THE SERPENT AS A SYMBOL.
"Be ye wise as Serpents." – JESUS.
The snake has long been considered as a symbol of wisdom, but they are, as a rule, abnormally stupid, sluggish, shortsighted and wanting in all that goes to make up a wise man. Yet in all times and countries mankind has compared its wise ones to the serpent. The ancient Mexicans had their Nargals, the Hindus their Nagas, the Druids in ancient Britain would call themselves serpents, and in distant China, "lang," the dragon, signifies "the being who excels in intelligence." Aesculapius had his serpent wand. Moses, full of magic lore of Egypt, used the brazen serpent as a talisman for the healing of his stricken followers. Since the snake itself lacks wisdom, let us enquire whether its anatomy and natural history may not afford material for the play of that imagination which represents viewless ideas by visible symbols. A striking fact about every true snake is that he has no eyelids, but, like the fish, sleeps with his eyes wide open. The Initiate has always claimed unbroken consciousness, and while to the common man there is what Wordsworth calls a "barrier, twixt day and day, "the wise man preserves unbroken his thread of continuous consciousness. Though his body sleeps, he lives an active conscious existence, until the time of waking comes round again, when he descends, and merging in his body goes through the daily penance of physical existence. In the "Voice of the Silence" there is an allusion to "the eye that never closes."
Every few weeks the snake casts his slough, and creeping out of his faded cuticle, appears in new and shining scales, over whose glossy surface play the colors of the rainbow. This proceeding well typifies the evolving soul who takes and leaves one body after another, until "made perfect through sufferings" he incarnates no more unless impelled by compassion for the sake of suffering fellowmen.
Examine a snake as he crawls on the ground, and note his sinuous, undulating curves. Science shows all force to proceed by waves, rhythmical disturbance in air, water or ether, and as the snake winds his way we are forcibly reminded of the conqueror of his lower nature, who controls and guides the crude energy of his body and devoting it to loftier purposes, becomes indeed an expert in the science of vibrations.
The serpent is a dumb animal; he has no voice. The well-known hiss is not vocal, and is caused simply by the escape of air under pressure from the orifice of the mouth. The real mystic does not tell what he knows in noisy or uttered speech; the real work is done in silence, and the pupil's inner nature is played upon by those wonderful vibrations of which our gross sense organs can give us no tidings.
There are two classes of snakes, the poisonous and the harmless ones. There are two schools of magic, the black and the white. How subtle are the workings of the serpent's venom! A tiny prick a drop of innocent looking fluid in the veins, and presently the victim throbs all over, swells and dies in agony. A poisonous serpent of the human race works just so. A hint, a light suggestion couched in a jest, and the poison works its malignant way, till the victim falls by the way, a despairing, doubting, disloyal corpse. The poison should be sucked our immediately, but a better way is to avoid dangerous company, or to protect oneself with the armor of devotion and whole-souled loyalty.
The serpent can fact for a year or more without any great inconvenience; he would be a serpent of wisdom must cultivate dispassion towards object of sense. Not that the neophyte should abstain from any of his wonted meals, but he must abstain from giving attention to flavors, and should close his mind to the pleasures of the palate.
All snakes are very fond of milk. Milk is the food of babes and sucklings, and this curious taste on the part of the snake well symbolizes the fact that before he can reach the state of wisdom the pupil must regain the child state he has lost. The simple, innocent tastes of the child are the mark of the Initiate, and in this connection it is interesting to note that Paul is alluded to in the Talmud as "the little one."