Iconography of reptiles

According to Naxi – Dongba tradition, as every human being and any kind of deity[1] has its own life-god Ssú, the other parts of the universe as rocks, water, ground, wild animals, plants etc…, are province of another type of spirit, represented by reptile’s iconography, a kind of nature deity and a form of cult.[2]

The serpent-deities cult is one of the most important and prominent aspect of Dongba ceremonial corpus, and numerous manuscripts are dedicated or at least related to; the author distinguished and gathered them into 3 distinct sets:[3]

1. manuscripts dedicated to the origin of the Serpent deities Ssù.

Manuscript guide is Bpö lü k’u, belonging to Ssù-gu ceremony[4]

In this set of manuscripts the serpent-deities are invited to ceremonies and receive
offers.[5]

After that enumerations of all the serpent deities and ancestors, manuscript is written about the description of attributes, type of thrones and the quarters regional and sub-regional where the serpent deities live.[6]

2. Relationship and experiences of the earliest Naxi families with the serpent-deities.

This kind of manuscript contains a list of faults and sins the humans shouldn’t commit versus serpent deities, if this isn’t, then dire consequences are enumerated.[7]

3. Struggle between the serpent-deities and their antagonist: the eagle-winged deities.

the most prominent and text-guides are manuscript entitled Dso Na lo ch’i – fight with the winged Khyu-t’khyu deity, and the manuscript entitled Ssù c’her k’osearching for medicine and giving it (medicine): they show close concordances with “the confession of sins” in Bönpo sutra.[8]

Study of these manuscripts evinced many concordances between Dongba serpent-cult and Tibetan ཀླུ Klu serpent-deities tradition,[9] which in turns could be related to Indian नागNāga tradition.[10]
Such correlations were useful to integrate and better understanding Naxi – Dongba iconology of these and other animal-divine entities, as the relative ceremonial corpus dedicated and developed.

For instance an important feature regarding the serpent-deities cult of Naxi – Dongba tradition consists in the fact that generally before any ceremony performance, the place where it is going to be made must be first purified.
Purification takes place with a ritual called ch’ou gu or Ch’ou na gu,[11] and for them there were been used 3 animals which were led around the ceremony place. Such apparently non-understandable ritual for purification[12] could be clarified by looking to Indian tradition of Garuda puranam, in which during the rituals for purification the same happened by leading animals, and that because it’s believed that the shadow cast by the animals on a place purified and cleaned the latter.[13]

From manuscripts dedicated to serpent deities is possible to attest different terms and different iconography corresponding to distinguished kind of serpent-like supernatural entities, that are , and .

  • is a general reptile iconography, associated with the terms Ssù and Llümun, sometimes attested with the term Ssawndaw and/or other times as mute sign. Moreover, pictograph could be found alone or associated with other signs, attesting 2 main recurring iconographic patterns:
    • + , associated to the reading Ssù-swue-pa
    • + + , associated to the reading Ssù gyi-bbu
  • dragon iconography, associated with the term Lu, closely related with the Chinese 龍long
  • a serpent iconography, associated to the term Shi-zi, generally related to toponimous divinities, especially for mountains, springs, also for cities and villages.

Reserving to the dragon and the serpent iconography a dedicated section, also their data about the attestations and concordances from manuscript will be there related, whilst here follow a complete and resuming list of attestations of Ssù, with different iconographic types:



is represented and associated, the deity represented used to be sexual distinguished among masculine and feminine creatures: the feminine being’s iconography is identical to masculine one, except for it is determined by the peculiar female hairstyle.[14]

Finally, in the various attestations of creatures, they are hierarchically distinguished and ordered, with kings and queens, princes and princesses, regional and sub-regional chiefs, plebeian and less powerful Ssù.


[1] like nature gods, clan gods, functional gods, etc…,

[2] The Naxi – Dongba serpent deities veneration, or Ssù cult, has to be related with the wider phenomenon of Nāga cult, common in India, Cambodgia and all south Asia, of very ancient origins. The Ssù cult has elements which could be related with Bön tradition, as the latter constitutes a sub-stratum which subsume important aspects of Naxi – Dongba religion; cfr. Rock, 1952,; McKhann C., 1992; Mathieu C., 2003

Naxi – Dongba serpent-cult seems to be related especially with the Bön White Nāga; cfr. Rock, 1952; Anton Schiefner “Bön the magic-religious Beliefs”, J. Vogel “Indian serpent lore”, Helmut Hoffman “Quellen zur geschichte der  Tiberischen Bön-religion

[3] Once more showing concordances with Bönpo sutras

[4] Bönpo Sutra: 56

[5] Ibid: 75

[6] Ibid: 39 – 45

[7] Ibid: 51

[8] Ibid: 33

Also the ritual Ssù wuà ngu wuaerecting of nguwa (mandala) shows concordances with Bönpo sutra: 36, 37, 46, 62

[9] Such concordances evinced that the Naxi – Dongba serpent-cult manuscript literature is to be considered closely
related with the Tibetan
ཀླུཧབུ Kluhbum the ཀླུ Klu = serpent deities ཧབུ hbum = hundred thousand.

Sometimes there are exact equivalences. For instance is possible to associate both tradition 3 main types of  ceremonies:

1. The Naxi Dongba Ssù-gu which coincides with the Tibetan Klu hbun dkar po

2. The Naxi Dongba Ssù ddü gu, which coincides with the Tibetan Klu hbun nag po

3. The Naxi Dongba D’a Lu ds, which coincides with the Tibetan Klu hbun Khra po, a smaller ceremonial performed when building a new home. D’a is the ground where it is going to be build, so the divinity who is believed to dwell the d’a has to be propitiated

[10] About the correspondence between the Indian नागNāga and the Tibetan ཀླུ Klu cfr. Visser M. W. De, 2003 “Dragon in China and Japan” Book I. Also its bibliography. However Indian नागNāga, Tibetan ཀླུ Klu and Naxi – Dongba Ssù cult will be discussed below.

[11] Literally: Ch’ou = impurity [na = black] gu = remove

[12] As Rock, 1952: states that “also today remains without any explanation known by Dongbas

[13] Rock, 1952

[14] the latter as sexual determinative also for human beings signs of Dongba pictograph writing system into manuscript tradition.

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