The Sisters of Fire and Water

When the Hawaiian sea goddess Namakaokahai met the mighty sorcerer, Aukelenuiaiku, she was impressed by his warrior spirit. Soon, she married him, showed him all her forms and taught him her magical powers.

Unfortunately, after their marriage, Aukelenuiaiku was seduced by another woman. To add insult to injury, that woman was none other than Namakaokahai’s own younger sister, Pele. It is one of the odd mysteries of life that when a man was unfaithful to his wife, the wife would first blame the other woman. Such was the case with Namakaokahai and Pele. Overcomed with rage, Namakaokahai sent high tides and floods to destroy Pele’s home. Pele fled but could not escape her sister’s wrath.


Pele’s help came in the form of her oldest brother Kamohoali’i, the god of the sharks. He gave her a great canoe to escape. Accompanied by her brother and her favorite sister Hi’iaka, she traveled far from home, over the wide expanse of the seas, sailing on this great canoe eventually to find Hawaii. 

Pursued by Namakaokahai, Pele landed first on Kauai. However, every time she thrust her o’o (digging stick) to dig a put for her home, Namakaokahai would flood the pits. Pele moved down the chain of islands until eventually landing on Mauna Loa – the tallest mountain on earth. As even the sea goddess herself could not send the ocean’s waves high enough on Mauna Loa to drown Pele, Pele established her home on its slopes. She pronounced the cliff on nearby Kilauea Mountain as sacred to her eldest brother Kamohoali’i, who saved her life. Kamohoali’i became the keeper of the gourd that held the water of life which gave him the power to revive the dead. Out of respect for Kamohoali’i, to this day Pele never allows clouds of volcanic steam to touch his cliff. Her other brothers who accompanied her on her journey also still appear on the Big Island mountain. Kanehekili appears as thunder, Kapohoikahiola as explosions, Keua’akepo in showers of fire, and Keoahikamakaua in spears of lava that escape from fissures during eruptions.

Pele may not have been on the best of terms with her older sister, but perhaps sometimes it is better to argue with your family instead of being a complete stranger to them. From her new home, Pele engaged in battles with Namakaokahai. To this day, Pele’s eruptions from Hawaii Island’s volcanoes flow thick and hot till they reach the sea — symbolizing the match in strength between the sisters of fire and water.

Image by Adrian Malec from Pixabay

We Used to Look After Each Other: The Ancient Relationship between Nature and Mankind

The Australian bushfire season in 2019–2020 includes a series of bushfires burning across Australia, mainly in the southeast. It has burned an estimated 10.7 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings and killed 28 people as of January 8, 2020, significantly more intense compared to previous seasons. After record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated bushfires, the New South Wales finally government declared a state of emergency in December 2019. Nearly half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds were estimated to have been affected by the ongoing fires in New South Wales. Other estimates, including animals such as bats, amphibians and invertebrates, put the number of deaths at more than one billion.

To help battle the fires and relieve tired local personnel to New South Wales, reinforcements from all over Australia were called in. Firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the USA also helped fight the fires.

This tragedy again reminds us that our bond with the world of nature is broken. This is a dangerous thing as nature not only gives us benefits, but for our survival we are obviously dependent on it. And it provides services to the global economy worth an estimated $125 trillion per year by providing clean air, water, food and other resources. We are still depleting and degrading the natural capital of the planet at rhythm. We are losing biodiversity, meaning we are losing nature and wildlife. We have lost two thirds of the world’s wildlife population in our lifetime, and carbon emissions have risen by 90%.

It is strange to watch this unfolding as we as human beings seem to lose our connection to the natural world. We actively harm nature instead of working in harmony with it. And, when nature screams in agony we ignore it and pretend nothing happens. However, it was not always like this.

Nature and a Man’s Heart: The Tale of Two Brothers

Numerous worldwide myths represent a deep-rooted belief in an intimate relationship between a human being and nature. The theme of how a person’s life is so connected to a tree that the person would suffer if the tree washed away or injured, or even the idea of a tree as an external soul of the body of a person is found in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers around 1185 BC.

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Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney. From Egypt.End of the 19th Dynasty
circa 1185 BC

Two brothers center the story: Anpu and Bata. The brothers are working together to farm land and to raise cattle. One day, the wife of Anpu is trying to seduce Bata. When Bata strongly rejects her advances, the wife tells her husband that when she refused, his brother tried to seduce her and beat her. Hearing this, Anpu then tried to kill Bata, who flees and prays to Ra-Harakhti to save him. The god creates a lake infested with crocodile between the two brothers, through which Bata will eventually talk to his brother and share his side of the events. Bata severs his genitalia to prove his honesty and throws them into the water where they are eaten by a catfish.

