Snakeness and Womanness in Three Cultures
by Hea-kyoung Koh
The snake and the woman are subtle and chthonic images that have served to stimulate human imagination throughout history. Universally, they have become major themes in myths and fairy tales, but the modern and post-modern eras have not been kind to them. Both in the West and the East, the most easily recognized image of the connection between woman and snake is the story of Eve and the serpent seducing Adam. Negative images such as this are testimony to the suppression of the positive aspects of the snake and woman in human consciousness. This article will explore the foundations of these negative perceptions by exploring and analyzing myths from the Korean, African, and Biblical cultures.
These images and the relationship between them have manifested in unique ways in various cultures. In my native Korean culture there are contradictory perceptions of the snake. As long as I can remember, as a child my grandparent’s house has had a “house serpent,” which is a guardian deity for Koreans. My grandparents lived in a small village in Korea where I visited them every vacation. One day, when my grandmother moved a pile of wood for cooking from a corner of the kitchen, a snake slithered out. In contrast to my fearful psychological turmoil, my grandmother was very calm and awaited the gentle exit of the snake. No one in the family tried to either chase the snake away or catch it. Later I learned it was the “house snake,” the protector of the house. The snake used to live underneath the roof which was made of the stems of rice plants. The folk belief of the “house snake” was a popular legend of my grandparent’s generation.
There is another popular Korean story about a snake that contradicts this honoring of the snake: There was a man who lost his way in the forest. At dusk he saw a dim light far away, and he walked toward it. It turned out to be a magnificent house, and when he knocked, a beautiful woman opened the door. She invited him into the house and fed him a delicious dinner. Fatigue made him fall asleep, and in the middle of the night he felt something snaring his body. When he opened his eyes he saw an enormous serpent entangling his body.
This story reflects the collective male fear toward the female. A Freudian might say that this story mythically expresses sexual intercourse. The male anima meets a beautiful woman who feeds and serves him a comfortable bed, where he, or at least his sexual symbol, dies. Paradoxically, the longing to have sexual pleasure with a beautiful woman invigorates life; but the flip side of life is the venom of fear of death. The moment one feels really alive, the taste of death is vivid.
The snake and the female were also linked in the Biblical seduction of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Encouraging Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, the serpent said, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:1-5).
The serpent seduces the woman, who seduces the man to disobey God’s word. Since then, woman and the serpent have received the blame for humans being cast out of Paradise by God. But in a more radical interpretation, this separation from the Garden of Eden can be seen as the inevitable result of the need to grow psychologically. God mentions “The Tree of Life,” and the serpent mentions “The Tree of Knowledge.” Even though this evolution of consciousness can be seen as positive and necessary, someone must carry the shadow of the loss of Paradise, and history has given this burden to woman and the snake.
Mary Condren points out in her book, The Serpent and the Goddess, that Biblical myths were deeply influenced by Ancient Near East (ANE) mythology, including the Sumerian literature that was written around 2,000 BCE, at least a thousand years earlier than Biblical documents. We also see here the deep and paradoxical connection between serpents and the feminine: etymologically, the name Eve, Hawwah, means “mother of all the living.” But Hawwah also means “serpent” in other Semitic languages (7).
The connection between woman and the snake continues in the Bible in a different image: the Virgin Mary crushing the head of the serpent sets up a different kind of relationship between woman and the serpent. Good Christians must slay the serpent, the eternal enemy, and St. George and St. Michael are other examples of this. Mary, the ideal Christian woman, crushes the serpent, and the split between woman and the serpent in Christian mythology is accomplished.
The African Genesis myth, as recorded by Leo Frobenius in 1937, is another example of a strong mythological relationship between the serpent and the feminine:
God made man and called him Mwuetsi, which means “moon.” Mwuetsi has a magical horn filled with ngona oil. When he arrived from the bottom of the lake up onto the earth, there was nothing on the earth. He was cold and bleak, so God gave him a maiden, Massassi, the Morning Star. At night he moistened one finger with ngona oil, and in the morning he saw Massassi’s delivery of trees and grasses. The earth was fruitful. But God took Massassi away and Mwuetsi wept and cried out to God. Then God gave him Morongo, the Evening Star, who delivered chickens and sheep. One day lightening flashed and heavy thunder echoed. He guessed God did not wish him to couple with Morongo anymore, so he rolled a stone against the cavern in order for God not to see them. The next morning she delivered Mamba, the great serpent, who became Morongo’s husband. Mamba the serpent bit Mwuetsi in the thigh. He became sick. Because of his sickness it did not rain and the stream dried up. Animals died and the people were perishing. So the people sent Mwuetsi back into the lake, and chose another man as a new king.
The serpent in this story represents “life-taker” or death-wielder. The serpent was born from a woman and became her husband. The role of Mamba is to stop life-generating forces: first the serpent prevents Mwuetsi from coupling with his wife, and then he takes Mwuetsi’s power of life-generation. But unlike the Christian myth, even if there is punishment, the blame does not fall onto the woman and the snake. It is Morongo who couples with the serpent who causes death.
