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Different meanings of snake in China and foreign countries

(People's Daily Online)

14:18, February 20, 2013

(People's Daily)

Key Words:snake; cultural difference
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The snake’s spiritual and cultural include evil, auspicious, and honorable meanings. It is the devil incarnate, an ancient totem, a protector of kings, an omen of good fortune and health, and a symbol of wisdom and strength. Overall, the snake has rich cultural and mysterious connotation.

Snake, a symbol of auspice and honor in China

Ancient Chinese thought that the snake could prolong life, and considered it to be a symbol of good luck, great harvest, and reproduction. Snake-themed cultural relics were often found in southwestern and southern China. There are vivid patterns of two snakes fighting with frogs on a bronze jug dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period unearthed in Gongcheng, Guangxi province.

Ancient people living in southwestern China considered the snake as a symbol of good harvest and the earth. The image of the snake often appears on bronze cultural relics used for worshiping and praying for good harvest. The handle of a gold seal that the central government of the Western Han dynasty granted to the ruler of Yunnan province has the shape of a gold snake, which symbolizes the ruler’s high status and authority.

In ancient Chinese mythology, the snake also has close relations with gods. Fu Xi and Nv Wa were pictured as having snake bodies and tails in Han Dynasty stone and brick paintings, with their hands holding the sun and moon since certain people considered them as sun god and moon goddess. There are also paintings of them holding the gauge and square and having dragon bodies and tails. In a silk painting unearthed from the Astana Graves in Turpan, Xinjiang, Fu Xi and Nv Wa are surrounded by stars, and hold each other tight with their snake bodies and tails interlocked, reflecting the grave owners’ wish for more descendants.

The Legend of the White Snake is a popular ancient Chinese story about loyal love, and has been performed in a large number of operas, films, dances, New Year paintings, and shadow plays.

Snake, a symbol of divinity and eternity in Egypt and India

Unlike the Bible, ancient Egyptian and Indian mythology has depicted the snake as a symbol of divinity rather than the devil incarnate.

The snake was the first animal to reappear after the Nile flood receded. It was considered to be an underworld creature that had the power to create the world. In Egyptian mythology, four goddesses with snake heads and four gods with frog heads created the world. They formed four pairs representing the reproduction nature of the primeval sea. Sun god Amun is sometimes represented as a snake devouring its own tail all the time, which signifies eternity and perpetual cycles of renewal.

Indians call a group of serpent deities “Naga.” Ancient Indian Buddhists and Hinduists often drew Naga as having human heads and snake tails as well as five or seven cobra heads like a marquee. A typical example is the relief of serpent gods and goddesses swimming in the Ganges on the Descent of the Ganges dating back to 670 at Mahabalipuram in southern India. In Indian mythology, the snake is also a symbol of eternity, especially when it bites its own tail.

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Read the Chinese version: 蛇年话蛇
Source:People's Daily Paper Edition , author: Yang Hong and Wang Yong.

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