37 The Serpent


Edward Madeley



From the Intellectual Repository for January, 1843.

AS all things in creation which are according to order, are so many types of the infinite things in God, and as man is created to be the direct finite image and likeness of his Maker, it follows that all created objects are in a certain relation to man, and that they directly correspond to the various faculties, powers, principles, and states of his soul and body. Hence it is that all things in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms bear a direct relation to the innumerable things in the human system, and that if this relation were understood, which it can be by the Science of Correspondences, there would, in the language of the poet, be ” Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

The knowledge of this relation and correspondence which natural things bear to man, and to the various states, both good and evil, of his internal and external mind, or of the spiritual, rational and sensual degrees of his system, is of the utmost importance to man, if he desire to advance in genuine intelligence and wisdom. This importance becomes much greater, when we consider that this relation of correspondence between external objects or things natural and internal objects or things moral, spiritual and divine, is the very language through which the Lord addresses man, and conveys to his mind all spiritual light, and all the treasures of revealed wisdom and knowledge in his Holy Word.

Of all objects in the animal kingdom the reptile tribe is the lowest, of which serpents of various kinds and species are the most conspicuous. Of all the degrees of man s life the sensual and the corporeal are the lowest ; because they are nearest to the earth, and are actuated by merely earthly appetites, influences and causes. These lowest degrees in man s nature partake the least of what is truly human in man ; and the serpent, their correspondent emblem, is of all animals the most remote from the human form. As the serpent crawls upon the earth, so the sensual principle in man is the nearest akin to earth, which, if not elevated by the rational and spiritual principles of his nature, may be said to crawl upon the earth in like manner. As sensual things have a tendency to fascinate and charm the mind, because sensual delights are more vividly experienced than any others, so certain kinds of serpents, especially the more malignant, are said by naturalists to fascinate and charm their prey before they devour it. In short, the points of emblematic correspondence between the sensual principle in man and the serpent, would become more obvious, the more we become acquainted with the characteristics of the two objects compared together. But we will first describe, from Swedenborg, what the sensual principle is, and also what its nature is if man be not elevated above it by regeneration.

” The sensual principle is the last and lowest sphere of the life of the human mind, adhering to and cohering with the five bodily senses. He is called a sensual man whose judgment on all occasions is determined by the senses of the body, who believes only what he can see with his eyes and touch with his hands, allowing such things to be something real, and rejecting all others. The interiors of his mind which see by the light of heaven, are closed, so that he has no discernment of any truth relating to heaven or the church. Such a person thinks in extremes, that is, his thought is confined to the last and lowest sphere of things ; for he does not think interiorly from any spiritual light, but rests in gross natural light only : hence it is that he is inwardly opposed to the things of heaven and the church, although he can outwardly speak in their favor, and that with a degree of zeal proportioned to the hope of obtaining authority and opulence by their means. Men of learning and erudition who have confirmed themselves deeply in falsities, especially those who have confirmed themselves against the truths of the Word, are more sensual than the rest of mankind. Sensual men reason with shrewdness and dexterity, because their thoughts are so near their speech as to be almost in it, being, as it were, in their lips ; and because they make all intelligence to consist in speaking merely from the memory : they are also expert in confirming falsities, and after confirmation believe them to be true ; and yet their reasonings and confirmations are grounded in the fallacies of the senses, by which the vulgar are ensnared and persuaded.

Sensual men are cunning and malicious above all others. The covetous, the adulterous and the deceitful are particularly sensual, though they may appear men of talent in the eyes of the world. The interiors of their minds are foul and filthy in consequence of their communication with the hells ; and in the Word they are said to be dead. All who inhabit the hells are sensual, and the more so as they, are more deeply immersed. The sphere of infernal spirits conjoins itself with the sensual principle of man in the back ; and in the light of heaven the hinder part of their heads appears hollow. They who reasoned merely from sensual things, were by the ancients called serpents of the tree of knowledge. Sensual things ought to possess the last place and not the first, and with every wise and intelligent man it is so, and they are kept in subjection to interior things ; whereas with an unwise man they have the first place, and bear rule. Where sensual things are in the lowest place, a passage is opened by them to the understanding, and truths are eliminated by the mode of extraction. Such sensual things border most closely on the world ; they admit whatsoever flows from the world, and as it were sift it. Man by means of sensual things communicates with the world, and by means of rational things with heaven.

