Once there was an old man named Meng who lived with his wife in the southern part of China. One spring, Meng sowed a seed of calabash in his yard. The bottle gourd grew little by little – its vines climbed over the wall and entered his neighbor Jiang’s yard. Like Meng, Jiang had no children. Jiang became very fond of the plant. He watered it and took great care of it. With the tender care of both men, the plant grew bigger and bigger and showed a beautiful calabash in autumn. Jiang plucked the calabash and the two old men decided to divide it by half. However, when they cut it, they found a pretty little girl lying inside. They decided to raise the child together and named the girl Meng Jiang – a combination of both their names.
As time went by, the little girl grew up to become a beautiful young woman. Smart and industrious, she looked after Meng and Jiang’s families, washing the clothes and doing the house work. One day while playing in the yard, Meng Jiang saw a young man hiding in the garden. The young man’s name was Fan Qiliang. At that time, Emperor Qin Shihuang made the announcement to build the Great Wall. Many poor young men were caught by the federal officials to work on the wall. Fan Qiliang escaped to Meng’s house to hide from the officials.
Meng and Jiang liked this handsome, honest and well-mannered young man. They decided to wed their daughter to him and the young couple got married several days later. However, three days after their marriage, officials suddenly broke in and took Fan Qiliang away to build the wall in the north of China.
Meng Jiang missed her husband and cried nearly every day. She sewed warm clothes for him and decided to set off to look for him. Saying farewell to her parents, she started her long journey. She climbed over mountains and went through the rivers. Walking day and night, slipping and falling, Meng Jiang finally reached the foot of the Great Wall at the present Shanhaiguan Pass.
Upon her arrival, she eagerly asked about her husband. However, Fan Qiliang had already died of exhaustion and was buried into the Great Wall. Meng Jiangnu collapsed to the ground – she cried and cried. Suddenly, with a tremendous noise, a 400 kilometer-long section of the wall collapsed over her bitter wail. Emperor Qin Shihuang, who happened to be touring the wall at that exact time, he was enraged and ready to punish the woman who caused this misfortune.
The Emperor became attracted by her beauty. Instead of killing her, the Emperor asked Meng Jiang to marry him. Suppressing her anger, Meng Jiang gave him three conditions: first, the Emperor had to find the body of Fan Qiliang, the second was to hold a state funeral for him and the last one was to have the Emperor attend the funeral in person. Emperor Qin reluctantly agreed. After all the conditions were met and the Emperor was ready to take her to his palace, Meng Jiang suddenly jumped into the nearby Bohai Sea.
In memory of Meng Jiang, later generations built a temple at the foot of the Great Wall in which a statue of her is located.
In Plato’s Symposium (c. 385–370 BCE), Socrates mentions that, in his youth, he was taught “the philosophy of love” by a woman named Diotima, a priestess from Mantinea. She taught Socrates the concept of love as a means of ascent to contemplation of the divine, arguing that the goal of love is immortality, either through the creation of children or beautiful things. This is an ancient concept. So ancient, in fact, that there are many love stories that were so great that they gave birth to changes in the world and new knowledges that we take for granted today.
The First Winter: Adonis and Aphrodite (Phoenician)
Adonis was born a most beautiful child. Aphrodite placed him into a coffin which she entrusted to Persephone, goddess of the Underworld. When Aphrodite returned to retrieve the coffin she discovered that Persephone had opened it and claimed the handsome child for herself. The dispute became so nasty that Zeus had to intervene. He then decided that Adonis should spend half the year on earth and half in the Underworld.
In another version of this myth Adonis was a hunter. Because Aphrodite loved Adonis, she tried to persuade him to give up the dangerous sport. Adonis refused and was killed by a wild boar. This myth actually came before the Ancient Greek version. In the sixth century the Phoenician name for this character was discovered. He was the agricultural divinity named Eshmun, which explained the 6 month alternation between the earth and the underworld.
