Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reading the White Snake

For the Western mind, it is hard to read The White Snake without noticing the abundance of references to one of the most famous Biblical stories of all, the creation story.

In the book of Genesis, God planted a garden that contained many trees but two trees bore distinction: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Life offered immortality to persons who ate its fruit, or put in another way, they were unable to die. The Tree of Knowledge conveyed an understanding of good and bad. The serpent uses language to speak to Eve and tempt her. Remarkably, Eve understands the serpent’s language immediately.* This understanding of serpent speech causes the first humans to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and leads to man’s downfall. Speech and language are an integral part of the creation story. Here, the first instances of language are described: God speaking (“Let there be light”) and man speaking (naming the animals). God’s language brings into being, creating essences and the cosmos. Man’s language names and designates things.

In The White Snake we encounter the same elements: snake, language/speech, tree and apple. They are similar but somehow different and strange here.
Germanic tribes believed that men were created out of trees. The cosmos were actually a giant ash tree. Its branches shaded the earth and extended up into heaven The Tree of Life (or World Tree) had three roots. One extended down to Midgard the realm of men. A second root reached into Joetunheim, or the realm of giants. The third root extended into the underworld. The cosmos were under continuous threat, for the roots of the tree were gnawed by a giant worm or snake.
Iduna, the goddess of health, eternal youth and immortality was referred to as the “Evergreen”. She was indispensable to the gods, because she tended the garden and was in charge of the precious golden apples, which the gods needed to preserve their eternal youth. Once robbed of these fruits, the gods became old, their hair gray, their faces ashen and full of wrinkles. In the Fairy Tale The White Snake, the youth must first acquire knowledge (of languages) by eating the snake (not the apple). To prove himself a worthy husband he must then acquire the golden apple, conferring health, happiness and eternal youth.

*In some traditions, Adam and Eve had the innate ability to understand animal languages when they lived in Paradise. They lost this ability after the Fall.

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Anonymous said...

Same is the case with Indian beleif.We believe that gods have a holy grail (:amrit: in Hindi languaage) which makes them immortal. This holy grail gods got by churning the sea witha pestel which was incidently wound aroud a SNAKE! who churned the sea and gods got the holygrail.Thechurning also yielded other things which were distributed

Anonymous said...

Very interesting comments from India! Snakes seem to belong to almost every culture's mythology. But why?