Yuan-ti and snake symbolism

This post has spoilers about a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from In Volo’s Wake.

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On Wednesday nights I’ve been running a D&D campaign, and this week we had our third session. I’ve been using the scenarios from In Volo’s Wake (but I’ve also been mixing in some content from Lost Mine of Phandelver). Last night the party investigated what the yuan-ti were doing in the quarry near Old Owl Well. The yuan-ti are humanoids who worship snake gods. Through foul rituals, they have been modified into terrible, snakelike forms. In the adventure, the yuan-ti have captured inexperienced adventurers, who they plan to transform into yuan-ti.

Snake symbolism in European societies seems to be dominated by the snake from the Garden of Eden, which originates in the Hebrew scripture and but been reinterpreted in Christian thought. It’s often associated with evil, temptation and trickery – but it could also be associated with hidden knowledge. We could look at the story as being about humans choosing their own path and the conflict that causes with their creator.

Snakes can also be associated with rebirth or regeneration because of their ability to slough off their old skin and emerge with a shiny new skin. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the snake who possesses the secret of immortality. In paradox, many snakes are also poisonous. So they could be understood as having power over life and death.

I’d say the portrayal of the yuan-ti picks up more of the negative aspects of snake symbolism – evil and the temptation of hidden knowledge. In our game on Wednesday I also wanted to bring out some of the idea of rebirth. A kind of rebirth occurs when a humanoid is turned into a yuan-ti, or when a yuan-ti turns into a more powerful form.

When the players were getting close to freeing all the prisoners, I had a yuan-ti abomination turn up (I have a great abomination miniature that I wanted to use) and invite Sardior the dragonborn paladin to join the yuan-ti and be reborn. Sardior rejected the invitation, so the abomination cast the spell ‘suggestion’ on Sardior, instructing him to kill Kwinn, the half-elf warlock… I let Saridor repeat the Wisdom saving throw each turn (even though the spell isn’t supposed to allow that) and he did manage to beat it before he was able to attack Kwinn. I didn’t want him to actually kill the mage, but I wanted the party to get the idea that they could be corrupted by the yuan-ti.

If you want to read more about snake symbolism in mythology, I’d suggest reading James Charlesworth’s book The Good and Evil Serpent.

Genesis and weresharks

Sunday to Wednesday I was in a class on Indigenous Theologies and Methods, which NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) was running here through Whitley College. One of the things we spent a lot of time discussing was the differences between how Western Christians have read the Bible and how the Bible might be read from Indigenous cultural perspectives. One particular emphasis that our teacher Terry LeBlanc (a Mi’qmac man from Canada) noted was the tendency for Western Christians to focus on the rupturing of creation in Genesis 3 and overlook the goodness of creation in Genesis 1-2. His suggestion was that rather than Genesis 3 being an ultimate fall from perfection, it is more like a break in relationship between people, God, spirits and fellow creatures.

At the same time I’ve been participating in the #DungeonDrawingDudes challenge for July. Each day there’s a Dungeons & Dragons creature to draw, and Tuesday’s challenge was a wereshark, which I really enjoyed drawing.

@bodieh, who lives in Western Australia (where the government has encouraged the culling of sharks) is one of the organisers of the challenge, commented on this one. I wondered whether this wereshark might be looking for former Western Australian premier Colin Barnett? I wondered whether we should be paying attention to what sharks may be trying to say to us, rather than culling them? It certainly seems unfair to me that we would venture into their natural environment and then kill them when they attack us.

Genesis index

I’m taking a break from blogging for a few days, but I thought I’d post an index of the Wednesdasy posts I’ve done on my reading of Genesis:

Matchmaking in Eden
The power to name
Humanity does the twist
What happened to Abel’s livestock?
Were the primal humans of Genesis immortal?
The first murderer builds the first city
The first murderer becomes the model ancestor
Where are you from? Who’s your mob?
Questioning Divine Masculinity

Where are you from? Who’s your mob?

When we have guests arriving to stay at our house, we’re often asked, ‘Where are you from?’ I’ve sometimes found this awkward because we’ve had guests who’ve presumed that I must also be Aboriginal and that they might know my family. I’ve tried to be clear that I’m mostly European and not Aboriginal, while still being forthcoming about where I grew up, what places I’m connected to through my family’s story. That’s proved particularly interesting when we’ve had guests from the area where some of my ancestors settled – the father of the family had worked for one of my relatives, on land that may have been taken from his family.

My understanding is that when our Aboriginal guests ask us where we are from and who our family is, they’re working out how we’re connected. I think there’s a security in knowing who we know and who we’re related to. If you treat someone badly and they know who your family is, it’ll get back to your family. If they know where your hometown is, it’ll get back to your hometown.

(I want to acknowledge that I could be wrong about any of this, and I’m happy to be corrected.)

On Monday my mum sent me these family photos which I don’t think I’ve seen before.
This is my mum in 1961:

This is her dad (my grandad) around 1935:

And this is his mum (my great-grandmother):

I think my grandmother was born in Edinburgh, and my grandfather in Wolverhampton, but since arriving in Melbourne we’ve mostly stayed in Melbourne. the information we have about this side of the family doesn’t go back very far. some of our family say they’ve always understood that my mother’s father’s mother had Indian heritage, but this is something my mum hadn’t heard until a few years ago.

On Wednesdays I’ve been reading and reflecting on Genesis. Today I’ve been looking at the genealogy in (what we now call) Genesis 5. I think the genealogies in the Bible often don’t mean a lot when we approach with a Western mindset. Many of us don’t know much about our families. In Australia a lot of Europeans don’t know where their families came to Australia from. I wonder whether for the original readers, the inclusion of genealogies would have given a sense that the stories could be trusted?

