Serpent Faith (5)

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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A rapid glance may be taken over fields, ancient and modern, illustrating human respect for the serpent. This devotion is not confined to the Old World, being found in the New. It is not limited by time, ranging over all periods. It is not peculiar to any race or colour.

Aboriginal races, so called, have from remote antiquity honoured the serpent. All over Africa, the vast regions of Tartary and China, the hills and plains of India, the whole extent of America, the Isles of the Pacific, alike in sweltering tropics and ice-bound coasts, is the same tale told.

Civilized man,—whether beside the Nile, the Euphrates, or the Indus,—on the deserts of Arabia, the highlands of Persia, the plains of Syria, or the Islands of Greece,—among the tribes of Canaan, the many named peoples of Asia Minor, the philosophers of Athens and Alexandria, the mariners of Phoenicia, or the warriors of Rome,—bowed to the serpent god. All religions, past and present, recognize the creature.

The Rev. Dr. D'Eremao, in the Serpent of Eden, sees direct serpent worship in "the worship of the serpent as a god, in himself, and for his own sake"; but indirect worship in "the use and veneration of the serpent, not for himself, but merely as the symbol or emblem of some one or more of the gods." He esteems the Egyptians indirect worshippers. The Greeks had it as a symbol of Apollo, Minerva, and Juno. The Ophites, of early Christendom, saw in it a symbol of Christ, or the mundane soul.

The creature spoke from under the tripod of Delphi; it moved about the holy bread on the altar of the Gnostics; it was a living and moving symbol in Egypt; it had a place of honour in the temples of Tyre, Cyprus, Babylon, and India; it crawled in the sacred cave of Triphonius, and its eyes glistened within the shadows of Elephanta.

As the Apophis, pierced by the god Horus, and as the emblem of Typhon, it was the evil spirit of Egypt; but in the uraeus of Oriris, it was the good one. The Egyptian faith several thousand years before Christ also included serpent worship. The serpent symbol distinguished Sabaism. It was in Egypt the illustration of a new birth, as it cast its skin, and thence gave to man a hope of the Resurrection. In the Book of the Dead, and other Egyptian Scriptures, it is frequently mentioned. The great serpent on human legs was a solemn mystery. The Agathadaemon was the Guardian of the Dead.

Flinders Petrie, in Ten Years Digging in Egypt, when referring to the fact that the oldest pyramid, Medum, was erected on the principle of the Mastaba or tomb; declared that in the architecture of that very ancient structure, "there was the cornice of uraeus serpents, which is familiar in later times." This points to an era of, perhaps, seven thousand years ago.

The neighbouring Assyrians paid no less devotion to it. It is known that in the land of Canaan there was the same Ophiolatreia, as the Hebrew Scriptures testify. Cyprus and Rhodes, not less than all Phoenicia, abounded in it. Christianity was early affected by it in Gnosticism. Epiphanius, relates that the Gnostics kept "a tame serpent in a cista, or sacred ark, and when celebrating their mysteries (the Eucharist), piled loaves on a table before it and then invoked the serpent to come forth." The Ophites (serpent worshippers) were derived from the Gnostics.

The Chinese for the lunar period represents a serpent. The word for an hour, Sse, is the symbol of the serpent. The dragon still presides in China. Persia, which supplanted Assyria, copied thence much of its serpent ideas; so did the Semitic conquerors of Babylonia, at an earlier period, receive their theology and letters from the Akkadians. The Zendavesta three-headed serpent had to yield to the Sun god. Ahi, the great serpent, was in opposition to the Zoroastrian deities. Bel and the Dragon have a fixed place in Oriental literature. Bel and the serpent may still be discerned in excavated Pompeii. Clemens Alexandrinus remarked, "If we pay attention to the strict sense of the Hebrew, the name Evia (Eve) aspirated signifies a female serpent."

India, however, is down to our time the high seat of Ophiolatreia.

The Maruts, Rudras, and Pitris are esteemed "Fiery dragons of wisdom," as magicians and Druids were of old. Abulfazl states that there are seven hundred localities where carved figures of snakes are objects of adoration. There are tribes in the Punjaub that will not kill a snake. Vishnu is associated with the reptile in various ways. Sesha, the serpent king, with one hundred heads, holds up the earth. The Nagas are given up to this peculiar worship. The Buddhist poem Nagananda relates the contest between Garuda, king of the birds, and the prince of the Naga or snake deities.

