The Identity of Le Serpent Rouge
Re-Membering the Hidden Geography of the Alchemical Marriage


by Simon Miles
from ConsciousEvolution Website

recovered through WayBackMachine Website

The "Red Sea" in the caption (right) this detail from the Ripley Scroll was a well-known code name for the divine mercurial water and its tincturing power. Here it is depicted as the blood pouring from the heart of the "Serpent of Arabia". It brings happiness to whomsoever finds it, and flows, round as a ball, to every place in the world, Ripley writes.

-from The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy and Mysticism by Alexander Roob (Taschen 1997)

In 1967 a roughly printed booklet of five typewritten sheets was deposited in the French Bibliotèque Nationale, as is legally required of every document published in France. It bore the title: Le Serpent Rouge: Notes sur Saint Germain Des Pres et Saint Sulpice de Paris, and was bound together with some rough maps of France and some genealogies. The main body of the text comprises a prose-poem, of thirteen short paragraphs. It is written in French in a cryptic style filled with obscure and esoteric references.

Little about the poem makes sense, from its appearance and origin, to the identity of its authors, to its content itself. It is generally accepted that the poem has some connection to the mysteries of Rennes-le-Château, although, as we shall see, even this assumption is not as clear-cut as might be supposed.

A link to the poem itself may be found at Marcus Williamson and Corella Hughes Le Serpent Rouge webpage at their comprehensive Rennes-le-Château Homepage. various alternative translations of the poem from its original French into English and Italian, and a detailed analysis of the text and its abundant hermetic, alchemical and rosicrucian metaphors.

The events surrounding the appearance of Le Serpent Rouge (hereafter LSR) are described in detail in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh. This includes an account of the mystery of the identity and fate of the "authors" of LSR, or at least, those named on it’s title page, all three of whom apparently died in mysterious circumstances shortly after the claimed date of publication. However, for a recent alternative analysis of this version of events read this posting at Henry Lincoln’s Key to the Sacred Pattern Website Discussion Forum.

Having stated the bare facts of the existence of the poem, we now put these aspects to one side. For the purpose of the analysis which follows, only the content of the poem itself will come into consideration. The story of its provenance and unorthodox publishing might well be ambiguous, but at least the actual content of the work is not. We will approach the poem therefore assuming nothing except that it was written in 1967 or earlier, and became public after that date.

On first encounter, LSR appears to be a nonsense work assembled from obscure and apparently unconnected esoteric references. If there is an unambiguous content to the poem, it would seem to elude any kind of simplistic or surface reading. Perhaps, as some have suggested, the work is indeed simply gibberish. Yet, one may also glimpse a semblance of inner logic which hints that it would be rash to jump too quickly to such a conclusion. Nevertheless, if there is a sense to be made of it, then one might guess that it requires a key, or template, by which the sense of it can be grasped and the most puzzling references identified.

Indeed, several authors have presented attempts at a "decoding" of Le Serpent Rouge, often of an intensely personal or esoteric nature, but despite some creative and even quite compelling theories, the essential puzzle remains: what is it which this curious poem is describing behind the veil of nonsense and arcane clues? What is the nature of this journey around the zodiac of thirteen signs? Indeed, what is le serpent rouge, or, the red snake?

This essay will present an entirely new reading of the poem which will attempt to provide satisfying if surprising answers to these questions and others. While it will not attempt to explain all, indeed most, of the cryptic references the work contains, it will positively identify two crucial sources of material which the authors of LSR, whoever they were, employed in constructing the framework of the poem. It is to be hoped that by positively illuminating one layer at least of the many-layered mystery of Le Serpent Rouge, other aspects of meaning of the poem will begin to come into clearer view.

One of these sources is a book which will be shown to have been a rich source of the background material and symbolic content which makes up the architecture of LSR. It will be shown to be an almost inescapable conclusion that whoever was responsible for creating LSR was familiar with this book. Further, once the book and its contents have been positively identified, the specifics of this content will enable us to reveal and confirm the identity of Le Serpent Rouge itself.

The second source is an original map form which may be familiar to some readers of these pages. This unique map will provide the clues as to the nature of the journey undertaken in the poem, and a spatial and geographic context within which many of the otherwise puzzling references in the poem begin to make sense. Whilst this particular map has no claims to historical reliability of any kind, and indeed might be dismissed as a modern construction, which in a sense it is, it is also demonstrably the core spatial metaphor which underpins the action of LSR. This leads to inevitable questions about the origin of both the map and of the poem, for the connection can be shown to be so compelling that either the map was known to the authors, or both map and poem have emerged full-blown from the collective unconscious as mutually reinforcing templates revealing the same hidden esoteric geography of Europe.

