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Shahmeran

by Dr Nese Yildiran
Shahmeran (Cam Altinda Yirmi Bin Fersah, 1997). In Anatolian mythology, the goddess of wisdom and the guardian of secrets is Shahmeran, an anthropomorphic figure with a female head on a snake body. Her story can be traced from the Middle East to India with different fictions, one variation is also found in the Arabian Night Tales as the story of Jemlia - the Sultan of Underground (Mardrus, 1992: Vol.7, 68-131). Herodotus mentioned a woman, semi-human semi-snake, who had given three boys to Heracles in relation with an epic been told about him, in his fourth book in which he tells about the life and traditions of Scythians (Herodotus, 1996: 219). The myths show an immense variety about Shahmeran in Anatolia as well. I.Z. Eyüboglu links the story with Hittite myths which narrate the struggles of Teshup, the God of Storm, and Illuyanka, the giant serpent (Eyüboglu, 1990: 175). It is also known that the story of Shahmeran had been narrated in the manuscript named Camasbname which had been adapted from a Persian poem by Musa, who used the name Abdi as a pseudonym. This sixteenth century poem referred to the reign of Keyhusrev, the Anatolian Seljuk Sultan of the early thirteenth century (And, 1998: 57). In other manuscripts of the same period, which tell about the advantures of the mythical Battal Gazi who fought against Byzance to convert Anatolia into Islam in the eighth century, Shahmeran and her story is also mentioned (Öztelli, 1976: 3).

According to this well-known story, Camsap falls into a well and accidentally passes to an underground cave under the guidance of a scorpion, and there meets Shahmeran the Queen of Snakes. Shahmeran is completely defenseless against the ambitions and greed of humans, even though she is the one who knows all kind of secrets, and has to hide away. When Camsap wants to go back to earth, she refuses at the first but then releases him under one condition: he should not tell anyone about her. But Camsap cannot keep his promise and mentions the location of the cave to the evil vizier of a Persian Sultan who has a fatal illness. As it is told, the treatment is possible only if the Sultan eats Shahmeran's flesh. Shahmeran tells Camsap when they boil her flesh that he should let the evil vizier drink the first froth, while the Sultan should drink the second one. Camsap should be patient and wait for the third drink. The first froth is drank by the impatient and ambitious vizier as expected and he is poisoned. The Sultan drinks the second and is completely healed. Camsap drinks the rest and becomes a wise and sophisticated vizier (Uyar, 1973).

The end of the story points out Shahmeran's part in Anatolian mythology. According to this, the personification of Shahmeran exhibits a character who treats and heals the sick. In some parts of Anatolia it had been claimed that Lokman Hekim - the doctor hero of an another myth - was indeed educated by Shahmeran (Öz, 1994: 24). Shahmeran who possesses the secret of long and eternal life has been accepted as auspicious because of her compassion, self-sacrifice and absolute goodness as it was mentioned in the story. That is why her pictures are hung on bedroom walls of young girls and women, especially in the eastern and south eastern parts of Anatolia (Aksoy, 1997: 40).

Unfortunately the known depictions of Shahmeran today do not cover the early periods of the symbol. Seemingly the most common depiction had been formed considering Abdi's poem with the references to its period. The impact of the Seljuks in composition is clearly visible, yet the style is more simple, even naive (see figure above). Obviously the story had not been taken much interest in by court or intellectual art, just the opposite, it had been widespread among the public as a matter of sub-culture. The depiction recalls one of the glazed tile siren motives of the Kubad Abad palace of the Anatolian Seljuks (early 13th century) with her non-asiatic but more Anatolian face (Arik, 2000: 123), yet the stylisation is much simpler. On the other hand, neither story nor depiction had taken place among the Seljuk and Ottoman miniature themes. Shahmeran is not available in Kazvini's famous album Acaibü'l Mahlukat ve Garaibü'l Mevcüdat, "Strange Creatures and Awkward Entities." M. And mentions another creature whose story was told in Nüzhetü'l Kulub, named Mar-i Kahkaha, with a female head over a snake body. There is a miniature of this creature who can kill someone with a glance in Metaliü'l Saade (And, 1998: 260).

