Why do female snakes go blind in Japanese folktales? Read on to find out!
Returning to the frog, which is the only other creature in Japanese folktales to act as both husband and wife, it is possible to examine another aspect of snake spouses. Mayer’s tale “The Frog Son-in-law” (1984, 16-17) features a frog that is disenchanted into a handsome human youth, and he settles down into marriage with the girl who changed him. There is no such happy ending for snake spouses because they exist outside of mankind’s domain.[i] Evidence for this lies in tales of the “Snake Paramour” type (Ikeda 411C), where the girl traces her snake suitor by attaching a needle to his clothing (which turns out to be his snake skin). One explanation for the deadliness of the needle to the snake is that needles are, in European folklore at least, connected with menstruation (Vaz da Silva 2002, 21), and in general, menstruating women are forbidden from entering into sexual relations with men because their menses are imagined to be dangerous.
A study of cross-cultural supernatural spouse tales makes it clear that “human garments possess the power of culture” (Leavy 1994, 48), and hence it is this power that devastates the male snake, who is an anti-cultural force. Leavy also raises a significant question: “Does the Japanese woman who thrusts a needle and thread into the clothing of her mysterious nightly lover to follow him and discover her serpent identity outwit a demon or destroy her own chance for happiness?” (1994, 103) Based on the above evidence, the human female does not greatly suffer by eluding her snake husband; rather, she triumphs as her own dragon-slayer, prevailing over nature in the name of culture.
The same question might be asked, however, of the human male and the snake wife. Though once the taboo is broken she cannot continue to live with her human husband and child, she provides nourishment for the child by plucking out one of her own eyes, and later the other eye as well. This self-inflicted blindness is equated with ophidian symbolism in other cultures because it initiates a metamorphosis from sensory perception to inner knowledge through self-sacrifice, leading to “a fundamental relation between omniscience and the dragon” (Vaz da Silva 2002, 74). The snake wife in Japanese folktales is a powerful, fertile being who uses her magical powers first to attempt to fit in with human society, then to feed her kin. Here, the serpent’s specialized knowledge refers back to feminine matters, again demonstrating the symbolic alliance of females and snakes. Vaz da Silva makes an interesting point about how “marriage drives the serpent away” (208), citing a Spanish tale wherein a serpent is born alongside a girl, yet disappears when the girl marries, reappearing only to “disenchant her sister by replacing her eyes in their sockets” (2002, 208).
The connection of supernatural serpents with menstruation, vision, and clairvoyance appears in many Indo-European cultures (Vaz da Silva 2002, 80-81, 121), and this association seems to exist in some form in Japanese folklore as well, though this claim is difficult to back up without more ethnographic information. There is ethnographic evidence of the Japanese sense of the “uncleanliness” involved in “the blood-letting of lost virginity” (Bownas 1963, 71), existing along with menstrual taboos. One Japanese example of driving away the serpent within a newly married girl exists in customs mimicking death, such as lighting a small fire in the courtyard of her family as she leaves for her new household, compared to similar fires kindled as coffins are carried out of houses, and the tossing of handfuls of dirt over the new bride (Bownas 1963, 70). These customs demonstrate that there is something anti-cultural, anti-rational, and anti-male that exists within women, and must be expelled before a fruitful union can take place.
Stay tuned for Part 6…
[i] I located one text where a human girl disenchants a male snake into a human youth after marriage, but it appeared in a collection mainly of superstitions (Daniels 1960). Since it was apparently not prevalent enough to show up in any tale collections or have its own type assigned to it, I mentally labeled it Aarne-Thompson tale type 433B, after a European tale that has exactly the same plot. Dubious about its origin, I chose to disregard it in this study.