Bata says he’s going to the Cedar Valley, where he’s going to put his heart on top of a cedar tree’s blossom, so if the tree is cut down Anpu can find it and let Bata live again. Bata informs Anpu that he should know to search out his brother if he ever gets a jar of beer that froths. Anpu returns home. Meanwhile, Bata is setting up a life in the Cedar Valley, building for himself a new home. Bata comes upon the Ennead, or the nine deities of Egypt, who have compassion on him. Khnum, the god often depicted as having fashioned humans on a potter’s wheel in Egyptian mythology, creates a wife for Bata. Because of her divine creation, the pharaoh is looking for the wife of Bata. When the pharaoh manages to bring her to stay with him, she asks him to cut down the tree in which Bata’s heart has been put. He does that, and Bata is dead.

Anpu then gets a sparkling bottle of beer and leaves for the Cedar Valley. For more than three years he has been searching for the heart of his brother, finding it at the beginning of the fourth year. He follows the instructions given by Bata and places the heart in a cold water bowl. Bata is resurrected.

Mother Nature Sacrificed: Standing on the Body of Nature

The Indonesian goddess Dewi Sri (literally means “Great Goddess”) is the Mother Goddess as well as the goddess of rice and fertility of the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese pre-Hinduand pre-Islam era. Once, Batara Guru, the supreme god, commanded all gods and goddesses to contribute their power to build a new palace. One of the gods, Antaboga, a Naga god, was very anxious when he heard the command of Batara Guru. He had no arms or legs, and he wasn’t sure how he might be able to do the job. Anta was shaped like a snake and was unable to work. He was seeking advice from Batara Narada, Batara Guru’s younger brother. But sadly, Anta’s bad luck also confused Narada. Anta was very upset and he started crying.

Three of his teardrops fell down on the ground. Miraculously, these teardrops became three beautiful shiny eggs that looked like jewels after touching the ground. Batara Narada advised him to offer the Batara Guru these “jewels” in the hope that the gift would appease him. Anta went to the palace of Batara Guru with the three eggs in his mouth. He was approached on the way there by an eagle who asked him a question. Anta can’t answer the question because he holds the eggs in his mouth. The bird  became furious, so it started attacking Anta. One egg fell to the earth and was shattered as a result. Anta hid in the bushes quickly, but the bird was waiting for him. The second attack left Anta to offer the Batara Guru with only one egg. The two split eggs fell to the ground and became Kalabuat and Budug Basu twin boar.

Anta finally arrived at the palace and offered to the Batara Guru his teardrop in the form of a shiny egg. The offer was kindly accepted and he was asked by the Batara Guru to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched miraculously into a beautiful baby girl. He gave the Batara Guru and his wife to the baby girl.

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an Indonesian stone figure of the rice goddess Dewi Sri with Vitarka Mudra

Her name was Nyai Pohaci Sanghyang Asri, and she grew up as a beautiful princess. Every god who saw her began to feel attracted to her, even her own foster father. Seeing the desire of Batara Guru for his foster daughter, all the gods were so worried. Fearing that this scandal might destroy the heavenly harmony, finally they conspired to separate Nyi Pohaci and Batara Guru.

All the gods arranged for her death to keep the peace in the heavens and secure Nyi Pohaci’s chastity. She was poisoned to death and her body was buried in a remote and unknown location somewhere on earth. Nevertheless, because of the purity and divinity of Sri Pohaci, her grave gave a miraculous sign; for some useful plants grew up at the time of her death, which would support human species forever. From her head there grew coconut; from her nose, lips, and ears there grew various spices and vegetables; from her hair there grew grass and various flowering plants; from her breasts there grew various plants of fruit; from her arms and hands there grew teak; from her thighs there grew various types of bamboo, Different tuber plants grew from her legs, and finally rice grew from her belly button. All the useful plants, essential to human needs and well-being, are considered to come from the residue of the body of Dewi Sri. From that time, she was venerated and revered by the people of Java Island as the benevolent “Rice Goddess” and fertility. She is regarded as the highest goddess and the most important deity for agricultural society in the ancient Sunda Kingdom.

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Figure representing the rice goddess Dewi Sri

Protecting Nature is an Ancient Way of Life

The ancients had a clear understanding on nature’s protection and they found ways to return the favour. Throughout Norse mythology, the three Norns spend most of their time spinning the threads of life at the base of Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree that is the core of the universe, deciding the fate of all living beings. The Norse Norns are Yggrasil’s caretakers, the tree that houses Norse mythology’s nine realms, only one of which is the human world, Midgard. They take water from the Well of Fates and dump it on Yggdrasil’s branches to prevent it from disappearing. In addition to their loom and tapestry, the Norns carve also runs into Yggdrasil’s trunk. They start every morning by placing a rooster at the top of Yggdrasil. The rooster’s warning acts as a wake-up call to all Asgard’s gods and goddesses.

Date palms have been revered in Mesopotamia as it was an important food source. The ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi even referred to very specific punishments for individuals who did not pollinate their date palms, even designating special guardians to manually pollinate these trees. Special priests who slept on the ground tended the oak of Dodona in Epirus in northwestern Greece, the oldest Hellenic oracle.

