The essential role played by serpents in some mythical Greek episodes does not appear to be sufficiently clarified. In view of the impossibility to find decisive explanations in the Hellenic culture itself, we decided to use an instrument of historical-religious analysis, the comparative method, to find an extra-Hellenic example with a sufficient degree of relevancy to enlighten the religious "reality" that underlies these serpentine episodes (note 1). The country where the systematization of the symbolism of the serpent is accessible and with a suitable development for our purpose is India. In this multiform culture we will try to find an example that offers an explanatory linkage for the sparse information that survives in the Hellenic culture.
Diviners, Serpents and Staves
Melampous and Teiresias
Several Greek mythological characters attain mantic capacity because of their contact with serpents. Melampous and Teiresias are exemplary, illustrating two different ways in which to reach the transmutation of common human nature into a superior one (the conversion into diviners, mediators between gods and men).
The serpents lick the ears (note 2) of Melampous (note 3), he obtains the comprehension of bird language and guesses the future. He later becomes a iatromantis, a healer using sacred dances (he is a girls' initiator (note 4) ) but also other physical (perhaps his own name is a reference to the use of plants in healing (note 5)) or supernatural methods.
Teiresias obtains mantic power in two different ways which differ according to the classical sources we use. In the first version that starts with Hesiod (fr. 275 M/W = Dichaiarchos fr. 37 Wehrli = Callimachus fr. 576 Pfeiffer Phleg. 257 F 36 Jacoby-) and is transmitted for example by Apollodorus (III 6,7), Hyginus (75) and Ovid (Met. III, 322ff.), (note 6) the gift of divination is conferred by Zeus because of the mediation in the controversy against Hera to decide which of the sexes find more pleasure in copulation. Teiresias has been man and woman and was thus qualified to answer that the greater pleasure is perceived by the woman. Zeus, the feminine secret unveiled, attains the victory; but Hera, vexed, blinds Teiresias. Teiresias' change of sex is motivated by the fact that he had touched or wounded with his staff two serpents entwined in sexual intercourse. The other version (note 7), transmitted by Pherekydes (3 F 92a Jacoby Apollod. III, 6,7-), Callimachus (H. V, 5,75ff.) and Nonnos (D. V, 337ff.) states that Athena, seen naked by Teiresias, was obliged to punish him with blindness, but to compensate Chariclo, mother of the diviner and loyal servant of the goddess, she purified his ears and bestowed on him the gift of understanding the language of birds. Furthermore she offered him a staff that allowed him to walk like a sighted person.
Despite the differences observed, the background of both versions is similar in essence:
- the blindness is compensated with the gift of divination (that turns out to be an alternative way of seeing);
- the decisive role played by the serpents in the sexual mutation of Teiresias in the first version seems very similar to the purification of the ears effected by Athena (evidently the same modus operandi of the serpents with Melampous) in the second version.
The Serpentine Staff
In the version transmitted, for example, by Ovid (Met. III, 316ff.) or Hyginus (75) (note 8)Teiresias touches the copulating serpents with his staff, triggering the metamorphosis. Evidently Teiresias' action momentarily creates a figure whose iconographical shape is a staff with intertwined serpents. Such a staff already existed in the Hellenic culture, taking the technical name kerykeion (note 9), and was used by Hermes on the divine level and the heralds on the human level, as can be seen in iconography (note 10) (illustration 1). An interesting text of Hyginus (Astron. II,7,2) (note 11) narrates the manner in which Hermes obtains the serpentine staff, in circumstances identical with those originating Teiresias' sexual mutation (only the interpretation differs, the separation of the serpents is understood as a pacification, according to the major function of the kerykeion as staff of the mediator). The link between both evidences is clear (note 12) , and we believe that the meaning must be similar.
All the bearers of the serpentine staff (Teiresias included in the group) have a common link: they are mediators; the heralds on the political level, Teiresias between genders and later between gods and men. Hermes, the most interesting, in a holistic field, uniting with his presence the underworld, the sky and the earth, moving between the kingdoms of the gods and the land of humans, linking divergent and opposed spaces (note 13).
Branchos: The Diviner Without Serpent
An episode in the life of Branchos, the mythical founder of the Didyma's oracle and ancestor of the priestly lineage of the Branchidai, is significant for our purposes and determines the name of the character. According to Cono, while Brancho's mother was in labour, she had a vision in which the sun penetrated by his mouth, and passing through the stomach, ended the path in sex (note 14) (evidently an "experience of light" (note 15)). Because of this visionary experience (the sun passed through the bronchial tubes) she named her son Branchos. Later, his homosexual love for Apollo leads to the conversion of Branchos into a powerful diviner (Branchios is one of the epithets of the god).
