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Snakes and culture in northern regions

Posted January. 01, 2013 00:26,   


Snakes have a negative connotation in Christianity and Islam. A serpent enticed Eve to eat an apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Bible says snakes were cursed by God to crawl on the ground. In Greek mythology, the Gorgon Medusa had an affair with Poseidon, the God of Sea, and Athena was so offended that she turned Medusa into a monster with snakes for hair. Snakes are also unwelcome in Confucian culture. The Chinese saying "a dragon`s head and a snake`s tail" meant adoring the dragon and despising the snake. Traditional folk paintings in Korea have little images of snakes. Though there are stories of wicked serpents eating magpies, no paintings of them exist.

The image of the snake is negative in the northern cultural sphere but positive in the southern region. Cambodia`s Angkor Wat and South America`s Mayan city have snakes engraved in banisters. People living in East Asia would be surprised to see that they are not dragons. Here, snakes are respected as gods. In Buddhism, which originated in India, the glory of the Buddha has its origin in a cobra`s head. In many Buddhist sculptures from the southern region, cobras are coiled around the Buddha`s head and place a hood over it.

As Buddhism spread to Northeast Asia including China, Korea and Japan, the images of Buddhist sculptures also changed. The snakes coiled under the Buddha`s seat were changed to lotuses, while the glory was changed from snakes to lotuses or other patterns. In China, Buddhist sculptures have dragons but no snakes. Dragons are originated from snakes. Rumors in Indian culture say dragons were transformed from cobras. People in northern cultural regions disliked snakes, and so the bodies of snakes were maintained while the appearances were decorated differently based on imagination. Snakes prevailed in southern regions with a hot climate. People there decided to live with snakes because they had no choice. Those in northern areas might have had no reason to do so.

Northern cultural regions have yet to be influenced by southern culture. Snakes are included in the 12 Earthly Branches, which first appeared in the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise carapaces at the end of China`s Shang Dynasty. East Asians still use the 12 branches in the Chinese zodiac. In the Bible, Moses had snakes coiled on his cane. In Greek myths, Hermes` cane had two snakes covered around it. In the ancient Goguryeo mural painting Sashindo of Korea, snakes and tortoises are tangled up together. Snakes survived despite repression in northern regions. 2013 is the Year of the Snake. In a globalized world, the snake serves as a good symbol for mutual understanding between different cultures.

Editorial Writer Song Pyeong-in (pisong@donga.com)