Wednesday, 20 August 2008

RIDING THE SNAKE: THE CADUCEUS


The Caduceus is one of the most famous and least understood symbols in the Western world. Traditionally associated with the ancient Greek God Hermes it is today usually seen as being to do with doctors and the medical profession. In fact, its actual meaning is much older than that.

The association with doctors is to do with a confusion between the Caduceus and the not unrelated Rod of Asclepius. Asclepius was a Greek God of healing whose medicinal abilities were such that he was able to resurrect the dead and give immortality to humans. After a while Zeus became a little concerned about this and, ever mindful of the dangers of allowing humans a little too much power lest they supplant the Gods, killed Asclepius, more likely than not with a lightning bolt. Having done this, Zeus repented a little and, in partial recompense for his harshness, transformed Asclepius into a constellation of stars. Asclepius' Rod of Healing is symbolised as a single serpent coiled around a staff. The Caduceus, on the other hand, is symbolised by two serpents coiling around a staff, the top of which is often circular and sprouting wings. Apparently it was American military doctors who brought the idea of the Caducues as the symbol of medicine to Europe during the world wars (thank you to Alan Smith for that piece of information!), supplanting the single-serpented Rod of Asclepius as the sign of doctors.

That the two images are linked is obvious. As if further confirmation were needed, in the CORPUS HERMETICUM, the ancient mystical Greco-Egyptian texts which were so influential in the Renaissance, Asclepius is presented as the son of Hermes Trismegistus. In these Hermetic dialogues Hermes, the great sage associated in the Greek mind with the Egyptian God Thoth, tells his son about the secrets of the Universe, the nature of God, the power of the Gnosis and the mysteries of Reincarnation. The link between the two deities and their similar symbols is clear.

So what does the Caducues mean? Well, in all cultures there is the idea of the "Serpent Power". This is the life force, the primal energy which flows through everything. In its most uncreated state it is pure, undifferentiated power, coursing through every living thing, human or otherwise, and giving it life. In China, this Serpent Power is embodied in the Dragon. In elemental terms, the famous Dragon Lines are seen as flowing across the landscape of the earth, representing Yin and Yang, powering the natural forces therein. In the discipline of Feng Shui, how one aligns one's house or builds on these Dragon Lines is crucial for health and prosperity. Chinese Dragons, unlike their equivalents in the West, are sacred creatures who can help humankind. Not insignificantly, they are often presented as plumed or crested and can fly.

In the West, Dragons have less positive connotations. From the battle between Apollo and the serpent Python, to the story of George and the Dragon and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, Dragons and Serpents are dangerous creatures which need to be defeated or tamed. It is the agency of the Serpent, often portrayed coiled around the Tree of Knowledge which causes the Fall of humanity, bringing death, pain and decay into the world in GENESIS. Elsewhere, though, the defeat of the Dragon yields up treasures. George, in defeating the Dragon, saves the Maiden but also protects the sacred spring of water the Dragon was defending. Apollo's defeat of Python brings about the creation of the Temple at Delphi, where the Oracle resides. Indeed, it is the fumes from Python's layer which enable the High Priestess to channel the God and so dispense cryptic wisdom to mankind. An echo of all these processes is found in the recurring imagery of the Archangel Michael defeating the Serpent. Interestingly, and in a parallel with the Dragon Lines of China, Towers dedicated to St Michael are built upon key Pagan sacred sites, most of which, invariably, are located at ley nodes. The most famous is the one at Glastonbury Tor. Anyone who knows the Tor will remember that it is grooved like a spiral, as if an enormous snake were coiled around it. Modern students of ley lines sometimes like to call them Michael and Mary lines, translating the Yin/Yang energies of these primal energy currents into a Christian context.

So on a macrocosmic level, Serpents and Dragons represent the primal Life Energy coursing through the earth. In the East, working in harmony with these energies is a good thing to do. In the West, they have needed to be conquered and tamed in order to release positive energies trapped therein (the Maiden, the Spring, the Oracle, the Golden Fleece etc). Perhaps this says something about the relative psychological development of the two hemispheres of the planet. Whatever the case, going back to the equally universal image of the World Egg with the Snake coiled around it, the Serpent represents something very ancient in the human psyche. So how does this relate to the Caduceus?

