In this episode, we discuss the 25th Degree - “Knight of the Brazen Serpent” as we continue our exploration of "Morals & Dogma: The Annotated Edition". It is highly recommended that you read the chapter in order to fully follow our discussion.
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Gene: Hello Dave.
David: Hello Gene. “Happy Halloween”... again.
Gene: That’s right. We’ve been doing this podcast for a year now. “We’ve come a long way baby!”
David: Man, I hope so. But anyway, before we get started, as always, I want to remind everyone that Show Notes, Chapter Markers and a Transcript of this, and all episodes, are available on our website - WayOfTheHermit.com. I also wanted to mention that since the last episode, Gene and I attended the “Middle Chamber Symposium on Masonic Esoterika” at the Grand Lodge of Tennessee in Nashville. The annual conference is put on jointly by the Nashville Scottish Rite Valley and the Tennessee Lodge of Research. There was a good turnout this year of Brothers from the Scottish Rite and from Prince Hall Affiliation.
Gene: And I think it was probably the best one ever. I really felt a shared sense of purpose. But… you know, it was right after last year’s Symposium that we started this podcast.
David: That's right. It was.
Gene: And I have to give a shout out to “The Godfathers” of the Symposium - Dr. Tom Driber, who started and directs the official “Scottish Rite Study Club” at the Grand Lodge and George Ladd, Secretary & Treasurer of the Tennessee Lodge of Research. We talked about them in the first episode. They’re always inspiring and also fun and entertaining to be around.
David: Yeah and I also wanted to mention Brothers Dan Jones, Nick Gatlin, Joe Kindoll, David Stafford and Ryan Driber who are also instrumental in making the Symposium what it is… and I’ve linked to their website MiddleChamber.org in the “Show Notes”. So anyway, Gene, what do you want to tell us about the Ritual of this, the 25th Degree?
Degree Ritual (02:58)
Gene: Well, the first thing is that it now centers around Islamic mysticism. Here’s a quote from “A Bridge to Light” - “Pike radically changed this degree in his reworking of the old ritual of the Rite. The characters in the old rituals were Hebrew, that is, Moses, Aaron, Joshua and the candidate, a traveler.”
David: And it’s from that old version of the Ritual that we get the name of the Degree - “Knight of the Brazen Serpent”.
Gene: Right. But “In Pike’s version, the presiding officer is called the Hakam, meaning “wise” or “skilled” in Arabic, and the candidate represents an Ismaeli (a member of one of the major sects of Islam) in the area around Lebanon during the reign of Sayeed Abdullah, Great Emir of the Druses in 1450 A.D. The candidate seeks initiation into the Druse system that he might become an Akal, a disciple of the Order of Truth.”
David: We talked about the Druze in the 22nd Degree.
Gene: We did. They are described in the degree as a religious system that combines Islamic, Gnostic, Christian and Hebrew influences. I don’t think they actually consider themselves Islamic per-se, because for one thing, they don’t believe that Mohammed was the last prophet.
David: But Pike’s revisions got revised, too. Right? The Degree Ritual now focuses on the Sufis instead of the Druse.
Gene: Right, but here’s what “A Bridge to Light” says about the change - “Although creative and instructive, Pike’s version of this degree did not consider that the Sufi, rather than the Druse, represented the mystical tradition of Islam. The revised ritual corrected this deficiency and introduced modifications which more accurately presented this tradition while retaining many of the traditional Masonic elements, as well as artifacts of the Pike ritual.”
David: Hmm. Yeah… I saw that and I see why people might think that would be a valid correction. But… after reading some about the Druze and the Sufis, the Druze beliefs are more in line with the “Gnostic Revelation” that Pike has been mythologizing in the Degrees.
Gene: I think so, too, but we’ll just roll with it.
David: We will. So what is the “new and improved” Degree Ritual like?
