Human Animals Part 21

A very similar story is told of a queen who also gives birth to a serpent.[116] She is allowed to nurse and fondle her offspring in the usual fashion, but for twenty-two years it does not speak and its first utterance is to demand from its parents a wife.

When the parents remark that no nice girl would care to marry a serpent, he tells them not to look in too high a class for a mate.

In this case the father does the wooing, but the mother evokes the truth about her son. When she learns about the snake-skin, she makes the young wife help to burn it, and tragedy results. The husband curses his wife, saying that she will not see him again until she has worn through iron shoes, and that she shall not give birth to her child until he embraces her once more by putting his right arm round her. Then he vanishes for three years, and all that time she is unable to bear her child, so she decides to seek her husband. She travels through the world and comes to the house of the Sun's mother, and when the Sun comes indoors she inquires whether he has seen her husband. But the Sun can do nothing for her but to send her to the Moon. The same disappointment awaits her there, and the Moon sends her to the Winds. After many striking adventures she finds her husband, makes him undo his curse, and gives birth to a son who has golden locks and golden hands.

In another story of serpent-marriage a woman stands in doubt because she cannot cross a river. A serpent comes out of the river and says, "What will you give me if I carry you across?" The woman, having no other possessions, promises to give her coming child; if it is a girl as a wife, if a boy as a "name friend." In after years she has to fulfil her promise and, taking her daughter to the bank of the river, she sees the snake draw her beneath the water. In the course of time the girl bears her husband four snake sons.[117]

An Ainu girl gave birth to a snake as the result of the sun's rays shining on her while she slept, and the snake turned into a child.

The Dyaks and Silakans will not kill the cobra because in remote ages a female ancestor brought forth twins, a boy and a cobra. The cobra went to the forest, but told the mother to warn her children that if they were ever bitten by cobras they must stay in the same place for a whole day and that then the venom would take no effect. The boy then met his cobra brother in the jungle one day and cut off his tail, so that now all cobras have a blunted tail.

In folk-tales the serpent frequently mates with a woman. A curious Basuto story concerns a girl called Senkepeng, who was deserted by her friends and taken home by an old woman, who said she would make a nice wife for her son. Her son turned out to be a serpent, whom no one had ever seen outside his hut, but he had married all the girls of the tribe in succession with fatal results to them, because he ate all the food. Every morning the girl was awakened by a blow of the serpent's tail and was then ordered to go and prepare his food. At last she grew tired of this treatment and resolved to run away. Her serpent-husband pursued her, but she sang a charm or incantation and this delayed his progress and gave her a chance of continuing her flight. Whenever the serpent came up to her she repeated her song.

At last she reached her father's village and told her story, and people were ready to defend her against her pursuer. As soon as the serpent came in sight Senkepeng sang her charm, and the people attacked the serpent and slew it. Presently the serpent's mother arrived and burnt the mutilated corpse, wrapping the ashes in a skin which she threw into a pond. Walking three times round the pond, without speaking a word, she caused her son to come to life again, and he came out of the pond as a human being, and Senkepeng welcomed him as her husband. In another variant the serpent's ashes are put in a vase of clay, which is given to Senkepeng. Afterwards she uncovers the vase and a man steps out from it.[118]

The first Dindje Indian had two wives, one of whom would have nothing to say to him. She used to disappear during the day, and he followed her to find out her secret. He saw her go into a marsh where she met a serpent. When she returned to the hut she had several children, but hid them from her husband under a cover. The man discovered the hiding-place, and there found horrible little men-serpents, which he killed. Thereupon the woman left him and he never saw her again.

In a Bengal story a mighty serpent, after slaughtering a whole family except one beautiful daughter, carries her off to his watery tank, from which she is rescued by a prince. In Russia it is believed that mortal maidens are carried off by serpents.