Shahmeran (Cam Altinda Yirmi Bin Fersah, 1997). What makes Shahmeran's depiction widespread as a symbol is the illustrations of her. These were painted in "under-glass technique," basically painting layer by layer, with the top layer painted first, making mistakes very difficult to correct. Indeed, Islam prohibits figure painting, but that prohibition has never been binding for the Anatolian public. M. Aksel expresses that the paintings, which were regarded as inconvenient and sinful for medreses, had been immensely emphasized and hung on the walls in tekkes (Aksel, 1959: 1857). Persian tea houses and seashore coffee shops where mostly troubadours and artisans came together were the places exhibiting folkloric paintings in various themes including Shahmeran (Aksel, 1960: 67). Those paintings were usually done by public painters who had no proper education, and mainly existing examples were copied. The same paintings were also hung on the walls of houses because of the lush colours and brightness coming from the glass (see right). They were easily affordable and regarded as a protector for the shelter (Aksoy, 1997: 27). Shahmeran illustrations are bought for trousseau or wedding gift.

Shahmeran (Cam Altinda Yirmi Bin Fersah, 1997). H. Koçan evaluates Shahmeran illustrations as typical examples which are open to a repeating theme, individual interpretation and re-modelling (Koçan, 1997: 14). As a matter of fact, the pose of the figure, her horned crown, beaded necklaces, crowned snake head tail, six foot in snake head shape are characteristics of the depiction, yet there may be some minor differences in the composition. The most striking one of those small changes is the addition of a red rose into the composition as the symbol of Prophet Muhammad, and that particularly contributes to the Islamization of the painting. In some other samples Shahmeran is portrayed as twin (see left), and sometimes, she is presented as identical with the deniz kizi (mermaid).

It is also widespread among young brides to wear Shahmeran embroidered hair covers in the Aegean region. Wearing Shahmeran necklace made of snake-shaped silver beads is rather common among the brides in Anatolia as well. There are some other depictions of Shahmeran which can be regarded as ethnographic material. Apart from hair covers those generally are embroidered on fabric as bundle and curtain.

In Anatolian mythology, the anthropomorphic symbols in semi-human semi-animal form are not common at all. E. Akurgal believes such symbols all are Assyrian oriented (Akurgal, 1993: 127). I.Z. Eyüboglu links them with Mitannian influence which had become more visible in Anatolia starting in the first millennium BCE, after the disappearance of political sovereignty of the Hittites (Eyüboglu, 1998: Vol.2, 90). The usage of such symbols goes back to the third millennium BCE, earlier than Hammurabi (Cirlot, 1962: xix), and they may be observed especially on glyptic cylinder seals. According to H. Frankfort, such seals, referred to him as peripheral glyptic which had been carved on cheaper material as chalcedony, agate, or other semi-translucent varieties like carnelian, had been widespread in the region including Anatolia during the Middle Babylonian -Kassite and Mitannian- periods around 1500 BCE (Frankfort, 1939: 6, 183, 273, 283). Travelling Mitannian seal-cutters had been making their style popular all around the region, a style which was to carve strictly symmetrical on glazed steatite surfaces. The snake as a forerunner symbol is possible to be seen on such seals in its own shape or its anthropomorphic variants in relation with certain gods who were mostly connected to the concept of fertility or health.

Among those snake gods of Mesopotamia, Nirah who was regarded as a protective deity of the temple, and depicted as a snake until the third millennium BC, later presented as a anthropomorphic god with the lower body of a snake, comes first (Black- Green, 1998: 166). An another example of that period is Ningishzida whom was regarded by Gudea the Sumerian King of Lagash (2100 BCE) as his personal protective deity, and thereafter had been associated with health, shows a horned snake rising from each shoulder. In the Old Babylonian period (1950-1651 BCE), still the same representation was common. Yet there had been some other compositions in the age of Sargon (2334-2279 BCE) which depicts Ningishzida enthroned and two snakes' heads are shown projecting from his body. Ningishzida, surprisingly, had also been represented in Anatolia during the Hittite period (1650-1207 BC) as part of a composition on a cylinder seal (Ward, 1910: 130). Here we see a totally different depiction, serpents again apparently rising from the shoulders of the god, but the god grasps them in his hands, which are joined over his breast, while their bodies fall down nearly to the ground. There is a rather similar composition on a Sumerian chlorite vessel which is dated 2600 BCE showing a male figure who grasps two big snakes and stands surrounded by items of flora and fauna recalling fertility and forces of nature (Collon, 1995: 69). In Mesopotamia, the snake had been associated with the God of Health, Ningishzida, by the end of third millennium BCE. The motif of the two serpents entwined together first had been seen as a fertility symbol after the fourth millennium BCE, then also become the symbol of Ningishzida, and come up as the symbol of Asclepius the God of Health in Roman colonial Western Anatolia. As we all know, Hippocrates had used the same symbol.