All of the clans in ancient Ireland had their own sacred tree in their territories. Under the sacred tree, chieftains could have been inaugurated, binding them with both the forces heavens and underworld. The trees were thus seen as the representative of the king’s and his tribe’s success. The trees were their province’s guardians, sheltering their people. Therefore, capturing and destroying an enemy’s sacred tree is very likely to have been viewed as a very serious act. The Irish Annals record that Máel Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland, torn down and destroyed the sacred tree of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co Clare, under which the chieftains of O’Brien were inaugurated, in 981 CE. In 1111 CE, they had to pay a huge ransom of 3000 cattle after the Ulidian army cut down the holy tree of the O’Neils.

So, somewhere along the way, we have lost that love of nature that we have inherited from our ancestors. Now what can we do to get it back?

Reflecting on Floods: Finding Hope and New Beginnings in an Ancient Disaster

On the early hours of 1 January 2020, flash floods took place throughout the Indonesian capital of Jakarta and the metropolitan area. Water levels reached 30-200 cm in many parts of the city, even standing at four meters in some areas. More than 397,000 people were evacuated to higher grounds. Due to landslides, hypothermia, drowning and electrocution, officials reported the death toll at 60 on 4 January 2020.

A significant contributing factor is that a significant part of Jakarta is low-lying, some 24,000 ha (240 km2) of Jakarta’s main part are below sea level. If heavy rain combines with high tides, flooding can become serious. The high tides push water into low-lying areas when this occurs, coinciding with the rain runoff in upland areas flowing down into the Jakarta region.

One of the most famous and recurrent calamities in the ancient world was flooding. People therefore saw the wrath of gods in them and begged for safety.

Hope and Fear: The Annual Flood of Ancient Egypt

The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”) is a woman wearing a palm shoot over her head, symbolizing time. She was often called the Future Mistress. Fertility, youth and spring were also personified by her. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the year’s opening”), was based on the Nile River’s annual flood, an earthly cycle that coincided with a celestial cycle as well. The New Year was also characterized by communal feasts and a combination of hope and fear. As they didn’t know how the flood would affect them, every year was probably the last year for the ancient Egyptians.

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the river nile when it floods

The annual flood left behind rich silt deposits, fertilizing crops to feed the country as a whole. Just the right amount of flooding guaranteed a fruitful harvest – too little means starvation, too much means destruction.

The annual flood festival celebrated Osiris’ death and rebirth and, by extension, the land and people’s rejuvenation and rebirth. The myth behind this celebration was that by drowning him in the water, the god Set and his accomplices assassinated Osiris and dismembered him–scattering his limbs up and down the valley. The death of Osiris culminated in the annual floods giving life to the valley. Osiris was then thought to have arisen from the dead, but he required his devoted followers ‘ persistent supplication to validate his return. The priests mourned his passing, prayed for his return and celebrated with music, singing and festivities at the moment of his resurrection.

Traditionally, as Osiris had drowned, young boys selected for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then regarded as gods, especially if the water responded with a flood the following year.

As well as singing and dancing to mark his rebirth, solemn ceremonies relating to Osiris ‘ death were observed. At the beginning, the call-and-answer poem known as Isis and Nephthys ‘ Lamentations was recited to call Osiris to his feast.

The lamentation is when Osiris ‘ soul is called by the two goddess-sisters to join the living. The two sisters ‘ simultaneous entreaties repeated one another in their attempts to revive Osiris symbolically. The best-preserved edition of this work comes from the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323–30 BCE) Berlin Papyrus, although the work itself is much older.

Another ancient view in Egypt is that the New Year’s Day itself was also considered the god Ra-Horakhety’s birthday. The idea was that the sun was resurrected on New Year’s day and became more and more fragile over the last few months of the year. This is another reason why it was considered dangerous at the end of the year. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.

Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.

The Beginning and the End of Times in Hinduism

There were very common floods in ancient India. Plava (floods) and pralaya (deluges) in Hinduism signify the beginning and end of times as well as the changes that occur as a result of the Time cycle, which is another term for the Death god. Since the human settlements developed primarily along the Indian subcontinent’s main rivers, people were acquainted with the problems caused by floods that they attributed to gods’ anger and their own karma. Flood heralds change in the world’s lives and individuals and growth. Therefore, drastic changes in the world’s order and regularity and revolutions are compared to extreme (viplavam) floods.

Nearly every mahayuga (epoch) begins or ends, according to the Puranas, with a great deluge during which gods try to help people and preserve the eternal knowledge for posterity. These can either be induced by God or Nature to cleanse the earth and inaugurate a new era, or to tackle the problem of evil and save people from its power. The city of Dwaraka was sunk in the ocean at the end of Dwapara Yuga, which was then ruled by Lord Krishna as his capital. It also marked the end of his life and the start of a new age.

As a consequence, floods in Hinduism reflect the death and destructive power of God, Nature, a demon, or even an evil asura or rakshasa who wishes to create chaos. We also represent God’s role in persevering in order to maintain their order and regularity among worlds and beings. A flood may also signify the overabundance of anything that can cause the essence and order of things to be imbalanced and require divine intervention. Because of past karma or divine providence, a person may be filled with problems or good things in life.

