When we talk about snakes and feminine sexuality, there’s more to it than the dreaded vagina dentata!
On even a simple level of projection, informant data would be useful in order to try to determine the tellers’ attitudes toward snakes and spouses. For instance, it would be helpful to know whether the narrators of tales with snake husbands were men, women, or both, as for tales with snake wives. Fanny Hagin Mayer’s collection of Japanese folktales lists informants for some of the tales, but includes only names and ages—there is no mention of occupation, level of education, or even gender (for those scholars who are not well enough acquainted with Japanese to know the naming system). There have been suggestions that folktales are primarily a women’s art (Muhawi and Kanaana 1989), in which case certain tale roles, for example those valuing women’s actions and positions, would make sense. Kawai remarks of the snake wife tale, “It is the woman who is active in the marriage, the work, and the divorce. The man is always passive….it becomes clear that they are stories of women” (1982, 113). If these are stories of women, are women telling them, or part of the audience, or completely excluded from the tradition? However, lacking access to Japanese language archives, it is impossible to pursue the weighty issues of context-related meanings further here.
Forced to give up on anthropological particulars, it is possible to turn to symbolic interpretations that can legitimately offer broad theories because they draw on multi-cultural specifics. In addition to menstruation linking women and snakes, as seen above, “woman’s menstrual cycle and ability to bear children emphasize her link to the natural world” (Leavy 1994, 222). Serpents fit into this paradigm because they, too, are part of nature, not civilization. Other ethnographic evidence amounts to the perception of menstruation as a “phase—symbolized as the new moon or the serpent’s skin,” essentially a “fertile death,” which will be “part of a continuous process of change which will bring new life” (Cardigos 1991, 60). Here too are snakes associated with the symbols of women’s abilities to create new life in part of the cyclic reality of nature. It is also possible to take these associations a step further with “the equivalence of menstruation and sloughing—thus, metamorphosis” (Vaz da Silva 2002, 191). To Vaz da Silva, fairy tales themselves are metamorphoses, and all the characters within them metamorphose in varying degrees. Virginal maidens, considered nearly worldwide to be poisonous because they are associated with serpents and with the unavailability taboos of menstruation, must be tamed in order to become accessible for marriage (Va da Silva 2002, 178-79). The plots of various fairy tales revolve around these transformations, through the agencies of dragon-slayers and magical helpers, affecting an evolution from one state of existence to another. Or rather, it is a cycle. Women’s sexuality passes through ophidian and fertile phases, leading to a cyclical logic that underlies symbolism in cultural expressions.
Stay tuned for Part 5…