Interpretations of Serpents and Dragons in Theosophy and Ancient Mythology
ANCIENT INITIATES CALLED SERPENTS
First Part I. Human Serpents and the Immortal Sages
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew x: xvi)
“(…) the “Serpent” and “Dragon” were the names given to the “Wise Ones,” the initiated adepts of olden times. It was their wisdom and their learning that were devoured or assimilated by their followers, whence the allegory. The Gnostic Ophites, he says, had a reason for honouring the Serpent: it was because he taught the primeval men the Mysteries (Adv. Haeres. 37). Verily so; but they did not have Adam and Eve in the garden in their minds when teaching this dogma, but simply that which is stated above. The Nagas of the Hindu and Tibetan adepts were human Nagas (Serpents), not reptiles. Moreover, the Serpent has ever been the type of consecutive or serial rejuvenation, of Immortality and Time.
On the lowest plane of materiality the Serpent was, no doubt, “the great mystery in the mysteries,” and was, very likely, “adopted as a type of feminine pubescence, on account of its sloughing and self-renewal.” It was so, however, only with regard to mysteries concerning terrestrial animal life, for as symbol of “reclothing and rebirth in the (universal) mysteries” its “final phase”* — or shall we rather say its incipient and culminating phases — they were not of this plane. They were generated in the pure realm of ideal light, and having accomplished the round of the whole cycle of adaptations and symbolism, the “mysteries” returned from whence they had come — into the essence of immaterial causality. They belonged to the highest gnosis. And surely this could have never obtained its name and fame solely on account of its penetration into physiological and especially feminine functions!” (Helena P. Blavatsky. 1888. The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, pp. 404-405)
Second Part II. The Adoration of the Dragon and Serpent
The reason the “serpent” and “dragon” has been since antiquity adored, and before Roman Catholicism made it a symbol of the “Evil One,” is because the ophidian represents eternity and wisdom.
In India and East Asia, the original meaning is still preserved in the symbol of the nagas (Initiates “wise as serpents”), and the Dragon or lóng (Man. simplified: 龙) for “Wisdom” and “Intelligence.” In China, (1) the Dragon is the only mythological animal of the 12 animals of the Chinese calendar; and (2) it is also the highest ranking-animal in the Chinese animal hierarchy. The Buddhists who came to China adored the Dragon. However, a Christian is conditioned to see only in the serpent and dragon, evil, in accordance with Revelations, or the sectarian theology of the Church. Most people perhaps would ask, “how could reptiles symbolize a good thing. They’re vicious creatures?”
If the serpent was a symbol of evil, then Moses would not have carried the emblem of the nehushtan נחושתן (brazen serpent), or the divine healer-god on his pole, which is also the caduceus of Mercury (Wisdom). It is the emblem of the Jewish Sōdalites (Initiates). The Dragon was not only a metaphysical property of nature, it was symbolic for the Rú, or learned instructors (“wise men”). They were generically termed by the Chinese, Dhyanis and Imperials from the early periods of human history†. The Serpent, as many of the symbols of DEITY has multiple interpretations and facets.
The Jews adopted the ophite for the shape of the “seducer” for a physiological and phallic purpose, according to The Secret Doctrine author H.P. Blavatsky, who says that “no amount of casuistical reasoning on the part of the Roman Catholic Church can give it another meaning, once that the mystery language is well studied…” (The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 2., pg. 208). The serpent is Agathodaimōn (good genius) and Kakodaimōn (evil genius), because the mind being in physical matter, the Great Illusion. The manifested Universe is therefore seen as pervaded by that element and thus a duality, and without the physical basis, it would be an “empty abstraction.” This is a fundamental teaching, rather pillar in the Persian Mazdean philosophy, and Agathodaimōn is obviously synonymous with the Persian deity Ahura Mazda (“the Good Mind”).
The original meaning refers to the imperials, or initiates — the only true and primitive (first) illuminés (see The Shū-King and other legends of early Chinese dynasties). As explained, the Gnōstic or Basilidean ophite (Chnouphis, the primordial fire-god) had a “knowledge of good and evil”. He is the god of Wisdom in Egypt, and patron of all the Initiates. Chnouphis, or Agathodaimōn (i.e., Ahura Mazda) is Christōs§ (Gr.) in Gnōstic understanding, just as this principle was the Mithra of Roman and Persian cults.
As to the cosmic serpent, this describes a cosmogonical phase from the Chaos, or Abyss, which issued forth a circle formed of spirals. This is Tiferet (Heb. תפארת) of the Tree of Life. Coiled within the unfolding geometric spirals is the serpent (the emblem of Wisdom and Eternity), and what it is referring to is the Divine Mind, Agathodaimōn, The God Ahura Mazda of Magism. The Secret Doctrine adds that Darkness in metaphysics is “not evil, but is the necessary and indispensable corollary which completes Light or Good…” (The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 2., pg. 214).
“And now it may be hoped the full meaning of the serpent emblem is proven. It is neither that of evil, nor, least of all, that of the devil; but is, indeed, the [[SEMES EILAM ABRASAX]] (“the eternal Sun-Abrasax”), the central spiritual sun of all the Kabalists.” (ibid.)
