The Crucified Serpent and the Book of Nabathean Agriculture

In my 2010 book Money Grows on the Tree of Knowledge, I wrote about the symbol of the crucified serpent:

It is found in the story of the “Nehushtan,” the brazen serpent mounted on a stick that Moses used to heal the people of Israel after they had been bitten by “fiery serpents” sent by the Lord. In Christian theology, this symbol of the “crucified serpent” is seen as analogous to Jesus being hung upon the cross, which healed the sins of mankind.

Moses and the Nahushtan
Moses and the Nahushtan

The crucified serpent was one of the central images featured in the alchemical manuscript The Sacred Book of Abraham the Jew, famously translated by Nicholas Flamel. It represents the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone that can transform any thing into any other thing at will. All of this is related intimately to the history of the word “dollar” and the origin of the dollar sign.

In the year 1516, just five years before the Spaniards began looting silver and gold from America, Count Stephan Hieronymus Schlick discovered major silver deposits near his ancestral home in Jachymov, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). He began not only mining the silver, but minting it into coins as well. These coins were soon being circulated all over Europe, where they became known as “talers,” after the “tal” or “valley” from which they were minted.

But here’s the really interesting thing: some of the talers that came out of that valley actually featured the Nahushtan crucified serpent on one side, and a crucified Jesus on the other. The alchemical connection to the later US dollar, and the most direct origin yet for the dollar symbol, could not be more obvious.

I don’t think I stated it explicitly in my book, but the picture on each side of the coin was accompanied by a reference to a Bible verse. On the side with the Nehushtan serpent, the relevant passage from Numbers Chapter 21: 6-9 was cited:

And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

On the other side, the image of Christ crucified was accompanied by a reference to this passage from John Chapter 3:14-15 comparing Jesus to the Nehushtan:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

The taler from Jachimov Valley
The taler from Jachimov Valley

Elsewhere in the book I discuss the subject of a shekel coin from ancient Tyre that bears the image of a tree entwined with a serpent, and suggested that this, along with the taler coin from Bohemia mentioned above, may have contributed to the development of the dollar sign. The picture of a serpent in a tree of course brings to mind the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. The cross upon which Jesus was purportedly crucified is also often compared in Christian iconography to a tree. Specific references are also made to the image of Jesus on the cross being analogous to that other tree in Eden, the “Tree of Life” mentioned by God just before he expelled Adam and Eve for their transgression.

The Tyrian shekel
The Tyrian shekel

In Genesis, God says he fears they will eat the fruit of that tree as well, which will give them immortality and, along with the knowledge they have gained from eating that other fruit, it will make them “like gods,” and therefore unstoppably dangerous. So he surrounds the Tree of Life with a “Flaming Sword” to prevent them from ever finding it. This makes sense if you consider that it is Jesus’ blood which, purportedly, brings the believer eternal life, and special benefit when they drink of it, or eat his flesh. The body of Jesus, then, is the “fruit” of the Tree of Life, which is the cross. As he is lifted up on that cross, it heals sin and death, just as the Nehushtan serpent healed the Israelites.

I mentioned previously the images used in the alchemical tract The Book of Abraham the Jew, purportedly discovered and translated (provenance unknown) by 15th-century Parisian scribe Nicolas Flamel. This contains several enigmatic images. One shows children being killed and their blood being drained into barrels (referred to as “the massacre of the innocents.” Essences of the planets are shown being drawn down into the barrels. Other images show agricultural workers in a field in front of a barren tree with a stream issuing from its roots, and the picture of a serpent crucified. Also, other pictures show a field strewn with serpents, and a caduceus (the staff of Hermes, entwined with two serpents). The picture of the crucified serpent has become a well-known symbol of alchemical transformation. It was even used as the logo for the anime series “Fullmetal Alchemist.”

