Snake mother: the Myth of Fuusai (Melanesia)

The Myth of Fuusai (Melanesia)

Collected by Elli Kongais Maranda on Fou’eda Island, April 1968. Translated from the Lau.
Journal of American Folklore 86 (1973): 4-7.

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It is a commonplace that humans tell stories while other animals do not. But this commonplace misses something more interesting: stories tell us.

Levi-Strause (The Raw and the Cooked 1969: page12) recognized a “common significance [of] unconscious formulations which are the work of minds, societies, and civilizations chosen from among those most remote from each other.” He argued “… it would perhaps be better to, … disregarding the thinking subject completely, proceed as if the thinking process were taking place in the myths, in their reflection upon themselves and their interrelation… I claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.” He quotes W. Jones (“Ojibwa Texts,” Publications of the American Ethnological Society Vol III, Part II, New york, 1919, p. 574, n.1.) “The Ojibwa Indians consider myths as ‘conscious beings, with powers of thought and action.’ ”

I make a similar argument on the basis of biology. Our personality (I use this word to mean something more empirical than psyche), with all its subtlety and complexity, is nowhere described in our genes. We have about 20,000 genes while a roundworm, one of the smallest and most primitive of all animals, has 19,000. Furthermore we evolved from a chimpanzee-like ancestor only five million years ago, only time enough to permit about 2,000 mutations. We differ genetically from chimpanzees about as much as grey mice and brown mice differ from each other.

This means that our personality cannot be specified by genes: it must, therefore, be created almost entirely by culture. Culture, meanwhile, creates itself in inventions and stories and other artworks. I say creates itself  because that is how an inventor or artist experiences it. A creative person is more a custodian than an initiator: an image appears to the person and the person shapes it as best he or she can.

As it takes form in an artist’s mind, a story explores archetypal possibilities. Fertility is an archetypal possibility and so is attraction, penetration, holding, leadership, betrayal, greed, creation, destruction, cooperation, conflict, ambition, and so on. Archetypal possibilities are specific and limited in number. They predate humanity – indeed they predate all life: they have always existed and they exist everywhere in the universe. In polytheistic myth each god represents an archetypal possibility: Aphrodite, love; Hephaestus, craft.

Within a story, several archetypal possibilities play against each other, colliding with circumstances and limits. How, for example, might ambition create conflict in a group of friends? By this mechanism a story creates new images, or new sequences of images (for example: the slowest races the fastest and wins!) which we then incorporate into our personality. Spontaneously, unconsciously, these images/sequences are tested in our lives and modified, internalized, or discarded according to how they fit. This work – imagining, testing, modifying, internalizing or discarding – goes on at all ages and is particularly obvious in adolescence. By this mechanism, spontaneously, a personality constructs itself. Everyone loves stories because, without stories, there would be no personality.

A state uses propaganda and censorship to control stories in order that it may control personality. A fairy tale subverts the dominant culture with images/sequences which the dominant culture has repressed: in Christian europe, fairy tales preserved pagan images.

Jung was greatly interested in story and also in consciousness. For Jung, to be conscious meant to be aware of the archetypes and to engage with them; consciousness led to a maturation of the personality which Jung called individuation.

By analyzing many fairy tales, Marie-Louise von Franz, a close colleague of Jung, showed that every fairy tale is about individuation. She also showed that each creation myth describes the creation of consciousness.

The Myth of Fuusai is a creation myth.


The myth interpreted

The Myth of Fuusai. It starts with the snake, the snake. That lady lived in a rock, lived on, and she gave birth to a child. She gave birth to a girl.

A snake penetrates from one region to another by slithering through small openings. Symbolically it initiates consciousness by sliding out of the darkness into a more illuminated area. In the Garden of Eden the serpent initiated consciousness by tempting Adam and Eve. Because a snake goes back-and-forth (like Odin or the Devil, both of whom travel to-and-from the underworld) it represents traffic in both directions between the conscious and the unconscious. Its sinuous motion also suggests the movement by which consciousness develops: not direct and purposeful – the shortest distance between two points – but by oscillation to left and right, discovering the unexpected, like a road trip continually interrupted with sideways excursions to see what lies beyond view.

