Missed the introduction? Part 1 is here.
Of the many things a snake can symbolize, the first to occur to anyone familiar with the psychoanalytic teachings of Freud would be a phallus. He notes that snakes are “above all those most important symbols of the male organ” (1900, 392). Since then, other scholars have taken for granted the symbolic association of snake and phallus, like Weston La Barre outlines in Semitic and African folklore (1962) and Géza Róheim focuses on in European folktales (1952). There exists data wherein a snake acts as a man would; such as in Mexican memorates of snakes raping women (Jordan 1989) and in a Japanese superstition that snakes seek to enter women’s private parts (Daniels 1960). In these limited contexts in which a snake shows sexual interest in a maiden, or if one were to tenaciously observe only the shape of certain species of snakes in a rigid position, this interpretation might appear valid.
Criticism comes from those who notice: “On the other hand, evidence abounds that links snakes with the vagina. Various metaphors evoke castration anxiety, such as the Medusa’s head of snakes or the vagina dentata, whereby ophidian forms denote detached phalli” (Cooke 1999, 161). However, even while recognizing that female organs can fulfill snakelike functions, these associations still cling to the concept of snakes as phalli. Wolfram Eberhard mentions a Chinese condition of interpretation: “If the whole snake is concerned, it is, indeed, a male symbol also in China; but if only the head is concerned, it symbolizes the female sex organ” (1970, 92). Another interpretation, based on observations of a snake’s physical characteristics, specifies, “the serpent is not just a phallic symbol. It is a bisexual symbol, for it more often devours than penetrates” (Puleo 1995, 450). The same author later discusses the exclusively feminine, serpentine powers of chaos found in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Aztec mythology (452, 454). In this way, according to specific cultural contexts, snake symbols pass from unchanging phallus to context-specific phallus or vagina. As snake-cult expert Balaji Mundkur concludes in a chapter on the serpent as a sexual symbol, “Genital symbols, whether they are contrived consciously or subconsciously, are too fickle to justify any cross-cultural generalization that the serpent is predominantly a phallic, or vaginal, or even a universal sexual symbol” (1983, 206). Hence generalizing about snake symbols is unsuccessful, when statements must be continually reinforced with specific cultural evidence.
One useful position, however, links snakes and women without imposing any theoretical presumptions on what adds up to a mountain of similar data worldwide. It is one thing to say that a snake symbolizes a vagina—or that a vagina symbolizes a snake—and quite another to draw attention to a series of folkloric connections that all have in common various principles of femininity. Robert Briffault provides ethnographic data from dozens of cultures globally to the effect that serpents are connected with the moon, women are connected with the moon, women are connected with serpents, and moreover, “serpents are regarded as being the cause of menstruation” and “women are liable to be assaulted by serpents” (1969, 2: 666-67). Folklore items from superstitions to myths indicate that women and snakes are undeniably connected, in a way that links snakes to women’s most basic physiological functions.[i] These associations can thus be a useful tool for interpretation, rather than a blindingly narrow mode of perception.
Dangerous generalizations are present in even the specific study of Japanese folklore, with a blanket statement that seductive and deceptive snakes “are usually female and assume the forms of women” (Opler 1945, 250). Dangerous female snakes do exist, but they primarily appear in medieval legends with a clearly Buddhist agenda. In one, a vile woman, whose lust for a monk had changed her into a serpent, kills and changes him into a serpent as well. Both are freed by the actions of another monk who copies the Lotus Sutra in purity (Ury 1993, 93-96).[ii] In legends rather than in folktales, benevolent male snakes also exist, such as those that impregnate a human girl with a future hero rather than with malevolent intent (Ikeda tale type 411C, “Snake Paramour,” some variants). Keigo Seki’s treatment of the serpent bridegroom deals with this type, summarizing it thus: “Comparable to an origin legend rather than to a märchen, this form was evolved and transmitted by families which proudly claimed descent from the serpent’s child” (1963, 283-84). In regional explanatory legends, snakes often are associated with some special body of water (for example, snakes demanding sacrifices in “The Cistern of Yusa,” Suzuki 1949, 39-40). The snakes in legends serve a different purpose than snakes in folktales; their connections with specific places and families lend them an etiological flavor, and in religiously inspired texts they serve as examples of vice within an already established system of meanings. Symbolically, the association of snakes with water is significant, but already well documented (Visser 1913), as is the association of snakes with negative images of women (e.g., myriad writings on the Garden of Eden).
Stay tuned for Part 3…
[i] Women’s physiological functions, such as menstruation and childbirth, give them spiritual power, which men can only ritually emulate. See Chris Knight, 1991, Blood relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
[ii] This misogynistic attitude of equating women with snakes, and hence evil, seems to appear primarily in medieval traditions, under the influence of Buddhism. See, for example, Royall Tyler’s Japanese Tales (1987, New York: Pantheon Books) wherein women incite desire in snakes, and women also feel lust for men, which turns them into female snake demons. Consider also a Japanese proverb: “In women’s hearts there dwell serpents” categorized by Hiroko Storm as a proverb exemplifying women’s ill nature (1992 “Women in Japanese Proverbs” Asian Folklore Studies 51: 167-182).