Gene: Lodges putting on the Degree are called Synods, which the Ritual says derives from the Greek meaning “a meeting” or a “coming together”, but digging a little deeper, the prefix “syn” means “together” or “with” and “hodos” means “way” or “path”. So, “synod” really means “going on” or “walking a path together”. Which I thought was cool because “the path is long”, you know, one of our catchphrases.
David: Yeah that’s cool. And by that definition, this podcast is also a Synod.
Gene: It is.
David: So what is the setting of the Ritual?
Gene: There is only one apartment which has an image of the rising sun in the East and a setting new moon in the West.
David: Which can’t happen at the same time by the way.
David: Because the sun would have to have just set for there to be a new moon in the West. It can’t be rising in the East.
Gene: OK. Yeah. That’s right. Besides those two images, the only other decorations are a short square column beside the presiding officer, and on top of the column is a staff with a serpent wrapped around it. The officers are all called “Sufi Masters” and are dressed in white robes and turbans. You as the Candidate are named “Idris”, which in Islamic tradition is Enoch.
David: So what are you taught in the Ritual?
Gene: Well, in the last Degree, we were told we needed to be purified in order to ascend and this Degree expands on that idea. You’re told in no uncertain terms that the purification process is difficult and that most people who even care to try, fail because they go about it all wrong. They look outside when they should be looking inward because that is where the voice of Allah is heard by those pure enough to bear it.
David: So how do we attain that level of purity?
Gene: It says that the only way this can happen is through the sacrifice of your personal desires in order to form a personal covenant with God, like the Patriarchs in the Bible.
David: And that sacrifice requires change, but you know, talk is cheap, but real change is difficult. I have a quote that says - “Vows? What are they? Who, after (making them), remembers them? (Do they) perform (their) duties better than before! (Are they) more forgiving?... more generous…?... less selfish, less envious, less ungrateful?… Good resolutions are for the most part like words written on the sands of the seashore, over which the tide rises. Perhaps it is not well to require anyone to vow to perform any duty or avoid any vice. The vow rarely insures performance, and too commonly entails perjury. There are duties that you do not perform, or which you perform only occasionally, or reluctantly, or inadequately, or with only half your heart. It is so with every (one). Take account within yourself now!”
Gene: And in Pike’s version, you had to actually write down the dark and the light that you see in yourself and then read aloud something that you want to change. It says - “The candidate must (make an) account of his own vices, faults and sins. In writing (they are) required to promise to rid (themselves) of just one shortcoming, the one which (they) truly believe can be mastered. If the candidate denies (they have) any faults, vices or sins, (they are) dismissed. (One who denies any) weakness is too “wise in their own conceit” as it says in Proverbs 26:5 and will not benefit from initiation. “
David: And something I found really funny is that if what the Candidate said they planned to change was too grandiose or too simplistic, Brothers behind a curtain were instructed to start laughing and yell out sarcastic remarks!
Gene: Yeah I thought that was hilarious! I’m picturing the grumpy old men on the balcony from “The Muppet Show”.
David: Yeah, I did, too.
Gene: But the point is that change is hard. I liked what Tom Driber said at the “Esoteric Symposium”. He said that “The Scottish Rite isn’t about US… it’s about YOU.” Meaning no one can do it for you or really even with you. You have to work it and make it your own.
David: As I said before, talk is cheap. If you actually put yourself through what the Candidate goes through in this degree, which is basically a true and deep assessment of the Good and Evil you find inside yourself and then determine to change just one thing, you find out that you have a big task ahead of you, and it’s not going to be easy.
Gene: Yeah, and that’s a depressing realization. But if you actually do it and not just “armchair it” - you’ll know what the lesson is because you’ll experience it.
David: What’s the lesson?
Gene: The Ritual says that it is this - “The roots of trees that grow upon the rocks penetrate into the minutest crevices. Even so are our sins and vices. Let no one think them trivial and of no importance, or that he will easily overcome them when the need of doing so shall arise; for they will imperceptibly penetrate into and possess the heart… and when he feels the need of overcoming them, he will find that they are too strong for him, and have become his master.”
