The Egyptian artist was never a literalist, but used symbols to represent inner concepts. He was free to combine human and animal parts, yet show the resulting image in a ‘seamless harmony’. A simple example of this is shown in Egyptian grammar. To write the single personal pronoun ‘I’ the writer would draw a human figure. But to express the reflexive ‘myself’, he would add a snake in front of the figure. The snake is a world-wide emblem which appears as something to be both feared and revered. Is this because it symbolises something of the deeper self, the roots of personality. If so, why?
The snake crawls along the whole length of its body. Its movements are sinuous, sensuous and so it can readily be seen to represent the lower levels of our experience, just as birds more fittingly represent higher levels of thought and detachment. Here are three examples from the Bible.
The cunning seducer in the Garden of Eden
This story (Genesis 3) is par excellence the moment which sets the serpent as enmity with mankind. Adam and Eve are thought to represent the innocence of mankind who lived in obedience. But the serpent begins to whisper that we can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. This explanation means that Eve is not to be seen as the cause of ‘original sin’, but the feeling part of our nature. Our own desires are seduced by our senses into unwise behaviour. Eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil shows that people have decided what they themselves will call good or evil without reference to higher authority.
The staff of Moses becomes a serpent
Moses had been chosen by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God gives him a sign and asks him to cast the staff in his hand on the ground. There it becomes a serpent and Moses runs away in terror. The useful, reliable staff in the hand of Moses, once he lets go of it, can have a life of its own! He is commanded to take hold of it, and it becomes the familiar staff again (Exodus 3 & 7).
One way of understanding the meaning of this is to say it shows the orderly function of the senses in our life. Whatever we first learn after birth we absorb entirely through our senses. Our mind opens out to absorb, to enjoy these sensations and to realise our identity through them. When the Egyptian royal crown was adorned by a raised cobra, it showed the benevolent aspect of knowledge and power (our staff) which we gain through our senses. Only when our senses get out of control do they become dangerous. They have assumed a life of their own.
The words of Jesus to his disciples
Jesus told his followers that they should be ‘as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ (Matt 19:16) These words can be understood to mean that the serpent in us is our strength, our protection, circumspection, our sensation of all things beautiful; and our healing touch. Within it lies the very experience of our selfhood and these sensations will grow purer and more refined when they are linked with the higher wisdom and the kingly power which exercises self-control through the innocence of a dove.
The Tet Pillar
The exact meaning of this symbol is not known, but it has been called the emblem of stability.
The four horizontal planes leave three openings and, if we look for other parallels, we are reminded of the three storeys in Noah’s Ark, and the three defined areas in the Tabernacle. Swedenborg tells us that these universally used patterns reveal that the human mind exists on three levels.
1. As we have seen, our life begins on the level of the senses. This enables us to develop our memory and from that we can accumulate knowledge.
2. When we have sufficient knowledge, then our thoughts can begin to be formed. Thought is quite a different function from memory!
3. The highest degree is the ability of judgment and reason.
These are the three separate storeys of the mind. In the truly mature individual the higher levels control the lower ones. The Tet pillar can be seen as a reassuring symbol of such stability.
The Magic Eye
One of the marvels of the hieroglyphs is their stylised simplicity which nevertheless has strength and impact. The eye symbol really looks at you in a penetrating way. It is the all-seeing eye of God from whom nothing is hidden. In ancient Egypt it was known as Utchat.
The Psalmist says, “He who formed the eye, shall he not see?” (Psalm 94,9) If the eye of the all-seeing Providence is looking, then there can be no lack of purpose in a person’s life. Whilst the cynic may see in the Utchat mere superstition, the spiritually minded person knows that it is a representation of the reality of the Divine in human life.
The insight is that the human spirit is not separated from the body. They are in correspondence with each other. This why the knowledge of symbols is of practical value for all of us today. Those who deny the life of the spirit within themselves will naturally see no sense in this mystical knowledge, because it does not connect up with their own ‘reality’. It is like showing a musical score to a profoundly deaf person, or like describing colours to the blind. But as Helen Keller remarked, “None are as blind as those who will not see — those who shut the eyes to the spiritual vision.”
Based on material by Christopher Hasler first published by the Swedenborg Movement.