According to the doctrine of the gnostics—a group of heretical Christian sects that flourished in the early centuries of the Common Era—spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, was given to mankind as a sacred gift by the serpent when it entered the Garden of Eden with stealth and counseled Eve to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (which the jealous god ruling over the Garden had explicitly ordered Adam and his wife never to eat).
The serpent's message to Eve was twofold, and is preserved in Genesis 3:4-5. It told Eve that she and her husband would not die, and that they would acquire the knowledge of good and evil—by so doing, they would become like gods. Both these predictions proved correct. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree, they did not die. Instead, they acquired free will—the ability to choose between good and evil—and subsequently passed on the gift of free will to their descendants, the human species.
Of course, the story of Adam and Eve is only a fable, but fables often possess important teachings. According to mainstream Judaism and Christianity, the knowledge of good and evil was a curse put upon mankind by Satan to corrupt humanity. But according to the esoteric sects of the gnostics, it was a blessing given to us by the true highest divine principle as a gift to free our minds from the slavery of ignorance.
The symbolism of the serpent has a curious history in Western culture. It is regarded as a vile thing of lies and wickedness, but at the same time as a deathless being possessed of a higher secret wisdom. It has been both reviled and revered during the same historical periods. The majority of mankind loath and fear serpents, but a smaller number of more enlightened individuals celebrate them as a symbol of spiritual liberation.
We see this duality of the serpent in the mythical figure known as the Devil, who in Revelation 12:9 is called, "that old serpent." Most people look upon the Devil as a deceiver and a corrupter. Students of Hermetic philosophy see him as an heroic figure akin to Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who gave the gift of fire to mankind in defiance of the will of Zeus. This more heroic and more favorable representation of the "old serpent" is sometimes referred to by the alternative name Lucifer, the "light-bringer."
What has all this to do with the practice of Western magic? The famous saying of Hermes Trismegistus applies: "That which is below is like to that which is above, and that which is above is like to that which is below." This is often abbreviated, "as above, so below." What it means is that patterns repeat on larger and smaller scales throughout the universe. There is a duality in the way Western civilization has regarded the practice and teaching of magic down through history that mirrors the duality in its interpretation of the symbol of the serpent. The majority of people have feared and reviled magic in their ignorance, while the few who are seekers of wisdom have acclaimed and revered it.
Hence, we have Cornelius Agrippa writing at the close of the fifteenth century that magic is, "the most absolute perfection of all most excellent philosophy," while at the same time in the very cities in which he lived women were being burned at the stake as witches. The high-born sought out astrologers to discover their future destiny, and the low-born had occasion to visit cunning men and wise women for herbal remedies and magic charms to assist them in their daily lives—yet these same rustics accused those who healed them of sorcery, and the nobles saw to it that the accused were tortured and executed.
It might be assumed that this ambivalence toward practical magic had been resolved during the centuries that intervene between the European witch mania and modern times. But the occult principle, "as above, so below" continues to hold true; the duality has merely taken on a different character. Today, the majority of the population of the West regards magic not with the fear of past centuries, but with amusement and contempt. Practitioners of this ancient art are dismissed as credulous fools, or worse, as confidence artists who willfully deceive and prey upon the gullible. Yet there is a less vocal and more enlightened minority who believe magic has practical value. They do not believe on faith, but on the evidence of their own personal experience. They know magic works because it has aided them in their lives.
Unfortunately, they do not always have a clear understanding of how magic works. They know it works, but they cannot explain why to others. The essays in Serpent of Wisdom were written to teach true seekers of occult knowledge the most basic mechanisms of ritual magic. For example, many texts give instructions for casting the magic circle, but Serpent of Wisdom provides a detailed explanation of what a magic circle actually is, how it functions, and why it is necessary in ritual work.
In the first essay, the understanding of magic that evolved in Western civilization is traced down through our history by examining the various definitions that have been applied to it over the centuries (the definitions not of the greater mass of the common people, but by the adepts who actually studied and practiced it). Another essay dissects the actual nature of spirits. These beings have always been a part of Western magic, but in this essay the essential reality that lies at the root of all the many conflicting definitions of spiritual beings is laid bare. Elsewhere in the book, individual classes of spirits are examined. The true nature of spirit familiars, and why they choose to link themselves to human beings, is revealed, along with the reality that lies at the root of the myths about vampires, werewolves, and ghosts. One of the essays deals with the way magical force is projected by the magician, and how this force achieves its purpose.
Practical magic is not an irrational pursuit. It is only that, until now, the basics of how magic works have not been understood, not even by magicians with years of experience. Magic can be reconciled with logic and reason when the fundamental mechanisms of magic are laid bare, as they are in the essays contained in Serpent of Wisdom. This book presents the very gnosis of magic. In a symbolic sense, it is the gift of the wise serpent to humanity, the fruit of the tree of the highest spiritual knowledge that need only be eaten once, but continues to nourish forever.
Donald Tyson (Nova Scotia, Canada) is an occult scholar and the author of the popular, critically acclaimed Necronomicon series. He has written more than a dozen books on Western esoteric traditions, including Tarot Magic, ...