In an attempt to explain the vision of Branchos' mother, the episodes of Melampous and Teiresias and the serpentine head of the kerykeion we have resorted to a religious tradition that displays in a structured manner most of the elements that scattered throughout Greek mythology are incoherent.
Serpentine Power and Tantric Mystical Physiology (note 16)
The Origin and Antiquity of Tantrism
The major drawback to using Tantrism in comparative religion is the lack of literary evidence of the movement prior to the sixth century CE (note 17). But the literary transmission, or even the generalization of a doctrine does not imply the nonexistence of previous strong and long-dated roots. On the one hand, the significance of the cult to Shiva-Shakti (note 18), the basis of Tantrism, exhibits an evident archaism in some aspects. On the other hand, Tantrism does not seem to be a movement of rupture, and does not display elements of radical innovation. Tantrism is a religious movement that elaborates concepts pre-existing in the Vedic tradition, combining them with religious practices from different sources. The historical sociology of Tantrism is still impossible to outline (the difficulty increases the farther back), all these uncertainties making it increasingly difficult to detect the role of Prearian and popular tradition in the formation of Tantrism. The fact that the greatest development is observed in contact zones (northern India), open to foreign influences, may indicate that in these ambits the rigidity of traditional religion was surpassed, and the priestly elite embraced alternative (foreign or sociologically different) practices. Thus, we could delimit the three major roots of Tantrism, the Vedic one, the autocthonous (Prearian but perhaps popular also) and the aloctone (Asiatic Chamanic techniques, perhaps even Gnostic influences, as Mircea Eliade suggests (note 19)). In spite of the hypothetical basis of the analysis, it seems acceptable that Tantrism is not a modern phenomenon in its roots even if the literary formulation and the major expansion were developed towards the end of the first millenium and during the first part of the second. The archaism of some Tantric practices allows us to justify the comparison with the Greek practices (we are not comparing religious forms with more than thousand years between them, but possibly practices of a similar antiquity).
The Tantric Mystical Physiology
The basis of Tantric esoterism is the experience of liberation revealed in the adept's body (note 20) in which two powers coexist in a latent stage, one situated in the lower part of the trunk (the feminine principle or Shakti), the other in the upper part of the head (masculine principle or Shiva). Joining both we find a number of channels (named nadis), the three major ones being Sushumna (in a straight line and the main channel), Ida (left channel, lunar and feminine) and Pingal (right channel, solar and masculine). The last two nadis are entwined round Sushumna , meeting at a number of centres, named cakra, where subtle energy gathered. In the most usual system called acakra (six-centred) they are seven in number (the six cakra and the seventh in the upper part of the skull). The lower centre, named Muladhara cakra or cakra root of the nadis, placed in the intermediate region between genitals and anus is the seat of the personal Shakti that appears coiled among common men (named kundalini: the coiled one), in repose and with the appearance of a serpent. The following are Svadhisthana cakra, over the genitals, Maipra cakra or centre of the region of the navel, Anahata cakra or centre of the heart, Vishuddha cakra or centre in the region of the throat, Ajna cakra or centre between the eyebrows where the nadis unite to ascend to Sahasrara or the lotus with a thousand petals placed in the upper part of the skull (perhaps in the fontanelle in spite of the fact that we are summarizing a subtle or mystical physiology with no real correspondence in organs or regions of the common physiology). The masculine power or Shiva settles in this centre and seems not to be included in the acakra system being in essence supracorporeal.
The purpose of the system is to make the serpentine power ascend from Muladhara cakra to Sahasrara; whoever reaches this union becomes a jivanmukta (note 21), a person who has attained liberation of the limitations of the human condition (achieving release from the wheel of reincarnation---Samsara). Serpentine power (Kundalini) must ascend exclusively by the central channel (Sushumna) to produce the alchemy of liberation.
Elements of Comparison
Summarizing, Tantrism shows the following elements for the comparison:
- The purpose of Tantric mystical physiology is the transmutation of the common human being into a truthful man, a superior creature who knows all things (because he has experienced the nature of divinity, in this case the union between Shiva and Shakti) and in which the dissolution (laya) of the ordinary essence was produced.
- The serpent appears as the personification of the power that promotes the transmutation in the body of the adept.