This is to get ahead of the argument however. To arrive at these conclusions, it will be necessary to describe the poem, together with the two sources, the book and the map, individually, and in relation to each other. As a beacon to keep on track through the tangled trails of this material, we will hold as our initial goal, at least, the answer to the specific question: who or what is Le Serpent Rouge as described in the poem. To understand the identity of this "red snake" which was the object of the journey undertaken by the protagonist of the poem, we will first examine the nature of the journey itself. Once the path taken is clear, the destination will become visible.

The hero, referred to only as Cet Ami, or This Friend, undertakes a journey around a zodiac, with certain unusual features. It has thirteen signs, including the usual twelve with the addition of Ophiucus, the Serpent-Holder. It begins in Aquarius and ends in Capricorn, rather than in Aries and Pisces as is traditional. Besides these small variations, it is clearly not a zodiac in the sky, amongst the stars, where the zodiac is usually to be found, through which our Friend is journeying. as his travelstake him through "woods" and "hills" and "mountains", it would seem that this zodiac is somehow located on the earth. If the journey is not through some literal geographical region, then at least it is a passage through a metaphorical landscape.

Keeping in mind that we are seeking to identify the nature and location of this zodiac which provides the stage for the action of the poem, we look for other clues within the work which might help to shed light on the overall framework.

A prominent clue to unravelling this puzzle is presented on the second page of the original pamphlet in which the poem itself appears. This page is presented as a kind of frontispiece. It depicts a rough sketch of a woman leaning on a column and staring at four cubes on the ground in front of her. Appearing below the picture are the words:

(translation: ...find, one by one, the sixty-four stones...)

Further hints to understanding the inner geography of LSR are provided within the contents of the poem itself. In the sequence of Taurus, Gemini and Cancer, we find the following statements:

  • Taurus: "I can find the 64 scattered stones of the perfect cube."

  • Gemini: "Reassemble the scattered stones and working with square and compass, put them back in order."

  • Cancer: "The Mosaic Tiles of the sacred place alternate black and white."

The clear impression made by these clues is that this space is created of 64 black and white cubes; that these had once made up a larger 4 x 4 x 4 cube, but that they are now to be reassembled into an 8 x 8 chessboard arrangement. Throughout the poem there are constant references to white and black in the different signs, and to chess-terms ("the knight’s tour) which reinforce this conclusion.

It would seem clear then that the action of Le Serpent Rouge takes place on a chessboard. If we take this at face value, then we will now need to find a chessboard which functions as a metaphorical landscape in some sense, and which also acts as a zodiac. This immediately presents one major difficulty. If this chessboard is also a zodiac, in this case one consisting of 13 signs, it appears at first glance that there is no obvious way to arrange the signs on the board so that they make sense. Twelve signs would fit nicely around the twelve outer squares of a 4 x 4 block, but the inclusion of Ophiucus appears to have created an impasse, as thirteen just won’t fit.

Nevertheless, if there is a coherent framework to the poem, there seems little alternative but to imagine it as a 13 sign zodiac connected in some way to a chessboard in a landscape.

A possible way forward from this impasse is suggested in the 1997 edition of the Guinness Book of Answers. The following sentence appears in a short description of the zodiac:

"Ophiucus is considered by European astrologers to be not so much the 13th sign as the second half of the sign of Scorpio."

With this in mind, it is time to consider a candidate for the land-based zodiac chessboard on which LSR might be based.

I have described the Chessboard of Europe elsewhere on this site. It is derived by combining together the ideas of two researchers in very different fields who wrote nearly a century apart, unaware of each others works.

The first of these writers was J. Ralston Skinner, author of The Source of Measures, published 1875. In that fascinating work, he discusses at length a square arrangement, the "preferred ancient form", of the zodiac. It consists simply of the usual twelve signs disposed around the outer squares of a 4 x 4 matrix, arranged so that Taurus/Aries occupy the right centre positions, and Libra/Scorpio the centre left.

The second of the sources was Professor Livio Stecchini, who describes a grid map in use by the Ancient Egyptians. In Part One, I describe how Rennes-le-Chateau and Paris both fall on major grid intersection points of this mapping system. Stecchini’s grid map of Ancient Egypt gives rise very naturally to an eight-by-eight grid of squares which neatly encompasses "Greater Europe".

