The Snake as Keeper of the Secrets

First [was there] Mind the Generative Law of All;
Second to the Firstborn was Liquid Chaos;
Third Soul through toil received the Law.
Wherefore, with a deer’s form surrounding her,
She labours at her task beneath Death’s rule.
Now, holding sway, she sees the Light;
And now, cast into piteous plight, she weeps;
Now she weeps, and now rejoices;
Now she weeps, and now is judged;
Now is judged, and now she dieth;
Now is born, with no way out for her; in misery
She enters in her wandering the labyrinth of ills.
And Jesus said: O Father, see!
[Behold] the struggle still of ills on earth!
Far from Thy Breath away she wanders!
She seeks to flee the bitter Chaos,
And knows not how she shall pass through.
Wherefore, send me, O Father!
Seals in my hands, I will descend;
Through Æons universal will I make a Path;
Through Mysteries all I’ll open up a Way!
And Forms of Gods will I display;
The secrets of the Holy Path I will hand on,
And call them Gnosis.
…The Naassene Fragment (Translation by G.R.S. Mead).

Throughout history there has been a universal tradition in the mythology of ancient cultures wherein the snake is recognized as the keeper of the hidden secrets. The Nasseene Fragment quoted above, found as a quotation in Hippolytus of Rome’s encyclopedic “Refutations of All Heresies,” most likely refers to Jesus pleading with God to allow him to descend into the material world to rescue Sophia, who has lost her way in the illusions of this world, and when rescued becomes the personification of divine wisdom (“Sophia” means wisdom). What is interesting about this fragment is that it mentions “Bitter Chaos,” which is often personified as a snake or serpent in Near Eastern mythology. The Naassenes themselves are considered by scholars to be an Ophite sect, meaning snake worshippers, and perhaps the very first people to use the term “gnostic” in reference to themselves. Nobody knows who these people were, it is possible that they were an offshoot of the Nazarene sect of Essenes that Jesus is said to be a member of and even an alternative spelling of that same sect. It is interesting that their elaborate religious system includes many “catch-phrases” used by Jesus, such as “the Son of Man.” But, what is known for sure is that they worshipped the “Naz” or “Nag,” meaning “snake.”

Why the snake, of all creatures, the one we most associate with evil in the form of the snake in the Garden of Eden? To the Naassenes, the snake in the Garden of Eden was a redeemer, a savior of mankind, the great hero of the story of Genesis because he freed mankind from the false god, the demiurge, Yahweh, whom the other major divisions of Judiaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducees mistakenly call “God.” They believed that the serpent freed them from the illusions of this world and allowed mankind to see “behind the scenes” into the higher truths, the hidden truths that Yahweh wanted mankind to not realize. Throughout Mesoamerica, we find a similar reverence for the snake as a personal totem who imparts divine wisdom. So why is this so, and what exactly is this “secret” wisdom?

We may never know the full story of what this wisdom consisted of, but we can get a very good idea of it’s general context by understanding how the mythology unfolds. Most ancient traditions divided reality into two broad parts: the chaotic and the orderly. We have seen reference to the “chaotic” aspect in the Naassene Fragment quoted above.

The universal mythic tradition personified these opposite poles, the chaotic and the orderly, through the metaphor of the cosmic twins. One twin is more-or-less humanoid in form, taking on the appearance of (usually) a male god in human form. The other twin is often depicted as a serpent, but not always, as in the case of Cain and Abel. Sometimes these opposite forces are pictured as gods who are not twins, like Thor and Loki or Shesha and Vishnu, or as “dark incarnations” of a god of light and truth, such as Kali, the dark incarnation of Shiva. An “incarnation” is a perspective. Any perspective of the attributes of a specific god in Hindu mythology reveals that god in the guise of a specific incarnation, so, for example, if one were to look upon Shiva from the perspective of death and destruction, then Shiva “reveals” himself in the form of Kali, the goddess of death and destruction.