- The sexual region is basic in the system. The canonical practices based the trigger for ascent of Kundalini on ascetic techniques, but other schools (perhaps the most archaic ones, close to the primitive Sivaism) seem to use hetero or homosexual techniques to awaken the serpentine power.
- The iconographical representation of the nadis was a straight line with intertwined serpents.
- The nadis Ida and Pingala were related to the nasal breathing (perhaps Sushumna to oral breathing).
- To describe the fusion between Kundalini-Shakti and Shiva in Sahasrara the comparison is used with the "brightness of a hundred suns" (evidently an "experience of light").
Teiresias, Melampous, Branchos and Tantric Mystical Physiology
We find a number of coincidences between the experiences of Teiresias, Melampous and Branchos and the Tantric initiates:
- After fulfilling these experiences, they become special beings, diviners, powerful men: Melampous is an iatromantis, Teiresias maintains after death intact his cognitive abilities, Branchos establishes a parental guild of diviners. The Tantric adepts, as we have seen, reached different physical and spiritual powers upon experiencing the inner mystical union. Their esoteric knowledge is a matter of small gatherings of initiates, often transmitted inside the family group. In both cases we find experiences of a minority, men without common vital trajectories.
- Melampous and Teiresias undergo a serpentine experience that leads to their transmutation. In the case of Melampous, the serpents purify his ears and reveal to him the knowledge of a completely different world. In the case of Teiresias, the experience with a male and a female serpent (the relationship with the nadis Ida and Pingala seems evident) provoke the change of sex that closely resembles to the androginy (note 22) of the Tantric adept who experiences in his body the alchemy of the supreme mixture of masculine and feminine essences. The serpentine symbol is used in both cases in a very similar field of significance (note 23).
- The experience of the mother of Branchos is very similar to the "experience of light" of the Tantric adepts but occurs inversely, the relationship with Buddhist sexual Tantric practices in which Bindu (subtle energy concentrated at a point and closely connected with breathing) "let down from the upper part of the head and fills the sexual organs with a jet of quintuple light" (note 24) is clear. The nasal cavities (and also the mouth) develop in Tantrism a basic role in the respiratory exercises to awaken Kundalini. Without forcing the identification to the point of connecting the name Branchos (in its etymological sense) to the subtle channel Sushumna, it should be stressed that both "experiences of light" are very similar.
- The importance given in Greece to the kiss of the god in order to accede to complete mantic power (undoubtedly in the case of Branchos and very probably in the case of Melampous) is yet another fact of a sexual nature (in this case not transexual -as in the example of Teiresias- but clearly homosexual). We could approach these practices from the angle of the homosexual rites used in Tantrism to awaken Kundalini (anal penetration is one of the most powerful triggers to provoke the ascent of serpentine power in some sects of the left hand), but we could also, thanks to the Tantric example, attempt to deepen in the explanation of the homosexual Greek practices adopting a different approach from that utilized in the excellent works of Bernard Sergent (note 25). Greek homosexuality seems therefore to be included originally in a complex initiatic paideia (in both senses of initiatic) (note 26): the learning of the real essence of the human being and his potentiality, including homosexual practices with mystical purposes (to awaken the serpentine power). The experimentation of this power determines the special status of the initiate within the social group (the nobles were superior kalokagathoi- because of their knowledge of this "mystery"). We propose a partial explanation of the lack of inhibitions of the Greek aristocrats (Plato at the head of the list) in the face of this kind of behaviour and also the secrecy surrounding the practice.
