Saturday, December 29, 2018

Snake Boy (Tsou/Zou)

Long, long ago, a woodcutter was up in the mountain forests when he heard a very heartbreaking, plaintive cry, the cry of a very small child in danger or in pain.

Who in the world is crying up here? he thought. Whose baby would be up here alone?

He tracked from where the cries were coming, and they led to a clearing. There sat a bawling infant, and coiled around this infant was a huge snake, the long forked tongue of which was licking the crying baby's head.

The woodcutter had seen many strange things in the forest, but what he saw now made him absolutely shudder. He took a deep breath and carefully stepped over to within arms' reach of the infant. He slowly and ever so carefully bent down and lifted the child from the coiled snake.

Holding the child firmly with one arm, the woodcutter used his free arm to shoo away the snake. The snake then slithered off into the forest.

The woodcutter carried the child to his home.

Once home, the woodcutter tried feeding him rice porridge, but the child wasn't interested or hungry. The woodcutter tried feeding him many other things but to no avail. Finally, the small child ate a plantain, and so the woodcutter decided to feed him just plantains, the only food he seemed to enjoy. The woodcutter discovered his little guest also liked yams, so the woodcutter added them to the diet.

And so, having been adopted by the woodcutter, the child lived on plantains, bananas, and yams and grew into a strong, husky youth named "Snake Boy."

Snake Boy, when he came of age, would accompany the adult men and the boys into the forests to hunt.

One day he and a bunch of boys went out to hunt deer. He was the only one that afternoon to come back with something. So, he was able to catch a deer? you might ask. No, he came back with three deer--one under each arm and one draped over his shoulders.

And then there was the head-hunting expedition, or what used to be called "grass mowing." Again, the local boys came back without nary a single head. Snake Boy, however, came back with a real warrior's load--the heads of two enemies.

Snake Boy was not merely a great hunter and warrior. He was also a mature and dependable member of his village and demonstrated such qualities by watching over and guiding the younger boys.

Thus, Snake Boy earned the love and respect of all the people--young and old--in his community.

One day, Snake Boy and his friends were curing some meat jerky on a bamboo frame. From not too far off came the sound of a person approaching and calling out a greeting. Yet, no one could be seen.

"What do you make of that?" asked one of the boys. "Some invisible person is out there!"

"'Invisible person'? Invisible spirit!" said another.

"A demon!" said still another.

To show they were not afraid, all except Snake Boy laughed, the laughter of those trying to make a brave front. Snake Boy cocked his head and seemed to be trying to figure out what the voice was saying. He finally turned to his companions, and with a sad look, he said, "It's my mother . . . "

"Your mother? What do you mean?" someone in the group asked.

"Yes, my mother. She allowed me to grow up here with all of you for all these years, to be your friend, brother, companion . . . It's my mother calling me . . . My time here is up, and now I must go. How I hate to leave!"

Snake Boy broke down in tears. As he cried, a huge snake crawled from the bushes over to the bamboo frame. The boys looked at the snake, and the serpent looked right back at them. Then, right before their eyes, Snake Boy immediately changed into a snake. His astonished friends jumped back as they witnessed  Snake Boy and his snake mother burrow into the soft earth and disappear.

He was gone, just like that! The boys who had loved and accepted Snake Boy as their very own brother were devastated. One, then another and another took out nose flutes and played some songs to express their sorrow and to comfort themselves.

One day not long after, another strange incident occurred. The same village boys were out playing their nose flutes when suddenly they noticed they were now surrounded by dozens of snakes on all sides, slithering around, whipping out their long pink tongues.

The boys were petrified at first. Then, one of the boys had a suggestion: attack the biggest snake, the one that seemed to be the leader. So, the boys hit the lead snake with their nose flutes, and the huge snake reacted by rearing up and emitting from its mouth long flames which made the boys retreat and which seared and then ignited the grass. All of the snakes there but one had no way to retreat and were thus burned up. Only one snake, a blue-green one, escaped with a burned tail.

The boys survived this encounter, having escaped. They returned to find that the dead snakes had deposited many eggs in and around the area, and these eggs later hatched. The whole region was soon crawling with snakes, and to this day it still is.

Lin Daosheng, Vol. 1 (for complete citation, see 3/1/18)

The Zou (or Tsou or Cou) are, like all of Taiwan's other indigenous peoples, Austronesians. They live in Chiayi, around Alishan and in other areas in central and southern Taiwan.

This tale touches upon headhunting, though it is not the tale I had promised a couple of tales back that will enlarge upon the once widespread custom of headhunting. (That forthcoming story is a legend from pre-World War Two Taiwan.) A few words on headhunting, however. It was a custom found amongst all if not most of the tribes. It evolved as a means of protecting community territory and became a coming-of-age ceremony by which a young man could prove his worth to his community and enable himself to obtain a wife after having demonstrated his prowess in taking a head. Again, though, the legend I plan to present next year will focus on headhunting and discuss this practice in more detail. 

This story strongly reminds us of the difficulty in overcoming nature--wild nature or even one's own human nature. Snake Boy was essentially a "fish out of water" and, as such, was destined sooner or later to return to his one real home, regardless of his attachment to his friends. This is a common theme in indigenous Taiwanese myths and legends, that we are guests in the company of the wild and its denizens and vice-versa, even if these supernatural friends/spouses might appear in human form from time to time. And they, when they are with us, will never and can never tarry for very long among us forever. Furthermore, we might have expected the boys of the village, Snake Boy's childhood and adolescent friends, to have been more accepting of snakes in their presence. After all, one of the snakes they struggled against might have been their good friend, Snake Boy. But no, their fear of snakes still (probably unconsciously) triggered them to respond with violence against the snakes that appear before them, overriding any thought that their best friend was now a snake. 

I hesitate fully to identify Snake Boy as a "culture hero" in that his single possible contribution to the world and human race--the proliferation of snakes--is only arguably creditable to him. 

Motifs: cA511.2.1, "Abandonment of culture hero at birth"; cA526.2, "Culture hero as mighty hunter"; cA526.7, "Culture hero performs remarkable feats of strength and skill"; cB635.3.1, "Culture hero licked by deer (snake) mother"; D191, "Transformation: man to serpent"; D391, "Transformation: serpent to person"; T542, "Birth of human being from an egg (of a snake)."

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