Women As Mythological Serpents English Literature Essay

Representations of Women as Mythological Serpents


This study examines the correlation of women to the mythological serpent in ten different Filipino short stories. Different mythologies, such as Greek mythology, Norse mythology, and Biblical mythology, have different representations for serpents. Serpents are ancient symbol for wisdom and knowledge while in Judeo-Christian mythology, serpent represents Satan in the Garden of Eden. In this study, serpents are represented as animals with sexual significance. The said chthonic animal, associated with women, helps define women in the Philippine culture.

Statement of the Problem

This study interrogates the representation of women as mythological serpents in ten Filipino short stories. The researcher will examine:

How women are represented as serpents in the short stories.

How this connection between women and serpents define or change the identity of women in Philippine society.

Significance of the Study

Women have been defined in terms of fertility and also as an object of sexual desire which are repeatedly invoked in arts and literature. The Jungian archetype of serpent on the one hand represents sexual life, fertility, desires, and wildness. By analysing the characterization of women in the short stories and by knowing the connection of feminine to the serpent, this study will show how these represent Filipino women and their social status in the Philippine culture. This study will provide explanations on why women are defined as such in the society.

Scope and Limitation

This study will only focus on ten Filipino short stories. The stories include Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s Tiya Octavia, The Discovery, Woman with Horns and, Alba; Amador Daguio’s The Wedding Dance; Kerima Polotan-Tuvera’s The Face of Virtue; Maria Paterno’s Song in the Wind; Tina Cuyugan’s The Diver; Nerissa Balce’s Hope and Rain and; Susan Lara’s The Other Regina. The study is limited to Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic theory, focusing primarily on Jungian archetype of serpents. The researcher does not apply other theories of Jung nor any other psychoanalytic theories.

Definition of Terms

Archetype – "derives from the often repeated observation that myths and universal literature stories contain well defined themes which appear every time and everywhere. We often meet these themes in the fantasies, dreams, delirious ideas and illusions of persons living nowadays" (Jung 1969).

Caduceus – The symbol of medical profession. It is represented as two snakes coiled around with each other along with a staff (Jung 1969).

Collective Unconscious– this is shared by everyone. It is "identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us" (Jung, 1954).

Kundalini – In Hinduism, it is a goddess represented as a sleeping serpent coiled three and a half times located beneath the spine. It is thought to be the feminine energy contained within us all (Jung, 1969).

Mamelou – in Philippine mythology, it is a very large snake which lives in the sea (Ramos, 1971).

Marcupo (Macupo) – in Philippine mythology, it is believed to be a large snake with long tongue and thorn-like hairs. It produces sonorous sound during calm and clear days. It breaths out deadly poison that can also make the plants barren (Ramos, 1971).

Munag Sumala– Also known as the golden serpent. Munag Sumala represents dawn. She was reintroduced by the Spaniards as Mariang Sinukuan, taking after the surname of her father, Aring Sinukuan (Eugenio, 1987)

Naga – In Philippine myths, they are serpent deities with protective nature. In Indian myths, they are nature spirits. They bring rain and fertility, but they also bring disasters such as flood (Eugenio, 1987).

Ulilang Kaluluwa (Orphaned Spirit) – The serpent god in the Philippine creation myth who lives in the clouds. Earth is his favorite place to visit. He was killed by Bathala, the caretaker of the earth.

Uroboros (or Ouroboros) – The symbol of the snake devouring its own tail, said to be based on the primitive conception that female serpent devours the male to fertilized herself. In the ancient Greece, this was known as the sea-serpent Oceanus that encircles the earth (Jung, 1969).


This paper will discuss the representation of women as mythological serpent in ten Filipino short stories. The study includes Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s Tiya Octavia, The Discovery, Woman with Horns and, Alba; Amador Daguio’s The Wedding Dance; Kerima Polotan-Tuvera’s The Face of Virtue; Maria Paterno’s Song in the Wind; Tina Cuyugan’s The Diver; Nerissa Balce’s Hope and Rain and; Susan Lara’s The Other Regina. The researcher will use qualitative research with the use of Jung’s psychoanalytic theory, specifically, Jungian archetype of serpent.

