Sunday, August 5, 2007

Snake Mythology

Cows, monkeys and dogs are revered by some cultures yet consumed as food by others. So, too, snakes are respected in some parts of the world and despised in others. The way that people feel about snakes is heavily influenced by cultural beliefs and mythology.

Some cultures held snakes in high esteem as powerful religious symbols. Quetzalcoatl, the mythical "plumed serpent," was worshipped as the "Master of Life" by ancient Aztecs of Central America. Some African cultures worshipped rock pythons and considered the killing of one to be a serious crime. In Australia, the Aborigines associated a giant rainbow serpent with the creation of life.

Other cultures have associated snakes with medicinal powers or rebirth. In India, cobras were regarded as reincarnations of important people called Nagas. Our modern medical symbol of two snakes wrapped around a staff, or 'caduceus,' comes from ancient Greek mythology. According to the Greeks, the mythical figure Aesculapius discovered medicine by watching as one snake used herbs to bring another snake back to life.

Judeo-Christian culture has been less kind to snakes. Tales of the Garden of Eden and the serpent's role in "man's fall from grace" have contributed to a negative image of snakes in western culture. In Appalachia, some Christians handle venomous snakes as part of ritual ceremonies, relying on faith to protect them from bites. Among Catholics, Saint Patrick is credited with ridding Ireland of snakes, a feat celebrated by many as a good thing.

Deep rooted cultural biases may be responsible, in part, for widespread fear and disdain for snakes. However, modern myths, from folk tales to plain old misinformation, also contribute to their negative image

Modern Myths
Size. Snakes are almost always described as larger than they really are. Stories about New England water snakes eight and ten feet long are simply not true. Northern water snakes rarely exceed three and a half feet in length, with the largest stretching only four and a half feet. While the black rat snake, our largest native snake, can reach lengths of just over eight feet, most New England snakes are less than three feet long.

Poisonous Snakes. The regularity with which people kill a snake first and ask questions later might lead you to believe that the world is overrun with venomous snakes. In fact, venomous snakes only make up about 10 percent of snake species worldwide, and in Massachusetts only two of the state's fourteen species of snakes are venomous (timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead). Both are rare, reclusive and generally confined to isolated areas.

Folk Tales. Folk tales about snakes are handed down from generation to generation and include such things as snakes that charm prey, swallow their young for protection, poison people with their breath, roll like hoops, and suck milk from cows. These folk tales could be just interesting and amusing stories except that many people still believe them. As we learn more about the true nature of snakes, we can begin to base our perceptions of them on fact rather than fiction.

Hoop Snakes
Myth: When frightened, hoop snakes will bite their tails and roll downhill like a wagon wheel.

Reality: Anatomically, snakes are not well equipped for rolling and there are no reliable accounts of this ever occurring. The hoop snake myth may have been associated originally with mud snakes found in the southern United States. Mud snakes will occasionally lie in a loose coil shaped like a hoop, but they slither away from danger like other snakes.

Swallowing Young
Myth: When confronted with danger, mother snakes swallow their young, spitting them out later once danger has passed.

Reality: Parental care is not very well developed in snakes and there is no evidence that mother snakes protect their young in this way. The myth may result from the fact that some snakes eat young snakes of their own species or of other species, though usually not their own brood.

Charming Snakes
Myth: Snakes have the ability to charm prey, especially birds, so they cannot flee.

Reality: There is no evidence that snakes charm their prey. Small animals may become "frozen with fear" when confronted by snakes but they are not charmed. Birds may flutter about in front of a snake in an attempt to lure it away from their nests; occasionally a bird may actually be captured by the snake, giving the impression that it was charmed. The fact that snakes never blink may also have played a role in this myth's origin.

Sucking Milk
Myth: Milk snakes are so named because of their ability to suck milk directly from the udders of cows.

Reality: Although milk snakes are common around barns that house cows, they completely lack the anatomy necessary to suck milk (or anything else for that matter). Barns are attractive to milk snakes because they provide abundant food in the form of small rats and mice.

Poisonous Breath
Myth: Puff adders (hognose snakes) mix poison with their breath and can kill a person at a distance of twenty-five feet.

Reality: Although the bite of a hognose snake can produce swelling and a burning sensation, these snakes rarely bite people and are not considered venomous. When confronted, they do puff themselves up and hiss, but their breath is harmless.

Cottonmouths in New England
Myth: Swimmers in New England are advised to watch out for venomous cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins.

Reality: Simply put, there are no water moccasins in New England. The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, is a venomous snake of the southeastern United States that occurs no farther north than the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia. Many people mistake non-venomous water snakes for water moccasins.

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