The meaning of the dream symbol: Serpent

The cosmic serpent
From the macrocosmic viewpoint, the kundalini's equivalent is the serpent Ananta which wraps its coils round the base of the World Axis. Ananta is associated with Vishnu and Shiva. When building a house in India, as with all houses which should stand at the centre of the world, a pile is sunk into the head of the subterranean naga, once geomancy has established where it lies. Those who carry the world are sometimes elephants, bulls, tortoises, crocodiles and so on, but they are only surrogates for, or different animal shapes of, the serpent in its original role.

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Thus the Sanskrit word naga means both 'serpent' and 'elephant' and this may be compared with the equivalence of serpent and tapir in the Maya-Quiche world-picture. These 'animals of power' are very often depicted by their heads at the end of a serpent’s body, or they may themselves be supported by a serpent. In every instance, they stand for the terrestrial aspect, that is the strength and aggression of the manifestation of the great god of darkness who, throughout the world, is a serpent.

There are two ways of sustaining something. It may either be carried, or enfolded by creating an unbroken circle round it to prevent its falling apart. This second role is filled, once again, by the serpent biting its tail, the ouroboros. In this context, the circumference complements the centre so as to suggest Nicolas of Cusa's notion of God himself. The ouroboros is also the symbol of cyclical manifestation and return, continuous transformation of death into life, since its fangs inject their poison into its own body. While it conjures up the image of the circle, it is predominantly the circle’s dynamism, that is, the first wheel, apparently motionless because it revolves on its own axis. The ouroboros provides the motive power, not only of life, but of time, creating both within itself. It is often depicted in the shape of a twisted chain, its links the hours. Setting the stars in motion, it is also the first representation and mother of the Zodiac. An old symbol of an Old God of Nature dethroned by the spirit, the ouroboros remained a powerful cosmographic and geographic deity and, as such, was carved round the edges of the earliest representations of the world, like what is undoubtedly the earliest Black African imago mundi, the Benin Disc.

Terrifying in its anger, it becomes the Jewish leviathan. Returning to the cosmogenetic level, the serpent is Ocean itself, its nine whorls encircling the Earth and its tenth, so Hesiod states in his Theogony, running beneath it to form the Styx. In the final analysis this emanation of formless primeval matter, from which all things spring and to which all things return to be renewed, may be likened to an object thrown from one hand and caught by the other. Underworld and ocean, primordial waters and the depths of the Earth, simply compose that materia prima, primeval matter, from which the serpent is made. The serpent was the first water-spirit, and is the spirit of the waters below, on and above the Earth's surface. Virgil's 'horned' Tiber may be explained as a depiction of the serpent which has taken to itself the strength of the bull, typified by its horns. Similarly, the Acheloos, the greatest river of Ancient Greece, successively took the shapes of serpent and bull to combat Herakles (Hercules). As the deity of clouds and fecundating rain, serpents sometimes take to themselves the powers of the ram - hence the horned serpents so common in Celtic and, particularly, in Gaulish iconography - or of birds.

We are familiar with the basic importance attaching to symbolic images in these two great agrarian civilizations and the particular attention which they paid to meteorological phenomena. In the Far East, celestial dragons were the founding fathers of many dynasties and the Chinese emperors carried one embroidered on their banners to denote the divine origins of their empire. In American Indian mythology from Mexico to Peru, Alexander stresses, the myth of the Serpent-Bird coincides with the oldest religious rituals connected with the cultivation of maize.

The 'Old God' and mythic ancestor

When the serpent became the mythic ancestor and culture-hero - most familiar in the shape of the Toltecs' Quetzalcoatl which the Aztecs also adopted - the serpent became flesh and sacrificed itself for the human race. Indian iconography explains the meaning of this sacrifice. Thus, the Dresden Codex depicts a bird of prey striking its talons into the serpent’s body so that the blood from which civilized mankind is to be created will flow. The god [the serpent] in this context turns the celestial powers of his own attribute, the Sun-bird, against himself to make fertile mankind’s land, for this god is the cloud and his blood is the rain which will enable the maize to grow and mankind to live from the maize.

One could elaborate upon this sacrifice, which is not only that of the cloud, but the death of desire as well, in the fulfilment of its loving mission. On a more clearly cosmogonic level - and one which in Sufism becomes the foundations of a mysticism - it is the splitting of primordial Oneness, the two in one, into its two components to create the human order. Jacques Soustelle regarded Quetzalcoatl's sacrifice as a variation upon the classic theme of initiation, death followed by rebirth. Quetzalcoatl became the Sun and died in the west to be reborn in the east. Within himself he was two-in-one and dialectic and became the guardian of twins.

