In Japan, people who seek divine assistance in overcoming difficulties may place a votive offering known as an ema in a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. The illustrations on the ema reflect the petitioner’s problem. Petitioners may paint their own illustration, but as far back as the Edo period (1600-1868), ema were also painted in commercial studios and offered for sale to clients. The petitioner typically added an inscription to the purchased ema, often including a personal name and date. An ema is also sometimes presented simply as an expression of thanks to the deities.
Ema with snake motifs are usually presented at temples dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten, the Japanese version of the Hindu goddess Saraswati. Found in Buddhist and popular religious traditions in Japan, Benzaiten is associated with music, speech, intelligence, happiness, and prosperity. Through their connection with the goddess, snakes are believed to bring financial prosperity and also to cure sickness.
Exhibition Wall Text: Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives, 2006