(19) Hic Sunt Serpentes

The Codex script is apparently divided into chapters, probably fourteen. The ambiguity comes from the difference between various supposed dividers. Whereas one is very elaborate

some are slightly embellished,

others are mere lines of uncertain function,

or something that could be either a box, a divider or both.

But the ones that really caught my attention are the snakes. Seven of them:

For our modern sensibilities, this looks like an odd choice for a book with Christian content.The meek lamb, the noble horse, the loyal dog. Man not only named the animals, man has a definite and sometimes simplistic opinion on the animals. Where does the snake stand?

This is my personal opinion about all snakes:

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Such campaigns are unfortunately necessary because we live in a culture that loathes snakes. From the Bible to Harry Potter, these slithering creatures are the sign of evil, darkness and cunning. They are irrationally feared and, among the most common phobias, fear of snakes is in top ten, only one other animal being capable of inspiring comparable dread. The Giant Panda. Of course not, it is the spider.  However, these phobias are very likely culturally induced.

In Abrahamic religions, the snake is the tempter who offered knowledge of good and evil to Adam and Eve but failed to offer immortality as well, becoming the symbol of deception and the reminder of Paradise lost.

The snakes in Codex from Rohonc drew my attention and resonated with the faint memory of a dark novel by Lawrence Durrell I read many years ago, the first one from the Avignon Quintet (note to myself: I should read the other four too). The image of a huge serpent coiled on a throne in a black room lurks in my memory. The characters in the novel are Gnostics and for some of the Gnostics the serpent that seduced Eve gave humanity access to knowledge of a greater spirituality, thus being a positive force. He is the symbol of rebellion against the material world, and in his portrayal with the tail in his mouth he represents the spirituality that encircles and dominates the material world. Further on, the Gnostics believe pleasure was gifted along with knowledge, as the snake literally seduced both Eve and Adam, deflowering them and introducing them to sexual life. This so well matches Freud’s interpretation of snakes in dreams as phallic symbols.

And because I mentioned Freud, here is C.G. Jung’s take on the subject. For him, snakes are the wisdom of nature. Their waving motions show how things should be done, “for the too direct way is not the best way”.  In his “The Unconscious as Multiple Consciousness”, Jung makes a reference to Ignatius of Loyola. The founder and first Superior General of the Order of Jesus (the Jesuits), reveals in his autobiography that, during a long illness, he had several times the vision of a luminous snake with thousand eyes, a vision that offered him much solace. Nevertheless, he eventually identified it with the devil as opposed to the vision of a bright sun-like disk that hovered in front of his eyes in which he recognized Christ.

In some of the churches in the American Appalachian Mountains a bizarre (and even illegal) practice that started in the 1930s survives to these days. The church attendants show the strength of their faith by confronting evil with their bare hands. And the evil is…rattlesnakes.

Snake handling at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Kentucky, 1946, photo by Russell Lee from Wikipedia

Snake handling at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Kentucky, 1946, photo by Russell Lee from Wikipedia

They base their practice on a literal interpretation of a line in Mark’s Gospel (here is why they do it and why they shouldn’t do it, a comprehensive article, and the Snake Handlers’ own site, it looks snaky).

The Slytherin House didn’t produce only villains and outlaws.Two ancient gods and their respective emblems made their way into Medieval Europe and survived and thrived up to present days as health related symbols.

The two coiled serpents on the caduceus of Hermes (or Mercury) together with the rod and the wings represent the god, the planet and the metal (quicksilver).

Hermes carrying a caduceus in each hand - from The Ambrosia Society

Hermes carrying a caduceus in each hand – from The Ambrosia Society

Hermes is the patron god of occult knowledge, hence his patronage over alchemists, but also over merchants, travelers, public speakers and thieves. Nowadays, in USA he is also the symbol of the medical profession.

I have absolutely no right to use this. But it looks so cool.(I have absolutely no right to use this. But it looks so cool.)

The ancient God of medicine, Asclepios, also carries a rod with one coiled snake whose primary meaning is related to health and healing. His ability to renew itself by shedding his skin made him the symbol of rejuvenation. He is related to life and death, sickness and health, just as the healer or physician in his work.

But for centuries, the snake was not only the symbol of medicine. He was the medicine.

Bowl of Hygeia with coiled serpent in pharmacy window. And me.

Bowl of Hygeia with coiled serpent in pharmacy window. And me.