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puja, a Hindu prayer ritual, performed in the city of Ujjain during the Monsoon on the banks of of the overflooding Shipra river.

Flood Myths

A flood myth or deluge myth is a narrative in which, in an act of divine retribution, a great flood, usually sent by a deity or deities, destroys civilization. Parallels are often drawn between the flood waters of these myths and the primaeval waters contained in certain myths of creation, as the flood waters are portrayed in preparation for rebirth as a measure for the redemption of mankind. Many flood myths also include a hero of religion, who “represents the human desire for life.”

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The Flood” (Deucalion holding aloft his wife) by Paul Mewart (1855 – 1902)

The flood story is present among many cultures as seen in the tales of the Mesopotamian floods, Deucalion and Pyrrha in Greek mythology, the tale of the Genesis flood, Pralaya in Hinduism, the GunYu in Chinese mythology, Belgemir in Northern mythology, the arrival of the first settlers of Ireland with Cessar in Irish mythology, the legend of the people of K’iche and Maya in Mesoamerica, the Lake Cour in Mesoamerica.

Of course, the best-known story of the Great Flood is from the Biblical Book of Genesis 6-9 in which God is incensed with the wickedness of mankind and kills them with a flood, except for the righteous Noah and his son. The biblical work is based on the earlier oral version of the Mesopotamian flood story repeated in the above-mentioned works and which may have also inspired an Egyptian text known as The Book of the Heavenly Cow, part of which dates back to the First Intermediate Period of Egypt (2181-2040 BCE).

The Heavenly Cow’s Book tells how they rebelled against him after the sun god Ra had created humans, and he decided to destroy them. He sent the goddess Hathor to destroy mankind as an extension of himself (known as The Eye of Ra), but he repented of the action after she killed many. He then had massive amounts of red-colored beer to look like blood and ordered it to be placed in the path of Hathor. She drank the bottle, fell asleep, and later woke up as she is generally portrayed as the loving goddess and friend of humanity.

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Sintflutbrunnen (Deluge fountain) (1907)  by Paul Aichele

Atrahasis is not the earliest version of the Mesopotamian flood story and the earlier oral version almost definitely inspired the versions of other cultures, including the Egyptian and Hebrew stories. In the Egyptian version, the revolt of humanity and the grace of Ra leads to a closer relationship with the gods, and the same is implied in the biblical story by the covenant of God with Noah after the waters of the floods have sunk. In the Atrahasis, the gods allow human life to proceed with the stipulation that they will not live forever or multiply as bountifully as before.

The story would have been used to explain human mortality, the misfortunes associated with childbirth, even one’s child’s death. Because overpopulation and the ensuing noise had once brought down the awful deluge that almost killed mankind, it might be easier to bear the loss of one’s child with the understanding that such a loss helped preserve the natural order of things and preserved harmony with the gods. The myth would have served the same basic purpose that such stories always have: the assurance that there is some greater purpose or meaning in individual human suffering and is not just random, senseless pain.

The Atrahasis, like Noah’s Ark’s narrative, is eventually a tale of hope and faith in a deeper sense to the human experience tragedies.

Nature and Emotions

It often happens that nature and weather elements equate feelings and emotions. Here are some examples: I am frozen in my seat. I was flooded with passion etc. Water in our dreams also symbolizes the unconscious, according to Carl Jung. Severe storms, winds and rain often accompany flooding. Also compared to difficult emotions such as frustration, rage, sorrow, disappointment, pain and fear.

Water flooding seems to mimic symptoms of emotional overload. Just like water, when we reject them emotions would find a point where they surface, start flowing out of us and can’t be stopped. They take over our minds and  keep us trapped there until the pouring is over. They then continue to recede naturally, leaving everything soaked or destroyed, allowing reconstruction to finally take place. There then follows a wave of sorrow from our souls. But then, there are also always a flood of people emerging for us in unity, compassion and hope.

Can we then do anything to stop the roaring storm, the rain, or the massive water damage? Probably not. But we can use flooding to reflect, become more conscious and more thankful for the moments when our lives’ waters are calm.

Naupaka: The Legend of the Torn Flower

The beautiful Naupaka flower is one of Hawaii’s most common plants found both along the beach and in the mountains. Its appearance is unique as it looks like a flower that has been torn in half.

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There are different legends about this flower, and they all relate to the story of forbidden love. One of the more famous legends tells us about the princess Naupaka who lived in the mountains. One day while walking along the beach, she met encountered a handsome fisherman named Kaui. When their eyes met, they both smiled – it was love at first sight.

Realizing that she would never be allowed to marry a common fisherman, Princess Naupaka knew that she was prohibited from marrying him. She rushed to one of the Kupunas (elders) in the village. Hearing her story, the Kupuna shook her head sadly as the princess’ marriage is prohibited by Hawaiian custom. However, “all is not lost”, she said, “perhaps you can see the high priest and ask for his permission.”

