The Binary Serpent

by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.
-- Genesis 3:1

"Cosmic Serpent" by Heinz Insu Fenkl © 2000
"Cosmic Serpent"
by Heinz Insu Fenkl © 2000
     Like most children, I was taught that snakes were dangerous and bad. Since I grew up in Korea -- not generally known for its poisonous snakes -- it was unlikely that I would ever run across a dangerous snake unless I happened to be in some outlying rural area; snakes certainly did not pose the danger they do in places like India, where cobras are still responsible for thousands of deaths a year. And yet I was told lots of horror stories about snakes; on the one hand the stories revealed a certain cultural fascination with snakes and on the other a terrible and irrational fear of them. One of my aunts loved to reminisce about the time she had fallen into a crevice one spring and found herself in a den full of what she thought, at first, to be "writhing intestines." My mother would warn me that if I was ever chased by a snake I should run in a straight line, since snakes slithered from side to side -- unless, of course, I happened to be running downhill. Then I should weave from side to side because a determined serpent would turn itself into a hoop by taking its tail in its mouth and roll down after me.

     In Korean culture, the word for snake, sa, is coincidentally a homonym for the number 4 and the word for death. In Korean locker rooms, in hotel corridors, and in buildings, you often find the number 4 missing (as the number 13 is often missing in the west), and one of the most feared creatures in Korean folklore, in the same category as the fox demon, is the snake woman.

     It wasn't until I was in my teens that I began to notice some inherent contradictions in the representations of snakes in Korea. By then my mother had told me my birth dream -- the dream she had just before giving birth to me -- and she swore to me that it was both an auspicious and important one. For me, the dream would be important enough to include as the opening of my first book, Memories of My Ghost Brother:
She is walking along a palace wall, on an avenue white with fallen cherry petals. She breathes the springtime fragrance and sings a country song until, turning the corner, she is silenced by the magnificence of the palace gate; and there, hearing a strange noise, she stands quietly to listen. A giant serpent, thick as a pine tree, dangles its head from atop the palace gate and whispers to her in human speech, "I have something to tell you." The serpent is so long its glistening body encircles the entire palace grounds; its tail dangles just opposite its head. "Come here, I have something to tell you," it says. "I have something very important to tell you."

Most readers will immediately recognize here the symbol of the ouroboros, the serpent that forms a circle by taking its tail in its mouth. It's a hard one to avoid these days since it's the logo for the TV show Millennium and also for the high-tech Lucent Technologies company (though the red circle is stylized and often taken to be a Taoist/Buddhist circle). Ouroboros represents a number of things consistent with the serpent: regeneration, rebirth, cyclical nature, wholeness, wisdom, enlightenment. Its circular configuration reinforces qualities already generally associated with the positive interpretations of the serpent that are nearly universal among traditional cultures.

     My mother was always an interpreter of dreams; though she only did it informally, her friends would often ask her advice about particularly troubling details in theirs. For my birth dream, my mother's reading was odd even to my teenage self. She focused on the palace wall, and said that the fact that the serpent encircled it meant that my future occupation would be related to the government -- diplomacy, perhaps. She said the dream was auspicious because to see a snake in a dream is good luck.

     I knew, without asking, that in the folklore of Korean dream interpretation, to see a bad thing is often a good thing. For example, to have your house burn down in a dream is one of the most auspicious signs you can receive. People will buy lottery tickets after a dream like that (or, more likely, be conned into making a bad investment). The greatest possible dream is to see a dragon -- to have a "dragon dream." What I did not know as a teenager was that dragons and large serpents are closely associated in Korean and other East Asian cultures. According to one folk belief, serpents who are virtuous endure thousands of years of privation, and when they are finally deemed worthy, they are transformed into dragons that ascend into heaven on a rainbow. In fact, in both Chinese and Korean iconography (often in decorative motifs in palaces and temples), one finds the symbol of the dragon curled into a circle, taking its tail in its mouth. It usually clutches a circular jewel, which represents immortality and enlightenment.