To understand, perhaps we have to go East again, to look at the ancient notion of the Kundalini. When I was first told about the Kundalini, it scared the shit out of me, largely because of how it was described: 'This serpent thing coiled at the base of the spine". Not helpful. In fact the Kundalini is the primal life force within US. In other words, it is the human equivalent of the energy described above in Ley and Dragon Lines. It is often represented as a spiral or coiled image, rather like a snake, and is said to reside at the foot of the spine in the Root Chakra. I like to imagine the Kundalini as rather like a nuclear reactor, throbbing away in us and keeping us nourished and alive. The aim of the Mystic in the East is to 'raise the Kundalini' ie draw this energy up from where it is sleeping in the Root Chakra and allow it to enter the six other Chakras until, in union with the Crown Chakra, it creates Enlightenment, opening the Thousand Petalled Lotus that is the Higher Consciousness. It is believed that raising the Kundalini, drawing it up the Sushumna, or central Nadi of the body through the other Chakras, spreads health and vitality through the recipient while also bestowing enormous spiritual and psychic benefits such as telepathy, mystical vision, healing powers and precognition. The Mystic raises the Kundalini through a rigourous process of spiritual development, meditation and prayer. With Tantrics, arcane sexual practises are used (the origin and purpose of Tantric Sex), the most primal expression of the Kundalini being in the sex drive. In Tantra, this enormous sexual energy is harnessed and channelled upwards through the Chakras leading to Enlightenment. People tend to thing that Tantric Sex is just a way of having a great shag. In fact its much more subtle than this. But peoples' lack of understanding of the true nature of Tantric Sex has lead to a lot of accusations against Eastern Gurus of sexual exploitation. On the other hand, its not hard to imagine how Tantric Sex can be used to exploit and abuse the unwary. This is why, traditionally, it has been kept hidden as one of the most esoteric and specialist approaches to Higher Consciousness.

Another reason though, is that raising the Kundalini is a dangerous process. Do it too fast and you can drive yourself mad or even die. Doing it in an impure state, with the Chakras in a mess, can be equally destructive. The effects of the unbridled power of the Kundalini can, therefore, be devastating. Hallucinations, mental illness and death can be a result of misuse and foolhardy dabbling with the Kundalini. Anyone who has had any kind of rushed or negative experience with it will tell you of the hair-raising things that go on. So one must tread with care... Immediately one understands why in the West, with our fear of the primal, cthonic energies of the instincts, we have come up with so many stories and narratives of conquering Snakes and Serpents. Indeed, one could read the story of Genesis as a warning against the shattering consequences of a cosmic Kundalini experience, which, embarked upon to become like Gods, actually leads to the total fragmentation of Human Consciousness and the loss of the primordial state of Wholeness we are still looking to repair now...



This is where the Caduceus comes in. For in truth the imagery of the two snakes coiled around the staff point the way to a positive use of the Serpent Power, one in which the primal energy operates in harmony, winding its way up the Sushumna or Middle Pillar represented by the Staff to give birth to the Higher Consciousness symbolised by the winged Solar Disc at the top. This Solar Disc echoes imagery from cultures as far afield as Persia and Ancient Egypt. In Persia, remember, Ahura Mazda is often represented by a human torso in a winged circle, while in Egypt, the Solar Disc is often replaced by a sacred Scarab Beetle in full fight, symbolising the dichotomy of a creature which feeds on dung but can also fly (ie a union of earthly and heavenly properties).



Further, the Caducues can be superimposed upon a host of Western religious symbols, revealing their hidden nature as images of achieving the Higher Consciousness. In Judaism, if the Caduceus is placed over the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, one sees how it demonstrates the ideal of uniting the two outer Pillars (Male and Female) around the central one, leading to the Higher Consciousness that is Kether (the Crown), where the Winged Solar Disc is found. Similarly the Menorah, with single base and branches above matches the expansion of the serpents and wings of the Caduceus. The two winged Cherubs on the Ark of the Covenant, both facing inwards to the point between them where God manifests to Moses do the same. And, most mysteriously, the positioning of the Caduceus over the image of Christ on the Cross does the same, with the two Thieves or the two Marys on either side completing the tripartite nature of the symbol. Thus, rather than an image of suffering and pain, the Crucifixion becomes an image of Cosmic Transformation, of becoming the Higher Man which, if you think about it, is exactly what Christ does after the Resurrection.... Even Moses shares in the Mystery of the Caduceus in EXODUS, with God demonstrating how he may overcome the hostility of the Egyptians by transforming his and later Aaron's staves into snakes and back again...



