SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

Keeper of the Threshold

The scorpion is a constant reminder that death walks with us.  We should always remember that we are in a limnal state -- in the process of crossing a threshold.

The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is one of our oldest pieces of literature, possibly the prototype for all quest tales and certainly, of the "buddy" kind of story.  It recounts the adventures of the hero Gilgamesh and his friend, Enkidu the giant.  As in all quest myths, the hero undertakes a descent to the Land of the Dead.

Mesopotamian lapis seal with scorpion-guard impression.Along his way, Gilgamesh journeyed many miles to get to the place where Utnapishtim resided.  He traveled through the desert alone, though he had never been alone before. Then he approached the mountains where scorpion folk guarded the entrance to the underworld. 

A Scorpion man realized that Gilgamesh was two-thirds god, and one-third man.  He asked Gilgamesh, "Why have you taken this route to us? The way is arduous and long, and no one goes beyond here." 

Gilgamesh answered: "I have come to see my father, Utnapishtim, who was allowed to go beyond.  I want to ask him about life and death  . . .  . "

In the mythology of ancient Egypt, the scorpion stands for Seth, the Trickster and brother of Nephthys, queen of the Land of the Dead.  He is the nemesis and opponent of Osiris, and Isis the Magician.  Seth caused the death of his brother Osiris by tricking him into "trying on" an irresistibly gorgeous coffin. 

Greek Mythology

In one Greek tale, the scorpion stands for a military-like readiness -- "first strike capacity."  More usually, it symbolizes revenge, as in the Artemis/Orion conflict.  There are at least 3 versions:

Artemis was in love with Orion, but he was in love with the Eos, goddess of Dawn. Out of spite, Artemis arranged for Orion to be killed by the celestial Scorpion.  A simpler version says Artemis used Skorpios to kill Orion in revenge for his having raped her. 

A later version has Orion boasting of his greater hunting abilities.  To demonstrate this he was intending to single-handedly exterminate every last animal on earth.  Artemis, protectress of life, but also goddess of the hunt, used Scorpio not only to prove Orion wrong, but also eliminate the threat. 


The Akkadians called the constellation we know as Scorpio, Girtab, meaning the Seizer, or Stinger, and "Place Where One Bows Down." According to Allen (Starnames: Their Lore and Meaning) some early translators of the cuneiform text rendered its name, "the Double Sword." 

For later dwellers by the Euphrates River, it stood for darkness.  Its appearance indicated the decline of the sun's power after the autumnal equinox which in those times was located in it. 

"Always prominent in that astronomy, Jensen thinks that it was formed there 5000 BCE, and pictured much as it now is; perhaps also in the semi-human form of two Scorpion-men, the early circular Altar, or Lamp, sometimes being shown grasped in the Claws. The Maya also saw this constellation as a scorpion." 

~ Richard Hinchley Allen. Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning. London: Dover Publications, 1889/1963.

In Western astrology, people born under Scorpio are said to be strong, lustful, jealous and vengeful. These same qualities can take on corresponding positive aspects such as the ability to love passionately, apply themselves with determination and have good memories. A sort of horrible glamour is possessed by "double Scorpios" -- someone born in the sign of the scorpion with Scorpio also as their ascendant. 

The tendencies to viciousness were captured in the satirical 1964, Kenneth Anger film, Scorpio Rising


Tibet's poet-saint, Jetsun Milarepa (1040-1143) did not begin as such.  In his youth, Milarepa studied black magic in order to enact revenge on the relatives who abandoned him to a life of bitter poverty following the death of his parents.  According to his student Rechugpa (1084-1161,) he invoked a giant black scorpion to attack his uncle's house. 


The Egyptian goddess of transformation, Isis (or, Aset,) was liberated by the god of wisdom, Toth, from the room in which Seth had her at work weaving a shroud. She was given a company of seven scorpions to serve as her bodyguard, which forms a circle around her.

[image no longer available] Composing the front arc are Petet, Tjetet and Matet. To the goddess' left is Mesetet and to her right, Masetetef.  Tefen, with most of the venom, is behind her to the left, and Befen, the 7th is beside him.

