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Two-Headed Serpents

February 9, 2015

One of the monsters of the BC Coast is the two-headed serpent, called sisiyuƛ or ʔayhus or lagaxwa’sga depending on the culture.

 

It’s associated with water (can be caught in a net and get mistaken for fish; can swim; when killed in a lake, the lake then dries up) but also moves on land and can take the form of a person, as can most other animals on the coast, so no surprise there. It’s usually destructive, often poisonous, and definitely powerful. In fact, it can confer that power onto humans, and so can its remains. Its jawbone can kill whole villages, according to a Skwxwú7mesh story, and a Kwakwala legend tells of a boy bathed in its blood who becomes invincible to weapons except for a spot beneath his chin. Suffice it to say, it’s a very important creature to the First Nations of the coast.

Part of me wonders if there isn’t a link between the sisiyuƛ and sea monsters such as Cadborosaurus.

But the thing is, the double-headed serpent motif apparently isn’t as limited to the Coast Salish peoples as I thought. Here’s a jade mosaic sculpture made by the Aztecs and found in the British Museum.

IMG_2266I don’t know my Aztec mythology at all—note to self: fix that—but I’m intrigued by the idea of the double-headed serpent being a multicultural being. Are there serpent images throughout the Americas? Did it radiate out from the Salish, or the Aztecs, or someone in between? Did a Salish traveller find themselves in Mexico, or an Aztec reach BC? Was this an independent creation of each culture? These things I do not know but would like to.

And the double-headed serpent isn’t limited to the “New World” either, as I found out googling for this post. There’s one in Egypt. Most other mythical reptilian creatures have multiple heads (e.g., dragons, hydraShesha the king of the nagas). The Japanese orochi has eight, and for some reason it strikes me as fairly close to the sisiyuƛ stories.

Again, I wonder how far back the many-headed serpent goes in human history, where the connections lie, what else I can dig up if I go looking for it. I really should have become a folklorist.

 

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