David: So how does the Ritual suggest that we assert control over these “forces of darkness”?
Gene: Because this Degree focuses on Islamic mysticism, the answers are given as quotes and paraphrases of sections from the Koran. In one part you are asked - “What great lesson did the prophet teach?”... meaning Mohammed. And the answer is “Knowledge is to be found everywhere, but most of all within yourself! Unfortunately, many do not recognize it when they see it or do not search within themselves to find it… When cultivated properly, the voice of God may be heard in the human mind and heart.”
David: And it says that the communication always takes place from behind a curtain or veil. Again paraphrasing the Koran it says “It is not fit for man… that God should speak unto him otherwise than by private revelation, or from behind a veil… God is eternal, uncreated, infinite, His essence not definable, and Himself beyond the reach of the imagination. The most profound reflection and meditation cannot comprehend Him. The Human Reason is utterly powerless to form any conception of what He is.”
Gene: Which again ties back to the mysticism of Light. You see the effects of Light, which are illumination and shadow, but not its essence. And, as we discussed in the 18th Degree, Light is THE symbol of the mysteries. The Ritual quotes the Quran as saying that “Allah is Light” just like God’s first words in the Bible are “let there be light”.
David: And that’s why I think Pike focused on the Druze instead of the Sufis. I think it had to do with their take on Light. Another quote says “Light is an effluence from God. It is Eternal like Himself. He is the Source of Life and Light, manifesting Himself in the Luminaries whose life is to shine. ”
Gene: And in keeping with that theme, Pike’s version of the Ritual connected back to the last degree and had the Candidate basically reenact the return of their divine spark of Light back to the Divine Fire, the source of all Light.
David: How did it do that?
Gene: In Pike’s version, there were four apartments called the “House of Earth”, the “House of the Planets”, the “House of the Sun and Moon” and the “House of Light”. And the candidate, named Idris, was escorted on a journey from Earth through the Heavens and back to the “House of Light”.
David: Which reminds me of Enoch vision from the 13th Degree. But again, all of this just makes me wonder about the “corrections” that were made to Pike’s revision. But anyway, anything else about the Ritual?
Gene: Just the last speech in which you’re told “Some truths are too valuable to be entrusted to those who are not worthy. Those who would penetrate the mysteries must first be prepared to make a covenant. God has always required this from his servants, and so it is often said in the Koran… If a man fulfills his duties out of fear of punishment or expecting to earn resurrection, all that he does must fail to be acceptable to God.”
Purpose of the Degree (13:30)
David: Alright. So what do you think is the purpose of this Degree?
Gene: I thought this quote was a great summary - “As you have discovered throughout the Degrees, philosophical truths are not as easily digested as are children’s primers. We must vigorously apply ourselves to learning, and be prepared to do so at all times… Man is composed of the flesh, the soul and the intellect. Man is a reflection of the Divine. Do not weary God with petitions.”
David: Yeah, that’s good. This quote summarized it for me - “The destiny of man is to make or create himself… and he must always be the child of his own works… men desirous of being important are numerous; but (those) who excel are always rare. Life is a warfare, in which one must prove (their) soldiership if (they) would rise in rank. (And they are) only worthy of initiation in the profounder mysteries who (have) overcome the fear of death, and (are) ready to hazard (their) life when the welfare of his country or the interests of humanity require it, to die even an ignoble death, if thereby the people may be benefited.”
Morals and Dogma (14:38)
Gene: Yeah. That’s good, too. You know… before we get started with the Lecture, I just want to say that this was a long chapter. It’s 112 pages… but it actually feels longer than that.
