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By Frederick R. Dannaway
Dedicated to the scholarship of Blaise Daniel Staples “You have drank Fire from the immortal potion.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
There is a truly ancient connection between serpents and esoteric plants that is universal in scope. Snakes crawl into the infernal regions and return and shed their skin in a bold display of rejuvenation. Serpents have mystical associations that inspire wonder and fear as they slither along the earth and herbs and disappear or strike, perhaps with deadly venom. Snake and serpent lore is immense and universal associations with magical, psychoactive or entheogenic plants abound. This paper will explore the context of snake and serpent legends with plants that become symbolic to a widespread “cult of immortality” as well as digressions on serpent-entheogen links.
One of the formative myths of the ancient world, The Epic of Gilgamesh, might well be the source of the legend of a plant of immortality that inspired many of the mysteries of the world’s religion. This Sumerian legend of man’s defiance of the gods and fear of mortality culminates in a desperate search for a magical plant of eternal life. The hero has lost his life comrade to death and he must quest far and wide to resurrect him by way of a magical herb. A serpent steals the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh whiles he bathes thus ending his quest in tragedy. Perhaps this old legend is the source for a tension between humanity and serpents and certainly this Sumerian myth is the precedent for the mischief in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden story, viewed outside the narrow confines of theological dogma, is a difficult myth to make sense of in terms of the relationship of serpents and mythical botany. God forbid the primordial pair to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and allowed them to partake of all others, apparently including the Tree of Life, which would give immortality (Gen 2:9 makes clear they are two different trees and only the former is forbidden). It is useless to speculate why the couple did not seize the fruit of the Tree of Life, other than that they had no knowledge of death and therefore where oblivious to a concept of eternal life. The paradox is that Adam and Eve would not know of death until they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil but the transgression would void the promise of eternal life possible in the Tree of Life. They are expelled expressly for the reason that they not be allowed to taste of the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22) as the knowledge of good and evil plus immortality made them too close to divinity for comfort for God. The serpent exploited this tension and tempts them towards the Tree of Knowledge of
Good and Evil thus ensuring they do not taste of eternal life and they are exiled from the garden. The collective ill-will in this region towards the snake can be understood with Jehovah’s curse: Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
The serpent or snake’s ability to shed its skin and to descend to chthonic regions renewed perhaps contributed to the supernatural and “crafty” (especially in a magic sense of skill or art) associations. As mentioned, in Genesis a serpent tricks Eve into eating of forbidden fruit (all of these immortal plants or forbidden fruits, magic herbs are possibly entheogens) which was to make them die suddenly. Instead, they are cursed and removed from the garden destined to toil on cursed land.
Certain Gnostics invert this scenario and see the serpent as a liberator from the tyrannical demiurge who withholds both knowledge and immortality (though if the serpent’s intentions were sincere he might have suggested the fruit of eternal life first). The effects of the plant seemed to have a strange effect, surely not the immediate death sentenced that was threatened. Steps had to be taken to ensure the humans did not taste of the other fruit: “Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever." Leaving these theological debates, kabbalists make much of brazen serpent that Moses is told to erect in the wilderness. Serpents become connected with healing in the New Testament such as in the book of Mark Chapter 16: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
John Allergro recasts much Biblical lore into an entheogenic context of secretive cults that used Amanita muscaria. Though his research is still highly controversial it is being validated, even vaguely plagiarized without credit in some instances. Allegro notes that Moses means “emergent snake” and while his mushroom associations may be speculative he certainly encountered a “burning bush” and the manna all of which have potential psychoactive associations. The bronze serpent (Nehushtan) hung by Moses on the cross derives from nachash “to hiss, to divine (as in prognosticate)” in merging relationships between prophetic power, snakes and psychoactive plants.
