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What Is a Naga Anyway?

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In each of the Flirting with the Zodiac books, we’ve met a different species of alien. In Hook, Line & Sinker, we met the Pisceans, seahorse shifters from the planet Piscea. Riding the Dragon features the dragons who inhabit a planet in Draco. And in Main Squeeze, we’re introduced to snake shifters who call themselves the naga.

The cover of Main Squeeze, which features shapeshifting snake aliens.
“Naga” is an apt word to describe these aliens.

The word naga comes to English from India—and the concept is tied to several South Asian cultures.

Where Did the Naga Come From?

Naga comes from the word for snake, specifically the cobra. In turn, naga came to refer to sacred creatures with both human and snake attributes. They first appear as such in the Mahabharata, which talks about the divine origins of several naga. These half-serpent people live in the underworld and guard immeasurable amounts of treasure.

Sometimes, naga are snakes with human legs; in many other cases, they’re serpents with human faces. In some cases, they’re human from the waist up. They can even shift back and forth between fully humanoid and fully serpent in some tales.

Naga guard many sacred Hindu places. Many statutes and other artworks depict king cobras with human faces, often a multiplicity of them together. People may pray to them for good luck or safety.

Naga often offer protection or assistance to Hindu deities, like the one sculpted here.
It’s not uncommon to see naga depicted around the necks of some Hindu deities or with bodhisattvas. (Spoortesh Honey/Pexels.com)

In these stories, naga are often associated with water; they’re the guardians of rivers and other waterways.

In Buddhism

The naga concept is also familiar to Buddhists. Buddhism arose in India, so it makes sense that some of its mythology shares roots with Hindu imagery and legends. The naga in Buddhism are largely similar to those in Hinduism, although they connect with different myths. For example, naga are generally thought to follow one of the Four Heavenly Kings of the west. People are sometimes depicted as being protected by a naga draping over their head or back.

As Buddhism traveled through Southern Asia, the naga stories traveled with it. Of course, it’s likely that Buddhist conceptualizations of these creatures co-mingled with local legends about snakes or serpent-people. At this point, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Did a local population have a concept of “naga,” or was it introduced with Buddhism?

An example is the Khmer legend of Queen Soma, from Cambodia. According to this story, a naga is the mother of the Khmer people. The Naga people of Sri Lanka are referenced in many ancient texts as well.

In Thailand, naga guard the Mekong River. Filipino mythology also speaks of a naga river goddess who guards waterways. Indonesian myth also speaks of naga.

The Hollowing Out and Commercialization of Naga

It was pointed out that use of the term naga could be uncomfortable, because it’s so tied to sacred concepts in so many cultures.

Main Squeeze can be seen as part of a larger trajectory of commercialization and appropriation of naga. Consider that when I brought the issue up with my editing team, they were hesitant to change the term.

That was because “naga” has become shorthand for half-serpent in English, particularly in SFF circles. My editor was familiar with the term; she knew immediately what I was talking about when I used it. It gave her a very clear picture of what Jasper, Orrin, and Mindaro looked like.

Yet when I pointed out that the concept originated in India, she was surprised. She hadn’t realized that the concept was so intimately tied to sacred religious texts in many countries and cultures.

Where Do Naga Exist in Contemporary Western Cultures?

Her familiarity with the term came through furries and scalies, as well as games like Dungeons and Dragons. D&D specifically includes a class of creatures called naga. They are half-serpents, much the way the term is now interpreted. From there, others—fantasy works, science fiction, and even other groups that connect with these “fandoms”—adopted the term.

We decided to leave the term in the book, but I wanted to highlight the issues around using it. Yes, it’s shorthand for a half-serpent creature at this point, but only through this process of appropriation and commercialization. Westerners are generally familiar with naga through D&D and other similar media.

While it’s nice that we’re familiar with the term, that we have this “shorthand” for a half-serpent creature, it is a problem that Western culture has managed to hollow out the concept, leaving behind the sacred aspects.

What’s a Rose by Any Other Name?

One of the things the editorial team and I ended up discussing around this was the problem of language. I used the term naga because it is, at this point, familiar to many and invokes the right concept. People will see it, much like my editor did, and know exactly what I mean.

But Jasper, Orrin, and Mindaro are aliens, speaking a totally foreign tongue. There’s a tension here—I’m using a loan word that many English speakers are familiar with, but did I have to? The alien snake-shifters in Main Squeeze could have called themselves, well, almost anything.

In fact, we might even see it as odd that they don’t have their own word. The team theorized the chip Marty’s using takes whatever term the aliens have for themselves and translates it to naga. It’s the closest equivalent English term; it’s in common enough usage for Marty.

I didn’t include that explanation in the final text. I think it’s a pretty flimsy hand-wave to the larger issues around language here. So it remains in the text unchanged and unexplained, as problematic as that might be.