The Indians are very superstitious. Otto Stoll, author of "Suggestion und Hypnotismus,"[119] showed a friendly Cakchiquel Indian one of his hairs under the microscope. The Indian asked to have it back that he might preserve it, saying that if it were lost, it would turn into a snake, and he would then have to suffer great trouble through snakes all his life. When Dr. Stoll appeared to be sceptical, he told him that he had often seen the long hairs which native women combed out and let fall into the river, become transformed into serpents as they fell. This is a widespread belief, and in an early Mexican dictionary by Molina, in 1571, the word "tzoncoatl" is translated, "the snake which is formed out of horse's hair which fell into the water."

The white snake especially may sometimes be a lovely transformed maiden, as appears from the story of a cowboy who makes a friend of a white snake which comes to play with him and twines about his legs.

One evening in midsummer he beholds a fair maiden, who says she is the daughter of an Eastern king and has been forced to spend her life through enchantment in the form of a white snake, with permission to resume human shape on midsummer night every quarter of a century. The cowboy is the first human being who has not shrunk from her when she appears in reptile form. She tells him that she will come again, and will wind herself three times round his body and give him three kisses. If he should shrink from her then she will have to remain a snake for ever. When she appears, the youth stands firm while the reptile caresses him and, lo and behold, there is a crash and a flash and he finds himself in a magnificent palace, with a beautiful girl beside him who becomes his wife.

The Russians have a story of some girls bathing, when a snake comes out of the water and sits upon the clothes of the prettiest one, saying he will not move till she promises to marry him. She agrees, and that very night an army of snakes seize her and carry her beneath the water, where they become men and women. She stays for some years with her husband, and is then allowed to go home and visit her mother.

The latter, discovering the husband's name, goes to the water and calls upon him. When he comes to the surface she chops off his head with an axe. Probably the snake-bride has been told by her husband not to mention his name for fear of his death, the name being taboo.

In a Zuni legend the daughter of a chief bathes in a pool sacred to Kolowissa, the serpent of the sea. Kolowissa in anger appears to the maiden in the form of a child, whom she takes to her home. There the child changes into an enormous serpent, who induces her to go away with him, and when she does so he transforms himself again into a handsome youth.

Incredulous that such happiness can befall her, she expresses her doubts to the young man, but he then shows her his shrivelled snake-skin as proof that he is the god of the waters and that he loves her well enough to make her his wife.[120]

A beautiful girl in New Guinea was beloved by a chief of a strange tribe, and he was so fearful of entering her father's territory that he asked a sorcerer for a charm which would enable him to change into a snake the moment he crossed the boundary of his own country. In this form he entered the girl's hut, and on seeing the reptile she began to scream. Her father, however, was more astute and saw the serpent was really a man, so he bade his daughter to go to him, as he must be a great chief to be thus able to transform himself. She obeyed his command, and as the serpent went slowly, her father advised her to burn his tail with a hot banana leaf to make him hurry. This she also did, but at the boundary the snake vanished and presently a handsome young man came up to her and told her he was the serpent, showing certain burns on his feet and legs in proof of the statement.[121]

In France the serpent with a jewel in its head is called _vouivre_, which is the same as our basilisk or dragon. The _vouivre_ is a reptile from a yard to two yards long, having only one eye in its head, which shines like a jewel and is called the carbuncle. This jewel is regarded as of inestimable value, and those who can obtain one of these treasures become enormously rich. Many of the legends deal with the robbery of this jewel from the serpent, a crime which is frequently punishable by death or madness.

The French have several variants of the story of St. George and the Dragon. At the castle of Vaugrenans, for instance, there lived a lovely lady whose beauty had led her far astray from the path of virtue. She was changed into a basilisk and terrorised the country by her misdeeds. Her son George was a handsome knight, whose natural piety led him to live a life of good deeds. George decided that he must set his country free from the depredations of the monster reptile, which never ceased to prey upon the neighbourhood and he did battle with it as once the archangel, St. Michael, had combated the dragon. George killed the serpent and his horse trampled what remained of it beneath its hoofs.

George was very sad, however, in spite of his victory, and he asked St. Michael, who had witnessed the struggle, what was the punishment for one who had slain his own mother.

