Snake illustration by Shumei Kobayashi
February 4 2013 sees the commencement of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Snake (巳年), the black water snake to be precise, a rare combination not experienced since 1953. In the Chinese scheme of things, the snake represents Yin (female) energy, but once the snake became part of Buddhism in Japan, it became Yang (masculine energy), associated with the dragon and the power of Buddhist philosophy. To assure positive associations for those born in the Year of the Snake, it is affectionately known as the ‘little dragon’. To see what this year brings for your personal Zodiac animal check here: Feng Shui Web Co.
The serpent plays a major role in the creation myths of many cultures, notably those associated with sun worship. In the early myths of Japan, Yamato no Orochi, an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent, had been devouring the daughters of local earth gods. Only one of eight daughters remained when Susa-no-O, brother of the Sun Goddess, happened upon the weeping couple and their daughter. In return for the princess’s hand, Susa-no-O offered to kill the serpent. Serpents are reputed to love sake and Susa-no-O had the couple create eight barrels of sake atop eight platforms behind eight gates. In short, the serpent became drunk and after a long battle, was vanquished. The eighth tail of the serpent contained a fine sword, Kusanagi no Tsurugi, one of Japan’s Sacred Regalia. After the battle, Susa-no-O is reputed to have created Japan’s first poem… full of allusions to ‘eight’…the mystical 8…another time perhaps.
Ukiyo-e Print, 18th/19th Century – Susa-no-O’s battle with the serpent
Susa-no-O’s battle with the serpent is naturally a major theme of painting and ukiyoe and interestingly Yamachi no Orochi is variously depicted as serpent/snake and dragon. The ambivalence of the creature as associated with gods and goddesses is also a theme of Japanese poetry. ‘Snake’ is a kigo (seasonal word) for summer, and the snake and its hole a kigo for autumn. Its ability to shed its skin has created an association with metamorphosis and thus re-creation, strengthening the association with the gods: Kobayashi Issa in 1819 wrote –
nori no yama ya hebi mo ukiyo wo sute-goromo
a snake too sheds
his worldly robe
Nori no yama refers to Mt Dharma and shedding the skin of the world to Buddhist enlightenment.
In this vein we must also remark on the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Normally seen as a symbol of the fall of man and embodying evil, it can also be seen as a symbol of enlightenment – knowledge and free will; alienation from the blissful obedience of Eden as against the not-so-blissful freedom of free will. There’s that ambivalence again!
The world of netsuke also has many reptilian members. The animals of the Oriental Zodiac feature as popular themes for netsuke. The theme of a snake and a skull is less common, less affectionately regarded perhaps, but remains associated with Buddhism, enlightenment and the transience of life. The snake is one of the three partners in the ‘checkmate’ situation of sansukumi, snake, frog and slug that symbolizes interdependence: The snake can eat the frog, the frog can eat the slug, but the slug is poisonous to the snake.
Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo Sansukumi Inro (photo by Bronek Kozka)
The Hodgkinson Collection Sydney Australia
Australian carvers of contemporary netsuke have their own versions of the snake in its various manifestations:
Leigh Sloggett’s work ’Yikes’ (pictured below) seems to be a direct response to a Kobayashi Issa haiku of 1820
hebi no ana ahô nezumi ga iri ni keri
into the snake’s hole
Yikes! by Leigh Slogget (Images courtesy of the artist)
Rudi Mineur, artist extraordinaire, has returned to the world of netsuke after a long absence. Much missed, Rudi’s works are unique in the netsuke world.
Snake Netsuke by Rudi Mineur
Netsuke pictured, and many others, are for sale. Enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Poems courtesy of www.haikuguy.com