As someone who’s always been fascinated by mythology and the archetypes that evolved from those timeless stories, I find it enthralling to see how many cultures have developed similar symbology regarding the same things. Though the symbology may have differed, based on the specific phobias and hang-ups of each distinct society, the same figures emerge time and time again. One such figure is the Snake Woman. Before I delve into this any further, allow me to divulge my original source of inspiration for this topic.
I had taken an Anthropology class called, “Magic, Myth and Religion,” when I first started college and my professor had mentioned something that really struck me. He told us that numerous cultures have “snake women” or “serpent-goddesses” in their folklore, which must be challenged and defeated by some virile, sweat-soaked (not at all homoerotic, *coughcough* yeah, right) champion typical of male-dominated societies at the time. He then went on to equate their serpentine parts with penises, which seems to make sense considering a woman with a penis (whether it be a figurative or literal one) might potentially pose a significant risk to the patriarchal status quo. Whenever a male-born person relinquishes the privilege bestowed upon them by a patriarchal socio-cultural system, they are shunned. They are denigrated for essentially denigrating themselves. And as this pans out across ancient cultures, the fear of the feminine bubbles up into self-righteous indignation and “The Outcast” becomes immortalized forever as “The Monster,” in myth and legend. In the case of female monsters, many are given male qualities, the most prevalent of which are aggression and outspoken natures, at least compared with the ideal of womanhood as concocted by the male.
We are then left with beings like Medusa, who fornicates in the temple of Wisdom and as punishment for asserting her sexual power is cursed, her crowning glory taken from her and replaced with a mane of unruly serpents and a petrifying gaze. Or the child-eating Queen Lamia, who is turned into a half-serpent and who according to Aristophanes, sprouts a phallus “for monstrosity’s sake.” Throughout the world we see Nagas, Shirabyoshi, primordial sea goddesses, and even the biblical Lilith becoming conflated with gender-variance and almost always they are then demonized in some way. The snake has always been a phallic symbol, and by extension a symbol of power. What better way to illustrate the adoption by a woman of a powerful role than to physically morph that woman into a half-woman, half-man? In this way, folk tales and myths were able to be understood by masses which were by and large, uneducated.
It’s funny how a lot of the cautionary tales against the Snake Woman in myth mirror the “trans panic defense” that’s so often used to murder young transwomen today without consequence. Demonizing us in the same way that these seemingly primitive-minded people used to; responding with “justified hatred” against any threats to their patriarchal societies and, by extension, their collective sense of manhood. If it’s a monster, it’s okay to kill it. And monsters are deceptive, in the same way transwomen who deceive men into thinking they’re natal females are. That’s the erroneous line of thinking anyway. However, isn’t a delusion that the human being in front of you is a demon just so it makes it okay in your mind to hurt them a form of self-deception too? That’s the problem…far too many people never question the myth and as a result, our roles have become perpetually engrained in black and white, to the extent that in modern-day China, Thai transfolk or Katoey are referred to as “renyao,” a term which, when analyzed, can mean both “enchanting” and “monstrous.” The sad reality is that in today’s world, too many victims of hate crimes are still held to be exactly that. Until we replace the myth with a new one – an empowering one, filled with heroes and heroines who confront transphobic ignorance wherever it sprouts we will remain, to many people, “enchanting monsters.”