Thus Naupaka and Kaui travelled for days to search for the high priest. Once they finally found him they told him about their love and asked his permission to marry. The priest was sympathetic, but even he could not turn his back on their custom. “That blessing” , he said “only comes from the gods.” He then suggested that the lovers pray earnestly to them until they have their answer.

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So Naupaka and Kaui prayed. Soon, dark clouds came overhead and a heavy rain fell upon them. A lightning struck near them and Naupaka screamed in shock. She stopped her prayer and the rain soon stopped. Heartbroken, the princess realized that the thunder and lightning was a sign from the gods that she and Kaui were not allowed to be together. She tore the flower from her hair and ripped it in half. She then gave half to Kaui and the two lovers said their goodbyes. Kaui would return to the seas and Naupaka would spend the rest of her life in the mountains.

As Naupaka and Kaui went their separate ways, the flowers around them saw their sadness and mourned to see the heartbroken young lovers. To this day, the flowers near the sea and in the mountains only bloom in halves. The ones growing near the sea are called Naupaka Kahakai, while the ones growing in the mountain is called Naupaka Kauihiwa. Each flowers look like half of a blossom, but when they are placed together, they form a perfect flower. When the flower of the Naupaka Kauihiwi and the Naupaka Kahakai are joined together after they have been picked, the lovers can be reunited, even if it was only for a brief moment.

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The Loving Serpent: The Legend of Madam White Snake

Because to Christianity’s prominent influence in Western society, the book of Genesis have left a lingering demonization of snakes in the Western culture. However, serpents act as important symbols in many world cultures and not all of them symbolize evil. In Ancient Greece, nonpoisonous snakes often roamed freely in temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine as they interpreted snakes’ ability to shed their skin as a type of regeneration and thus a symbol of healing. The Norse god Jormungand, known as the Midgard Serpent, is also considered a cosmic serpent as he circles the world with his body. In the Hindu tradition, Shesha is a cosmic serpent and the king of all Nagas. Shesha holds the universe in his hood. Nagas occur in Buddhist lore too. One story tells of a Naga named Mucalinda sheltering Buddha from a storm as he meditates in a forest.

Chinese mythology is endearing as every story tells us that all things may grow and change. A stone may become a plant. A plant may become an animal. An animal may become a human. A human may become a god. The Legend of Madam White Snake is counted as one of China’s Four Great Folktales, the others being Lady Meng Jiang, Butterfly Lovers and the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Legend of Madam White Snake has expanded all throughout China and many other surrounding countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, even parts of India. In fact, t is easily one of the biggest legends to come from China.

The earliest attempt to fictionalize the story in printed form appears to be The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda by Feng Menglong, which was written during the Ming dynasty. The story propelled Lei Feng Pagoda to fame – it continues to be one of the most popular tourist sights in China.

Beijing Opera: “Legend of the White Snake”, 2016

Lu Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals, disguises himself as a man selling tangyuan at the Broken Bridge near the West Lake in Hangzhou. A boy named Xu Xian buys some tangyuan from Lu Dongbin without knowing that they are actually immortality pills. After eating them, Xu Xian does not feel hungry for the next three days. He therefore goes back to the old man to ask him why. Lu Dongbin laughs. He carries Xu Xian to the bridge where he then  flips him upside down and causes him to vomit the tangyuan into the lake.

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Fragment of relief depicting the Legend of the White Snake in Leifeng Pagoda in Hangzhou

Swimming in the lake is a white snake spirit who has been practicing magical arts for centuries in the hope of becoming an immortal. She eats the pills and gains 500 years’ worth of magical powers. She feels grateful to Xu Xian and, from that moment on, their fates become intertwined. There is also a tortoise spirit training in the lake who did not manage to consume any of the pills. He becomes very jealous of the white snake.

One day, the white snake sees a beggar on the bridge who has caught a green snake to wants to dig out the snake’s gall and sell it. The white snake transforms into a woman and buys the green snake from the beggar, thus saving the green snake’s life. Grateful, the green snake regards the white snake as an elder sister.

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Xu Xiang meeting Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing, Yue Opera, 1952

Eighteen years later, during the Qingming Festival, the white and green snakes transform themselves into two young women called Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing respectively. They meet Xu Xian at the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou. Xu Xian lends them his umbrella because it is raining. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen fall in love and are eventually married. They move to Zhenjiang, where they open a medicine shop.

In the meantime, the tortoise spirit has accumulated enough powers to take human form, so he transforms into a Buddhist monk called Fahai. Still angry with Bai Suzhen, Fahai plots to break up her relationship with Xu Xian. He approaches Xu Xian and tells him that during the Duanwu Festival his wife should drink realgar wine. As realgar wine is associated with the Duanwu Festival , Xu Xian give the wine to Bai Suzhen who unsuspectingly drinks it and reveals her true form as a large white snake. After seeing that his wife is not human, Xu Xian dies of shock. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing travel to Mount Emei, where they brave danger to steal a magical herb that restores Xu Xian to life.

