Over the next few weeks I will be posting a number of the sketches I produced for the full page illustrations I created for Chemical Serpents, along with the fully realised images. I was commissioned to illustrate this book by When Illuminated Press for Anton Channing, and enjoyed it thoroughly as it explores symbolism and themes that I find fascinating. The first chapter of Chemical Serpents is titled “Serpents”, introducing serpent symbolism in general and more specifically the Caduceus, the Asklepian and the Ouroboros. My image “Hen to Pan” sets the stage for these themes.
Hen to Pan means “One the All”. With this piece I primarily wanted to explore the ultimate Western serpent symbol, the Ouroboros. Those of you who know my work know that I love the symbolism of ancient Egypt. The first known appearance of this symbol comes to us from The Enigmatic Book of the Otherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text from the tomb of Tutankhamun, a text that explores the union of the Sun god Ra with Osiris, god of the dead, in the Egyptian underworld. Two serpents with their tails in their mouths are illustrated coiling around the head and feet of the joined Ra-Osiris, a divine figure representing the beginning and end of time. Both serpents are manifestations of the serpent god Mehen, who protects Ra in his underworld journey.
The Ouroboros appears in many other texts and guises from ancient Egyptian sources, it also appears in ancient Greece, where Plato describes it as the first living thing, the universe itself as an immortal self-eating, self-creating entity. In Roman times it frequently appears as a magical emblem. To the Norse it was the world serpent, Jörmungandr. In Gnosticism, a serpent biting its tail symbolized eternity and the soul of the world.
In alchemy it is a symbol of the eternal unity of all things, the cycle of birth and death from which the alchemist seeks release and liberation. The psychologist Carl Jung saw this as an archetype expressing the nature of the process of individuation, through which the assimilation and integration of an individual’s shadow (their ‘opposite’, all they are defined as ‘not being’), is attained by their union, in much the same way that Ra unites with Osiris.
The famous ouroboros drawing from the early alchemical text The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, which I reference on the cover of Chemical Serpents, encloses the words “hen to pan””. Its black and white halves seem to make it the Western equivalent of the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. This is one of the oldest images of the ouroboros to be linked with the legendary opus of the Alchemists, the Philosopher’s Stone. It feels clear to me that the ouroboros is a symbol of something very personal and transpersonal, of the union of the individual with all within themselves and the world. This is the essence of the kind of mystical or psychedelic experience many yearn for to know who they really are. With my image of Hen to Pan I wanted to show this union of self with other, of one with all, that we each must face our own personal journey within and into the other if we wish to fully understand our relationship with ourselves and the world.
Cosmic feathers adorn the head of a newborn god, who looks at once within and without, crowned by an ouroborus encircling an egg being consumed. Within that egg is a doorway to our spiral galaxy, where all death creates life and all life creates death. Like a serpent consuming itself, the pair below are entwined in this dance and in the dance of knowing what they are by knowing what they are not. The limits of our knowledge define us, an eggshell of ego encapsulating our soul. Knowing this one can say of oneself “I am my union with all”.