PART THREE: THE SERPENT AND THE STAR
The Dragon guarding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The Wyrm guarding the Golden Fleece. Vasuki coiled around Mount Mandara churning the sea. Níðhöggr gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil. The Serpent in the Tree of Knowledge. To these stories we might add the Taoist legend of a Dragon guarding a Tree bearing immortality-granting peaches. We could look towards Mesoamerica, halfway across the world, where the Mayans spoke of a Tree that united Heaven and Earth, the "Vision Serpent" lurking in its highest branches. Or we could look to ancient Sumer, where the goddess Inanna planted a Huluppu Tree and set a Serpent to guard it. The Serpent, the Dragon, coiled around a cosmic center is spoken of around the globe.
But of course, this is a story written in the stars.
Ancient peoples depended on the night sky. The heavens served as their calendar, telling them went to plant and harvest, when to hunt, when to migrate. The stars were their compass and their map. The night was a repository for the legends and fables of the people, with tales of gods and heroes recorded in the planets and constellations. Most significantly for our purposes here, the heavens were also the gateway to the Underworld, the hidden realm of the spirit. The power of life and death was hidden there.
It might seem counterintuitive to associate the heavens with the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, but consider: all the stars and constellations, the planets, the Moon and the Sun, rise in the East and set in the West. For the ancients, this setting was a descent into the Underworld. All the occupants of the heavens, when not traveling across the sky, were understood to spend an equal amount of time traveling across the Underworld. In an endless cycle, the stars and planets were born, lived, died, and then were reborn after a sojourn in the realm of the Dead.
And the Serpent--who shed his old skin and renewed himself--was the Lord of the Underworld.
Because, really, not all the stars rise and fall. In the Northern Hemisphere, the entire dome of Heaven seems to revolve around a single center, the Pole Star. The Cosmic Tree, or Mountain, is nothing less than this, the axis mundi, the hub around which all of creation turns. In physical terms, we are talking the celestial or geographic pole, but for ancient peoples it was much more than this. The axis mundi was the center of the world, a magical place at the crossroads of North, South, East, and West. Like the trunk of a Tree, all of creation was understood to grow from this mystic center. It was the heart and origin of the universe. Of it, the great scholar of comparative religions, Mircea Eliade, wrote;
We have a sequence of religious conceptions and cosmological images that are inseparably connected and form a system that may be called the "system of the world" prevalent in traditional societies: (a) a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; (b) this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible (from heaven to earth and vice versa; from earth to the underworld); (c) communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar (cf. the universalis columna), ladder (cf. Jacob's ladder), mountain [Meru in India, Haraberazaiti in Iran, Gerizim in Palestine], tree, vine, etc.; (d) around this cosmic axis lies the world (= our world), hence the axis is located "in the middle," at the "navel of the earth"; it is the Center of the World...
The Tree, the Mountain, the Crossroads, are all cognate symbols of the axis mundi, the Hub of the Cosmos. Seen from above, the picture is clear. The Pyramid (a symbol of the cosmic Mountain) and the Tree both become Crossroads. These then are really a Wheel, the Dome of Heaven turning around a center.
This is why the axis mundi is understood to be the "crossroads" of the universe, where the realms of flesh and spirit, the living and the dead, come together. It is the axel that turns the Wheel of Time, the cycle of the seasons, of Death and Rebirth. While other stars rise and fall, the Pole Star sits eternal at the center, reigning over them all. This is why the Tree is associated with sovereignty, with life and death, with power.
Andrew Chumbley, author of such texts as the Azoetia and the Dragon Book of Essex, writes on the subject;
the word 'Qutub' (rendered as the tri-literal root QTB) is interpreted as meaning 'The Great Magnetic Centre', or 'The Axis' - the Point of Universal Centrality. This focus of existence is identified with the concept of the Logos and with the Soul of the Perfected Human Being (Insani Kamil). It is also cognate, in sidereal terms, with the Pole-star of the Age and thus with the Hub of the Universe. We may therefore consider 'Qutub' to be a term equivalent with the Mystical Absolute of Being: I.
Andrew Chumbley, "Qutub"
By going forth through the Gateway of the Cross'd-Roads the aspirant meets face-to-face the Catena of the Mighty Dead, not only those of his own metempsychotic lineage, but all Kindred of Our Arte to which he is bound by the Covenant of descent from the First Initiate. He enters the Circle of the Living and the Dead to dance in co-eval rings of moments, days and epochs, hand-in-hand with Gods, Beasts, Men and things of Spirit and Flesh as yet unnamed. This Vision is that of the Great Sabbat — the Prototype or 'Form' of Magical Quintessence from which all magical rites and practices take their pattern...
