Shi-Zi – serpent

Shi-Zi – serpent

The iconography of the serpent is associated with the reading Shi-zi, and it is always attested in a context of geographical and places name, especially for mountains’ toponyms, as according to Naxi – Dongba tradition, the Shi-zi
are at most considered mountain gods.

Analysis of Dongba manuscripts evinced two main iconographies for Shi-zi:

· the serpent alone, not associated with any other pictographs

· the serpent sign associated to the pictograph , a poly-semantic and polyphonic sign:[1]

1shi: (v.) to distribute, as food; to stretch; to spread the thread on a loom.

(s.) lion; yellow.

(adj.) yellow.

2shi: (n.) meat, flesh; dead.

3shi: (adj.)  new;

(v.) to skin, to pull off the skin of an animal

The association of and at today seems to be related just for phonetic specification and is not possible
to identify any difference between
and at semantic level.

From manuscripts the Shi-zi emerge to be as numerous as the locality and places important for Naxi everyday life: every mountain, hill, spur, cliff, etc…, every place in Naxi land has a local god or spirit who’s believed to dwell within and which is a Shi-zi.

The Shi-zi spirits could be associated to general geographical toponyms, as i.e. the mountain god of the Cloudy Snow Range of 玉龙雪山Yu Long Xue Shan.[2]

They also could be expression of exact toponyms, as for instance the spirit of the village of La-baw,[3]
a Naxi village which coincides with the actually 石鼓Shigu, situated at the great bend of the Yangse river, about 30 miles North of Lijiang.[4]

Shi-zi spirit into pictographic manuscript literature are also associated to particular places, as they are important localities for Naxi people and culture, as for instance the spirit of the White pagodas of Dali.[5]

Statistic data of Shi-zi serpent mountains and local spirit are exposed below:

By the features emerged from manuscripts and according to Naxi – Dongba and Tibetan Bön tradition literature tudy[6]
this Shi-zi deities seems to be closely related to the Tibetan
ས་བདག Sa-Bdag, a class of demons which Sarat Chandra Das described to belong to the Nāga class, gods of the ground of any locality supposed to be jealous and hungry being, of terrific appearance, to whom in many occasion offering are brought[7]

According to Tucci, such kind of deities and cult should be considered as one of the folk-religion elements that survived to “ the destruction of the organization of the Buddhist (persecution of Glang dar ma) “ beside others (like the ཀླུ Klu
) as spirits of the soil, of the mountains, of the air, continued to be venerated and feared as real powers,[8] as in Naxi – Dongba tradition they are celebrated in their ceremonies, that – as in Tibetan liturgy – reflects in local variations the peculiar character of the gods or festival concerned.

Naxi – Dongba Shi-zi and Tibetan ས་བདག Sa-Bdag traditions both shares common elements, mostly forming a necessary prelude to the proper sacred action, which are resent almost without exception: the purification of the place provided first of all, then the elimination of all the forces and influences injurious to the performance of the ritual or the sacred condition of the locality.[9]

As for Tibetan ས་བདག Sa-Bdag, the Naxi – Dongba tradition knows an exuberant profusion of local manifestations and dei loci, thus both literature expressed wide lists of them, texts in which the most important dei loci is found, along with others which vary considerably depending to the local places of origin of the list.

Both in Naxi – Dongba and Tibetan traditions, the Numina of the rocks accompany the god of the mountain, who  exceeds in importance almost all them: reading Dongba manuscripts and confronting with Tibetan tradition, practically any rock which overlooks a path, village or bridge in a threatening manner serves as the throne for a Shizi, whose favor as for the Tibetan ས་བདག Sa-Bdag must be made sure of.

Because of such peculiar vision as place for a Shizi spirit of what our culture identifies as non animated being (as stone, rocks, etc…) in Naxi – Dongba and Tibetan tradition two of the may occasion which cause the ill-humor and the vengeance of these particular powers are the རྡོ་སློག rdo slogcarrying away of stones,and the ས་བརྐོ sa brkodigging of the earth, actions that must therefore be preceded by rituals of propitiation.

Also the agriculture – meant in this peculiar point of view not just as the virtuous working of the earth by man – signifies  the destabilization of a cosmic order, causing of a new order of nature and things, upsetting the previous stipulated equilibrium: the countless Numina thus get in hunger and react against humans’ lack of considerations with all kinds of harm.[10]

[1] Rock, 1939:

[2] Joseph Rock private collection number 6052, pg 26, r. VI

[3] Joseph Rock private collection number 8266

[4] The name derived from a stone drum which was erected in a.D. 225 by ???Chu???[ko] Liang

[5] Joseph Rock private collection manuscript number 8266:13, IV – V

[6] Rock (1972), Tucci (Tibetan Painted Scrolls, vol II appendix 2) and Sarat Chandra Das (“Tibetan English Dictionary: 1273b)

[7] Das Sarat Chandra, 1902: 1258. Cfr also Tucci: 714b

[8] Tucci, 1894: 16

[9] Ibid: 149

[10] In this peculiar world, men were then obliged to assure themselves the assistance of the seers, those first institutores of a civilized common life, who instructed the humans in the necessary rites of atonement and defense operations: in Naxi – Dongba culture these are the Dongbas.

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