Snakes have shown up in my life in many ways and in many forms. My first recollection as a child in Africa is when I nearly stepped on a sleeping puff adder. My father luckily grabbed me and lifted me up – nothing happened but I sensed my father’s fear.
I seemed to attract them and once I actually even slept in a room with a five-foot cobra without being aware of the fact until the next morning. I was very scared of snakes and they have continued to appear both in my physical and dream worlds. Life, however, was kind and about fifteen years ago sent me a little snake to get used to. From this I progressed to bigger snakes and now that fear has gone although I still have tremensous respect for them. My experiences with Sri Kindalini Shakti, as the inner movements of energy in the spine are sometimes known, like the snakes, also spontaneously appeared and I too were very frightened as I knew very little about the movements nor did I have any one to consult. Now, many years, later I see and appreciate these movements as a great blessing. So with this background, it is maybe not surprising why I am attracted to know more about symbols that involve the snake, an animal or rather I should say reptile that is revered in some cultures and so maligned in others. Although my topic is about the snake and the “winged serpent” in various cultures, I feel it important to say a little about the method I used and am using in this investigation for even the very writing of this paper has, for me, a further transformative function.
The method of Investigation
I feel it is the highly varied qualities of any entity such as the snake that gave rise to its rich symbolic significances. This seems to be supported by Reno (1997) when he states
it may be noted that a great many religious symbols have a basis in nature, taking the term in a wide sense. The specifically human power of abstraction manifests itself, among other ways, by trans-forming the data of experience into symbols. This is to point out that man is able to range beyond mere natural events and objects, to conceptualize them and invest them with significance. (p.77)
I also feel that to “unwrap” the various levels of meaning of a myth or symbol is not a straightforward process and for this task here I have decided to follow the hermeneutic tradition. This requires that we also let the symbols work on us as we proceed with our investigation. In addition I consider this assignment as a sort of dance where I share some of my own insights, the insights of others obtained from studies, readings or from videos and then maybe share again how I have been enriched or transformed by these new ideas. I also feel we have to be aware of the
Law of Correspondence which tells us as above, so below; as below, so above. Everything in the Universe originates from the One Source and there is harmony, agreement and correspondence between the physical, mental and spiritual realms. Maybe it is due to this law or maybe it is my intuition but I feel before we venture into the topic of the winged serpent, I feel it might be useful to first understand a little about the quality of snake and its symbolism.
The Snake, its quality and habits
The snake is a reptile that has the ability to shed its skin several times a year during the growing phase and once or twice a year when mature. Snakes lives on the surface of the earth, in trees and also live and go underground to hibernate or to cool down. Being reptilian, snakes are ectothermic, in other words they seek out external sources of heat to regulate their temperature. The snake has the capacity to wound others through its poisonous bite or constriction of its muscles although not all snakes have these capacities.
The Snake as symbol
On the physical plane the snake has been associated with rejuvenation. Snake consciousness seems to me to also point to our ability to change and outgrow our skin or point of view and our capacity to grow or develop a new one. On yet another level, it seems to me the snake can be seen as being representative of changing nature, particularly as the shedding of the skin is usually cyclical. Campbell (see Singa 2013) goes even further by saying
the snake sheds its skin to be born again just as the moon sheds its shadow to be born again and as such, the snake and the moon are symbols of lunar consciousness. That is to say life energy and consciousness incorporated in a temporal body. (Singa, 2013)
In other words the snake is seen as symbolic of life engaged in the field of time of birth and death. When I read this the carved relief of a figure of a full breasted and ample hipped woman that had been found in a rock shelter in France, came to my mind. She is known as the Venus of Laussel and dates back to the Gravettian or Upper Paleolithic culture dating back some 29,000 to 22,000 years. In her right hand she is holding a wisent horn which has
13 notches and her left hand in on her belly or womb, Some researchers such as Campbell (see Singa, 2013) suggest she could be pointing to the number of nights between the first crescent and the full moon whereas other researcher feel that she might be referring to the number of moons and menstrual cycles in one year. Although Marshack
(1991) cautions that “one cannot conjecture on the basis of one engraved sequence any meaning to the marks” (p. 335), the unusually clear markings on this figure seem to point towards some sort of relationship. Campbell (see Singa, 2013) suggests that this is maybe the first recognition we have of a celestial counterpart between earthly rhythms of life to the number of days or the number of months. This type of female figurines have been found from the Atlantic coast of Spain to the coasts of China and they were always encountered in rocky outcrops or dwelling sites (Singa, 2013). At that time of our history I am sure man and woman were keen observers of nature as really their lives depended on it and of course, the cyclical nature of Nature as it manifests in the seasons, the heavens and in woman would have become even more apparent when agricultural communities came into being much later. It does not take much imagination to see why snake energy came to be linked with female energy for they both share a cyclical nature of life energy incorporated in a temporal body.
Once you have awareness of a lunar consciousness, a solar consciousness, which is seen as having no shadow, also arises. On the mental level, I therefore feel that the attributes of snake have little to do with its physical body or celestial manifestation but the maturation of our soul through inner learning and letting go of the old through transcendence to grow something new. And In this paper we will discover how it is also these attributes that also help us to go beyond temporality and develop a sacred soul and a Divine Presence. However in some cultures it seems to be the snake´s power to wound that is seen as also being of vital importance.
The winged Serpent in the Greek Tradition
Eros is considered a dragon or winged serpent because of his power to wound with his arrows. These arrows break down our routine with the poison of love, which is also the sweet honey that can nourish our wisdom nature. (Lowenthal (2004, p.112)
Lowenthal (2004) also explains that “the sting of the bee and the arrow of Eros both signify the secret fire that breaks down metals and destroys the outmoded state of being” (p.112). I am reminded there that during intense spiritual practice, great heat is often experienced and I feel it is this what is being referred to here. People of old would have
observed that the snake is ectothermic and lives from heat that originates from outside his own system and in this the spiritual practitioner is the same, for he or she too needs the heat generated by love to purify his or her system. And it is the love of another (who or how ever that other is conceived) that enables the alchemical process to occur whether it is the love of Psyche for Eros or the love
of Eros for Psyche. This also coincides with Lowenthal´s (2004) thought about alchemy that he claims has three classes of operation: purification, refinement, and generation. On further elaboration, he states that an animal is linked to each of these operations and that the snake or dragon as Eros is linked to purification, the lion or ram is linked to refinement and the eagle the third or generation phase. In this alchemical process where love itself undergoes three levels of transformation, it is the caduceus or the wand of Hermes that is seen as the universal agent of transformation as well as representing it.
The caduceus, the wand of Hermes, with two intertwining serpents crossing each other to form three circles, symbolizes the dynamic circulation of fundamental male and female energies and the three separations and unions that are part of the alchemical work in creating a sacred marriage. This healing and awakening rod has the power to reconcile conflicting elements and forces into a more inclusive harmonious state and support the transition of the soul into the domain of sacred wisdom. In physical terms…the shaft of this staff represents the spinal cord (the central axis of the nervous system and the path that generate sexual energy takes to the higher centers of the heart and the head). (Lowenthal, 2004. p. 114)
Henderson (see Jung, 1968) elaborates on this symbol and also adds certain aspects of its historical features which for me add further clarity on its nature:
Originally in Egypt Hermes was known as the ibis-headed God Thoth, and therefore was considered as the bird form of the transcendent principle. Again in the Olympian period of Greek mythology, Hermes recovers attributes of the bird life to add to his chthonic nature as serpent. His staff acquires wings above the serpents, becoming the caduceus… and the god himself became the “flying man” with his winged hat and sandals. Here we see his full power of transcendence, whereby the lower transcendence from underworld snake-consciousness, passing through the medium of earthly reality, finally attains transcendence to superhuman or transpersonal reality in its winged flight. (p. 155)
As the caduceus is the symbol around which unity occurs, maybe it is not really the appropriate symbol for the medical profession for healing, rather than unity, is normally seen as their goal. Nayernouri (2010) supports this view. However, as I feel that on a deep level unity is the most profound sort of healing, maybe and hopefully, the magic of this wand will wake the medical profession up to the fact that the only true healing involves awakening to the spiritual.
