Thursday, July 6, 2017

She Who Married a Snake (Rukai)

Before the front door of the local clan chief's stone-slab house, a hive of bees and baibudao vipers stood guard. Any intruder attempting to enter would surely be either stung or bitten to death--probably both.

Now in this heavily guarded royal household of hereditary chiefs lived a maiden named Ba'leng, a young woman so beautiful that the lake god Ai'didi'nan himself had fallen in love with her. The god planned to visit Ba'leng's house and ask her parents for her hand in marriage. The lake god did not know that in order not to scare away potential suitors, Ba'leng had instructed anyone seeking her hand to make an appointment to give time to the attendants to move the beehive and to round up the

Well, Ai'didi'nan paid a visit in the morning nonetheless, somehow bypassing the vipers and bees. Ba'leng's family members and attendants awoke to find the floor of their house--in the house itself, mind you-- crawling with baibudao snakes, frightening them nearly out of their minds. The chief of these vipers was a magnificent shining white baibudao coiled around Ba'leng.

And there, standing inside the house amidst the slithering, coiling vipers was Ai'didi'nan himself, lake god and, something previously unknown to Ba'leng's family, king of the baibudao vipers.

He had come to ask the chief and his wife for their blessings to wed their daughter. Could they say no? Would they say no?

The chief and his wife did not want to agree to this marriage proposal; however, they thought over the circumstances. Ai'didi'nan seemed to have them over a barrel. What's more--the chief and his wife recalled how, according to Rukai traditions, the chief's very own family was descended from a baibudao. The proposal thus seemed to be one between equals.

The chief and his wife agreed to let Ai'didi'nan wed Ba'leng.

Ai'didi'nan was delighted and recalled his troop of baibudao vipers to leave the chief's house and to return with him to the lake. He had gifts to prepare.

Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. Ai'didi'nan, invisible,  showed up with his gifts for the bride's family: a ceramic pot, an iron skillet, and multicolored glazed pearls--all typical gifts the members of royalty would exchange with each other. Each object floated through the air into Ba'leng's house, carried by the lake god's likewise now invisible baibudao attendants.

Now that she was married to Ai'didi'nan, Ba'leng had her husband make himself visible to only her and insisted his baibudao retinue stay invisible so as not to shock and frighten the village guests. Only Ba'leng could see her favorite form of her husband, that of an extremely handsome young man, a vision she savored for herself.

The time came for Ba'leng's friends and family members to escort her to her new home, the lake. They carried with them some of the wedding banquet. Once at the lake, they saw Ba'leng, smiling, happy, horizontally supported in the air by invisible arms, twirling around and around by the shore, singing this song:

Dear parents and friends, I must soon say goodbye!
Look hard as you can, 
And you might catch a glimpse of me as I enter my new home in the lake.
Then, you shall never see me again!

Her parents, especially her mother and her friends, sang in return:

Our dear Ba'leng!
Our dear daughter!
The huge gap you will be leaving behind in our lives!
Now you shall forever be in the lake, 
And we shall never behold you again!
Please always remember us, your family and village!

Ba'leng now said, "It's time to eat the wedding banquet food. Please enjoy it! Please also make sure you save the cold food for the groom's kinsmen!"

Immediately, ripples appeared on the lake, growing bigger and bigger. From out of the lake came trays and trays of both hot and cold delicacies carried by invisible snakes. Everyone sat down to eat--humans and invisible snake guests, with the snakes eating the cold food, which snakes prefer. 

Now came the time for Ba'leng to say her final farewell. 

Just before entering the waters of the lake for good, Ba'leng said, "In the future, if you come back to the lake, remember to wear white clothes or plain,  unadorned clothes, never anything in black. Let your hair be adorned with red decorations!"

Waving goodbye, she walked into the water until she could no longer be seen. And then, once she had disappeared, a final ripple spread over the water. 

Lin Daosheng, vol. 1; pp. 72-74. See the previous story for citation.

The Rukai people live in southern-central Taiwan, just above the southern peninsula. 

The baibudao snake, known to zoologists as Deinagkistrodon acutus, is a highly venomous snake found in Taiwan and southeast China. It is also known as the "Chinese moccasin." The snake is popularly known as the baibudao, or "hundred pacer," because its venom will cause a victim to stagger one hundred steps before falling down dead upon the ground. (An excellent and fascinating introduction to the baibudao and the many other snakes of Taiwan can be found at, accessed 7/6/17.)

This tale belongs to the animal groom cycle of stories, which like its female counterpart, the animal bride/supernatural wife tales, are found worldwide. Perhaps the most famous version is "Beauty and the Beast," A southeastern Chinese and Han Taiwanese version of that particular story is "The Bride of Lord Snake," in which an old woodcutter and widower innocently picks some flowers for his unwed daughters and is accosted by a rather grim, stern but handsome young man of the upper class who then threatens the old man with death if he is not allowed to choose a bride from among the woodcutter's daughters. In that tale, Lord Snake's ability to shapeshift is mentioned but only occurs once when he turns himself into a bee, not a snake, to observe the woodcutter's daughters for the first time (see my e-book, Taiwan Folktales). In addition, there is a Hmong version of the above tale in which the groom does appear as a snake and, later, as a man (see the blog postings for 11/1/11, 11/22/11, and 12/18/11, respectively, parts one, two, and three). Another animal groom tale is the Mongolian/Manchu "The Bird Khan," similar to the Russian "Finn the Keen Falcon" or "The Feather of Finist, the Bright Falcon" (see the posting for 8/3/07). One of my favorites in the cycle is "The Princess Who Married a Dog" (see the posting for 7/6/12). 

Perhaps a common factor in all these stories of men who must exist in animal form is the suggestion from Bruno Bettelheim that the male nature has the potential for being base, animalistic, and essentially repulsive, and that true love, like Ba'leng's, can overcome these hurdles. Many of the stories in this cycle do not have happy endings since they are metaphors that emphasize the permanent loss of Eden and of the primeval paradises that are a part of many traditions. We just cannot go back to what once was, and any attempt to do so, such as the union of a mortal and a god/spirit, is bound to end tragically. This story ends with what will seem to be a happy marriage, though the bittersweet finality of the bride's farewell cannot be denied. Ba'leng's parents pay a huge price for their daughter's betrothal to Ai'didi'nan--permanent separation. Such an outcome is perhaps the best that can be expected. 

Motifs: A132.1, "Snake-god"; B576.1, "Animal as guard of person or house"; B604.1, "Marriage to snake"; D391, "Transformation: serpent to person"; D1980, "Magic invisibility"; F420.1.3.9, "Water-spirit as snake." 

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