The crucified serpent from Abraham the Jew
The crucified serpent from Abraham the Jew
Image from The Book of Abraham the Jew of "Wastelands' crawling with serpents
Image from The Book of Abraham the Jew of “Wastelands’ crawling with serpents
Logo for the TV show Fullmetal Alchemist
Logo for the TV show Fullmetal Alchemist

In Money Grows on the Tree of Knowledge, I wrote how these images from Flamel’s book illustrate certain aspects of the process of alchemy, which can be gleaned if one compares them with other alchemical tracts as well, such as the 16th-century Splendor Solis by Salomon Trismosin, or Fulcanelli’s Mystery of the Cathedrals, published in the 1920s. It was from studying these manuscripts that I discovered that the secret alchemical recipe for longevity is shown to be bathing in the blood of children that has been infused with stellar influences, which Fulcanelli called “the Bath of the Stars.” Fulcanelli also makes reference to alchemy as “celestial agriculture,” which might explain the images of fieldworkers that appear in The Book of Abraham the Jew and other alchemical tracts.

The Sun and the Moon taking the Bath of the Stars, from Splendor Solis
The Sun and the Moon taking the Bath of the Stars, from Splendor Solis

This brings me to something that I discovered in an ancient Mesopotamian farmer’s handbook known as The Book of Nabathean Agriculture, as translated by Jaakko Hameen-Anttila in The Last Pagans of Iraq. The book spends a great deal of time discussing philosophy and cosmology, explaining in particular how the planets influence the growth of plants through what the author believes to be a relationship between these planets and the elements of creation. Many of the operations described in the book involve invoking certain planetary influences to alter the growth of certain plants, or the weather that they are growing in. Much to my amazement, I discovered two references to the use of a crucified serpent. The first reads as follows:

…Some say that if you wish to avert hailstorm from a place above which clouds have risen, you should take a snake and chop it into pieces which you should then throw on burning coals, piece by piece. This should be done in a place from which wind blows. They say that the smoke rising from the snake will cut the hail clouds in pieces or divert them completely from that place.

Others say that one must take a snake and crucify it on two pieces of wood, the head on the one, the tail on the other. Then it should be tied tightly on the two pieces which should then be set up in the middle of the plantation. Then hailstorms will not fall on that place where the snake is set crucified but it will turn away from that place and pass it by.

Others say that when hail clouds rise, one must take a thick quadrangular piece of wood, or of some (other) shape, and pierce a hole in the middle with a drill. Then one takes a snake and puts its head into the hole and nails its head with a firm iron nail which goes through the head in the hole and right through to the other side of the piece of wood, which is against the earth. Then one must fix the nail tightly. The snake will wriggle and writhe, drawing the piece of wood with it from one place to another. This wriggling will cause the hailstorm to turn away from that place where you have put the piece of wood.

Others say that one should instead put canes under an open sky in a field at night. In the morning, it should be removed to a place where sunshine does not fall on it. When you want to avert a hailstorm you should take a piece of this star-bathed (al-munajjam) cane and burn some snakes with it in a place from which wind blows. The places where the ashes fall will not be hit by hailstorm, but the hailstorm will turn away from there.

Note also the use of the term al-munajjam (“star-bathed”). I have not otherwise come across the use of a similar term anywhere else except in the field of alchemy.

The same magical recipe is repeated later on in The Book of Nabathean Agriculture. There the procedure’s invention is attributed to none other than Adam, the “Father of Mankind.” However the book states that this was merely a title of respect: people existed long before Adam, and not everyone who lives is his descendant. Adam is instead said to be a prophet, and an author of books (on agriculture, as well as many other things). Likewise, his son Seth is said also to be a prophet and author of books, but the author of the Nabathean Agriculture seems to feel that Seth and his followers perverted the teachings of his father. Most remarkably, Adam is said to have been proceeded by another prophet and author named “Dawanay,” which the modern translator, Jaakko Hameen-Anttila, takes to be a corruption of “Adonai”: none other than the equivalent of the “Lord God” himself in Genesis. But in Nabathean Agriculture, Dawanay’s title, “Lord of Mankind,” is again taken as just an honorary description, not a designation of him as the creator of the universe.

