Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The cobra and the vulture

R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887 - 1961) articulated a Symbolist interpretation of ancient Egypt which proposed -- based upon massive amounts of evidence and rigorous analysis -- that the Egyptians from the very earliest dynasties and the very first preserved texts displayed a profound and integrated understanding of the nature of mankind and the universe, an understanding that went beyond what can be measured by the intellect and included truths that must be understood by the "intellect-of-the-heart."  Their use of Symbol (which he called La Symbolique) was intended to trigger the intuitive (as opposed to the intellectual) understanding of these truths.

In Serpent in the Sky, John Anthony West's masterful explanation of and elaboration upon this Symbolist approach, Mr. West explains that the work of Schwaller de Lubicz is unique among all other approaches to the study of Egypt, "for it provides a complete, coherent doctrine fusing art, science, philosophy and religion into a single body of wisdom that can account for the civilisation of ancient Egypt in its entirety" (28).  

The transcendent knowledge of the Egyptians involved an awareness of an absolute Unity at the heart of all the apparent multiplicity of the universe.  As Mr. West explains, pure logic cannot perceive this truth, because "Logic and reason are faculties for discerning, distinguishing, discriminating (note the Greek prefix di-, meaning two)" (47).  The ability to discern and distinguish is logic's great strength, but it also accounts for the inability of logic to grasp truths regarding Absolute unity -- and hence accounts for the need of La Symbolique to bypass logic to convey such truths.

In his explanation of the symbolic power and property of number, Mr. West explains:
One, the Absolute or unity, created multiplicity out of itself.  One became Two.  

This Schwaller de Lubicz calls the 'Primordial Scission' (Division, Separation).  It is forever unfathomable and incomprehensible to human faculties (although language allows us to express what we cannot comprehend).  45.
One symbol the ancient Egyptians used to convey the concept of this Scission was the serpent -- particularly the Egyptian cobra (which appears on the pharaoh's diadem as the uraeus, or rearing cobra).  In his Sacred Science, published in 1961, Schwaller de Lubicz writes:
The uraeus is the Naja of Egypt, the dreaded though peaceful and timorous cobra, dangerous for its spit and deadly for its bite, but only if it believes itself attacked.  The snake is the symbol of duality: It separates the right and left sides of the brain.  151.
We can immediately see that the serpent perfectly symbolizes "scission" or division.  By its very body shape and means of locomotion it is constantly dividing into two whatever it passes through.  Further, the rearing cobra which the Egyptians chose as their particular symbol for division, discernment, and discrimination is an even more precise and perfect choice.  The cobra when rearing is in the very act of discriminating and discerning, of choosing between binaries: to strike or not to strike, threat or non-threat.  When and if it does strike, this action is yet another perfect manifestation of discriminating or selecting.  Thus the choice of the erect cobra to represent the discriminating aspect of intellect illustrates the genius of the ancients, genius which Schwaller de Lubicz and John Anthony West discover in countless other aspects of their art and architecture, proportion and number.

Mr. West elaborates still further on the concept which Schwaller de Lubicz mentions at the end of the passage quoted above, in which he notes that the brain itself -- seat of the intellect -- is divided by a serpentine line.  In discussing Tutankhamun's diadem, which was found on the head of the mummy of the king (an excellent image of which can be seen here on the website of the Dallas Museum of Art -- the image allows zooming in for detail in high resolution), he explains:
The combined vulture and cobra symbolize the geographical union of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the spiritual union of the faculties of discrimination or intellect (the cobra) and assimilation (the vulture).  The shape of the diadem perfectly delineates the region of the brain in which these particularly human faculties are seated, and it is probably no accident that the form of the serpent's body nicely imitates the form of the division between the hemispheres of the brain.  47.
The symbol of the vulture as assimilation -- the complement of discrimination -- is also perfect, in that the vulture is the carrion-eating bird that devours and digests.  It could even be said that its role in the action of decomposition and digestion represents an undoing of division, discrimination and discrete-ness, and hence an action of unification.  The word "assimilate" has a prefix meaning "towards" and a root that is the same as the root for "similar" and "simulation" -- hence, "towards similarity" or to "make more similar."  By extension, we could say that the vulture represents the motion towards seeing connections and similarities, while the cobra represents distinguishing or seeing the differences.

Schwaller de Lubicz notes that this beautiful diadem was not the only covering found on the head of the mummy of Tutankhamun to contain the symbol of the uraeus.  In a footnote to the passage from page 151 cited above, he discusses the linen skull-cap which Howard Carter found on the head of the young king, and which can be seen on this plate of the skull-cap on the head, looking down at the top of the head, part of the excellent resource on the Oxford Museum site containing Carter's account of the examination of the mummy.  Schwaller de Lubicz writes:
See Plate 4, the casing of fine linen covering the cranium of Tut-Ankh-Amon's mummy.  Embroidered gold beads and semiprecious stones delineate the double uraeus, which indicates the scissure between the two hemispheres of the brain (Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amon, II, PLXXXII).  The single royal uraeus appears on the diadem and on the crown.
Other authors, such as Martin DoutrĂ©, have pointed out the veneration of the serpent among the great civilizations of Central and South America, and the preponderance of serpent imagery among their monumental ruins.  In particular, Mr. DoutrĂ© has noted the significance of the feathered serpent in pre-Columbian Central America, and has proposed the possibility that this combination of features incorporates the same symbology that the ancient Egyptians were conveying with the cobra and vulture discussed above.  This is certainly an insightful observation and an intriguing possibility.

It is also noteworthy that the feathered serpent is known as Quetzlcoatl or Kukulcan, and that the extensive body of pre-Columbian tradition regarding benevolent visitors from far-away lands uses this same name or title for the leader of those visitors (who later left over the foam of the sea again).

In any event, it should be clear from the above discussion that the ancient Egyptians -- all the way back to the earliest dynasties -- were possessed of a profound and transcendent understanding of vitally important subjects of which we are barely aware today.

The questions this should raise are: 

How did they know so much?  

and (perhaps equally importantly)

How was this knowledge lost?