Theoretical Framework

Carl Gustav Jung in his The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious introduces the serpent as an archetypal image with sexual significance. He explains how the image of serpent occurs repeatedly in cultural products representing it as a "necessary part of the process of growth." According to Jung, serpent is a former feminine image for different races but then changes into a masculine image. It represents desire, sexual life, fertility, and also on the one hand, danger and fear. In Jung’s theory, the serpent is correlated with the androgynous mercury; that the archetypal image of serpent is present to both male and female. As an evidence to his theory, he used a cultural product known as mandala. Jung refers to it as the "psychological expression of the totality of the self." Mandala is present in all races and each shows elements that are significant to that culture. Jung explains that the serpent, which repeatedly occurred in different mandalas, is a signifier to sexual act and the process of reproduction.

Survey of Related Literature

Studies on the Association of Woman to the Mythological Serpent

According to Witcombe (2008) in his Eve and the Identity of Women: Serpents, women and serpents are bonded by certain connections. Serpents are one of the primary symbols of the Mother Goddess and is a "creature of significance to women." Witcombe starts by enumerating the different ideas symbolized by serpents. Serpents could be a representation of healing, ancestry, life, health, and generation. From the solar mythology, it could represents lightning for its similarity in form and speed when it strikes. Serpents also represents gods and goddesses like Baal, the storm god which fertilizes the earth with rain. From all of the associations with serpents, Witcombe’s main argument is the serpent’s association with humans, specially of women.

Witcombe, to clarify his argument, states the distinction between snake and serpent: snake, according to him, refers to the zoological animal while serpent, on the other hand, sounds more exotic and refers to enormous and/or venomous species. He further mark the difference by stating: "One lexicographer observed that snakes are insidious, cold and contemptible, while serpents are terrible, powerful, and beautiful." This description of the serpent attributes to the characteristics of a strong and attractive woman- an Amazonian perhaps. Witcombe uses the biblical myth on the interaction of Eve and serpent to identify women universally. He says:

Many cultures regard the serpent as wise and clever. In the story of Eve, however, this wisdom is twisted into a devious form of cleverness described as "cunning". The term is related to the female genitals (as the modern slang term makes clear), and refers to the site, or source, of women's learning, insight, wisdom and knowledge (literally "carnal knowledge") . . . Its association with women would appear to be through its sinuous, curving, sensuous body, and through its ability to fascinate with its eyes.

Witcombe asserts the connection of women and serpents though he did not stated that the woman is the serpent herself. His study discusses women and serpent as two different creatures but interrelated while my study will discuss how women and serpents metaphorically become as one. Witcombe also did not discuss or use any literary works in his study whereas my study will be using ten different Philippine short stories.

Other studies also used biblical texts in their research. Karen Randolph Joines, in her Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament studies the appearances of serpents in biblical texts. The author compares the serpents in biblical text to other literary texts and cultural findings in the Near East. The author opposed the idea of the serpent as symbol of the phallus or any of sexuality, which is a Freudian representation of serpents. This study concluded that serpents are symbol of life and fertility because of its regular appearance during spring seasons. Joines uses both literary and archaeological evidences in proving his argument. This research is limited to Near Eastern studies. My study on the other hand focuses in the Philippine setting and argues about serpents as symbol of women.

Sheila Foster, in her Eve, Snake,& the Awakening of Kundalini, discusses snakes as embodiment of emerging feminine consciousness. According to her, "snake is an archetypal symbol of the Great Mother Goddess, incarnate in one of her most universal forms, as well as an ancient symbol of the Kundalini Shakti, the divine energy of spiritual initiation and awakening that lives within each of us." Snakes are present in every culture’s mythology and it embodies duality. For some culture, snakes are considered evil while others considers them as divinities. Foster explains that the ancient women knew the connection of snake to spirituality and Great Goddess as seen in the archaeological discoveries. Foster’s study focuses at the Kundalini - the serpent goddess in Hinduism that is said to be coiled beneath everyone’s spine, and its connection to women while my study uses wider range of mythological serpents in identifying women.