So the Caducues shows us how we may harness the primal energy of our Earthly Selves and so achieve our Divine Selves. What is fascinating is how universal it is as an image. Its no coincidence, perhaps, that the primary God and friend to men of the Mesoamericans was Quetzocoatl, the Plumed Serpent, nor that it is reflected in the double helix of our DNA...Crucially, it is a holistic symbol, as it unites 'above and below'. As with the Dung Beetle of the Egyptians, the seeds of the Ascent start at the bottom of things, thus that basic energy, often sexual, is essential to the higher energy. This is a salutory warning to the Western tendency, found particularly in Christianity, to denigrate and suppress sexuality and the instincts. In doing so, Christianity cut off its most potent source of spiritual energy. St Michael's victory over the Serpent of Paganism was too great. The balance was lost and the Fountain of Life that the Caduceus represents was cut off at its source. At the same time, the image of uncreated Kundalini energy as two snakes threshing about wildly needs to be seen as a warning against unbridled release of that power. Hence the presence of the Staff in the centre of the Caduceus. Balance and harmony is the key, not repression or indiscriminate release... That is the message and the challenge of the Caduceus...

9 comments:

Seán said...

In the same way that St. Michael destroys the Serpent of Paganism, it's possible that the hostile European relationship to the dragon may have a historical basis. For instance, in the Volsunga saga the dragon may represent a previous, less "civilised" culture with a magickal and cthonic basis. For Sigurd to kill Fafnir is for him to both overcome earlier magick and to take on that power for himself (by bathing in the dragon's blood).
The analogy is even more obvious in the story of Beowulf where he fights Grendel and Grendel's mother before taking on a dragon. It's also significant that the dragon always guards a treasure beyond belief.
It's possible that the Chinese didn't have that cultural invasion - which may have been the overtaking of matriarchal societies by patriarchal ones due to lack of resources - and so developed a more equitable relationship to her dragons.

The European relationship to dragons/serpents/worms/monsters has often been ambivalent. They are seen as creatures of great power worthy to be adopted as symbols, like the Welsh flag and Arthur Pendragon (lit: "great bear, dragon's head") - but equally they are seen as an enemy creature left over from a previous age with immense inhuman wisdom and guarding terrible secrets. Note that the secrets are elemental, nature based secrets and have nothing to do with what humans consider wisdom.
St. Patrick's removal of the serpents from Ireland is an analogy of his beating and converting the local druids with their older, earth-based power(Ireland has no native snakes in reality).

I think the Genesis serpent has probably been the victim of bad press. Her knowledge would be considered destructive to the burgeoning Hebraic priesthood, being of an older order and more cthonic in nature.

The are a couple more points which you may have missed.
I don't know how significant it may be but the Chinese dragon doesn't have wings (honestly, check 'em out). It does have the power of flight via either a crest on its head or branch-like growths from its body, but it doesn't have proper wings like the birds, bats or Western dragons.
There is also a significant difference between Chinese "dragons paths" and Western ley lines. Ley lines (whether you believe they represent earth-energy or not) are straight. Dragon paths (which definitely represent earth-energy) follow the contours of the land. Chi which travels in a straight line is considered to be extremely dangerous because it goes too fast. This applies to both the environment and the internal workings of the human body.


Interestingly, this could be reflected in the fact that the serpents spiral around the staff of the Caduceus rather than run straight up it. In Taoist philosophy, though, there is no direct end point for Chi (Kundalini). The ideal is consistent circulation flowing through all the points.

You may also be interested in a further parallel in the concept of crucifixion as an image of Cosmic Transformation. The idea of a symbolic (or not so symbolic) death and rebirth is at the heart of shamanic initiation, but the story of Odin is particularly striking in comparison to Jesus' sacrifice. Using his own spear (ie. by choice) he nailed himself to the world tree (cross?). He hung there for nine (3x3) days and then fell sreaming into the underworld (death and burial), arising triumphantly with the runes and all the knowledge and power of them (resurrected as perfected being).

Pegasus said...

Good stuff Sean - particularly the information about the differences between Dragon Lines and Leys. Perhaps, though, this accounts for why Dragon Lines are still being used while Leys are not. Maybe we overloaded the circuit in keeping the straight! The Chinese have always been smarter than us in terms of change (look at what they are up to now!). They have much more continuity in terms of culture than we do. Even Mao ended up keeping Chinese medicine and philosophy intact... And they are less maniacally consumptive than us, although that seems to be on the shifting at the moment!

