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Serpent-Worship and Other Essays

C. Staniland Wake


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Serpent-Worship and Other Essays by C. Staniland Wake was first published in 1888. Chapters include: Rivers of Life; Phallism in Ancient Religions; The Origin of Serpent Worship; The Adamites; The Descendants of Cain; Sacred Prostitution; Marriage Among Primitive Peoples; Marriage by Capture; Development of the Family; The Social Position of Women as Affected by Civilisation; Spiritism and Modern Spiritualism; Totems and Totemism; and, Man and the Ape.

This book has 201 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1888.

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Excerpt from 'Serpent-Worship and Other Essays'

The lines of development of the religious faiths of mankind have been aptly termed by Major-General Forlong “Rivers of Life.” The streams of faiths are marvellously depicted by this writer in a chart which shows “the rise and fall of the various religious ideas, mythologies, and rites which have at any time prevailed among nations.” This chart ingeniously shows, moreover, “the degrees of intensity manifested at stated periods by any particular wave of doctrine or worship, and the mode in which the tributary streams of mythological or theological thought become in turn absorbed in the central River of Life.” The views adopted by General Forlong have much in common with those embodied in the works of Godfrey Higgins and some later writers, but they have a special value as being based on personal observation. The author of “Rivers of Life” had the inestimable advantage of being admitted to shrines and of receiving instructions in sacred mysteries which are generally closed to European inquirers, and of having made “a diligent exploration of ruined temples, pillars, and mounds, and all such traces of a primitive symbolism, which lie scattered over the East and West, as religious fossils underlying the superficial crust of theological strata.”

Rivers of religious life have a beginning, like other streams, and what are the sources to which man’s primitive faiths may be traced? The early “symbolic objects of man’s adoration” are arranged by General Forlong in the following order: First, Tree; 2nd, Phallic; 3rd, Serpent; 4th, Fire; 5th, Sun; 6th, Ancestral. The first “breathings of the human soul” were manifested under the sacred tree or grove, whose refreshing shade is so highly valued in the East. All nations, particularly the Aryan peoples, have considered tree-planting a sacred duty, and the grove was man’s first temple, “and became a sanctuary, asylum, or place of refuge, and as time passed on, temples came to be built in the sacred groves.” If tree-worship had such an origin as this, its origin ought to be shown in the ideas associated with it. What, then, are those ideas? General Forlong, after referring to Dr. Fergusson’s statement that the tree and serpent are symbolised in every religious system which the world has known, says that the two together are typical of the reproductive powers of vegetable and animal life. The connection between tree and serpent-worship is often so intimate that we may expect one to throw light on the other. The Aryans generally may be called “tree-worshippers,” and according to Fergusson they as a rule destroyed serpents and serpent-worshipping races. Yet at Athens and near Rome both those faiths flourished together, as they appear to have done also in many parts of Western Asia. They are intimately associated with religious notions of many Buddhist peoples. This is shown curiously in the early legends of Kambodia. These are said by General Forlong to present two striking features. First, a holy tree, which the kingly race, who came to this serpent country, reposed under, or descended from heaven by; secondly, that this tree-loving race are captivated by the dragon princess of the land. It is the serpent king, however, who builds the city of Nakon Thom for his daughter and her stranger husband. It is not improbable that Buddhism originated among a people who were both tree and serpent-worshippers, although the former became more intimately and at an earlier period associated with its founder.

Let us now see what ideas are symbolised by the serpent. We are told that he is “an emblem of the Sun, Time, Kronos, and Eternity.” The serpent was, indeed, the Sun-God, or spirit of the sun, and therefore Power, Wisdom, Light, and a fit type of creation and generative power. Dr. Donaldson came to the conclusion that the serpent has always a Phallic significance, a remark which exactly accords with General Forlong’s experience, “founded simply upon close observation in Eastern lands, and conclusions drawn by himself, unaided by books or teachers, from thousands of stories and conversations with Eastern priests and people.” The testimony of a competent and honest observer is all important, and we must believe when we are told that the serpent, or the constant early attendant on the Lingam, is the special symbol which veils the actual God. The same may be said, indeed, of Tree Worship, and as tree-worship and serpent-worship embrace the Phallic faith, the first three streams of faiths are represented by them. It is evident, however, that Phallic ideas are at the foundation of both tree and serpent-worship, and the Phallic stream of faith should be given the first place as the actual source of the Rivers of Life. General Forlong does, indeed, affirm that Phallic worship enters so closely into union with all faiths to the present hour that it is impossible to keep it out of view. We can well understand how this should be as to the tree, serpent, and solar cults, but it is not so evident at first sight in relation to fire-worship. If fire was, however, regarded as the servant of Siva, and all creating gods, there is no difficulty in accepting the position. The object of the worship offered to the sacred fire is consistent with that view. Thus Greeks, Romans, and Hindoos “besought Agni by fervent prayers for increase of flocks and families, for happy lives and serene old age, for wisdom and pardon from sin.” General Forlong appears to see in the worship of fire essentially a household faith, and this was undoubtedly so if his explanation of the Lares and Penates is correct. These symbols represented “the past vital fire or energy of the tribe, as the patriarch, his stalwart sons and daughters did that of the present living fire the sacred hearth.” General Forlong states, indeed, that everything relating to blood used to be connected with fire, and he supposed, therefore, that agnatio may have been relation by fire, for the agnati can only be those of the fire or father’s side.

If the father derived his authority in the household from the sacred hearth-fire, we can understand why General Forlong has assigned to ancestor-worship the last place in his scheme. He says, moreover, that ancestor-worship is “a development and sequence of that idiosyncracy of man which has led him to worship and deify even the living—that which, according to the teaching of Euemerus, accounts for all the mythological tales of the gods and god-like men of Greece.” The ancestor was worshipped in the great chief, the Father of Fathers, each of whom was worshipped in the Dii Gentiles of his own class, and this not only during the comparatively modern Roman sway, but during the ages of serpent, fire, and solar faiths. In the still earlier faiths he was represented in the rude pillar, as well as in the little Lares and Penates of the hearths. In this case, however, ancestor-worship would seem to be entitled to stand on the same level as tree-worship and serpent-worship as a phase of the Phallic faith. In fact, it is in a sense identified with serpent-worship. General Forlong remarks that among the Greeks and Romans “the ancestor came to be honoured and worshipped only as the Generator, and so also the serpent as his symbol.” This agrees with the conclusion I have elsewhere endeavoured to establish, that the serpent is really regarded as the representative of the ancestor, in which case ancestor-worship is a very primitive faith, although, in a specialised form, it may possibly, as asserted by General Forlong, come later than fire-worship.

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