Andrew Chumbley, "Gnosis for the Flesh Eternal"
At the Crossroads--the Tree--the Heart of the Universe is reached. Here the realms collide, men can become kings, and kings can become gods. And the Guardian of this terrible power is the Serpent...because coiled around the Pole Star, the axis mundi, there for all to see, is the constellation Draco.
While other constellations can be seen only at certain times of the year, the Dragon is always visible, there in the northern night skies. He turns nightly around the cosmic center, circling it, the Watcher and Lord of the Crossroads. This makes the Dragon the embodiment of its powers.
Of course, Draco is not the only circumpolar constellation. Why don't the legends talk about Ursa Major and Minor, Camelopardalis, or Lynx? The answer is simple; the star Thuban (Arabic for "snake"), also known as Alpha Draconis, was the Pole Star from 3942 BC to 1793 BC. This is the period when the Great Pyramid of Giza--itself a model of the "cosmic mountain"--was built. It may be that the "air shaft" in this pyramid, leading to the King's Chamber, was intentionally aligned so that Thuban's light shone down it, playing a role in the immortality of the Pharaoh. Due to the precession of the Earth's rotational axis, the Pole Star moved from Thuban to Kappa Draconis around 1793 BC, yet another star in Draco. This means that from 3942 BC to about 1000 BC, the Pole Star was in Draco. The Dragon was the center of the cosmos, the bridge between worlds.
But what of his sinister aspect? The Serpent's associations with the Underworld, with immortality and secret wisdom are clear, but what is it that fills the profane with dread?
The North is the one place the Sun never enters, at least not in the Northern Hemisphere. It rises in the East, journeys on an arc through the South, and sets in the West. The North remains untouched by it, a place of darkness. In addition, if you face the rising Sun, the North falls at your Left Hand, with all the "sinister" associations that come with it. The Old English norð come from the Proto-Germanic *nurtha- and earlier from the Indo-European *ner-, a term that means "left," as well as "below" (think of nether and north). It is related to the Sanskrit narakah ("hell") and the Greek enerthen "from beneath." The same pattern of associating the North with the Left Hand and the Underworld underlies the Old Irish tuath "left; northern" and Arabic shamal "left hand; north." Language itself associates the North with darkness, with the Left Hand, with the Underworld. The Dragon, as Lord of the North Star, picks up these associations as well.
The result is a fearsome guardian, a psychopomp of shadowy aspect and terrible power.
In terms of numerical symbolism and the Kabbalah, the Pole Star naturally assumes the role and properties of One, or Kether. It is Unity, the underlying foundation and structure of existence. The Center of All. It is the exact point in the Crossroads where the paths cross and become One.
As the Guardian of the Crossroads, the Dragon is associated with Two, the Dyad, and the sephiroth Chokmah. This gives us important insight into its nature. If One is Unity, then Two is Opposition. It is Polarity and Division. Divide. Dual. Devil. It is the Shadow to the Light. The Night to the Day. Aleister Crowley associated it with Chaos is his theogony, which is to say the Great Beast that consorts with Babalon, a relationship Crowley symbolized by the Lion Serpent, Teth.
This is another draconic image, which immediately recalls the shape of Draco itself. For Crowley, this Dragon is actually "higher" than the One. We must recall the formula essential to his Thelema, 2 = 0. The Dyad, the Opposite, is the key to attainting the very highest. He describes our Dragon as;
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...
For Crowley, Unity is unchanging and static. You cannot transcend it because it cannot transcend itself. Zero, nirvana, the Ain, is the transcendent reality and it can only be attained by Opposition (-n + n = 0). In short, to attain a transcendent state, one must confront the Opposer, the Dragon. This is how Marduk made himself ruler of the gods; he fought Tiamat. It is how the Hebrew god Yahweh did as well, as he boasts in Job 41.
Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
...Who dares open the doors of its mouth,
ringed about with fearsome teeth?
Its back has rows of shields
tightly sealed together;
each is so close to the next
that no air can pass between.
They are joined fast to one another;
they cling together and cannot be parted.
Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth....
Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
These boasts do not make sense for the Almighty Creator of the Universe to be making. If this were the case, Yahweh would simply be beating up on a creature He Himself created. But they do make sense in the context of facing the Dragon to reach a transcendent state. In this, the Hebrew god was no different from Jason or Heracles.
Unity and Division, One and Two, are two-thirds of the Trinity that defines the Circle of Heaven (the Point, the Radius, and the Circumference). In out next installment, we will be looking at the third defining member of the formula, the Woman who manifests in these tales as the Norns, the Nymphs, the Sorceress.
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