The flesh of the poisonous viper was the key ingredient of theriac, the panacea described in the second century AD by Galen. The preparation started with four vipers cut into small pieces, continued with boiling the pieces in wine, maceration with 55 herbs, powdering, mixing with copper, bitumen and beaver secretion. Opium was added. The entire process took about 40 days. But it was not ready. Not yet. It took another twelve years for maturation. But once it was ready, it could cure everything, from poisoning to bubonic plague. Of course, if it did not work, the manufacturer did something wrong. The faith in the all-healing powers of theriac started to fade only in the 18th century, when William Heberden wrote a venomous pamphlet against:” this medley of discordant simples . . .made up of a dissonent crowd collected from many countries, mighty in appearance, but in reality, an ineffective multitude that only hinder one another”.  And thus, the snakes lost their farmacopeic charme for a while. (Information on theriac comes from the article Venetian Treacle, J.P. Griffin.) They are back now, along with other stinging or biting creepers, a source of inspiration for new, really powerful drugs.

It is curious after all, how in the same culture, the same animal, is both the embodiment of the devil and a positive, health related figure.

Probably, because the healing snake was not unfamiliar to the biblical tradition. In the Old Testament, Moses heals the afflicted Israelites (who had been set upon by fiery serpents) by holding up a staff with a bronze serpent sculpted on it. (Numbers 21)

Crucified serpent -from The Alchemy Website

Crucified serpent -from The Alchemy Website

The snakes dual character is strikingly apparent in the words of John Donne:  “… That creeping Serpent, Satan, is war, and should be so; The crucified Serpent Christ Jesus is peace, and shall be so for ever. The creeping Serpent eats our dust, the strength of our bodies in sicknesses, and our glory in the dust of the grave. The crucified Serpent hath taken our flesh, and our blood, and given us his flesh and his blood for it.”

Images of snakes are not uncommon in religious books. The twisting and twirling bodies decorate many illuminated manuscripts, apart from where they have the center stage. But usually, the marginals of the beautifully adorned manuscripts are often a sort of luxuriant zoo, with many more creatures. I did not find religious books with snakes singled out as ornaments. Their fantastic relatives, the dragons, are much more often to be seen. They also appear in church decorations.

Church decoration - Oestofte, Denmark - from the Mills-Kronborg Collection Oestofte M-K 30-087

Church decoration – Oestofte, Denmark – from the Mills-Kronborg Collection, Oestofte, M-K 30-087

Are the Rohonc Codex reptiles serpents or dragons? As far as they have no legs, no wings and there is no sign of fiery breath, they are probably snakes.

According to one of my sources, the snake is also a symbol of the apostle Paul. I have a problem though. My source is reliable (it is in very fine print at the end of a Romanian Bible, Biblia cu ilustratii diortosită, redactată şi adnotată de Bartolomeu Valeriu Anania, Editura Litera, 2011) but I cannot corroborate the information as I could not find any other source in the whole WWW to ascribe the apostle the snake emblem. The apostle shipwrecked on the island of Malta and was rescued by local fishermen. As they gathered around the fire, Paul picked up a bundle of brushwood and a viper hiding inside fastened to his arm and bit him. The islanders were appalled by the idea that they rescued the worst criminal, whom the goddess Justice insists on punishing, and after drowning was not successful because of their interference, she sent a viper to execute him. But the apostle remained unharmed and the locals celebrated him as a god, especially after he took care of the sick and healed them by prayer. So, there is the connection between  Paul and the snakes and so did he become the saint protector against snake bites.

Saint Paul throwing the snake into the fire, Canterbury Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons

Saint Paul throwing the snake into the fire, Canterbury Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons

And let’s not forget the recently decoded Copiale Cipher document, a secret document of a secret society of optometrists (YES, why not, only masons may have secret societies?) “…the three snakes, which are placed in a hieroglyphic and mystical way, stand for nature, justice and bravery” (page 101).

Quite impressive, the variety of jobs the snake got. He is the good, the bad and the ugly, he stands for death and life, sexuality and healing, and justice, and bravery, and quicksilver.

What meaning did it have to the author of the Codex? Are the Rohonc Codex snakes a reminder of the lurking evil, are they bearers of higher knowledge, symbols of rejuvenation, healers? Or maybe another, completely different  meaning, one I did not even talk or think about.

Before moving on, to the next topic, let’s take a final look at one of our snakes

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Constellation Hydra, Liber Floridus, fol 74 v., from Koninlijke Bibliotheek

Constellation Hydra, Liber Floridus, fol 74 v., from Koninlijke Bibliotheek
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One Response to (19) Hic Sunt Serpentes

  1. Pingback: Freemasonry and three snakes...? -Cipher Mysteries

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