Human Animals Part 20

[101] 1911, pp. 257-8.

[102] Swift, J., "Gulliver's Travels" (York Library), 1905, p. 231.

[103] Thorpe, B., "Northern Mythology," 1851, Vol. II, p. 173.

[104] H. G. Wells, "The Island of Dr. Moreau," 1913, pp. 89-90, 98-99.

[105] _Ibid._, p. 106.

[106] _Ibid._, pp. 115-6.

[107] Annals of the Twenty-ninth Century, Vol. I (Tinsley), London, pp. 61-2.



Since the beginning of the world the serpent has been regarded as the most mystic of reptiles. He was called "more subtil than any beast of the field," from the day on which he spoke to Eve and said that if she ate of the fruit of the Tree of Life, her eyes should be opened and she should surely not die, and he has been endowed with human powers again and again, worshipped as a god in every part of the world and depicted in ancient art as possessed of human form and attributes. In Aztec paintings the mother of the human race is always represented in conversation with a serpent who is erect. This is the serpent, "who once spoke with a human voice."

Mythology has numberless legends which tell of human or semi-human serpents. The ancient kings of Thebes and Delphi claimed kingship with the snake, and Cadmus and his wife Harmonia, quitting Thebes, went to reign over a tribe of Eel-men in Illyria and became transformed into snakes, just as now Kaffir kings are said to turn into boa-constrictors or other deadly serpents, and some other African tribes believe that their dead chiefs become crocodiles.

Cecrops, the first king of Athens, was supposed to have been half-serpent and half-man, and Cychreus, after slaying a snake which ravaged the island of Salamis, appeared in the form of his victim.

When Minerva contended with Neptune for the city of Athens, she created the olive which became sacred to her, and she planted it on the Acropolis and placed it in the charge of the serpent-god, Erechthonios, who is represented as half-serpent, half-man, the lower extremities being serpentine.

The story of Alexander's birth, as told by Plutarch, is one of the most curious of the man-serpent traditions. Olympias, his mother, kept tame snakes in the house and one of them was said to have been found in her bed, and was thought to be the real father of Alexander the Great. Lucian adopts this view of Alexander's parentage.

The worship of serpent-gods is found amongst many nations. The Chinese god Foki, for instance, is said to have had the form of a man, terminating in the tail of a snake. The same belief in serpent-gods exists among the primitive Turanian tribes. The Accadians made the serpent one of the principal attributes, and one of the forms of Hea, and we find a very important allusion to a mythological serpent in the words from an Accadian dithyrambus uttered by a god, perhaps by Hea:--

Like the enormous serpent with seven heads, the weapon with seven heads I hold it.

Like the serpent which beats the waves of the sea attacking the enemy in front, Devastator in the shock of battle, extending his power over heaven and earth, the weapon with (seven) heads (I hold it).[108]

The story of Crishna is very similar to that of Hercules in Grecian mythology, the serpent forming a prominent feature in both. Crishna conquers a dragon, into which the Assoor Aghe had transformed himself to swallow him up. He defeats also Kalli Naga (the black or evil spirit with a thousand heads) who, placing himself in the bed of the river Jumna, poisoned the stream, so that all the companions of Crishna and his cattle, who tasted of it, perished. He overcame Kalli Naga, without arms, and in the form of a child. The serpent twisted himself about the body of Crishna, but the god tore off his heads, one after the other, and trampled them under his feet. Before he had completely destroyed Kalli Naga, the wife and children of the monster (serpents also) came and besought him to release their relative. Crishna took pity on them, and releasing Kalli Naga, said to him, "Begone quickly into the abyss: this place is not proper for thee since I have engaged with thee, thy name shall remain through all the period of time and devatars and men shall henceforth remember thee without dismay." So the serpent with his wife and children went into the abyss, and the water which had been affected by his poison became pure and wholesome.[109]

Crishna also destroyed the serpent-king of Egypt and his army of snakes.

Lamia was an evil spirit having the semblance of a serpent, with the head, or at least the mouth, of a beautiful woman, whose whole figure the demon assumed for the purpose of securing the love of some man whom, it was supposed, she desired to tear to pieces and devour.

Lycius is said to have fallen in love with one of these spirits, but was delivered by his master, Apollonius, who, "by some probable conjectures," found her out to be a serpent, a _lamia_.[110]

Keats made use of this idea in his poem, "Lamia." Later the word was used to mean a witch or enchantress. Melusina was another beautiful serpent-woman who disappeared from her husband's presence every Saturday, and turned into a human fish or serpent.

