"White Snake" is an old chinese legend about a white
snake who lived in the West Lake (Xi Hu) near Hangzhou. What is interesting
about this story is its extreme antiquity as is evident by the existence
of numerous versions in a variety of diverse cultures. In fact, there
is a very similar but simpler version of the story told by the ancient
Greek writer Philostratus. This version was called "Lamia" and was the
basis for John Keats' poem of the same title. There is also the German
fairytale of "Melusine". Like Lady White, Melusine and Lamia are both
water spirits. Sometimes, the supernatural spouse has a sinister side
and the disastrous consequences due to the revelation of her true nature
are not so accidental. An example is the Japanese folk tale of the"Snow
Maiden" (made into a movie in the 50's by a famous Japanese director).
Two woodcutters become lost in a snow storm and take shelter in little
hut. One of the woodcutters awakes in the middle of the night to see
a beautiful white woman suck the breath out of his companion. She notices
him and quietly threatens him that if he mentions what he saw to anybody
she will come to kill him. The demon then vanishes. Later, he meets
a beautiful young woman with no family, marries and they have a son
and live happily for several years. One night, he looks at her while
she is sewing and is reminded of the demon in the hut. He mentions this
and tells the whole story to her believing he is safe from reprisal.
His wife turns around to reveal that she is in fact the Snow maiden
and is witness to his transgression. The only reason that she will not
kill him now is the welfare of their child and will come to kill him
should anything happen to him. She then vanishes. There are also similar
stories about fox maidens or Kitsune in Japanese and Korean legends.
Furthermore, the story of "White Snake" seems to belong to the sub-genre
of a larger body of folklore which has as its theme the story of a mortal
who marries a supernatural creature (usually female with some connection
to water) but is unable to keep her. Sometimes, the creature as a condition
of the union demands that the mortal does not mention her real name,
mention the conditions under which they met or see her in her true state.
Sometimes, the mortal holds an item that possesses her true identity
such as a seal skin in the case of the Irish Silkie or seal woman or
the swan feathers as in the case of the Swan maiden. Other times, there
is stipulation that the husband should not either hit or say a harsh
word to the wife or she will return to her people. In all cases, a taboo
or transgression is committed by the spouse causing dissolution of the
relationship at the very least or the death of the offending spouse
at the worst.