That the snake mother gave birth to a human child is another repetition, another image which symbolizes the creation of a more conscious (because more human) state. Repetition is the Rosetta Stone by which I check all my interpretations. A story is built around a few key themes but employs many different images to represent those themes. When I find a series of different images which all suggest the same theme then I can be more confident that my interpretation is accurate.

That the snake’s baby was a girl suggests that consciousness begins in the feminine. This idea is also repeated in other unrelated myths:

King Arthur was given his sword by the Lady of the Lake.

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Arthur receives Excalibur.

Illustration: Daniel Maclise, In Alfred Tennyson: Poems London: Moon, 1857

Arthur represents ruling consciousness. His sword, which represents his discriminating power (an aspect of consciousness), emerged from the lake (a large body of water represents the collective unconscious which is maternal – the origin of all psyche), and was handed to him by a woman.

In a Polynesian myth:

Hina lived under the ocean with an eel, then tired of that watery phallus and emerged out of the ocean in search of a dry-land phallus.

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Eel. Photo: source unknown.

The phallus represents the assertion and discrimination of consciousness, which Hina first encountered in the ocean, which represents the maternal unconscious. In another Polynesian myth:

Hinauri emerged from a long voyage in which her body floated across the ocean. She masturbated with fish on the beach and caused an argument between a chief’s two owls as to what they saw when they saw her. She became the chief’s lover and then, in a fight, used a stone missile to kill his other wives, thereby releasing greenstone from their bodies. Greenstone is jade, the Maori’s most precious stone from which they carved their finest ornaments and weapons.


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Hinauri and the owls

Illustration: Maori Myths and Tribal Legends, Anthony Alpers. Longman Paul, 1964.

By masturbating with fish Hinauri affirms her individual relationship to the phallic which represents consciousness. Not only the owls’ binocular vison, but also their rabbinical argument, represent consciousness; killing the other wives represents conscious assertion; a greenstone carving represents an unconscious image made visible, that is, conscious. Each of these images show that consciousness was initiated by Hinauri who emerged from the maternal unconscious.

The point is that consciousness does not invent itself, but is a pre-existing archetypal possibility within the collective unconscious (the original mother) a possibility which the collective unconscious pushes towards incarnation.

The same point is implicit, though obscured, in all the phallic sky gods (Re, Thor, Odin, Zeus, Jahweh, the Devil, Jesus): as gods they are part of the collective unconscious but their phallic nature anticipates human consciousness.

It is the mother who first makes eye-contact with her baby (I speak here in a short video on eye-contact). Thus the mother first leads her baby to become aware (conscious) that the baby and the mother each have independent minds.

In the Melanesian myth the bond between snake-mother and daughter portrays a two-person stage of consciousness. The infant begins life in a two-person world, developing attitudes towards his or her own body, touch, intimacy, love, feeding, defecation, autonomy, control, anxiety, security and so on. Then, in the three-person, oedipal stage the child learns to share his or her mother with another family member. Attitudes develop towards sharing, the social world, and hence culture itself.

Consciousness develops in the first years of life – more or less successfully – if the family structure is protected from disturbance. But consciousness continues to develop through subsequent phases: each phase can be represented as a separation from the mother because the mother symbolizes the collective unconscious. There are separations during adolescence and during a second adolescent-like process by which young adults in their early twenties become independent from their families. There may be later separations from conventional (collective) beliefs, behaviors, or communities if a person continues to individuate.

The Melanesian myth uses imagery from early (two-person, oedipal, adolescent, post-adolescent) phases of development , phases which are collective and therefore easy to understand. But the myth is not only about these early phases: it also symbolizes later phases for which there are no biological markers, for which changes are invisible and mysterious. How do we become individuals? How do we access creativity? (Creativity tends towards a conscious engagement with the unconscious) The myth includes surprising images/sequences which, because they violate collective rules, suggest later phases of consciousness.

And then she heard of – the girl was already a maiden – and she heard of the dance in Fuusai. She heard of that dance, and she wanted to go and watch it. And she went, went and watched the dance. Watched the dance of panpipes. She went like that.