Eshmun was known at least from the Iron Age period at Sidon and was worshipped also in Tyre, Beirut, Cyprus, Sardinia and Carthage where the site of Eshmun’s temple is now occupied by the acropolium of Carthage. Damascius stated that, “The Asclepius in Beirut is neither a Greek nor an Egyptian, but some native Phoenician divinity. For to Sadyk were born children who are interpreted as Dioscuri and Cabeiri; and in addition to these was born an eighth son, Esmunus, who is interpreted as Asclepius.”
Photius summarizes Damascius as saying further that Asclepius of Beirut was a youth who was fond of hunting. He was seen by the goddess Astronoë who so harassed him with amorous pursuit that in desperation he castrated himself and died. Astronoë then restored the youth to life from the warmth of her body and changed him into a god. A village near Beirut named Qabr Shmoun, “Eshmoun’s grave,” still exists.
The First Cesarean Section: Zal and Rudabeh (Persian)
Zal, son of a Feridun chief named Sam, was born with snow white hair. This curious condition aroused fear that he might be a son of a devil, and Sam was forced to abandon the boy on a mountaintop. A simurgh, a bird with magic powers, snatched up the crying baby and raised him with its own nestlings.
Upon dreaming that his son still lived, Sam prayed to be reunited. The simurgh instructed Zal that he must return to his father, but gave him a feather that would ensure Zal’s safety if he were ever in danger. Sam welcomed his son and eventually put him in charge of Zabulistan where he performed his duties well. Zal decided to visit other places including Kabul. The chief of Kabul was a descendant of Zohak, an enemy of Zal’s father Sam and the king of Persia. Zal knew that the smart thing to do would be to avoid contact with the chief, but he wanted to meet the chief’s daughter Rudabeh who was described as “fair as the moon with ringlets of dark hair that reached her feet and whose presence made men think of heaven.” Rudabeh in turn had heard of Zal, and invited Zal to her palace retreat. The two realized their great love for each other, but feared their families’ enmity.
When Zal confessed his love for Rudabeh to his father, Sam consulted astrologers, and found out that the offspring of the two lovers would become a great conqueror. He sent Zal with a letter for Rudabeh’s father asking his permission for the marriage. The king received the same sign from the astrologers and consented. Rudabeh and Zal married, and the two kings made peace.
When Rudabeh was ready to give birth, she became gravely ill. Zal placed the simurgh feather on the fire. The simurgh appeared and instructed that Rudabeh be drugged with wine. Her side was opened, her child drawn out, and the incision rubbed with an herb and another feather from the simurgh’s wing – the world’s first cesarean procedure. The child named Rustam revealed himself immediately to be a hero and the fulfillment of the simurgh’s prophecy.
The First Embalment: Osiris and Isis (Egyptian)
Osiris, son of Earth and Sky, was the husband-brother of Isis, goddess of the earth and moon. Set, the god of darkness, trapped Osiris in a coffin and threw him into the Nile. Grief-stricken Isis found the coffin and retrieved her husband’s body, but inspite of her attempts to hide it in Egypt, Set found it again and cut it into fourteen pieces which he scattered throughout the land. Isis searched again. When she found the parts, she rejoined the fragments, and restored the god to eternal life with the first use of the rites of embalment.
The First Dynasty: Sakuntala and Dashyanta (Indian)
Sakuntala was abandoned in the forest where she survived on food brought by birds. She was discovered by the sage Kanva who raised her as his own daughter at a hermitage. One day King Dushyanta was hunting in the forest, and having caught sight of Sakuntala, fell in love. He persuaded her to marry him and gave her a ring of commitment when he departed. Unfortunately, Sakuntala, upon returning to the hermitage, mistakenly offended the irritable sage Durvasas. He cast a curse that she would be forgotten by her husband forever unless King Dushyanta spied the ring he had left with her.
Eventually it was time for Sakuntala to find her husband and she left the hermitage. When she stopped to bathe in a sacred pool, Sakuntala dropped the ring. In accordance with the curse, Dushyanta did not recognize her when she arrived at the palace and denied their marriage, although he did feel sorry for the grief-stricken girl about to give birth to a child. Sakuntala sadly withdrew from the palace only to be whisked away to a sacred grove by an apparition. There she bore a son named Bharata.
