In Lieu of Dragons

It isn’t known what the maker of the Hunt-Lenox Globe meant in writing “hic sunt dracones” across the eastern shores of Asia. It has been speculated that the inscription refers to the Dagroians, whose anthropophagous exequies on the island of Java scandalized the scandalous Rustichello, biographer of Marco Polo. “Here live Dargoians.” Or it could be a reference to Komodo dragons, whose terrible presence in those Indies was worth a warning to would-be travelers. Most commentators, however, are of the opinion that the author of the inscription had proper dragons in mind. Certainly that part of the world has suffered from no dearth of enormous winged or clawed serpentines, whose majesty fills the human heart with admiration and dread. 

Nevertheless, if one follows the islands farther east the dragons abruptly disappear. There are still snakely, lizardly, crocodilian, and eelish beings, but they are humbler there. They do not sit in deserted castles or undersea palaces, frowning on human fate from afar or lounging on piles of gold. They dirty their scales in human affairs. They fight with and against humans, taking sides in human struggles and, if need be, against their own kind. They also love humans and make love to humans, most famously when the eel-god Eel found his way into the ravishing Hina’s loins. They also and give birth to humans and half-humans, and it’s said that one of them provided humans with their most bountiful and practical and easy-to-cultivate plant, the coconut. This, however, it must be said, was the result of a horrible misunderstanding.

On the island of Tikopia, or possibly Utupua, or maybe somewhere else, depending on whom you ask, there was a snake goddess who was still humbler, and more cautious, than most. She had a beautiful daughter whose skin shone in the moonlight, but she warned the girl not to let herself to be seen by day, because knew what the sight of beauty can do to men. Maybe the girl’s own father was a man, but the snake goddess seems to have chosen not to speak of him. What we do know is that the girl was less cautious than her mother, and one morning, when she lingered too long atop the stone that made her home, she was seen by a lustful hunter who had followed a stray arrow into an unknown corner of the forest. Before she could slip away, he took her and made her his wife. By all accounts, neither the sheen on her skin nor the wideness of her eyes and nose betrayed her reptilian provenance, and the new couple lived ordinarily among the people of the hunter’s village until the time when the young snake woman gave birth to a baby boy.

The trouble came when the boy’s grandmother, disregarding her own precautions, succumbed to her desire to visit and shower love upon her grandson. The unsuspecting hunter found the boy rolling and laughing in the coils of a giant snake, and he leapt at the goddess with his knife, cutting her into a thousand pieces, nearly drowning the baby in her blood.

Hic sunt homines.

Some people tell that the snake goddess was, in spite of everything, generous to her aggressors. She spoke to her daughter from beyond the grave, telling her to plant the severed snakehead in the ground. When a palm tree grew on that spot, its fruit took the elongated shape of the goddess’s head, with two hard, wide, yet pointed eyes on the end of the inner shell, above a small, round mouth. When, on a hot day, with the sweat dripping down my cheeks, I press my lips to the snake’s small mouth, out pours more sweetness than humans deserve to drink.