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The Mysteries - snakebite and spirituality?

By Jasper Burns
(Copyright 2000)

FIGURE 1. Athenian Red-figured Ceramic
5th Century B.C.E., Staatliches Museum, Berlin

There has been a great deal of speculation about the nature of the spiritual experience in the so-called Mystery religions of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Despite an abundance of artistic and literary references, virtually nothing is known about their content. This is because a code of silence prohibited the participants from describing specific details.

In attempts to understand what went on, some writers have suggested that the use of hallucinogenic drugs was involved. Specifically, the use of opium (derived from poppies, which often appear in iconography associated with the Mysteries) and ergot (a fungus that grew on bread, which was used, for example, in the rites of Demeter) are suspected. The ancients did associate the medicinal and intoxicating powers of natural substances with certain deities (e.g. Dionysos was identified with and worshipped through the drinking of wine), so their mind-altering powers could certainly have been seen as spiritual gifts and incorporated into ritual.

Serpents are often associated with scenes of religious revelry. Worshippers of Dionysos and other deities are portrayed holding snakes as they dance in ecstasy. Sacred serpents, often bearded, appear with great frequency in ancient religious paintings, sculptures, and even on coins. In some pictures that show snakes being handled in a religious context (e.g. FIGURE 1) the worshippers are clearly being bitten. Is it possible that the mental effects of snakebite were understood by the ancients as genuine spiritual experiences, granted by the deities associated with these sacred animals?

Snakes were potent symbols to the ancient Greeks and Romans, associated with the moon, with the deeper mysteries of spiritual enlightenment, and with the powers of healing (the caduceus, consisting of one or a pair of snakes twined around a staff, is the symbol of the medical profession today). The explanation of FIGURE 1 presented by Joseph Campbell in his book, Transformations of Myth Through Time (Harper and Row, 1990), gives some insight into the meanings of initiation and the potency of snakes as spiritual symbols:

This beautiful thing from Athens is a fifth-century, red-figured ceramic piece, and it shows a woman initiating a man. Actually, in a marriage, woman is the initiator. She is the one closer to nature and what it's all about. He's just coming in for illumination. This becomes especially interesting because this is Thetis and Peleus, the mother and father of Achilles. So it is a marriage. Thetis was a beautiful nymph with whom Zeus fell in love... the text tells us that when he went to take her in marriage she transformed herself into a serpent, into a lion, into fire, into water, but he conquered her. Well, that's not what you see here at all. She has power that is symbolized in serpent and in lion.

Let me repeat the basic story of the sense of these two symbols. The serpent sheds its skin to be born again as the moon sheds its shadow to be born again. The serpent, therefore, like the moon, is a symbol of lunar consciousness. That is to say, life and consciousness, life energy and consciousness, incorporated in a temporal body-consciousness and life engaged in the field of time, of birth and death. The lion is associated with the sun. It is the solar animal. The sun does not carry a shadow in itself; the sun is permanently disengaged from the field of time and birth and death, and so it is absolute life. These two are the same energy, one disengaged, the other engaged. And the goddess is the mother personification of both energies.

One serpent is biting the youth between the eyes, opening the eye of inner vision, which sees past the display of the field of time and space. A second serpent is biting under the ear, opening the ear to the song of the music of the spheres, the music, the voice of the universe. The third serpent is biting the heel, the bite of the Achilles tendon, the bite of death. One dies to one's little ego and becomes a vehicle of the knowledge of the transcendent - becoming transparent to transcendence. That was the sense of the initiations that we have been reading about...

The venom of cobras, which seems to be the kind of snake most often depicted, is neurotoxic, effecting the nervous system rather than the circulatory system. (Rattlesnakes, used in religious ceremonies by Native Americans and some Christians in the southern Appalachian Mountains, have hemotoxic venom and very painful bites.) The following account of a nonfatal cobra bite is by the late herpetologist Carl Kauffeld in his book Snakes: The Keeper and the Kept (Doubleday and Co., 1969):

As I brought my hand up to free the rostral shield with thumb and forefinger I must have hooked the snake's right fang into the base of my thumb on the inside. I felt not so much as a pinprick of pain, possibly because of the analgesic nature of cobra venom. The first indication I had that anything was amiss was a trickle of blood running down my hand... a tingling began in my arms, and a pins-and-needles sensation in my lips, which I interpreted correctly as the onslaught of the classic neurotoxic symptoms of cobra envenomation. I had no pain or swelling at the site of the wound...

(After 6 or 8 minutes) I was beginning to lose awareness. I was sinking into a state that could not be called unconciousness, but one in which I was no longer aware of what was going on about me. My gaze was fixed on the end of the keeper's alley, and the walls, floor, and ceiling gradually darkened and enclosed, more and more, a square of light at the far end of the corridor. I felt no anxiety; I felt no pain; it did not even strike me as strange that the darkness was closing in on the light. I am certain that I did not lose consciousness entirely at any time; I only felt a complete and utter lassitude in which nothing seemed to matter - not at all unpleasant, if this is the way death comes from cobra poisoning.

Could it be that snakebites were administered during religious ceremonies in controlled doses, perhaps even moderated by antivenins? Where Dr. Kauffeld became transfixed by the light at the end of corridor, one can imagine the effects of focusing on a religious symbol in such a state of mind! Sacred snakes where reportedly fed with milk by the ancients, a practice often shown in art. What might the effect of a milk diet have been on the potency of snake venom? Perhaps it was rendered less dangerous in this way.

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