After coming back to life, Xu Xian still maintains his love for Bai Suzhen despite knowing her true nature. Fahai tries to separate them again by capturing Xu Xian and imprisoning him in Jinshan Temple. Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing fights Fahai to rescue Xu Xian. Bai Suzhen uses her powers to flood the temple. However, despite drowning many innocent people, she fails to save her husband. Xu Xian later manages to escape from Jinshan Temple and reunite with his wife in Hangzhou, where Bai Suzhen gives birth to their son, Xu Mengjiao. Fahai tracks them down again, defeats Bai Suzhen and imprisons her in Leifeng Pagoda. Xiaoqing flees, vowing vengeance.

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Lifeng Pagoda, Hangzhou, China

Twenty years later, Xu Mengjiao earns the zhuangyuan (top scholar) degree in the imperial examination and returns home to visit his parents. At the same time Xiaoqing, who had spent years refining her powers, goes to Jinshan Temple to confront Fahai and defeats him. Bai Suzhen is freed from Leifeng Pagoda and reunited with her husband and son, while Fahai flees and hides inside the stomach of a crab. However, instead of being reunited with her husband and son, Bai Suzhen attained immortality and ascended to the heavens.

Madam White Snake is commonly interpreted as a reflection of the tension between social norms and individual desires. Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen’s love affair was one that did not conform to social norms at the time and Fahai represents the force that attempts to uphold social hierarchy and maintain social norms. Fahai’s attempts and eventual success in separating them implies the priority of society over individuals. A contrast is provided in the story by Bai Suzhen’s son who emerged as the top scholar in the imperial exams. He represents individuals who are rewarded when they confirm to social norms. As a result, Bai Suzhen was rewarded through her release from the Lei Feng pagoda but the social norms continued to prevail – she was rewarded with immortality but remain separated from her husband and son.

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As is the case for any stories with the kind of legacy that the Legend of Madam White Snake seem to have, where they started to be told orally until they were written down some hundred years later, characters and plot points have been added, altered and erased as the story moved from one culture to another. In a version written by Philostratus in 2nd-century Greece, the White Snake character introduces herself as a common Phoenician woman, while in a version recorded in Kashmir she is the daughter of a Chinese king. Some might consider such narrative inconsistencies and the tale’s unwritten beginnings problematic, especially when trying to locate an authentic text or ascribe artistic value to recorded retellings. But the absence of an authoritative text is perhaps one of the reasons for its perpetual value.


One of the earliest recorded ancestors of the White Snake story found in China appeared in an anthology of classic folk tales published in 981 CE. The story is categorized as a late period Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) romance and  titled “Li Huang” after its main character. In this version, Li is a married man who comes to Chang’an, the Tang capital, to find a job. He meets a “fairylike” lady dressed in white by a vendor cart, buys clothes for her and follows her home for a repayment. He eventually marries and spends three pleasurable days with her. When he returns to his home, Li Huang becomes ill and his body melts into his sheets. His servant leads his family toward the lady in white’s house, but when they arrive, they find only an empty garden with a locust tree bearing checks to repay Li. Locals report that a white serpent was commonly seen by the tree.

Burning like a silver flame: The Mother of Rome and the Patroness of ancient Wine Festivals

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A medallion painting from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, Italy, depicting the Greco-Roman goddess Venus; it is dated to the 1st century BC.

Originally the early Latin goddess of vegetation, a patroness of vineyards and gardens, Venus became deliberately associated with the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and assumed many of her aspects. The name of Venus then became interchangeable with Aphrodite as most of the tales of these two goddesses are identical. However, like every Roman gods with their Greek counterparts, there were differences. Venus arguably became more popular in ancient Rome, and became more ingrained in the city life. She took on the aspect of a gracious Mother Goddess full of pure love as well as assuming the divine responsibility for domestic bliss and procreation.

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” Venus and Mars Bathing “, by Giulio Romano  (1499 – 1546)
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“Venus Genitrix”, Roman Imperial copy (late first-early second century AD)

Venus was also the ancestress of the Julian family of Rome which included great men such as Julius and Augustus Caesar. Anchises, a prince from Dardania and ally to Troy, was seduced by Venus who disguised herself as a Phrygian princess, only revealing her divine identity nine months later as she presented Anchises with their son Aeneas. Guided by his divine mother, Aeneas was fated to found Rome. Aeneas’ son Ascanius was credited as the ancestor of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus along with the Julian family.

In 217 BCE, the Sibyline oracle suggested that if Rome, which at that time was losing the Second Punic War, could persuade Venus Eyrcina (Venus of Eryx) to change her allegiance from the Carthagian Silician allies to the Romans, the war would be won. Rome then laid siege to Eryx, offered the goddess a magnificent temple and took her image back to Rome. It was this foreign image that eventually became Rome’s Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother).

