SETH — Man was formerly a serpent
René Guénon — Fundamental Symbols
“كان الإنسان حيّة في القِدم”
One point that seems to give rise to the greatest difficulty is the malefic signification of the name Set (Osiris’s brother and murderer) or Sheth or Seth which, on the other hand, insofar it designates the son of Adam, far from signifying destruction, on the contrary evokes the idea of stability and the restoration of order. Even in Hebrew, the word Seth really has the two contrary senses, that of ‘foundation’ and that of ‘tumult’ and ‘ruin’. In reality, nothing is to be seen here but an application of that double meaning of symbols to which we have often had occasion to allude; and this application relates more particularly to the symbolism of the serpent.
The serpent is one of the symbols of the Egyptian Set, and this can be understood without difficulty if the serpent be considered under its malefic aspect, that which is most commonly attributed to it. But it is almost always forgotten that the serpent has a benefic aspect which, moreover, is to be found also in the symbolism of ancient Egypt, in particular under the form of the royal serpent, the ‘uraeus’ or basilisk. Even in Christian iconography the serpent is sometimes the symbol of Christ, as well as the Biblical Seth who is often looked on as a ‘prefiguration’ of Christ.
It can be said that the two Seths, fundamentally, are not other than the two serpents of the Hermitic ‘caduceus’. It is, if one will, life and death, both produced by a power that is single in its essence but double in its manifestation.
The symbolism of the serpent is actually linked, before all else, to the very idea of life: in Arabic, the serpent is al-hayyah, and life al-hayah. This is linked to the symbolism of the ‘Tree of Life’, and thus enables one to glimpse a singular relationship between the serpent and Eve (Hawwa, ‘The living’).
In Chinese symbolism emperor Fo-hi and his sister Niu-Koua are sometimes represented with the body of a serpent and a human head, and in certain cases these two serpents are intertwined like those of the caduceus, no doubt thereby alluding to the complementarism of the yin-yang.
All this shows that the serpent has had, doubtless in very remote times, an importance which is no longer suspected today.
Also on the subject of the double sense of symbols, it is to be noted that even the number 666 does not have an exclusively malefic significance. If it is the ‘number of the Beast’, it is in the first place a solar number and it is that of ‘Hakathriel’ or the ‘Angel of the Crown’.
At the decline of a civilization, it is the most inferior side of its tradition which persists the longest, in particular the ‘magical’ side, which, moreover, contributes to the complete ruin of the tradition by the deviations it gives rise to. This is said to be what happened with Atlantis. Magic is also the only immaterial thing of which the debris still survive from civilizations which have entirely ceased to function — witness the cases of Egypt, of Chaldea, even of Druidism: and no doubt the ‘fetishism’ of the negro peoples has a similar origin. Sorcery could be said to be made of the vestiges of the dead civilizations. Is this why the serpent, in the most recent times, has hardly kept anything but its malefic significance, and why the dragon, ancient Chinese symbol of the Word, awakens only ‘diabolical’ ideas in the minds of modern Westerners?
René Guénon - Fundamental Symbols, The Universal Language of Sacred Science