And for the info on not having wings, although I didn't meant they had wings like the Western Dragons, more like plumes... But I will amend the passage with this new info...

Archetypally, ie in a Jungian sense, the overcoming of the Dragon to find immense treasure is an image of overcoming the chaotic, primeval energies of the Unconscious to unlock the Mysteries within. Thus the development of Consciousness depends upon defeating these cthonic elements of the Psyche. So its not entirely historic (although this may be part of it) and more, once again, a sign of demonstrating the Individuation process of the human psyche. Its a bit like the defeat of the Titans by the Greek Gods... At the same time, psychically, Dragon and Treasure are One. Defeat the Dragon and it BECOMES the Treasure...

As for China, well matriarchal/patriarchal is interesting because Taoism, the oldest Chinese philosophy/spirituality, asserts the absolute interdependence of Masculine and Feminine. That's the genius of the Yin/Yang symbol. Any imbalance and the wheel just keeps turning and, if you penetrate to the heart of Yin you find Yang and vice versa. This non-dualism has always stood in stark contrast to the West...

But, alas, according to Cleary, this notion of balance was taken over by Confucianism, or a distorted brand of Confucianism which was much more left brained and male dominated. To this day women don't get a great deal in Chinese society...

Beowulf is very interesting because although Beowulf does kill Grendel and his Mum, he is killed by the Dragon even as it kills him...

As for the Edda of Wotan, you're right, there are huge parallels with Christ and the Cross. Indeed, the Tree of the Edda is the origin of the Hanged Man card of the Tarot. All unite into one image of the Sacrificial God who willingly dies to give life and is reborn as a consequence...

In the end, its all archetypal stuff - Yggdrassil, the Tree of Life etc etc - all examples of the human race drawing upon the same reservoir of psychic imagery...

Pegasus said...

And to be fair on the Hebrew priests, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden is more complex than it is in Christianity. For the Kabbalists, the whole Garden of Eden story is an integral part of the journey to Self-Knowledge of Man. It had to happen for us to understand our true nature. So its not to be despaired about but rejoiced in.

Also, Kabbalah has the concept of Daath, the pseudo-Sephira in the Tree of Life. Daath means Knowledge, as opposed to Wisdom and Understanding (Chokmah and Binah). It is also known as the Abyss, as it separates the lower seven Sephiroth from the upper three.

Daath as Knowledge is both the reason for the Fall and the ensuing Abyss between Man and God and the means for its healing. For Daath as Gnosis (the same word in Greek) is the energy which, if it is activated, sets the whole Tree of Life resonating as One. So just as Daath caused the original separation, it provides the way back...

Its really Christianity that has vilified the Serpent, but even then there was a Gnostic Sect called the Orphites (I know how your mind is thinking!) which believed the Serpent was the Redeemer, awakening Adam and Eve to a state of rebellion against the Demiurge...

So, once again, its complicated. And don't forget the extraordinary story in Exodus (or is it Leviticus?) about the enormous Bronze Serpent Moses and Aaron are encouraged to stand in the centre of the Camp in order to ward off the plague of serpents which overwhelm the Israelites...

Pegasus said...

One last thing...

Strictly speaking the Serpent in the Garden of Eden isn't a serpent as we imagine it, as he has legs and goes on all fours. Part of God's punishment is to remove those legs and force him to go in his belly. So its more like a reptile than a snake...

Actually, this is one of the origins of David Icke's theory of Lizard Aliens effecting and manipulating the human race.

I say 'he', but I notice you say 'she'. Is this to do with the original Hebrew? I have never seen the Serpent referred to as 'She' before. The Kabbalists have a tradition that the Serpent actually made love to Eve, hence her seduction by him... You'll find this in the Bahir...

Seán said...

I used "she" for the serpent for no other reason than it felt right. In this I may have been influenced by a multitude of past associations.

I could be wrong, but isn't there a story wherein Lilith is Adam's first wife made equal to him rather than from a piece of him? She refuses to lie under him (ie be subservient) during sex, so Adam complains to God who throws her out. She becomes a kind of child-murdering demon who is also identified with the serpent on the tree.

