The White Snake

The White Snake by Walter Crane

The White Snake by Walter Crane

Welcome! Happy and safe holidays to all my listeners and readers!

This month’s story follows the typical plot of a hero setting out on his quest journey, his tasks and helpers along the way, and its ultimate completion in a marriage of opposites. The difference in this story is his acquired ability to understand the conversation of animals.

The question popped into my mind as I re-read the story: why do we anthropomorphise? I’m sure there’s a whole thesis in this question, and I have scraped the very tip of the iceberg in my research. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to follow your own path of enquiry. I have had to use my dictionary quite a bit for these notes!

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to animals and other objects. The earliest evidence of this phenomenon is in cave paintings and sculptures from the Upper Palaeolithic age (40,000 years ago) where humans and animals merge. Seemingly the human artist is taking on perceived characteristics of the animal, for example the power of the lion.

Aesop, who wrote the famous fables back in 6th Century BCE Greece, was one story writer who used anthropomorphism to illustrate human stereotypical traits. There are others of this ilk, such as the Panchatantra.

Modern literature, particularly children’s’ literature, is festooned with anthropomorphic stories – Kipling’s The Jungle Book, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s books, JRR Tolkein, the list is almost inexhaustive, Walt Disney, even Thomas the Tank Engine, though he is a machine, not an animal.

Animals have always spoken to us in dreams and other altered states of consciousness.

Anthony Stevens (1998) says, “On the one hand they have the characteristics of the animal species they represent, but on the other hand they are our own mental inventions: they are composite figures which draw together human and animal qualities giving them a power, a meaning, and a dynamism all their own. This process of imaginative synthesis must be the source of all the fabulous beasts and monsters, part animal, part human, with which myths, folk tales and legends are filled.” But what is this ‘process of imaginative synthesis’? Neuroscience is now giving us some clues.

 In their article on research into the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), and how tightly matched the “observed movements and the observer’s motor programs” need to be before they are activated, Gazzola et al (2007) show that,

“while for complex actions, human and robotic agents did not differ significantly, for the simple actions, human agents determined marginally stronger activations than robotic ones. This suggests that the richness of the goal in the complex actions was sufficient to fully activate the MNS whatever the agent/kinematics.” (Kinematics: the branch of mechanics concerned with the motion of objects without reference to the forces which cause the motion.)

They conclude that,

“Finally, an interesting implication of our results, beyond neuroscience, is the fact that the understanding of actions of artificial devices can take advantage of the intricate brain mechanisms that humans have developed to understand other human beings without having to be particularly human-like. The strong activations in the MNS observed to the vision of robots in our experiments suggests that even crude industrial robots, particularly while engaging in meaningful human actions, can tap into our social brain—as long as their behaviors are not too repetitive. Once again, science seems to lag behinds the arts: George Lucas was apparently well aware of the potential of robots to enter our social brains when he decided to have a set of robots star in his new science fiction saga. Now we know, that our MNS may be part of the reason why, when in Star Wars, C3PO taps R2D2 on the head in a moment of mortal danger, we cannot help but attribute them human feelings and intentions, even if their physical aspect and kinematics are far from human.”

I hope you will look at the Annotations and Process Questions pages too.


Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A guide to the symbols of humankind. 1998.

 Gazzola, V., Rizzolatti, G., Wicker, B., & Keysers, C. (2007). The anthropomorphic brain: The mirror neuron system responds to human and robotic actions. NeuroImage, 35, 1674–1684.



King and Queen represent in Jungian terms the coniunctio or “marrying of opposites as a psychic process” (Stevens), as does the marriage of the Prince and Princess. “The longing for union with the opposite is not merely for a member of the opposite sex: it is for what is perceived as opposite and needed if one is to be whole” (Stevens).

Curiosity: can lead to dangerous situations where we may get more than we bargained for, hence the saying “curiosity killed the cat”.

The white snake is mentioned in several stories and mythologies as giving power to converse with animals. This is an example of anthropomorphism; giving animals the power of human speech.

Sparrows: reminds me of the saying, “a little bird told me…” when we don’t want to let on who actually told us.

Ring: “As a closed circle, the ring is a symbol of continuity, wholeness, completion, and the union of opposites. As such it is a powerful symbol of marriage” (Stevens). Perhaps this is the reason that the death penalty was threatened if the Queen’s lost ring was not found; the well-being of the whole kingdom had been projected onto that ring, and the King was afraid it would all crumble if it was not found.

King makes amends: How many of our politicians or people in positions of power make amends when they get things wrong today?