When a fisherman later found a ring inside a fish, he was taken before Dushyanta as a suspect of theft. Upon seeing the ring Dushyanta realized his vow to Sakuntala and anxiously sought her. The god Indra appeared in his chariot and carried Dushyanta to the sacred grove. There Dushyanta and Sakuntala were reunited and rejoiced in the heroic destiny of their son Bahrata who later gave his name to the dynasty of which he was the founder. It was in Bharata’s dynasty that later the Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata were born
The First Milky Way: The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (Chinese)
The Vega and the Altair Stars were in love. However, it was forbidden for the stars to fall in love. The Celestial Queen Mother and the Heavenly Emperor heard of their love and became furious. Despite the other stars’ protestations on behalf of the two lovers, the Celestial Queen Mother banished the Altair Star down to earth. The Vega Star was punished to weave the clouds in the sky for all eternity. Because of this, she became known as Zhinu (“the Weaver Girl”). Clouds in the skies were weaved by the Zhinu with celestial silk.
On earth, the Altair Star was reborn into a farming family. After his parents passed away, he stayed with his brother and sister-in-law, who treated him badly. Eventually, he was chased out of their home with only an old ox and a broken cart. He and his ox were inseparable, plowing and working hard to make ends meet. Because of this friendship, the people in the village came to know him as Niulang (“the Cowherd”).
One day, the Heavenly Maidens, servants of the Celestial Queen Mother, requested her permission to descend to Bi Lian Lake in the mortal world. They took pity on the heartbroken Weaver Girl and requested for her to be allowed to join them on the trip. The Celestial Queen Mother granted their request.
Unbeknownst to Niulang, his old ox was the reincarnation of the Golden Ox Star Jinniu, one of the stars who dared speak against the Celestial Queen Mother in his defense. One day, the ox suddenly spoke to him, “Go to Bi Lian Lake today. You will find the coats of heavenly maidens by the rocks, while they are bathing in the lake. Take the red coat and the maiden will become your wife.”
Niulang obeyed. He hid near the lake and, true to the Ox’s words, heavenly maidens gracefully danced down from the sky. The maidens placed their dresses by the rock and stepped into the Lake. Seeing his chance, Niulang took the red cloaks. The maidens were frantic to find there was man near them. Putting on their cloaks in haste, they flew back to heaven. Only one heavenly maid was left in the lake, Zhinu.
Niulang stepped forward and asked Zhinu to be his wife. At this moment, Zhinu recognized him as the Altair Star whom she still loved and happily became his wife. She lived with him on earth and bore him a son and a daughter. However, their joy did not last, as when the Celestial Queen Mother soon deployed heaven guards and soldiers to bring Zhinu back to the sky.
Back on earth, the old ox was dying. He asked Niulang to keep his ox hide well, so that one day Niulang will be able to make a cape of the hide and fly into the sky. Sadly, Niuland and Zhinu peeled the hide and gave the ox a burial. Suddenly, the heavenly soldiers came and took Zhinu away. She could do nothing except to be taken back to the clouds and skies with the soldiers. As she was flying, she heard a voice, “Wife, wait for me!” It was Niulang. Looking back, she saw him flying behind them, wearing the magical ox hide, holding a basket with their two children in it. Soon, she could see the faces of her children and hear their cries for her. When they were almost reunited, the Celestial Queen Mother appeared and with a wave of her hairpin, created the Milky Way between them, separating them forever.
The couple and their children gazed tearfully across the Milky Way at each other. All the stars and gods in heaven cried with them, pained that a loving family had to be separated. Soon, even the Heavenly Emperor felt sorry for them. He allowed the family to stay in the sky and remain as stars, permitting them to see each other once every year on the seventh day of the seventh month. On that day, magpies formed a living bridge to reunite the Cowherd, the Weaver Girl and their two children in the skies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.