All cultures share legends of shapeshifting werebeasts that haunt the undergrowth of the collective unconscious – in Eastern Europe it’s the werewolf; amongst the Native Americans, it’s the cujo; the Latin Americans have their chupacabras, amongst the South-East Asians, there’s the crocodile queen; the Berserkers of the Viking sagas were believed to change into bears; the Chinese have the huli jing and the Japanese the yokai. In Britain, we have the Green Man who is able to turn into a tree – but then we’ve never been terribly imaginative.
But it’s as we move closer to India that we discover legends of the most terrifying shapeshifters of them all – the snake gods and goddesses that can turn into handsome young men and beautiful young women to seduce, protect or terrify the people around them as their whim dictates. The Armenians have legends of the Nhang; the Tartars of the Yuxa and the Indians of the Naga (male) or Nagin (female).
The Mahabharata tells their tale describing them as “of virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures.” Persecuted by the bird-man Garuda, their stepbrother, their origins are of great interest. The great sage Kasyapa had two wives – Kadru and Vinata. The first wanted lots of children and the second wanted only a few, strong children. Kadru laid a thousand eggs who hatched into the Nagin and Vinata had but two – who became the heroes Garuda and Surya. At first the Nagin succeed in casting a spell on Garuda who must do their bidding and is sent in search of Amrita, the nectar of immortality but he tricks them and escapes their control and from thence onwards becomes their sworn enemy.
Over the centuries, the myths and legends of the Nagin have grown and evolved becoming more diverse but have developed a common consensus that they are not truly evil but only bite back when they have been maltreated in some way. It is this interpretation that is most commonly seen in the Bollywood and South movies that have portrayed them over the years, developing the mythos into newer realms.