Gee, where do I begin? This is a big and potentially explosive topic. It is amazing the range of snake-related images to choose from – some of them zodiacal, many of them not, lots of them great. Like my skeleton, skulls and bones posts snakes could fill page after page of absolutely fascinating material. So I have to start somewhere. Please bear with me. That, of course, is not the same as bare with me. I won’t go there for now. No! Instead I will try to concentrate on snakes in Japanese prints many with references – often veiled – to the Zodiac, but this won’t be easy. In fact, the Japanese don’t make it easy. There is the language thing, of course. For example, did you ever notice that the Japanese characters used for the signs of the Zodiac are not the same characters as those used for the creatures? The word for snake in Japan is hebi, but the word for it in the Zodiac is mi. Hebi 蛇, mi 巳. Why is this? Got me. If I ever find out why I will let you know.
But, before we jump into that snake-pit of problems related to the Japanese language and symbolism let’s start off with something European instead: Caravaggio’s Medusa.
Pity the poor gorgon (ゴルゴン/Γοργώ) – Depending on what your reading or dreaming there are a number of back-stories to the Medusa (メドゥーサ) myth. The one I buy into – that is, if I buy into anything at all – is that Medusa was a strikingly beautiful woman who drew the attention of both gods and men. She was either a visitor to Athena’s temple or one of its priestesses. While there, worshiping supposedly, Poseidon came in and either 1) raped her or 2) they made love. This, of course, pissed off Athena because a) she was either jealous of Medusa’s beauty or b) she was angered by such a defilement of her sanctuary or both. Rape or consensual, it didn’t matter to Athena. Defilement is defilement. And, since Poseidon was too formidable an opponent, Athena went after Medusa and turned her hair into snakes which had the ability, along with her face, of turning men into stone. Other stories/myths give completely different readings on this theme, but for now let’s go with the one I just outlined.
Take, for example, the issue of punishing the raped victim. It was as true then as it is now. How does that differ from besmirching the names and characters of women (mainly) who bring their attackers to trial. Or, what about dunking women who were thought to be witches in the 17th century. If they drowned, they were innocent. If not, guilty and had to be burned. And then there is the case of Artemisia Gentileschi (アルテミジア・ジェンティレスキ: 1593-1654), the daughter of a great painter who became a great painter herself. Artemisia was sent to study with a friend of her father’s – at least, that is how I remember it. The friend raped her and she told the authorities. What did the authorities do? They tortured her to get at the truth. Not him, her! Her paintings after that often had a hidden message which is hardly hidden. Kill the bastard! And who says we have advanced since ancient times? My friend Chris says we have, but what does he know?
Below is one of her versions of Judith beheading Holofernes. It is in the collection of Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte.
Do pythons have a stranglehold on you? – In the East, Japan that is, there is the 13th century story of Egara no Heita and the uwabami.
It isn’t only heroic figures that get caught by snakes. In the Met there is a painting by Kyōsai (1831-1889) of one such encounter between with a pheasant. Actually there are other snake/pheasant pairings in Japanese art. In fact, there is another one by the same artist in the Tokyo National Museum with the titile Hebi kiji o maku zu or ‘Snake encoiling a pheasant’. I know I read something somewhere about the significance of these two creatures together, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it said. So, for now…
T. Volker in his The Animal in Far Eastern Art… may give an explanation through his description of a netsuke of a pheasant being squeezed by a snake. “A hunter saw a snake devouring a pheasant that had just eaten a worm. A wild boar came along and ate the snake (the boar is said to be immune from snake bites and to be very fond of snake meat). The hunter was on the the point of killing the boar when he was reminded that if he did close this fatal circle he himself would be killed by one stronger again. So he let the boar go. Thereupon from a tree he heard a voice saying: ‘Deem thyself lucky thou didst not kill that boar for I myself should have killed thee then.’ Looking up the hunter espied a tengu among the leaves of the tree. Deeply moved by his adventure the hunter gave up his sinful profession and became a monk. This is a typical Buddhist propaganda-story…. Buddhism forbids the killing and eating of living things and in this story use is made of a very ancient native tree — and mountain — god, the tengu, to preach the doctrine of Buddhism.”
There is a WONDERFUL, MARVELOUS, OUTSTANDING new resource for people interested in Japanese prints – It is the best thing to come along since the double cheeseburger or the airplane or the Internet. You get the point. I LOVE IT! It is a site run by John Resig and it will revolutionize the world of Japanese woodblock print studies. Here is the link: http://www.ukiyo-e.org. In fact, this is where I found this next image of a uwabami/boa constrictor strangling a deer after putting the word ‘boa’ into his search box. DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and visit John’s site. There is nothing else like it on the worldwide web. You won’t be sorry.