Third Part III. Significance and Meanings of Dragon and Serpent Symbolism
INTERPRETATIONS OF SERPENT AND DRAGON SYMBOLISM
“But however it may read, the Dragon was never regarded as Evil, nor was the Serpent either — in antiquity. In the metaphors, whether astronomical, cosmical, theogonical or simply physiological, i.e., phallic — the Serpent was always regarded as a divine symbol.” (H.P. Blavatsky, THE SECRET DOCTRINE, Vol. II., pg. 505)
The serpent, occult philosophy teaches is a symbol of wisdom and eternity, as in accordance with ancient traditions. Christian lore portrays the symbol as the devil, and the fallen angel identified with an entity known as Lucifer. In truth, the serpent has several interpretations.
- The Serpent as a Symbol of the Initiate and of Wisdom. The serpent and the dragon are the two symbols of “wise persons.” In India, the Nagas referred to mortal Buddhas, or holy men known as Initiates, a sect of worshipers of Shiva, who ruled Ceylon. Serpents in India are associated with the Dhyani-Buddhas, called Aeons (Heb. asdt) in the Gnostic system of Valentinus. In China, some wise men and imperials were associated with the Dragon; and have temples dedicated to “the Dragon,” who is WISDOM (the Mind above All).
- The Serpent Biting Its Own Tail. An ancient symbol implying the cyclical nature of the cosmos — from birth to dissolution at the end of the cycle of a Cosmos¹.
- The Seven-Headed Serpent. Appearing as Ananta in Hindu mythology, it is the serpent the god Vishnu rests upon. It is the incomprehensible silence (σιγη ακαταληπτος), Wisdom (Gr. Νούς των Όλων “Universal Mind”), and Logos. The further metaphysical explanation, is that it represents the inconceivable NOUMENON the Greeks knew as Nyx or Absolute Darkness (whom the Gods and Zeus feared), described as the Seventh State of undifferentiated cosmic substance, or homogenous matter (a neutral axis of all states of objectivity and subjectivity). Ananta’s “seven heads” represent its seven primeval differentiations. Vishnu is the One Element, that universal substance, “producing itself by itself.”
- The Serpent Shedding its Seven Skins. The Aitareya Brāhmaṇa represents this symbol as the serpent, or sarpa, Rājñī (“queen” and consort of the Sun God), who “sheds her skins.” In The Secret Doctrine (Vol. 2., pg. 47), H.P. Blavatsky says this symbolizes the seven geological changes accompanying the evolution of the seven ROOT RACES.
- The Serpent and the Egg. Together, the serpent symbolises infinity, while the egg (the MUNDANE EGG), symbolises the manifested universe and all the sub-systems within it. When the egg is represented as being swallowed by the serpent, the cycles of cosmic activity come to a close.
- The Serpent Fire. Symbol of the sacred and Rational Fire (πυρ), or Light, of a mystical nature. Known as Agni in India and Pothos (ποθος) in Phoenicia, according to a certain Sanchianathon. In The New Testament, one of the aspects of the Hidden Light, or Fire-god (the first-born) is called the parakletōs, a term James M. Pryse traced to Greek psycho-physiological and somatic terminology in initiation. In Indian esotericism, it is devi-prakriti, the kuṇḍalinī, or “coiled one.” It is popular to regard the sacred fire as a power rooted at the base of the human spine. This power (dunamis) of Yoga described as a fiery electro-spiritual force, according to theosophist Pandit Bhavani Shankar (a disciple of K.H.) is dual. If this force awakens from the base of the human spine, it has only to do with the the passional nature, the sensual, animal, and psychic nature. This can be dangerous to the physio-neurological (affecting central nervous system), and physio-psychological (mental states) health, and the Occult Philosophy implores students not have anything to do with it, which has unfortunately become the understanding in popular culture. The power, Theosophy teaches of, contrary to Modern and Western Yoga, is from “the inner chamber of the Heart,” not the base chakra. Consciousness and Self-Consciousness describes “seven heads” reflected in the brain around the pineal gland and in the “inner heart,” which is “the abode of the World’s Mother” (i.e., sakti).
- The Serpent in Genesis. The serpent in New Testament lore that persuaded Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. The story of the serpent is identical to the legend of PROMETHEUS who stole the Intellectual Fire and infused it into mankind; and was thence punished by Zeus by being chained to a rock, where vultures would disembowel and eat his insides, when he’d rot. Each time, he was regenerated, to endure the pain again. The rock symbolizes the physical matter, to which we are metaphorically chained during the cycles of incarnation. The serpent in Genesis, from the view of occultists represents the lower “serpent fire” entwined around our spinal column, pulling us down in the illusion, or sin, depriving us of Eden, or spiritual consciousness. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes sense perception of the world, and the trunk and branches of the tree symbolize the human nervous system. Helena P. Blavatsky, says that it is Jehovah, or Adonai personating the serpent in the garden. In Bere’shith (Genesis), as it is the case in the Greek Myth, the Olympian gods and the elōhim in Genesis did not want to give man “the rational fire,” until a rebel in the story comes along, and initiates the process.
- The Brazen Serpent. In the Book of Numbers, Moses is instructed by Adonai to heal those bitten by poisonous snakes with a copper serpent. The Israelites then adopted this as their symbol, and it became an object representing their worship and healing. John 3:13-15 likens Jesus to the Serpent, and Jesus likens himself to the Brazen Serpent, who is Asclepios the healer-god, or Adon, who lifts up those who believe in him (to ELYSIUM), and have everlasting life (immortality). H.P. Blavatsky argues, that the Brazen Serpent is Adonai, chief of the śerāphîm.