David: I felt that way, too. Pike pulled passages from many sources as always. Most of the text of the Lecture this time comes from “The Geography of the Heavens” by Elijah Burritt, “The Origin of All Religions” by Charles François Dupuis, John Landseer’s “Sabaean Researches”, Robert MacKay’s “The Progress of the Intellect” and “Worship of the Serpent” by John Deane. I’ve linked to these in the “Show Notes”
Gene: And as always, thanks to Brother Arturo de Hoyos for the great footnotes in the Annotated Edition. I also wanted to recommend the book “Hamlet’s Mill”. For people who haven’t heard of it, the premise of the book is that most mythology represents knowledge of the movements of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars.
David: That is a great book, but it’s 500 pages long. A more concise book that covers much of the same material is one I’ve quoted from in the last couple of episodes - “The Spiritual Science of the Stars”. I’ll link to both of those books in the “Show Notes”. So where would you like to begin with the Lecture?
Fallen Angels (15:48)
Gene: Well, the Lecture pretty much repeats the last Degree in its entirety. So we can maybe just summarize that material.
Gene: Here’s a quote that encapsulates most of it - “As you learned in the 24th Degree… the ancient Philosophers regarded the soul… as having had its origin in Heaven…. and they held it to be the only true wisdom, for the soul, while united with the body, to look ever toward its source, and strive to return to the place whence it came. Among the fixed stars it dwelt, until, seduced by the desire of animating a body, it descended to be imprisoned in matter.”
David: You know, after thinking about that mythology of the Soul’s fall from the last Degre, I realized that I’ve heard that story before.
Gene: Yeah… me, too. In the apocryphal book of Enoch. It’s the story of the “Fallen Angels”.
David: It is. And another Mystery teaching explains how we forgot that very important point. It says - “The highest and purest portion of matter… is what the poets term nectar, the beverage of the Gods. The lower, more disturbed and grosser portion, is what intoxicates souls…. Dragged down by the heaviness produced by this inebriating draught, the soul falls along the zodiac and the milky way to the lower spheres.”
Gene: That makes me think again of the Kykeon. Maybe it’s to counteract the draught of forgetfulness… to unforget what you already know?
David: Hmm. Could be. But anyway, as we were told in the last Degree, the only way to return to our true home in the stars is by sacrificing our sensual nature. The Lecture says that “The Initiate was required to emancipate (themselves) from (their) passions, and to free (themselves) from the hindrances of the senses and of matter…that the soul may with ease re-unite itself with God… This is the great work of initiation… to recall the soul to what is truly good and beautiful, … and to deliver it from the pains and ills it endures here below, enchained in matter as in a dark prison; to facilitate its return to the celestial splendors… by restoring it to its first estate.”
Gene: You know, you listen to all of that and it sounds like a fairy tale but as Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star stuff.” The atoms that form our bodies were literally forged inside of stars.
David: That’s true.
Gene: Or as a group of wise men say in “Woodstock” - “We are stardust. We are golden. We are billion-year old carbon. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
Stairway to Heaven (18:13)
David: And those wise men were Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But, you know that’s actually a great summary of the cosmology of the Mysteries. Which basically says that we’ve fallen… and we can’t get up. Well actually, that we have a hard time getting back up. Not that we can’t.
Gene: Well, to extend that analogy, if you’ve fallen on the ground outside, instead of jumping right back up on your feet… if you just lie on your back long enough and look up, you’ll see the main symbols used in the Mysteries.
David: You would, because the stars and planets are the main symbols used in the Mysteries. The Lecture says that “the secret science and mysterious emblems of initiation were connected with the Heavens, the Spheres, and the Constellations: and this connection must be studied by whomsoever would understand the ancient mind, and (to) be enabled to interpret the allegories and… symbols.”
Gene: But that’s difficult for us to do because of well… SCIENCE!
David: How’s that?
Gene: The Lecture says that “It is not possible for us thoroughly to appreciate the feelings with which the ancients regarded the Heavenly bodies, and the ideas to which their observation of the Heavens gave rise, because we cannot put ourselves in their places… and divest ourselves of the knowledge which (we) have, that makes us regard the Stars and Planets and all the Universe of Suns and Worlds, as a mere inanimate machine and aggregate of senseless orbs, no more astonishing, except in degree, than a clock or an orrery.”