One of the things that stands out in this genealogy is the pattern of men having children (without reference of the women who actually give birth) and then dying. That pattern is broken by Enoch, who is said to have walked with Elohim. Instead of saying that Enoch died, the genealogy says that he was no more because Elohim took him away.

The other thing that stands out to me in a more ominous way is the prophecy about Noah. Noah’s father Lamech says of his son, ‘Out of the ground that YHWH has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.’

The first murderer becomes the model ancestor

I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and on Wednesdays I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve been reading.
Cain’s great-great grandson, Lamech, is the first man in Genesis who has two wives, which might indicate the continuation of patriarchy. He brags to his wives that he has killed a man. He boasts that just as Cain would be avenged seven times, he would be avenged seventy times if someone killed him. YHWH intended to punish Cain for murdering his brother. Instead, Lamech is making Cain his inspiration. Did YHWH’s curse backfire?

However, at this stage a new thread is also introduced: Adam and Eve have another child called Seth. This time it is Eve who does the naming, and she says that Elohim has given her another child in Abel’s place. We’re told that Seth also has a son, and that at this time people began to call on the name of YHWH.
This looks to me like a comparison of two different lineages, headed in different directions.

The first murderer builds the first city

I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis and on Wednesdays I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve been reading. Today I’m going to keep going on with Cain’s story, picking up after the murder of his brother.

First of all I’d like to note that I think this story has some clues in it that show us that this story is not supposed to be understood as literal or historical. (I think it’s more like folklore or mythology.) In a couple of spots there is a presumption that there are other people living in the land, not just Adam and Eve and their small family. When YHWH marks Cain as a murderer, he’s afraid of other people seeing him and wanting to avenge him. We aren’t told where these other people came from, but in this part of the story it’s assumed that there are other people around. We also aren’t told where Cain’s wife came from, she’s just there (briefly) in the story. And we aren’t told who lives in the city that Cain builds, but presumably there would be other people in Cain’s primal city.

After Cain the vegetable farmer kills his brother Abel the animal herder, YHWH tells Cain his punishment will be that he can no longer work the land and that he’ll be forced to wander. Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted, while Abel’s was. Now the land rejects Cain while it receives Abel’s body and blood and advocates for Abel.

However, I wouldn’t say that Cain cooperates with his punishment in the story. Cain and his wife have a child, Enoch, and Cain builds a city, which he also names Enoch. It’s as though Enoch’s response to YHWH’s curse is to exit the land a build a new kind of environment.

Cain is marked by YHWH so that people will know that he is a murderer, so Cain builds a city where he can hide from avengers. I wonder if the story is saying that cities are places where criminals go to hide? I wonder how Cain would tell the story? Do you think cities can proivide a shelter for people in trouble?

Were the primal humans of Genesis immortal?

I’ve been gradually reading through Genesis and each Wednesday I’ve been posting some reflections. I recently appreciated getting a question from my friend Nat:

‘What’s your take on the significance  (i hope I’m remembering this properly) of there being no death in the garden? …ie, if it’s not literal truth’

When Nat asked me this I also wasn’t sure if I was remembering properly. I had a sense that I’d heard people say that there was no death before the humans ate the forbidden fruit. I wasn’t sure whether I’d read that in scripture or whether it was part of the folklore that’s attached to the story. So I thought I’d go back to the text and see if I could find anything suggesting that there was or wasn’t death in the garden.

In the first  section of Genesis I couldn’t find anything saying that their was no death in the garden. What I did find was YHWH Elohim becoming concerned about what would happen if the humans ate from the tree of life (and became immortal) after having already eaten from the tree of knowledge.

I’m wondering if other people presumed, like me and Nat, that the story said people were immortal in the garden? If human beings are descibed as already having a limited lifespan in the garden, does that change our attitudes about death?

I’m also wondering if there may be something I’m missing? If you can see something in the text suggesting that humanity was immortal, we’d be keen to hear.

What happened to Abel’s livestock?

I’ve been continuing to read Genesis…
After the twisting of humanity, we’re presented with a story of humanity outside the garden, having to herd animals and till the soil to provide for themselves. One human, who we know as Cain, is a horticulturalist and his brother, who we know as Abel, is an animal herder.

Here the deity is called YHWH, and the two brothers bring their produce as a sacrifice, but YHWH is only pleased with the fat meat that Abel brings. YHWH won’t look at the vegetables that Cain brought, and so Cain’s face falls in response… What I notice is that there is a focus on the directions of YHWH’s and Cain’s faces. Both of them look away.
YHWH asks Cain, ‘Why is your face fallen?’
Despite the rupture, there isn’t a presumption of sin. YHWH is warning Cain that sin is at the door, but says that Cain has to master it. We probably know how the story goes, but there’s no presumption that Cain’s nature is sinful because of the twisting.

Cain the vegetable-farmer kills Abel the animal-herder, in a field. Was it a pasture for Abel’s livestock? Was it a field that Cain had planted? Was it as field of vegetables that Cain had grown, but which Abel’s herds had eaten and gotten fat on?

Who owns Abel’s herds now?

Humanity does the twist


I’ve been gradually reading through Genesis, and writing about it on Wednesdays. One of my favorite parts of the Hebrew scripture is the mythic section of Genesis, which has been chopping into chunks that we now call chapters 1-11.
I’ve been keen to get on to writing about the story of Cain and Abel because it is one of the parts that I’ve found most interesting. But I thought I’d be jumping the gun a bit if I posted about that without posting about the forbidden fruit. So I’m going to post a link to a resource I worked on with Beth Barnett for use during Advent. Beth talks about the event as more of a twist than a fall, and I’ve sought to reflect that in my illustrations.


How does this story change if we think of it as more of a twist than a fall?