     One of my uncles had to confront the contradictory way in which snakes were presented in Korean popular culture. When I asked him why there were bottled snakes displayed in the drugstores alongside the bottled ginseng roots (in both traditional and western-style pharmacies in those days), he explained that sometimes things that were poisonous could be used as a powerful medicine. This was quite similar, in my mind, to the logic of dream interpretation, but my uncle's logic was to talk about how ginseng -- which everyone knew to be the most potent of medicines -- tasted especially bad. He pointed out that all medicines tasted foul and would probably be mistaken for poison if their effects were not known by the learned herb doctors; even western medicine -- aspirin, for example -- was foul-tasting.

     I am still haunted by images of those pale snakes preserved in alcohol-filled medical jars. Pharmacies vied for the largest selection and the largest specimens of both snakes and ginseng root; the displays were truly grotesque and disquieting, and the magnified and distorted images of the serpents and roots behind the discolored alcohol suspension must have evoked some primal mixture of fear and awe to add potency to the medicines drawn from them. After seeing such exhibits at the Korean drug stores, the odd contradiction in the western symbol of the caduceus -- the two serpents coiled around the winged staff -- which I saw emblazoned on all the accoutrements of the U.S. Army Medical Corps did not strike me as the least bit unusual.

     In western culture the diametrically opposed meanings of the snake -- what I call the phenomenon of "the binary serpent" -- is not all that different from what I experienced as a child in Korea. The contradictions are perhaps not quite as overt in the way they play out in the surface of everyday life, but they are there -- and deeply rooted, suggestive of the ancient Goddess traditions upon which the Judeo-Christian culture built itself. What's especially interesting for me is to discover that tracing the source of the serpent symbol, regardless of whether one begins in the east or west, leads to essentially the same sources.

      It is easy to get to the primary image of the serpent in western culture. In the Book of Genesis, which the Judaic and Christian religions share as a primary text, the serpent is responsible for the temptation of Eve and Adam and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Lord permits Adam and Eve to eat from any tree in the Garden, but he is explicit in his prohibition: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." The serpent, in tempting Eve actually reveals to her -- albeit indirectly -- that God has deceived her; he says, "Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."

     As we all know, Eve eats the fruit and also convinces Adam to eat it, and they do not immediately die. God soon discovers their transgression, but it is the serpent he punishes first. He says, "Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed . . . upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed." Thus the continued enmity between snakes and humans, what biologists suggest is a reference to the instinctive fear humans have of reptiles from back in the days when our hominid ancestors were competing with snakes on the African savannah. As a legacy of our biological heritage and God's curse on the serpent, we still have figures of speech like "snake," "snake in the grass," "pit viper," and "snake eyes" -- all negatively charged labels linked with danger, deceit, and death.

     But who, exactly, was the serpent? Genesis doesn't reveal the serpent's identity. (In fact, even the serpent's gender is an odd mystery: we assume it to be male, but in a large number of paintings that depict the temptation of Adam and Eve, the serpent coiled around the tree has breasts -- another indication of the underlying Goddess culture.) From common understanding of Biblical texts, we can gather that the serpent is Satan, a name which means "adversary" in Hebrew; but through a problem in translation, he is also erroneously associated with one of God's Archangels, none other than Lucifer (variously "Son of Morning," "Morning Star," and "Bearer of Light"), who is the highest of the high among the angelic hosts. "Lucifer" was originally meant to be the Latinized rendition of "Helal, son of Shahar," a reference to a Babylonian king, but the name became associated with Satan, and his story (which is the central narrative of John Milton's Paradise Lost) is the one that has survived in the popular imagination. Lucifer is the Archangel who tried to usurp God's place in heaven and was cast down into hell as punishment. We can make much of this translation error, but this mistake and its resulting associations between the Devil, Lucifer, Satan, and the serpent of Eden reveal something far more significant and interesting about symbols and culture.

     Over time, by a logic greater than the intention of any single person or even the combined intentions of a series of people, societies cause meaningful symbols to become what are called "summarizing symbols," images that economically represent layers and layers of collected meaning -- sometimes even meanings that are contradictory. The binary serpent is a classic example of this phenomenon. Consider that in the Genesis story, the serpent (also known as Satan, Prince of Lies) actually tells Eve the truth about the fruit; he exposes God's lie (what we might call a "white lie"). What's more important, in eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Eve and Adam have learned to judge both God and the serpent. God feels quite threatened, now that the fruit has opened the humans' eyes and made them like gods; out of fear that they will also eat from the tree of life and become immortal, He casts them out of Eden and posts the flaming sword to keep them away.