The servant/young man ‘had a mind to see the world’ because he saw the world in a different way now that he could converse with animals, and his secret might come out if he stayed. He needed a ‘sea-change’. This is where the hero of our story starts his quest.

In the introduction to her book Body Eloquence, Nancy Mellon sets out the basic elements of stories and myths:

Setting out:: the protagonist has a quest,

Trouble: obstacles or antagonists interfere with the journey,

Help: wise and benevolent being(s) appear(s),

Positive ending: fulfilment of quest, and a return.


Three fishes: thought to be dumb; lacking intelligence or speechless? Fish, like ducks live in water and in Jungian terms water is the most common symbol of the unconscious psyche.

Ant-king: the down-trodden and oppressed, small and seemingly insignificant, these creatures are so industrious and work together cooperatively. Ants can symbolise our powers of intuition, working away at a problem, sometimes while we sleep, certainly out of our conscious awareness. Ants also appear in this way in the stories of Vasilissa the Brave, and Psyche and Eros.

“In the QuranSulayman is said to have heard and understood an ant warning other ants to return home to avoid being accidentally crushed by Sulayman and his marching army.” – Wikipedia.

 Ravens: turfed out of their nest before they are ready, these cruel parents, reneging on their responsibilities, remind me of Hansel and Gretel.  “As a carrion bird, ravens became associated with the dead and with lost souls. In Sweden they are known as the ghosts of murdered persons”… “In Norse mythology, the Ravens Hugin and Munin sit on the god Odin's shoulders and bring to his ears all the news they see and hear; their names are Thought and Memory. Odin sends them out with each dawn to fly over the world, so he can learn everything that happens” The raven plays a role in many other world mythologies. Wikipedia

 Killed his horse: This seems a drastic measure, overkill perhaps, a horse to feed three birds? It would have lasted them a long tome. It seems quite a sacrifice on the young man’s part, yet without it the ravens would have died. I wonder what the horse had to say about it.

 Gold ring: Odd that this king does not value the ring as much as the first king does, but is fully prepared to lose it?

 All the people grieved: it would be a very public humiliation if the young man failed.

 Considered what he should do: once again his life is at stake. The fish come to the rescue, from the depths of the ocean – seat of our deepest unconscious.

 Proud Princess: the young man is without doubt not her equal in birth. Are they compatible, this haughty, high and mighty hussy and the humble, kind-hearted youth? Surely, this will be a true marriage of opposites!

 The garden: – soil and grass and flowers, place of growth and blooming, peace and perfume.

 Ten sacks of millet seed: Anyone who has fed birds knows how small millet seeds are, - another seemingly impossible task, not only tiny and many but in the dark! He gave up and surrendered himself to his fate, and that’s where the ants come in. So many times when you leave a problem be and turn to something else, the solution presents itself.

 Apple: In many mythologies the apple is a symbol of fertility. This Princess is a tough cookie! She is impressed but something is still not quite right for her. Perhaps she is ensuring she has progeny by sending the young man for an apple.

 “in Norse mythology in chapter 2 of the Völsunga saga when the major goddess Frigg sends King Rerir an apple after he prays to Odin for a child, Frigg's messenger (in the guise of a crow) drops the apple in his lap as he sits atop a mound.” (Wikipedia) Sounds familiar?

‘They cut it in two and ate it together’. At last the Princess’s heart is opened, and a marriage of equals is possible on many levels.

As mentioned in the annotations for The Golden Apple Tree … in last month’s story, The Devil with Three Golden Hairs, “in Greek mythology, the Greek hero Heracles, as a part of his Twelve Labours, was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its center.” (Wikipedia)

Apples also feature in religious traditions, for example it gave the knowledge of good and evil to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.


Anthony Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue: A guide to the symbols of humankind. 1998.

Nancy Mellon, Body Eloquence. 2008.

Reflection Questions

These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps you don’t relate to the whole story, but parts of it do resonate with aspects of your experience. Those are the parts you can work with. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with.

I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.

  • Do you remember a time when you were overcome with curiosity? What was the outcome?
  • Have you ever been blamed for something you did not do? How do you deal with injustice?
  • How do you go about making amends for something you regret?
  • If the King offered you a favour, anything at all, what would it be? What is your heart’s desire?
  • How do you treat those who are lower down on the food chain or the hierarchy than you are?
  • Who owes you a favour for a good turn? What favours do you owe?
  • How have you managed seemingly impossible tasks or insoluble problems in your life?
  • Where are you on your ‘hero’s journey’, setting out, doing the hard tasks, or on the return and nearing completion?
  • Who or what represents the coniunctio, the inner marriage of opposites for you?
  • What would completion look like for you?