The serpentine twin of the cosmic duality represents death, destruction, ruin, decay and chaos. The fierce appearance of the “evil” twin belays the angry, determined, deaf to any and all pleas for mercy aspect of death and destruction itself as it is experienced in life. But, there is another aspect to the apparent finality of this image, Kali for example, also implies rebirth, a new beginning after all has been destroyed, a hope for a new life, a new beginning, and therefore has a hidden but implied positive aspect to her bloodthirsty demeanor. This positive and promising aspect is the “big secret” behind these traditions. With destruction comes rebirth, with every mountain washed to the sea, bit-by-bit, is the coexisting opposite of new mountain ranges being raised in the ever changing geologic landscape. The serpent is therefore revealed as the hidden redeemer and rebuilder who works “behind the scene” of life.

The imagery of the serpent itself and the mythic stories also portray this duality. In the Near East and Egypt there is the cosmic twin duality of Set and Osiris, Set being the most likely origin of the name “Satan,” who is the evil adversary of Jesus in Christianity, portrayed as the serpent in the Garden, and also the duality of Cain/Abel. Also, in ancient Persia, there was the creator god Ahura Mazda representing order, and his opposite, the god of chaos: Angra Mainyu (from which we may have inherited the word “anger”). India personified these opposites as incarnations, as with Shiva/Kali or as first beings; such as Shesha and Vishnu. In Greek mythology there is Cronos (representing the inevitable destruction of time, as does Kali) verses Zeus, and the hero god Hercules verses the many headed serpent, the Hydra. From Mesoamerica is the traditional duality of the sun and vegetation god of the morning star (Venus); Quetzalcoatl and his nemesis and twin brother Xolotl, god of lightening and death and the evening star (also Venus). Quetzalcoatl is also rival of Tezcatlipoca, creator god and bearer of many epithets, such as Necoc Yaotl “enemy of both sides.” The eagle (representing order) holding the snake in its claws (representing chaos and disorder) is a popular and immediately recognized symbol in Mexico.

Shesha and Vishnu, however, illustrate these opposites in a sophisticated way. Shesha is the thousand headed snake that upholds the world, upon Shesha’s stomach lies Vishnu in repose (order resides upon the surface of chaos). Shesha’s epithet is “The Remainder,” all “that which remains when everything else is destroyed and vanishes.” Out of this ‘remainder” comes Vishnu, the redeemer who preserves and protects the world. So, we have a duality of Remainder/Redeemer, often universally represented as the Serpent/Savior duality. But, this is a duality that, like all opposites, implies a hidden unity.

This universal serpent/savior duality expresses the heart and core of the worldwide mythic traditions; the savior or hero who “descends” into human form to rescue humanity from the clutches of the serpent god who is portrayed as the ultimate adversary, thereby helping human kind to “ascend” into the spirit realm, into salvation. But, the adversary, with his serpentine nature is often seen as a dark incarnation of the hero-savior himself, also working secretly for the salvation of mankind. This is the forbidden secret, we are not supposed to know, the hidden redeeming side of the “wise-old snake.”

How did this association of the “hidden” become attached to the snake motif? There are three major reasons for this, taking the broad overview perspective. They are the sexual, astrological and entheogen (psychoactive drug) traditions of the mythic systems of the world. All three are vehemently denied by the established world religions of today, yet, all three played major roles in much of their accepted doctrine in ancient times. We will not dwell here on the sexual-phallic associations of the snake worship traditions because they have been so thoroughly explored by other writers and scholars. It is believed by many that all three sources co-evolved throughout the early stages of not only many of the major religions surviving today, but through countless minor and local religious traditions and cults.

