Ever since Eve became overly familiar with the inhabitant of a certain tree in the Garden of Eden (rather eccentrically depicted in the above painting by William Blake, “Eve tempted by the serpent” [1799-1800]), snakes and women seem to have displayed a strange penchant for co-mingling, at least in the world’s mythologies.
In Aztec mythology, for example, Cihuacoatl (“snake woman”; also Cihuacóatl, Chihucoatl, Ciucoatl) was a motherhood and fertility goddess, prone to haunting crossroads at night in order to steal children. She also helped Quetzalcoatl create contemporary humanity by grinding the bones of our predecessors and mixing the result with Q’s blood to form the clay from which humanity was molded.
The Japanese have Nure-onna (lit. “wet woman”), seen here in a famous illustration from the Edo Period, by artist Sawaki Suushi.
According to Pink Tentacle,
“Nure-onna is typically seen at the water’s edge, washing her long, flowing hair. In some stories, she carries a small child, which she uses to attract potential victims. When a well-intentioned person offers to hold the baby for Nure-onna, the child attaches itself to the victim’s hands and grows heavy, making it nearly impossible to flee. In some stories, Nure-onna uses her long, powerful tongue to suck all the blood from her victim’s body.”
In the various Hindu mythologies, snakes and in particular cobras (or naga) play a prominent role. The Naga Kanya (Cobra Women) are a race of fairy-like demi-goddesses born of the Naga, which are basically water deities. They may have the form of a beautiful maiden, but are usually maidens only from the waist up, while from the waist down they are serpents.
It’s not hard to conclude that there is a cross-cultural socio-psychological imperative of some kind that drives this particular mythic stereotype, possibly Freudian in nature (even ignoring the phallic nature of the snake). One aspect is the joining of the fertility symbolism of “The Woman” with the chthonian significance of “The Serpent” — and post-Eden, this is part-and-parcel with the woman’s imposed role as “The Temptress”, the purveyor of sin — a satanic surrogate for “The Devil” (reflecting a deep fear of emasculation in the face of female sexuality), who, being “of the Earth”, distracts Man from more spiritual imperatives. In other words, a convenient scapegoat. Yet in Asian mythologies “The Serpent” is a water symbol, water being the source of life — in which case its relationship with “The Woman” is more on the creative side than the destructive. Creative or destructive, it’s all a matter of point-of-view. And, of course, a lot more complex than I can explore in these few sentences.
Evil, predatory snake women seem more common in the cinema (certainly Western cinema) than those of a creative aspect. Typical is Hammer Films’ The Reptile (UK-1966; dir. John Gilling). Here the woman/snake combo is rather less attractive than some, though in their full hybrid state few of them would make it onto the front cover of Vogue.
Like the Reptile they all have a tendency to feed off men in a literal sense, the combined sensuality of woman and snake making them powerfully iconic as a film monster and a depiction of “The Other”. Once Amanda Donohoe’s alluring Lady Sylvia Marsh — in Lair of the White Worm (UK-1988; dir. Ken Russell) — comes out of her snake basket, it’s not long before it’s all fangs, blood and a rather literal form of sexual predation, culminating in a monstrous critter that bears no relation to humanity at all.
And the sexual emasculation theme isn’t exactly hidden:
Other generally predatory snake women films include The Snake Woman (UK-1961; dir. Sidney J. Furie), the Japanese ghost story Snake Woman’s Curse [aka Kaidan Hebi-onna] (Japan-1968; dir. Nobuo Nakagawa), The Snake Woman [aka Sanyeo] (South Korea-1969; dir. Sang-ok Shin), Revenge of the Snake Woman [aka Sanyeoui han] (South Korea-1970; dit. Yongmin Lee), The Snake Queen [aka Nyi Blorong] (Indonesia-1982; dir. ), Grudge of the Snake Woman [aka Mongnyeo han] (South Korea/Taiwan-1984; dir. Beom-gu Kang), The Hungry Snake Woman [aka Petualangan cinta nyi blorong] (Indonesia-1986; dir. Sisworo Gautama Putra), Snake Devil (Taiwan/HK/Thailand-1995; dir. Delio Hung and Jarin Phomrangsai) and Snakewoman (Spain/US-2005; dir. Jesus Franco).
On the positive side, though, the titular character in Devi (India-1999; dir. Kodi Ramakrishna) becomes a gargantuan multi-headed cobra, a manifestation of a female naga, having been granted the power of the Goddess in order to right a wrong (see Backbrain review).
There was a less-voracious snake woman with a sexual aura in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (US-1958; dir. Nathan Juran), a fantasy film best remembered for the classic stop-motion creatures of SFX guru Ray Harryhausen. This particular woman/snake hybrid is a product of magic, when the villian of the piece places a homely female servant and a snake in a huge urn, then smashes the urn to reveal a sensuous multi-armed snake woman who dances seductively for the amusement of the Caliph. (The picture below shows Ray Harryhausen working on his snake woman model.)
Then, of course, there’s that other monstrous snake woman, Medusa, who confined her serpentine aspect to her coiffure. In cinema, a memorable use of her is in Hammer Films’ production The Gorgon (UK-1964; dir. Terence Fisher), in which sexual fear/guilt plays a prominent role:
But the real “snake women” are the mermaids of the underbrush — top half woman, bottom half (obviously the most dangerous half of a woman) serpent. A new snake woman flick of this kind is currently in post-production, directed in India by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of film auteur David Lynch. Find out about it in Part 2 “Of Snakes and Women!”