Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Art of the Snake ... Part II


Though not as well known, other ancient societies have also paid homage to the humble snake. Estimates date the Australian Aborigine mythology, the Dreamtime, between 50,000 and 65,000 years old. In the Dreamtime, the sacred area where the world was created, and where patterns for living were set down, the Rainbow Serpent is known as Mother of Life, the creator, life giver, the law maker, the protector of the people and the punisher of those who break the laws.

In the Dreamtime, the land was lifeless and flat. When the appropriate time came, the Serpent woke from her sleep and came out of her under ground lair to travel the land. Striking the ground with her head, the Mother of Life created the mountains, and with her body, winding her way across the country side, she created the valleys and river beds; passing through rock she created water holes, and filled them with water. The Serpent brings the rainy season each year, and appears in the sky in the form of the rainbow. With the water she brings, the Rainbow Serpent allows all life to multiply; when tempted by those who break the laws, she brings the floods to punish them. As with all mythology, there are variations of the Dreamtime adapted to reflect conditions, and locality of each Australian tribe of Aborigines.

Aboriginal Snake painting

Storytelling is the way Aborigines pass the Dreamtime from one generation to the next, and sand painting is one of the most artistic forms to express what is known as the Journey, or the subject of their stories. Originally, the paintings were done on the ground, in the desert, as the tribes moved from place to place, using seeds, stones feathers, flowers, and other natural materials to tell the story of the Dreamtime. The paintings were done to the accompaniment of the tribe elders chanting through the process, and passing on their knowledge to the younger members of the tribe, as they described each of the symbols in the paintings.

From the desert floor, the sand paintings acquired a new life as dot paintings on canvas. These dots are created with different size rods which are dipped in paint. The dots and colors are arranged on the canvas in a particular pattern to depict a specific message. These messages, at times relating ceremonial details of a region, are often hidden within the design from the casual viewer, who is not familiar with Aborigine Dreamtime, and its symbols.

Aborigines' lack of written language was compensated with the use of songs and art to pass on their culture to future generaions. Because of the value place on their art, the Aborigine culture is validated and saved from extinction, as it is passed on through the purchase of the dot paintings.


Mami Wata as a snake charmer

The Mami Wata worship celebrated in Africa and areas of the African Diaspora, with its endless female and male personifications, is associated with water spirits, and more often than not portrayed as a mermaid or as having a female head and torso with the body of a snake, or as a snake charmer. Part cult part religion, Mami Wata is set of diverse beliefs and practices which guide and reflect the ever changing social and religious practices with its mixture of African, Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths; its personification is not devoted only to a single image, nor is its identity constant: Mami Wata refers to the embodiment of the many water deities, and as with many mythological beings, she embodies complete opposites both good and evil, wealth and poverty, a healer and the source of ailment, a symbol of fidelity as well as lust and promiscuity.

The origins of Mami Wata are lost to history, though in the Dogon creation mythology, the world was created over 4,000 years ago by female and male mermaids called Nommos. The modern Mami Wata is believed to have originated as a “capitalist” deity in the fifteenth century as European commerce, in particular slave trade, brought wealth to various African countries. Mami Wata was thus brought to the Americas where it flourished under different names depending on the local culture.

Mami Wata's association with water is intrinsic to the religion and its worship. Water is the everlasting and ever changing link to the present world, life, death and afterlife; it is the vehicle which carries the soul back home to Africa, and its distant relatives.

Western scholars attribute the name to derive from two African words with origins in ancient Egypt and Ethiopia. Mami derives from “Ma” which means truth or wisdom, and Wata is a corruption of “Uati” which means ocean water. In Mesopotamian mythology and in Babylonian prayers “Mami” is the first great Water Goddess and the creator of human life, and in ancient Egypt, the oldest name for the goddess Isis is Uati.

In art, Mami Wata is portrayed in as many forms as the beliefs which make up the religion allows, and is often dressed in the contemporary attire of the time when the art was created. This contemporary  interpretation of Mami Wata as a Samoan Snake Charmer, c. 1926, is attributed to a German artist by the name of Schlesinger.


While few ever think of snake mythology or its worship in the New World, it may come as a surprise to learn that, among the Indigenous Americans, and perhaps more than in any other culture, the snake was most widely worshiped in pre-colonial Mexico, and extending into Central, and South America.

Turquoise mosaic Double Headed Snake, 15th-16th Century CE

The snake held a significant place in the Indigenous Mexican mythology as demonstrated by the many gods whose incarnation was the snake: Xiuhcatl (Fire Serpent), Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent), Coatlicue (Female of the Serpent Skin) Tlaloc (god of Rain and Fertility), Quetzalcoatl, (feathered serpent) also worshiped by the Mayan and other Mesoamerican cultures (Q'uq'umatz), and many others fill the pantheon of Aztec, Maya, Inca, and other minor tribes' gods. As with other civilizations, the snake, whose cult in Mexico started around 400 B.C.E., was a symbol of rebirth and continuity through its ability to shed its skin and appear to be “reborn,” again. The snake also represented the “bridge” between the underworld, water and sky.

One of the greater gods, Quetzalcoatl, attained its name from two words in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Quetzal means, aside from the bird whose feathers were symbolically used as decoration, tail feather, and precious; cóatl has the multiple meaning of snake and twin. Combined, the two words became the name of the god, the feathered snake.

This double headed serpent made of wood and covered in turquoise mosaics, oyster and conch shell, and colored resin, was brought back to Europe by Hernán Cortéz, as part of the gifts given to him by Montezuma. Cortéz, according to Aztec mythology, was believed to be the new Quetzalcoatl; instead of saving their culture, as the Aztec believed, Cortéz brought about its end. The back of the snake is hollow and unfinished, though the heads are decorated in front and back. The serpent, 17” x 8” is at the Mexican Gallery, British Museum.

Today, Mexico still honors the snake, giving it prominence in the country's coat of arms and flag since 1821. Legend has it that the god Huitzilopochtli, son of the goddess Coatlicue of the Serpent Skin, told the Aztecs to build the central city of the empire of Tenochtitlan at the location where they saw an eagle, perched on a cactus, with a rattle snake in its claws. When they found the eagle, it was in the middle of the lake Anáhuac. In order to build their city, the Aztecs proceeded to fill the lake by diverting the water, and building reed rafts on which to live and grow food. Today, Lake Anáhuac is Mexico City.

Aboriginal Painting:  Robert Hagan
Mami Wata: Wikipidea
Double Headed Snake: British Museum
Mexico's Coat of Arms:  Newspaper Tree

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