Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of January 25th, - January 31st, 2008

Serpent Staff

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Hours hands of an ancient clock?

  Legend speaks of the first calibrations of time being recorded by stone. Time (Cronos) hid behind a stone while waiting for his Dad, the Starry Night (Uranos) to come and lie with his Mother (Gaia, the Earth) as was his habit every night. Years later, after Cronos established his reign and had ruled for a while, he was slipped a stone disguised as his new born son, the infant Sky God (Zeus). Stones for Time and Stars; stones for Time and Sky.

  Stones the world around have been used to calibrate both sun shadows and starlight. Usually these are community sites. They remember timely gatherings in the solitary stone of Machu Pichu, the solar dagger of Chaco Canyon, the megaliths of Stonehenge, the temples of Karnak and the Maypoles of Spring.

  Centuries later as literature comes into focus, we catch glimpses of something smaller and more portable than stone being used as time keeper. These were the staff, rod, standard or shepherd's crook. They were also used to measure time by the sky. For those who knew how to read them, the stars signaled both seasons and hour of the night. Here's some examples.

  The Dogon of Mali speak of the equinoxes and the solstices using a staff as time keeper. They placed...

"a small staff vertically at the top of the altars and
used a known landmark on the horizon to observe the rising sun"

...four times a year.

Chaco Canyon Sun

Chaco Canyon Sun

  From the 23rd Psalm, we read of the staff,

  "Even though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me."

  The staff is not only a defensive weapon, it is also a vehicle of information. It is the wizard's staff. For people who believed that God works through heaven, this was a powerful instrument of high authority- it went to the source.

  Aside from the divine, there were also practical ways in which the staff was important; for those who had to take shifts at sentry duty; for mariners without landmark; for farmers wanting to know when to sow crops; for shepherds watching over their flocks at night. We are told shepherds were alert to the birth of the Messiah. They watched the night skies.

Moses and his staff

Moses and his staff

  Staffs with serpents wrapped around one end are a reflection of an ancient cosmology when Draco marked the pole of heaven. Iranian figures of serpents with fixtures set atop poles have been found from the 19th century BC. Even Moses sets his serpent atop the shaft in Numbers 21,

  "'Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard.
If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live.'
So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard,
and if anyone was bitten by a serpent,
he looked at the bronze serpent and lived."

  And in Exodus 7:10, before Pharaoh,

  "Aaron threw down his staff
in front of Pharaoh and his court,
and it turned into a serpent."

  Moses is familiar with these themes, he was raised as a prince in an Egyptian court. He had been schooled in their star lore and astronomy.

  "And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand,
wherewith thou shalt do signs."

-Exodus 4:17 (King James Version)

  Signs, indeed; zodiacal signs. He's reading the stars. The staff is being used to discern the will of God and interpret it for Pharaoh (who does not listen).

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