Snake Spouses and Feminine Symbols in Japanese Folktales Part 6

Snake Spouses and Feminine Symbols in Japanese Folktales Part 6 January 4, 2017

Finally, the end of this very long and dense paper! Also known as, “what’s the take-home point from studying Japanese snake folktales?”

One last beautiful snake. Public domain photo from Pixabay.
One last beautiful snake. Public domain photo from Pixabay.

The final piece in understanding Japanese snake spouse folktales comes from yet another comparison with European scholarship: in fairy tales, “to liberate a princess by slaying a dragon should be tantamount to slaying the dragon in her…such equivalence is another way of saying that a maiden is disenchanted from an ophidian condition into marriage” (Vaz da Silva 2002, 208).  This symbolic equation is certainly insightful, and though the author took into account folklore from all over the world, his main focus was his ethnographic specialty: Western Europe, primarily the Iberian Peninsula.

The reason that Japanese snake spouse tales do not end on a happy note of disenchantment is that the distance between snakes and humans is too great a gap to cross by any means.  Though snakes can take human forms, humanity is beyond their reach, and the ideological divide between humanity and nature remains complete, enforced by the tale-telling tradition.  The paradox expressed in the symbolism underlying the tales is that women exist in close connection to serpents, even though women’s serpent natures must be rejected in order for them to relate healthily to men and to society as a whole.  From this perspective, many of the Japanese superstitions and taboos regarding the death and coupling of snakes (e.g., those found in Daniels 1960) demonstrate the folk awareness of concatenated meanings and multivalent symbolism.

These tales are, as is all folklore, subjective self-portraits of the society that narrates them.  The snake spouses represent not only the otherness of nature in opposition with culture, but of women in opposition with men.  Physically, snakes can symbolize continuity and cyclicity, as in the ouroboros, or snake biting its tail (Mundkur 1976 440).  Yet within human communities snakes represent discontinuity, as when male snakes threaten the reproductive abilities of human females.  This is why in folktales as in customs, the snake within the maiden must be overcome, often by the intervention of an authority figure or hero, so that she can become a productive member of the community.  This also explains why female snakes, embodying taboo aspects of femininity, cannot be tolerated in human communities.  Humans benefit from the surrendered eyesight (or wisdom) of snakes—sacred knowledge regarding renewal by sloughing, hence menstruation—but cannot live side by side with them.



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