In the West the inspiration goes back to ancient Greece and Rome as can be seen in this image of the athlete struggling with a python by Lord Frederic Leighton. I found this image at commons.wikimedia posted there by Yair-haklai.
The Python painter – The Python painter? There is a krater from in the Louvre dated to 350-340 B.C. It comes from Paestum, an ancient Greek settlement located about 50 miles south of Naples. It shows a scene of Cadmus fighting the ‘dragon’ which looks more like a giant snake or python.
Musée du Louvre
Cadmus, the son of the king of Tyre, brother of Europa who was abducted by the bull (aka Zeus), founder of Thebes, husband of Harmony, patriarch of a very important dynasty, killer of the serpent which was said to be the offspring of Ares and the guardian of a sacred spring. Cadmus needed the water from that spring and sent a cadre of men to collect some, but the serpent killed most of them. So, Cadmus, stud that he was, had to do the job himself and he slayed the ‘snake’.
Cadmus had been offered a heaven sent cow. He had to sacrifice it ritualistically before he could found Thebes, his new home. “The heifer’s fetlocks buckled under her in the valley of Tanagra. Immediately Cadmus began looking for a spring to purify himself before sacrificing the heifer. He found one. But, coiled around the crystalline water, the huge snake of Ares was waiting for him. Many of Cadmus’s companions would have their bones crushed in the snake’s coils before the hero was able to attack it. He could already feel his legs being trapped in the monster’s grip when Athena came to spur him on with some rousing words. Then the goddess disappeared, leaving the print of her heel in the air. Cadmus felt a new strength fill his breast: he lifted a rock and smashed it down on the snake’s head. Then he pulled out the sacrificial knife that hung at his thigh and buried it in the beast. His companions watched as he turned the knife around the snake’s head with the deftness of a practiced butcher. Finally he managed to cut the head off and raise it in the air, while the snake’s coils went on writhing in the dust.” — This is quoted from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Colasso
On another note: Anyone who knows my posts knows there is no telling where they are going to go. Such is the case here. I had forgotten that Cadmus was Europa’s brother. Not that this would matter a great deal except for the fact that one of my favorite paintings in this country is the Abduction of Europa, an early Rembrandt. For decades it was on loan to the Met in New York. Every time I went there I made a pilgrimage to see that little masterpiece. I would stand transfixed in front of it every time. Then, horror of horrors, the owner of that painting sold it to the Getty. I mean, I used to live in L.A., but I didn’t go there on business or pleasure. I saved that for New York. My pilgrimages abruptly came to an end. There was a void, but thanks to the glories of the Internet I can show you what that stupendous picture looks like. I found it at commons.wikimedia. Still it isn’t the same as standing there in front of it. There is no true substitute. It sparkles like a gem. Of course, it has nothing to do with snakes, but I offer no apology.
According to Matthew Clark in Exploring Greek Myth Kadmos, that’s Cadmus to you, the Oracle of Delphi told him to forget about trying to find Europa and to get a cow and lead it to a place where he would establish a city. “When he went to get water from a nearby spring, he found that it was guarded by a dragon, which he killed. Athena then told him to sow the teeth of the dragon, and from these teeth grew a company of armed men, who fought with each other until only five were left alive. In most sources those five were named Echion, Oudaios, Chthonios, Peloros, and Hyperenor, and they were the first inhabitants of the new city. The names of the first four certainly suggest a connection to the earth: ‘Snakeman‘, ‘Earthman’, ‘Groundman’, and ‘Monster’; ‘Hyperenor’ means ‘overweaning’. ”
Forget about the Zodiac – What about snakes and sorcery? – Below is a triptych by Yoshitsuya showing Yorimitsu (頼光) trying to capture Hakamadare (袴垂) by destroying his magic.
Yoshitsuya seems to have had a particular interest in illustrating large frightening snakes. In fact, there is another print illustrating another sorcerer, Jiraiya, but this time he is in conflict with the beast.
Then again, don’t forget about the Zodiac when it comes to some sorcerers – Below is a diptych by Kunikazu in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is from a series called The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. This one clearly represents the sign of the snake, mi (巳).
So, what does all of this have to do with Kim Novak? – In Bell, Book and Candle Novak play a witch who has a Siamese cat called named Pyewacket, her ‘familiar’. The cat helps her cast spells which enable her to make Jimmy Stewart fall in love with her. My point: Sorcerers, both Western and Eastern, often have ‘familiars’ which aid them in their magic. In Japan there are gigantic snails, toads, snakes, etc., that play this role. If you don’t believe me then try watching a few of the Harry Potter movies. Below is a picture of the beautiful – dare I say – gorgeous Kim Novak with her ‘familiar’. My guess she didn’t need a cat or anything else to help her woo anyone, but that is just my opinion.