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Snake Dancer. Rah Lava Island, Torba Province, Vanuatu



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Panpipes. Narasirato, Solomon Islands


When she was almost there, she stole in, hiding herself as she went. The women of Fuusai wondered, “But where is that beautiful girl from that stands here? Why has this girl come?”

The girl stole into the dance, hiding herself, like a snake. Another repetition, another image of entering a new realm.

In dance the body moves sinuously at the hips, like a snake, another repetition. The girl was drawn to this human movement which also represents consciousness. Dance is aesthetic rather than practical. It creates symbolic images and explores symbolic ideas, integrating pelvic instinct with feeling, beauty, and intellect. Consciousness is not just a thing of intellect.

Music (the panpipes) also integrates instinct, beauty and intellect and is also a symbol of consciousness.

Because the dance aroused the girl’s emotions and her imagination, she bonded with the other dancers and onlookers. Her beauty also evoked bonds. Such bonds develop consciousness by confronting each person with the other.

Still another day it went again like this. Two watchings of the dance were finished, her mother, that snake, asked her, “Where did you go? I missed you.” And her daughter spoke, told her, “Oh, I watched that dance in Fuusai.” And that snake said to her daughter, “You were not born of any man. You were not born of any woman. If you still go, you will crush me.” And she spoke to her daughter, “Should a man see you, and if he marries you, when he sees me it will not be good. For I am not human, I am a thing of the ground.”

The girl would inevitably find herself a man. The unconscious has a regressive tendency: though it gives birth to consciousness, yet it tries to conserve its own power.

That snake spoke like this to her three times. Her daughter did not take heed. When it came to the sixth visit to watch the dance, Abunaili saw her and said, “I will just take a look at that girl. A girl like this I did not see in the village of Fuusai, I did not see in this Abualakwa. A woman like this I did not see in the area of this village.” And Abunaili said, “Tomorrow I will look for that woman, that girl.” [Whispering: “Afubora is the name of that woman.”]

And Abunaili stood waiting, when the panpipes were being danced. That girl watched the dance, the dance was about to start. That girl went. She hid herself. Abunaili watched her movements. He looked and saw the girl appear. Abunaili walked ahead, held her hand. The girl said, “Let me free. I was not born of any man, I was not born of any woman.”

Abunaili spoke, “Nobody is born of nobody. One is born of people.” That girl said, “Oh, me, of a thing of the ground I was born.” Abunaili said, “Never mind, you are my wife. Never mind if you were born of a thing of the ground.” And Abunaili married Afubora. Married her to Fuusai.

Phallic Abunaili violated the existing order by pushing for marriage. Jung showed that marriage, besides having an outer, collective meaning, also symbolizes an inner mystery, the inner embrace of yin and yang or anima and animus by which consciousness may mature.

And Afubora spoke thus, “In the future, if you see my mother, will it be well? If you see my mother and it is well, you shall dwell with riches.” She spoke only like this, she did not utter the name of her mother, she spoke guardedly.

Afubora feared that her unity with her mother would be broken. Consciousness separates and threatens old bonds.

By guarding her thoughts from Abunaili, Afubora became more conscious of her inner world. She was integrating phallic discrimination.

And Abunaili built a house for his wife. And those two lived on. And a child was born. Those two had a child, and then they went to the garden, taro garden. Afubora waited for Abunaili to go before her, and she deceived him: “Go on ahead, I will go and gather the bamboo for the digging.”

Their new consciousness is fertile (the baby). More deception again means more discrimination of the inner world, more consciousness.

Afubora followed after, Abunaili went before her. She took her child, gave it to her mother, gave it to the snake in the rock. And her mother coiled around it. Coming back to the village, she deceived her husband: “Go on ahead, I will collect things, then I will go.” And Abunaili led the way. Afubora went off, passed by the opening of the rock, took her child.

Again Afubora sought to restore unity, now by sharing her child with her mother.