David: Yeah, that’s good. That quote actually says that we’re blinded by science, or our scientific world view.
Gene: Exactly. Which can, if you let it, take all the magic and mystery out of the world. Just having a name for something doesn’t mean that you really have knowledge of it.
David: That’s true. You know, what you said about lying on your back and looking up? That made me think of Jacob l ying on his back and watching the angels ascending and descending all night long.
Gene: Yeah. The Lecture says that the dazzling lights in the night sky “to the excited imagination of the solitary Chaldæan wanderer appeared as animated intelligences, (and) might naturally be compared to a gigantic ladder, on which, in their rising and setting, the Angel luminaries appeared to be ascending and descending between earth and Heaven.”
David: And that reminds me of Revelation 1:20 which says that “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches…”. The Bible equates stars with angels.
Gene: It does. And the Lecture says that “The Elohim originally included not only foreign superstitious forms, but also all the host of Heaven which was revealed in poetry to the shepherds of the desert, now as an encampment of warriors, now as careering in chariots of fire, and now as winged messengers, ascending and descending the vault of Heaven, to communicate the will of God to mankind.”
David: Hmm. That quote pulls together the story of the shepherds in the fields and the Wise Men that saw the star in the East, the stories of Enoch and Elisha and the Encampment of the Tribes of Israel from the 23rd Degree.
Gene: And we talked in the 23rd Degree about how the encampment symbolized the stars along the Ecliptic. But before we get away from it, I want to say one more thing about the fact that it’s hard for us to see the stars and the Heavens the way the Ancients did. It’s because of what we think we know, that we struggle with the meaning of the symbols that would be obvious to us if we weren’t so cut off from the natural world.
Becoming Jacob (21:46)
David: That’s true. The Lecture implies that in the Heavens the Ancients could see the “Face of God”. It says - “the men of the golden age, whose looks held commerce with the skies, and who watched the radiant rulers bringing Winter and Summer to mortals, might be said with poetic truth to live in immediate communication with Heaven, and, like the Hebrew Patriarchs, to see God face to face.”
Gene: That’s it exactly. The stars are literally the messengers of God. I’ve got one more quote which says - “In the Hebrew writings, the term "Heavenly Hosts" includes not only the counsellors and emissaries of Jehovah, but also the celestial luminaries; and the stars, imagined in the East to be animated intelligences, presiding over human weal and woe.”
David: The Lecture went into great detail about the movements and positions of particular stars and their seasonal and mythological significance to cultures around the world.
Gene: And a key point is that almost all ancient cultures did that. They mythologized the night sky. In other words, they created stories to describe the movements of the stars and planets.
David: And to understand those stories, I’d like to do a thought experiment.
David: I hear you gritting your teeth, but I know you’ll do it anyway. Imagine… if you will, that you, like the Hebrew Patriarch Jacob, are lying out in the desert, in the “dark skies”, looking up into the Heavens, trying to know God. What do you think you would notice first?
Gene: Well, of course it’s first the Sun and then the Moon. They’re the two biggest objects in the sky.
David: So there you have days and nights and also months… the time it takes to go from new moon to new moon. What’s the next thing you think you’d notice?
Gene: Probably that some of some of the stars seem to change positions over time. Those are the five planets you can see with the naked eye - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
David: And those five plus the Sun and Moon make the seven that are associated with the days of the week. Saturn-day, Sun-day, Moon-day, and then “Tyr’s Day”, with the Norse god Tyr equated with Mars, “Woden’s Day” with Woden associated Mercury, “Thor’s Day” for Jupiter and “Freya’s Day” with the goddess Freya associated with Venus. So, what do you think you would notice next?
Gene: Then, you’d probably notice that the planets travel in a line, like a string of jewels along one path or road in the sky, the Ecliptic. The Lecture says that “as astronomy came to be more studied, imaginary figures were traced all over the Heavens, to which the different Stars were assigned. Chief among them were those that lay along the path which the Sun traveled as he climbed towards the North and descended to the South… This belt, curving like a Serpent, was termed the Zodiac, and divided into twelve Signs.”