(If anyone knows of any copyright issues with this image please let me know.)
Snakes show up in the earliest written text in Japan – In the Kojiki from 712 A.D. there is a passage about the scarf which can keep snakes at bay: “Then the Great Deity went out and looked, and said: ‘This is the Ugly-Male-Deity-of-the-Reed-Plain,’ and at once calling him in, made him sleep in the snake-house. Hereupon his wife, Her Augustness the Forward-Princess, gave her husband a snake-scarf, saying: ‘When the snakes are about to bite thee, drive them away by waving this scarf thrice.’ So, on his doing as she bad instructed, the snakes became quiet…”
There is also the legend of the “…Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male’s slaying of the Eight-Forked-Serpent-of-Koshi, in whose tail was found the wondrous Sword Herb-Queller.
Dokuja (毒蛇) – Dokuja means ‘poisonous snake’. It can also be called a dokuhebi. According to one source there are only two kinds of dokuja in Japan. One is said to be the mamushi (蝮) and the other is the habu (波布). I can’t verify this yet, but will try. Besides, what do you take me for, a herpetologist?
Mamushi togurosugata posted at commons.wikimedia by K s
The Goddess Benten and snakes – According to Mock Joya “Around the statue of Benten is often seen coils of snakes, and these snakes are believed to stand for jealousy.” He notes that “Even today, couples are advised not to visit Benten together, as thier presence before the goddess will make her jealous, and they may be caused to separate before long.”
Below is a print by Toyomasa from ca. 1770s showing children looking up at snakes in a tree near the entry to a cave or grotto with a statue of Benten. This print represent the sixth month of the Japanese calendar and is from a series called The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac.
Benten’s sacred day is the Day of the Snake and the best time to make an appeal to her is the Hour of the Snake. The goddess first appeared at Enoshima on a snake-day. When Hojo Tokimasa (1138-1215) prayed to her “…for the prosperity of his house [she] revealed herself to him as a serpent two-hundred feet in length. On the spot where she plunged into the sea he picked up three huge scales, which he arranged in a design still used as the Hojo family crest.”
An interesting contrast – There is another print in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which forms a total contrast with the Toyomasa shown above. It dates from almost exactly the same time, but could not be more instructive in displaying the dramatic difference between the old-style and the new. Harunobu made the great leap into the modern and we can credit him and his publishers for almost everything which came after him and was produced in a traditional way. [I am qualifying this by way of excluding certain modernistic approaches ranging from Sosaku-hanga through pure abstraction printed in non-traditional ways.] Below is Harunobu’s Snake (巳), from the from the series Fashionable Twelve Signs of the Zodiac (風流十二支).
There is a wonderful handscroll at Harvard attributed to Kano Shōun (1637-1702) showing figures of the Zodiac portraying famous classical poets. Below is the snake and dragon section.
Harvard Art Museums
The Snake-Willows of the Avenue of the Dead at Mount Koya – Post Wheeler wrote in The Sacred Scriptures of the Japanese that “…the famous ‘snake-willows’ of the Avenue of the Dead on Mount Koya, which were once reptiles, but for molesting pilgrims were turned into trees by the great Kobo-Daïshi and now have the power to resume their scaly form only to punish sacrilege.”
‘The Snake Willow’ (蛇柳) or Jayanagi was one of the 18 favorite kabuki plays which became the mainstay of the Ichikawa acting group. It was number seventeen. It “…deals with possession by an evil snake spirit.” There is a less than stellar print by Toyokuni III from 1852 which relates to this theme. I have also found an example of the tree itself which you can see below on the left. It comes from the web site run by Shu Suehiro at http://www.botanic.jp. The Toyokuni III is on the right. They both look like trees to me, but the imagination can be a powerful thing.
A little more background… – There was a tree-sprite on Mount Koya which took the shape of a gigantic serpent or dragon. It had lived there since time immemorial. When Kōbō Daishi ordered to move about half a mile away from its home. “He made the demon promise to do so by causing poisonous snakes to appear on his (the demon’s) body, so that he suffered immensely and at once was willing to go away. Thenceforth Kōbō Daishi forbade to bring flutes on the mountain, for fear that the sound of the flute, by its resembling a dragon’s cry, might attract the serpent and cause it to return to its former abode. This was told by one of the monks to Hideyoshi, when the latter, staying as a pilgrim on the mountain, had ordered a famous nō-actor, whom he had taken with him, to give a performance. The monk warned him, not to arouse the dragon by flute playing, but Hideyoshi laughed at him. But no sooner had the tones of the flute resounded on the mountain, than dark clouds arose in the sky and covered the earth. A severe thunderstorm shook mountains and valleys, trees were uprooted and the rain poured down in torrents. Hideyoshi frightened by these terrible signs of the dragon’s presence, fled from the monastery and took shelter in a small house at the foot of the mountain. When about two hours had elapsed, the tempest abated, but Hideyoshi’s unbelief in Kōbō’s wisdom was cured for ever.” This is quoted from The Dragon in China and Japan by M. W. de Visser.
