American Samizdat

Sunday, December 07, 2008. *
A Fable of Blasphemy
According to the Torah, when the followers of Moses were stranded in the desert, beset by serpents and come to be poisoned, the father of their tribe would bring the ailing to a nearby cave to administer the cure. It consisted of the revelation of a bronze serpent afixed atop a ceremonial staff. Touch the serpent, he told them, and your illness will exorcised.

Moses, before leading his people into exile, was himself a student of Egyptian magic and learned his craft while enslaved to that mighty empire. We cannot know if he learned the details of this ceremony from the Egyptians (or indeed that he existed in reality), but we can say that ceremonial staves surmounted by bronze serpents have been found in Egyptian tombs, and depictions of such staves are found throughout the various media of Egyptian art.

In Egypt, the serpent was used iconically throughout the history of the Empire. Various sources vaguely categorize the Egyptian Uraeus as a protective charm. Fewer note that, as such, the protective function of the idol was one more example of what Egyptologists call apotropaic magic, the use of like to cast out like. In addition to serpents, the likeness of other animals were used to protect against the hostilities of those animals against mankind: jackal, falcon, crocodile, and so on.

Egyptian society was organized into collectives called nomes, and each nome was symbolically resided over by a patron diety. Moses was born in the Land of Goshen near the Nile Delta, a portion of Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt's patron god was the Uraeus, also called Wadjet, the spirit of the Eye in the Pyramid, depicted so often as emerging from the foreheads of the Pharoahs.

Whether or not the healing ceremony of the bronze serpent was performed by Jews in the deserts of Sinai, I cannot help but read its form as a semiotic reference to the casting off of Imperial shackles. For all those who enter in such communion, to commune with the symbols of the oppressor, to familiarize oneself with them, to use them, is to dispell the power of those symbols and to reconstitute a new system--or no system, if that is the healthy choice. That is the essence of magic.

"Let each one go to his or her limit. Resist that which resists within you."

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posted by the thistle at 1:57 PM
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