MYTH AND TRUTH
The Roman writer Pliny the
Elder wrote some
- There are no snakes that suck cows' teats to drink the milk.
- No species of snake will wrap itself around your leg and whip you with its tail.
- There are no "hoop snakes" that hold their tail by the mouth, form a round hoop, and roll downhill. Mud snakes of south-east USA are supposed to do this. They grow up to two metres long – long enough for a hoop – live in fresh water swamps and catch fish. But they do not roll – that part is myth.
- Snakes do not travel in pairs.
- If a snake's head is cut off it will not live on until sundown.
Snakes are reptiles of
which there are five
- Testudines Tortoises and turtles;
- Crocodylia Crocodiles, caymans and alligators;
- Rhynchocephalia Tuataras;
- Saurians Lizards;
- Serpentes Snakes.
There are about 3,000 species of snake (in 390 genera) of which 200 species are dangerous.
Is fear of snakes learned
Mathewson (1960) writes:
Many adults claim that
they were never warned
against reptiles, but that they have an instinctive terror of them. It
is indeed probable that if we could see back into their early youth, we
would find that something or someone gave these people the fear they
The most dangerous snake country is Sri Lanka where 800 people die from snakebite annually.
The way to tell a poisonous snake is by its fangs.
You won't detect a copperhead (or other poisonous snake) by its cucumber-like odour as used to be believed. Cucumbers are not very odiferous – when's the last time anyone said to you "I smell cucumbers?"
The snake’s color does not indicate safety or danger. Green snakes are supposed to be venomous. Yes, some are but others aren’t.
Harmless snakes supposedly have round pupils and poisonous snakes elliptical pupils (like a cat). However, this too is false. All the cobras of India and Africa have round pupils – but if one bites you and injects its poison you might as well say your prayers.
Nor can you tell a poisonous snake by its triangular-shaped head. The coral snake of the USA, the king cobra of Malaya, and the black mamba of Africa have blunt heads but are very dangerous.
A common myth was that the snake's tongue is poisonous. However, the snake's tongue is a taste organ and tastes the air.
Snakes inject poison by a pair of hollow fangs connected by ducts to poison glands at the sides of the head. The snake has to bite and stick its fangs into your flesh to inject its poison.
Rattlesnakes, copperheads and many vipers have a poison called a haemotoxin, which affects the victim's blood. Other snakes, such as cobras, Australian tiger snakes and coral snakes have neurotoxins which affect the nervous system.
The African spitting cobra spits venom and aims for the victim’s eyes. If the eyes are rubbed blindness may follow. It can also inject venom by biting.
In Africa the most
dangerous viper is the
puff adder, Bitis arientans, said to kill about 4,000 people
year. Clark (1969) says:
Perhaps you've seen the movie Anaconda (1997) where Jon Voight got swallowed and later coughed up!
Pliny the Elder writes:
The Guinness Book of Records says: "The reticulated python (Python Reticulatus)…regularly exceeds 6.24 metres (20 ft 6 in) in length."
Clark (1969) cites
evidence that the four
largest specimens observed, of the four largest species are:
- The regal python (Python reticulatus), of India and Malaysia – 33 feet;
- The anaconda of South America – 25 feet;
- The Indian rock python, Python molurus – 25 feet;
- The African python, Python sebae – 20 feet.
Pythons and boa
constrictors kill large prey
by suffocation through constriction – the snake tightens its coils each
time the victim breathes out. Again there are few reliable reports of
happening to adult humans, although a 15-foot snake or bigger might
if it pins both of the person’s arms to his sides. If the human has one
arm free he can uncoil the python starting from the tail.
MYTH and RELIGION
Many cultures considered snakes immortal – perhaps because they regularly grow a new skin and shed the old skin.
The Hopi people of North America had an annual snake dance during which they handled live snakes, which were then released, to ensure rain and good crops.
In India the creator, Brahma, slept on the coils of a giant snake which caused earthquakes whenever it opened its jaws. In an ancient Greek myth the snake Ophion incubated the egg from which all created life emerged. Solomon Islanders have a number of snake-shaped creator-gods. In Mexico the snake-god Quetzalcoatl was the creator of life
In some myths snakes guard the Underworld. In India human-headed snakes called nagas and naginis inhabit underground paradises. Legends of North American Indians tell of human-snake marriages whose offspring could venture between the two worlds.
Does Pliny have a comment
to add? Yes:
The talking snake that deceived Eve in the Bible (Genesis 3) is usually depicted on a tree.
Harvey Lillywhite (1988)
wondered why snakes
positioned vertically in trees don't faint since in other animals blood
tends to follow gravity:
Lillywhite experimented by placing various snakes in vertical and horizontal orientations and measured their arterial blood pressure.
He found that
tree-climbing snakes have a
different cardiovascular system than ground and sea snakes. Their heart
is closer to the head, the body is more slender, muscle tone firmer,
tail-end narrower, and the skin tighter. These features resist
from blood pooling.
- The cranium is hard;
- Wriggling motion maintains blood flow to the tail;
- The heart-rate slows;
- The smooth muscle surrounding the blood vessels relaxes and partly offsets increasing blood pressure in the head.
Snakes, however, do not
eat dust but "taste"
the air and may in the process ingest some dust particles. Prey in
areas may have dust on its body, which is swallowed along with the
But if that’s what’s meant then many predators besides snakes eat dust.
Worshippers at the Church
of the Lord Jesus
in Jolo, West Virginia, speak in tongues, handle deadly snakes, drink
and hold their hands in fire.
Oliver (2000) describes
events three hours
into the service:
Then she springs to her
feet and sets fire
to a rag stuffed in a bottle of spirit. When it is well ablaze she
her right hand into the heart of the flame. She marches the length of
stage, screeching and gibbering. (Oliver 2000)
Snake handling in church began in 1908 in Tennessee when George Went Hensley held a rattlesnake.
Describing a snake handling service in North Carolina Dr William Sargant writes, "At this point many of the spectators took fright and left the hall as quickly as they could."
Perhaps, however, it's the
snakes that should
be afraid. Tell us why, Pliny:
Clark, J 1969 Man is the Prey, Panther Science
Lillywhite, H B Snakes, Blood Circulation and Gravity, Scientific American 1988, December, pp 66-72
McLeish, K 1996 Myths And Legends Of The World, Blitz
Mathewson, R 1960 The How And Why Wonder Book of Reptiles And Amphibians, Wonder Books
Oliver, S Praise the Lord, pass the serpent, Sunday Herald 2000, January 23, p50
Pliny The Elder, Translated by Healy, J F, 1991, Penguin
Priede, M The sea snakes are coming, New Scientist 1990, November 10, pp 21-25
Sargant, W 1976 The Mind Possessed, Pan, p222
Tanara, M U 1975 The World of Amphibians and Reptiles, Abbeville