Three times she had given her child to her mother. The fourth time arrived. And Abunaili wondered, “To whom does that woman give my child?” And Abunaili was digging in the garden, and, at noon, Abunaili lied to his wife, lied to Afubora: “Oh, stay where you are, I will just go for a walk. I will look for an areca nut.” Abunaili lied thus to his wife. Abunaili happened to take a stone ax in his hand, and he went to Fuusai. When he came to Fuusai, he asked the women of Fuusai, thus: “But to whom does that old woman of mine give my child?” He asked, and the married women of Fuusai all denied: “Oh, we do not look after this child. Should a woman of Fuusai look after him, she would not hide him, we would see him.”

Abunaili lied to his wife and then sought the truth about her actions: more consciousness.

Abunaili went back, searched. Abunaili passed by the rock, heard the crying of a child. The snake was coiled around it. Abunaili walked to the rock. He looked and saw his child embraced by the snake. Abunaili was startled and amazed. “Oh, that woman, she gives my child to a strange creature. She lies to me that a woman of Fuusai is looking after him.” Abunaili walked forth, reached for the child to get it from the snake. Took the ax, cut the snake to pieces. Cut her to two pieces. The snake collapsed inside the rock.

Abunaili makes more distinctions, separates the snake’s unity with nature: more consciousness.

Afubora worked on, prepared the garden. Blood gushed forth from her nostrils. It ran to the top of her breasts. And she said: “Oh, now my mother is dead. My husband has killed my mother. A sign of that has come to me.”

The unity between mother and daughter is such that blood flows from the daughter’s body when the mother is cut.

And Afubora stood up. She wailed. She did not take bundles of things, she did not cut a bundle of taro, she reached for her rainwrap and for her bag, and she left the garden. She came, arrived, looked into the rock, and saw her mother prostrated. Those two pieces of the snake. And her mother spoke, that snake: “My daughter dear, I told you, when you went to the dance in Fuusai. I forbade you, and you did not obey. You have crushed me. I told you. Your husband, Abunaili, had he seen me and had it been well, if he had accepted me, shell strings would have poured in, food would have grown like anything. Had he killed a man in these eight sites of bravery, no man could have killed him. His word would have been supreme, had he accepted me. He has finished me like this, and his word will have no power.”

The unconscious fertility of unity has been sacrificed.

The snake spoke thus to her daughter Afubora, “Bring the dark cloth and wrap me in it. Bury me.” The snake spoke to her child. Afubora wrapped (afu) her mother in the dark cloth (bora), took her, and buried her. After burying her, she returned to Fuusai.

Only now do we learn that Afubora’s name itself refers to burying her mother. This new information – which I did not notice until late in the interpretation – is a repetition which confirms that the story is about her separation from the mother, that is, about the feminine developing consciousness.

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Bark painting, Ruban, New Guinea.

She went and arrived in their house and sat down at the housepost. Abunaili was carrying the child. And Afubora wailed, wailed to her husband: “Dear husband of mine, dear Abunaili, what did I tell you? That time when you held my hand, the day when the panpipes were danced in Fuusai. I told you: ‘Let me free, I was not born of any man, I was not born of any woman, I was only born of a thing of the ground.’ And you did not heed me. You pressed on to marry me. Had you seen my mother and had it been well you would still have me as your wife, but today you killed my mother, you spoiled everything. Had you accepted my mother, your word would be supreme in these eight sites of bravery. Had you asked for shell strings, for dolphin teeth, they would have come to you. Food would have been abundant. But you cut my mother, all these things will never be yours.” Afubora spoke like this, wailed. She wailed thus, and her legs were hidden by the ground. [-Here it is like Abunamalau.-] Abunaili did not look at her, he only sat straight. She wailed, and it reached her waist. She wailed, and it reached under her breasts. She wailed, and the ground reached her armpits.

In grief at separation Afubora returns to mother earth. She too is wrapped in the dark cloth – her name refers to her own burial as well as to that of her mother. Her burial/death, from which she will be reborn, symbolizes a transformation of consciousness. Here she is like Christ. The story of Christ is a parallel from a different myth, which serves, like a repetition, to confirm our interpretation. In his book Ego and Archetype Edinger showed that the myth of Christ symbolizes individuation and the development of consciousness.