Astrology was a universal concern of most all ancient cultures for the obvious reasons, not the least of which is that survival usually depended upon the cycle of the seasons for successful crop growth. The study of ancient astrological symbol-systems worldwide is called “astrotheology,” the study of how religious themes developed out of the lunisolar calendar year. The snake played a major part in the symbolism of these calendar based religious systems in that the path of the sun through the sky during the duration of a solar year was seen to swish back and forth like the movement of a snake. So, for example, the snake worship of Vedic India probably had it’s origins in the solar calendar and a whole menagerie of snake gods and goddesses eventually evolved all over India and into the Fertile Crescent beyond. In India, the snake god was called “Nag” or “Naga,” pronounced “Naag” in Sanscript. Shesha, or Sheshanaga, the Great Naga, was the primal and primordial snake of the Vedic tradition. It is possible that this same designation eventually became the “Nas” or “Naas” of the Naassenes of the Holy Land, who like the Nazarenes, were known to be sun-worshippers.

The astrotheological system behind the snake symbol is based on the fact that the sun seems to swish back and forth when looking at the horizon during the solar calendar year. On December 21st looking at the horizon in the northern hemisphere, the cycle of the seasons begins with the sun rising in the northeast and setting in the southwest. As the sun rises each day as the year progresses, the rise of the sun moves further north, until the spring equinox on March 21st. On this date the sun appears to cross the equator and moves ever northward until it reaches its northernmost position at the summer solstice on June 21st. From that point it switches direction and moves steadily southward until it reaches December 21st again and the cycle is completed. This “side-winding” back and forth across the horizon (when viewed from a fixed point) reminded the ancient astronomers of a snakes movement.

We have so far addressed the observable features of the natural landscape and the snake’s physical attributes and how they relate to the snake centered mythology. What, however, would have been a more immediate and practical influence that drove home the importance of the serpent in worldwide mythology?

This question might be answered by entheogenes, the ritual use of psychoactive drugs derived from certain hallucinogen plants and mushrooms, the third great influence upon ancient mythic systems besides sexual symbolism and astrotheology. Many of these natural substances, taken in sophisticated ritual form, hammered home the reality of these mythic systems which were based, in part, on the visions produced by these substances. Many individuals needed only experience these psychoactive drugs once in their lifetime, enough to actually experience the truth of their religious system personally. Rituals like these were practiced worldwide, both on the tribal level and at the advanced city-state level.

There is no general consensus amongst scholars as to how these psychoactive substances work on the mind. It is often asserted that these drugs should not be called “hallucinogens” because they do not induce real hallucinations but instead have the affect of loosening the “reducing valve” of the mind, meaning that what is experience under their influence is what is natural to the real world around us, the brain being a “valve” that, for our own ability to function in society, keeps out or filters reality to a few manageable “band-widths” and that these substances “open the valve” a little more for the participant to see and experience more than what is commonly acknowledged as “real.” There is much controversy over this matter, however the fact that many of the visions that are experienced have a lot in common with each other, often expressing universal motifs and metaphors, gives the reducing-valve theory some credence.

For the sake of brevity, we will look at one of these psychoactive substances in relationship to snake mythology: psilocybin, the active ingredient of the “magic mushroom,” called Teonanacatl in Mesoamerican tradition. First of all, it should be pointed out that psilocybin dilates the pupils of those who ingest it, causing one to have “snake eyes,” dilated pupils that remind one of the eyes of many non-poisonous snakes found in nature. This probably dove home the mythic correlation between the snake as one’s personal totem in shamanic practices, and the concept of the snake spirit as being the source of all the visions and truths being conveyed by these visions to the practitioners.

The visions of psilocybin are often full of snakes and snake-like creatures. This is probably because of the constant stream of colored and geometric patterns visualized, and the rapidity of the movement and flowing motions of the visions themselves. It is often afterward, in the second phase of the experience whereby the mind feverishly and playfully, and with great creative excitement, makes sense of the vivid experience revealed in the first phase of the ritual session. In other words, the first phase is the experience is of the visions themselves, the second phase unfolds an intense and creative realization of what these visions were all about and what they reveal to one personally. These phases uphold the duality of chaos and order, in that the first phase is one of going along or being swept along and not in control (chaos), to the second phase of being in control and experiencing a hour or so of excited revelation (depending upon dosage and other factors). What many would call a “bad trip” (those who feel swept-away and losing all contact with reality), is traditionally looked upon by experienced shamans as a very important and meaningful personal experience. It is the “bad trip,” or swept away experience that sometimes happens that may result in the personal and powerful face-to-face encounter with disorder and chaos personified by Kali or Quetzacoatl.