David: And as we mentioned a little while ago, the “Encampment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” symbolizes this serpentine band.
Gene: OK. Now let’s pretend that I got tired and passed out.
Gene: What do you notice in the sky?
David: Alright. I’d say that I’d notice that during the night, particular stars or groups of stars would rise up above the Eastern horizon and climb up into the sky and some would also fall back down below the horizon in the West.
Gene: Of course, some stars don’t rise and set.
David: Those are circumpolar stars which the Lecture says are given a special place in world mythology. It says - “circling ever round the North Pole are Seven Stars, known as Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, which have been an object of universal observation in all ages of the world.”
Gene: And in John’s vision in Revelation they’re the Seven Angels around the Throne of God.
The Age of Aquarius (25:34)
David: Right. So, I think that’s a pretty good description of what a casual observer of the night sky might notice, but if you watched the sky for a longer period of time, you’d notice that certain stars were harbingers of changes in weather.
Gene: And of those, the stars that ushered in the Equinoxes and Solstices were considered extremely important.
David: And in ancient times the stars that rose with the Sun at the Equinoxes and Solstices were Aldebaran in Taurus at the Vernal Equinox, Regulus in Leo at the Summer Solstice, Fomalhaut in Scorpio at the Autumnal Equinox and Antares in Aquarius at the Winter Solstice.
Gene: But that has changed. Which brings us around to talking about the “Precession of the Equinoxes”.
David: Right. Slowly, the constellations that appear along with the Sun at the Equinoxes and Solstices change due to the wobble of the earth on its axis. The Earth is like a spinning top in that the direction that our rotational axis is pointing wobbles in a circle over the course of about 26,000 years. The effect is that at one time the Vernal Equinox occurred with the Sun in Taurus and then about 2400 or 2500 years later, it had shifted to Aries.
Gene: The Lecture says “First the Bull and afterward the Ram (called by the Persians the Lamb), was regarded as the regenerator of Nature, through his union with the Sun… The Lion's skin was worn by Hercules; the horns of the Bull adorned the forehead of Bacchus… when those Signs corresponded with the commencement of the Seasons. When other constellations replaced them at those points, by means of the precession of the Equinoxes, those attributes were changed.”
David: So the most important point here is that the mythology is linked to the time it was created. If you wrote the myths today, you’d use other symbols. Carl Jung talked about this in I think it was “Aion”, in terms of the “Age of Pisces” and the Jesus fish symbol.
Gene: So, are you saying that “this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”?
David: Well, actually Jung said that. He called attention to the fact that bulls and rams or lambs were the sacrificial victims in their respective ages, but in the “Age of Aquarius”, the “Age of Man”, the sacrifice is man himself.
Gene: That’s interesting.
Isis and Osiris (26:55)
David: So, we’ve talked about the astronomical side of the Mysteries, let’s talk a bit about the mythological side. Pike gives numerous examples of how the Heavens are reflected in myth but the central story he tells is how the Isis and Osiris myth relates to the stars.
Gene: That story begins at the new moon on the Vernal Equinox in the constellation Taurus, which was the Egyptian New Year, and represented the union of Isis and Osiris. The Lecture says that “at the Vernal Equinox… the Nile was held to receive its fertilizing power from the combined action of the equinoctial Sun and the new Moon, meeting in Taurus… Osiris was deemed to act on the earth… through both the Moon and the Nile; whence the fable that his generative organs were thrown into that river… and (the) mutilation of Osiris… meant that the drought which caused the Nile to retire within his bed and shrink up in Autumn.”
