The Serpent Symbol in Tradition by Dr. Charles William Dailey
I have read Dr. Charles William Daily’s excellent book The Serpent Symbol in Tradition – A Study of Traditional Serpent and Dragon Symbolism, Based in Part Upon the Concepts and Observations of René Guénon, Mircea Eliade, and Various Other Relevant Researchers. At 572 pages, with quite technical language, reading the book is a bit of a time investment. The author himself states, in the dedications, that his writing style is ‘stodgy’. I would not necessarily say it is stodgy, but rather, again, technical, and perhaps not as free-flowing as other works I have read. However, this is not a negative aspect in this context, as the style of writing makes the sometimes complex insights easier to understand. Another way in which the author emphasises certain points is to repeat insights in different contexts, which makes the Perennial aspects of various symbols clearer. The book contains a wealth of valuable insights. Below are just a few (among many) topics I thought to share.
René Guénon and Mircea Eliade
As stated in the subtitle of the book, the author draws upon the teachings of France’s René Guénon (1886–1951) and Romania’s Mircea Eliade (1907–1986). In the introduction of the book, the author gives a good background to each gentleman. Knowing a bit more about an author is good to better understand his worldview. For example, Guénon was fragile of health as a child, which might have caused him to view the contemplation of the Priest/Brahman as higher than the action of the Warrior/Kshatriya (which we have discussed in previous reviews). Guénon, alongside Julius Evola, is an authority on matters of Tradition and spirituality. He wrote numerous works which we are bound to return to as we continue on our esoteric journey.
Eliade, as described in the introduction of the book was a highly productive writer – celebrating with his friends his one-hundreth published article at the age of eighteen. He wrote many influential works, including Patterns in Comparative Religion (which is referenced in Taliesin’s Map, which I wrote a review of: Taliesin’s Map: The Comparative Guide to Celtic Mythology). He also wrote articles and book-length treatments on alchemy, approaching the subject as a spiritual doctrine (in a similar fashion to Evola). Reading about the productivity of men like this is inspiring and makes me want to set an even higher pace for myself – in this case to commence the writing of my second book (which I will talk more about at a later stage). Just as we will return to Guénon, we will return to Eliade in coming articles.
Pictured below: Mircea Eliade (left) and René Guénon (right).
Metaphysics and the Neoplatonic One
The author notes that for Guénon, metaphysics ‘is essentially knowledge of the Universal’, and that he makes a distinction between the Universal (Platonic Forms) and the Particulars. He also points out that Eliade views Platonic metaphysics as an expression of Tradition.
For Guénon, all religions are merely particular manifestations of the one metaphysical doctrine (Tradition*) that mingled with heterogenous elements – Particulars (thus creating differences). The author gives an example from Guénon’s Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, where Guénon notes that Bhakti Yoga is not in itself a metaphysical doctrine, but merely one expression of Tradition. According to Guénon, the serpent or dragon in Tradition symbolises ‘the indefinite series of cycles of manifestation.’
Note: when Tradition is spelled with a capital T, it denotes this view (also known as Perennialism), as opposed to a specific tradition that is not Universal.
The author contends that the metaphysical Principle (a reoccurring concept) of Guénon can be seen as the equivalent of the Neoplatonic One. The author shares the following quote from the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (204–270 CE):
‘The Intellectual-Principle stands as the image of The One, firstly because there is a certain necessity that the first should have its offspring, carrying onward much of its quality, in other words that there be something in its likeness as the sun’s rays tell of the sun. Yet The One is not an Intellectual-Principle.’Plotinus – The Six Enneads
The Serpent Guardian of Enlightenment
In chapter 14, the author notes that in certain myths (Herakles and the Golden Apples, for example) the serpent or dragon symbolises something that may be two opposing alternatives:
1. Achieving enlightenment/immortality/moksha (moksha is a Hindu concept of enlightenment or liberation).
2. An obstacle to (or a guardian of) enlightenment/immortality/moksha.
As we have noted in previous reviews, a hero with the power to subjugate the Dragon (Living Fire, ύλη (matter), Green Dragon, Quintessence, First Substance, Great Magical Agent) can use its powers to fuel his ascent to greatness.