"Be ye therefore wise as Serpents"
Greek mythology contains much serpent lore and the recurring theme of serpents guarding possibly entheogenic fruits, this time golden apples such as occurs with Ladon coiled around a tree in the garden of Hesperides. The serpent coiled around the Staff of Asclepius (Æsclepius, Asklepios Asclepias may be derived from the Greek, askalabos, or serpent) partakes of this symbolism as does the Bowl of Hygieia that is full of potent pharmakon. Asclepius is said to have learned the plant of immortality from a snake he killed whose mate produced an herb that brought him back to life as mentioned below in other myths. The gods (especially Hades who depends on death for “business”) were said to be jealous of this power (in one myth he brings Orion back to life after a hunting accident) and as a consequence he is killed but Zeus raises him to the heavens and he
becomes the constellation Ophiuchus or Serpentarius , “the snake bearer” or celestial medicine man (in Arabic he is Rasalhague the Head of the Serpent Collector).
This constellation is associated with healing arts and magical plants and is the “13th constellation” of the Zodiac and the only constellation said to be based on an actual mortal. . Asclepius used snakes in healing rites and it became not only his emblem but also for magical power. Based on Imhotep and other such priest/profit/healers of a semidivine nature, cults arose consisting of oracular dreaming and therapeutics that revered snakes as medicinal creatures. The myth of Ophiuchus, like the myth of Eden, involves the knowledge of the potential immortality of humanity brought by a snake which is then thwarted by the gods.
Snakes holding the keys to plants of immortality are an often recurring theme such as with Polyidos, the wisest man in Lycia. He is shut up in a wine-cellar and forced to bring Glaucus (in other versions Asclepius brings Glaucus back to life when he drowns in a honey vat) back to life when he kills a snake that crawls into the cellar with a sword. Another snake appears and seeing its dead mate, returns with a herb of immortality and revives its mate. A similar occurrence transpires in the story of Moria and Tylos where Tylos is killed by a snake and revived when Moria watches another snake with a magical flowers or Dios Anthos (Flower of Zeus) that restores life. The Apples of Apollo: Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist by Ruck, Staples, and Heinrich goes into great
detail of the entheogenic legacies of Greek and Hebrew mystics and linking a shamanic legacy with most of the mythical plants and such strange enigmas as the golden fleece, which was guarded by a snake. In Norse mythology the giant serpent/dragon Nidhogg ('tearer of corpses') forever gnaws at the roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil. Some myths have Alexander the Great’s “serpent-father” Zeus Ammon visiting him in a dream to show him of a magical plant that will heal his wounded general (Cicero, De div. ii. 66, other versions have King Ptolemy having the vision and Alexander searches out the herb/root.) . In a myth that cross times, cultures and religions there is the association of Alexander the Great with Al-Khidir, the Islamic “green man” whose footprints spring up fragrant herbs. He is connected in the legend with a mystical spring of eternal life and in Arabic folktales he is often described as a “beast of snake” that lived in the hills. He is also linked in myth with the shamanic creature Al-Burak that was hidden in one of his mansions until the day Mohammed makes his Night Journey to Heaven. This is possibly an allusion to a shamanic plant or fungi, possibly Amanita muscaria as this plant as “thunder/lightning associations” abounding as noted by Wasson and Al-Burak means “lightning bolt” and transports him to a visionary heaven. Women, especially in their demonized form as witches, were always the keepers of magical plants and the secrets of botanical knowledge from agriculture to entheogens and medicine. Many depictions from Crete depict a “snake goddess” date to about 1600 BCE in representations that have spread throughout Europe with consistency. Feminine associations here embrace the snake as a power, potentially dangerous to the social order and yet strangely validating it as well. Devotion to female, chthonic divinities such as Hecate expand into legitimate but alternative folk religions that are only found in the
“Hidden Worlds” of European myths and legends. As scholars note, it was essentially a patriarchal or monotheistic culture which tended to demonize snakes, women and plants.
