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Snakes have inhabited the earth for an awfully long time. They evolved more than 100 million years before Homo Sapiens and are regarded as one of the most successful life forms. In spite of being somewhat restricted in their mobility, they have succeeded in adapting to, and thriving in many, varied environmental conditions. They have thus become assured of their continuing survival. Today there are around 2,700 known species on earth.
The snake is an object of worship in many cultures. It is honoured as a symbol of fertility, sensuality and as the wise mother of all healers. In Mexico, it is seen as the god connecting heaven and earth. For the Mayans, the creator of the world was Quetzalcoatl, a twin headed, winged serpent. Hindus consider snakes sacred, the god Shiva is always seen with at least one cobra. In ancient Sumeria and Egypt, among the Australian Aborigines and many African tribes, snakes play an important mythological role. In the Old Testament, not only is Eve tempted by the snake in Eden, but during the exodus from Egypt, God tells Moses to make a fiery serpent of brass and to display it upon a pole so that those bitten by poisonous snakes might be healed by gazing upon it. In Teutonic myth Yggdrasil is the tree which supports the universe. Topped by an eagle, the great cosmic serpent Nidhogg resides in its roots. In ancient Egypt, Thoth, the god of wisdom (known as Taaut to the Phoenicians), was linked to a magic wand with twin snakes.
The caduceus (Latin) or kerykeion (Greek) can be traced back to early Mesopotamia. Exhibited in the Louvre is a libation vase, dated around 3500 BC, from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Lagash. Two snakes entwined on a rod are depicted on the vase with an inscription to the god Ningizzida, whose father Ninazu was the god of healing.
This antique symbol of harmony, balance and transformation is found in a variety of forms in diverse cultures throughout the world. It occurs in ancient India as a representation of the Nadis and in Greek mythology as the staff of Hermes.
The symbol here shows two snakes coiled around a staff with wings. In Indian Tantra the snakes represent Ida and Pingala wound sensually around Shushumna. These are seen as the three most important Nadis or energy channels in the human body. Shushumna corresponds to the fluid-filled cavity, the "canalis centralis" of the spinal cord. Ida is the feminine principle to the left of Shushumna whilst Pingala, the masculine principle, is on the right. They relate to the sensory and motor tracts running along the spinal cord. The two snakes, although opposites, are in perfect equilibrium looking each other in the eye; evoking tension and respect, they signify balance between the male and female principles.
This symbolic representation however, implies an ideal state. When the flow of energy in an individual is balanced and powerful enough, Kundalini, represented as a sleeping serpent, wells up from the base of the Shushumna, streams up through the seven chakras and enables the attainment of the super-conscious state known as Samadhi or enlightenment. The wings atop the staff symbolise this potential: balance and transcendence are suggested through the connection between earth (the snakes spiralling up from the base of the staff) and heaven (the wings). Snakes are earth-bound creatures, the wings are said to be those of an eagle.
Caduceus with chakras
(Click to enlarge)In ancient Greece, the god Hermes was seen as the messenger and herald of the gods whose duty it was to summon the assembly, to settle arguments and carry messages between enemies. Once again, the idea of balance is suggested here. In addition Hermes, or Mercury as he was known in ancient Rome, is often depicted as a slender, graceful youth, certainly male but possessing female attributes. Through the union of Hermes with Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus was conceived and born, interestingly on Mount Ida. The child was raised by the Naiads (fresh water nymphs). He/she was an androgynous deity from where the term hermaphrodite is derived. Hermes was also the father of Pan, who was half man, half goat. He may be thought to represent union between animal and human.
Another of Hermes' duties was to usher the souls of the dead down to the underworld, connecting the realm of the living with that of the dead. He was also god of roads and protector of travellers as well as the god of merchants, shepherds, weights and measures, eloquence, athletics and thieves. He was known as a cunning trickster.The caduceus of Hermes was a magic wand with the power of transformation. It turned all it touched to gold. The mercurial messenger is said to have separated two fighting snakes with his staff which was previously decorated with ribbons. The entwined snakes then replaced the ribbons and the wand became the symbol for the settlement of quarrels.
Another interesting story is that of Tiresias, the most famous seer of ancient Greece. He came across two snakes mating, and tried to separate them by plunging his staff between them. He was immediately transformed into a woman. Seven years later, in the same place he/she again saw the same two snakes mating. Repeating the action, she/he was changed back to a man.The two snakes characterise the principle of unity and equality between male and female. Luc Ciompi expressed this in his “Aussenwelt – Innenwelt”: “Nothing can exist without its opposite, [...] all that exists, exists only thanks to its opposite.” The understanding of man and woman as an interdependent whole, and thus equal, is not very evident in most human civilisations through the ages. An imbalance favouring the male has, for the most part, defined the relationship. Not only have men tended to subjugate women, but male-dominated civilisations have, throughout history, attempted to dominate each other and the great earth mother.
Perhaps the staff of Aesculapius is symbolic of this imbalance. Also with its origins in ancient Greece, this symbol has represented medicine for many centuries. A single serpent coils around a staff. As the Mesopotamian symbol is much older, it may well be that the staff of Aesculapius was derived from the Caduceus. Aesculapius, who is thought to have lived around 1200 BC, is described in the Iliad as a physician. He eventually became the demigod of healing in Greek mythology. The secrets of healing were controlled by the Asclepiadae, an order of priest physicians who passed their knowledge strictly from father to son. Since those early days until fairly recently, medicine has been dominated by men. The picture below of a Roman statue of Aesculapius certainly seems to endorse this patriarchal view.