"He ought to be burnt," replied St. Michael, "and his ashes strewn to the winds."

So George had to suffer the penalty of being burnt and his ashes were scattered to the winds. So far the story bears a marked resemblance to the family story of the Lambton worm, but the French tale has a curious sequel. The ashes fell in one heap instead of scattering to the wind, and a young girl who was passing gathered them up. Near by she found an apple of Paradise, which she ate. In due course she gave birth to a son, and when the infant was baptised, it cried in a loud tone of voice, "I am called George and I have been born on this earth for the second time." Later he was made a saint.

The Roman genius, which accompanies every man through life as his protector, frequently took the shape of a serpent.

In many lands, by eating a snake, wisdom is acquired, or the language of animals mastered, and generally a particular snake is mentioned by name. Thus with Arabs and Swahilis it is the king of snakes: among Swedish, Danish, Celtic or Slavonic peoples it is a white snake or the fabulous basilisk with a crown on its head, which resembles the jewel-headed serpent of Eastern lore.

In the country of Rama there stood a brick stupa or tower, about a hundred feet high, in the time of Hiuen-Tsiang. The stupa constantly emitted rays of glory, and by the side of it was a Naga tank. The Naga frequently changed his appearance into that of a man, and, as such, encircled the tower in the practice of religion, that is, he turned religiously with his right hand towards the tower.[122]

In New Guinea it is believed that a witch is possessed by spirits which can be expelled in the form of snakes. Among the Ainus, madness is explained as possession by snakes. The Zulus believe that an ancestor who wishes to approach a kraal takes serpent shape. In Madagascar different species of snakes are the abode for different classes, one for common people, one for chiefs, and one for women, and in certain parts of Europe it is solemnly believed that people may assume serpent-form during sleep.

The fact that the serpent-stories of the nature here collected, are so numerous seems to point to a definite occult connection between the highest living organism, man, who is represented by a vertical line, and the reptile, the serpent, represented by the horizontal line, the two together forming the right angle.


[108] Lenormant, F., "Chaldean Magic," 1877, p. 232.

[109] Deane, J. B., "The Worship of the Serpent," 1833, pp. 344-5.

[110] Burton, "Anatomy of Melancholy," 1881, p. 495.

[111] Trevelyan, Marie, "Folklore and Folk-stories of Wales," 1909, pp. 301-2.

[112] _Ibid._, pp. 302-3.

[113] "North Indian Notes and Queries," April, 1892, p. 12, No. 52.

[114] "Punjab Notes and Queries," March, 1885, No. 555.

[115] Karajic, "Volksmarchen der Serben," 1854, p. 77.

[116] _Ibid._, p. 82 ff.

[117] Bompas, C. H., "Folk-lore of the Santal Parganas," 1909, p. 452.

[118] Macculloch, J. A., "The Childhood of Fiction," 1905, pp. 264-5.

[119] Leipzig, 1904.

[120] Macculloch, J. A., "The Childhood of Fiction," 1905, pp. 256-8.

[121] _Ibid._, p. 259.

[122] Shaman Hwui Li, "The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang," 1911, p. 96.



The cat, as appears from many legends, easily holds the place amongst mystic animals that the serpent has among reptiles, partly no doubt because of its close relationship with sorcerers and witches.

Among the strange animal-gods and goddesses of Egypt none is more famous than the goddess Sekhet and Bast of Bubastis, who sometimes has the head of a lion, sometimes of a cat. The early inhabitants of the valley of the Nile were better acquainted with the lion than with the cat, which was first introduced from Nubia in the eleventh dynasty. In the time of the old Empire there was no cat-headed deity chiefly because there were no cats. When once introduced, the cat became a sacred animal and Sekhet's lion-head was superseded by a milder feline form. The Egyptians also believed that Diana, wishing to escape from giants, chose to hide herself in the form of a cat.

Cats, like foxes, are credited in Japan with the power of assuming human shape in order to bewitch mankind. The two-tailed vampire cat destroys a beautiful maiden and, taking her form, preys on a handsome prince.

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