In GIST by Oluwaseun Samuel on the 25th, September, 2018

Snake Women: A History of Women as Snakes and the Future of Nagini in “Fantastic Beasts”

As for Nagini, the human-turned-snake sidekick of Voldemort first introduced in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she finds her roots in an ancient history of her own, where women and snakes are intertwined. Throughout art history, snakes have been represented as women. For example, inside the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Michelangelo uses the snake that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3.1) as the focal point of his fresco Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve (c. 1510), portraying the serpent with the upper body of a human female and the lower body of a snake, blending the two beings into a mixture worthy of an Animorphs cover.

This connection between woman and serpent suggests a negativity aimed toward the woman. In Judaic and Christian mythology, the serpent is seen as devious, tricking Eve into eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which in turn puts in motion the fall of man and gave the weight of the blame for the act on women, denying the idea of female agency. This negative view of both snakes (which had, until this point, been seen primarily as respected fertility or protective symbols in most ancient cultures such as Greece, Iran, and the Near East) and women was mostly developed during the medieval period, where women were often depicted in art as symbols of the wicked aspects of the world, pictured in half-monster, half-woman bodies such as in Michelangelo’s piece. Sarah Miller, associate professor of classics at Duquesne University, talks about this idea in her book Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body, saying that the “(hybrid) bodies marked monstrous by medieval discursive authorities belonged to demons, non-Christians, the so-called monstrous races, freaks of nature, deformed infants, miscarried fetuses, and … women” (1). This idea is now present in Nagini, thanks to her Maledictus nature.

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According to Jo in the recent Pottermore feature article “Everything You Need to Know About Nagini,” a Maledictus is “a carrier of a blood curse which will ultimately destine them to transform permanently into a beast.” It is clear that Jo found her inspiration for Voldemort’s favorite snake in Hindu mythology and nāgas (a Sanskrit word referring to cobras), a class of half-human, half-serpent deity sent by Brahma, the Hindu creator god, to live in the underworld. According to mythology, Brahma only allowed nāgas (or the feminine, nāgini) to use their poisonous teeth to bite humans who were known to be evil, or as a form of euthanasia for humans who were already on the verge of dying. Nāgas were depicted as snakes, although they had the ability to take on a human form, much like Nagini.

Nagini continues the trend of the symbolic female serpent in modern media as her story unfolds in the Fantastic Beasts movies. Nagini in the original books and movies functions as an obedient servant to Voldemort and an embodiment of part of his soul, as his final Horcrux. Before the implications of her Maledictus blood curse, this could be seen as a display of animalistic loyalty on her part. However, with the addition of a human backstory, this becomes concerning.

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