This picture shows Hermes on the left with his caduceus. Kneeling in front of him is a figure apparently pleading with a very stern looking Aesculapius. The women are naked and cling to each other looking very apprehensive. Is Aesculapius with his staff and its single snake indicating the propriety of men over women? Does this picture suggest the overthrow of balance: the small, finely-drawn caduceus in the background, by the large, centrally located, bludgeoning staff of Aesculapius? The three naked women are perhaps the daughters of Aesculapius (Meditrine, Hygeia and Panacea), but whoever they are, the message is clear.There is an interesting connection between Hermes and Aesculapius. Apollo, in a fit of jealousy, killed his unfaithful lover, a mortal woman named Coronis. But after he had done the deed, Apollo discovered that Coronis had been about to give birth. Apollo asked Hermes to deliver the child, which he did with the dead mother already lying on the funeral pyre. The child happened to be Aesculapius.Here is another story concerning the sun god Apollo and the oracle of Delphi which illustrates the subjugation of the feminine by the masculine. Taking the form of a dolphin, the sun god Apollo went to Delphi, which was known as the centre of the world and ruled by a female dragon named Python. She was the oracle of the Earth Goddess Gaia or Ge (the dragon symbolises the consciousness of the earth). Unfortunately Apollo did not recognise the authority of the female oracle and killed the dragon in order to supplant her and become the oracle deity of Delphi himself. In commemoration of the slain female dragon Python, Apollo appointed a female seer to serve the oracle and named her Pythia.
Whether by conscious or unconscious design, the female principle has been removed from the equation, leading to imbalance. Of interest here is the criticism, often levelled against modern medicine by proponents of alternative or complementary medicine, that allopathic practitioners tend to treat symptoms rather than the whole being and adopt a one-sided, mechanistic (masculine) view. Not only medicine but society itself is out of balance. Women have been oppressed for centuries as they still often are in most cultures. Once highly valued for their healing powers, in the Middle Ages many women were denounced as witches, tortured and murdered. Men presided over the deliberate destruction of age-old female values and knowledge.The relevance of balance and harmony is sadly lacking in modern medicine. There is a tendency to hit the symptoms of disease with hammer-like treatments without sufficient consideration of the root causes of illness and, in many cases, the side-effects of the therapies. In most alternative practices from acupuncture to yoga, equilibrium is of primary importance. When the energy flow in an individual is out of balance, dis-ease results. Subtle treatments, which sometimes initially even intensify the symptoms, seek ways to restore and revitalise the energy system and thus heal the whole person.
This by no means intends to suggest that modern medicine should be totally replaced by alternative therapies, but simply that there ought to be more awareness of the importance of balance - that alternative therapies can be complementary to allopathic practice and that its practitioners adopt a more holistic view. Indeed modern medicine has achieved many wonders, the eradication of smallpox is just one example. Other remarkable examples are the discovery of DNA and the sequencing of the human genome.
DNA is found in the cells of all organic life. It is life's blueprint, encoded bio-chemically on a double helix which is only ten atoms wide. The basic construction of DNA is always the same in all forms of life; the vast differences are determined by what is encoded into it. In his book "The Cosmic Serpent. DNA and the Origins of Knowledge", Jeremy Narby describes DNA as an "ancient biotechnology", a manual for organic life, capable of creating whole ecosystems, from the highest to the lowest organism. He compares its form to that of a long, single and simultaneously doubled snake with reference to the double-headed cosmic snake of the ancient Egyptians, which was said to be the key to life and bestow attributes. He asks whatever else this snake and its properties could have represented for the Egyptians other than that which modern scientists call DNA. Might the caduceus also be an intuitive representation of the DNA double helix? Christopher Wills, a molecular biologist, describes the twin strands of DNA as similar to two snakes entwined around each other in a mating ritual.
Energy manifests in waves in all its forms, be it electrical, sound, light, or magnetism. Often these waves circle around themselves and repeat in a rhythmic fashion. The energy field is conveyed through the wave in the same way that a snake moves by oscillating along its body. Energetic systems oscillate in a regular motion, creating their own circular or spiral field. Coils and spirals are often understood, in both science and mythology, as a medium for the transformation of different types of energy from one plane to another - e.g. radio waves, electromagnets.The human being is a composite of twin waves of alternating energy, male and female, right and left, on and off, yin and yang, positive and negative. The life force itself, like a coiled flex or a wick, is present in our twin serpents.
Without balance there can be no true wisdom, neither inner nor outer peace, no equality in society. Male and female are the poles that drive us. Their complementary opposition gives rise to life.The caduceus is just one of the many symbols found throughout the world which convey the idea of balance between the poles. The Ankh of ancient Egypt, the Yab-Yum of Tibet, the Yin-Yang of China and the Sri Yantra of India are some of these. However, what makes the caduceus so very interesting is that it occurs in very similar forms in such diverse cultures.
Ciompi, Luc, 1988: Außenwelt - Innenwelt, die Entstehung von Zeit, Raum und psychischen Strukturen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Mattison, Chris, 1999: Snake. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
Mumford, Dr. Jonn, 1988: Ecstasy Through Tantra. St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications.
Narby, Jeremy, 1995: Le serpent cosmique, l'ADN et les origines du savoir. Geneva: Editions Georg.
Rätsch, Christian, 1997: Die Steine der Schamanen. Munich: Diederichs.
Wills, Christopher 1991: Exons, Introns and Talking Genes: The science behind the Human Genome Project. Oxford: Oxford University Press.