Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dōjōji Serpent


This one took awhile to finish.

Long ago there was a priest who broke his vows and took advantage of a young woman. When he finally decided to end the relationship and abandon her, she was so infuriated that she transformed into a gigantic serpent and pursued him to his temple. The head abbots hid the priest under their giant bell, but the serpent caught his scent and coiled so tightly around the bell that it glowed red hot. When they lifted the bell all that remained of the priest was ash...

There are several variants on this story. Some have the priest as innocent, some have the girl as being misled about the priest by her father, and a great number of them end with the Buddhist equivalent of "women, am I right?" Buddhism doesn't have this reputation in the west where it is often considered to be more of a philosophical tradition than a religion, but the truth is a lot of Buddhist scripture has really questionable attitudes towards women. The variants of this story that appear in Japanese scripture use the serpent woman as a metaphor for how relationships with ANY women lead to tragedy because ALL of them are over-emotional monsters just waiting under the surface and will kill your spiritual career.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of feminist interpretations of this story as well. Pre-Buddhist Japan had a tradition of very powerful female shamans, and so the patriarchy had a very real reason to fear the "power" and "monstrous" energy inside the gender they had usurped. In this reading, the serpent woman isn't a villain, but a heroine to root for whose time will come again. She takes on the form of a serpent, representing both the female energies labeled "demonic" as well as the male phallic shape, to burn away hypocrisy in the new order.

I made the snake white because when I was thinking about this legend I mixed it up with a separate (but perhaps related? I'm no expert) snake lady from Chinese legend named Bai Suzhen. She was a white serpent demon who wanted to become a goddess by doing good deeds, but was hounded by a sorcerer who believed all demons to be pure evil that must be destroyed.

2 comments:

Sean Williams said...

And now that you've been in an Irish Studies class, Mike, you'll remember that the serpent is the symbol of the goddess in most areas of the world. Interesting story!

Stephen said...

Love the Dojoji drawing! What an interesting story. . .