Sensual things form a basis which is subservient to the interiors of the mind, some sensual things being subservient to the intellectual part and some to the voluntary part. Where the thought is not elevated above sensual things, man attains but to small degrees of wisdom ; but where it is, he enters into a clearer light (lumen.), and at length into heavenly light (lux.), and then he has perception of those things which flow from heaven. Natural science is the ultimate of the understanding, and sensual delight the ultimate of the will.” T. C. R. 565.

Serpents are of many kinds and species, but they may be divided into two general classes, venomous, and non-venomous ; the former are for the most part viviparous, and the latter oviparous. Those which are not venomous correspond to the sensual principle when in order, when all its states are subordinate to the higher rational and spiritual principles of the mind. But the venomous kinds of serpents correspond to the sensual principle when in disorder, and consequently rebellious against the higher rational and spiritual powers of our being.

The serpent in the garden of Eden plays a most active part, since the fall of man is attributed to its subtlety and seductive power. This shows us how important it is that we should correctly understand what the serpent means, in order that we may see the nature of that temptation which caused the fall of man, and which still causes the children of men to cherish evil and to commit sin. For the same cause which originated evil, still carries on the dreadful work in all the children of Adam, who do not resist the voice and subtleties of the serpent. No person at the present time can possibly be so childish in his sentiments and ideas as to suppose that this is a literal history. The science of correspondences by which the spiritual sense of the Word is opened, and the light thence arising, can alone explain to us the nature of the fall, and show us the mystery connected with the origin of evil. The serpent in Eden, and also in every other portion of the Word, signifies the sensual principle of our nature, which, in the perfect constitution of our being, is as necessary as a foundation is to a house. Hence the serpent is necessary to the perfection of Eden, and consequently the divine approbation of good was pronounced upon every creeping thing, as well as upon every other thing which the Lord God had made. (Gen. i. 15.) This shows us that the serpent was not, as is commonly supposed, an evil spirit that had intruded into the happy abode; but that man, being placed by his Creator in perfect equilibrium between heaven and the world, or between the heavenly things of his spiritual mind and the worldly things of his natural mind, was in the enjoyment of the most perfect spiritual and natural liberty, so that he could turn himself either to the Lord as ” the tree of life,” and thus live under the guidance and influence of his spiritual mind, or, as the apostle says, ” have his conversation in heaven; ” or, he could turn himself to his natural mind, and thus live in the exercise &lt;fr merely natural and selfish affections, which is ” to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” or to live a merely natural and sensual life, and consequently to be banished from the garden of heavenly intelligence and wisdom.

Now, the sensual principle, as being the nearest to the world and to all external things, has in itself a tendency downwards, or outwards, and is strongly disposed to judge of things according to their outward appearances, and to prefer worldly appearances to heavenly realities, and to lead man to prefer earthly good to heavenly good ; that is, to prefer the good of his body and of his merely natural mind and state, to the good of his soul and of his spiritual mind and state. And as this is the case with the sensual principle in every man, the serpent, its direct corresponding emblem in the world of nature, is represented in the Word of God as tempting man to disobey his Maker. This temptation is directed to the delights of the natural mind and the body, all of which relate to the world and to man s life in the world ; and when these delights are preferred to the delights of the spiritual mind, self-love arises as a governing principle, and banishes the love of God above all things as the ruling end and motive in the constitution of man ; and the love of the world and of worldly things, supplants the love of heaven and of heavenly things ; and man, instead of becoming ” spiritually minded, which is life and peace,” becomes sensually and carnally minded, which is enmity against God, and spiritual death.