And Afubora spoke to Abunaili: “Dear husband of mine, dear Abunaili, you will live on in Fuusai. You will marry again a woman in this Fuusai, in this Safangidu, in this Abualakwa. You will again build a house for her. She will again feed a pig for you. She will again make a taro garden for you. She will again make a yam garden for you. She will again bear a child for you. You killed my mother, I am leaving you.”

Abunaili would now live within the traditional roles between male and female. By killing the snake he established masculine power and could relate to the feminine without being swallowed by it: this is another image of developing consciousness. Abunaili’s action is akin to slaying the dragon, another parallel which confirms our interpretation.

Abunaili was startled, looked, the ground hid Afubora. And she spoke from underground. And she withdrew following an underground passage. A passage that they call the cave of Lilibu. She followed it. She went and came up again. She came up in Langane.

That man of Ofahao saw that girl, her coming up, her coming into daylight. He looked, went to her, and saw. “Where is this beautiful woman from?” He walked forth, Filihau. And he came and asked that girl, “Where are you from?”

And Afubora spoke, “I am a woman of the ground. Therefore I do not live in any village. I do not live in any house. I was born of a thing of the ground.”

And Filihau said, “Never mind. I will marry you anyway.” And Filihau married that girl Afubora. He married her to Ofahao. And they call her the Lady of Langane. She started as the Lady of Fuusai. Many things follow from her, from this woman. Many words. Many holy things, traditional. They follow her words, they follow her name.

Her names are many: Afubora, the Cut Woman, the Woman Who Withdrew into the Ground, the Quick Woman. These all are her names. [-This story is too sacred to tell into the tape recorder.-]

She gave birth to eight men in Ofahao. These eight men are: Amasia, Etifonu, Maoma’iluma, Biru’ilalo, Kafa’igou, Suulaola, Maesiana, Ruru. These eight men originated the lineages of Langane. These are in the genealogy of Belo. Ofahao lineage, Maanakao lineage, the third man’s lineage Malililiboso, the fourth man’s lineage Lower Bina, the fifth man’s lineage Upper Bina, the sixth man’s lineage Acleade, the seventh man’s lineage Arue, the eighth man’s lineage Afuafua.

Afubora was transformed by her conflict with Abunaili. Though she still insisted that her mother was a snake, she related more traditionally to her second husband, having babies who were presumably not cared for by snakes. She still had magic. She created eight male lineages as well as ‘many words’ and ‘many holy things, traditional’ which ‘follow her name’, that is, follow her separation from her mother. Another repetition: to create words is to create consciousness.

Question: What about the child she left behind?

Answer: He lived in Fuusai, the lineage of Fuusai. He was Gounakafogwarea. Today those things he started are in Fuusai. The mana of that snake is in Fuusai. When she arrived in Langane, there is her second mana.

That Abufora had two husbands and created male lineages in two places confirms that consciousness originates with the feminine. The masculine is only an adjunct.

What follows are two alternative versions of the story each of which adds new insight and further confirms our interpretations.

Jari’s marriage (New Guinea)

from Ian Hogbin: “The Island of the Menstruating Men: Religion in Wogeo, New Guinea”, 34-5. Toronto, 1970.

The culture heroine, Jari, with that lack of logic that is so common, inaugurated the wedded state not with her initial match but with her second.

The image of a second mariage is repeated. In a first marriage unconscious romantic fantasies may dominate. A second marriage is likely to be more realistic, that is, more conscious.

Jari was the daughter of a snake woman, a fact she kept concealed from her husband. It was her practice to wait till he had gone out fishing before summoning her mother to the house to care for their infant while she herself worked in the gardens.

One afternoon he returned early and, alarmed at the sight of the baby encircled by the serpent’s coils, killed the reptile with his axe.

Jari was heartbroken at the loss of her parent and declined to stay. She took the precaution of piling the house, the cooking pots, and a basket of taro into her vulva and then went over to the other side of the island.

Jari stored all household technology in her vulva. This new image asserts again that consciousness begins in the feminine. The humor and hyperbole reminds us to think symbolically – that the story is not about concrete facts but about symbolic (psychological) facts.

