Composite creatures with both human and animal attributes appear in the mythology of many cultures. Examples include the human-headed winged bulls and lions found in the art of the ancient Assyrians1, as well the jackal-headed Inpu (better known by the Greek name of Anubis) of ancient Egypt.2 It is interesting to observe how different civilizations come up with their own unique sets of human-beast combinations, and equally interesting to see how similar creatures occur across geographically separated and linguistically distinct societies.
Human-serpent deities occur in the mythology of the Dogon people in West Africa, and also in the lore of India and China. While the events in legends of human-snake gods from these three distinct cultures show little if any obvious similarities, the Hindu, Chinese and Dogon versions of the snake gods nevertheless share some characteristics.
The Dogon, who live in Mali and Burkina Faso, worship Nommo, half-human, half-snake deities with red eyes and green bodies.3 The creation myth of the Dogon people claim that the creator god made Nommo, a pair of divine twins. The twins piloted an ark from the heavens; the ark became the Earth.4 After Earth's creation, four pairs of Nommo gave birth to the 8 human ancestors - 4 males each paired with his sister/wife. These in turn planted the seeds of life on earth and became forefathers/foremothers to the four ethnic divisions of the Dogon.5
Some of the appellations of the Dogon for the Nommo include "master of water" and "water god".6
Pangu, Nuwa, Fuxi and Gonggong were ancient Chinese deities described as "human headed, snake bodied."7 There are differing accounts about Pangu the creator, but he is commonly accepted as the god who divided Heaven and Earth. In one version of his legend, he was an immense giant who grew in the undifferentiated mass of the universe. When he died, his body became various natural elements in the earth and sky.8
Fuxi and Nuwa, siblings as well as spouses, were honored as "the ancestors of humans".9 The goddess Nuwa created human beings out of earth.9 Her brother/husband Fuxi taught the humans to hunt, fish and herd livestock. He was also credited with creating writing and hexagrams.10
Although the Chinese and Dogon mythology differ in their accounts of how the earth and humans came to be, human-snake deities played a role in both the Chinese and Dogon creation stories. Nuwa and Fuxi, like the Dogons' Nommos, are honored as ancestor-creator spirits. Nuwa did not literally give birth to humans, but like the eight ancestors of the Dogon, she and Fuxi were joined in a brother-sister marriage.11
Another superficial similarity between Chinese and Dogon snake-human deities is an association with water. The Chinese deity Gonggong, a vicious and temperatmental character, is the god of floods.12
In Hindu and Buddhist mythology, nagas are half-snake-half-serpent demigods who can appear wholly human, wholly serpent, or like Nuwa and Fuxi of Chinese mythology, appear with a human torso and a snake tail.13 Nagas are also associated with bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and wells,14 sharing a water theme with the Chinese Gonggong and the Dogon Nommo.