A modern version of the legend of Melusina is found in Wales. To assume the shape of a snake, witches prepared special charms, and sometimes a ban was placed upon enemies by which they turned into snakes for a time.

A young farmer in Anglesea went to South Wales and there he met a handsome girl whose eyes were "sometimes blue, sometimes grey, and sometimes like emeralds," but they always sparkled and glittered. He fell in love with her at first sight, and she agreed to become his wife if he would allow her to disappear twice a year for a fortnight without questioning her as to where she went. To this arrangement the young husband agreed.

For some years he did not trouble himself about his wife's absence, but his mother began nagging at him, saying that he ought to find out where she went and what she did. Taking his mother's advice, he disguised himself and followed his wife to a lonely part of a forest not far from their home. Hiding himself behind a huge rock, he noticed from this point of vantage that his wife took off her girdle and threw it down in the deep grass near a dark pool. Then she vanished, and the next moment he saw a large and handsome snake glide through the grass, just where she had been standing. He chased the reptile, but the snake disappeared into a hole near the pool. The husband went home and waited patiently for his wife's return, and when she came, he requested her to tell him where she had been. This she refused to do, and when he asked her what she did with her girdle, she blushed painfully.

The next time when she was intending to go away, he seized and hid the girdle, and thus deferred her departure. She was taken ill, and he, hoping to rid her of a baneful charm, threw the girdle in the fire.

Then his wife writhed in agony, and when the girdle was burnt up she died. The neighbours called her the Snake-Woman of the South on account of this strange story of her doings.[111]

A shoemaker in the Vale of Taff married a widow for her money and, as love seemed lacking on both sides, it was not long before serious quarrels occurred between the couple. Although it was said that hard blows were struck on both sides, the neighbours remarked that it was strange the shoemaker's wife appeared amongst them without a trace of a bruise on her person. At night loud cries and deep groans arose from the shoemaker's dwelling, and a certain gentleman of an inquisitive turn of mind decided to discover what took place and hid himself in a loft over the kitchen, to spy on the couple. Whatever he may have learnt during the proceedings, he said nothing, and a report was spread that he had been "paid to hold his tongue and not divulge the family secret." At last, however, his discretion failed him, and anger against the shoemaker, with whom he fell into a dispute, made him reveal what he knew. He said that as soon as angry words passed between husband and wife, the latter "assumed from the shoulders upwards, the shape of a snake, and deliberately and maliciously sucked her partner's blood and pierced him with her venomous fangs."

No marks were found on the husband's body, but he grew ever thinner and weaker, and after ailing for many months he died. The doctor who tended him in his last illness declared that he had died from the poisonous sting of a serpent. After this verdict the spy was given the credit of his story, which, however, had a gruesome sequel. He and the doctor were found lying helpless in the churchyard one morning. When roused from what seemed a fatal slumber, they said they had been invited by the shoemaker's widow to drink with her in memory of her late dear second husband. Then she sprang upon them in the shape of a snake and stung them severely. They had only strength enough left to crawl to the churchyard, where they would probably have died from torpor had not the neighbours roused them. The widow was never seen again, but a snake constantly appeared in the neighbourhood and could not be killed by any means, so that it earned the name of "the old snake-woman."[112]

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was interested in the subject of prenatal influences, depicted the heroine of his well-known novel, "Elsie Venner," as a girl who had received the taint of a serpent before birth, from a snakebite suffered by her mother.

Elsie's friend, Helen Darley, knew the secret of the fascination which looked out of the cold, glittering eyes. She knew the significance of the strange repulsion which she felt in her own intimate consciousness underlying the inexplicable attraction which drew her towards the young girl in spite of her repugnance.

When Elsie was taken ill her doctor said that she had lived a double being, as it were, the consequence of the blight which fell upon her in the dim period before consciousness.

"Elsie Venner" is an American story, but India, where the snake is even more familiar, is the home of many human-serpent stories, and legends of serpent descent.

Near Jait in the Mathura district is a tank with the broken statue of a hooded serpent on it. Once upon a time a Raja married a princess from a distant country and, after a short stay there, decided to take his wife home, but she refused to go until he had declared his lineage. The Raja told her she would regret her curiosity, but she persisted. Finally he took her to the river and there warned her again. She would not take heed and he entreated her not to be alarmed at whatever she saw, adding that if she did she would lose him. Saying this, he began slowly to descend into the water, all the time trying to dissuade her from her purpose, till it became too late and the water rose to his neck. Then, after a last attempt to induce her to give up her curiosity, he dived and reappeared in the form of a Naga (serpent). Raising his hood over the water he said, "This is my lineage! I am a Nagbansi."