Intuitively, it seemed an interesting idea to explore what would happen if Skinners "preferred ancient form" was overlaid on the squares of the Stecchini gridmap. The result is the map-form shown above.

There are several correspondences between the zodiac signs and the underlying geographical regions which invite closer scrutiny. It is noteworthy that Taurus, for example, overlays the country of Turkey, and that the major mountain range forming the backbone of this area is the Taurus Mountains!

The sign of Virgo coincides with that region of Europe, centered on south-eastern France, in which the highest concentration of Black Madonna statues have been found. These mysterious and ancient images predate Christianity, and may be traced as references to Isis, who is also the Woman depicted in the constellation of Virgo, for example at Denderah... There is a seamless identity of archetype which links the two Marys of the Christ story (His Mother and the Magdalene) to Isis and Virgo.

But I will try to zero in on the two major questions which are presented by LSR, and present some unexpected but hopefully satisfying answers. It seems to me that any successful explanation of LSR must explain, firstly, the nature of the journey undertaken around this strange zodiac of 13 signs, and secondly, it must identify exactly who or what is Le Serpent Rouge, or the Red Serpent.

The only prerequisite I ask of those who wish to follow my argument is that you put aside, for now at least, all preconceptions about LSR and what it could mean. I assume nothing at all about the poem, except for the fact that it exists. I approach it as a piece of text of unknown origin or purpose, and attempt to make sense of it.

The text (original, facsimile and translations) may be found at Marcus Williamsons Rennes report. The action of the poem consists in a journey by an unnamed protagonist around a zodiac of 13 signs. Where is this zodiac? How is it defined? Let us begin with Gunnar’s quote:

The translation of the French line may be rendered:

...reassemble one by one the 64 stones....

I take it that the 64 stones make up a chessboard. References in the poem to black and white squares would seem to confirm this. Take this as an assumption for now: the action concerns a chessboard. What kind of a chessboard has a zodiac on it? The only one I have ever heard of is my Chessboard of Europe concept. Perhaps this is itself a "private cipher", but stick with me for now. But if this is so, how could 13 signs be arranged on a chessboard. Try it. There’s no way to fit them into any kind of sensible circuit.

One day I was idly flipping through the 1997 Guinness Book of Answers. I came across a reference to the zodiac which included the sign of Ophiucus, the Serpent Holder. There I read:

"this sign is considered by European astrologers to be not so much the 13th sign as the second half of the sign of Scorpio".

That was just what I needed. So, take Scorpio, and split it into two halves to create Ophiucus. Now, we have thirteen zodiac signs arranged on a chessboard.

Let’s check how it fits so far. The poem begins in Aquarius, which is odd, as zodiacs usually begin with Aries. But check it out: Aquarius is at the bottom on the right of the centre dividing line which represents winter. Hence the action starts here at the winter solstice of this Chessboard of Europe (which recall represents the precessional transition from the Age of Taurus to Aries).

The references to white and black seem to match up correctly for the most part. The keen reader can check this out. There are plenty of other details to observe, but in our haste to get to the main questions, we skip these, and proceed to the sign of Sagittarius.

Here the poem says: turning again to the east...

Now, this line provide confirmation that indeed this configuration is correct, because in no other arrangement could one arrive at Sagittarius and then "turn to the east" to keep going. So we are looking good.

But now the poem says words to the effect that ahead of me I could see Le Serpent Rouge. So, stand on the Chessboard of Europe, look to the east, and what is it that one sees "straight ahead". Why, its the Red Sea. The Red Sea is the Red Serpent. Now take a close and careful look at this picture:


click images to enlarge


It sounds unlikely, I know, that Le Serpent Rouge could represent the Red Sea, and so far, the evidence appears slim. We will need better than that if the identity of LSR is to be positively confirmed. Nevertheless, I repeat my request to put aside all preconceptions about the solution at least for now.

Lets go back to Sagittarius. It says, and I quote:

"...l’enorme SERPENT ROUGE, cite dans les parchemins, salee et amere...".

The translation in Genisis of this line reads:

"...the enormous RED SERPENT, mentioned in the documents, rigid and bitter..."

Other translations however render the last words "salty and bitter".

I prefer the latter translation, but, either way, it seems to make little sense. Why should the Red Serpent, or indeed the Red Sea, be considered "rigid and bitter", or "salty and bitter".

Here’s why: the two bodies of water which drain into the Red Sea are the Dead Sea and the Murrah Lakes (Murrah-Al-Kubra - Egypt). As every schoolchild knows, the Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water on earth.

