Fiery Serpents

Marcel Mauss asserted that a “myth is the mesh of a spider’s web, not a dictionary entry.” I agree, and have lately been following threads of a particular geophysical myth-mesh to some pretty far out corners of the web.

Early yesterday morning, for instance, I watched a short, jaw-unhinging documentary by Karen Kramer called The Jolo Serpent-Handlers (just wait until you get to the bit where a guy named Dewey Chafin, who survives an agonizing night – surrounded by a shouting, dancing, electric-guitar-twanging prayer vigil – after being bitten on the arm by a black rattlesnake [Crotalus horridus, probably] during a ceremony, admits it was the 68th time, over 28 years, that it had happened). And in the afternoon, in hot pursuit of the heraldic origin of the biscione, I set off across Mediolanum to visit the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio for a look at what was once purported to be the bronze serpent that Moses, per God’s specific instructions (see Numbers 21: 4-9), carried through the desert exodus on a pole to heal snakebitten Israelites who stared it in the eyes.

Admittedly, I’m less interested in puzzling through the seemingly contradictory position staked out by the Old Testament Lord and His lawgiver with respect to other idols (e.g., the Golden Calf) than in the fact that there is, to this day, a goddamn snake on a pillar in the middle of one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe. I mean, this is where Ambrose converted Augustine, for chrissakes.

Whatever its actual provenance (the Byzantine Emperor Basil II is supposed to have presented it to HRE Otto II in 1000 AD as a gift wrapped in the Moses story) – and even counterbalanced, as it currently is, with a 19th-century cross on a pillar opposite the nave from the snake – the bronze is a deeply weird echo of ancient ophiolatry and of early Neoplatonisms and Gnosticisms that jockeyed for primacy with Arianism and the Nicene creed in the Paleochristian era. “A very obscure sect,” is how Origen described the Ophites. And how. Not just in terms of, ah, origin, but motive, method. And, as Roberto Calasso points out in the wonderful second chapter of his Tiepolo Pink, whom are we even talking about when we talk about the Ophites? “Cainites, the Perates, the Sethites, the Barbelo-Gnostics, the Severians, the Nicolaitans, the Archontics? No answer is given.” But I have, as usual, my suspicions.

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