‘The Serpent-Myth' of William Wynn Wescott

A brief consideration of William Wynn Westcott provides a useful glimpse into the the paper he delivered to the Bradford Lodge of the Order of Light in 1906. Born in the once prosperous regency spa town of Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, in 1848, Wescott matriculated with a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of London. His career as a physician evolved to encompass that of coroner for Central Middlesex. His work as coroner coincided with nineteenth century reforms of the coronial office through a number of legislative initiatives to professionalise it, all of which continue to have a lasting impact on investigations into the causes and manner of unnatural deaths to the present day. Westcott's appointment marked a time when the increasing medicalisation of investigative enquiry was taking shape. Indeed, and not unexpectedly, he had a particular interest in suicide, and wrote his book ‘Suicide, Its History, Literature, Jurisprudence, Causation and Prevention' while an assistant coroner in 1885. His work underlines the increasing professionalism with which coronary inquiries were being taken at that time, which is reflected in Westcott's methodical and systematic approach in his esoteric writing.

No doubt preparing for his paper on the “serpent myth” at his London home in Kentish Town, Westcott drew on the investigative instinct of a coroner in providing a brief overview through the Author selling Books on Rosicrucianism and Books on Secret Traditionscomparative assessment of the origins and near universal appearance of the serpent myth in human culture. Indeed, he structured this lecture in such a way to present a staggering array of references, underlining significant personal research and a high degree of knowledge. We must always remember that there was no internet – his references are the result of hard graft and many hours trawling through books in the British Library reading rooms in Bloomsbury, where no doubt he often ran into the likes of A. E. Waite, and others within his burgeoning circle. We should also take note that the audience for his lecture were members of the Bradford Lodge of the Order of Light, whose origins were in India, from whence it was subsequently brought to England as recently as 1902. So, Westcott was supporting a new order to his country, and travelled a good distance to reach it. One quickly forms an image of Westcott delivering his talk in the basement of the Bradford public house where they met, no doubt a curious assembly of admitted Freemasons hungry for his knowledge. Awareness of this basic background helps us understand and colourise Westcott's talk that evening. Interestingly, it was published later that same year by The Women's Printing Society, a feminist group based at Whitcomb Street, close to Trafalgar Square, and who published pamphlets and books for the Women's Liberal and Liberal Unionist Associations (suffragettes), and women's colleges at Oxford and London.

In his paper, Wescott provided a fascinating journey of discovery for many in the Edwardian audience. Not only those new to comparative symbology, but also many already aware of serpent symbolism but perhaps not fully appreciating the sheer breadth of its universality as a metaphor for good and evil, God and the Devil, health and healing etc in the Eastern, Western and African traditions as well. All of these Westcott touched upon. It is thus – bearing in mind the origins of the Bradford Lodge of the Order of Light – that Wescott provocatively assured his listeners that “the occultists of the Eastern schools considered the serpent as a bisexual emblem, containing both lingam and yoni, the mouth is a type of the female and the tail masculine” consuming itself in an eternal circular energy of reproduction and destruction. A dramatic description for an Edwardian assemblage, you may think, but he quickly established its relevance by comparison with the more familiar Hermetic and astrological traditions of the West, explaining how serpent symbolism originated from the Chaldeans, who regarded the serpent as a cipher for the “divine signature” embedded in the universe. “Even in the astronomy of today” wrote Wescott, “we find star groups called serpents, constellations named Serpens, Ophiuchus, and Draco. These names have come down to us in association with star- clusters from very ancient times. Arabian astronomers kept science alive during the dark ages of Europe, and they named many single stars also with titles related to the snake and dragon.”

Drawing on more recognisable examples in the Jewish Kabballah, Westcott highlighted the serpent symbolism embedded in the Kabbalistic “type” for chaos. For instance, by making a comparison with the archangel Samael, described as the "severity of God" in Briah, and whose legion of seraphim bring war and death to the world. Yet, if the Kabbalah is about anything, then it is balance, and Wescott equates balance with the “double serpentine” metaphor representing both the evil and the good supernatural agents insinuating themselves onto human thoughts and actions. Thus, the serpent is perceived both as an inherent desire to perform evil by violating the will of God, and as an antidote to that destructive tendency within us. I was particularly impressed by his analogy of the “left-hand” angel with “the Evil One” from whose guiles we pray for deliverance in the Lord's Prayer.