And as for the Murrah Lakes: this word Murrah simply means Bitter. These are the Bitter Lakes.

Salty and bitter = Dead Sea and Murrah Lakes.

So now, not only do we have the Red Sea in the correct position to correspond to the sighting of le Serpent Rouge from Sagittarius, but it is specifically identified with just those two bodies of water which are connected to it!!!!!!!

In other words, this hypothesis makes sense of the "salty and bitter" quotation.

Perhaps we are onto something here. Could it be that Le Serpent Rouge is describing a journey around the esoteric geography of the Meditteranean?

Thus far I have advanced the hypothesis that Le Serpent Rouge is a cipher for the Red Sea, and that the key to this decoding is the Chessboard of Europe, based upon Professor Livio Stecchini’s reconstruction of the grid map of the Ancient Egyptians.

However, one might object that this is little more than a lucky strike. After all, the Chessboard/Zodiac of Europe has not been publicly described before, and it would seem extremely unlikely that the authors of LSR could have been aware of it. In fact, one might even say that it is little more than a fantasy or conceit of mine, and could not possibly relate to a poem which appeared over 30 years ago. And this would be a fair comment as things stand.

To make a convincing case that LSR really does describe a kind of symbolic Grand Tour around the Mediterranean Sea would require identification of a published source which makes these connections and was available before the poems appearance.

That’s where Jung comes in. His final work, published just before his death, was titled: Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy. It was first published in German in 1955, and subsequently translated into English and made available under the Bollingen Series imprint, Princeton University Press, in 1963. Le Serpent Rouge, for comparison, appeared in 1967.

This opus was the crowning achievement of Jung's career, a massive tome summarizing the fruits of a life’s research into the psychological underpinnings of the alchemical process. Again, it is not even remotely possible to summarize the contents or themes of the book here, and so, again, at the risk of skipping over important details, I will cut straight to the chase.

Section III The Personification of the Opposites contains 5 sub-sections, the last of which is entitled Sal, or Salt. It consists of 8 chapters. Here are the chapter headings:

a. Salt as the Arcane Substance
b. The Bitterness
c. The Red Sea
d. The Fourth of the Three
e. Ascent and Descent
f.  The Journey through the Planetary Houses
g. The Regeneration in Sea-Water
h. The Interpretation and Meaning of Salt

If anyone will read LSR, and then examine my hypothesis of the Chessboard/Zodiac of Europe as template for the action of the poem with its identification of the Red Sea, and then read these 8 chapters of Jung under the heading of Sal: then, I suggest that it will be almost impossible to resist the conclusion that the authors of LSR had previously read this same material, and that furthermore, they must have had the correspondences in mind which the Chessboard scheme brings to light.

One can see immediately just in the chapter headings themselves that the Red Sea is discussed together with the concepts of salt and bitterness, just as is the case in LSR. This alone is enough to make a compelling argument.

Not only does Jung describe at length the symbolic connections between the Red Sea and the concepts of salt and bitterness, (which reflect, as I have noted, a geographical reality as well as a metaphoric one), but he also expands on the link between the Red Sea and the symbol of the serpent in alchemical thought.

For example, the following quotation appears on page 201:

“I have gone into this Hippolytus text at some length because the Red Sea was of special significance to the alchemists. …(It) appears in a very peculiar manner in the “Tractatus Aristotelis ad Alexandrum Magnum” where a recipe says:

‘Take the serpent and place it in the chariot with four wheels and let it be turned around on the earth. … and then you have placed the four wheels upon the chariot, and will obtain the result, if you will advance to the Red Sea, running without running, advancing without motion’

This curious text requires a little elucidation. The serpent is the prima material… The four-fold rotation of the natures corresponds to the ancient tetrameria of the opus (its division into four parts), i.e. transformation through the four elements, from earth to fire.”

There is plenty more in this vein, but perhaps that is enough to show briefly that Jung treats with considerable detail the connection between the Red Sea, salty and bitter, the serpent and the alchemical process.

This material could, and hopefully will be, expanded into a much longer treatment, and this very brief account here will necessarily be short on detail. However, it should be sufficient to allow the keen reader to examine the texts for themselves to get the flavor of what I am suggesting, and to make the case that the LSR authors were familiar with MC.

There still remains the matter of the nature of the strange journey undertaken by the protagonist of LSR, a Grand Tour around the zodiac, which, by my hypothesis, is represented, in this case, in a square format. So, we are dealing with a square, or four-fold metaphorical voyage around the “world”, or at least Asia, Europe and Africa. Is there any precedent for such an idea?