Hermes, The Kerykeion and Gorgo
The intertwining of the three nadis creates a figure very similar in essence to the Greek serpentine staff named kerykeion. The god Hermes is normally shown bearing it in the iconography (note 27), this being one of the definitive attributes to assure identification. It seems worthwhile to analyse briefly the tasks of the god to clarify his role in the mystical physiology that we are endeavouring to unravel (note 28). A deity of ambiguity, he is the lord of the lands with diffused frontiers. He is epitermios, divinity of all the limits, not only the frontiers of the social topography but also the psychic or mythical one. He is the support of the traveller who crosses the frontier of the known country, of the foreigner far from his fatherland; he indicates the ambiguous point of confluence of the territory of two poleis; he helps thieves (note 29), working on the fringe of the social system. He is also psychopompos, helping the dead to find the way from the world of the living to the underworld (note 30). His son (daughter) Hermaphroditos (note 31) and a number of his archaic representations (note 32) show that he moves in the sexual indetermination or even in androginy. As herald of Zeus he unifies the human world with the reigns of the gods. He is the central divinity in the space construction of the Greeks, as pointed out by Vernant (note 33), he determines the links among the different ambits that give structure to the social and religious Greek imaginary. A deity of transitions (including, evidently, the "rites of passage" (note 34)) he is the perfect candidate for presiding over practices that include a transition to a different sort of existence and an ascensional ritual. Iconography could assist in illustating this. In one of the earliest images of the god, in the olpe of the Gorgon painter (circa 600-590 BE) in the National Museum of Athens (note 35) (illustration 2), Hermes is portrayed with the kerykeion held aloft his right hand and flanked by two winged sphinxes. The image is included in a series of representations dated between 600 and 560 in which Hermes is flanked by mythical winged creatures (sphinxes or sirens) (note 36). The meaning of the scenes does not seem to be completely clarified (the interpretation of the master of animals seems much too simple). The scene can be interpreted by comparison with the relief of the Cretan bronze helmet in the Norbert Schimmel Collection (New York) (note 37) (illustration 3 not in this article, see cited ref.) showing two winged youths holding intertwined serpents. Hermes in the first case fulfills the same role as the serpents in the second and the kerykeion in the centre of the image seems to emphasize this significance. To control the serpentine power is the task of the god and the winged beings are a represention of the ascension included in the rite. Seen from this point of view, we could almost risk an attribution to the pair of winged genies of the New York helmet. This doublet is in essence only one (with the same significance as the ambiguous god who presides over the serpentine power), being like a double Hermes.
Another mythical being, whose meaning is lately being investigated by a number of researchers (note 38) and who is shown as possessing similar attributes (wings, serpents) is Gorgo. In the oldest iconography his/her sex is undetermined (note 39), and this being is represented like a terrible strength, the control of which determines a superior power. His/her head surrounded by serpents in a number of images (note 40), his/her body entwined with reptiles (for example in the pediment of the temple of Artemis in Corcyra where the serpents form a girdle (note 41) (illustration 4-), Gorgo seems a candidate to symbolize among the Greeks the radical alterity named Kundalini in Tantric tradition, a terrific power mastered by a select group of special men, transformed into heroes.
Thanks to the Indian parallel we can better understand the subtle role of Hermes, the god in the Greek pantheon who best symbolizes the ritual of ascension and change to a new reality that is the experimentation of serpentine power, the alterity and strength of which are reflected in the hypnotic and terrifying glance of Gorgo.
Among the Greeks a knowledge seems to be attested of subtle or mystical physiology having a number of elements comparable with Indian Tantrism. The symbols (serpent, light, ascension) and the experience (importance of sex, access to a greater personal development) are similar. In the Greek case the information is hidden in the mythical language (in the literary or iconographical transmission), reelaborated and transmitted in most cases by authors who are unaware of the real dimension of the facts they are relating. Without the instruments of the comparative method the sole interest of the vicissitudes of diviners such as Teiresias, Melampous or Branchos, heroes like Perseus or gods like Hermes is to show the ravings of mythical creation; in the light of the Indian example, the Greek myth grows in meaning and could be explained, in part. It is hard to agree with the idea that both traditions draw on a common source (because of the paucity of documentation) and difficult to affirm that a lending relationship exists between both countries (note 42) and cultures in the archaic period or even earlier; it seems more acceptable to defend that we are dealing with similar models to characterize extraordinary religious experiences. But the result is different and exemplifies the cultural adaptation produced in the social mentality in each country that seems to illustrate the archaism of the practices and permits us to refute a recent loan. Heroes, kings or diviners in the Greek case or creatures liberated from the bonds of human nature in the Indian case are two ways to represent the man who had developed potentialities beyond the reach of common human beings.
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Copyright 1995 - 1997 Prof. Dr. Francisco Diez de Velasco, all rights reserved. Republished by permission of the author.
Prof. Dr. de Velasco is of the Facultad de Historia Universidad de La Laguna. E-38205 La Laguna. Tenerife Canary Islands. Spain. Phone: (3422)609643/609631 Fax: (3422) 609628. This work was published in English with scientific quotation of Sanscrit and Greek and illustrations in the third volume of the review "Yavanika" (Indian Society of Greek and Roman Studies), Rohilkhand University, India. More developed in Spanish in the fourth chapter of the book "Los caminos de la muerte. Religion, rito e iconografia del paso al mas alla en la Grecia antigua" Madrid, 1995, editorial Trotta (ISBN 84-8164-016-6)
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