This “swept-away” experience is often accompanied by panic and fear of being torn apart or lost in the experience and perhaps losing one’s mind. It is often an experience of being swept away on the back of a flying serpent (like Quetzalcoatl for example) or riding on a flying carpet. These visual motifs are common to the experience right down to the colors, with greenish-brown, orange and yellow-brown being common colors associated with the snake (Quetzalcoatl is often portrayed in these colors). These are also colors associated with Persian rugs and the geometric figures of arabesque. Therefore, the experience of riding on (and holding on for dear life!) a flying snake or a snake moving at terrific speed through a maze of tunnels, or on a huge flying carpet, or down a rapidly moving river are cultural variations of the same psychedelic experience.

The experience of being swept away or of watching a swift moving snake (flying or otherwise) from a short distance is often interpreted as a personal encounter with the blind and merciless chaos at the heart of all things. Upon this violent movement and force rests yourself as Vishnu, and like Vishnu you struggle to give birth to order out of this seemingly overwhelming chaos. In time, as the psychedelic experience starts to subside in intensity, one gains more power and control over it. Often, another common theme appears in the psychedelic experience, that of order and structure growing out of…or appearing out of the chaos itself, like Vishnu or Brahma or God creating the world of form out of chaos. Sometimes the world of form and creation is seen in these visions to actually arise out of the serpent of chaos like the structures that arise out of the Ocean-being in Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction masterpiece “Solaris”. All such visual experience acknowledged, upheld and “proved” the reality of the popular mythic systems of tribal people. All also upheld the sharp dualistic separation of the world of disorder and chaos as opposed to the world of structure, form and order. The former is the realm of the snake, the latter the realm of the savior god. As real as these experiences are to those who experience them, it is to be remembered that Kali, Quetzacoatl, Shesha and all the rest are personifications of the main features and “beings” encountered in the visions, and are, of course, not real except as personifications.

The psychedelic experience, deeply ingrained within the religious beliefs of the tribal peoples throughout the world were also important parts of the original formation of many of the dominant world religions, deny it as they might. In these experiences, as well as the patterns in the sky, and even in sexual experience, grew the first patterns that solidified into religion itself and the often sophisticated ritual and symbolism of those religions.

The duality of the ancient opposition of order verses chaos implies a hidden unity. Out of the chaos of Shesha came the order and form of Vishnu. But, more than that, the serpent had an even deeper part to play in the whole thing. As it is with the personal experience with death, decay and destruction in our own lives that we turn to God for solace and salvation, so too the deeply personal experience of those who, for generations have experienced psychoactive visions of chaos and terror only to be rescued by the savior god and brought back to sanity, mankind has learned to turn to the savior, whether Brahma, Hercules or Jesus and God, for solace and reprieve from the inner and outer terrors of life. So, it is asked; “Who sits on the Left Hand of God?” We know that Christianity teaches that it is Jesus on the Right Hand, but could it be the great Adversary who sits on the Left Hand? The traditional theme of the serpent being the keeper of hidden secrets imply just that, it is the terrors of the reality of death and destruction, and of fear for one’s spiritual salvation itself that drive us to the love of God, and to have faith in Him, and Him alone. It is the lowly serpent that helps us to see the light of this realization. A nice balance of motives after all!

—-Errol Brent Culver 10/19/’12

1 thought on “The Snake as Keeper of the Secrets

  1. Greetings, really brilliant your explanation about the snake and its representation. Entheognosis is really a portal for the manifestation of the ancient snake. From the text you wrote, I am sure you already had the teaching for the mushroom, if you can, try to consecrate Ayahuasca to experience the “embrace” of the snake.

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