Surimono – privately printed items given on special occasions – The snake years starting with 1785 are 1797, 1809, 1821, 1833, 1845, 1857 and so on. 1929, the year of the Great Crash was a snake year. 1941, too, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And then there is 2001, another year which changed so many lives forever. It is a good thing I am not a believer and as far as I can tell I hold no superstitions, but still… it gives one a reason to pause.
Recently I was talking with someone I know who is times brighter than I am and mentioned that I was going to do this post because we were coming up on the Year of the Snake. He said, something like: “Uh-oh! This is not a good year to have children.” I told him not to worry, that I would be extra cautious. Of course, there is an inside joke there – actually I am laughing as I write this. In fact, there are probably several jokes there. But, no worry, I will avoid reproduction this year and forever.
Hokusai’s snake and melons –
A Gagaku dancer – There is a surimono-style print in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston representing a Gagaku performer dancing near a wooden snake. It probably dates from 1821 and is similar to that of a surimono by Tōshū using the same theme. There is a description of the latter in The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono: “Gagaku is a slow-moving dance form which includes instrumental and vocal music. It originated in the Nara period and his roots in Chinese and Korean court music and dance. Genjōraku, a staple of the Gagaku repetoire, tells of an Indian king who rejoices over the defeat of a dangerous snake.”
Gakutei’s Flute Player Charming a Snake from 1833 –
Harvard Museums of Art
But don’t be deceived – The presence of a snake does not always mean that it is a snake year. At least that is what Roger Keyes (ロジャー・キーズ) says about a Shinsai surimono also in the collection at Harvard.
Harvard Museums of Art
It helps to know that this is the Year of the Snake – Below is a Shuchō (舟調) print from the collection of the British Museum. It is from the series Fashionable Matched Pictures of Zodiac Pairs. This time it shows a child playing with a toy snake. There is a boar in the title cartouche seen in the upper left.
© Trustees of the British Museum
This combination of the snake and boar is an interesting one. I had never notice (or paid attention to) it before. But sure enough there is an Utamaro print with the same matching pair and not only that but it also has a toy snake in it, too. It is believed to date from ca. 1800-01.
The traditional Japanese day was divided into 12 hours, each hour two hours long, and each linked to a sign of the Zodiac. Since the Hour of the Snake, Mi no koku, equates approximately to our 9 AM to 11 AM it only makes sense that it would be paired to that of the Hour of the Boar, I no koku, 9 PM to 11 PM. And while we are on the topic, let’s stay with the concept of the two-hour-long hour. Obviously calculating the precise time of day was difficult under normal circumstances. If you were a member of the imperial court you kept time by water clocks, a more accurate way of doing it than by guessing the time based on the position of the sun. Besides, the sun isn’t always out and the amount of sunlight was affected by the time of year – not to mention, whether one lived in the northern part of Japan or the southernmost tip. And, as for nighttime… forget about accuracy, especially if you were a peasant or such. Imagine how long the nights must have seemed in a darkened society. No digital clocks, no light bulbs to turn on to check how long it is before you have to get up. No pre-set coffee makers. No subway schedules. Nothing. Just the darkness. Even now, we have it easier if the electricity goes out, because we can always push the little button on our wristwatches or iPhones which are battery operated. But, I have strayed: the point is that even the traditional Japanese hour was, more or less, a tw0-hour hour. And don’t get me started on their calendar.
There is a fascinating passage in The Princeton Companion to Classical Literature (p. 400) that says: “It has been calculated (on the presumption that one could take a modern clock to classical Japan) that by nonstandard reckoning of the hour of the Hare (6 A.M. by modern reckoning) would have fallen as follows in Edo times at the latitude of present Tokyo.” This would range from as early as 3:49 A.M. at the summer solstice on June 21 to as late as 6:11 A.M. at the winter solstice on December 21.
A caveat lector from The Princeton Companion… goes on to warn that it is one thing if you read about a particular hour from someone who is writing from the imperial court environment, such as Sei Shōnagon [or Murasaki Shikabu], where they operated on ‘standard’ time, to an event in, say, the Tale of Heike, which was not written at court and the time was anyone’s guess.
Another example of a toy snake appears in a Kuniyoshi surimono in the collection at Harvard.