In this second relevant passage, Adam is describing how he traveled to India, and tried to gather wheat and barley there. But the plants were guarded by flying serpents that spit poison, which kept people away from them. These snakes were so poisonous that if they even bit into the fruit hanging on a tree they would poison the whole tree, and anyone who touched the tree would die. Adam tells how he managed to harvest the grain he wanted after all:

I laid in ambush for the snakes and shot one of them with an arrow which I had made.85 It hit it in its belly and the snake fell down, writhing until it died. These snakes never die a natural death. When it had died, I pulled the arrow out and shot another snake which also fell, writhing until it died. The arrow became intensely black from the strength of their poison which the arrow absorbed after having hit the bellies of the two snakes.

I took the arrow and buried it. Then I took another arrow and shot a third snake, and it happened as with the other two. Then I took some dates from a palm which grows in their country and extracted their stones. I burned and ground them and moistened the paste with an oil which they had. With this I smeared the bodies of the three snakes so that they became pitch-black. Then I crucified the snakes on three canes without touching them. These I set around the wheat trees.

The living snakes fled far from these dead, black snakes crucified on canes because they had never seen one of their kind dead and crucified. There was an area of many (square) parasangs where a lot of this wheat and barley grew, and numerous grains had fallen between the trees. The people wondered at seeing the snakes fleeing far from this place. They were also very happy and even started to prostrate themselves before me when they met me walking on the road or somewhere else.

I remained patient for a while until there was a great rain which washed clean these trees and the scattered grains. Now the snakes no longer stayed there or drew close to (the wheat trees) or ate their grains. After three days had elapsed and the soil and the trees had become dry, I told them to collect the grains. They collected a great heap although they were afraid of the poison of the snakes, but I reassured them and encouraged them. Then I told them to grind the grains in their mills, and built them a great oven. I kneaded a dough, leavened it and baked bread which I ate together with them. They were overjoyed and happy and made that day their feast and they will hold this feast forever.

This is interesting for many reasons, one being that the image of a snake pierced with an arrow is something also used in Western alchemy and magic. the 18th-century occultist Count Alessandro di Cagliostro used it as his personal seal. (In that case, the snake was shown with an apple in its mouth.) Also, the images of the live snakes fleeing from the crucified one might link up with the picture from Abraham the Jew showing a landscape writhing with snakes, which comes in sequence right after the image of the crucified one.

The seal of Cagliostro
The seal of Cagliostro

But that is not the only part we must quote from this strange tale of Adam found in Nabathean Agriculture. As the story continues, we learn that the grain which he gained from this adventure, which he fed to the Indians there, had the effect on them as if it were from the Tree of Knowledge, making them wise. Furthermore, Adam acts as a civilizing influence upon the savages, and is rewarded with the throne of kingship, just like the characters in Rudyard Kipling’s Masonic novel The Man Who Would Be King. As Adam describes it:

After this, they prostrated themselves even more before me and did everything I had done: they shot the snakes with arrows and killed many of them. They learned how to collect the grain after rainfall and, after I had taught them, they knew how to sow. Wheat became (a part of ) their diet and they liked it and their reason came back to them; earlier they had been negligent like animals. When they started eating wheat bread, their rational faculty grew and their thoughts became clearer. They had walked around naked but now they were ashamed of one another and their rational faculty changed from what it had been with their earlier diet.

Then I taught them to harvest cotton; in their country, there grew all the plants which grow in the other climes. I showed them how to spin and weave and they learnt this. Earlier they had used thin hides of which they had made clothes, as well as great leaves, each of which was so big that it could have covered two men. When they started to spin, weave and wear clothes, they became happy, intelligent and discerning.

They decided to make me their (new) king, but their king was very envious and started arguing against them, saying: “Why do you depose me and make your king this man who has harmed you, with- out benefitting you. He has given you a diet which has made you intelligent and discerning so that you worry more than you rejoice and feel ashamed of one another!” They wanted to kill the (former) king but I forbade them and ordered them to drive him away to the steppe, which they did.

The discovery of these passages in The Book of Nabathean Agriculture prove that the symbol of the crucified serpent in Western alchemical literature has an origin in the East that is possibly thousands of years old, and it is in fact connected to Adam and the image of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It makes one wonder if those European alchemy texts were in fact describing, in code, practices that had been passed down from these Magi of the East, perhaps even from Nabathean Agriculture itself.

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