Teli – Apep: Celestial Serpents
Many Kabbalists identify the Teli with the constellation of Draco as the guardian of the pole upon which the Universe is reflected into material form, others identify it as the Milky Way- in all interpretations it seems to denote a celestial serpent or dragon that is closely linked to the galag (‘cycle’, or ‘sphere’) as in the verse “He set them in the Teli, the Galag, and the Lev[‘heart’]”(Sefer Yetzirah 6:1). This triadic division actually pertains to the Hebrew alphabet and to the 12 Elemental, 7 Doubles, and 3 Mother letters. Within the alphabet, Teli reigns over the 12 Elemental letters and thus over the 12 zodiacal constellations aligning this celestial serpent with the Solar path and the cyclic Universe. Several sources identify the Teli with Nachash Bariach (‘Encompassing Serpent’) perhaps a reference to the ecliptic or zodiac itself, and as stated in the Sefer Yetzirah “the Teli in the Universe is like a king on his throne”(6:2). All this seem to align the Teli with the primordial Chronos serpent encircling the World Egg of the Orphic-Pythagorean traditions or the Ouraborus of the Gnostics – as the principle behind the manifest Universe and its oscillating rhythms responsible for the dimensions of space-time and the cycles of life and death.
Prior to moving forward, some other interpretations of Teli deserve consideration. Interestingly, the word teli never appears in the Bible, it does however occur in the Bahir where it is discussed as the world axis upon which the celestial globe and world of manifestation hangs. In Hebrew teli means ‘to hang’ or literally ‘that which hangs from one’ begging the question of where did its association to a celestial serpent arise? Definitely by the medieval period the association between Teli and the Pole Serpent (Draco) was concrete. As Kaplan in his translation and commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah discusses, for medieval Kabbalists Teli was seen as one of two Leviathans – the female version being the water serpent of earth, the male corresponding to the Pole Serpent of the sky, Teli. This likely arose from Rabbi Shimon’s exegesis on the creation of the male and female Leviathans as the upper and lower “Waters” in the Zohar. He further states that the world of manifestation “hangs from the fins of the Leviathan” placing this serpent in direct context of the polar axis mundi.
Kapplan and Leonara Leet in her “Secret Doctrine of the Kabbalah” discuss the associations between Teli and the constellation Draco (the serpent/dragon that circles the north celestial pole) in depth and I highly suggest that those interested turn to these sources. The notion of the Pole Serpent that hangs/coils around around the axis mundi sheds a whole new light on the biblical narrative of the Serpent in the Tree and the fall of Man, but this is contemplation for another day. Anyway, these two Leviathans help clarify Isaiah 27:1 where both these agents of the manifest world are said to be destroyed on the day of final judgment :
On that day (the day of judgment) with His great
sharp sword, God will visit and overcome the Leviathan, the Pole
Serpent, and the Leviathan, the Coiled Serpent, and He will kill the
dragon of the sea.
Keep this verse in mind as we move forward with this discussion. Early Kabbalists referred to Teli by its Arabic name Al Jaz’har meaning “knot” or “node”. This puts the Teli in the astronomical context of the lunar nodes – which in traditional astrology are fittingly called the Dragon’s Head and the Dragon’s Tail (again, see Leet and Kaplan and references therein). These nodes are the ONLY places along the ecliptic where a full solar or lunar eclipse can occur.
Let us take a moment to summarize. So what do we get veiled within the symbol of the Teli?
A celestial Pole Serpent that is in the Universe “like a king on his throne”, an axis-mundi upon which the world of manifestation hangs, a cyclic principle of space-time exemplified by the 12 constellations of the zodiac, a force that devours the Sun in eclipse, and a beast demonized by exoteric biblical religion that upon final judgment must be destroyed with God’s “great sharp sword”.
Hmmm…do these principles not echo another **celestial serpent** of primal importance in magical and esoteric doctrines?
Well, several including Orphic Chronos and the Ouraborous of the Gnostics discussed above; however, the most prevelant in Western Magical currents is Egyptian Apep/Apophis. This celestial serpent is the devourer of the Sun, the dissolving and destructive force of time that Pharaoh as the Solar Hero ( Re/ Osiris) must defeat in the Duat in order to be reborn into immortal existence. He constantly threatens dissolution into Chaos and the ancient Egyptians were reminded of his presence through the astronomical phenomenon of a Solar eclipse. In exoteric Egyptian religion Apep and indeed the majority of serpent deities were demonized, equated with the eternal forces of dark that had to be defeated and cursed in order to maintain Ma’at.
However, the esoteric Pharaonic tradition place serpents in an entirely different light – sure Apep remained as the antithesis of the Solar Hero, but this may have been more of an allegorical reference to the force counteracting the Pharaoh’s path to immortal existence; primarily, the very principle of a cyclic manifestation in the material universe and the terminal state of becoming as opposed to the eternal state of Is. As finite humans we live under the constant threat of Apep, but the “death” and dissolution he represents may instead be an allusion to spiritual death, to forever loosing our sense of Self to the natural rhythms of life and death and to the darkness of the terminal human condition. By defeating Apep and liberating himself from the karmic cycles of the Universe , Pharaoh stands as an immortal Man-God…indivisible and eternal.
From an initiatic point of view both these celestial dragons/serpents represent the binds of the manifest Universe, they are both linked to the Solar Journey, both eclipse the physical Sun, and they both represent the cyclic life and death principle that must be transcended by the initiate aspiring towards union with God and immortal existence. They were both demonized to some extent by the exoteric and uninitiated doctrines of religious hegemony and both must be slain for spiritual Ascension. I am not suggesting that Apep = Teli, merely that when seen through a traditional lens of initiatic traditions these two serpents share many common principles.