Opposites Attack

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Why do so many mythic creatures come in pairs?

Some mythic creatures fly solo. Others come in pairs. Sometimes, two characters are constantly at war with each other. These battling duos can help storytellers express abstract ideas. For instance, a saint slaying a dragon might symbolize the struggle between good and evil. But interpreting a story is rarely that simple. The same story may have many meanings and be told many different ways. In Asian stories, the giant, birdlike Garuda constantly attacks snakelike Nagas. But this is no simple tale of good versus evil. The duo are identified with many pairs of opposites, including light and dark, the Sun and Moon, upper and lower, air and water, and Buddhism and other religions.

Garuda and Nagas: Garudas often wage war on Nagas, large snakes. Tibet, 19th or 20th century, metal, bronze, and gilt.
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Garuda and Nagas

According to Hindu and Buddhist stories, the giant, birdlike Garuda spends eternity killing snakelike Nagas. The feud started when both Garuda's mother and the Nagas' mother married the same husband. The husband then gave each wife one wish. The Nagas' mother asked for a thousand children. Garuda's mother wished for just two children who were superior to all of the Nagas. Their rivalry continued until Garuda's mother lost a bet and became the servant and prisoner of the Nagas' mother. Garuda was able to free his mother by stealing the nectar of immortality from the gods. But he swore vengeance for his mother's treatment and has been fighting Nagas ever since.


  • Carries the Hindu god Vishnu on his back.
  • Human torso and arms; some Hindu garudas have four arms, while Buddhist Garudas sometimes have only wings.
  • Wings, legs and clawed feet of a bird.
  • Head of a bird, or human head with beak.
  • Wings so large they darken the sky; flapping wings can cause hurricanes.
  • Garuda attacks snakelike Nagas and in some stories wears Nagas as jewelry.
  • Can protect people against snakes, snakebites and other poisons.

A Widespread Tale

The Hindu tradition has a wealth of stories and texts, including versions of the Garuda story dating back more than 3,000 years. When Buddhism branched off from Hinduism around 500 BC, these stories transformed as they spread through Asia and beyond. Today a billion people practice Hinduism, mostly in India, and another 350 million practice Buddhism. Garudas and Nagas can now be found in Balinese paintings, Himalayan bronzes, Japanese and Tibetan ritual dramas, Thai shadow puppets, and Cambodian architecture, as well as in countless local shrines in India and elsewhere.

Many Faces of Garuda

In Hinduism, Garuda is a single character, but in Buddhist stories, there are many Garudas. The Hindu Garuda carries the god Vishnu on his back, while in the Buddhist world Garuda is an agent of the faith, wrestling with Nagas until they become Buddhist. Meanings can vary as much as details. For Buddhists, the story of Garuda overcoming Nagas symbolizes the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia, with Nagas representing indigenous religions and deities that were converted to Buddhism.

Garuda Today

Garuda is part of daily life in Asia. In addition to being evoked in worship, theater, art, and story, Garuda is the national symbol of Thailand and Indonesia. Garuda has also inspired the name of an airline, a yoga pose, and characters in video games, comic books, television series and card games such as Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh!


  • Nagas have split tongues caused by licking grass on which Garuda spilled the nectar of eternal life.
  • Human face with cobralike hood; snake body and tail.
  • Nagas live underground in caves, sometimes in jeweled palaces.
  • The Naga king supports the world; when he moves it causes earthquakes.
  • The Naga king has a thousand heads, which serve as an umbrella for the sleeping Buddha.


The snakelike Nagas are not figures of evil like the serpent of Christian stories. Although some stories describe Nagas as Garuda's enemies, whom he perpetually punishes, Nagas are also worshiped in their own right. In Cambodia, for instance, the Naga is revered as the ancestor of the Cambodian people and protector of the Buddha. In Buddhist societies, Nagas are sometimes thought of as local deities that became part of Buddhism, retaining their powers to assist people. In South India, for example, Nagas can bring fertility, and women seek their aid in having children.

Helpful Naga

Naga is the Sanskrit word for "snake." In South India, a cobra nest may become a shrine to the mythical Naga. Women offer the snakes milk, fruit and flowers, and entice them out with songs and incense. People sometimes come within inches of deadly cobras without being injured.

Bird Versus Snake

Birds that attack snakes are common in stories around the world, from Greece to India, Iran, China, and Mexico. The Mexican flag shows an eagle clutching a snake as a symbol of the founding of the Aztec civilization.

Garuda shadow puppet
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Garuda Shadow Puppet

Stories about Garuda and Naga are told in many forms, including ritual drama. In performance, the Garuda is held in the puppeteer's right hand, above the Naga. The Naga is held lower, in the left hand.






Naga shadow puppet
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Naga Shadow Puppet

Naga, Garuda's traditional foe, can be portrayed in a variety of forms. This shadow puppet from Bali, Indonesia, shows Naga as a winged serpent.