Snake Year

The New Year in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which has a cycle of 12 years--each named for an animal--and undergoes a complete cycle every 60 years, began on 24 January and is The Year of the Snake. Individuals born this year, 2001, and those born in earlier 12-year increments--1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929--come under the serpent's sign and are said to have similar personality traits, such as being charming and seductive, handsome and beautiful, and with a tendency towards vanity.

In Western cultures, snakes often suffer from a bad rap, especially in the figurative sense: being called a snake is tantamount to being called deceptive and untrustworthy, something we could all do without. Still, snakes as beasts have long fascinated us primates. And they figure largely in folklore and legend, which co-mingle in natural history texts from medieval times. "Bestiaries of the Middle Ages offer fascinating insight into the knowledge and beliefs of the time--a mixture, often, of dawning science and ancient folklore," writes Gregory McNamee in his collection The Serpent's Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature (University of Georgia Press, paperback, $17.95).

According to McNamee, the medieval bestiaries drew heavily on the Roman encylopedias of naturalists such as Pliny and contain such gems as "The VIPER ( vipera) is called this because it brings forth in violence ( vi). The reason is that when its belly is yearning for delivery, the young snakes, not waiting for the timely discharge of birth, gnaw through the mother's sides and burst out to her destruction."

In pre-Renaissance thinking, the Asp, which was so important to Shakespeare's Cleopatra, got its name because it injects and spreads poison with its bite: "For the Greeks call venom Ios, and hence comes 'Aspic,' since it destroys with a venomous sting."

Some kinds of asps, such as the Hypnale, were already well characterized in the Middle Ages: This species of asp is "so called because it kills you by making you sleepy," reads the bestiary. Indeed, according to the English naturalist and Shakespeare's near-contemporary Edward Topsell, whose 1608 History of the Serpents is excerpted in McNamee's book, Hypnale "kills by sleeping, for after the wound is given, the person falls into a deep and sweet sleep wherein he dies. It has been said that this kind of asp was the kind that Cleopatra bought to bring upon herself a sweet and easy death." Topsell reports that the Egyptians "lived familiarly with asps" and tamed them--by feeding them on "honey, wine, and meal"--into a peaceful coexistence in their homes.

The bestiary also addressed the power of beauty: "The snake Scitalis gets that name because it is so splendid in the variegation of its skin that a man stops dead on seeing the beautiful markings. Owing to the fact that it is a sluggish crawler and has not the power to overtake people by chasing them, it captures them as they stand stupefied by its splendor."

The bittersweet power of snakes--beauty and danger--are well-imbedded in Western culture. In celebrating this Chinese New Year, Next Wave readers might do well to keep in mind the serpent's perilous attraction.

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