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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

Ancient symbols: The serpent

No known symbol represents duality as intensely as the serpent. In the ancient world, snakes had two completely different meanings: heaven and healing, and the underworld and evil. Considering the duality of human nature, perhaps this is not so difficult to comprehend.

The polarity of the serpent first emerged in ancient Egypt. The god Atum, associated with creation and known as "the finisher of the world," was often depicted as a snake. In the Book of the Dead, Atum rose from the waters of chaos in the form of a snake; in a conversation with Osiris, Atum said he would revert to snake form when the world was destroyed. From these two references, we know the serpent was associated with rebirth and eternity.

On the other hand, Apophis, an Egyptian mythological demon, also was depicted by a serpent. Indeed, Egyptian mythology is crawling with serpent-demons (pardon the pun), and none of them have a good connotation.

Most people know the the staff with the snake coiled around it is the symbol of medicine. This goes back to ancient Greece and Asclepios, the god of medicine and health. Asclepios used non-venomous serpents for healing rituals at his temples, so the rod with the entwined snake came to represent him. Why was the snake chosen as the symbol of healing? The theory is that it represents healing because of its ability to shed its skin and renew itself.

And let's not forget the serpent symbolism in the Old Testament. The serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden represented the downfall of innocence, or the evil force that resides within each being (and therefore the tendency to sin). In the story of Moses, however, his staff was turned into a brass serpent that represented life and deliverance.

I could go on and on. The Mayans, Aztecs, Mesopotamians, Central Asians, and Chinese all used serpents in ancient times, as evidenced by early drawings, carvings, and texts. Remarkably, the serpent had a similar symbolism across diverse cultures: birth and death, healing and harm, good and evil.

Readers of The Riddle of Solomon, which releases July 2013, will find a symbolic serpent associated with the main antagonist, Trent Sacks. Though Sacks worships the snake as a symbol of royalty, it really embodies his dual nature: his belief he is the messiah and bringer of peace, tangled with his ruthless actions in the course of making the world believe he is the chosen one.

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