The serpent is said in the history of the temptation, to be ” more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made ” (Gen. iii. 1), to indicate that the sensual principle which, if not elevated and guided by heavenly influences from the Lord in the rational and spiritual degrees of man s life, thinks and reasons solely from merely outward appearances and fallacies, and would fain persuade us that there is nothing real, nothing worthy of our supreme affection and attachment, but that which the eye can see, the ear can hear, and the tongue can taste ; and as there is much plausibility in such reasoning from external fallacies and impressions, the serpent is said, in the sacred text, to be ” more subtle ” than any other animal. When this subtle reasoning of our sensual principle begins to operate, its first effect is to engender doubt concerning the spiritual state of man and the truth of God s Word. This doubting state is signified and also portrayed in the words of the Serpent : ” Yea, hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden ? ” This doubt leads to the fatal denial that all our life flows momentarily into our souls from God, and confirms the fallacious and false impression that all our life is, in reality, according to the appearance, self-derived, and that we exist independently of God, the only fountain of life, and thus that man in reality is a god, since the peculiar prerogative and characteristic of God is to have life in himself, self-derived and independent. Hence the Serpent says, ” In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” For the greatest of all outward appearances is this : that our life is selfderived, and that we possess it independently of God ; to believe which, and to ” confirm it from subtle reasoning according to sensual appearances, is to separate ourselves at once from God, and from all heavenly wisdom, to be banished from the garden of Eden. This subtlety of the serpent, the emblem of that supposed wisdom which arises from the fallacious reasonings of the sensual mind, is called by the apostle,” earthly, sensual and devilish.” (James iii. 15.)

Now, that very moment in which man listened to the suggestions of the serpent, or of his sensual principle, and gave them the preference over the heavenly perceptions of his spiritual mind from the Lord, EVIL was originated and commenced its deadly work ; and the human mind gradually fell into a merely natural, sensual and carnal state, until at length, ” from the head to the foot there was no soundness in it, but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores.” All this deadly mischief was brought upon man, or rather he brought it upon himself, by first listening to the suggestions of his sensual nature ; and by continuing to do so, notwithstanding the divine warnings and instructions to repent and desist. At that awful period, when the serpent had caused such dreadful havoc and misery as to leave no soundness whatever in the natural mind of man, the great Redeemer came, according to prophecy, and by his redeeming labors, and by the glorification of his Humanity, “bruised the serpent s head;” that is, destroyed the ascendancy of the sensual principle in human nature, and abundantly supplied the divine means from his glorified Humanity, to keep it for ever in subjection in all those who faithfully ” follow Him in the regeneration.”

It is well known from the writings of Swedenborg, that preservation is continual creation, and that subsistence is continual existence ; and it will also be found to be a truth, that the continuation of evil in the world is its continual origination ; for it is continued in the same way in which it was first originated, namely, by listening to and following out the suggestions of the serpent, or of our sensual nature, in preference to the heavenly perceptions from the Lord, of heavenly truth and order in our spiritual mind. Hence the origin of evil, and consequently of hell also, is not an impenetrable mystery in the theology of the New Church, which, however, could not have been penetrated and explained, unless the correspondence of the serpent had been opened. For it is evident that when those who had suffered themselves to be seduced by the serpent, or who had allowed their higher rational and spiritual powers to be lulled asleep by the beguil ing and fascinating influence of sensual things and worldly delights, when such persons had departed from the world, they could not enter into that pure, holy and celestial sphere of love and wisdom called heaven, because their states of life would be in opposition to that holy and heavenly sphere ; for as the sensual and ” carnal mind is enmity against God,” they consequently remained beneath heaven, and formed that miserable state of existence in the spiritual world, which is called hell. Hence the origin of hell arid of infernal spirits from the human race. When man s natural mind became corrupt, both hereditarily and actually, by the ascendancy of the sensual principle, the equilibrium was no longer between the world and heaven, or between man s natural state and his spiritual state, as heretofore, but between heaven and hell ; and angels, on the one hand, dwell with man in the heavenly affections of his spiritual mind ” He gives his angels charge over us to keep us in all our ways ;” and, on the other, unclean and evil spirits from hell dwell with him in the corrupt dispositions of his natural mind, as is evident from the evil spirits mentioned in the gospel, whom the Lord cast out.