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” Triumph of Venus “, by Francesco del Cossa (1436 – 1477)

At the end of the Roman Republic, some Romans laid claim to Venus’ favor and competed for it. Sulla adopted the name Felix (“lucky”) and accredited Venus Felix to his divine favor, Pompey dedicated a temple to Venus Victris (“Venus of Victory”) in 55 BCE  and Hadrian dedicated a temple to Venus in 139 CE, making her the protective mother of the Roman state.

Roman theology presents Venus as the yielding, watery female principle which is essential to the generation and balance of life. Balanced by the more active and fiery Vulcan and Mars, Venus absorbs and tempers the male essence, thus uniting the opposites of male and female in mutual affection. She embraces several otherwise quite disparate functions such as military victory, sexual prowess, good fortune and general prosperity.

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“Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus”, by Guy Head painted c.1771

In April 1, Veneralia was held in honour of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the Changer of Hearts”) and Fortuna Virilis (Virile Good Fortune) whose cult was probably by far the older of the two. Venus Verticordia was invented in 220 BC, in response to advice from a Sibylline oracle during Rome’s Punic Wars when a series of prodigies was taken to signify divine displeasure at sexual offenses among Romans of every category and class, including several men and three Vestal Virgins. Her statue was dedicated by a young woman, chosen as the most pudica (sexually pure) in Rome by a committee of Roman matrons. At first, this statue was probably housed in the temple of Fortuna Virilis, perhaps as divine reinforcement against the perceived moral and religious failings of its cult. Venus Verticordia was given her own temple in 114 BCE. She was meant to persuade Romans of both sexes and every class, whether married or unmarried, to cherish the traditional sexual proprieties and morality known to please the gods and benefit the State. During her rites, her image was taken from her temple to the men’s baths, where it was undressed and washed in warm water by her female attendants, then garlanded with myrtle. Women and men asked Venus Verticordia’s help in affairs of the heart, sex, betrothal and marriage.

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A little of what is left from the temple of Venus, Pompei 2015

In April 23, the ancient Romans celebrated vinalia urbana, a wine festival shared by Venus and Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. While Venus was patron of “profane” wine, for everyday human use. Jupiter was patron of the strongest, purest, sacrificial grade wine, and controlled the weather on which the autumn grape-harvest would depend. At this festival, men and women alike drank the new vintage of ordinary, non-sacral wine in honour of Venus, whose powers had provided humankind with this gift. Upper-class women gathered at Venus’s Capitoline temple, where a libation of the previous year’s vintage, sacred to Jupiter, was poured into a nearby ditch. Common girls (vulgares puellae) and prostitutes gathered at Venus’ temple just outside the Colline gate, where they offered her myrtle, mint, and rushes concealed in rose-bunches and asked her for “beauty and popular favour”, and to be made “charming and witty”.

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The Forum of Caesar (built near the Forum Romanum in Rome in 46 BC) and the Temple of Venus Genetrix, Imperial Forums, Rome

In August 19, they celebrated another wine festival called vinalia rustica,  a rustic Latin festival of wine, vegetable growth and fertility. This was almost certainly Venus’ oldest festival and was associated with her earliest known form, Venus Obsequens. Kitchen and market-gardens, as well as vineyards were dedicated to her. 

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The circular temple dedicated to the Venus of Cnidus, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli 

A festival of Venus Genetrix (September 26) was held under state auspices from 46 BCE at her temple in the Forum of Caesar in fulfillment of a vow by Julius Caesar who claimed her personal favour as his divine patron and ancestral goddess of the Julian clan. Caesar dedicated the temple during his  quadruple triumph. At the same time, he was pontifex maximus and Rome’s senior magistrate; the festival is thought to mark the unprecedented promotion of a personal, family cult to one of the Roman state. Caesar’s heir, Augustus, made much of these personal and family associations with Venus as an Imperial deity. 

You Think Getting a Tattoo is Painful? The Myth, Rituals and Symbolism of Maori’s Ta Moko

A Maori legend tells us about Niwareka, daughter of a tohunga ta moko (tatooist) as well as the princess of the underworld. Niwareka wanted to explore the world above and while she was there she met Mataoroa. Niwareka fell in love with Mataoroa and married him. As knowledge of ta moko did not exist in the world above, Mataoroa simply wore designs painted on his body, rather than being chiselled as a real ta moko supposed to be. Ta moko is different from tattoo in that the skin is carved by uhi (chisels) instead of being punctured with needles. This leaves the skin with textured grooves, rather than the smooth surface of a normal tattoo.

One day, Mataoroa mistreated Niwareka. Refusing to put up with this, the princess of the underworld returned to her father in the underworld. Seeking her forgiveness Mataoroa pursued his wife into the underworld, enduring many trials and obstacles to reach her. But when he finally found her, the paint on his face was smeared from the sweat of his exertion. Upon seeing him, Niwareka’s people, who had actual chiselled faces and permanent designs, laughed at Mataora.

