TREE, GODDESS AND SERPENT

by contemplativeinquiry

Time was, according to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (1) when “the Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, therefore the experience of unity”.

Without necessarily romanticizing the lived experience of the Bronze Age, we can honour the power and beauty of this imagery. Indeed, in our own time, kundalini yoga, based on a serpent metaphor (2), and Qabalah, based on a tree metaphor (3), have become popular working models. They are inscribed on the body and its subtle energy systems, allowing for an embodied contemplation; they connect earth to heaven and back again; they affirm the possibilities of both immanence and transcendence, energy and consciousness. They have a view of wholeness, realization, and integration.

But much of Western (and Middle Eastern) spiritual history has repudiated this frame of reference and followed a divergent path. Orthodox forms of Abrahamic religion are heirs to a radical reframe of the older goddess iconography, namely the Eden myth in Genesis, and hold to a doctrine of the two trees. Joseph Campbell (4) calls this a “mythic dissociation by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in a separation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both in Europe and in the Orient, the Tree of Knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life and, moreover, still accessible to man”.

In the specific case of Western Christianity, the sense of dissociation increased with the victory of St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). These emphasize the moral impotence of human will and provide for an absolute alienation from the divine for anyone not of the faith, with a doubtful prospect of grace for those in it. To Augustine’s supporters this confirmed the need for external control (a Christian state and an imperially supported Church) in matters of religion (5).

This meant that contemplative mysticism was subject to forms of doctrinal surveillance that could be suspicious and unsympathetic even towards respected insiders. The contemplative could not legitimately aim for, or claim, unity or oneness as an experience, since God and the world were divided. Even in a period of doctrinally softened Christianity and increasing secularism, we are still living out the ill-effects of this inheritance. This is why, with a natural pre-disposition to a contemplative spirituality, I chose to locate it within Druidry, as an emerging tradition that keeps its feet on the ground.

1: Baring, Anne & Cashford, J. (1993) The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana Books

2: Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1984) Kundalini Tantra Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

3: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

4: Campbell, Joseph (1964) Occidental mythology: the masks of God Harmondsworth, England: Penguin

5: Pagels, Elaine (1989) Adam, Eve and the Serpent New York: Vintage