Snakes and Snake Women

In American movies, snakes are pretty much used as a standard creepy-crawlie creature to get the girls to scream and the tough guy to protect them. Although they are used in this way in asian cinema as well, there is another application: snakes don't scare women: they are women. And it is the men who had better start running.

Snake Women of India

Before Buddhism, before Hinduism, before the arrival of the Vedic Aryans into India and their sacred texts and epic poems (the Vedas, Upanishads, the Mahabharata), back into the third millennium B.C., there was snake worship in the Indus valley. And so it continues, thousands of years later, in modern India today, tenaciously adapting to each new religion so that it continues to play a part in the spiritual life of many Indian peoples.

It may be that humans have always worshipped the snake, perhaps always will. Snakes feature in the myths and legends of peoples across the globe. The Greeks had their Okeanos, the ocean serpent, biting its own tail; the Norwegians had their Cosmic Serpent, gnawing at the roots of the world tree; the Jews had their snake in the Garden of Eden, bringing knowledge to mankind.

But why this obsession with snakes? Well, in many ways, it's a no-brainer. Snakes can kill you, if you aren't too careful. People who figured that out, survived. We are storytelling animals, and stories were made to explain the relationship of man to snakes. Those who learned the stories survived, and passed them on. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that this sort of cultural evolution occurs along with our biological evolution, and that fascination with snakes became genetically hard-wired, so to speak, in all of us over time. Fear and veneration of snakes is in our genes -- though how our snake-lore is expressed is different depending on the culture we were raised in.

And where else but India would snake-lore be expressed so thoroughly and for so long, ensconed at the root of Hinduism and in the sacred sutras of Buddhism, and even as objects of veneration in their own right? India is home of some of the deadliest snakes on the planet: the viper, the cobra, the king cobra. Thousands of people die of snakebites in India every year. This explains why snake worshipping, though not as common as it once was, still is practiced in some rural areas of the subcontinent, most especially in Southern India.

Serpent Kings

The word Naga comes from the Sanskrit, meaning "serpent." Naga can also mean "cobra." But the term also has come to refer to a group of serpent deities and demi-humans, which is what concerns us most, here. The most powerful Nagas are at the very root of Hindu Mythology, in the Vedas and the Puranas, which when at last passing out of the Vedic oral tradition and into written texts, had no doubt been well influenced by the snake worshipping tales of the conquered Harappan peoples of the Indus Valley (who are also sometimes referred to as Nagas) with whom they lived for hundreds of years.

The Nagas have three kings. The first and greatest is Sheshnaga, born of the residue left over after creation, with 1,000 heads formed into a giant hood. Earth is said to rest on his hood, and his venom ends all of creation at the end of each great cycle of life. Vishnu uses him as a couch. The second is Vasuki, who plays an important role in the Hindu cosmogenic tale of the "Churning of the sea of milk."

It was at a time when the Gods were weak, and the Demons strong. The Gods were being driven out of their heavens. But Lord Visnu suggested a plan -- by churning the cosmic sea of milk, they could dredge up the elixir or immortality from the bottom, and so gain the strength to take back their heavens and defeat the demons. But to churn the cosmic sea was too much for just the Gods alone to do, so a truce was called and the demons assisted, hoping to gain the elixir for themselves. So they went about making the biggest milk-churn the world has ever known, using Mount Mandara as the churn/pivot, and the Serpent King Vasuki as the rope. They wound Vasuki around the Mount, and then, the Gods grabbing the tail and the demons grabbing his seven heads, proceeded to pull the great serpent back and forth, turning the mountain and churning the ocean. Needless to say, the whole thing was making Vasuki a bit nauseus, and he kept belching fire into the demons faces, while the Gods had partly cloudy skies and a nice breeze on their end. Finally Vasuki couldn't take it any more, and vomited up a great poisonous cloud, threatening to kill everything and everyone, gods and demons included. But Shiva popped down and swallowed the poison, saving the world, and turning his throat blue at the same time. Eventually the Gods get their elixir, trick the demons out of theirs, and Vasuki heads out, waiting for the next time the Gods decide to use him for tug-of-war.

