At the heart of symbolism

The serpent wound round the tree

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The being, the tree and the serpent

Chronos, god of timeIn mythology, it is frequent to assimilate a being to a tree or to transform him into a vegetable. His feet laid on earth represent the roots, his torso the trunk the tree and his arms the first branches. As the tree, he symbolizes the link between Earth and Heaven, the axis relating his deepest demons to his most elevated aspirations. If the axis represents the direct path between Earth and Heaven, the serpent enveloping the being or the tree draws an indirect path, which is not rectilinear, but cyclic where the end of a cycle coincides with the beginning of the following.

Each cycle is split into two luminous and dark successive phases. The being is, in fact, oriented according to the four compass points and presents an enlightened side towards south and a dark one towards north. The luminous phase of a cycle corresponds to the birth of a new state of being; the obscure phase to the extinction of this state and the preparation of the birth of a new state by the light of a new cycle.

Besides, the lower cycles are associated with the terrestrial world of obscurity and ignorance while the higher cycles come under the celestial world of light and knowledge. It follows that the descending path from Heaven to Earth, light towards obscurity, corresponds to the manifestation of the Principle at the source of all beings and things. On the other hand, the ascending path from Earth to Heaven, obscurity towards light, goes hand in hand with a return from the manifestation to the Principle.

The cycles can be associated with the apparent daily move of the sun, alternately diurnal and nocturnal, luminous and obscure. As for the descending and ascending paths, they hare to be related to the apparent annual move of the sun or, more precisely, with the movement of the sun at its zenith, descending between the summer and winter solstices and ascending between the winter and summer solstices.

The sun is a sensitive image of the Centre of the universe, of the original immutable Principle. It is the organizer of the cycles of existence and the ray of the World Axis goes through it.

Consequently, the ascension towards the Principle implies passing from one of the multiple cycles to its projection on the Axis. This projection represents the centre of the being's state associated with the cycle. Then, the being will be able to ascend from centre to centre towards the Principle.

The Golden Fleece and the Hesperides' garden tree

The Golden Fleece

Hera (the protective) could not stand the infidelities of her divine spouse, Zeus. Also, she forced Nephele (the cloud), who was in love with Zeus, to marry Athamas, son of Aeolus. The couple got two children, a son Phrixus and a daughter Helle. The couple was in a shaky state and Athamas felt for Ino. Ino planned to get rid of Phrixus and Helle. Close to the moment to be sacrificed, the brother and sister rode on the back of a winged ram with a golden fleece, a gift from Zeus to Hera. The ram had been sent by Hera to save both children. They crossed the sea, but overcome by dizziness, Helle fell in what became the Hellespont (Dardanelles). Having reached Colchide, the eastern limits of the known world, where the sun rises, Phrixus sacrificed the ram to Zeus and gave the fleece to Aeëtes (the eagle), the king of the region. The latter hung the Golden Fleece on a tree protected by a serpent or laid it down in a cave kept by a dragon depending on the version referenced.

Greek vase detail: Jason giving the Golden Fleece to PeliasAeson, king of Iolcos, was deposed by his brother Pelias. Jason wanted to put his father back on the throne and started out for Iolcos. Pelias promised the kingdom to him if he succeeded in seizing the Golden Fleece. Although the mission was renowned for being impossible, Jason embarked with the Argonauts and, after a number of tests, captured the fabulous fleece. However, he was helped in his venture by Medea, daughter of the king Aeëtes. Madly in love with Jason, Medea made use of magic to put the custodian of the Golden Fleece to sleep.

Jason did not confront the custodian of the treasure and he seized a fleece despite the fact that he did not deserve it. Indeed, the acquisition was the work of the couple and when Jason parted from Medea, he found a tragic end. He was never able to rediscover the path of light.

The Golden Fleece is a solar symbol and the horns of the ram an image of the radiance of the star. It is a matter of radiance of the spiritual Sun that never leaves its zenith. It belongs to the invisible world beyond the visible sun; it comes under the Light of the Knowledge of the immutable Principle beyond the light of the knowledge of the visible world.

The golden fruit of the Hesperides' garden tree

Greek vase detail: the Hesperides around the golden fruit treeDaughters of Nyx (the night) and Erebus (obscurity), the Hesperides (nymphs of the west) were known as Arethusa, Erytheia and Hesperia. They lived on an island located on the western limits of the known world, where the sun sets. The three sisters resided in the garden where the tree of the famous “golden fruit” grew, often called “golden apples” because of the Latin origin pomum of the generic word for fruit.

Gold is a symbol of light, particularly of the sun. Situated at the Centre of the World, the Sun symbolizes the Light of the immutable Principle that regulates the movement of the planets and gives life to beings. The immutability is the source of immortality characteristic of a being's state beyond the individual or cosmic existence. The being frees himself from his individual condition and passes from the imprisonment into duality to the release into unity. He is liberated from the cycles of death to a being's state followed by a rebirth into another one. Then, he can be united with the Principle while tasting the fruit of the Hesperides' garden and rediscover his original state.

Kept by a serpent or a dragon, these fruits symbolize the unified state beyond antagonisms. The animal allowed their picking only to qualified beings. In order to be able to decide who deserve them, the custodian had to be able to attain the principle unifying the opposites: celestial and terrestrial, beneficial and malefic etc.

The links of the Hesperides with the tree and the serpent are even more underlined in another legend according to which Arethusa was changed into a willow, Erytheia into a young elm and Hesperia into a poplar:

  • The evergreen willow is a symbol of eternal Light, immortal spiritual Life;
  • The hermaphroditic young elm corresponds to the base of the fork where the opposites are ready to manifest themselves;
  • With its leaves, dark on one side and light on the other one, the poplar symbolizes duality of the opposites: dead and rebirth, night and day, obscurity and light, ignorance and knowledge etc.

These three trees represent three aspects (unity, potential duality and manifested duality) gathered within the Tree of Life and the serpent custodian of its fruit.

The cross and the serpent

Latin and Tau crossesWith its roots plunging into the ground and its branches rising towards the heights, the tree symbolizes the link between Earth and Heaven. Its vertical trunk represents the World Axis gathering all the centres of the being's states together, from the most terrestrial to the most celestial. Its horizontal branches characterize the deployment of the being's states from their respective centres according to an indefinite multitude of modes. It is symbolized by the Latin cross, with one or several branches, of the biblical tradition.

Any horizontal section of the tree at the level of a given state splits the set of the being's states into the higher and the lower states relatively to the considered state. The cutting of the tree at the level of this section keeps only the states lower than the given state. This truncated tree generally depicts the physical and psychical being's states proper to the world of duality. It is symbolized by the Tau cross of the Egyptian tradition.

Wound around the Tau cross, the serpent links the world of duality and the Tree of knowledge of good and evil. As for the Latin cross, it symbolizes the totality of the being's states (physical, psychical and spiritual), the alliance of unity and duality made in the image of the Tree of Life.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The symbolism of the cross”. Sophia Perennis Publisher 2002;
  • Notably, chapter 25 entitled “The tree and the serpent”.