Joseph Campbell on the mythos of the Admiralty Islands

A young woman—we are told—went into the forest. The serpent saw her. “Come!” he said. But the young woman answered, “Who would have you for a husband? You are a serpent. I will not marry you.” He said, “My body is indeed that of a serpent, but my speech is that of a man. Come!” And she went with him, married him, and presently bore a boy and girl; after which the serpent husband put her away, saying, “Go! I shall take care of them and give them food.”

The serpent fed the children and they grew. One day the serpent said to them, “Go, catch some fish!” They did so and returned, and he said, “Cook the fish!” but they replied, “The sun has not yet risen.” When the sun rose and warmed the fish with its rays, they consumed the food, still raw and bloody.

And the serpent said, “You two are spirits; for you eat your food raw. Perhaps you will eat me. You, girl, stay here! You, boy, crawl into my belly!” The boy was afraid and said, “What shall I do?” But the snake said, “Come!” and he crept into the serpent’s belly. The serpent said to him, “Take the fire and bring it out to your sister! Come out and gather coconuts, yams, taro, and bananas!” So the boy crept out again, bringing the fire from the belly of the serpent.

Then, having gathered roots and fruit, as told, they lit a fire with the brand the boy had brought forth, and cooked their food; and when they had eaten, the serpent asked, “Is my kind of food or yours the better?” To which they answered, “Yours! Our kind is bad.”[1]

Here is a legend of the planting world such as might have been told practically anywhere along the tropical arc of the primary migration, from Africa eastward (south of the Elburz-Himalayan mountain line) to southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Melanesia; whereas, actually, its place along the arc was a primitive enclave at the remote eastern end of the great tropical province: the Admiralty Islands, just off the northern coast of New Guinea.
Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Volume 1, Chapter 10 “Mythological Thresholds of the Neolithic”, Section I “The Great Serpent of the Earliest Planters (c. 7500 B.C.?)”, (New York: Arkana, 1991), p. 384-5. Originally published (New York: Viking Press, 1959).


[1] J. Meier, “Mythen und Sagen der Admiralitäts-insulaner, Anthropos, Vol. II (1907), p. 654.

Joseph Campbell Posted on behalf of on Tuesday, September 28th, 2010 under Quotations.

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