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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Serpent

In the ancient traditions of many cultures, it is the symbol of wisdom and eternity. In popular Christian lore, it is the symbol of the devil or the Fallen Angel.

In the East, the serpent and the dragon have been the symbols of the sage or the wise man. In BUDDHISM, according to some traditions, Buddha was protected by Nagas, or serpents, at birth and after his death. Among the Egyptians, the serpent Uraeus was put on their royal head-dress. In the New Testament, Christ exhorted the apostles to be “as wise as serpents.” The Ophite Gnostics was known as the “Brotherhood of the Serpents,” and displayed a living serpent to symbolize the Christos-principle.

Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote that the serpent became a symbol of evil only in the middle ages. Previously, the early Christians had a dual Logos: the Good and the Bad Serpent, the Agathodaemon and the Kakodaemon of the Gnostics (SDI:410). There are several varieties of the serpent symbol, each with its own meaning:

1. The Serpent as a Symbol of the Initiate and of Wisdom. The serpent and the dragon are two symbols of wise men.

2. The Serpent Biting Its Own Tail. This is an ancient symbol that implies the cyclical nature of the cosmos — from its birth to its dissolution at the end of a manvantara. It is part of the emblem of The Theosophical Society.

3. The Seven-Headed Serpent. This symbol appears as Ananta in Hindu mythology, the serpent upon which the god Visnu rests; it is the inconceivable Serpent of Darkness whose seven heads represent the seven Logoi.

4. The Serpent Shedding Its Seven Skins. This symbol occurs in the Aitareya Brahmana as the serpent (Sk. sarpa) Rajni (Sk. for “queen” incl. the consort of the Sun God) who sheds her seven skins. According to H. P. Blavatsky, this symbolizes the seven geological changes that accompany the evolution of the seven ROOT RACES (SD II:47).

5. The Serpent and the Egg. When these two symbols are associated, the serpent symbolizes infinity while the egg, called the Mundane Egg, symbolizes the manifested universe (as well as sub-systems within it, such as our solar system). When the egg is swallowed by the serpent, the cycles of cosmic (or galactic, solar system) activity come to an end.

6. The Serpent Fire. Symbol of the Kundalini power at the base of the human spine. The upward ascent of this energy is usually depicted as two snakes intertwined on a pole, i.e., the CADUCEUS emblem.

7. The Serpent in Genesis. This is the serpent which persuaded Adam and Eve, the first human beings, to eat the fruit of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 3.5). When they did so, they lost their innocence. The Secret Doctrine states that this is the awakening of the mind principle in mankind by the MANASAPUTRAS (SD I:181; II:167). It is identical to the legend of PROMETHEUS who brought fire (i.e., intelligence) to mankind, and was punished by Zeus for that by being chained to a rock. From the occult point of view, the serpent here represents kundalini, the “serpent fire,” entwined around our spinal column. Eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes sense perception of the world (the human nervous system resembling the trunk and branches of a tree) which enables us to discriminate between helpful and harmful things, yet also deprives us of spiritual (i.e., Eden) consciousness. Satan (whose name means “Adversary”) or, more appropriately in this case, Lucifer (whose name means “Light Bearer”) symbolizes the force of involution. The rock in the Greek myth symbolizes physicality to which we are metaphorically chained during incarnation.

8. The Brazen Serpent. This symbol is used in a dual sense in the Bible. Moses, upon instruction from Jehovah, used a copper serpent to heal those who were bitten by poisonous snakes (Num 21.8-9). The Israelites retained this symbol and it became an object of worship. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ likened himself to this serpent, who must be lifted up so that those who believe in him may have everlasting life (John 3:13-15). H. P. Blavatsky wrote that the fiery serpents that bit the Israelites were the Seraphim, which are symbols of Jehovah, and the Brazen Serpent is Jehovah, the chief of the fiery serpents (SD II:387). But the New Testament serpent would, again, be kundalini which enables the one who fully arouses it to function at a higher level of consciousness.

PV.H.C.

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