     It is beyond the scope of this column to argue or even summarize all the particulars of this scenario -- there are volumes and volumes of Biblical lore that review these very issues from a startlingly vast range of viewpoints. What I want to show is something much simpler: That even without discussing the specifics, we can see that the serpent is closely associated with giving humans access to the knowledge of good and evil, a god-like quality consistent with the idea of illumination or enlightenment. At the same time, it is clear that the humans' enlightenment might cause them to gain immortality, thereby associating the serpent with the idea of gaining access to eternal life. All of these associations are consistent with the positive qualities of the serpent in pre-Biblical Goddess lore. The text of Genesis may be one of the best examples of a culture trying to change the meanings of symbols appropriated from earlier cultures; what my speculation shows is how this is almost impossible to do. The original meaning of symbols (in this case the serpent) will almost always slip through future overlays, particularly when the revisions attempt to place opposite values on those symbols.

     A closer look at the etymologies of some of the word associations makes this binary quality clearer (and even more complex). The word "serpent" actually has the same root at another Biblical term, seraph, which refers to the highest of God's angels. "Seraph" can be translated as "fiery serpent." The underlying meaning of the word "devil" is the same as that for deva, an angel in the Hindu pantheon, both terms meaning "divine." Satan can be traced back to the 19th Dynasty Egyptian Set, whose symbol is the serpent. According to some sources the name "Satan" is the Hebrew adaptation of the Egyptian Set-En or Set-An. The en and an seem to refer back to even earlier sources, the Sumerian Annunaki ("Those Who Came from Heaven to Earth") and Enki, who is often represented as half serpent and half man (in Sumerian lore he is the adversary of his brother, Enlil, who some scholars argue may be the origin of the Hebrew Jehovah).

     Early Christian Gnostics, like the practitioners of Kundalini Yoga (which focuses on releasing the "serpent fire" to gain illumination), associated the serpent with the human spinal column and the medulla. (Contemporary biologists refer to this structure, which is the basis of the limbic system, as "the reptile brain" upon which the higher mammalian brain is built like an overlay.) The Gnostics also associated the serpent with Christ: Among the most interesting Gnostic symbols is the crucified serpent who bears the face of Christ. As late as the 16th century, one could find German coins which showed a crucified Christ on one side and a crucified serpent on the other.

     The logic of this connection would take a book to explore fully, but there is a Biblical reference that immediately helps clarify it. In the Gospel of John, we find the line: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up." This refers to the fact that, during the Exodus, Moses raised a serpent on a copper pole to heal his people and cure snake bites. The logic of the Gnostic serpent-Christ also makes sense if you consider that a snake, in shedding its skin, is not only figuratively reborn, it also gives birth to its new self. This means that the new snake is the product of a virgin birth, and it is simultaneously its own parent and child. Christ, as we know, is born of a virgin and he is simultaneously Father and Son; after the crucifixion, he is also resurrected. Like the ouroboros, Christ is also the Alpha and the Omega -- the beginning and the end. (Of course, Christ's mother is Mary, a figure resonant with the Great Goddess.)

     Since I'm wrapping up an essay about the serpent, it's time to circle back to some issues I left dangling in my opening reminiscences about my childhood. Another irony: It's in studying western folklore that I finally found an adequate explanation for the link between the snake, healing, death, and the number 4 in Korean culture. Perhaps it's only coincidence, but the Greek god Hermes, who is also associated with Christ, brings all of these elements together: he carries the caduceus (two serpents coiled around a staff), which is the symbol of the healer; he is the one who leads the dead to the underworld; and his symbol is the Hermetic cross, the number 4 poised above a crescent moon (a symbol for Mary and the Goddess). My mother might also be happy to learn that Hermes is also linked with diplomacy, which is the future she foresaw for me when she interpreted her birth dream. She might be less happy to learn that he's also associated with thieves (though Christ also has the odd association with thieves because he is crucified between two of them). The dragon and serpent are linked in the Hermes figure just as they are in the east: the word "dragon" comes from the Greek drakon, which means "serpent."