In the A New Reading of the Serpent Myth in the Ancient and Modern Arab Culture by Hend Al-Sudairy, he discusses the mysterious relationship of women and serpents as presented in the novel Fatima: A Story of Arabia by Raja Alem. The story goes on about Fatima, the protagonist, having the ability to cross over from the human world into the reptile world. Al-Sudairy’s study focuses on how the "woman-serpent" image had developed from ancient Arabia to modern period. He uses mythologies in exploring his topic.

Our studies share a common topic on the representation of women as serpents however, we differ in terms of approach, scope and limitation. Al-Sudairy’s study is limited to Alem’s Fatima: A Story of Arabia and uses cultural approach to prove his research while my study, on the other hand, is limited to Filipino short stories using psychoanalytical approach.

There is a great relationship between women and serpents in various cultural and religious histories. According to Mehta, in Re-Creating Ayida-Wedo: Feminizing the Serpent in Lilas Desquiron’s Les Chemins De Loco-Miroir, Desquiron tries to reinscribe women from their invisibility to male-centered texts in Haitian culture. With the patriarchal texts such as the Bible, the image of serpent, "as the very symbol of female transcendence" was neutralized to reduce female’s efficacy in patriarchal society. Mehta says:

Desquiron's novel calls for the re-feminizing of the serpent through the literary grid of feminist cultural consciousness that resurrects the serpent from the clutches of a forgotten female past by establishing an archive of Haitian female ancestral memory (pg.656).

Mehta’s study is limited only to Haitian culture. She uses deconstruction to re-define women against phallocentric misconceptions and provide them position in the patriarchal society of Haiti. My study on the other hand focuses on women in the Philippine setting and will use psychoanalytic reading.

Chris Knight, in her Levi-Strauss and the Dragon: Mythologiques Reconsidered in the Light of an Autralian Aboriginal Myth, examined Levi-Strauss’s four-volume Mythologiques in the light of Australian aboriginal evidence and uses the myth of Wawilak Sisters in discussing the relationship of woman, man, and the Rainbow Serpent of Australian mythology. The rainbow serpent is a mythological animal which recurs in Australian indigenous arts, rituals, and myths and the myth of Wawilak Sisters tells the story of two women swallowed by the rainbow serpent. In the myth, the serpent tries to get closer to the sisters even if they try to drive it away. Serpents are said to be ‘penis-symbol’; the dominance of male over female. It is a "phallic symbol within a context of male rule and possible rape." Knight also discusses the association of serpent to women through menstrual blood. According to her, throughout Aboriginal Australia, there is no way to generate this Serpent-power other than by bleeding. In conclusion, he said that "the suppression of women's reproductive solidarity and the suppression of the Rainbow Serpent are one and the same." Knight’s study focuses on Australian Aboriginal myth on the rainbow serpent and did not use other mythologies concerning serpents.

Another study that shows the representation of serpent in a literary text is The Serpent at the Breast by William Whallon. Whallon studies the symbol of serpent in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In the play, the serving women tells Orestes that Clytemnestra dreamt of giving birth to a serpent, laid it in clothes, and offered it her breast. The serpent in here becomes a representation of love replaced by cruelty in the relationship between a mother and her child. Whallon studies the representation of serpent in a Greek tragic drama and did not use other mythologies from different culture. He associated serpents as destroyer of mother-child relationship. My study on the one hand discusses women as serpents in ten Filipino short stories.

Serpents and Origin of Mankind

Petar Grujic, in his Cosmology and Mythology: A Case Study, asserts how cosmology establishes mythological system and in this various mythological concepts form the "archetypal layers of human mind." He focuses on the serpent image and associates it with human beings. Grujic uses different mythologies such Greek mythology and Judeo-Christian mythology in his discourse on the serpent archetype. In his study, serpents are mythological and cosmological models that "frequent human speculative efforts to fathom the most profound problem (better to say question) of our existence - the question of our ultimate origin." Grujic’s study associated the serpent archetype to the origin of mankind. My study on the one hand will use serpent archetype to define women in Philippine setting