Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, Myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

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My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
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Short previews
of all talks

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Other pages on my site.....

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The Dunedin Theosophical Society

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The Serpent and the Tree

A talk given to the Spiritualist Church of Dunedin June 2007

Tonight I wish to talk about the serpent and the tree. They are two symbols found in myths all over the world, even in cultures that had no contact with each other. They reveal a great depth about the reality of being human and the journey of spirit, which we all undertake.

The serpent is a very important symbol appearing in a number of different forms around the world. It has two main aspects. First, a serpent is a very primitive form of life. It is a cold-blooded reptile that has only a basic body with no limbs and a very basic brain. It symbolises the primitive energy of our unconscious mind with all our fears and ignorance. This aspect of the serpent is sometimes seen as a monster, demon or giant. Secondly, that  very same serpent also symbolises our spiritual perfection because when we overcome our fear and ignorance our spiritual perfection is revealed, just like the skin the snake is left behind to reveal a new body. The serpent therefore describes our journey from ignorance and fear to perfect wisdom, healing and compassion. Sometimes the spiritual aspect of the serpent is represented as a bird.

The tree is sometimes called the world tree because its roots reach down into the underworld, its trunk passes through the centre of the world and the branches and leaves reach up to the heavens. The tree therefore also represents our spiritual journey from the lowest chakra level moving up the spine through all the chakras to the crown chakra.

The world tree is reflected in our nervous system, rising up from the nerve endings in the body to the midbrain or survival brain right in the middle of the brain. It controls basic living functions like breathing and heart beat. It is the most primitive part of our brain. Serpents, fish and other creatures which evolved earliest in the history of our planet only have a midbrain. Their actions are largely instinctual. Wrapped around the mid-brain is the limbic system or emotional brain. Mammals like cats and dogs that evolved later than fish and serpents have a midbrain and a limbic system. Such animals are good at picking up on our emotions. When we are upset our cats and dogs can feel it and come to comfort us. Then wrapped around the mid-brain and the limbic system is our neo cortex. Dolphins, apes and of course we humans have well developed thinking brains. 

So, if you think about it, we are a map of our evolutionary history. Every stage of development that we have evolved through from the serpent through to what we are now and perhaps somehow, our spiritual future what we may become, is actually woven into the fabric of who we are. We embody our history. We embody our ancestors. Our physical body is a map of our spiritual journey.

You may have seen people with tattoos of a sword with a serpent wrapped around it. It is just another version of the serpent and the tree. This symbol also sometimes used in the medical profession representing the healing power of the serpent.

The stories and myths about the serpent and the tree typically include a number of other symbols or themes. There is a hero and a heroine, a fruit of the tree, a bird, a trick, sacrifice, death and resurrection and a reward. The bird is another symbol for the serpent, but only the serpent of spiritual perfection. The trick reflects the fact that we are often thrust into our spiritual journey unawares. We seem to have been tricked into the journey rather than having chosen it.

The hero or the heroine, or both must embark on a spiritual journey, which involves making an important sacrifice. The hero or heroine suffers some sort of death, but is then returned to a new life that confers a reward.

The story of Adam and Eve depicts the beginning of the spiritual journey into consciousness. When we become self-conscious we become aware that there is right and wrong, so there is a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden. The serpent uses a trick to get Eve to eat the apple and start the journey. It is interesting though that God says “the day you eat of the apple you will surely die” and the serpent says, “no you won’t, your eyes will be opened.” And there eyes were opened and they didn’t die. So, who told the lie?

There is also a tree of life in the Garden of Eden, which interestingly turns up again in the book of Revelations at the end of the Bible symbolising the end point of the journey of spirit making the bible also a journey of spirit from cover to cover.

From Greek mythology Hercules was given the task of retrieving the apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. The serpent Ladon protected the apples. Hercules volunteered to take the weight of the whole world, the sacrifice, on his shoulders that atlas had been doing, while atlas retrieved the apples for him Hercules then tricked atlas into taking the weight of the world back and walks off with the apples.

Noah and the ark has a hero, a tree planted when the flood ends, birds, and a new birth as life in a new land. The Babylonians also had their similar flood myth, which had three birds released from the ark instead of two.