Depicted as a beautiful woman with a scorpion on her head, Selket (or Serget) is the Egyptian scorpion-goddess who eases childbirth.  Her scorpion minions could strike down the wicked but, like Isis, she could intervene to save the lives of those who were innocent. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, the scorpion is associated with Dorje Dröllö, the wrathful aspect of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) and with his consort, Tsogyel Tröllö. 

Also the Moon-eater, Za Rahula, has a scorpion-horned minion called, Digpa Rusrin


The fascination or threatening gesture (Skt. tarjini mudra) consists of a fist with forefinger and little finger extended; it is called the "forefinger-scorpion gesture" (Tib. Digzub Chagya.)  By using it, the greatly accomplished yogin (Skt. mahasiddha) Nubchen Sangyé Yeshé created a scorpion apparition that terrified King Langdarma: 

When in the ninth century, King Langdarma and his hostile ministers set about to suppress the Indian Buddhist teachings and to close the Buddhist monasteries such as Samye, he summoned the Tantric master Nubchen Sangye Yeshe and his disciples into his presence, although all of them were not Buddhist monks but rather Tantrikas (sngags-pa). The arrogant king challenged Nubchen, inquiring, "And what power do you have?"

"Just observe the power I can manifest merely from the reciting of mantras!" Nubchen replied and raised his right hand in the threatening gesture of tarjini-mudra.

Instantly, in the sky above the Tantric sorcerer, the king saw nine giant scorpions appear, each the size of a wild yak. The king was terrified at this vision. So he promptly promised not to harm the white-robbed Buddhist Tantrikas and to refrain from disrobing and exiling them as he had done with the maroon-robbed Buddhist monks. Then Nubchen pointed again into the sky with a threatening gesture, and lightning flashed from heaven, shattering into pieces a nearby boulder.

Doubly terrified, the king vowed, "I will not in any way harm you or your white-robed followers!" and he ordered that his prisoners be released. because of the mighty magical powers of this Tantrika Nubchen, the anti-Buddhist king could not destroy the esoteric teachings of the Mahayoga Tantras nor their white-robbed practitioners, the Ngakpas (sngags-pa, one who uses mantras.) Subsequently, this Tantric Order of Nyingmapa Buddhists has flourished among the Tibetans until this day.

~ Excerpt of John Myrdhin Reynolds' The Golden Letters. Snow Lion, 1996. 


An amulet is any charm that serves to protect.  (A talisman is one that brings good fortune.) The image of a scorpion, often as a woodblock print on rice paper, appears widely in the Himalayan cultures for this purpose. A scorpion wheel charm is associated with a Tibetan Buddhist Yamantaka practice.

The legend of Begtse, the Mongol war god, tells how he converted to Buddhism in the 16th century at the sight of the Dalai Lama's transformation into Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  As a consequence, he became a symbol of pacification and the last in the series of 8 (or 9) Tibetan Buddhist dharma protectors or Dharmapalas.

"He is represented with all the ornaments of the Dharmapala, brandishing a sword in his right hand, the handle of which is in the shape of a scorpion. His left hand holds the orange heart of an enemy near his mouth, clutching at the same time a bow and an arrow. He tramples upon the corpse of a man with his left foot and the carcass of a horse with his right foot. His three eyes are full of fury directed at the enemies of the dharma."

~Nitin's essay Feb. 2001 at Exotic India Art.

Scorpion in Tibetan is digpa ratsa means negative- , or harmful action and also, menace.  As in the symbolism of Beg-tse, it is evocative of the Buddha-dharma's power to transmute bad, even deadly, circumstances into beneficial ones. 

For example, in the fire puja for Vajradaka (Tib.: Dorje Khadro) who is a fierce and wrathful deity invoked to purify negative actions, black sesame seeds are used to represent problems and regrets.  They are arranged into the shape of a scorpion which is then consumed by fire as practitioners visualize all physical, psychological, emotional hindrances being annihilated compassionately by Dorje Khadro who joyously devours them for us.

The tradition of the scorpion's transformative power makes it a suitable symbol for Vajrayana or tantric Buddhist masters.  It is often used as a personal seal or stamp. 

This stylized scorpion has 3 eyes, 8 five-segmented legs, and a tail with 5 joints. The numbers add up to 52, the number of weeks in a year.  The impression can be coloured blue, green and red to stand for any of three of the five traditional elements: space/ether, air, and fire.  The Ngak'chang Rinpoche has a scorpion seal, and the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s red scorpion seal may sometimes be seen on his calligraphies. 

