Angels & Serpents

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The patriarchal world strives to deny its dark and “lowly” lineage, its origin in this primordial world, it does everything in its power to conceal its own descent from the Dark Mother and–both rightly and wrongly at once–considers it necessary to forge a “higher genealogy,” tracing its descent from heaven, the god of heaven, and the luminous aspects.

–Erich Neumann, The Great Mother

When I was a teenager, I suddenly had this irrepressible urge to have a pet snake. My mother was not pleased to say the least, but I was able to sweet talk her into it (that’s what I call “snakey,” but I digress). We went to the pet store and I picked out a beautiful California Kingsnake that had alternating cream and burgundy stripes. I adored and loved my new snake who I named “Ralph.”

It felt so natural to be in relationship with a serpent.

Fast forward: I’m a sophomore in college and taking a Religious Studies class on the Bible. It’s the first class and my professor hesitates when she gets to my name in the roll call, as all teachers did during the undergrad years.

“Um, Seraphine, Christine. Wow, your last name carries a lot of responsibility.”

Responsibility, indeed. My maiden name, Seraphine, is related to the word Seraphim, which is the name for the highest order of angels in Hebrew mythology.

The name Seraphim is a combination of the Hebrew word rapha, which means “healer,” and ser, which means “higher being.”
The root of the word Seraphim may also come from the Hebrew verb saraph, “to burn,” or from the noun with the same spelling which means “a fiery, flying serpent” (Lindemans 2004).

Seraphim are brilliant and human eyes must not gaze upon them, lest they be instantly incinerated.

The essence of the Seraphim is love and they continuously sing the Trisagion around the throne of God– “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh” or in English, “Holy, holy, holy.” Yet in the Book of Numbers, chapter 21:5, the Seraphs are fiery serpents sent to punish the Israelites:

And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died [. . .] And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.’

Even more strange, are the names of the angels reputed to be Seraphs or related to serpents: Raphael, Satan and Michael. The angel Raphael, because of his relationship to the healing arts, is often depicted with the caduceus, a staff entwined by two serpents facing each other–a motif that is echoed in paintings depicting the fall of Adam and Eve. How can Satan, whose name ha-satan actually means “adversary,” and Michael, the great Archangel who defeated him, belong to the same order of angels? Isn’t one the epitome of hubris and evil, and the other the exemplary of postulate, God-loving and good?

Perhaps the most pivotal story in the Hebrew Bible is the fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. My namesake, the serpent, makes a grand appearance in the guise of Satan. The serpent in the story has a unique relationship to Eve that has been explored extensively in art.

Many paintings depict the snake directly facing Eve; the snake will often have the visage of a woman, perhaps even the face of Eve herself. The two mirror each other and form a gestalt or, with the tree in between, the caduceus. Eve has an affinity with the snake and both share an intimate relationship, held together by invisible threads; woman and serpent are forever forged into association with one another.

My snake Ralph was my constant companion in high school, and after I left for college, I gave him to a young boy who lived on a farm. Years later, I heard he had died in the barn that he lived in–he was not caged either, which shows remarkable loyalty and love (and possibly that he enjoyed hunting all the barn mice). It may not be the typical image of a serpent that comes to mind, but it is typical of a Seraphim.

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