Ashamed of his appearance, Mataoroa asked his father-in-law to teach him the art of ta moko. Impressed with his commitment, Niwareka later forgave her husband, and they both returned to the world above, with Mataoroa taking with him the knowledge of ta moko. 

Image by michelle lagatule from Pixabay

Ta moko is a core component of the Maori culture and an outward expression of commitment and respect. It is customary for men to wear moko on their faces, buttocks, thighs and arms. The women usually wear ta moko on the chin and lips.

For the Maori people, ta moko was a rite of passage, which meant it was highly revered and ritualised. The actual tattooing would usually begin  during adolescence.

Having a Maori tattoo applied was a very painful experience. Deep cuts were incised into the skin. Then, the chisel was dipped into the pigment and tapped into the cuts. Another variation on this process involved dipping the chisel into the jar of pigment and inserting it into the skin by striking the end with a mallet. This manner of tattooing leaves the skin with grooves after healing, instead of the usual smooth surface left after needlepoint tattoos. Understandably, this was once a very long and labour intensive process. As  it was very painful, only a few parts of the body were tattooed at a time to allow healing.

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The great thing about the ta moko is that no two tattoos are alike. The practice of ta moko is a tapu (sacred) ritual. The design of each moko is unique to the wearer and conveys information about the wearer, such as their genealogy, affilliations, status and achievements.

Ta moko was traditionally performed using chisels made from materials such as Albatross bone. An assortment of chisels was used, some with a straight edge, others with a serrated edge. However, today most are performed using modern tattoo machines (and therefore leave the skin smooth). The inks that were used were made from all natural products. Burnt wood was used to create black pigments; while lighter pigments were derived from caterpillars infected with a certain type of fungus, or from burnt kauri gum mixed with animal fat. The pigments were then stored in ornate containers called oko, which became family heirlooms. The oko were often buried when not in use.

The black pigment that was made from burnt wood was reserved solely for facial tattoos; while those made from bugs or burnt gum was used for outlines and other less revered tattoos. Before the beginning the tohunga ta moko would study the persons facial structure to decide on the most appealing design.

All Maori design is made up of a number of essential design elements. Manawa Lines are the skin looking lines in the tattoo. Manawa is the Maori word for “heart” and represents your life, your journey and your time spent on earth. The main Korus coming off the Manawa Lines are used represent people and people groups. Korus are based off the tiny new growth shoots on the New Zealand Fern plant and represent new life and new beginnings. When you add a korus in your Manawa line, you can also be adding the important people in your life journey such as mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, siblings , friends and so on.

As the Maori people consider the head to be the most sacred part of the body, the most popular kind of ta moko was the facial tattoo, which was composed of curved shapes and spiral like patterns. Often this tattoo covered the whole face and was a symbol of rank, social status, power and prestige.

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Due to the sacred nature of ta moko, those who were undergoing the process, and those involved in the process, could not eat with their hands or talk to anyone aside from the other people being tattooed. Those who were receiving tattoos made it a point to not cry out in pain, because to do so was a sign of weakness. Being able to withstand the pain was very important in terms of pride.
There were other rules and regulations around being tattooed, particularly while undergoing a facial work. Many had to abstain from sexual intimacy while undergoing the rite, and had to avoid all solid foods. In order to meet these requirements, the person who recently got a facial tattoo had to be fed from a wooden funnel to prevent foodstuffs from contaminating the swollen skin. A person would be fed in this manner until the facial wounds had fully healed.
Because the face was often bleeding and very swollen, the leaves of the karaka tree were often used as a balm that was applied after the session had finished, to hasten the healing process. The tattooing was often accompanied by music, singing and chanting to help soothe the pain.

The focal point of Maori tattooing was generally the face. Men had full facial tattoos, while women only had their chin, lips and nostrils tattooed. Some Maori also had other parts of the body tattooed, such as their back and legs. Women were more often known to tattoo their arms, neck and thighs.

For men, their face tattoo showed their accomplishments, status, position, ancestry and marital status. It is considered highly insulting to be unable to recognise a person’s power and position by his moko.

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The male facial moko or tattoo is generally divided into different sections of the face: the ngakaipikirau (the centre of the forehead) designated a person’s general rank, ngunga (the area under the brows) designated his position, uirere (the area around his eyes and nose) designated his hapu, or sub-tribe rank, the uma (the area around the temples) served to detail his marital status, raurau (the area under the nose) displayed the man’s signature that was once memorised by tribal chiefs who used it when buying property, signing deeds and officiating orders, taiohou (the cheek area) showed the nature of the person’s work, wairua (the chin area) showed the person’s mana or prestige, and the taitoto (the jaw area) designated a person’s birth status

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It can also be noted that a person’s ancestry is indicated on each side of the face. The left side is generally the father’s side and the right side the mother’s. A noble or note-worthy descent was a primary requirement before a moko was undertaken as, if one side of a person’s ancestry was not of rank, the corresponding side of the face would not have any design tattooed on it. And if the person undertaking the moko has no rank, or is not heir to anything of note then the centre of the forehead would be left without design.