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Jan 03, 2005
In the Coils of the Serpent

The Hellenistic era saw an upsurge of 'mystery' cults, all of which centered round the figure of a divine demiurge that had come down from heaven, separated heaven and earth, died and was resurrected. This character was variously known as Osiris, Dionysus, Atthis, Adonis, Aeon, Mithra, and so on. The worshippers of Mithra commonly represented their patron god as entwined by a serpent, typically forming six or seven coils. The statue shown above was produced in 190 A. D. and is presently housed in the Vatican Museum. Other gods, such as Aeon and Cronus, were portrayed in similar guise. That the Mithraists had a penchant for cosmic symbolism needs no argument. But what did the coils of the serpent signify?

Because Mithra commonly represents the sun, specialists agree that the serpent must have some cosmological meaning. The standard interpretation is either that it symbolizes the spiraling course of the sun around the axis of the world or that it represented the zodiac. The sun travels along the zodiac and could, therefore, be imagined to be 'surrounded' by the zodiac. Vermaseren, followed by Beck, proposes that the precise number of windings seven was based on the number of the planets. Especially because the signs of the zodiac are sometimes seen in the spaces between the coils, this interpretation is probably correct with respect to the beliefs of the Mithraists themselves.

What is questionable, however, is the tacit assumption that the image of the serpent coiled around the god had originated as a symbol of the zodiac and the planets. The winding serpent emerges from the interpretation offered by the specialists as a garbled, composite symbol. The snake logically cannot represent the zodiac and the orbits of the planets at once because all planets move along the zodiac as a single band, not as seven bands. Nor do the zodiac or the planets 'surround' the sun like a sevenfold helix.

It seems likelier that the image of the coiling serpent ultimately traces back to a much more archaic motif without any relationship to the planets and the zodiac. In ancient Greece as well as the Near East the polar centre of the world was often represented by a 'navel stone', the most famous example of which is the omphalos at Delphi. Importantly, a snake is often wound around this navel stone in early representations. This snake is to be identified as the dragon Python, that coiled itself around Mount Parnassus, was slain by Apollo, and was buried underneath the omphalos. Mithra and his congeners were envisioned as personifications of the cosmic axis that runs through the centre of the earth. Thus, the snake that enclosed both Mithra and the 'navel stones' must originally have been some celestial phenomenon observed in association with the cosmic axis. The wider argument presented here is that the worldwide mythology of the cosmic axis was based on complex plasma formations seen during an episode of a prolonged aurora, as proposed by plasma physicist Anthony Peratt in 2003. Within that framework, the winding serpent is explained as a helical vortex formed during a turbulent phase that immediately preceded the formation of the 'stable' axial column. Significantly, plasma columns have a known propensity to form a stack of seven to nine segments. This explains the significance of the sevenfold coil at a blow.

Contributed by Rens van der Sluijs

 


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