Harvard Art Museums
Utamaro and his snakes – Anyone who knows the prints of Utamaro (歌麿) knows that he is one of the finest artists who ever lived. He ranks up there with the best of them. Famous mainly for his depictions of beauties he was also capable of limning many other things, like snakes. Sometimes he even combined the two. Sometimes you have to know the snake references because that element is much more subtle to the point of being invisible.
An example of a woman with a snake element is to be seen in this portrait of Takashima Ohisa at her toilette. The snake appears in the rebus shown above her head. Asano and Clark make an attempt at solving this puzzle: “One possible reading of the picture-riddle would be as follows: ‘Ta’ (ricefield), ‘kashima’ (Kashima dance), ‘hi’ (fire), ‘sa’ (cup), ‘mi’ (snake), ‘shitaku’ (the snake’s tongue, shita, in the shape of the character nine, ku), ‘no‘ (moor), ‘?’ (teacup). In other words: ‘A [?] of Takeshima Hisa getting ready.’ ”
Musée Guimet This detail is from a print in the MFA.
One of Utamaro’s finest examples comes from an book of insects and other creatures accompanied by poems, the Ehon mushi erami (Picture Book of Crawling Creatures).
© Trustees of the British Museum
One of the two poems on this page is by Chieda no Hanamoto (千枝鼻元). It reads:
I am sending you a long, wistful letter
Written on paper
Rolled up like a coiled snake
My pent up passion
Is as deep as the snake is long.
Spooky/Creepy – There is a series of ghost prints by Hokusai. Included in the group is one with a snake which is a bit more subtle. Entitled The Implacable Dead shows a snake slithering around an ihai or memorial plaque and some offerings. From my point of view, this is one of the most powerful of all Japanese woodblock prints. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of them overall, but this one has to rank in my top 1 to 5%.
This print is entitled Shūnen which means ‘attachment’, but is actually a reference to a Japanese saying, hebi no yōni shūnen bunkai or as tenacious – or vindictive – as a snake. The snake is slithering over a container holding sweetmeats. The leaf floating in the cup with the Buddhist swastika or manji – a positive symbol here – on it is shikimi or the sacred anise (Illicum religiosum). The tablet or ihai should give the name of a deceased relative. “The serpent must therefore represent the spirit of the deceased person who is unable to accept the loss of something in this world.”
The serpent and the centipede – In olden times, when Fujiwara no Hidesato (藤原秀郷), who lived in the first half of the tenth century, crossed the Seta bridge, a big serpent was laying across it. The hero, however, was not at all afraid, and calmly stepped over the monster which at once disappeared into the water and returned in the shape of a beautiful woman. Two thousand years, she said, she had lived under this bridge, but never had she seen such a brave man as he. For this reason she requested him to destroy her enemy, a huge centipede, which had killed her sons and grandsons. Hidesato promised her to do so and, armed with a bow and arrows, awaited the centipede on the bridge. There came from the top of Mikami yama two enormous lights, as big as the light of two hundred torches. These were the centipede’s eyes, and Hidesato sent three arrows in that direction, whereupon the lights were extinguished and the monster died. The dragon woman, filled with joy and gratitude, took the hero with her to the splendid Dragon-palace, where she regaled him with delicious dishes and rewarded him with a piece of silk, a sword, an armour, a temple bell and a bag (tawara) of rice. She said, that there would always be silk left as long as he lived, however much he might cut from it; and the bag of rice would never be empty ‘. As to the temple bell, this was the most precious treasure of the Dragon-palace.” This was the famous bell he gave to the temple at Miidera.
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that in many versions of this story the serpent is described as a dragon. Below are two interpretations of this story. The first one by Kuniyoshi is less literal, but powerful all the same. Notice the giant centipede in the upper left. The second print is by Yoshiiku. Both come from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
There was a belief in China that centipedes and snakes were archenemies and that centipedes had the ability to kill them. For that reason centipedes were kept as charms against snakes and because they supposedly could cure certain diseases caused by curses. On the other hand, in Japan it was thought that centipedes would die immediately upon being taken into a temple dedicated to Hidesato.