India beyond the Ganges has, as in Cambodia, magnificent temples in its honour. The soul of a tree in Siam may appear as a serpent. "In every ancient language," writes Madame Blavatski,"the word Dragon signified what it now does in Chinese, i. e. the being who excels in intelligence." The brazen serpent is in the East the Divine Healer. Æsculapius cannot do without his serpent. In the Hell of the Persians, says Hyde, "The snake ascends in vast rolls from this dark gulf, and the inside is full of scorpions and serpents." In the poem Voluspa of the Edda we read —"I know there is in Nastzande (Hell) an abode remote from the sun, the gates of which look towards the north.—It is built of the carcases of serpents."

The ancient Greeks borrowed their serpent notions from older lands through the medium of Phoenician traders. Hesiod's monster, the Echidna, was half "a speckled serpent, terrible and vast." The Atmedan of Constantinople, showing three brazen serpents interwined, was said to have been taken by the Greeks from the Persians at Plataea. Apollo, the Greek Horus, fights the Python of darkness, as a sun-god should do, but owns a serpent symbol. Euripides notes that in processions "The fire-born serpent leads the way."

Etruria, of which Rome was a colony, probably borrowed its serpent worship from Egypt. It was there, as elsewhere, a form of sun-worship, as the reptile hybernates to renew its strength, and casts off its slough to renew its youth, as the sun is renewed at spring. And yet Ruskin says, "The true worship must have taken a dark form, when associated with the Draconian one."

Africa is well known to be still under the cruel bondage of serpent worship, and that of the evil Apophis kind. The negro's forefathers appear to him as serpents. Over the Pacific Ocean, the serpent, carved in stone, was adored. Tales, in Fiji Isles, spoke of a monster dragon dwelling in a cave. Samoa had a serpent form for the god Dengie. Even in Australia, though in ruder style, the serpent was associated, as in Oceana, with some idea of a creator.

America astonished Spaniards of the sixteenth century with its parody of their own faith. The civilized Aztecs and Peruvians adored serpents. Vitzliputuli of Mexico held, like Osiris, a serpent staff. Cihuacohuatziti, wife of the Great Father, was an immense serpent. The name of the goddess Cihuacohuatl means the female serpent.

But the wilder North American Indians bowed to the serpent, as may be known from Squier's Serpent Symbol. A serpentine earthwork in Adam's County, Ohio, upon a hill, is 1000 ft. in length. Mounds in Iowa, arranged in serpentine form, extend over two miles. A coiled serpent mound by St. Peter's River, Iowa, is 2310 ft. long. In the desert of Colorado have been reported lately the remains of a temple. It is said that the capitals for the two remaining pillars are stone serpents' heads, the feet of the columns look like rattlesnakes. The pillars seem to be rattlesnakes standing on their tails.

Europe was, doubtless, indebted to travelling "dragons of wisdom" for this mystic lore; how, or under what circumstances, we know not. Whether the older, and long passed away, races were thus learned is a question; but that peoples, far removed from our era, or but survivals of remoter tribes, were acquainted with it may be believed, if only from serpentine mounds, or piles of stones in serpent form.

Rome carried forth the serpent in war, since one of its standards was the serpent on a pole. Long after, in the church processions on Palm Sunday, the serpent figured, mounted on a pole. Scandinavia had its Midgard, encircling the globe with its body. The Norse serpent Jormungandr had a giantess for mother, and the evil Loki for father. Muscovites and Lithuanians had serpent gods, while Livonia bowed to the dragon. Olaus Magnus records serpents being kept in sacred buildings of the North, and fed on milk. Thor was able to kill a serpentine embodiment of evil, by striking it with his tau, or hammer. In pagan Russia the serpent was the protector of brides. St. Hilarion, of Ragusa, got rid of the dangerous snake Boas by lighting a great fire, and commanding the reptile to go on the top to be burnt. One of the symbols of both Hercules and the Celtic Hu was a serpent. The German white serpent gave wisdom to the eater of it.