Similarities to Dragons

When researching Riding the Dragon, it became apparent there was enormous overlap between dragons and serpents in mythology. We can see that in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean conceptualizations of dragons. In these depictions, these creatures look more like snakes than the prototypical European dragon. While these dragons still have limbs, their long, winding bodies are more reminiscent of snakes.

Even in Norse or Greek mythology, there’s overlap between dragons and serpents. The Norse dragon Fafnir is sometimes portrayed as serpentine; in Greek mythology, the dragon that guards the golden apples or the Golden Fleece is sometimes called a serpent. Ancient Greek artwork seems to portray what we’d recognize as a snake.

This dragon in the Southeast Asian tradition has a more snake-like body.
Chinese and other Southeast Asian dragons are typically more snake-like.

We can also see the overlap in how naga and Chinese dragons are protectors of rivers and other waterways. And this holds across mythologies in South Asia. We can even see it in Greek legends and Norse mythology, where sea serpents are likely to be dragon-esque.

So there’s a suggestion here that dragons and mythological creatures like naga may be very closely related. At the very least, they seem to have sprung from the same root—the snake.

We can even look back to Babylon, Mesopotamia, and other “ancient” cultures to see this. Dragons existed in Babylonian myth, but they are very much snakelike. Keep in mind that these ancient empires existed simultaneously with the Indus River Valley civilization. Alexander the Great of Macedonia (Greece) traveled to India.

Instinctual and Universal Imaginations?

From there, we can reach back to a sort of primordial imagination. Human beings originated in Africa. We grew up right alongside all sorts of dangerous beasts. We have evidence of leopards preying on ancient hominids. That might be why we tend to fear big cats—particularly leopards, panthers, and cougars, which stalk their prey.

Creepy-crawlies like spiders and scorpions also figure largely in this primordial imagination, because they can kill us.

That’s true with snakes, too. Africa is home to a number of poisonous snakes, including the black mamba. In India, we have boa constrictors and pythons. There are also king cobras—snakes that, when they stand up, are as tall as a human being.

Garter snakes are totally harmless, but people may fear them anyway.
Then we have snakes like this, who’s kinda cute! (Pixabay/Pexels.com)

All these snakes can and do kill. Give that, it makes sense we have a predisposition to fear them. Yet that fear can also translate to reverence. Sacred animals are often the same ones we fear, precisely because we’re aware of their power. Our ancestors might have imagined that these creatures were the descendants of gods or gods in disguise. We should fear and respect them as such.

We can even see this in religious beliefs in South American cultures. There aren’t naga, but there are gods who take the form of snakes.

Surely, these conceptualizations share some commonalities with the ideas that the Babylonians had, that informed Greek and Norse ideas about giant sea serpents. There seems to be some common ancestry with Chinese dragons.

And this all makes sense when we consider that snakes live on almost every continent, in almost every climate. They’re always present with us. And even if they weren’t, they’d likely be present in our primordial memory—because they do exist where humanity originated.

We Probably Know Naga Before We Know Naga

Given all that, it makes a lot of sense that even if the naga specifically originates with the religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent, serpents and shapeshifting snakes do figure in a lot of cultures.

That may be why the concept of naga even had the legs (sorry!) to travel to Western culture, to English. It’s a concept we’re all vaguely familiar with, a concept that connects to older stories and myths. It makes a connection with our subconscious memories, instincts.

I’m not arguing that the concept appearing in stuff like D&D or even my own work isn’t appropriation; it is, most definitely. What I’m suggesting is that there may be an underlying reason it was so easy to appropriate this particular concept. It was a word, an idea that already spoke to something familiar, something that existed without necessarily being named.

Of course, it’s still appropriation in the worst sense; it takes the concept and completely divorces it from its roots. It turns the sacred into the profane, turns it from something of reverence to something designed to make money.

But there may be a reason some concepts seem to loan themselves more easily than others. In the case of the naga, it may be the familiarity of snakes, the commonality of our stories about them.

The Naga in Main Squeeze

The naga in Main Squeeze are ultimately doing a lot. As I said, they’re alien snake shifters, which is an idea that feels familiar enough. There are echoes between their story and Riding the Dragon—perhaps intentional, perhaps not. And there are certainly echoes of “the jungle” and Central and South American mythologies in here.

But they’re also not meant to be exoticizing, to an extent. In a way, they’re merely here to challenge our Westernized sense of the world, our “norms” and “values.” It’s difficult to balance, taking a concept like this, putting them in an “exotic” landscape, and trying to incorporate bits and bobs from other cultural traditions to contrast with the Western outlook on things.

I want the naga to be different, yet not inferior or “exotic.” Whether or not the book accomplishes that is another story.

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