"This is the meaning of that passage; they are attempts to interpret Chaos, but Chaos is Peace... Blackness, blackness intolerable, before the beginning of the light. This is the first verse of Genesis. Holy art thou, Chaos, Chaos, Eternity, all contradictions in terms!... But when the balances are equal, scale matched with scale, then will Chaos return."
- Aleister Crowley
PART ONE: THE SERPENT IN THE TREE
The story is always the same.
The setting of the tale is a Tree; not just any Tree, but something of cosmic significance. Sometimes, this Tree supports the entire cosmos. It is the Axis Mundi, with its crown in Heaven and its roots in Hell. Sometimes the Tree is located at the center of the world. Sometimes it is in a timeless garden, a Paradise beyond the eyes of men.
In the branches of the Tree there hangs a Prize, something that can elevate human beings to a higher state of being. Perhaps the Prize is immortality; perhaps it is divinely ordained kingship; perhaps is forbidden knowledge. Whatever the case, the Prize is always transformative and life changing.
And it is guarded.
There is a Serpent in this Tree, a Dragon, a Wyrm. It is a cunning Trickster, a deadly Adversary. Those who dare to come to the Tree must be tested, and pass, if they wish to claim the Prize.
Connected with both the Tree and the Serpent is the Woman. She is, somehow, the solution to the Test. The only way to claim the Prize, and avoid the venom of the Serpent, is have her on your side. If not, the Tree and the Serpent will destroy you.
In the Poetic Edda the Tree is Yggdrasil:
There stands an ash called Yggdrasil,
A mighty tree showered in white hail.
From there come the dews that fall in the valleys.
It stands evergreen above Urd’s Well.
From there come maidens, very wise,
Three from the lake that stands beneath the pole.
One is called Urd, another Verdandi,
Skuld the third; they carve into the tree
The lives and destinies of children.
Here the Cosmic Tree is associated with not one but three Women, the Norns, or weavers of Fate. It grows above the Well of Urd (Wyrd, or "Destiny"), and coiled around its roots lies the dragon Níðhöggr. Odin comes here seeking Forbidden Knowledge, the Runes. The Norns assign him a terrible ordeal. For nine days and nine nights he must hang crucified to the Tree, his side pierced by a spear, staring down into the depths of Urd. He is, in this way, gefinn Óðni, "given to Odin," sacrificed to himself. Surviving from this ordeal the Runes transform him;
Then I was fertilized and became wise;
I truly grew and thrived.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.
In ancient Greece the location of the Tree was in Colchis, and in its branches hung the fabled Golden Fleece (χρυσόμαλλον δέρας). This wondrous object came from the same mythical ram preserved amongst the stars as the constellation Aries. For the Egyptians this constellation was the ram-headed god Amon-Ra, lord of fertility and kingship, and associated with the Vernal Equinox and the reborn sun.
For the hero Jason, winning the Golden Fleece meant attaining kingship. But the Tree containing the Fleece was guarded by a sleepless Dragon, and could not be approached without certain death. The solution to his problem was the divine-blooded sorceress Medea, granddaughter of the Sun. Winning her love, she used her powers to lull the Dragon to sleep. Jason claimed the Fleece and took Medea as his queen.
Also in Greek mythology we find the Garden of the Hesperides, the three "Nymphs of the West" or "Daughters of the Evening." This Garden was in the extreme west of the world, near the gates of the setting sun. In the center of this idyllic paradise stood a Tree, and it bore golden apples that bestowed immortality (intriguingly, it is also from this Tree that the golden apple of Eris comes, the cause of the Trojan War). Guarding this Tree was the hundred-headed Dragon Ladon (Λάδων), which Hyginus in his Astronomy associates with the constellation Draco. It is significant that Draco, also associated with Typhon and thus the Egyptian Set, coils around the North Star, the Pole around which the heavens turn. Ladon is also associated with Canaanite Dragon Lotan, known to their Hebrew neighbors as Leviathan.
To win the apples of immortality, the hero Heracles tricks the titan Atlas, and in some accounts later slays Ladon.
It should be noted here that in Irish mythology, specifically The Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain), golden apples (on a silver bough) are necessary to enter the Otherworld:
To enter the Otherworld before the appointed hour marked by death, a passport was often necessary, and this was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms.
Also, in Norse mythology the golden apples of Iðunn, (“The Rejuvenating One”), are the source of divine immortality.
A more distant deviation of the tale lies East, in India. Here the "Churning of the Ocean" ( समुद्रमन्थन) appears in such sources as the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas, as well as the Mahabharata. In this tale, Indra (the thunderbolt-wielding king of the gods related to other Indo-European deities such as Zeus and Thor), offends a sage and is thus cursed to lose Sri. Sri is "Fortune," the power of "Fate" or "Destiny." She is personified as a goddess, the consort of Vishnu, and union with Sri is necessary to be a king. Having lost his associated with this goddess, Indra and the gods (devas) are challenged and defeated by the demonic asuras.
To win his kingdom back, Indra is advised by Vishnu to deceive the asuras with the promise of amrita. Amrita is the divine nectar of immortality, perhaps connected to the legendary soma, a beverage consumed to access other worlds and planes of existence. Vishnu comes up with a plan that will trick the asuras and win back Sri for the devas.
It is no simple task. To obtain amrita the gods must churn the oceans. To do this, they use Mount Mandara, a cosmic peak or Axis Mundi which here stands in for the Tree. The Mountain is the churning rod. They coil around this the great King of Serpents Vasuki, who normally lies around the neck of Shiva. Vasuki serves as the churning rope. The asura are tricked into taking Vasuki by the head, the devas take him by the tail...as a consequence the asuras are poisoned and burned by the venom of the Serpent. In the churning, not only is amrita produced, by the goddess Sri reappears to bestow rightful kingship on Indra once more.
The substitution of a Mountain for a Tree need not trouble us here. Both are symbols of the Axis Mundi, the Pole around which the world turns, with roots in Hell and a crown in the Heavens. As well shall see, both the Tree and the Cosmic Mountain are associated with yet another manifestation of the same idea, the Crossroads.
Yet before we abandon the Tree, we must consider the Biblical version of the tale.
It has all the elements now familiar to us; we have a paradisal garden, a Cosmic Tree bearing a Prize, a Serpent, and a Woman. As was the case with the Hesperides, the garden is the property of a god.
There are deviations, of course. In this case we find two Trees, one bearing the Prize of Forbidden Knowledge, the other, the Prize of Immortality. Other versions tended to select one or the other.
But the greatest deviation, the one that turns the entire fable on its head, is that we have no Hero.
Odin, Jason, Hercules, Indra...these are figures who come to the Tree to test themselves. Adam, by contrast is tested. He is a reluctant figure, a hapless lab rat. There is nothing noble, nothing virile, about him. The latter term is used with precision; "virile" like "virtue" has its roots in the Latin vir "a man, a hero," from the Indo-European root wi-ro- "a freeman." Adam is not a freeman, he is a slave. He never has a chance to truly conquer the Tree. It was a loyalty test to tempt him into disobedience.
Adam does not come to the Tree of his own volition. He does not enlist the aid of the Woman to defeat the Serpent and take the Prize. Instead, the Serpent uses the Woman to tempt him. In the end, all are punished by the one running the game.
This break with nearly every other version of the story is significant to the development of Witchcraft in the Abrahamic world. Because the entire myth of the Tree is about challenging Fate and rising above your Station. This freedom is forbidden in Judaism, Islam, and Christendom, where God and God alone determines a person's Fate.
To challenge that decree, to dare to approach the Tree, is Satanic.
Continued in Part Two
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