Hecate was an “Asian goddess” specifically, but the snake goddess mythos may have been universal and altered by time and context. As Ratsch notes, snakes grow in the garden of Hecate and are synonymous with her presence as well as with the ability to
prophesize. Ratsch discusses a myth of the smoke of the rotting corpse of the python, killed by Apollo, that induces the oracular trance of the Pythian oracle. This serpent was female, named Pythos, and encircled the omphalos at Delphi. Ratsch also relates of the witch Medea scooping up the vexing snakes at the beseeching of the people, in the manner of St. Patrick, but she seals them in her brother’s tomb. These ancient dark symbols of witchcraft and death echo from the female oracles of pagan Europe to the Kali and kundalini serpents cults of India and Asia.
The Vedic myth of the flood has Vishnu taking the form of tortoise (Kurma) to rescue the Soma ambrosia or Amrita. The gods placed Mount Mandara on the tortoise’s back and tied with the divine snake Vasuki who then acted as a rope to twirl the mountain, stirring the ocean and churning the waters until the ambrosia appeared. One variant of the legend has the serpent Vasuki drinking the nectar which splits him into two parts which become the constellations Rahu and Ketu which have a snake for a head and a human body and a human head/snake body respectively. The entheogenic Soma from India is described in the Rig Veda: “The plant soma is like a "red bull" (RV IX.97.13), but with a "dress of sheep" (RV IX. 70.7). It "creeps like a serpent out of its old skin" (RV IX.86.44).”
Indra was brought soma by the eagle Aquila in the epic battle with the serpent Vritra who was causing a drought having swallowed all the water. Indra drank the juice before battle and gained enough strength to split the water’s from the serpent’s belly and bring life into the world. Shiva is a master of esoteric herbalism and drugs (his magic water is Jalabesaja) and is usually depicted with a cobra around his neck. Dread-locked and with chillum he is ecstatic shamanic god constantly associated with magical plants, soma and magic waters. The snake-goddess Manasa, born of a thought from Rudra, protects a medicinal water (Manasa-sarovara) in the Kailasa where Shiva dwells. India is a land of water-snake cults and Nagas, huge serpent creatures that are always associated with magical plants, elixirs, herbs and alchemy.
Samudra manthan or the Churning of the Ocean producing the Soma And below, with cobra in dreadlocks,
Shiva is still associated with magical plants.
The symbolic associations of alchemy abound with snakes such as the serpent biting its tale, the Ouroboros. Alchemy is certainly on some level an encoded botanical code of entheogenic and medicinal recipes. Clark Heinrich’s work has made written of such associations and in a broader context of Tantra and Grail myths and other scholar’s have refined these connections and traced them around the world. Serpent, dragons and other reptiles are constant symbols in alchemical art and manuscripts. The Ripley Scroll, for example, has numerous allusions to a serpent:
Acetome of philosophers men call this A water abiding so it is The maidens milk of the dew That all the work doth renew The Serpent of life it is called also
On the ground there is a hill Also a serpent within a well His tail is long with wings wide All ready to flee by every side Repair the well fast about That thy serpent pass not out
For if that he be there a gone Thou lose the virtue of the stone
And finally: Omogeni is my Father And Magnesia is my Mother And Azot truly is my Sister And Kibrick forsooth is my Brother The Serpent of Arabia is my name The which is leader of all this game.
Perhaps the most interesting of serpentine plants is the Ayahuasca or Yage plant (Banisteriopsis caapi). The plant is a twisting vine that curls upon other trees like a snake. The origins of yage involve a It is used as a ritual entheogen and for medicine, divination, warfare, shamanic and diagnostic purposes throughout the Amazon. The snake symbolism is pervasive from shaman’s having snakes in their bodies to vast images of huge serpents in the visionary state. They often “eat” the yage drinker, or coil about like the DNA double helix, an observation discussed at length by Narby. Yage and tobacco are both linked to serpents and protective, shamanic applications and both, in some legends, are said to be born of snakes. The occurrence of snakes in ayahuasca visions is a cross-cultural phenomenon that seems to be a principle component of the plant made manifest in the session. The beautiful paintings of Pablo Amaringo have
many exquisite illustrations of the vast types of snakes that inhabit both the jungle and the visionary landscape of yage.