David: And “Plutarch gives us the positions in the Heavens of the Sun and Moon, at the moment when Osiris was murdered by Set. The Sun, he says, was in the Sign of the Scorpion… at the Autumnal Equinox. The Moon was full, he adds; and consequently, as it rose at sunset, it occupied Taurus, which, opposite to Scorpio, rose as it and the Sun sank together, so that she was then found alone in the sign of Taurus, where, six months before, she had been in union or conjunction with Osiris.”
Gene: Yeah. Taurus and Scorpio are six months apart, so they are opposite each other. And the Lecture says that this is why “The Sages of Egypt described the necessary and eternal rivalry or opposition of these principles, ever pursuing one the other, and one dethroning the other in every annual revolution… one in the Spring under the Bull, and the other in Autumn under the Scorpion.”
David: So Osiris is killed at the Autumnal Equinox and the life force ebbs, and the dark overtakes the light for a time. The myths of Isis in Egypt and Demeter in Greece then tell the story of the search through the barren earth during the six months of the Zodiac signs leading to the next Vernal Equinox and the rebirth of the Light.
Gene: And “Then Orion, in conjunction with the Sun, with whom he rises, precipitates the Scorpion, his rival, into the shades of night, causing him to set whenever he himself reappears on the eastern horizon... Day lengthens and the germs of evil are by degrees eradicated: and Horus… reigns triumphant, symbolizing… the eternal renewal of the Sun's youth and creative vigor at the Vernal Equinox.”
Angels and Demons (30:32)
David: So, like Orion in that quote, the stars and the constellations were imbued with the qualities of life on Earth that accompanied their appearance, or disappearance.
Gene: That’s right, those during the reign of darkness were considered malevolent, and those during the spring and summer were considered beneficent. The Lecture says that to the Ancients, “the Stars were so many animated and intelligent beings… active causes of effect… animated by a living principle… known by the names of Gods, Angels, and Genii.”
David: So, all the stars, the constellations, the planets, and the Sun and the Moon, were considered to be spiritual beings that caused effects on Earth along with their movements in the Heavens. The seasons are an earthly reflection of the movements of the Heavens. One always follows the other, so do the stars cause the changes or are they just coincident with them?
Idolatry by Cause & Effect (31:25)
Gene: And that’s how idolatry wormed its way in… on that question of causation or correspondence. The Lecture says that “From confounding signs with causes came the worship of the sun and stars… Perhaps we are not, on the whole, much wiser than those simple men of the old time. For what do we know of effect and cause, except that one thing regularly or habitually follows the other? So, because the heliacal rising of Sirius preceded the rising of the Nile, it was deemed to cause it; and other stars were in like manner held to cause extreme heat, bitter cold, and watery storm.”
David: And then we’re told that “they began to build temples to the Stars, to sacrifice to them, and to worship them… (and) in the process of time… that the great and venerable Name was totally forgotten, and the whole human race retained no other religion than the idolatrous worship of the Host of Heaven."
Gene: That is an ongoing problem though because as the Lecture puts it “Men cannot worship a mere abstraction. They require some outward form in which to clothe their conceptions, and invest their sympathies. If they do not shape and carve or paint visible images, they have invisible ones… everyone “without being aware of it, worships a conception of (their) own mind… incomplete and progressive… a partial truth, remaining always amenable to improvement or modification, and, in its turn, to be superseded by others more accurate and comprehensive.”
David: Which ties back to the revelation of the 14th Degree, where we were admonished to constantly seek the highest conception of God that we are capable of realizing and that settling for anything less, amounts to idolatry. Do you have anything else to discuss from the Degree Lecture?
Gene: I think we could talk about it for a week…
Gene: … but yeah I’m ready to move on.
The Brazen Serpent (33:19)
David: OK. Let’s finish up by talking about the Jewel of the Degree. Will you describe it for us?
Gene: The Jewel of the Degree is a Tau cross surmounted by a circle forming an Ankh with a snake entwined around the circle. On the vertical part of the cross is engraved the Hebrew word “Khalatai” meaning “he has suffered” or “been wounded” and on the horizontal part is the name of the “Brazen Serpent” in the Bible, “Nehushtan”.