The third Naga King is Taksaka, who rather than having cosmic importance, could really be considered more of the tribal chieftain. His story kicks off the epic Mahabharat. A powerful king, out hunting, meets an ascetic in the woods. He speaks to the wise man but the ascetic makes no response. Angered, the King kills a snake and drapes it over the yogi's neck, who is unmoved. When the ascetic's son sees what has happened, he curses the King to die, and calls upon Taksaka, the Naga King, to take revenge. The yogi is not happy about the curse, and sends a disciple to warn the King. But Taksaka is far to clever. He sends some Nagas, disguised as hermits, to the King, and they offer him fruit. The King takes the fruit, from which Taksaka, disguised as an insect, emerges. He stings the King, who is killed instantly.

And so, it is his son's turn to take revenge. He vows vengeance on Taksaka, and by summoning a priest who uses a powerful spell, a sacrd fire is created which consumes the snakes one by one. The young man is intent on ridding the world of snakes once and for all, but just as Taksaka himself is about to be consumed by fire, a great sage intervenes and spares his life. After this, the Nagas retreat to the underworld, promising to bit only the truly evil, or those destined to die prematurely anyway.

Serpent Maidens and Mothers

The Naga, a race of semi-divine snake people who inhabit the Naga-loka underworld with Taksaka as their King, have inspired and continue to inspire legends and stories. But it is especially the women of this race, the Nagin, who have captured the imagination the most. These serpent princesses are said to be strikingly beautiful, but with the power to transform at will, to a cobra, or to a half-snake, half-human figure. A precious gem is embedded in their skulls which give them magical powers.

These beautiful snake women are, apparently, the marrying kind. Arjun, hero of the Mahabharat, takes as one of his wives the Nag Princess Ulupi. In a tale familiar to Chinese and Japanese myth, though with different principal characters, Ulupi spies Arjun doing his religious practices, falls in love, and abducts him to live in her underwater kingdom. He marries her, and lives there for three years, before she allows him to leave and continue his journey, providing him protection from all underwater creatures.

Out of legend and into claims of historic authenticity, it is interesting that several royal families in India claim to have Nagi in their family tree. The Royalty of Manipur, in North Eastern India, traces their lineage back to 33 AD, beginning with a union between a serpent princess and a human. In Southern India, the Pallavas does the same. There are all kinds of legends about snake maidens, down by the river, who fall in love with and marry human men who demonstrate some act of kindness.

One of the best known legends of the Nagi is about a serpent mother, not a maiden, and in snake form, not in human. A farmer, while tilling his field, manages to kill a nest full of young serpents. The mother, on her return, sees the dead snakes and becomes furious. She bites the farmer, his wife, and their children while they are sleeping, killing them all. The farmers eldest daughter, already married and living out of town, takes some time to get to. When the snake mother arrives, she catches the daughter in the middle of worshipping an image of a snake, asking for forgiveness for mistakes made by her family. This makes the mother snake feel like a complete asp, and so she gives the daughter some nectar to bring her family back to life, and leaves in peace.

Snake Women of Southeast Asia

Hinduism, Buddhism, and the cult of the Naga were all exports of India, moving into Southeast Asia through trade routes and pilgrimage. Though unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, some element of Naga worship was probably already there.

In Burma, Nagas have long been part of the spiritual landscape. Interestingly, however, the half-man, half-serpent demigods were not particularly associated with snakes, and so snakes were never considered sacred, as in India. The Burmese Naga is very powerful. It's mere frown can turn a human to ashes. But in general, as in India, they tend to feature in legend more benevolently to mankind, assisting great kings and marrying good looking princes. According to the chronicles of Pagan (the ancient Burmese capital), an early king had Naga attendanants. Another city, Prome, was said to have been built with Naga help, and its king, Juttabaung, was given a Naga princess for a wife, and a sturdy vessel tiled with Naga scales. When they had a falling out, the Nagas reclaimed their boat using a whirlpool, killing the King in the process.

