A Serpent in Human Shape

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.


In the Kashmiri folktale “The Chinese Princess,” a governor is hunting game when he stumbles upon a beautiful Chinese maiden who claims to be a princess. Entranced by her beauty, he takes her as his wife. At first the marriage is blissful, but after not too long the governor begins to suffer a persistent stomachache. Eventually a guru deduces the governor has married a snake woman, a Lamia. Understanding that he must kill her, the governor tricks the Lamia into putting herself close enough to an oven to be shoved in and cooked. His illness fades with her death.

John Keats’ poem “Lamia” borrows from Greek legends of snake women, but true to Keats’ sensitive nature and his sympathy for the misunderstood and downtrodden, Lamia is not pictured as a vicious monster out to seduce and murder men but a lonely nymph cursed to exist as both snake and woman. She finds love for a time with a young man, Lycius, but as Lycius brings her into society to wed her, she is exposed by Lycius’s teacher, Appolonius. Seeing Lamia in her true form causes Lycius to die of shock and grief.

Monsters assuming human form have become a staple of fantasy and science fiction. In the TV series Stargate SG-1, the principal villains for the first eight seasons are the Goa’uld, parasitic alien snakes that burrow into humans’ brains to take control of their bodies. In the mythos of the series the Goa’uld once ruled Earth and took the guise of Gods and Demons such as Ra, Cronus, and Ba’al. After the destruction of the Goa’uld Empire, a few of them escape to Earth, taking hosts even more insidious than murderous, tyrannical Gods: corrupt politicians and businessmen.