Another version of the Hidesato/centipede story – “One day Hidesato was approaching Seta Bridge on Lake Biwa, northwest of Kyoto, when he found his way barred by a large dragon. Unperturbed, he stepped on the dragon’s head and walked along its body. Immediately a little old man appeared and praised his courage, saying he had waited a long time to find someone fearless enough to slay a giant centipede that was poisoning the lake. Hidesato accepted the task and followed the old man, who was in reality Ryūjin, the Dragon King, down into the depths of his watery realm. Here he feasted with the king and his beautiful daughter, Otohime, until the centipede’s approach was announced by the king’s fishy servants. Lights gleamed from the monster’s eyes and its hundreds of legs. Hidesato show two arrows, both of which glanced off the centipede’s armored plates. He spat on the third arrow and buried it deep in the centipede’s body. Immediately, the lights from the creature’s eyes and legs flickered and died, and its body sank to the bottom of the lake. A delighted Ryūjin gave Hidesato a large bag of rice – hence the name Tawara Tōda, Lord of the Rice-bag…” This is quoted from Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales by John Stevenson. Below is one of Yoshitoshi’s prints dealing with this theme.
On July 1, 2016 there was an article in the Guardian about the discovery of a new ‘giant’ centipede that swims like an eel through the waters in southeast Asia. It is 8″ long. The person who found it was on his honeymoon in Thailand. The article went on to note: “Centipedes eat other invertebrates but also snakes and mice. Their small fangs can pierce human skin for a non-lethal but agonising bite.” No wonder the Japanese made such a big deal out of these disgusting – my term – creatures. Can you blame them. I can’t.
Damn those headaches – There is a Japanese folktale that a woman was having a terrible headache while a serious thunderstorm was taking place. Suddenly a small snake came out of her hair, slithered out the door and flew up into the sky. The storm ceased, I think. Don’t know about the headache.
In ancient Egypt – There is a gold snake bracelet in the collection of the Met listed as Greek/Ptolemaic from the early Hellenistic Period, i.e., ca. 300-250 B.C. Was it worn to ward off evil? Or, could it have been an indication of someone who followed a particular cult. Or… might it have been simply an expression of wealth and taste. If I find out I will let you know. But one thing stands out for sure it is astoundingly beautiful.
Don’t you think she has the lovliest asp? – The image below was painted by Cagnacci (カニャッチ) and is in the collection of the Kunsthistorische in Vienna. I had the pleasure of seeing it once in an exhibition at the Met. I had known it from book illustrations, but never thought I would get to see it in person. I found this reproduction at commons.wikimedia.
In Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, Act V, Scene 2, the queen says:
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?
Within moments she dies.
Shakespeare used the term serpent, both literally and metaphorically, in quite a few of his plays. None could be more powerful than that spoken by the ghost in Hamlet:
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
But, back to ancient Egypt for the moment: Flavius Josephus (38-100 A.D.) wrote in Against Apion 2.7: “As for us Jews, we ascribe no honor or power to asses, as do the Egyptians to crocodiles and asps, when they esteem such as are seized upon by the former, or bitten by the latter, to be happy persons, and persons worthy of God.”
Tut, Tut – There is a golden cobra from the 14th century B.C. tomb of Tutankhamen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is said to represent the serpent divinity Neter-ankh or “living god”. Wadjet, the cobra goddess, along with Nekhbet, the vulture goddess protected the pharaohs.
In ancient Egypt the uraeus, i.e., the cobra, was worn as a symbol of authority.
In ancient Greece and Rome: the anguipede – The anguipede was a monster/deity with either a human body and legs that were snakes or it might have the head of a rooster and snake legs. In some cases it has the torso of a male, while in other places it is referred to as a goddess. Professor Campbell Bonner wrote about the cock’s head and said it represented the anguipede as a “…god of the Sun of the Light, of the Heaven.” Below is a 4th century B.C. Greek vase from the collection of the Louvre.
Musée du Louvre
In Boston in the Museum of Fine Arts is a Roman green jasper carving from the 2nd to 3rd century A.D. of a rooster-headed anguipede carrying a shield. It also looks like it has rather large breastplates.
And then there was Triptolemus in Greek mythology who was “worshiped as the inventor and patron of agriculture”. Plato in his Laws said so. Xenophon confirmed this. Triptolemus is often represented riding in a chariot drawn by gigantic snakes – some say dragons. In many images he is often seen receiving from Demeter and Persephone “…the gift of wheat” meant for delivery to humans. Below is a coin from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It dates from the time of Hadrian, 132-33 A.D., and was used in Egypt.
And then there was Melampus – Melampus was the first person with prophetic skill because he learned the language of animals, as taught to him by two snakes. Apollodorus told us that Melampus “…lived in the country, and before his house there was an oak, in which there was a lair of snakes. His servants killed the snakes, but Melampus gathered wood and burnt the reptiles, and reared the young ones. And when the young were full grown, they stood beside him at each of his shoulders as he slept, and they purged his ears with their tongues. He started up in a great fright, but understood the voices of the birds flying overhead, and from what he learned from them he foretold to men what should come to pass.” The translation is that of James G. Frazer.
