth through death, the “Great World Serpent” that surrounds the Earth and was also an Alchemical symbol for Mercury, a metal thought to pass through any matter and join back to a solid. Meaning “Tail Swallower”, the Ouroboros can be seen in most cultures but starting with the Egyptians where it is shown in the Papyrus of Dama Heroub as Atum ascends chaos as a serpent. It is first described in the Book of the Dead where it depicted two snakes with their tails in their mouth wrapped around the head and feet of an amalgamated androgynous being thought to be both Ra and Osiris. The symbol represented the beginning and end of time.
In Norse mythology, the serpent Jörmungandr eats from the roots of the Yggdrasil, the World Tree. In Mesoamerica, the serpent God Quetzalcoatl can be seen eating his tail on Aztec and Toltec ruins. It is seen circling Shiva in Hinduism and represents the circular nature of the universe and time through dualities. When Shiva is in the form of a phallus, the Lingam, Shakti, in the shape of a serpent, wraps Shiva three and a half times.
Where the Ouroboros is the frontal perspective of the single coiled snake, in eastern cultures, the anterior perspective of two coiled snakes symbolize the Yin-Yang. It is the symbol for dualism versus unity. All aspects of nature in the universe are dualistic. A compiled list would have good versus evil right under light versus darkness at the top. The Chinese believed that the combination of duals brings unity. Each opposite, whether it be the Earth and Heavens or Male and Female, was assumed to be powerful and birth, rebirth or resurrection was conceived by the union of these opposing dual energies.
The origins of the dual snakes, along with the Snake(s) in the Tree(s) motif, can be traced back even further with the tale of Ningishzida, Lord of the Good Tree, a Sumerian deity of the underworld. He can be found depicted as a snake and is known to be one of the two gate guardians, the other being Dumuzi, of the celestial palace of Anu, King of the Gods, the gates to the Underworld and the Tree of Life. Ancestor of Gilgamesh, who epically dove to the bottom of the sea to revive the Seed to the Tree of Life only to have it stolen from him by a serpent, making the snake immortal. Many believe that the Abrahamic creation myth involving Adam and Eve is directly contributed to Ningishzida and other Sumerian legends rather than in Greek mythology where the snake Ladon guards the apples of The Great Tree in the Garden of the Hesperides.
Later in Egyptian art, Thoth would be depicted holding two serpent staffs, Uraei Wands in the Temple of Abydos. In ancient Egypt, there was no word for religion. The closest word was for magical powers, or Heka, meaning the activation of the Ka. Heka was depicted as an actual deity personifying magic, medicine and healing and was seen over time in the same fashion through Sumerian, Anatolian and Egyptian myths as a being holding two crossing Uraei Wands.
Among many others, some without names, Sumerian Inanna, Mesopotamian Ishtar and the Aramean Astarte are all related as the same fertility Goddess and are often seen holding a Labrys, sometimes double serpent wands. In the Gilgamesh legends, she plants the Tree of Life, The Huluppu, in her garden guarded by the snake "who knows no charm." She is known for being the lover of Ningishzida and tempted by the guardians, or twin cherubs, of the gates to the underworld to shed her clothing when passing seven gates until she is without material goods.
Throughout the classical motifs of the single or dual coiled snake around a cross, staff or tree we see recurring accounts of death and rebirth, sacred trees and androgynous deities. One source has been able to combine all elements. It has survived the span of time and space, finding a rebirth of popularity in modern holistic times. It refers to the dormant serpent and dualistic Shakti Energies, or spiritual currents, Prana, that travel along the Ida and Pingala channels within the human body. Of Indian origins, the Kundalini is thought to be the male and female energies that double helix upward through the seven chakras lined up the human spinal cord, the Sushumna.
The Egyptians were a very sexual society that saw sex in a very different light, sixty-four modes of sexual achievement to ascend into the afterlife to be exact. They believed that the serpent energies shot up through the body starting from the Root Chakra and exiting out of the Crown Chakra. The symbol of the Ankh, Cross with Handle, was known as the Breath of Life. They believed the orgasm, sometimes referred to as The Little Death, released a little bit of one’s life force to create new life. They would place the Ankh and other similar tops to wooden or metallic staffs or wands and use them as vibrating prongs during tantric sex as they believed the orgasm could be achieved quicker, be stronger and last longer. They believed the body, spine and seven chakra alignment was an actual Ankh when one successfully activated a recycling resonance of traveling dual energies through the body. The dual energies would travel from the Root Chakra, stop at the Heart Chakra then travel out at a ninety-degree angle off and around over into the Crown Chakra, “The Third Eye” or Pineal Gland, travel down the spine and seven chakras back to the Root Chakra. This orgasmic dual energy cycle creates the image of an Ankh, two serpents coiling over a cross.
The single versus dual coiled snake in modern times is a symbol of health. Some believe the medical origin of the coiled snake is due to numerous fatalities from parasitic worms during the time of Asclepius. To treat the filarial worm Dracunculus Medinensis, then called The Fiery Serpent, a physician of the time would cut a hole in the flesh of the victim right in front of a worm allowing the head of the worm to exit the wound as the physician coiled the worm with a stick to pull it out. The Staff of Asclepius affiliates with The Caduceus of Mercury in Rome and The Karykeion of Hermes in Greece, both of which symbolized as two coiled snakes around a staff.
The Caduceus most likely got its medical association from Alchemy which later turned into Chemistry, Metallurgy and Pharmaceuticals. The Alchemical element derived from the tale of Tiresias. In Greek Mythology, Tiresias, famous for being blind yet clairvoyant, walks upon two snakes copulating. Though blind he attempts to separate the two snakes with the end of his staff. When the staff passes through the knotted serpents, he transforms into a female for seven years.
In 1992, Walter J. Friedlander compared two-hundred and forty-two company logos or insignias relating to health and medicine. He found that sixty-two percent of professional associations were more likely to use the Staff of Asclepius while seventy-six percent of commercial organizations were more likely to use the Caduceus of Hermes, the exception being hospitals, where thirty-seven percent used a staff of Asclepius versus sixty-three percent for the Caduceus of Hermes.
Many believe that Hermes has many names, associations and origins; Trismegistus, Thoth, Merlin and Quetzalcoatl to name a few. Though, the root source of the deity is believed to be that of Ningishzida. The first depiction of two coiled snakes in art and the first image of the double helix in history is on The Libation Vase of Gudea at The Louvre, a steatite vase from the twenty-first century BCE. Unraveled onto clay, Ningishzida is a two-headed snake whose heads meet at the seventh coil up a staff. He and Dumuzi, cherubim guardians to the gates of Garden of Eden, protect the Tree of Life. Unraveled onto clay, he is a two-headed snake whose heads meet at the seventh coil up a staff.
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