In fact there is, and amazingly enough it is to be found described in great detail in MC, in the section entitled The Fourth of the Three, appearing directly after the chapter called The Red Sea.

It remains to identify the precedent for the mysterious journey which makes up the structure of the narrative of LSR.

The source is a work by the seventeenth century alchemist and Rosicrucian, Michael Maier, specifically Book 12 of Maier’s Symbola aureæ mensæ duodecim nationum , published in Frankfurt, 1617. The section of interest is entitled:

“A Subtle Allegory, concerning the Secrets of Alchemy, very useful to possess and pleasant to read.”

A link to this document is provided here: Michael Maier - A Subtle Allegory: The Fourfold world journey, or Grand Peregrination, through the Planetary Houses.

Within this “Subtle Allegory” is found an account of a symbolic world-journey undertaken by the alchemist in his imagination. Jung treats of this journey at great length in the sections of MC concerned with the Red Sea. In fact, the opening sentence of the fourth chapter (“The Fourth of the Three”) of the Third Section (“Sal”) of MC reads as follows:

“In the course of his mystic peregrination Maier reaches the Red (“Erythraen”) Sea, and in the following way: he journeyed to the four directions, to the north (Europe), to the west … , to the east, …and turning south…”

Then follows an extended analysis and discussion of the symbolism of this “mystic peregrination”, a phrase which reminds me of the opening words of LSR in Aquarius:

“Comme ils sont estranges les manuscripts de cet Ami, grand voyageur de l’inconnu (How strange are the manuscripts of this friend, great traveler of the unknown)”.

That’s it then. Michael Maier’s four-fold world journey to the Red Sea appears in Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis. And then, the very same themes which Jung enlarges upon in the course of this discussion appear as the core motifs of Le Serpent Rouge.

A close examination of these works will convince, imho, even the most skeptical reader that something is, indeed, going on here.

In the light of this, matters take an intriguing turn. Because, if it is accepted that Jung/Maier provides the precedent for LSR, then how could it be that the crucial identification of the Red Serpent with the Red Sea, as part of a unique geographic/zodiacal map-form, could have been known to the authors of LSR? This would imply that they were aware of the Chessboard of Europe format.

Or perhaps, post-Gunnar, we are beginning to understand how a cipher can become embedded in a text without the authors of that text being conscious of it’s presence!

In any case, putting the three items (LSR, MC and the Chessboard of Europe) together, seems to provide some extraordinary correlations, and the conclusion that this must be more than co-incidence seems, to me at least, irresistible.

The biggest problem with accepting the scheme I have outlined, I suppose, is that everybody "knows" that LSR concerns the environs around Rennes. The zodiac is understood to be laid out in the surrounding countryside, although no-one has definitely identified it (though many have tried), nor can anyone point to a definitive statement which proves that, indeed, LSR is all about a local tour of Rennes.

The original LSR publication does not make this claim, but it seems to have become folklore, due perhaps to Boudet’s book, that the "correct" solution must involve something near Rennes, or at least around it.

In fact, this intuitive idea is correct: the Tour of LSR is "around" Rennes. The tricky aspect which has kept the solution hidden is that the scale is vastly different from what has been imagined...

What do I mean? Well, Rennes is located on the grid map of Europe. It lies on the meridian which defines the left, or west side of the Zodiac of Europe, as described on my site.

Hence the Tour does involve Rennes, and follows a circuit which includes Rennes, but it is on a continent-wide scale, rather than a local scale! The circuit takes in Rennes, but goes all the way around the Mediterranean Sea!!!

"Prove it!", I hear the cry go up...

Turn to Ophiucus. The original text of the last sentence reads as follows:

"A ceci, Ami Lecteur, garde-toi d’ajouter ou de retrancher un iota...medite, Medite encore, le vil plomb de mon ecrit contient peut-etre l’or plus pur"

which translates as:

"Take heed, my Friend, do not add or take away one iota. Think and think again, the base lead of my words may contain the purest gold."

I understand "do not add or take away one iota" to imply that we should pay very careful attention to the most minute aspect of this document. The very next words are "medite, Medite encore". The second "medite" is capitalized in the original. Grammatically, it should not be, unless it was a proper noun.

Should we understand this to be a mere typographical error? Or as it follows directly on from the exhortation to pay attention, and in particular not to take away the smallest detail, would we rather be justified in assuming that this capitalization is of importance? I choose the latter.

Is there a proper noun Medite? Not that I am aware of. Unless it is short for something... How about Mediterranean?