Snakes and snake products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

Snake’s Rebirth

A Story by Jaslynn Ho Tze Tsing

Japanese snakes are used as medicine, specifically mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii). The most venomous snake in Japan, is used in the making of alcohol in order to boost energy.

The hebi or snake has a wide variety of symbolism in Japanese culture. The snake, when depicted as a yokai – a class of supernatural monsters or spirits in Japanese folklore – is associated with negative connotations where snake-like beings are cast as man-eating monsters that terrorize humans. The fear and dislike of snakes can be seen through the expressions and sayings the Japanese have. For example, the Japanese have an saying, “A snake will gather its friends”, similar to the English expression “Birds of a feather flock together.” In this expression, the use of the snake conveys the implication of evil following evil. Or the expression that if a woman is jealous or has hatred in her eyes, she is said to have snake-like eyes. It is a reference to snake yokai, which are man-eating and believed to lure unsuspecting victims to their deaths. Many of the yokai have the head of a man and the body of a snake. In some other cases, snakes are also a representation of rebirth, transformation and protection. For the ancient Japanese, who saw the creature’s meaning in its shapes, sounds and actions, the snake was significant to them. Snakes eating mice, thus protecting crops resulted in them being a symbol of protection from pests. Their ability to moult was regarded as a sign of continual rebirth. White snakes especially, were regarded to be connected with metal, due to their continuous life and the influence of Chinese sayings. Therefore, if a Japanese finds a molted snake skin, it won’t be unusual for them to keep it in their wallets, representing the belief that the money you spend will come back in greater amounts.

Snake, from the series Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, Takeuchi Seihō 竹内栖鳳 (1864-1942). Meiji era, 1901, Japan, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Lute and White Snake of Benten (Sarasvati), Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Edo period, 1847, Japan, Freer Gallery of Art

Snakes in real life Japan

With its humid climate, Japan is home to a large number of reptiles with 47 species of snakes alone. Luckily most of the snakes are not venomous, mainly feeding on small mammals. The most common snake is the Japanese Rat Snake or Aodaisho (Elaphe climacophora) which is harmless. In Iwakuni city, Yamaguchi Prefecture, there exists the only place in the world with an entire natural population of albino rat snakes, snakes that are white and have pink eyes. The white snakes (shirohebi in Japanese) are symbols of good fortune and are revered as messengers of deity, Houkan Shirohebi Benzaiten, the guardian of economic fortune, provider of business blessings, and deity guardian of mountains and rivers. A Shinto shrine, Shirohebi Jinja, is dedicated to Houkan Shirobehi Benzaiten, with white snake motifs and designs all around the shrine. The albino snake population was protected in 1924 as a “national monument”. However, venomous snakes also made its home in Japan, the most dangerous one being the Japanese Mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii). Its bite causes tissues to liquefy, with more severe bites leading to intensive care. Fortunately, their bites are not usually fatal with only 5-10 out of 2000-3000 people succumbing to their wounds. Currently, the mamushi is not on the IUCN red list, however, recent years have seen an increase in its use in Japanese folk medicine and whiskey making. The mamushi is boiled and eaten in order to increase blood levels. The flesh can also be used raw by placing it on wounds. Another way is to preserve the snake in alcohol, resulting in the Mamushi Zake. Habushu is another snake alcohol with Habu, a venomous viper that is preserved in sake. These snake alcohols are based on a belief that they can help with sexual dysfunction in men, by increasing virility because of snakes’ ability to mate for as long as 26 hours. 


Value in Asian medicine

Japanese snakes are used as medicine, specifically mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii), the most venomous snake in Japan, is used in the making of alcohol in order to boost energy. The mamushi is most frequently seen as a representation of kami, a god, and in the past, it was a taboo to kill it. However, due to the introduction of other cultures and beliefs, the mamushi is no longer protected, but is instead, subjected to indiscriminate and irrational killing, as with other venomous species. The mamushi is used heavily in traditional Chinese medicine too, mostly in the form of alcohol. Snake wine is a liquor that is prepared by putting an entire snake, sometimes while still alive, inside a jar of rice wine or some other kind of grain alcohol. It is then left to steep for several months. On occasion, herbs and spices such as ginseng are added to the formula. An alternative form of the drink does not call for marinating the snake. Instead, a live snake is killed on the spot and its blood and bile are then mixed with alcohol, which is consumed immediately by the customer in the form of a shot. The different parts of a snake have long been thought to have various health benefits in traditional Chinese medicine. For instance, snake meat is thought to improve circulation and the skin, while the gall, bones, and snakeskin are thought to cure ailments such as sciatica, migraines, and rheumatism. Snake venom, however, is the most valuable ingredient derived from the snake. Hailed as a ‘divine medicine’ during ancient times, it has been touted as a cure for ailments ranging from joint pain to hair loss to leprosy, and is also said to enhance sexual performance. Therefore mamushi being one of the most venomous snakes, is highly sought after. Modern studies have shown that snake wine has analgesic (painkilling) and anti-inflammatory properties, suggesting that it may indeed be good for certain ailments.

Yoneda, A. (2017, August 27). Meet the white snakes of iwakuni in Yamaguchi (H. Keyes, Trans.). Matcha
Sasaki, K., Sasaki, Y., & Fox, S.F. (2009). Endangered traditional beliefs in Japan: Influences on snake conservation. Herpetological Conservation and Biology. 5(3), 474-485.
Gao, S. (2017, January 13). “A brief introduction to snake wine”. The Culture Trip.
Sasaki, K. (2006). Ecology, behaviour and conservation of the japanese mamushi snake, gloydius blomhoffii: variation in compromised and uncompromised populations.[Doctoral dissertation, Oklahoma State University]. 