A symbol that may be familiar is the Caduceus, the Rod of Hermes (in Roman: Mercury). The author states the following in regard to its meaning:
‘I suggest that Hermes’/Mercury’s rod represents the ‘unity’ of the metaphysical ‘Principle’ that is ‘surrounded by’ its ‘polarization’ into two forces, one of which ‘ascends’ toward its unifying Source and the other of which ‘descends’ into the realm of ‘duality’ (‘chaos’).’Dr. Charles William Daily – The Serpent Symbol in Tradition
Aryan Patriarchy and the Earth Mother
The Magna Mater, the Great Mother, the Earth Goddess, whom we have discussed before (for example here: The Yoga of Power by Julius Evola), appears in this book as well. The author notes that one interpretation (subscribed to by Joseph Cambell among others) of certain combat myths is the struggle between Indo-Europeans and the peoples they conquered. The celestial, patriarchal Indo-Europeans representing Order versus the chthonic, matriarchal natives representing Chaos. In Greece the Aryan (Hellenic) Zeus defeats a monster to establish a new social order. In India the Aryan (Vedic) god Indra does the same.
‘Every god has his enemy, whom he must vanquish and destroy. Zeus and Baal, Coyote and Ahura Mazda, Thor and the Lord of Hosts, are alike in this: that each must face a dreadful antagonist. Apollo’s enemy was the great dragon Python, whom he had to fight and kill before he could establish his temple and oracle at Delphi.’Joseph Fontenrose – Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins
Guénon and Eliade do not view the use of symbolic weapons (such as the thunderbolt) and the vanquishing of serpentine antagonists in these socio-political terms, but rather as a manifestation of the metaphysical Principle in the physical world. I am not yet wise enough to give a definitive statement upon this, but it is reasonable to say that certain myths may pertain to a struggle between peoples and other similar myths regard the struggle of the individual for immortality or enlightenment (subjugating the dragon) – as mentioned above.
Thunderweapons and the Axis Mundi
Thor, Apollo, Zeus, Indra, and Marduk amongst other gods and heroes are often depicted as wielding thunderweapons (or variations thereof) in their battles against their monstrous (serpent or dragon) adversaries. The use of these weapons can be seen as harnessing of the power of Heaven. According to both Guénon and Eliade, these weapons can be representative of the Axis Mundi (the World Axis). The World Axis can be described as the metaphysical (transcendent) Reality at the centre of the universe.
Pictured below: Thor wielding the thunderweapon Mjölner.
Chinese Dragon-Emperor and the Axis Mundi
The author elaborates on the sacred symbolism of the dragon in Chinese tradition. He argues that the Far-Eastern Dragon did not symbolise the Chinese Emperor himself, but rather represented that which the Emperor controlled. The Emperor was a mediator between Heaven and Earth (a bridge between them), a controller of the Water – which is symbolically synonymous with the Dragon (for more regarding the Water, read this review: Julius Evola and the UR Group – Introduction to Magic: Volume 1 under the heading Knowledge of the Waters).
Guénon noted that for the Chinese people, traditionally, the Emperor symbolised the Axis Mundi.
Ouroboros – Anima Mundi – The Soul of the World
In chapter 9 of the book, the author refers to, amongst other works, Julius Evola’s The Hermetic Tradition (read my book review here: The Hermetic Tradition by Julius Evola). He elaborates on the Ouroboros, which may be a familiar symbol to many, and connects it to the Anima Mundi – the Soul of the World. Carl Gustav Jung defined the Anima Mundi as ‘the oneness and essence of the physical world’ and, moreover, stated that:
‘the Anima Mundi was conceived as that part of God which formed the quintessence and real substance of Physis [nature].’Carl Gustav Jung – Mysterium Coniunctionis
Guénon noted that:
‘as symbol of the Anima Mundi, the serpent is most commonly depicted in the circular form of the Ouroboros.’René Guénon – The Great Triad
Evola noted the following:
‘the alchemical ideogram of “One the All,” is O, the circle: a line or movement that encloses within itself and contains in itself both its end and beginning. In Hermeticism this symbol expresses the universe and, at the same time, The Great Work [of alchemy]. In the Chrysopoeia it takes the form of a serpent – Ouroboros – biting its own tail.’Julius Evola – The Hermetic Tradition
I asked Styxhexenhammer666 (the free-speech champion) about his having the Ourobos as an avatar, whereupon he responded: ‘I use the Ouroboros as a symbol of completion and whole-ness. The snake is a cycle, which completes, winding and undulating and changing but always whole.’