David: So we’ve finally come to the main symbol of the Degree - the “Brazen Serpent”. The story in the Bible is that after wandering around in the desert, the Israelites started complaining to Moses and so the Lord sent “fiery serpents” to torment them. They repented and Moses prayed to God and God told him to make a “serpent of brass and put it on a pole” and that those that had been bitten could look upon it and live.
Gene: So a crucified snake for curing snakebites?
David: Right. But it’s not just for curing snakebites. A serpent on a staff is the “Rod of Asclepius”, which along with the Cadeusus, which has two serpents on a pole, are the universal symbols of healing. It’s also the Alchemical “fixing of the volatile”, it’s showing a visual representation of how to deal with that slippery part of ourselves that keeps tormenting us.
Gene: Which is?
David: Well, what does the term “Brazen Serpent” make you think of, in terms of your psyche.
Gene: Well, “Brazen” can mean “proud”, so the “proud serpent” I’d say would be your ego, or the self-interested part of yourself.
David: Yes, that’s what I saw it as, too.
Gene: OK. You could see it as you’re attempting to choke out that part of yourself by pinning it in place. The Lecture says that by “Thus enfeebling the dominion of the senses and the passions over the soul, and as it were freeing the latter from a sordid slavery, and by a steady practice of all the virtues… our ancient brethren strove to fit themselves to return to the bosom of the Deity. Let not our objects as Masons fall below theirs.”
David: So mote it be. So, what was your takeaway from the Degree?
Gene: I keep thinking about a play that I performed with our Kabbalah teacher, Leslie Duncan, years ago in which we basically reenacted the “Precession of the Equinoxes”. We both had on masks. One was white symbolizing the Light and the other was black symbolizing Darkness and shadow. At the climax of the play, we exchanged masks and places. At the time, I did just see it as about Precession, but now I see it as much more.
David: How do you see it now?
Gene: That’s basically it. It’s everything. It’s the interplay of Light and Dark. The Oak King and the Holly King. It’s the eternal cycle, with no ultimate winner except for the synthesis of those apparently opposite forces. Life.
David: Yeah. That’s nice.
Gene: What about you? What did you see this time?
David: Two things. The first is what you said at the end of the last episode about the Degrees getting darker. I think this degree is darker.
Gene: How so?
David: Well, the Brazen Serpent up there on that cross is you. It's the part of you that has stung you repeatedly in the past. You need to let it die. And most importantly, you need to keep yourself from crawling back into that old dead skin.
Gene: What do you mean by that?
David: Well, we’ve talked about how snakes are symbols of immortality because they shed their skins. When you try to really change yourself, it’s like shedding an old skin. But the tendency though is to revert back to your old ways, or figuratively, to crawl back into your old skin.
Gene: That’s a cool metaphor. What was the other thing you saw?
David: That the Mysteries taught that the soul isn’t born and doesn’t die. A quote from the Lecture said - “The soul is not a thing of which (we) may say, it hath been, or is about to be, or is to be hereafter; for it is a thing without birth; it is pre-existent, changeless, eternal, and is not to be destroyed with this mortal frame."
Gene: What does that say to you?
David: That the Soul is “Bornless”... it’s the Intellect, which we identify with our Ego, that is born, suffers and dies.
David: And since the Intellect is associated with your head, that’s the symbolism behind the ritual beheading that Knights undergo during their initiation. They’re nicked on the back of the neck with a sword to symbolize the removal of their old way of thinking.
Gene: Ah. So the “Bornless” or “Headless” one would be your “True Self”.
David: Right. It’s always the man behind the curtain. One head is removed, but another takes its place, we still need to think to operate in the world. But just like you shouldn’t crawl back into your old skin, you shouldn’t put that old head back on. You have to build a new one.
Gene: Ah. That’s nice.
David: And that’s all I’ve got for today.
Gene: Me, too.
David: So Gene, what are we doing next time?