      But I knew none of these things in my youth, and I did my share of regretfully evil things to snakes. When I was twelve, compelled by my delinquent friends, I decided to test the story that a snake will not die until the sun goes down. We had all heard the claim: you can cut off a snake's head, but the body will not stop moving until sunset.

     In a patch of farmer's woods in southern Germany, we caught a small green garter snake and cut its head off with a U.S. Army pocket knife. Indeed, the body did not seem to die. One of my friends decided to make our test utilitarian -- he needed a watchband, and so he decided to skin the snake. We were all fascinated when we could see the heart still beating through the translucent carcass, which we hung over a stick. But our patience was not as strong as our guilt and our repulsion. We buried the skinned snake and went home long before sunset. The watchband never got made.

     When I look back on this misadventure I can't help but be amused at the ironies under the surface. What motivated the memory -- as I thought about this essay - was the fact that something had compelled one of us to unconsciously make a symbolic ouroboros out of the snake's skin, causing its death to be associated with time, circularity, and rebirth. And over the years, by haunting me with guilt and curiosity with its memory alive in me, that poor snake has also contributed, in its way, to the pursuit of wisdom.

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
-- Matthew 10:16

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Further Reading:

Those who want to look at the serpent motif among other folktales about animal brides drawn from around the world may want to read The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature by Boria Sax.

     For general reference to serpent imagery, I recommend: Serpent Imagery and Symbolism by Lura Pedrini; The Worship of the Serpent Traced Throughout the World and Its Traditions Referred to the Events in Paradise by John Bathurst Deane; Indian Serpent-Lore or the Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art by J. P. Vogel; Ophiolatreia: An Account of the Rites and Mysteries Connected With the Origin, Rise and Development of Serpent Worship by Hargrave Jennings; and The Encircled Serpent: a study of serpent symbolism in all countries and ages by M. Oldfield Howey. Serpent Myth by W. W. Westcott (edited by Darcy Kuntz), is a fascinating discussion of the serpent symbol from the perspective an initiate of the Golden Dawn Society (of which W. B. Yeats was a long-time member). The Wisdom of the Serpent: The Myths of Death, Rebirth, and Resurrection, edited by Joseph L. Henderson, offers a general discussion as well as a more psychologically-centered examination of the serpent's role in shamanic initiation, poetry, art, and dreaming; those who are interested in Joseph Campbell will particularly enjoy this book. Also from a psychological perspective is The Rainbow Serpent: Bridge to Consciousness by Robert L. Gardner; this book looks at Australian aboriginal myth in light of the dreamtime, archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

     For those particularly interested in the serpent and Biblical lore I recommend: Adam, Eve, and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels; The Serpent of Paradise: The Incredible Story of How Satan's Rebellion Serves God's Purposes by Erwin W. Lutzer; The serpent was wiser: a new look at Genesis 1-11 by Richard S. Hanson; Serpent symbolism in the Old Testament: a linguistic, archaeological, and literary study by Karen Randolph Joines; and Trail of the Serpent: The Story of Satan Told in the Bible, from the Fall to the Lake of Fire by Robert Peterson.

     Those interested in the serpent and its relation to women's lore may want to look at Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women's Spirituality by Noragh Jones, which examines the intersection of pagan and Christian tradition in Scottish women's folklore. Mary Condren's The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland focuses on the lore surrounding the Celtic Bridget figure, also tracing the overlap and disjuncture of pagan and Catholic culture.

     There are also numerous books that examine the serpent symbol and its relation to kundalini: Serpent of Fire: A Modern View of Kundalini by Darrel Irving, et al., is a guide to activating one's kundalini (and it includes appropriate warnings). For a first-hand account of both the dangers and the transformational power of awakened kundalini, have a look at Patricia Anne Bloise's Dancing with the Serpent, which also provides a general overview and history of the concept. The Green Serpent and the Tree by James N. Judd looks at the parallels between the concept of chakras in kundalini yoga and the ten sefirot of the Kabbalah.

About the Author:

Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of Memories of My Ghost Brother and other works.

Copyright © 2000 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2000. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.

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