His wife could not suppress an exclamation of grief, on which the Naga was turned into stone, where he lies to this day.[113]

A member of the family of Buddha fell in love with the daughter of a serpent-king. He was married to her and presently became the sovereign of the country. His wife had obtained possession of a human body, but a nine-headed snake occasionally appeared at the back of her neck.

While she slept one night her husband chopped the serpent in two at a single blow, and this caused her to become blind.

Another curious legend is told of a Buddha priest who had become a serpent because he had killed the tree Elapatra, and he then resided in a beautiful lake near Taxila. In the days of Hiuen-Tsiang, when the people of the country wanted fine weather or rain they went to the spring accompanied by a priest, and, "snapping their fingers, invoked the serpent," and immediately obtained their wishes.

The snake tribe is common enough in the Punjaub. Snake families go through many ceremonies, saying that in olden days the serpent was a great king. If they find a dead snake they put clothes on it and give it a regular funeral. The snake changes its form every hundred years, when it becomes either a man or a bull. Snake-charmers have the power of recognising these transformed snakes, and follow them stealthily until they return to their holes and then ask them where treasure is hidden. This they will do on consideration of a drop of blood from the little finger of a first-born son.[114]

Among fairy tales the favourite story is that of a human being who dons a snake-skin, and when it is burnt he resumes human form. The snake-bridegroom is an exceedingly popular version of this idea.[115]

There was once a poor woman, who had never borne a child and she prayed to God that she might be blessed with one, even though she were to bring forth a snake. And God heard her prayer, and in due course she gave birth to a snake. Directly the reptile saw the light of day it slipped down from her lap into the grass and disappeared. Now the poor woman mourned constantly for the snake, because after God had heard and granted her prayer, it grieved her that the being whom she had conceived should have vanished without leaving a trace as to its whereabouts. Twenty years passed, and then the snake returned and said to its mother, "I am the serpent to which you gave birth, and which fled from you into the grass, and I have come back, mother, so that you may demand the king's daughter for me in marriage."

At first the mother rejoiced at the sight of her son, but soon she grew mournful because she did not know how she dare to demand the hand of the king's daughter for a serpent, especially as she was very poor. But the serpent said, "Go along, mother, and do what I ask; even if the king won't give his daughter, he can't cut your head off for the mere asking.

But whatever he says to you do not look back until you get home again."

The mother allowed herself to be persuaded and went to the king. At first the servants would not let her into the palace, but she went on asking until they admitted her. When she entered the king's presence she said to him, "Most gracious Majesty, there is your sword and here is my head. Strike if you must, but let me tell you first that for a long time I was childless and then I prayed to God to bless me, even though I were to bring forth a serpent, and He blessed me and I brought forth a serpent. As soon as it saw the light it vanished into the grass and after twenty years it has returned to me and has sent me here to ask for the hand of your daughter in marriage."

The king burst into laughter and said, "I will give my daughter to your son if he builds me a bridge of pearls and precious stones from my palace to his house."

Then the mother turned to go home, and never looked back, and when she left the palace a bridge of pearls and diamonds arose all the way behind her till she reached her own house. When the mother told the serpent what the king had said, the serpent remarked to her, "Go again and see whether the king will give me his daughter, but whatever he answers don't look round as you come back."

This time the king told the mother that if her son could give his daughter a better palace than his own, he should have her for a wife.

The mother went back without looking behind her, and found that her house had changed into a palace, and everything in it was three times as good as in the king's palace. All the furniture was made of pure gold.

Then the serpent asked his mother to go back to the palace and fetch the king's daughter, and this time the king told the princess she must marry the serpent. There was a splendid wedding, and in due course the young wife found she was to become a mother. Then her friends grew inquisitive, saying, "If you are living with a serpent how can you hope to have a child?" At first she would not answer, but when her mother-in-law insisted on putting the same question, she replied, "Mother, your son is not really a serpent, but a young man, so handsome that there is none other like him. Every evening he strips off his snake-skin and in the morning he enters it again."

When the serpent's mother heard this she rejoiced greatly, and longed to see her son after he had stripped off his snake-skin.

Presently the two conspirators arranged that when the young man had gone to bed, they should burn the discarded skin, and while his mother put it in the oven, his wife was to pour cold water on her husband lest he should be destroyed by the heat. No sooner had he laid himself down to sleep, than they carried out their plan, but the smell of the burning skin made him cry out, "What have you done? May God punish you. Where can I go in the condition I now am?" But the women comforted him and said it was better for him to live among ordinary mortals than in the snake form, and before long the king resigned his throne in his favour, and all turned out happily.

Chapter end

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