White Shapeshifters

A Story by Airthey Cheng Yi Lin

In traditional Chinese medicine, the flexible quality of snakes has been attributed to its ability to cure ‘stiffness’ such as arthritis. The shedding of skin is symbolic of rebirth/regeneration and this notion drives forward the idea of treating skin diseases with snake skin.

The similarities in the Japanese and Chinese cultures can be glimpsed in their respective languages in terms of characters used and pronunciation, and from a spiritual perspective, the cultural significance held by certain animals. One such animal is the white snake. In Japanese culture, the white snake (or shirohebi) is associated with the Japanese water goddess of fertility and flow: Benzaiten. This association is because Benzaiten most often appears with a white snake as her headdress. Furthermore, serpents are used as her messengers while she herself can transform into a white snake. Considering that Benzaiten is one of Japan’s most widely venerated deities, it is no wonder that white snakes (or snakes in general) hold significant cultural importance. In Japanese culture – or more specifically in Shintoism – snakes are commonly linked with dragons. Both mystical beings are highly regarded as benevolent and wise creatures. Understood as shapeshifters, snakes are thought to be messengers to the human world with the ability to move easily between heaven and earth. Since snakes can shed their skins, they are believed to be able to live for thousands of years and are symbolic of rebirth. It is believed that the act of encountering a snake, especially a white snake, is an extremely lucky omen. On the other hand, coming across a dead one is a sign of misfortune. To honour Benzaiten, Shirohebi Jinja is a shrine dedicated to her. Throughout the entire compound, the architecture incorporates designs as well as statues of white snakes, with their characteristic red eyes. Similarly, Chinese culture also holds snakes in high regard. These often appear in well-known legends such as the Legend of the White Snake or Madame White Snake, where a man falls in love with a fair and noble woman who is also part snake. The Chinese legend is a tale of brave and free love between a mortal and an immortal being, celebrating transformation of love much akin a snake’s representation of change. The white snake is symbolic of purity and new beginnings, due to its connotation with rebirth. By combining the ideology of renewal and purity, the meaning behind white snakes is transformed into belief of new beginnings and positivity. The symbolism of the white snake as a sign of good luck and fortune, in both Japanese and Chinese cultures, is in contrast to western and European cultures, where the snakes are depicted as evil or they are associated with the devil. 


Value in Asian medicine

Aside from being a prominent cultural figure, snakes are also associated with the field of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Historically, the earliest record of the usage of snakes for medicinal purposes in China dates back to 100 CE; they were especially prevalent during the Tang dynasty era. Snakes may seem like a peculiar choice in relation to human health and well-being, but in TCM, snakes have captivated the interests of specialists for their agility, flexibility, ability to shed, and for being venomous. These characteristics are valued to be effective in rehabilitating and remedying common ailments and diseases. For example, the flexible quality of snakes has been attributed to its ability to cure ‘stiffness’ such as arthritis. The shedding of skin is symbolic of rebirth/regeneration and this notion drives forward the idea of treating skin diseases with snake skin. The venomous snakes are also believed to be helpful in subduing convulsions, similar to other poisonous species like scorpions and millipedes in the domain of TCM. The most known TCM remedies that include snakes are snake bile and snake wine. Snake bile is utilized in the treatment of illnesses such as rheumatism, fever, haemorrhoids, skin infections, and hemiplegia. It is commonly consumed by mixing with rice wine, ingested before meals as an appetite stimulating tonic. Snake wine on the other hand, dating back to the early western Zhou dynasty, is a medicinal liquor believed to have the effects of reinvigoration. Venomous snakes are used and steeped inside a jar of rice wine or an alternate grain alcohol for several months to allow the “essence” or snake venom to dissolve into the beverage, for full extraction and maximization of associated health benefits. Snake venom is the most valuable component of snakes and has been hailed for its therapeutic qualities in treating ailments like leprosy, hair loss and to improve sexual performance and vitality. During the early months of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, snakes were also thought to be intermediate hosts and carriers to the disease. Since the Wuhan Seafood Market is believed to have been the origin of COVID-19, speculations around the possibility of snakes as carriers abound because Wuhan has restaurants serving snake delicacies. However, these speculations have not been confirmed by any research. Snakes are highly popular as pets, and these reptiles are known to carry bacteria and germs which may lead to harmful diseases. These infections include Botulism, a life-threatening disease caused by a specific bacteria often found in soil which contaminates reptiles, and the less serious salmonella.

Ten Kings of Hell, Jin Chushi (Chinese, active late 12th century), Song dynasty (960–1279), China,The Metropolitan Museum of Art
​Arshad, M. I., Khan, H. A., Aslam, B., & Khan, J. A. (2020;2021;). “Appraisal of one health approach amid COVID-19 and zoonotic pandemics: Insights for policy decision”, Tropical Animal Health and Production, 53(1), 11-11. 
Dharmananda, S. (1997, May). “The medicinal use of snakes in China”, Itmonline (retrieved October 18, 2021).
Gao, S. (2017, January 13). “A brief introduction to snake wine”, The Culture Trip
“Reptiles and risks of infectious diseases” (2013). Health Protection Surveillance Centre (retrieved October 18, 2021).
Wang, D. Q., & Carey, M. C. (2014). “Therapeutic uses of animal biles in traditional chinese medicine:An ethnopharmacological,biophysical chemical and medicinal review”, World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG, 20(29), 9952-9975.