Sunday, 10 September 2017

I love Snake Women and Here's Why


Lilith with Adam and Eve, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel


Snakes, women, power and danger have been intertwined since ancient times and across different cultures. In Crete, nearly four thousand years ago ancient hands shaped figurines of a powerful woman - priestess or goddess - holding two serpents aloft.

Minoan Figurine, c. 1600 BCE

In ancient Egypt, the goddess Wadjet who spat fire at the Pharoah's enemies was depicted as a cobra or cobra-headed woman. In India and across South Asia, the Naga are worshipped and their serpent princesses celebrated - married into ruling famlies. In Korea, Eobshin, the wealth goddess, appears as a snake.



In the Western culture, snake women have less positive connotations. They are monsters, or become monstrous. In ancient Greece, as time moves on snake women are not worshipped so much as feared. By 750 BC, Hesiod describes, "the goddess fierce Echidna who is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth."

Hesiod also mentions Medusa, but her snake hair isn't described until Ovid writes about her several centuries later. He says: "They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate."

Medusa isn't just punished for her own rape, she is beheaded and her power appropriated first by Perseus, then by Minerva (Athena). That myth may codify the story of the overthrow of the matriarchal Minoan religion and culture by the religion of the Olympians, but she is adopted as a symbol of protection. Her face can be found carved into the Louvres, on Bonnie Prince Charlie's Targe and starkly, and perhaps poignantly, on the wall at the Petit Trianon, in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, Marie Antoinette's escape from court life. In 1791, she was herself depicted as a gorgon.

Medusa at the Petit Trianon, Versailles


And then there is Lilith. Lilith predates Christianity or Judaism - she is first mentioned in Sumerian text, the Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 BC) as a demon who lives in a tree. She is mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud (4 BCE), by which point she comes in the night to steal men's semen. Somewhere between 700-1000 CE, her story is expanded by The Alphabet of Sirach, where Lilith is created from earth - as Adam is - rather than made from Adam's rib. She sees herself as Adam's equal:

"She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' "

When they cannot agree, Lilith pronounces the Ineffable Name and flies away, refusing to return even when Angels come after her. In the 1500s, Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel conflates Lilith, Adam's first wife, with the serpent who tempts Eve. She too has become a snake woman.

Snake women are powerful. They must be raped, controlled and subjugated. When are not, they are demonised and seen as monstrous.

It's a powerful trope which exists still today, noticeably used to monsterise successful and powerful women. Hillary Clinton was pictured as modern day Medusa, complete with snake hair. More recently, singer Taylor Swift has been so repeatedly called a snake, she has - in her most recent and controverisal music video - owned it completely.

Taylor Swift, Look what you made me do 

When I started writing Soul Mates, I had an idea of a protagonist whose mental health problems were a consequence of her inability to understand or own her own power.

As I plunged into the story, I thought that the antagonist was obvious - Kian's ex-wife, Fand. Fand the Betrayer. Fand the Treacherous. But even as I wrote it, I realised it felt off key. Wrong. I felt like I was betraying the story, and I simply couldn't do it.

Fand is a snake woman. She's Lilith, the rebel, she's Medusa, her power abused and appropriated. But by allying herself with Bree, she can do what those original snake women never could. She can restore the balance in the world and reclaim her power.

This is the moment, Bree realises that Fand is a snake woman:



Fand tossed the scroll she had been reading to one side, and stretched sinuously, shaking her long dark hair back over shoulders. As she yawned, her shape flickered and sparkled. Bree blinked.
“Fand did you just shimmer?”
Her stepmother shrugged. “I am tired— it becomes an effort to maintain my glamour. I am not a Master Creator like your lover.”
The way she said lover, so casually. Bree’s ears turned hot.
“A glamour’s like a disguise, isn’t it? Like Kian put on the Unseelie?”
Fand reached for a goblet which was planted on one corner of a scroll to hold it down, and took a sip. “Unimaginable, the effort to maintain a glamour over so many with so little magic—even with the demon Astaroth’s assistance.”
Setting down the goblet, she rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes. When she removed them, her pupils had narrowed to vertical slits and the whites had completely gone.
Snake eyes.
“Holy shit. Your eyes!”
Fand sighed. “I am Dark Fae, Brianna, born in the Winter Court. In generations past, when such things were not taboo, my ancestors mated with the Unseelie many times. In the eyes of the Summer Court, Dark Fae are polluted. Dark Fae have hidden their heritage for so long it has become natural as breathing. Those who cannot are outcasts.”
“Shit. That’s horrible.”
“When a people is conquered they assimilate or die. That is life.” Fand’s lips tilted in a half smile. She smoothed her hand along her arm and where she touched, scales shimmered under her dark skin.
“You’re beautiful,” Bree said, staring at her arm. “I mean, you were already totally gorgeous, but the shimmery scale thing is mega hot.”
Fand’s stroked her arm again, holding it up to the light to admire the green and gold lustre. “The blood of the lamia flows through my veins.”
“What’s the lamia?”

“A child-eating spirit, part woman, part serpent.” Fand’s eyes gleamed. “I am very flexible.” 

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