Scorpion Places

Going south to Gyangtse via the Khamba La pass, the traveller gets a stunning view of Scorpion Lake or Yamdrok Tso, the abode of guardian Dorje Gegkyi Tso. In the form of a great scorpion, the lake is sacred to the Tibetan people as one of four "Great Wrathful Lakes," but today it is the site of another ill-conceived project by the PRC

Near Mukhtinath, on the ambulatory or circular path of Chumig Gyatsa (place of 100 springs) there is a rock with a naturally formed scorpion that is understood as the hand implement of Guru Dragpo.

The Falaknuma palace of Hyderabad (India) constructed on a hill and covering an area of around 10, 000, 000 square metres, was built over a period of seven years by the nawab or prime minister, of the Nizam, one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Indian rajahs.  It  is laid out in the shape of a scorpion with two stingers spreading out as wings to the north.  Many who have resided there for any length of time have died "unnatural" deaths and this is attributed to the extravagant building's scorpion-like design. 

Scorpion Words

In Chinese writing, a character for scorpion stands for the number ten thousand.  According to J. Singleton

There had been no written character for the number, but there had been several for "scorpion", one of which was pronounced the same way as the number (wan) -- so the character was redefined to mean "ten thousand", although still drawn with the claws on top and the tail curled up on the other side of its body.

Designers of the astounding 11th-century temple complex of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, India, employed a complex sexual symbolism that, besides shocking /titillating tourists, has had European scholars occupied with its interpretation since Burt's "discovery" in 1839.  

Now, as some of the veils of prudery and ignorance are removed, local experts have been able to cast some light on the imagery.  For example, according to India Today, Devangana Desai's Religious Imagery of Khajuraho can tell us [page with photo ^] that the nayika has undone the strings of her triangular undergarment ostensibly to rid herself of the scorpion that we see on her left thigh.

The scorpion may be a symbol of  lust, but it is also a pun on the site's name, Khajuraho. The Sanskrit word for the animal is kharjura; the original name for the village was Kharjura-vahaka, meaning "scorpion bearer."

Famous Fable 

The Tortoise and the Scorpion: This version of "It's not my fault; it's in my nature" has a twist.

Natural History

Scorpions are not insects but a closely related arthropod. 

Great indeed is the power of the dragon as the sun, 
Yet humbly and slowly it meanders its way shy, 
Minuscule indeed is the power of the tiny scorpion, 
Yet it swaggers its tail and boasts to the sky.     ~ Old Thai verse

The tail terminates in the "stinger," called a telson

The largest scorpion on record was an Indian Heterometrus swannerdami that measured     29.2 cm  (11.5 in.) long.

Consequences of stings can differ extensively depending on the sub-species.  Most are no worse than a honey bee sting and do not usually lead to death.  For example, in 1997 a man survived 21 days in a cage with 6,000 Malayasian arthropods that stung him over 90 times.  

In America (the Southwest USA and Mexico) only Centruroides is a known people-killer.  It is whitish, tan or yellow with dark longitudinal stripes, and from two to 7.5cm (1 to 3 inches) long, with long slender pincers.  The sting is immediately and exquisitely painful, increasing with even the lightest tap at the site.  It contains a neurotoxin that can result in severe medical consequences, even death, especially for small children, pets, the elderly and the severely allergic.  In Mexico, over 1,000 people die each year from scorpion stings. 


Nubchen Sangyé YeshéVen. Bardor Tulku Rinpoche is considered an incarnation of Nyubchen [also, Nupchen, Nyupchen] Sangye Yeshe, who was one of the foremost of the 25 disciples of  Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava.)

Khajuraho:  A temple city in north central India that was in disrepair and virtually unknown until the early 19th century.  The India Today article points out: "Only around 10% of the friezes depict sexual acts, and most of those erotic panels are part of the sandhi, a liminal area high up between two other important architectural elements of the Hindu temple, the mahamandapa and the garbhagriha. This, explains Desai, is a juncture of the dualities of earthly and heavenly existences. "

Home ] Up ] Next ]

[ Scorpion ] The Butterfly ]  

Copyright 1998-2018 Khandro.Net All rights reserved. This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others. However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our links.