Obvoiusly, there's a lot of politics going on here but she also appears in Gilgamesh as a dark Goddess who lives within a tree surrounded by a serpent. There's also an excellent painting by Johhn Collier (a print of which hangs at the end of mine and my beloved's bed) of Lilith wearing a very large snake.

Seán said...

Hebrew does appear to have noun-genders, although I've no idea how to tell which is which

Here's some fun though!
The Hebrew word for a snake is nahash (nun, cheth, shin). The letter nun (which represents water) is actually derived from a pictogram of a snake.
The gematria for nahash is 358 which is (according to this website: http://holophany.com/articles/metaphysics-and-rational-spirituality/adam-kadmon-from-kabbalah-cabala.html) the same as Mashiach (Messiah)

Funnily enough, the Irish word for a snake is nathair ("th" is pronounced as "h").

Pegasus said...

I know the John Collier picture. Its very sexy. Basically Victorian artists in England and France used Lilith and Mary Magdelene to indulge their sexual fantasies. There's a hilarious (and rather wonderful) painting by a French painter of Mary Magdelene reclining in a strangely naked way with her arms over her eyes, her clothes having miraculously fallen off during her repentance. In both pictures the woman has red hair!

Lilith is indeed supposed to be the first wife of Adam, although she doesn't appear in the Bible. I think she's an apocryphal/legendary figure who may appear in the Talmud as well as in Kabbalah. She is indeed a child murdering spirit who hovers over cribs killing infants in the night. She is attached to the Klippoth (the Dark Tree of Life) and somehow attached to Samael. I am not sure of the exact reason for her exile but your story sounds right. ;-)

I read somewhere that the only Goddess figure who has remained Dual is Kali, simultaneously representing the benign and non-benign elements of the Divine Feminine. Kali is the cycle of Nature at its most primal: a giver of life and a taker of it. In her worst aspect she is utterly indiscriminate and does not mind who she destroys (eg disease, natural disasters etc etc) in her best aspect she is the ultimate giver of Light. Tantrics are among the few Hindus who really take Kali on in all her mightiness, and the experience is not always less than traumatic.

Most other cultures have divided the Goddess into two - the positive and negative sides splitting between, for instance, Eve and Lilith. Ralph Patai talks about this quite interestingly. As a consequence we tend to forget that, like everything else, the Goddess has a destructive as well as creative nature and is as likely to eat her young as much as nurture it, just as the God is as likely to blast his children if they displease him as he is set them up on high.

This unwillingness to face the dualism of Gods and Goddess leads to things like Virgin Goddesses. Patai has something interesting to say here. He points out that one theory is that if the Goddess is our Mother, then having sex with her is repugnant, therefore cultures have made her Virginal, while the woman we do have sex with isn't our Mother... Voila the Madonna/Whore dichotomy.

This is only one theory, of course. There are also the political ones and the psychosexual ones (fear of unbridled feminine sexuality etc)... But all are probably part of it...

As for genders in Hebrew, a safe bet is if the word ends with -ah its feminine. So although Chokmah in Kabbalah is regarded as a Masculine Sephira its name is feminine, symbolising the androgynous nature of this, the highest we can ascend before total union with the Godhead, Kether, which is beyond Gender. Other feminine named Sephiroth include Binah (Understanding) and Gevurah (Judgement). Hard endings (eg -d) are masculine - hence Yesod, Chesed etc.

This is why commentators believe the Holy Spirit was originally a feminine energy as the Hebrew Term Ruach/Ruah HaKodesh is feminine... Interesting...

In fact, strictly speaking, all the Sephiroth are androgyne/masculine/feminine because they give and receive energy... So once again, Kabbalah points towards a non-gender based/anti-dualist conception of God and Man...

THe really interesting one is Elohim, which is an impossible word. El means God and the plural should be Eloha, which is feminine. But it isn't, its Elohim, -im being masculine plural.

So Elohim literally means He/She/They/Gods...

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Randallion said...

I am really amazed at the wonderful and thoughtful posts here.
I am one who had a kundalini arousal way too soon, or way too late. I think the latter, as we tend to accumulate more ego and personality garbage the older we get.
It is odd that the first two chakras are involved with water and sex and perhaps becoming fluid. And perhaps the snake that begins the movement up the tree is between you legs. It is a place to get hung up in the branches, but it will go beyond the curses against sexuality and return us to where we were born. But perhaps we can be above and below at the same time...Heaven on Earth.
Just some thoughts. I really don't know...