In Laos, the story of Phadaeng Nang Ai tells of a Naga Prince, who wishes to marry a Khmer princess. So the Prince, Phangkhi, transforms into a squirrel to be near her. The Princess, seeing the lovely squirrel, wants it for a pet, and asks her hunter to get it for her. But, she orders a poison arrow to be used by mistake, and the Prince is killed. Right before he dies, though, he wishes to taste delicious, so at least he will have that to give her. And in fact he is so delicious, she shares his meat with most everyone in the city. When the Naga King finds out, he marches his army to the city and kills everyone who dared to eat the meat of his son. He then wraps the Princess in his tail and drags her down into the underworld. A human Prince, who also loved the Princess, kills himself in sorrow, then becomes a Ghost King and leads an army of ghosts against the Naga. Eventually it becomes such a mess that they all just have to wait for Buddha to come sort out who the Princess really belongs with.

In Cambodia, there is the myth of Neang Neak, daughter of King Naga. Prince Preah Thong was walking along the beach, when he ran into a beautiful woman, with whom he immediately fell in love. She grabbed him by his scarf and went into her underwater kingdom, dragging him behind. Today, traditional wedding festivities in Cambodia end with the Bride tugging the scarf of the Groom, leading him into their bridal chamber, clearly recalling the myth of Neang Neak.

In Vietnam, the Cham people worshipped Po Nagar, a Naga sent from heaven, who united the Cham people, and was their first Empress. She taught the people how to cultivate rice and use medicines.

In Java, there is the story of Nyai Lara Kidul, the Queen of the South Seas. One version has it that she was once a beautiful woman, so beautiful the King married her. The other wives took revenge by hiring an old witch to make her ugly. She is cast out, and in despair, walks to the edge of the ocean, where a voice calls her in. She jumps, and becomes Nyai Lara Kidul, Queen of the South Seas. She lives in an underwater palace, and commands the creatures of the sea, and especially, the snakes. Another King, of Mataram, eventually comes across her and falls in love. She promises to aid his descendants forever. Even today, a ceremony takes place at the waters edge to seek her continuing blessings for the Sultan. Many versions of the legend do not claim she has the appearance of a Naga, but the people of Java have long associated her strongly with snakes, and some representations show her as half woman, half snake.

Wherever Hinduism went, the cult of the Naga went, also. An entire wall of Angkor Wat depicts the churning of the sea of milk in bas relief, hundreds of figures, Gods on one side, demons on the other, gripping Vasuki in their hands. The gateways leading to Angkor Thom have sculptures of the same event to either side, figures as large as a man, and the seven heads of Vasuki rear up to greet visitors.

But, excepting Java, the cult did not last in Southeast Asia as it did in southern India. The reason was the widespread adoption of Buddhism, and the fact that Naga stories had permeated Buddhism to such a degree it became impossible to worship Nagas independantly of the Buddha.

The most well known story of the Naga and the Buddha concerns his meditiation by a tree while a huge storm was brewing. The Buddha ignored the storm completely, so has the storm began, a huge cobra named Muchalinda came out of the tree, wrapped the Buddha in his coils, and opened his hood over his head to keep the rain off of him. In this way the great Naga is shown to be lesser than, and respectful to, the Buddha. This image of the Buddha is particularly popular in Burmese art.

Snake Women of China

In the cosmology of China, it is a Naga which creates mankind! Fu Xi and Nu Wa, with human heads and serpent bodies, are the progenitors. Fu Xi is one of China's legendary Emperors, inventor of Civilization. But it is his sister, Nu Wa, who creates humanity itself, scooping up some clay on the water's edge and shaping it. She does a lot of them by hand, but soon gets tired. So instead, she dips a vine into the water, swirls it around in the muddy water, pulls it out and swings it in the air. The muddy droplets turn into human shapes, too, just like the ones she made with her hands. But those she made with her hands became the aristocracy, while the mud droplets became the peasants.