Note: in the book, the author writes ourobos and anima mundi. I use my poetic powers to rewrite them as Ourobos and Amina Mundi – I capitalise them for aesthetic reasons.
In chapter 13, under the title The Serpent, the Mountain, the Omphalos, and Sacred Stones, the author continues the discussion on the Axis Mundi. He notes that for Guénon, the ‘Tree in the Midst’ (or the ‘Polar Mountain’) is a common variant of the World Axis – Axis Mundi – that symbolises the metaphysical Principle in the art and myth of various cultures. The Yggdrasil of Norse myth comes to mind here. Guénon listed Montsalvat as such a Polar Mountain. Montsalvat features in the work of Otto Rahn and his quest for the Grail (read my review here: Crusade Against the Grail by Otto Rahn). Mircea Eliade said the following:
‘Mountains are often looked on as the place where sky and earth meet, a “central point” therefore, the point through which the Axis Mundi goes, a region impregnated with the sacred, a spot where one can pass from one cosmic zone to another.’Mircea Eliade – Patterns in Comparative Religion
Pictured below: The ruins of a Cathar castle – Château de Peyrepertuse – in France, near the Pyrenees, where the semi-mythical Montsalvat is said to be (which exact mountain Montsalvat is remains unknown).
Below are two quotes I found particularly appealing. Whenever I share certain quotes – which I titled as epic – I do so not only to provide a deeper understanding of the subject at hand, but more so to invoke a feeling. The quotes below should be felt rather than read. This will, hopefully, inspire a hunger for life that will fuel your quest for excellence.
‘Muchalinda, a prodigious cobra, dwelt amongst the roots. He perceived, as soon as the Buddha had passed into the state of bliss, that a great storm cloud had begun to gather, out of season. Thereupon he issued quietly from the black abode [of the hole that he dwelt in] and with the coils of his body enveloped seven times the blessed body of the Enlightened One; with the expanse of his giant snake-hood he sheltered as an umbrella the blessed head. Seven days it rained, the wind blew cold, the Buddha remained in meditation. But on the seventh, the unseasonable storm dispersed; Muchalinda unloosed his coils, transformed himself into a gentle youth, and with joined hands to his forehead bowed in worship of the saviour of the world.’Heinrich Zimmer – Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
‘Nagas are genii superior to man. They inhabit subaquatic paradises, dwelling at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and seas, in resplendent palaces studded with gems and pearls. They are keepers of the life-energy that is stored in the earthly waters of springs, wells, and ponds. They are the guardians, also, of the riches of the deep sea – corals, shells, and pearls. They are supposed to carry a precious jewel in their heads.’Heinrich Zimmer – Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization
Quetzalcóatl – the Plumed Serpent – is mentioned in the book. Mesoamerican lore portrays Quetzalcóatl as a great educator and civiliser. In the Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica, Quetzalcóatl is said to have ‘revolutionised Toltec society, banning human sacrifices, corruption and cruelty.‘ Perhaps some Aryan adventurers landed in Central America in ancient times and established themselves as a ruling caste. I will not speculate further on the matter at this stage, but for those who are interested, I recommend watching the following video by Asha Logos: Conspiracy? Our Subverted History, Part 5.3 – The Oera Linda Book. Note, I do not personally subscribe to the legitimacy of the Oera Linda Book, but the video linked is worth watching.
As stated in the introduction, The Serpent Symbol in Tradition contains a wealth of insights and is well worth the time investment. On a personal note, reading it now fitted perfectly in relation to the other books I have read (and written book reviews on) as of late. For anyone interested in metaphysics and myth, I can highly recommend the book!