The naga... and Medusa
Posted on April 23, 2010 (Subscribe to Blog)
One of the not-so-well-known creatures in myth and legend is the naga, generally described as a half-human, half-snake person. It's an Indian legend and a pretty cool one at that, hence their inclusion in my Island of Fog trilogy, particularly the second and third books.
The word Naga in the Sanskrit language means snake or serpent. The Naga were also a group of people spread throughout India during the epic Mahabharata. As epics go, this was a really long one, apparently ten times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. That's some heavy reading, with more pages than Stephen King's gargantuan novel Under The Dome. Anyway, the ancient Naga people were most likely a serpent-worshipping group who were later described as serpents themselves in ancient Indian literature.
I find it interesting that the Indian Cobra is still called a naga in Hindi and other languages of India, whereas a female naga is a nagin or nagini. I couldn't help noticing the correlation between "female" and "nagging." *ducks to avoid flying brick*
Most naga creatures are depicted with giant serpent bodies and upper torsos of humans. There are also versions which have no arms, just a human head in place of the snake's head. I like to think that the head-only version dwells underwater, perhaps a more primitive species, while the more common variety live on land and have human-like settlements and so on. In any case, my own version of the naga is able to communicate with any form of serpent, which in the real world is limited to snakes, but in a fantasy setting includes those good old giant-size sea serpents and all other related monsters, perhaps even the Oroborous, which circles the world!
Snakes are generally creepy, sinister and dangerous things. In Greek history, Medusa is a snake-headed woman whose gaze can turn heroes to stone. In the legend she was one of three sisters who was "made hideous" by the goddess Athena for the crime of being too beautiful for her own good. She was turned into a monster and exiled to an island, cursed with a terrible gaze – anyone who looked her way would immediately turn to stone. Maybe this was the origin of the phrase "drop dead gorgeous."
In the classic movie Clash of the Titans (and the new 2010 version too), as well as in a lot of fantasy art, she's depicted with a distinctly monstrous serpentine body. This makes her look very much like a naga, but normally Medusa is classed as a gorgon. Then again, gorgon just means dreadful or terrible. In the early legends, the Gorgon was a single monster of the underworld, but in later legends there were actually three Gorgons – three sisters, two of whom were immortal, and Medusa, who was mortal and eventually slain by Perseus. So what exactly are gorgons, then? Because of Medusa, some authors write about gorgons as an entire species of snake-headed, evil-eyed monsters, with or without snake bodies. But that's not really the case; only Medusa was that way. In other versions of the legend, gorgons are an entire species of creatures with the power to turn people to stone, but only Medusa had snakes on her head; in this legend, her beautiful golden locks were turned into snakes when she was exiled, making her unique.
Look at the harpies; again there were originally only three of these (three sisters) yet many authors treat harpies as an entire species of ugly winged humans. Likewise, the original Gorgon legend altered to become three Gorgon sisters, and then altered further to become a species of gorgon monsters. Whether the gorgons are simply ordinary people with the power to turn people to stone with one glance, or nasty half-snake people that resemble nagas and have snakes instead of hair, is up to the author's imagination.
The naga feature heavily in my Island of Fog books, but a little known fact is that one of Miss Simone's old school friends is a gorgon. We've yet to meet that gorgon, but one day we will...
Great. Informative. Studying Hindu and Buddhism, hence trying to figure if the Naga were the Gorgons. So many cultural ties through our species.