Happy New Year! It is 2013, the Year of the Snake. Among all the 12 symbols of the zodiac, the snake is probably regarded as the most dubious; its flickering tongue, slimy skin, poisonous looking fangs and rather sneaky way of moving casts it in a most unfriendly and intimidating light. Whatever culture to which we are exposed, most of us are familiar with the snake as an omen of evil or misfortune, a creature of bad tidings.
However, because the snake regularly sheds its skin and renews itself, goes into hibernation in the winter to be “reborn” in the spring; these characteristics has also let it to be revered as a symbol of renaissance and immortality. Moreover, as the snake lays many eggs – hundreds at times – it also represents fertility, prosperity, and abundance. In old shamanistic beliefs, the snake living under the floors was considered a deity that would guard the household from evil and protect its wealth.
Tales of snakes can be found in ancient Korean texts; that of King Gyeongmun of Silla who used to sleep protected by snakes, or that of a snake ferociously guarding the tomb of King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya. The snake appears as both good and bad in traditional Korean folklore. Sometimes it is an honorable being repaying an act of benevolence; other times it threatens the good or inflicts pain to those who deserve retribution. A corrupt monk might be born as a snake in his next life. Snakes torment the fallen souls in the fiery depths of underworld.
The snake was also thought to be a creature banned from the heavens, possessing the possibility of returning to its proper place, through infinite patience. The familiar saying goes, after thousands and thousands of years: a snake becomes a serpent (구렁이, Korean Ratsnake), the serpent becomes the huge serpent imugi (이무기), and the imugi, upon finding the magical marble cintamani, becomes a dragon and returns to heaven.
Perhaps due to this notion the snake was worshipped in certain regions, most notably Jeju-do. Gimnyeong Sagul cave is famous for its legend of a giant serpent that would venture out of its den and terrorize the villagers if a virginal sacrifice wasn’t given every year. One day a new district judge killed the serpent but was met with raining blood on his way back and perished. This legend reflects the reverence for the snake, an untouchable being not to be judged by mankind.
Another story originating from Gongju in Chungcheong-do tells the tale of poor scholar who gets lost in the mountains and finds shelter at the home of a woman living alone. They eventually start living together and when the scholar returns to his hometown for a visit, he learns that his family has been provided with treasure and gold she had sent. On his way back, he meets an old man who tells him that the woman is an old serpent planning to devour him and his family in order to become a dragon and fly to the heavens. He is advised to spit out the rice she has prepared for him to prevent this from happening, but instead of doing so, he tells her what the old man has told him. She in turn tells him that the old man is a rival contending for the right to enter heaven and if he had done as he was told, he would have died along with her. She eventually succeeds in becoming a dragon and flies to the heavens, leaving the scholar with riches aplenty, more than enough for many generations to come.
Snakes aren’t present only in folk tales and legends; evil characters in dances and plays would sometimes wear snake-like masks, and snakes have been sculpted and depicted in paintings and murals for centuries. Ancient murals from the Goguryeo era especially show many ‘hyeonmu’ (현무), a legendary creature which is half turtle, half snake, a guardian of one of the gates to heaven.
So what does a Year of the Snake mean? They say those born in the year of the snake are independent, determined, dignified, cautious, sensitive, and cranky at times, but fiercely loyal and always moving forward without ever looking back. They are considered to be excellent in learning and adept at the arts, both literary and martial.
All these characteristics show up in the year ahead. If 2012 the Year of the Dragon was about great change, 2013 the Year of the Snake is without doubt about rebirth. It is a year for perseverance and patience, something which will be rewarded with bounty and abundance. It is a year to prepare to fly to the heavens. If the year came slithering in, it definitely will be flying out.
The National Folk Museum of Korea is holding a special exhibition about the Year of the Snake titled “The Many Faced Snake Between Imagination and Reality” where you can see artifacts and relics of the snake in traditional Korea.
The exhibition runs until February 25th, 2013.
For more information: