Deaf to Their Warnings, Immune to Their Poisons: Snakes

Sterling Eisiminger

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“The blithe independence of snakes did not sit well with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1834, he criticized four snakes he’d seen ‘gliding’ up and down a Massachusetts valley, ‘not to eat, not for love, but only gliding.’ I can only guess that Emerson was ophidiophobic because otherwise he was a great advocate of self-reliant ‘gliding.’”—Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

A Malaysian reticulated python.

A Malaysian reticulated python.

“I had an aunt in Yucatan/Who bought a python from a man/And kept it as a pet./She died because she never knew/These simple rules and few—/The snake is living yet.”—Hilaire Belloc

Sterling (Skip) EisimingerCLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—August 2017—Though Serpentes Ophidia by formal definition lacks legs, wings, and flippers, some can slither along on their glassy scales at 7 mph, which is about as fast as the elderly and their grandchildren can run. The longest and heaviest snake on record is a python that is 49 feet long and weighs 990 pounds. Now in an Indonesian zoo and long past his prime, “Julius Squeezer,” as he’s called, is fed three or four medium-sized dogs a month. But even the non-poisonous, non-constricting black snake commands our respect: one 6-foot specimen swallowed a 5-foot rattler headfirst with the victim complaining furiously until the diner was finally able to close its mouth. (Videos immortalizing such events as this one are why “therapy snakes” are rarely prescribed.)

Of the poisonous reptilian varieties, the sea snake is the deadliest; on land, that distinction goes to the Australian taipan. One squirt of venom delivered through its hollow fangs may kill 200,000 mice. Fortunately, the taipan does not live in Bangladesh where 100,000 people are bitten in their sleep each year. Most of these victims survive but, across the globe, roughly 100,000 people die each year of snakebite. Luckily, for Americans, only ten of those fatalities are in the US. Excluding viruses and bacteria, the leading animal killer of humans is the mosquito, which kills 700,000 worldwide annually. Man’s toll on his fellows often numbers in the millions but is flattened in the averaging.

Cellini's Perseus, with the severed head of Medusa.

Cellini’s Perseus, with the severed head of Medusa.

“The snake stood up for evil in the Garden.”—Robert Frost

The film actor Nicholas Cage once observed, “Every great story begins with a snake.” Unfortunately, human “snakes” have given Ophidia a bad name, but Western literature is, indeed, writhing with the scaly varieties as well as the hairy, two-legged kind.

Despite Cleopatra’s suicide, as legend has it, by applying an asp to her breast, an Egyptian proverb warns visitors to the pyramids, “Don’t focus on the snake lest you overlook the scorpion.”

Apparently, the Greeks took the opposite approach: one shouldn’t focus on scorpions lest we overlook snakes, for there’s no shortage of them in Greek mythology.

Medusa raised a family of them on her scalp and reportedly combed them out every morning. The Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons were crushed by two sea snakes for urging his followers to burn that wooden horse filled with Athena’s favorites. And in one version of the myth, Hermes saw two snakes fighting on Mt. Olympus. Separating them with his staff, he restored peace, after which a winged rod wrapped by snakes evolved into a sign of peace and healing. Ever since, this symbol, known as the caduceus, has identified medical practices and pharmacies, where I’m sure many have wondered about the snakes on the wall.

Many stories have been told which connect man’s first disobedience with snakes. One of my favorites is a medieval legend in which an anonymous Jewish author imagines the serpent’s thoughts before the temptation scene in Eden’s orchard: “If I speak with [Adam], he will not listen, for a man is inflexible. Thus, I shall address [Eve] first, who is more susceptible. I know that she will listen to me, because a woman will listen to anyone!”

The King James Bible simply says, “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” Incidentally, the Bible’s “serpent” might have been anything from a worm to a crocodile as long as it crawled on its belly, but this has not stopped visual artists from assuming it was a snake, often with the head of a woman.

In the 8th century, the Venerable Bede stated that when English snakes are transported across the Irish Sea, they die inhaling their first breath of Irish air. Conversely, Bede stated, if an Englishman is snake-bit, a potion made from Irish-manuscript scrapings eases the pain and swelling.

A thousand years later, Samuel Johnson partially confirmed Bede’s observations on Irish fauna quoting a Danish historian, “There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.” Geologists say it wasn’t the miasmal Irish air but shifting plate tectonics which explain why England and the continent had snakes but Ireland never did. Never, that is, until the Irish started importing pet snakes of every stripe and carelessly allowing them to escape and multiply.

American literature is similarly infested. In 1775, Ben Franklin published a broadside arguing for a coiled rattlesnake as an attribute of our new nation. In an engraving on Georgia’s $20 bill, Franklin had noted several symbolic virtues of the rattler:

·       the 13 segmented but united rattles.

·       the animal’s “lidless” vigilance.

·       its reluctance to start a fight.

·       and its fair warning before it strikes.

All of these features, he thought, would show the world what we stood for. We chose instead a feathered predator, and Ophidia’s population has been declining ever since. Later, Franklin changed his mind about the rattler as our national symbol and argued for the wild turkey, but he was overruled.

The blithe independence of snakes did not sit well with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1834, he criticized four snakes he’d seen “gliding” up and down a Massachusetts valley, “not to eat, not for love, but only gliding.” I can only guess that Emerson was ophidiophobic because otherwise he was a great advocate of self-reliant “gliding.”

Another advocate of human “gliding” was the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who lived for a while with the Emersons and announced that she would “never wound a snake; she would kill it.” Not for gliding, of course, but for the crime of human trafficking.

Humans have always been of two minds about the snake: in Genesis, the serpent is a tool of Satan, but in Numbers, a few books later in the Old Testament, a bronze snake is an emblem of God. Just as Tubman would kill every snake on two feet, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman went barefoot to punish his feet for the “offense” of stepping on a snake. D. H. Lawrence saw snakes as “uncrowned” kings of the underworld, but Albert Schweitzer, who wouldn’t kill an insect, made an exception for Ophidia who threatened patients in his hospital.

Primates and snakes: uneasy neighbors.

Primates and snakes: uneasy neighbors.

“A tan beauty with black splotches that resemble puzzle pieces, dry satiny skin, and a body like a firm eraser, P-52 (a captured reticulated python) had a pyramidal head, a brain surging with raw instinct, tiny Sen-Sen (licorice) eyes, and a mind like a dial tone.”—Diane Ackerman

Carl Sagan has a passage in The Dragons of Eden that has resonated with me since I taught the book to a class of Clemson freshmen 30 years ago. Sagan says that our ancestors spent a couple of million years evolving in the trees of the African savanna. During that time, we developed at least two fears: the fear of falling, as preserved in the infant’s “startle reflex”; and the fear of snakes, who threatened our arboreal habitat. Our primordial associations with Ophidia may be compounded by the 1-in-10,000 two-headed snake many have seen at dusty sideshows and now on YouTube.

·       Living underground,

·       being poisonous or constricting,

·       possessing a head that bites even when decapitated,

·       slithering about on their “slimy” bellies,

·       licking the air with a forked tongue,

·       drinking another snake’s poison without effect,

·       and shedding their skin occasionally,

. . . it is their shape, however, which makes them elemental symbols of fertility. That long muscular body with its triangular head makes the snake a compact phallic and yonic symbol. It’s no wonder that one culture finds the creature to be the embodiment of wisdom and immortality, while others find it treacherous and evil. Kill all the snakes, however, and watch as rats and mice inherit the Earth.

“Most kids are near grown before they know/snakes come in one piece, uncut by a hoe.”—The Wordspinner

My own relationship with snakes may be summed up by “leaping.” I am or used to be a leaper of snakes. By “leaping,” I mean the spontaneous uncoiling of the springs in my legs when I stumble upon a snake in the wild or find one stretched across the kitchen steps.

Descending the steep trail from “Finger Rock” north of Tucson in what might be called a controlled fall, I leapt over a diamond-back rattler with room to spare. After I returned to Middle Earth, I continued to leap, especially after my wife tossed a pebble at the back of my naked leg.

Years later, jogging on the Clemson cross-country course, I leapt over a copperhead cooling its languorous length in some damp sawdust. And coming down the kitchen steps into the garage once, I took five steps with one prodigious leap when I spotted a black snake beneath me. With each leap, I injured my groin. At no point have I ever been able to kill a snake by spitting on it as my grandfather used to say. My mouth either goes dry, or the target slithers out of range.

I remind myself of the mockingbird I used to call “Snake Doctor.” Like a dragonfly, she used to “attack” our garden hose with its triangular nozzle as I reeled it in after watering some shrubs. Mostly, I think the “doctor” was just curious because, after a close look, he’d flutter back to the safety of a high branch. As for me, until I grow a pair of wings, I’ll leap, then look.

Images: 1) Malaysian python; 2) Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa; 3) Monkey and snake netsuke.

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Sterling Eisiminger

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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5 Responses to Deaf to Their Warnings, Immune to Their Poisons: Snakes

  1. Jean says:

    Thank you so much for this delightful and informative discussion of snakes. I love them, despite being aware of the dangers some members of the snake family can present. Overall, though, like the much-maligned spider, the snake saves us from small rodents and large insects, and should be held in esteem rather than vilified. And, they are not slimy! Nobody who has ever held a snake could say that. So, good on you, Dr E.

  2. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Skip, as we were opening our garage–for one of the last times–here in North-Central Florida, a 5″-long banded Ring-necked Snake, or Diadophis punctatus writhed in a tiny frenzy at my feet. DESPITE having edited your column above, and KNOWING full well Diapophis was/is harmless, I went into a full Homo sapiens panic (involving, to my shame, a broom). Thank heaven for Google!

  3. Skip says:

    There’s no shame, e, in sweeping away a snake at your feet. The Jains sweep fire ants and scorpions away lest they step on one.
    And Jean, fascinating as snakes are, I don’t ever think I’ve loved one–wet or dry.
    Hope this doesn’t disappoint.


    I was taught at UGA and have taught my students for 60+ years that there is a difference between poison and venom. Snakes that inject venom are venomous, not poisonous. Plants such as poison ivy and some mushroom are poisonous and can cause an adverse reaction by contact or by ingesting them. Incidentally, I worked in the Poultry Department at Clemson for a couple of years and have a daughter who earned her doctorate at Auburn and is currently on the faculty there. I enjoy your writings.

  5. Skip says:

    Thanks, David. Webster’s 10th defines “venom” as “…broadly: material that is poisonous.” So I make no distinction between the two, but I’m not surprised that zoologists (?) like yourself make a fine and useful distinction. But if I purée the leaves of poison ivy and inject the juice in my arm, does it become “venomous ivy”?
    I believe I may have taught some Funderburks in my 42 years at CU.
    Best wishes to the family!

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