Last week’s post of the Fantastic Bestiary dealt with housespirits of ancient Rome. In this post we’re going to the far east, following up on another suggestion left by DD member marcorossi. We are going to study the Naga today. The Nagas are a race of serpentine beings that appear in both Hinduist and Buddhist mythology, as well as Southeast Asian mythology and folklore as a whole. A Naga often appear as a half-human, half-snake - usually that of the king cobra - of varying forms and sizes that is generally associated with water.
Nagas can be seen depicted on carvings on Hindu sites throughout Southeast Asia and particularly southern India. Sometimes depicted as snakes and other times as snakes with human features, usually a humanoid top half. They can be either male or female – the female version being referred to as a Nagi or Nagini.
They can be either a good or a bad influence depending on which text or tradition you turn to, but they are almost always powerful and cunning. In India in particular they are seen as the guardians of seas, rivers, wells and springs. They are also associated with fertility. Elaborate rituals and other forms of worship may be carried out by some Hindus in Southeast Asia to appease the Nagas, and thus increase fertility within the local community. On the negative side they are given the blame for floodings and droughts and similarly water-related natural disasters.
In Hindu tradition the Nagas are said to be the children of the sage Kashyapa and one of his wives, Kadru. Kadru wanted many children and saw to this by laying eggs that hatched into a thousand snakes. Nagas play an important role in several Hindu texts, particularly in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata that tells the story of the Kurukshetra War, a legendary dynastic struggle that took place around 3100 BCE. In this story the Nagas are established as the enemies of another mythic creature. The half human, half eagle Garuda who is the cousin of the Nagas. Garuda and the Nagas become involved in their mother’s conflict which results in Garuda being enslaved to the Nagas. When he is ultimately released he thenceforth holds an eternal grudge against the Nagas, hunting them like prey.
Switching over to a less tragic view we have the Nagas as they are depicted in the Buddhist mythology. Where they are typically considered minor deities. Many of them are believed to live on Mount Meru - which is the five-peaked mountain of both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology in which it is considered the hub of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes - guarding other deities from attack.
Others are said to dwell in Himmavanta, the legendary, hidden forest of the Himmanpan mountain, or the Himalayas, where small and large mythic creatures, as well as deities, of Thai folklore resides. In line with their general association with water, many of them are in this tradition also believed to reside in oceans, rivers or streams, while others are believed to live underground - connecting their race to the enchanted underworld, a realm filled with gold, gems and earthly treasures called Naga-loka or Patala-loka.
In many Buddhist places the Nagas have been combined with creatures of other mythological traditions, sometimes portrayed as a human being with a snake or a dragon extending over its head. One Naga, in human form, attempted to become a Buddhist monk. When it was told that such a thing was impossible, the Buddha told it how to ensure that it would be reborn a human, and so be able to become a monk.
One famous Naga you should know about is Shesha, who is often considered to be the king of the Nagas and is often depicted with many heads. Most notably - on the request of the Godhead, The Brahman - Shesha was the one who agreed to hold up the world in order to keep it steady, remaining coiled doing so. Whenever he uncoiled, time would move faster. If he ever coiled back, the universe would cease to exist and he would remain the same without it. Quite a creepy responsibility to lay on a serpent man:P He’s also known to be the one who holds up Vishnu, the supreme god of Hinduism, as his bed and consort while floating in the eternal ocean of the cosmos.
Another important Naga in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology is Vasuki, another king of the Nagas who is depicted being coiled around the neck of Lord Shiva, one of the three most prominent Hindu deities. He plays an important role in a story where the gods and the demons needs to extract the essence of immortality from the ocean of milk, and they do this by wrapping Vasuki around Mount Mandara and then uses him as a rope to churn the ocean. Again, a creepy responsibility. I’m sensing a theme here:P
A less creepier, but no less important example we find in the Buddhist tradition. The Naga Mucalinda, the mighty king of serpents, is considered a protector of the Gautama Buddha. He once used his hood to shield this Buddha from the rain and the wind and the icy cold of a heavy storm that lasted for seven days, while the Buddha meditated under the serpent king’s protection. Mucalinda is often depicted in works of art stretching his many heads above the meditating Buddha. Sounds like a very compassionate and noble serpent - unlike the one Jesus met in the middle of nowhere - doesn’t it?
And with that I conclude this rundown. Nagas, like the Jinn, seems to me a very fascinating and versatile, mythical race full of potential for any out there kind of fantasy story. It is especially cool that they are part of the mythology of two world religions, as well as local Southeast asian folklore, and can be associated with so many different mysterious, mythical places beside the underground, as well as oceans, ponds and streams. Still, I’m not sure how much gravitas there is in having your mere coiling responsible for the continued existence of the universe, or having yourself used as a rope to make immortality imbuing cheese.
Sounds like the divine powers really likes to play practical jokes on the Nagas. I guess the snake people don’t really mind it though^^
So, what are your thoughts? Have you ever used or planned on using the Nagas as ropes in your creative works? What fantastical creature or entity of fiction or myth, any fiction or myth, would you like to suggest that I bring up in the next installment of this series?
Let me know in the comments below and I wish you all, wether you celebrate it this weekend or the next, a Happy Easter.
Andreas_Helixfinger at 12:00AM, April 17, 2022
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