Snakes in Vietnamese culture
  • | VGP | February 12, 2013 03:16 PM
In Vietnamese culture, snakes compose a popular icon having a strong obsessiveness. For centuries, the worship of snakes became one of most ancient belief practices of the Vietnamese people who live in water-related environment.
This is the Year of the Water Snake Quy Ti (癸巳), which only comes around once every 60 years, since it is a combination of two different cycles in the Chinese “sexagenary” calendar: Quy is the term for the heavenly stem (天干 - thien can) and Ti corresponds to the snake in the well-known cycle of 12 animals (“earthly branches” - 地支 - dia chi).

The sexagenary calendar is comprised of "heavenly stems" and "earthly branches".  The animal zodiac is associated with the earthly branches.  According to Chinese astrology the 60 combinations of 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches that make up the sexagenary cycle also correspond to 30 pairs of yin-yang-Five-Elements (陰陽五行 - am duong ngu hanh) identities (命 - menh).

The Chinese character 蛇 (xa) is the literal word for Snake, and the earthy branch 巳 (ti) denotes the zodiacal animal sign of the Snake. This year's earthly branch is ti 巳 (snake) and this year's heavenly stem is quy 癸, which is one of two stems associated with water.  

The years 壬辰 (Nham Thin - last year - Year of the Dragon) and 癸巳 (Quy Ti - this year - Year of the Snake) correspond to the masculine/yang and feminine/yin aspects of the identity 長流水 (Truong Luu Thuy), which means "water from a long-flowing stream", hence the popular connotation of the animal zodiacs "Water Dragon" and "Water Snake" for those years among others.

In fact, snakes are worshipped by the Vietnamese people not only as the Gods of Water but also their ancestors. The Vietnamese people are so proud of their legend “Descendants of the Dragon and the Fairy” which explains their origin as children of a Bird Mother (Au Co) and a Serpent Father (Lac Long Quan).

Folklore scholar Dinh Gia Khanh explained “Lac Long Quan comes from a dragon family. This detail reflects the worship of serpent... The ancient Viet people, who used to tattoo their bodies with serpents, considered themselves as descendants of the animal”.

Why snakes?

In the process of evolution, the class of fishes was followed by the calss of replites in which snakes are a member. According to scientists, snakes might appear on the earth in the Triassic, around 200 million years ago.

Snakes have all colors and sizes and they can exist in almost all different natural environments, from high mountains to deep seas, from deserts to rain forests. Being legless reptiles, they can move fast without making noises.

Their shape and movement may be the grounds on which they are identified with rivers and water sources. Viewed from a high position, a river looks similar to a moving snake. Snakes hibernate in winter and reappear in rainy season. They can swimm well and many species inhabit in water. In many cases, such natural phenomena as waterspouts and whirlwinds are incarnated as snakes.

A symbolized lightning (signal of rain) is similar to snake’s tongue. Thanks to their colors and stripes running along the body, snakes are sometimes linked to rainbows.

Snakes lay many eggs in a batch. A male snake normally has a big sex organ. The shape and movement of snakes’ head also evoke sex organs. Therefore, snakes are a symbol of fecundity.

They also symbolize immortality because they can regularly shed their skins.

Obviously, there is an interrelationship between snakes and natural phenomena. These natural phenomena directly affect production and life of the ancient people, especially the wet-rice cultivators like the Vietnamese. This is why snakes became a totem and were worshipped in Vietnam.

Leave your comment on this story