The Greek version had Deucalion as the hero landing his ark on a mountaintop.

In New Zealand there is a story about Kupe and his three birds released when they reached the new land of Aotearoa, which is also very similar themes.

Osiris from Egyptian mythology was tricked by his brother into a coffin which ended up embedded in a tree. His brother later chopped his body into fourteen parts so Osiris became the god of the dead.

Odin of Norse myths hung on the world tree Ygddrasil for nine days and was then given a vision of the runes; the Norse alphabet as a reward.

 Maori say Tane climbed the twelve heavens to reach Io Matua Kore. He had to battle his brother, Whiro, almost all the way because he was jealous and wanted to be chosen for the journey instead. Tane succeeded and was given the three baskets of knowledge as a reward.

Jesus Christ hung on the cross; another tree and by making himself a sacrifice was resurrected and offers salvation as reward to all who believe in him. This is interesting because it shows mythological symbols appear in the lives of real living people.

Very interestingly, though, the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and many other well known fairy stories, that we have come to see as just bed-time stories for children are also filled with these ancient symbols. Let us look at Jack and the Beanstalk as an example.

First, it is interesting to look at the characters in a story. They tell us much about what the story is about. In this story we have a nagging horrible mother and a clumsy dim-witted son. Notice that there is no father. Maybe that is whay Jack’s mother is so bitter and nagging? And what is it like for Jack? You can imagine him feeling an enormous amount of rage, anger and frustration at not having a father and having to cope with nagging mother. Jack gets sent to town to sell their cow because they are so poor; spiritually poor that is.

Jack meets a funny old man who tricks him into swapping the beans for the cow. Now the spiritual journey begins. Jack’s mother does not recognise that though, and she throws the beans out as worthless. The beans grow overnight and in the morning there is the world tree, just waiting for Jack on his journey. He climbed the beanstalk and came across the giant. What better symbol could there be to represent all the anger, resentment and frustration Jack feels.

Jack is rescued by the giant’s wife, who hides him in an oven – which is a feminine symbol. In other words, Jack sees his distorted male energy, but is rescued by his feminine energy. His reward for having the courage to look is a bag of gold, which he takes back down the beanstalk. Jack and his mother are no longer spiritually poor, but Jack realises his journey is not over he needs to go back. When he does he again meets the giant and is rescued by the giant’s wife. This time he escapes with the goose that lays the golden eggs. So, this time he has a source of gold that does not run out.

Each time he climbs up to the giant he sees the giant more fully and integrates more and more of his repressed anger and frustrations. Jack knows, however, that he still has not come to the end of his journey and climbs back up the beanstalk once more. This time he escapes with the singing lyre. As he runs towards the beanstalk the singing lyre calls out to warn the giant. This is the final spiritual battle like Jesus encountering the devil in the Judean desert just before his baptism. It is the last roar of the dragon, where the giants chases him with all his might,

Jack was able to stay strong and climb down the beanstalk. Waiting at the bottom was his mother; no longer the naggy nasty woman, but rather, waiting with the axe, just what Jack needs to chop down the beanstalk and kill the dreadful giant. He has now completed his journey. He has overcome the negative human forces to become a fully rounded person who has found his spiritual strength.

SCNZ symbolAnd finally, the images of the serpent and the tree are written into our own symbols for Spiritualism. The symbol we had when we were still a part of the Spiritualist Church of New Zealand had a Celtic cross, a cross in a circle, combining the tree of the cross with the unity and wholeness of a circle. On top of the circle and cross was a New Zealand fern, again repeating the symbol of the tree. The stem of the fern started at the bottom and curled up in a snake-like way through the centre and up to the top of the cross tracing out our journey of spirit

When we left the national body, we adopted our own symbol. We chose the albatross being a local bird. The albatross of course, was a bird form of the serpent. I was involved in designing that symbol and so I was careful to ensure that the bird’s wings stretched between the bottom of the cross and the top of the cross. That way it maintained the ancient symbolism depicting the journey of spirit, through which we all travel in our lives, towards living the perfection of being the spiritual being who we truly are.

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