The Chinese Dragon, it should be noted, is much more snake-like than its western counterparts, and some snake legends in one culture become dragon tales here. But that is not to say China did not have its own fair share of snake worship -- river Gods especially were often depicted, and worshipped, as snakes. And stories are told of snake demons of the Naga variety -- half man, half snake, in Guangxi province. But snakes are not revered in China as they are in India. Rather, they are prized for their medicinal properties -- the snake's liver being the most efficacious remedy for a variety of ailments. And snake meat is supposed to be good for the eyes. (Snake fat, on the other hand, should be avoided, especially by men, as this is supposed to have an adverse affect on the functioning of the male member.)

The most famous snake legend of China may also be the most famous snake legend in the world, told and retold in stories, opera, and film -- The Legend of White Snake.

The Legend of White Snake began as a simple cautionary tale of the usual demon-tempts-scholar variety. In its earliest version, White Snake was an evil spirit. A young scholar wandered down near a lake (most snake legends occur near water of some kind -- the natural abode of the Naga). There, he met a beautiful woman, and her attendant. He fell in love, and went with her to her mansion, where he ate and stayed overnight. A Taoist priest happened upon him the next day and saw he was bewitched, and near death, his life having been nearly drained from his body. They went back to the mansion and found a graveyard where it once stood. The Taoist performed an exorcism and a white snake appeared, attended by a black otter. Both of them were driven out.

At this point, the tale is little different from stories of the fox-spirits who enchant scholars and drain them of life, the moral of the story to not have illicit affairs with wanton women, quit being so lustful, and instead maintain your Confucian dignity. The power of the White Snake grew as the story developed and was embellished further. Soon, the Taoist priest alone couldn't handle the exorcism, and a Buddhist monk would be called in to finish the job. White Snake's handmaiden underwent several transformations as well, from Black Otter to Black Chicken, to Green Fish, finally settling on Green Snake -- a less powerful snake goddess than herself.

In the seventeenth century, the legend became a love story. Madam White Snake, as she has become known, no longer sucked the life from our poor scholar. In fact, she doesn't do anything particularly harmful. Nevertheless, a monk is called, White is imprisoned, and the scholar is thankful to be free of the demonness. The tale was further embellished in the eighteenth century in a series of versions for the Opera. It is in its Chinese Opera form that the tale is best known, and barely recognizable from its original form.

In the Operatic version of the story, White gains further nobility, and she becomes a creature of love. The Monk, on the other hand, loses credibility, becomes stubborn, arrogant, and these days is often characterized as "evil."

Madam White Snake

The story begins with White Snake, residing in the heavens, falling in love with an Immortal, Xu Xian. This is against heaven's law, so she is imprisoned in a Lily Pond, while Xu Xian is exiled from heaven, and made into a human. It takes her twenty years, but she is able to free herself from the pond using her magical powers. She heads down to earth, intent to re-unite with Xu Xian, transforming herself to a human being as well.

On her way to earth, White Snake meets and frees Green Snake, who is imprisoned in the Sea Kingdom for causing problems there. Green agrees to become her handmaiden, and together they go to the Broken Bridge in West Lake, to find White's former love.

White discovers Xu Xian as a poor scholar. He does not recall his previous life as an immortal. White creates a boat and boatman to pick up Xu Xian and ferry him across the lake (so, even in this version of the tale, the scholar still meets the snake woman on the shore of the lake). Rain pours down, and he offers her his umbrella. Xu Xian falls in love, and Green Snake acts as a matchmaker to marry the two lovers.

Madam White and Xu Xian open a medicine shop, providing much help for the sick and poor for free. This attracts the attention of the Buddhist monk Fa-Hai, since less people are coming to the Monastery and he isn't getting as much money as he used to. (This is especially so in versions of the opera where the Monk has fully taken the role of the villain, and White Snake, the heroine. Other opera versions still depict the Monk taking an interest in the salvation of the scholar Xu Xian).