There are so many plants associated with snakes in this region that it would require a whole volume but one of the most memorable pictures from ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes was of a boy holding Culebra Borrachero or drunken snake (Methysticodendron amesianum). It is a type of tree datura cultivated by the Kamsá and Inga Indians f or intoxication.
The Aztecs used an entheogenic wine, Ololiuqui (also called coati xoxouhqui, "green snake") of which 17th century missionaries wrote, "Oliliuhqui, which some call coaxihuitl, or snake-plant, is a twinning herb with thin, green, cordate leaves, slender, green terete stems, and long white flowers. The seed is round and very like coriander." It was used for both visionary and shamanic healing sessions and its snake-like vines and flowers are found often in ceremonial art. Huichol tribes recognize the snake as the spirit
animal of the fire god Tatewari and associate the serpent with the peyote. Entheogenic detective Mark Hoffman III in his essay on Huichol wolf shamanism records from an unpublished manuscript some links with rattlesnakes: Kauymáli, still in the guise of the two deer, went to the sea and jumped in. He came out as little stones… The little stones went to a cliff near Santa Catarina. Here they remained at the place where the paraphernalia from the birthplace of the Sun was deposited. With them were five rattlesnakes. Another companion of theirs was the hiss-adder.
The Sun told the little stones, which were Kauymáli, to gather the saliva of the snakes. Kauymáli anointed himself with this stuff. There was also another rattlesnake, Táte Ipau (like the peyote dancing staff). From this snake Kauymáli bit off the rattles, anointing himself with the blood. He did this with all the snakes. Thus he became very sacred.
Snakes shedding their skin and curling around the earth and plants no doubt contribute the sacred associations between these creatures and holy plants. Marlene Dobkin de Rios, in her short article “On the Serpent Cult and Psychoactive Plants” concludes that perhaps it is the fear of the venom of snakes that is “a symbolic association for a second important theme—the comparative element of shamanism.” This also falls squarely into the realm of healing and sickness as much of the shamanic warfare is made manifest in illness and much of the healing in removing or countering
that attack. The serpentine qualities express the mercurial twilight between healer and warrior, life and death, poison and medicine, and immortality and oblivion. Beyond the “reborn” quality of the snake shedding its skin, scholars suggest that its goes beyond the death into an ego annihilation. This could be the creation of a new reality or rebirth outside the cultural norm or into an initiation beyond one’s “former social role.” Even a strict Calvinist might reason that snake’s sin in the garden created the opportunity for salvation, and Christ is hung on the cross in the snake’s stead, that the world may know of Divine grace. As the guardians of entheogenic plants the serpents tempt man into deeper realities and evolutions, bestowing upon him a more subtle immortality by transcending the earthly mystery that is physical death. This is the ultimate initiation, only hinted at in the chaotic dangers latent in the hierophants’ cup and temples.
“Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joy and felicities combine...”
Benzene, an apt metaphor: Solvent, Carcinogen from benzoin, the psychoactive incense as the “frankincense of Java” although used medicinally since early times. Benzoic acid was discovered from the alchemical sublimation of gum benzoin, which was first described by Nostradamus. Sometimes the snake comes into dreams, during that nightly death of sleep as with Friedrich Kekule who “discovered” the benzene ring while dreaming of dancing snakes that formed the ouroborus, a shape he remembered from a ring worn in a murder trial.
Sources and Further Reading: de Rios, MD; Mundkur, B. 1977. On the Serpent Cult and Psychoactive Plants. Current Anthropology. U of Chicago Press Ruck, C.A.P.; Staple, B.D.; Celdran, S.; Hoffman, M. 2007. The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales. Durham: Carolina Academic Press. Ruck, C.A.P.; Staples, B.D.; Heinrich, C., 2001. The Apples of Apollo: Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist. Durham: Carolina Academic Press. Muller-Ebling, C., Rasch, C. and W. Storl. 2003. Witchcraft Medicine. Vermont: Healing Arts Press. The Epic of Giglamesh, The Bible, The Rig Veda
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