This union between woman and the snake resonates with the idea that life-giver and death-wielder were originally one, as Marija Gimbutas emphasizes in her book, The Language of the Goddess (316). But there is a distinct difference between the pre-historic goddess image and the female image in the African creation myth, because Morongo is a mortal. In addition, the prehistoric “Great Goddess” has no trace of the father image (Gimbutas 316), and for the creation of life both genders are required.
The wound in Mwuetsi’s thigh symbolizes the wound in his sexuality. Because of his wound there is no rain and no moisture on the earth, so everything dries out. In his book, Phallos, Eugene Monick theorizes that the wound of sexuality is not in the penis, but in the phallus. It relates to the wound of manhood and the damage of man’s self-identity. The phallos represents the source of authority, power and ultimately the source of divine mystery within a man. He explains that damage to phallos is at the bottom of man’s suffering (16). The wounded king, Mwuetsi, brings desolation and the barrenness of ultimate power, strength, and energy to the kingdom. Both Morongo and Mwuetsi are related to the creation of life, but each one’s function is differentiated. Mwuetsi disseminates the oil, which symbolizes the sap or nectar of life, and Morongo impregnates the sap and fills the land with new lives.
As demonstrated by these Korean, Christian, and African stories, the relationship between the feminine and the serpent has various expressions from culture to culture. Yet there are similarities between these images that are universal. Cosmologically they embody the rhythm of life—birth, death, and regeneration. As a snake casts off its skin, a woman’s body changes with her monthly rhythm. Second, morphologically both are grounded on Earth: as a snake touches its entire body on Earth, the anatomy of a woman’s body is grounded toward earth (Paglia). Also the line of a woman’s body, which is watery and curvy, resembles the movement of a snake. Third, psychologically both are ambiguous, subtle, and changeable. In summary womanness and snakeness are substantial, bounded, vigorous, chthonic, rhythmic, cyclic, wily, flexible, and adaptable. Unfortunately these qualities were accepted as unreliable, capricious, chaotic, destructive and dangerous, at least in the West, but also including Confucian cultures in the East. However questionable these conclusions are, they led to demonization, such as in the image of dragon slaying.
Myths spring from a combination of the personal and the collective unconscious, so both must be included when considering images of “snakeness” and “womanness” in the human psyche. Gender discrimination dissolves at the level of the collective unconscious, so it is helpful to look at what qualities may be missing from these culturally influenced, gender specific representations. The opposite of this one-sided view are the Apollonian qualities: straight, determinative, hard, brittle, penetrative, orderly, progressive, and transcendent. The terrain of Apollo provides the atmosphere of the clean, convenient, safe, orderly and protective. Apollo symbolizes light, which has been the main image of “civilization.” Although these “masculine” qualities have fostered positive changes in our culture, there is the huge shadow side of modern civilization that needs to be tended to.
Our perceptions are bound by cultural and mythological manifestations of gender struggles. One-sided gender myths don’t work, and make the struggles between men and women even worse than the uncertainty of the mystery that lies between the genders. As Adolf Guggenbuhl Craig stresses in The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth, one-sided myths are dangerous and even tragic (57). Our psychic balance desperately requires the reclamation and restoration of snakeness and womanness in modern culture. This is accomplished beautifully in Indian mythology in the story of Buddha and the serpent. When Buddha first went into the forest to become an ascetic, he sat down and fell into a deep meditation. The asuras and demons sent thunder and rain to disturb his meditation, when the giant cobra, Muchalinda, appeared and spread his hood over Buddha to protect him. In this myth, the transcendent Buddha reconciles the serpent to being part of divine nature. Muchalinda, the serpent king, is present, substantial, bounded and chthonic. The image of Buddha-Muchalinda represents the ultimate goal, wholeness, which is a balancing of opposite forces. As we need Buddha’s transcendence, we also need Muchalinda’s snakeness in order to achieve enlightenment.
References and Works Cited
Condren, Mary, The Serpent and the Goddess, San Francisco: Harper, 1989.
Giggembuhl-Craig, Adolf, The Old Fool and the Corruption of Myth, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1991.
Gimbutas, Maria, The Language of the Goddess, San Francisco: Harper, 1989.
Monick, Eugene, Phallos: Image of the Sacred Masculine, Toronto: Inner City Books, 1987.
Paglia, Camille, Sacred Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson, New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Hea-kyoung Koh is originally form Taegu, Korea. She received a B.A. in Geology and an M.S. in Paleontology at Kyoung-pook National University in Korea, an M.A. in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California, and an M.A. in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica, doing research on living goddesses on Cheju Island, Korea for her dissertation. She has served as the Amnesty International press coordinator in the Korean section, and was an educational program developer and lecturer at the Environmental Group, Pulenpyonghwa, Korea.