The winged Serpent in the Indian Tradition
The kundalini is seen as a force or energy that lies at the base of the spine and is often considered as a sleeping serpent or goddess, waiting to be awakened. It has been written about by all the mystical traditions of the world. Sovatsky (2009) describes it as “the developmental force that unfolds humans to their fullest physio-spiritual maturity” (p.2) and also quotes several rhyming couplets by Dnyaneshwari to shows how difficult it is to fully describe and even comprehend this incredible force when awakened:
A coil of lightning, a flame of fire folded (224)
She [kundalini] cleans the skin down to the skeleton (233)
Old age gets reversed (260)
She…dissolves the five [bodily] elements (291)
… [then] the yogi is known as Khecar [tumescent tongued]
Attaining this state is a miracle (296)
Shakti [female power] and Shiva [masculine power] become one and in their union, everything …gets dissolved (306) Further, there is nothing more to experience beyond [this]
Hence, let me stop speaking of it
For it is useless to talk (318). (Sovatsky, p.1)
In India there are several paths that are seen to lead to union, Raga Yoga, Jnani Yoga, Kama Yoga and Bhakti yoga. These respectfully involve meditation, knowledge or wisdom, service and love and the path of many practitioners involves a combination of these approaches. Tantra Yoga is another much later path, which Einoo (2009) dates to about the fifth century AD. There is no time to go deeper into the different types of yoga here other
that to say they generally involve the transcendence of opposing forces, whether for example, it be success or failure, good and bad or male and female. This requires inner mental work that involves the transcendence of opposites. In this aspect I see the journey as being more psycho-spiritual in nature. This too leads to what some call a Divine Presence. However I feel there is more and when Shri Kundalini starts to arise, its physiospiritual component becomes obvious to the practitioner.
To me the differences between the yogic traditions and the alchemical tradition of ancient Greece seem to be more to do with method than with what is ultimately accomplished. I see yoga more as an inner science where the practitioner overcomes step by step the hurdles that are presented either on the inside or on the outside; a continual dying to the old to grow something new through transcendence. I also see the yogic tradition more centered on the question “who am I” and “what is the nature of Nature?” I do not know if this happens in all traditions, but in the tradition I follow this, in the end, too leads to love and although we do not fall in love with Love as Eros or Eros with Psyche, as in the Greek tradition, we fall in love with the Divine or Self of which we are. Arka (2006) describes the Self in the following way:
(The) Higher Self is super-cosmic consciousness which is inside and outside of every particle and living entity throughout space, time, the cosmos and above and beyond; it leaves space for our ego, individuality, individual will and spirit/soul, and gives us a certain freedom to take ourselves wherever we want to go. (p.87)
And as we fall in love with the Devine vertically so we fall in love with all of life horizontally for we have realized that all is the same Self, manifesting in all. All of Nature is Devine.
I realize that in this overview I am leaving a lot out, particularly concerning the Goddess representing the night sky and has been known in different traditions by different names such as Nyx in the Greek tradition, Nox in the Roman tradition and probably Aditi in the Indian tradition, although I have not seen this confirmed anywhere. At this stage of my personal development I know very little about this Goddess but as she is do with death she probably also represents the fear aspect many people have for snakes. But I leave this aspect for another paper
In this brief overview I too have come to realize that unless one is a practitioner of yoga or of alchemy it is very easy to misunderstand the symbol of the snake and the winged serpent.
Looking at history, I also see it is very easy for the story of humanity to swing between two poles based on whether one is part of a hunting or agricultural community. In hunting societies, myths favored a masculine God whereas in communities based on agriculture, myths favored the female Goddess. Today, as our separation from Nature and from myth is so great, one wonders what will happen next. Will we be able to create a new myth that will put us in touch with the earth and Nature once again and yet also respect the masculine thus enabling man to go beyond these opposites? Or maybe the serpent laying dormant in all of us will start to rise, bringing with it much needed physio-psycho-spiritual changes from inside, or maybe it will be a combination of many factors. I do not know, but I do feel it is in the hands of each and every one of us to develop ourselves as much as we can, including of course, the spiritual. I conclude with a quote by Arka (2013)
You are part of what happens outside, and what happens inside you reflect in nature outside. You are part of the whole. Your presence, your wellbeing and the contribution you make to the world are extremely important. Never undermine your role in the development of humanity, in whatever field. Whether it is small or big, it will add to global transformation. (p.7)
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Einoo, S. (2009). Genesis and Development of Tantrism. University of Tokyo.
Jung, C. (1968). Man and his Symbols. U.S.A.: Dell Publishing.
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Marshack, A. (1991). The Roots of Civilization’, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd, Mount Kisco,
Nayernouri, T. (2010). Asclepius, Caduceus and Simurgh as Medical Symbols: Part 1. Archives of Iranian Medicine 13.1 (1): 255-61.
Reno, S. J. (1997). Religious Symbolism: A plea for a Comparative Approach. Folklore. 88
Singa, A. (2013, August 28). MYTHOS I – 03 On Being Human – The emergence of myth in early hunter gatherer societies. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58kAYKzPU9kBu.
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Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 41 (1): 1-21