In Aegean and Western Anatolian mythology, both the cults of gods and goddesses who were associated with snakes and anthropomorphic symbols are possible to follow. The mother-goddess of Minoan-Mycenaean period wrapped up snakes, the feeding of snakes by priestesses in name of Apollo at Delphi, the rites of Dionysus in which snakes take place, Medusa the snake-haired, the struggle of Laocoon and his sons with the snakes sent by Apollo (Cooper, 1999: 150), the suicide of the daughters of Cecrops the legendary King of Attica who has got a snake-tail after their infant Erichthonius turned out to be a snake (Hall, 1997: 46), are all well-known stories. In addition, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis and Persephone had been mostly depicted with snakes. In that sense, it is needed to underline the strong bond between the snake and the mother-goddess cult in Anatolia where mother-goddesses have much bigger and more evident power than all other neighbouring cultures. According to I.Z. Eyüboglu, the personification of the sun as a goddess in Anatolian mythology, unlike others in which the sun is always characterised as male, would be a solid proof (Eyüboglu, 1998: Vol.2, 56). The variety of the names of the mother-goddesses in Anatolia, starting from Cybele and Kubaba to Artemis and Meter, all had the same personification, may be further proof.

The most interesting cult of the snake in the Eastern Mediterranean region comes from Ophiogeneis and Gnosticism which depends on the belief of Gnosis -knowledge- to designate the science of things divine, in its ultimate sense of supernatural and celestial knowledge (King, 1887: 3). Where exactly it originated is still an on-going debate, though it is widely accepted that Gnosticism is Middle Eastern in origin. King states that widely differing sects sprang up in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire around the first century and their main doctrines made their appearance in many of the cities of Asia Minor - Anatolia; such as Ephesus, Pergamon, and Apamea. In the second and third centuries Gnosticism itself is to be found in full blossom and the most well-known Gnostic thinker, Cerinthus, who is the follower of Simon Magus "the Great Power of God", was from Anatolia (Doresse, 1960: 12). The theories of Gnostics which explains the world within the struggle of the good and evil/dark and light, were accounted by a feminine entity. Snakes in that term were representing the equilibrium of opposing forces, good balanced by evil, health by sickness. Hippolytus had criticised this doctrine, asserting that the snake was said to live in all objects and in all beings (Cirlot, 1962: 288). The doctrine had passed into Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Hadrian (110-138AD), then reached Rome. Strabo tells of a serpent tribe in Western Anatolia which he named as Ophiogeneis, nearby the city of Parium (Strabo, 1856: Vol.2, 348) in Book XIII. As told by him, the male members of that tribe, of which the founder was transformed from a serpent into a man, have the power of curing persons bitten by serpents by touching them without intermission after the manner of enchanters, and this power continued in the race for some time.

Strabo also mentions Ophite ceremonies that had their origin among Thracians in Book X (Strabo,1856: Vol.2, 187). But some of these paganic rituals to reach the divine truth and the secrets for salvation of the soul, are so very startling, it denounced Gnostics as Satanists and convicted by the Christian Church. Those rituals were mostly orgies recalling the antique purification ceremonies or fetus sacrifices in close connection with snakes. They were recorded by Epiphanius, a former member of the sect and appointed as the Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus (367-403) after he denounced them. His well-known book Panarion, "scrap-basket", was an immense folio in which all sorts of rituals of Gnosticism were mentioned (King, 1887: 12). Yet T. Sözeri underlines the impact of Gnostics in Western Anatolian ethnography with traces reaching today. Especially the accessories of brides, such as hair cover and crests and necklaces, provide good examples (Sözeri, 2000: 95). The last Gnostics -Sabii or Mandaeans- today, are only living in south Iraq and in Iran as a small dispersed population of some 30.000 people (Gündüz, 1995: 24).

For Egyptian Gnostics Abraxas takes a special part in their belief. Abraxas means "holy name" or "blessing", and the supreme god named Abraxas by whom was created the mind (King, 1887: 117,259, 432,433). His symbolic depiction, in which his legs are snakes while the head is a rooster's, a reference to the sun, is placed on gems such as red or green jasper or hematite. These are talismans protecting the one who wears it. He is usually represented with a shield and whip to scare away all evil spirits, either mounted in the chariot of the Sun or depicted with the title "Ioa, Son of the Universe."