The same symbolic complex recurs in Black Africa. The mythic ancestor and culture-hero of the Dogon is the water-god Nommo. He is depicted with a snake's body instead of human lower limbs. He brought mankind the most valuable cultural gifts - metal-working and com - and is also 'two and one'; he too sacrificed himself for the good of the new human race. The thunder-stone is sacred to him and he forbids his servants, that is those who become possessed by him, to invoke any deity who works both good and evil, except twins who are his neighbours. He is also lightning and, above all, god of strength and fertility. Now, Dan is still the 'Old God of Nature' in present-day Benin, the ouroboros of the Benin Disk described above, hermaphrodite and himself twin. This would explain the worship of the sacred pythons kept in the temples of Abomey and girls are dedicated to them, being ritually betrothed to these gods at the time of crop-sowing. The Yoruba regard Dan, whom they call Oshumare, as the rainbow, linking the upper and the lower levels of the world and only to be seen after rain. Frazer cites Bozman for evidence that the Guinea coastal tribes 'invoke the snake in excessively wet, dry, or barren seasons'.

All these examples, taken from cultures which have developed independently of our own, explain how the serpent's connections with the weather, of which there are survivals in European folklore, have originated. 'There is a widely held belief', Krappe writes, 'that rainbows are a serpent drinking from the sea. This notion occurs not only in France, but among the Nevada Indians in North America and the Boro in South America, in Southern Africa and in India ...' All these attestations are no more than so many applications in their specific areas of the myth of the Great Primeval Serpent, an expression of formless primal matter. It is the beginning and the end of every manifestation and this explains its prime eschatological significance through which we return to the highly complex development of the serpent symbol in European civilization. But first we should remember that the Batak in Malaysia believe that a cosmic serpent lives in the Underworld and that it will destroy the world. The Huichol cosmic serpent has two heads, which comprise two pairs of monstrous jaws gaping at east and west. From the one he vomits the rising Sun and with the other he swallows the setting Sun. And now we come to the oldest creator-god in the Mediterranean world, the serpent Atum, father of the nine deities of Heliopolis. He was the one who spat out the whole of creation at the beginning of time, after he had emerged by his own efforts from the primeval waters. As he was alone, written sources are divided as to the origins of his ‘spittle’ and some state that it came not from his mouth but from his penis, Atum in fact masturbating rather than spitting. Thus the first pair of gods sprang into existence, ‘Chu and Phenis, who brought into the world Geb and Nut, respectively air and moisture. Earth and Heaven’. Then Atum rose up before his creation and, according to the Book of the Dead, addressed it in these words: I am he who remains... The Earth shall return to formless chaos, and then I shall transform myself into a serpent which no man knows and no god sees!’. No mythology has depicted the Great Primeval Serpent so baldly. Atum has no need to swallow the Sun. He has nothing to do with the Underworld, the chthonian realm in which our life dies and is reborn every day. He is serpent only before and after the totality of the space-time continuum in a region to which neither gods nor mortals have access, and is truly the first of the Old Gods, the deus otiosus of Nature in his pitiless transcendence.

Nevertheless, the realms below the Earth, which the Sun must traverse every night to ensure his own rebirth, were set wholly under the sign of the serpent in Ancient Egypt as elsewhere. Although Atum may have had no part to play within the drama, it is, nevertheless, he who illuminated it externally. Stripped of his serpent-shape, each evening he became god of the setting Sun, pointing in the west the way to the depths below. He then plunged underground on a boat on which he took his place surrounded by all his heavenly retainers.

The notion of the belly of the Earth in which this alchemical regeneration occurs being under the predominant influence of the serpent is described in minutest detail in the Book of the Dead. The route taken by the Sun is divided into twelve halls corresponding to the twelve hours of darkness. The Sun-boat first crosses sandy shoals inhabited by serpents and soon changes into a serpent itself. At the seventh hour a fresh snake-form appears, Apophis, the monstrous embodiment of the lord of the Underworld and a prefiguration of the Old Testament Satan. ‘His coils entwine a mound 450 cubits long ... his voice attracts the gods who will wound him.’ This incident marks the climax of the drama. At the eleventh hour, the Sun-boat’s tow-rope becomes a serpent. Lastly, during the twelfth in the chamber of the dawn, the Sun-boat is dragged through a serpent 1300 cubits long and when it comes out of the mouth, the rising Sun is to be seen in the shape of a scarab on the bosom of Mother Earth. The Sun is reborn to begin afresh its ascent of the heavens. To sum up, the Sun has to change into a serpent in order to do battle with other serpents - one in particular - before being swallowed and expelled through the Earth's serpent-like gut. One might elaborate at great length on this evolution of a swallower-swallowed complex, beside which Jonah’s fate seems quite straightforward. The serpent may be regarded, worldwide, as the great regenerator and initiator, lord of the Earth’s womb and, like that womb, simultaneously the enemy - in the dialectic sense of the word - of the Sun, hence of light and therefore of mankind’s spiritual side.