Snake Women: A History of Women as Snakes and the Future of Nagini in “Fantastic Beasts”
by Taylor K. Nugent
Serpents have been mythological symbols since the early periods of human storytelling. According to research by the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Uppsala University in Sweden, humans have an innate, ancient fear of snakes, dating back to our earliest human ancestors. The fear of snakes is so deep-rooted in humans that it is present in babies with no previous experiences with the animal. The list of the symbolic meanings of snakes is almost as long as their history in mythology, but they most commonly have been used to represent fertility and the world’s evilness.
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.
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.
In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Nagini is shown as a woman of Asian descent who was captured and forced to become an attraction in Skender’s Circus Arcanus. This is accurate to the time period and in some aspects should not be shied away from in media, if done correctly and respectfully, considering that the exploration of indigenous and minority groups as sideshow attractions was a horrifically prevalent occurrence all the way into the 20th century. In the real world, these were people who deserve to have their stories told. However, this is a topic that should be taken on with absolute caution and delicacy since these people were treated with cruelty both in life and in death (for examples, please read about Saartjie Baartman of South Africa and Julia Pastrana of Mexico).
The human Nagini is presented as caring and compassionate, only attacking while in her snake form to escape the circus and free both herself and Credence. She attacks with the same harshness and quickness that is shown within the original movie series, but the difference in motive is impossible to ignore. Nagini is shown as a woman attempting to reclaim her agency, despite the fact that the film does everything it can to eliminate it. She takes control of her situation and frees herself and Credence. She outright refuses to join Grindelwald, the Fantastic Beasts series’ answer to her future owner, Voldemort, although she fails to convince Credence to do the same. Unfortunately for Nagini, the agency she is shown to be fighting so hard for in Crimes of Grindelwald has already been stripped away from her, years ago, by the story’s canon.
She is fated to join a long list of women – in history, mythology, art, and literature – who have had their agency ripped away, binding her tragically with the snake that history so desperately wants her to become. There is no way to guess how the kind-hearted human Nagini in Crimes of Grindelwald becomes the killing machine cohort for the living embodiment of evil who dominates the wizarding world franchise. No matter how it happens, her storyline is inherently tragic and lonely, since she escapes the imprisonment and ownership of a man at the beginning of her story just to die imprisoned and owned by another man at the end of her story (don’t get me started on the “Hobbies” section of her “Explore the Story” Pottermore page). That said, much of the Harry Potter series is based on tragedy, so in a way, she fits right in. However, it must be asked – what is the ethical cost?