Then, on the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival, White and Xu Xian drink some of the festivals special realgar wine together (spiked, as some versions have it, by the malicious monk). Realgar (arsenic sulfide) was believed in Chinese medicinal practices to be an antidote to all poisons and was said to drive away evil. So when White drinks it, she loses control over her form and hides in the bedroom. Xu Xian, curious, takes a peek and sees a large white snake coiled on the bed. At which point, he has a heart attack and drops dead. When White recovers, she is grief stricken, and resolves to travel to the Kun Lun mountains to steal a magic herb which will bring her husband back to life. The heavenly guards stop her, and she is almost killed, but at the last moment, the God of Longevity intervenes and, taking pity on her plight, gives her the herb, which she uses to revive poor weak-hearted Xu Xian. She makes up some elaborate story about what it was he must have seen, and he is convinced.

But the monk Fa-Hai at last confronts Xu Xian about what his wife truly is. Xu Xian's reaction is one of the greatest transformations of the White Snake Legend -- first outright fright, then fear and concern for his spiritual well-being, and at last, in versions such as the one I am describing here, he decides his love is strong, and will endure no matter what his wife truly is. The monk captures Fa-Hai for his own good and takes him to the monastery. Green and White find out and attack the monk, with all the watery creatures of their kingdom coming to their aid. But White cannot continue the fight, she is weakened -- because she is pregnant with Xu Xian's child.

After she gives birth, she is captured by Fa-Hai and imprisoned under a pagoda. Xu Xian renounces the world and becomes a monk. Many years later, he is a scholar who has passed his examinations at the highest level. He visits his mother at the pagoda, pleads with Buddha, and she is released, and allowed to return to heaven.

Even this brief outline of the story of Madam White Snake is filled with episodes that do not exist in some versions, and leaves out many other episodes. The story is different, it seems, with each telling. To give just one example of how different the story can be, one popular ending, which I call the "illustrated children's book ending," has it that Fa-Hai, the monk, is defeated in the end by Green Snake, but he escapes, and hides in a crab. Ever since then, the crab walks side to side instead of forwards and backwards. The story of Madam White Snake is a living myth, constantly being reinvented to fit with the times.

Snake Women in the Cinema

Snakes and Cinema -- not as easy a match as you might think. Part of the trouble is keeping the snakes comfortable on the set, under those blazing lights...

In Indian cinema, the problem is partially resolved by getting lots of similar-looking snakes, so when one passes away, another can quickly replace it. And they need a lot: ever since the movie Nagin enjoyed great success, having a snake in your movie has become a sort of good luck charm to increase box office sales. It seems to be doing the trick -- Nagini films continue to be popular on the subcontinent.

One snake-woman which has enjoyed a dubbed premier recently in parts of India actually came from Cambodia -- Snaker received fairly good reviews, and directors have taken note of the classic Khmer tale. Could a Bollywood remake be in the works? Anything is possible.

In picking the nine films to feature for this issue, I tried to take a representative sample of snake woman movies from throughout Asia, instead of focusing on any one country's output. Indeed, I could have easily found nine films just from India, or even reviewed nine different film versions of The Legend of White Snake pulled from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Below are nine films which capture the flavor of the film industry within each country, from the bombastic, romantic, song-and-dance movies of Bollywood, to the mondo style Cambodian pictures, the camp flavor of Indonesian horror, and the inventiveness of Hong Kong cinema. Of all the films, if I had to chose one which comes closest to capturing the perfect essence of the snake woman, whatever that is, it would have to be Tsui Hark's delightful Green Snake, but almost all of these films have something to recommend them.

Read reviews of movies in this category: Snakes and Snake Women.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on October 01, 2001.


Comments

In Java, the existence of naga is real, they inhabited the spring, lake, pond and ocean, till this day, even a muslim still fear this spirit-serpent

Posted by: bram at July 15, 2008 10:40 AM
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