More snakes from ancient Greece – with an emphasis on Herodotus – In Herodotus 2.74 it says: “There are also sacred serpents about Thebes that do no harm at all to man. They are small and have two horns growing out of the top of their heads; and these, when they die, they bury in the shrine of Zeus, for, they say, they are sacred to that god.”
In 4.9 Heracles wakes up and can’t find his mares. While searching for them “…he found, in a cave, a monster, half-woman, half-snake; from the haunches up she was woman and below, snake. He saw and marveled at her and asked her whether she had anywhere seen his mares straying about. She had them herself, she said, and would not give them back to him until he had lain with her.” So, he agreed to do that, but she still kept the mares for a while. In time she told Heracles that he could have his horses back and that he was now the proud father of three sons. There’s more to the story, but read it for yourself if you want to learn more. I must move on now. But before I do, I can tell you that one of them was named Scythes and according to the Greeks he was the ancestor of the Scythians. Neat, huh?
In 4:105 a group called the Neuri are driven off their lands by an infestation of snakes. However, that is not the interesting part. What amazes is that according to Herodotus the Greeks and the Scythian claimed that the Neuri were sorcerers who once a year would turn into wolves en masse for some days and then turn back into their original shapes. Herodotus says: “I personally do not believe this story, but they assert it all the same and swear to its truth.” Good thing Herodotus didn’t buy into everything he heard.
My favorite story from Herodotus comes in 1.78: “As Croesus thus reflected, lo! the whole of the outer part of his city was filled with snakes. When these appeared, the horses gave over their grazing on their pastures and came and ate up the snakes. To Croesus, seeing this, it seemed a portent – as indeed it was -…” I love this image. In fact, decades ago I started a painting of this scene. Wish I still had it. However, I did remember a drawing I did as a study for one of the horses. It was my feeble attempt at a copy of a Giulio Romano image. At least, that is how I remember it. Anyway, I tracked down the person I gave that drawing to and asked them to send me a photo if they could if they still had it. He did and below is that rearing horse. Then I tried to find the Romano source, but couldn’t do it quickly. So, I am settling for an another image after that artist done by Antoinette Bouzonnet Stella (1641-76). It shows a bunch of Roman cavalrymen riding forward. It represents the Triumph of Sigismund painted by Romano on the walls of the Palazzo del Te in Mantua. But first, forget the soldiers, focus on the horses and imaging a lot of snakes hanging from their mouths and slithering about. Use your imagination!
Wassmer Collection, Parkville, Missouri
© Trustees of the British Museum
Of course, the Garuda (迦楼羅) eat snakes, too – There is an ancient myth in which the snake-mother and the mother of Garuda argued over the color of the horses of the Sun. Each wagered their own freedom. As a trick the snake-mother sent off her offspring to spit venom at these horses covering them so completely that they looked black. Thus the snake-mother won and Garuda’s mother was made her slave. To win her freedom Garuda had to fetch “the nectar from the sea of milk” which would give them immortality “He put the nectar on a bed of Kuca grass and invited the snakes to take it there after having released his mother. They did so, and Garuda departed with Vinatā, but when the snakes were about to take the nectar, Indra swooped down and carried off the vessel. “‘Then the snakes in despair licked that bed of Darbha grass, thinking that there might be a drop of spilt nectar on it, but the effect was that their tongues were split, and they became double-tongued for nothing. What but ridicule can ever be the portion of the over-greedy? Then the snakes did not obtain the nectar of immortality, and their enemy Garuda, on the strength of Vishnu’s boon, began to swoop down and devour them. And this he did again and again. And while he was thus attacking them, the snakes in Pātāla were dead with fear, the females miscarried, and the whole serpent race was well-nigh destroyed. And Vasnki the king of the snakes, seeing him there every day, considered that the serpent world was ruined at one blow: then, after reflecting, he preferred a petition to that Garuda of irresistible might, and made this agreement with him ‘I will send you every day one snake to eat, 0 king of birds, on the hill that rises out of the sand of the sea. But yon must not act- so foolishly as to enter Pātāla, for by the destruction of the serpent world your own object will be baffled’. When Vasuki said this to him, Garuda consented, and began to eat every day in this place one snake sent by him: and in this way innumerable serpents have met their death here’.” We know this story is true because it was told by a snake which was just about to be eaten. And because it is being quoted from de Vissers’ The Dragon in China and Japan. Below is a Garuda, possibly Tibetan, from the 19th century. And below that is another Garuda, 18th century, but this time gnawing down on a snake. Both are from the collection of the British Museum.
© Trustees of the British Museum
© Trustees of the British Museum
But the story doesn’t end there. By mistake Garuda ate a non-snake friend of his and was so grieved that he swore off snakes forever. In fact, his remorse was so great that he retrieved some of the nectar of immortality and sprinkled it along the shore of the sea where the bones of his snake victims lay. Naturally this brought them back to life and all was right with Garuda’s and the snakes’ world again.