The lecture inevitably takes us along several paths, and supplies a multiplicity of examples revealing the serpent as a metaphor for both good and evil, healing and death. These are drawn from scriptural exegesis, astrology, numerology, Hermeticism, Greek and Egyptian mythology (in particular), as well as Hindu cosmogony. For example, the Greeks identified the serpent Ouroboros numerologically, since it symbolically ate its tail to represent a repeating cycle of infinite or eternal life. The ouroboros came to be seen as a sigil symbolising the energy or force permeating elemental matter, eternal generation, and the harmonisation of opposition. To the Pythagoreans, for example, it represented movement and duality becoming greater than the sum of their individual parts. This is nothing other than a description of a “code” for order and chaos to be found in nature itself. It is also a symbol found in other ancient, seemingly unconnected cultures and civilisations. In India, for example, Estcott tells us that the god Ananta was represented by a seven or thousand-headed naga or cobra deity, symbolising infinity or eternity. Coincidence?

While it was never Wescott's intention to lay out a unified theory for such symbolism, there are, for me at least, clear connections with the serpent mythology in the Old and New Testaments. Now, Wescott does not spend a great deal of time discussing the Brazen Serpent of Moses, but what he does say is certainly one of the most revealing parts of his paper. We imagine before us the scene in the wilderness where Moses is shown by God how to prevent snakes from tormenting and killing the Israelites by appending to a Tau cross the symbol of a brass serpent. This harkens back to the creation myth and man's banishment from Eden, which is guarded by the cherubim with a flaming, metallic sword. Wescott explains the serpent was chosen for this Biblical image because it was “a unique symbol of the Mysterious Divinity [due] … to its powers of fascination, for under the gaze of serpents, men, animals and birds may lose their self-control and power to escape from danger.”  Thus, for the Israelites aimlessly wandering the Sinai for forty years, suffering was experienced as physical privation and death. This is surely an allegory of spirit encamped in physical matter. Such negative experiences, hardships and punishments have a corresponding remedy when the Hebrews enter the Holy Land. This encounter of opposite fortunes results in the transformation of their condition, an allegory surely of a change of conscious thought from one of loss to that of gratitude. It becomes in turn a metaphor for the progenitor of eternal, incorruptible life. Yet how does this comparison come about you may ask?  It is because “Egypt” represents the fallen state of man, and “the wilderness” his intermediate stage of spiritual privation on his journey of reintegration.  Man's ascent “back” to his former glorious state is represented by Israel's arrival in the land of Canaan. Yet to reach it we choose to take the serpentine, circuitous path in a world where there exists a mixture of both good and evil, order and chaos, suffering and joy. In simple terms, movement always leads to an effect, and the movement of Israel from Egypt to Canaan is an allegory of redemption through suffering. In the East, this effect or outcome is known as karma, the original meaning of which simply meant “deeds.” In karmic terms, each of our acts results in good or bad results, suffering or pleasure depending on what deeds have taken place. Within this context, Wescott presents to us a universal concept of the serpent as a symbol of the generative power of opposing forces, and as a symbol of knowledge. These related forces work or fashion outcomes upon us in the forms of binary opposites which ultimately lead to a final product. 

This, I feel, lies at the crux of Wescott's argument that the serpent is essentially representative of not two, but three hidden “types” to be found in all religions. Firstly, it as a symbol of suffering, chaos and evil. Secondly, it is an emblem of healing, order and good. Finally, it is something which has a dual or “mixed” nature. As above, so below. Wescott tells us: “The natural history of the serpent or the snake lends itself in a curiously complete manner to a symbolism of the idea of a divinity and of a devilish power in opposition.” It is on earth that the opposing “mix” of these contrasting forces play out. The serpent becomes for us the geometric form of the Vesica Pisces, representing spirit trapped in elemental nature, namely two single circles overlapping to form a third state in the centre. Geometry has its place because the principle underlining the importance of monotheism is loyalty to God. It follows that any image of nature becomes a projection of the human and not the Divine mind, and therefore becomes adulterous as an act of disloyalty. This is the reason given for the destruction of Moses' Nehushtan in the temple forecourt by King Hezekiah, and it is why the double-serpent expressed in its geometric form does not lead to an overfanciful identification of the good and evil binary forces as personalities, but rather as forms or energies that ultimately form a path to the Creator or to the Devil.

When all is said and done, Wescott's energetic comparison of the mythologies of Chaldea, Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Greece, Persia, China, Ethiopia, West Africa and the rest - together with his remarks on etymology, astronomy, astrology and symbolism (let alone the biology of snakes) – breathlessly reenforce the notion we are encountering a universal symbology hardwired into the collective subconscious. Further, that somehow, understanding this truth can provide a “key” or equation to a unified theory of everything.  That I suppose is the summation of the quest of the Man of Desire, for it can be found everywhere we look.



This article is copyright (c) M.R. Osborne