Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, was a devotee of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. His symbol was a snake on a stick, known as the Rod of Asclepius.
The Hebrew Nehushtan is a bronze image of a serpent on a pole. Moses prayed to God, who told 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.” (Numbers 21: 4-9)
This story is taken up in the New Testament, where Jesus identifies himself with the fiery serpent, saying, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3: 14-15)
The image of a snake on a stick is dramatically realized in paintings and illustrations of the snake tempting Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, coiled around the trunk of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Plate 13 of the Great Canterbury Psalter, which dates from around 1200 AD, intriguingly depicts the tree as a giant mushroom (ninth panel).
So what does it all mean? Some snakes are extremely dangerous. Their venom is so strong it can kill an adult human with a single bite. The Australian Taipan is the world’s deadliest snake, but many other species, such as King Cobras, Black Mambas, Death Adders, Pit Vipers, Rattlesnakes and Tiger Snakes are also lethal. (The snake that ravaged the Israelites in the wilderness may well have been the Egyptian Cobra).
Some mushrooms are also poisonous enough to kill you, such as the Death Cap, the three Destroying Angels and the Fool’s Mushroom. There are others which are highly toxic but non lethal, such as the Amanita Muscaria, which have psychoactive properties.
One man’s poison is another man’s medicine. The close relationship between poison and medicine is found in conventional Western medicine, in the development of vaccines for example, as well as in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and alternative medicines such as homeopathy.
The snake on the stick image can be seen to symbolize the taming of poison and the production of medicine, hence its ubiquitous use in medical organisations around the world. This can be taken in a literal, material, molecular, chemical sense, with the development of new medicines in the lab, but it can also be taken in an esoteric, spiritual sense, in the controlled use of psychedelics in the astrolab of the soul.
A wild snake in the wilderness can kill you. A tame snake on a stick can heal you. If you can lift the fiery serpent kundalini up the energetic pole of the sushumna nadi along the central nervous system, who knows, you may even “have eternal life”.