Man’s essential freedom arises from this equilibrium in which he is now placed between heaven and hell, so that he can, by this wonderful provision of divine mercy, eat of the ” tree of life,” and live forever ; or he can eat of the ” tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and spiritually die to the life and happiness of heaven; he can choose either life or death, the blessing or the curse, which are set before him. Throughout the Scriptures the serpent, wherever mentioned, signifies the sensual principle of our nature ; a striking instance to prove this is the next passage in the Word, in which a serpent is named as in Gen. xlix. 17. ” Dan shall be a serpent in the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horses heels, so that the rider shall fall backwards.” Here the serpent also signifies those who reason concerning truths and spiritual things from the fallacies of the senses ; the heels of the horse also signify the lowest sensual things of the understanding, which the serpent is said to bite when they are injured and perverted by false reasonings ; and when this is the case, the rider, or man in his rational capacity, ” falls backwards,” that is, becomes merely external and worldly. Hence among such persons who suffer themselves to be seduced by sensual things, and who trust to the fallacies and blandishments of the senses and their delights as the only things worthy of their pursuit and attachment, the Lord is said ” to send serpents and cockatrices which shall bite them.” (Jer. viii. 17.) Moses rod was changed into a serpent before Pharaoh and his servants, in order to show the sensual state to which the church among them had become reduced, owing to their perversions and falsifications of divine truth, denoted by the rod of Moses ; for it is the seductive power of the serpent or the abuse of our sensual principle which changes, in the strong language of the apostle,” the truth of God into a lie.” (Rom. i. 25.) The people of Israel were bitten and destroyed by fiery serpents in the wilderness, in order to exhibit to us by the most striking types (for the apostle says that they were types 1 Cor. x. 9) the deadly evils of our sensual nature, when not controlled and governed by spiritual influences from the Lord. And Moses was commanded to lift up a brazen serpent, in order that all who beheld it might be cured of the plague. That the brazen serpent represented the Lord, is plain from his own divine declaration : ” As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe in Him may not perish, but have eternal life.” (John iii. 14, 15.)

To the unenlightened natural mind it may appear very strange that the Lord should be represented by so hideous a creature as a serpent; but the opening of the spiritual sense of the Word has explained to us how this is to be understood. The Lord, by redemption and the glorification of his Humanity, most mercifully accommodated his divine and saving influences to every state of degradation into which man had fallen ; the lowest state of sensual evil was represented by the fiery serpents, and their deadly effects upon the body. Now, the accommodation and application of redeeming and saving influences from the Lord to this dreadful state of fallen man, are represented by the ” brazen serpent lifted up in the wilderness.” For we know that the Lord has all the infinite degrees of divine life in his Humanity, which constitute the finite degrees of our humanity ; and that He has consequently a divine Rational, a divine Natural, and a divine Sensual principle ; for as these are the principal constituents of human nature, and as it would be impossible for us to be men without them, so the Lord, in like manner, would not be a DIVINE and PERFECT MAN without them. In order, therefore, to save us from the deep-rooted evils of our sensual nature, the Lord as our divine Savior is represented as ” a brazen serpent,” to denote that from the divine sensual principle of his Humanity, He accommodates his saving influences to the depraved sensual nature of fallen man. In this manner it is that the Lord can save to the uttermost,” as the apostle says, ” all who come unto God by Him,” that is, all who come unto the Divine Nature or God head which dwells, according to the same apostle, in all fulness in the Lord Jesus Christ. It might also be asked why the serpent was made of brass in preference to any other metal. Why was it not made of gold, or silver, or iron ? This question, also, can only be answered from a knowledge of the Science of Correspondences according to which the Word is written. For brass signifies goodness from the Lord in the sensual degree of man’ s life ; hence the Lord, as seen in vision by John, “was, as to his feet, like unto fine brass ” (Rev. i. 15), because the feet, as being the lowest part of the body, represent the lowest part of the mind, which is the sensual ; but gold and silver would signify goodness of a higher order, belonging to the celestial and spiritual degrees of the mind ; and consequently, if the serpent had been made of any other metal, the Lord would not have been represented in a manner accommodated to the sensual state of man, and the healing and saving effects would not have followed.