In Gaul it was reverenced. Nathair was a serpent god. Priests, Druidical or otherwise, had a caduceus of two serpents embracing one another. A Gaulish goddess had, in like manner, two snakes about its legs and body. Druids kept live serpents for pious purposes. A French writer notices one twisted round a lingam, as can be seen now, also, in Pompeii. Gaulish coins represent a serpent under or over a horse, the sun emblem.

As the Koran informs us, Eblis was brought to Eden in the mouth of the serpent. The Pythia, or Serpent of Delphi, was the priestess. Snake offerings were made to Bacchus. The phallic character is exhibited in the serpent at Mayence, with the apple of love in its mouth, upon which creature the Virgin is represented as treading.

France was not without its snake destroyers. In Brittany, St. Suliac, watching the emergence of a great serpent from its cave, put his stole round its neck, and cast it into the sea. Up to 1793, a procession of the clergy of St. Suliac annually took place, when a silver cross was lowered into the serpent cavern of La Guivre.

M. About tells of a serpentine dance he witnessed in Greece. A number of women and children formed the tail of a serpent, which incessantly revolved round itself, without the extremities ever joining. In ancient ornaments, an egg is seen with a serpent coiled round it, as if to fertilize it.

All readers of Welsh Druidism are aware of the part played therein by this creeping creature. It was the Celtic dragon Draig. It was the gliding god. Ceridwen is associated with a car and serpent. Abury gives us the serpent of the sun. The Glain neidr, or serpent's egg, was a great mystery of the Druids.

Serpent worship has been taken up to the heavens, where constellations have been named after the creeping, silent creature. There is the Hydra, killed by Hercules, but not till it had poisoned him by its venom. There are the voluminous folds of Draco. There is that one held by Ophiuchus, which sought to devour the child of Virgo. There is the seven-headed Draco, each head forming a star in the Little Bear. Thus we may exclaim with Herschel, "The heavens are scribbled over with innumerable snakes."

Classical mythology tells of a Python, which sought to devour the offspring of Latona, whose child, Apollo, became the eternal foe of the would-be destroyer. Jupiter himself became a dragon to deceive Proserpine. Minerva carried a serpent on her breast. Medusa bore snakes for curls on her head.

What is the meaning of it all?

Betham mentions the fact that the Celtic word for a serpent is expressive of its wisdom. The same meaning is in other languages, and the legends are of various nations. A knowing man, one versed in the mysteries, was called a serpent. Was it the silence which distinguished it in the animal creation that brought this reputation, and made it a fitting emblem of the esoteric system?

It was the symbol of productive energy, and was ever associated with the egg, symbol of the progressive elements of nature. The male was the Great Father; the female, the Great Mother.

O'Brien, and others, see a close connection between Solar, Phallic, and Serpent worship, the author of The Round Towers of Ireland, saying, "If all these be identical, where is the occasion of a surprise at our meeting the sun, phallus, and serpent, the constituent symbols of each, occurring in combination, embossed upon the same table, and grouped under the same architrave?"

The connection of the serpent with the starry host has been observed. Its scales resemble revolving stars. Like them, it moves swiftly, but noiselessly. The zodiacal girdle appeared like a serpent devouring its own tail, and it was always deemed of a fiery nature.

Some have supposed the stories of monstrous reptiles —the object of dread and conflict—to have originated from traditional records of gigantic and fearful-looking Saurians or serpents that once lived on earth, and some lingering specimens of which might have been seen by early tribes of mankind. The Atlanto-Saurus immanis was a hundred feet long, with a femur two yards in diameter.

The serpent was certainly the token or symbol of an ancient race celebrated for wisdom, giving rise to the naming of the learned after dragons or serpents. The Druid of the Welsh Triads exclaims, "I am a serpent."

According to J. H. Baecker—"The three, five, seven, or nine-headed snake is the totem of a race of rulers, who presided over the Aryan Hindus.—The Snake race was that of the first primaeval seafarers.—The faring-wise serpent race became at the earliest stage of tradition rulers and civilizers." And Ovid sang—

"As an old serpent casts his scaly vest,
Wreaths in the sun, in youthful glory dress'd,
So when Alcides' mortal mould resigned,
His better part enlarged, and grew refined."

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