Snakes in the Old Testament – In Numbers 21 the Jews were grumbling against Moses and God, so God sent snakes to torment these malcontents. “Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the Israelites so that many of them died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and you. Plead with the Lord to rid us of snakes.’ Moses therefore pleaded with the Lord for the people; and the Lord told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and erect it as a standard, so that anyone who had been bitten could look at it and recover. So Moses made a bronze serpent and erected it as a standard, so that when a snake had bitten a man, he could look at the bronze serpent and recover.” Below is the Van Dyck version in the collection of the Prado.
Snakes in the New Testament – In Mark 16-18, the King James Version: 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
In ancient pre-Columbian times – There is a gold nose ornament made somewhere in the region of modern Ecuador or Peru that is elegantly plain with a simple engraved decoration of two snakes. Quite striking. It dates from about the 2nd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D.
Among the Aztecs – Coatlicue is the Aztec earth goddess. The name is Nahuatl for ‘Serpent Skirt’. Information from the Field Museum in Chicago said: “According to Aztec belief, the Earth goddess Coatlicue (Co-at-lee-COO-eh) gave birth to a fully mature and armed Huitzilopochtli atop Coatepec. Upon birth, Huitzilopochtli fought with and defeated his half sister, Coyolxauhqui (Co-yol-SHAU- kee), who had plotted with her brothers and sisters to kill Coatlicue for becoming pregnant with Huitzilopochtli. Coyolxauhqui’s body fell from the mountain, breaking into pieces at the base. Her head flew into the sky and became the moon.” So, how did Coatlicue become pregnant? She “…became pregnant with the warrior god when a feather fell from the sky and touched her.”
© Trustees of the British Museum
Coatlicue’s face incorporates two fanged serpents, her skirt is made up of interwoven snakes. She also has other manifestations and names: Teteoinnan (Mother of the Gods); Toci (Our Grandmother); Cihuacóatl (the frightening goddess of childbirth – Snake Woman); and Tlazoltéot (the goddess of sexual impurity and wrongful behaviour). One British Museum web page notes that Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent) and Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) should also be included. They wrote: “The habit of snakes to shed their skin each year probably led to them being used to convey ideas concerning renewal and transformation. Likewise the ability of many species to move freely between water, earth and the forest canopy helped underline their symbolic role as intermediaries between the different layers of the cosmos (underworld, earth and sky).”
Quetzalcoatl, another major Aztec deity was represented as a feathered serpent.
Odds and Ends – In the West if a person dreams about a snake there is generally a Freudian interpretation – since the time of Freud. Fortunately the only time I ever remember dreaming about a snake was on the day that I saw a snake sunning itself on our front porch. Volker in his book on Animals in Far Eastern Art says that a dream about a snake was good luck and could be a sign that the dreamer was going to advance in his/her career.
Some Japanese snake phrases which mean pretty much the same thing –
1) “Yabu hebi no wasu na” – literally: ‘Don’t drive a snake from a bamboo thicket’ – “…it is sometimes better to be tolerant than insistent. English parallel: Let sleeping dogs lie.”
2) “Yabu wo tsutsuite hebi wo dasu” – ‘Let well enough alone’ – literally: ‘By poking at a bamboo thicket you drive out a snake.’
3) “Hebi wo takezutsu ni irrete mo massugu ni naranu” – ‘A snake though placed in a bamboo tube, cannot become perfectly straight.’ – “…a man who is morally crooked cannot be reformed by discipline.”
4) “Ja wa sun ni shite hito wo nomu” – ‘Even an inch-long snake will indignantly attempt to swallow a man.’ – “i.e., the characteristics of a great hero are displayed even in early childhood.”
5) “Mekura-hebi mono ni ojizu” – ‘A blind snake fears nothing.’ – “…one who knows nothing fears nothing.”
These are quoted from: Japanese Proverbs and Sayings by Daniel Crump Buchanan.
Ouroboros – The ancient Greek and Egyptian symbol of a circle formed by a snake devouring its own tail. As an alchemical symbol it signified the unity of all things which always change, but never disappear. It is said to have inspired the chemist Friedrich August Kekulé (1829-96) who discovered the benzene ring.
Mithra, the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light, is often accompanied by a dog, a scorpion and a serpent.
Ahriman, the evil god of the dualistic religion of Zoarastrianism, can sometimes take the form of a snake.
In China it was written that when dragons copulate they change into two small snakes. Some people say that baby dragons come out of their eggs as snakes, but I don’t believe it.
For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at http://www.printsofjapan.com.
For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!