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Canoe’s protective spirit, Maravo lagoon Solomon Islands.

There, while walking along the shore, she saw a man fishing from the branch of a Callophyllum tree that overhung the water. This was Kamarong, a wild culture hero from the forest. “Tell me where your dwelling is that I may take shelter,” she called to him. But he only shook his head, for he had no conception of what the word “dwelling” meant.

A tree suggests the organic manner in which consciousness develops. Growth follows an organic timetable, fulfilling the Self’s inherent potential, rather than the ego’s wishes. Fishing is like dream analysis which brings up unconscious contents using conscious technology. Dreams feed consciousness as fish feed our body. Like fish, the unconscious has to be engaged with understanding and respect.

Accordingly, Jari took poles, rafters, walls, and thatch from her vulva and put up a residence for them both. “Now, where are the cooking pots?” she asked. Again he shook his head – his food had hitherto consisted solely of fish smoked over the fire. “Well, if I supply the pots, will you show me your gardens?” Jari now enquired. As he was also ignorant of agriculture she was forced to delve once more and produce her own taro.

Kamarong was delighted with the meal and agreed to clear an area of ground for her. “I’ll bring home fish if you will become my wife and do cultivation and cooking,” he said.

At least he was willing to clear some ground for her! Their agreement shows that yin and yang must collaborate, each expressing its own power, to bring unconscious contents into consciousness.

She hesitated to accept the proposal because he stank so abominably. The poor fellow had no anus and was obliged to use his mouth for evacuating as well as swallowing. After some thought she made him bend over with his head towards the ground. She then took a length of bamboo and pierced his rectum. At last she could live with him.

This image is not foreign to us. We say ‘he is talking shit’, or ‘nothing but shit comes out of his mouth’. Unconscious contents defiled Kamarong’s speech and his smell until Jari separated them out.

These two, Jari and Kamarong, were the first married couple. She worked in the gardens and cooked the food, and he spent his days fishing, activities in which their respective magic remains effective.

This is the first mention of magic. Jari and Kamarong had magical power over their respective tasks, each of which represents creating consciousness. This suggests that magic itself represents the supernatural power of consciousness (ars contra naturam), that is, its power to see symbolism in the concrete.

Watumbale of Lasi clan, a snake spirit
(Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands)

from Ian Hogbin: “A Guadalcanal Society: The Kaoka Speakers,” 1964: 73, 78-9, Holt, Rinehart, Winston.


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Snake spirit, Goonoomoo. Lithograph, multiple stones, 1984. Copyright: Johnny Bulunbulun

A snake spirit assures abundance in the garden… All snake spirits are female…

Abundance in the garden has symbolic meaning: it represents the fertility of the personality, the highest product of which is consciousness. Again, consciousness begins in the feminine.

In San Cristoval (the islands from which snake spirits come) Watumbale had a human daughter who married and gave birth to an infant. When she went to the gardens the mother was in the habit of leaving the child in the care of its snake grandmother. One day the husband reached home first and became alarmed at the sight of the baby in the coils of a serpent, which he did not know was really a spirit. He took a stick to kill it, but it escaped to the sea and swam to the north coast of Guadalcanal.

Here it wandered about from water hole to water hole in search of a home until eventually it came to Moli village in the southeastern corner where it finally settled.

Villages built shrines at the places where it had stopped. Pigs were sacrificed at these shrines … Regular offerings are made at the opening of the main yam harvest, occasional offerings when planning a feast to ensure extra supplies.

Each village sacrifices to the snake spirit at their own waterhole, where she stopped. People gather in a village not only to share material technology, but also to cultivate consciousness which is the highest technology. That each village built a shrine to the snake spirit emphasizes the centrality of consciousness: we are human because we see symbolism in the concrete.

In the last supper Christ said that the wine was his blood and the bread was his flesh. He meant that, as technology fed the disciples’ bodies, he was feeding their souls. Yeast creates wine and bread in a transformation which symbolizes consciousness. The arts leaven the mundane.

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Titian. The Last Supper