The poison of the serpent which is also mentioned in the Scriptures, signifies the deceit and cunning of the perverse sensual principle in man. Thus of the wicked it is said, ” Their poison is like the poison of a serpent ; they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear.” (Ps. Iviii. 4.) The adder is said “to be deaf” when it remains insensible to music, or to the voice of the charmer ; for in eastern countries it is still customary to charm serpents by music ; and when the effects which the charmer wishes to produce for the amusement of the spectators, do not follow, the serpent is said to be deaf. This figure is mentioned to teach us, that when man is sensually-minded he is deaf and insensible to all the charms of spiritual truth and goodness. This charming by the voice and by music reminds us of the Lord s words, ” we have piped unto you, and ye have not danced,” etc., which denote that, notwithstanding the charming efforts of divine love to awaken in the minds of men the spiritual affections of truth and their consequent delights signified by dancing, the human mind still remained deaf and insensible to the heavenly charms. It is also said of the carnally-minded and wicked, ” Though they be hid from my sight at the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent, and he shall bite them.” (Amos ix. 3.)

The bottom of the sea denotes the lowest sensual things, in which the wicked are said to be hid ; and the serpent biting them represents the dreadful evils which will eventually and for ever torment those who remain in such a state. As the Jewish church, when the Lord came into the world, was reduced to a merely sensual state, and the serpent then had dreadfully reared its head, soon however to be bruised by the great Redeemer, the Lord so often called the Pharisees a ” generation of vipers,” because the viper was correspondent to their sensual and malignant state. The Lord enjoined his disciples ” to be as wise [or prudent] as serpents and as harmless as doves,” because the sensual mind is extremely prudent and circumspect as to everything worldly, which relates to the comfort and happiness of man s life in the world ; and the Lord requires his disciples to be equally prudent and circumspect in relation to the spiritual life and happiness of their souls ; thus, when the prudence and circumspection of the external man is under the guidance and influence of heavenly principles in the internal man, the ” harmlessness of the dove ” is then combined with the ” prudence of the serpent,” and man is truly wise.

The Lord gives his disciples “power to tread upon serpents ” (Luke x. 18) ; and He also gives them “power to take up serpents” (Mark xvi. 18). In the former case, serpents signify the perverse sensual things in man, and also evil and unclean spirits who, as we have seen above, are in the closest connection with the unclean and wicked things of our sensual nature ; to tread upon them, is to subdue and reject them by the divine power which the Lord continually gives us for this purpose : and in the latter case, to take up serpents, signifies to elevate and purify the things of our sensual nature, which is effected by faith in the Lord and a life of love according to his precepts. Hence, ” to take up serpents,” spiritually understood, is one of the true signs of a living faith in the Lord. The Lord then ” enters into a covenant with the creeping things of the ground ” (Hosea ii. 18), and purifies and blesses all our external appetites and desires, so that, ” whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, we do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. x. 31).

Ancient mythology also confirms the truth that the serpent is the correspondent emblem of the sensual principle in man. The giants who waged war against the gods, were represented as having, among other hideous features, their legs and feet like serpents. Python, the huge serpent which Apollo, the god of light and truth, slew with arrows, was evidently a mythological emblem of the perverse sensual principle of human nature ; and the hydra with many monstrous heads, which Hercules destroyed, had a similar signification. The fury, Envy, was seen by Minerva in her miserable house in hell, eating the flesh of vipers, ” Videt intus edentem Vipereas Carnes, vitiorum alimenta suorum Invidiam,” etc. to denote, that this malignant passion is nourished by the corruptions of our sensual nature.

Seeing, then, what the sensual principle is, how much we ought to watch and pray against the perverse influence and operation of sensual fallacies, appetites and pleasures ! He who professes the doctrines of the New Church, and does not at the same time, by daily taking up his cross, subdue his natural cupidities and appetites, and keep them under the controlling influence of a religious and spiritual principle, is one of the greatest enemies to the holy cause he professes to advocate. If he does not in time take heed to his ways, and sincerely repent by changing his course of life, from having had so clear a knowledge of the truth, his states will be filled up with a greater measure of wickedness and condemnation, than the states of others not blessed with so clear a discernment of divine truths and eternal realities ; for ” the servant that knew his Lord s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” (Luke xii. 47.)