As a protective symbol which can bring the pain and death, the snake is always associated with the concepts of eternity and rebirth (Becker, 2000: 263). Among the Turkic tribes, in Oghuz mythology, the snake is "the earthly universe" (Ögel, 1971: 336). In Bashgirt belief it is one of the twelve gods. Among the Kalmuks it is "celestial" (Roux, 2002: 197). Seemingly Shahmeran should fit the Oghuz belief. Moreover, she should not be confused with Umay who was the protector of mother and the new-born baby in Göktürk mythology (Çoruhlu, 2002: 39-43), yet Shameran had no connection with either her or mothers and babies.

On the other hand, the conceptual meaning of snakes in Islam is rather controversial. The command külli muzirrun yuktell ("kill the ones who bring destruction") creates a negative meaning for snake as a creature of Hell. But at the same time it is accepted as being closely linked with life: in Arabic the snake is named as el-hayyah, while life is so-called el-hayt, just as Gnostics believed. It is possible to follow similar contradictions in Anatolian beliefs, some snakes are accepted as auspicious, some not (Eyüboglu, 1998: Vol.1, 77). Yet Shahmeran had found a place for herself in Islamic understanding by filling the gap of a distinguished female personality whom Islamic belief could not present in Anatolia. There is even a prayer for her in full Islamic context (Sözeri, 2000: 8).

In that case, wheresoever she came from, Shahmeran with her three thousand years past, is the one and only symbol which is widespread throughout Anatolian geography, from east to west, north to south. She is effective for that long, no doubt, because of three reasons: she could merge firstly into the mother-goddess cult of Anatolia, the Turkic mythology of the new comers secondly, and lastly, the Islamic understanding of Anatolians. In Anatolia where the mother-goddess cult had been essential, the character had a female personification. As a matter of fact, within the stories told outside Anatolia, for example in Persia, Shahmeran is depicted as male. From Cybele to St. Mary, the mother-goddess cult of Anatolia has lasted over eight thousand years, and is generally linked with the agricultural communities of that vast fertile land. Yet there are approaches which evaluate the cult not on the basis of breeding, but moreover, on the basis of swaying power (Roller, 2004: 26). Obviously Shahmeran had taken such identity rather than a breeder. Having a mother-goddess-like identity in rather Shamanistic form, Shahmeran, surprisingly enough, had succeeded to survive in the folklore and belief system of Turco-Muslims of Anatolia until today.

In Eastern Mediterranean cultures, the snake, is one of the most striking symbols since the very beginning. The reality that it can give pain and even kill, besides that it can also cure, had made it being evaluated differently than the other symbols. Both its own depiction and its anthropomorphic variants which use its impressive physical properties, had been regarded as the protectors and the guards of the divine secrets. Shahmeran of Anatolia is such kind of anthropomorphic symbol, which should be classified within that context.

When Persians started to dominate the region from the 4th century BCE, the Zoroastrian belief had expanded its territory as well. Henceforth, the symbolic meaning of the snake had changed according to that belief which accepts snakes as the spy of dark forces and Ahriman the God of Darkness (Curtis, 1993: 23). That is just because many of the anthropomorphic figures of the region had eventually been disregarded and discredited, and then disappeared during Hellenistic period. The concepts of Hell and Heaven of monotheistic religions had been improved on the same basis, make snakes or any anthropomorphic figure directly associated with the devil.

On the other hand, Shahmeran who most probably may be linked with the snake gods of Mesopotamia, being converted into female in connection with the mother-goddess cult, is a symbol of Anatolian mythology. Her story may be related with the story of Jemlia of the Arabian Night Tales, but should be narrated much later than the appearance of the symbol. Not being in conflict with central Asian Turkic belief which regards snakes as the earthly universe, and adapting herself into Islamic belief of Anatolians by filling the gap of a distinguished female personality, had made her survive until today. The semantics of the symbol varied and enriched, her identity gradually enlarging from protecting females and homes to a more sophisticated assistance regarding her wisdom in the times of trouble. In time she who accepts her fate in full self-sacrifice, yet still holds the leading role at her story, had converted into a heroine for especially Eastern Anatolian women who identified themselves with her. The sociological characteristics of the region which only permits a closed society because of feudal relations had also helped the journey of Shahmeran from past to present. In that sense, the future of Shahmeran remains a mystery just like the symbol herself still does.


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