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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Serpent-Charm

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | September 1879


THE pathology of spiritualism presents some curious parallels with that of a well-known class of physical disorders—the artificial derangements of the alimentary process by the opium-habit, and the abuse of alcoholic or pungent stimulants, which a French physiologist comprises under the name of toxicolatrous affections—the poison-manias, we might call them—and which, with all their characteristic causes, symptoms, progressive stages, direct and collateral effects, find their analogues in the half-voluntary delusion of ancient and modern miracle-mongers.

Spiritualistic as well as spirituous propensities can be transmitted by hereditary influences; both are liable to be aggravated by prolonged indulgence, to develop the symptoms of chronic diseases, and to end in hopeless delirium. The principal arguments against the use of poisonous stimulants are based upon their adventitious consequences. Dull headaches and red noses are mere trifles compared with the negative effects of habitual intoxication—loss of memory, energy, and self-respect, and of the relish for healthier food and all healthier and higher enjoyments. The worst of alcoholic blue-devils are the ghosts of departed hopes, for an unnatural passion implies many things, among which the hankering after a special kind of unwholesome stimulant is only a minor item.

For the same reason, it would be a mistake to suppose that the mischief of anti-natural dogmas could be estimated by their direct effects—the propagation of a greater or smaller number of preposterous tenets; the chief bane of their influence is indirect and subjective, rather than objective. Not external facts only, but our own vision, they have obscured; the victims of supernaturalism have lost their critical faculty as well as their critical conscience—their standard of probability itself has been falsified. Like an all-pervading mist, the poison-vapor of mysticism has obscured the light of science, and blinded the eye of common sense to innumerable fallacies and charlatanries. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus is the patron-saint of all quacks—of mesmerists, fasting girls, blue glass and patent-medicine peddlers—as well as of indulgence-brokers. Mere dogma-worship might imply connivance, rather than blindness a sort of noli-me-tangére awe more than insensibility; but also in scientific theorems where free inquiry is not only permitted but specially invited, the most obvious and palpable nonsense fails to be seen and felt. For people who have been fuddled with mysticism lose their relish for simple truth; the old credo quod absurdum videtur ("since it appears preposterous, I believe it") seems to be their motto.

A very characteristic instance of this abject credulity is the serpent-charm superstition. Millions of our countrymen still believe in what they call snake-charming; i. e., the ability of certain reptiles to paralyze smaller animals by the magic power of their eyes, a belief whose tenacity and extravagant absurdity nearly justify Pierre Gassendi's complaint that in regard to all occult phenomena the most supernatural theory is sure to become the popular one. Blacksnakes overtake their prey by superior swiftness and strangle them by superior strength; but the fact that such sluggish creatures as the Indian cobra and the American rattlesnake are able to capture birds and squirrels seemed to demand an abnormal explanation, and the demand, as usual, was equaled by the supply. Truth-loving and otherwise intelligent persons listen gravely to stories about linnets who hopped from branch to branch into the penetralia of a snake-infested bush, or swallows who paused in their headlong flight, hovered with tremulous wings for a minute or two, and then descended in a reluctant flutter toward a ditch or hedge where the enemy lay concealed, a coiled snake with a pair of twinkling optics that glittered like demons' eyes, while the doomed bird came nearer and nearer, and finally saved the serpent the trouble of swallowing it by hopping down its throat. The natives of our Southern coast States ascribe the same faculty to lizards and toads; and the darkeys of the Georgia river plantations, if asked to account for the frequent disappearance of sucking pigs, used to explain that they had been charmed away by alligators, who, without leaving their native element, were able to draw a pig clear across a ten-acre field by cocking their eyes in a peculiar way! But the arch-conjurer of our continent is still the sneaking rattlesnake, whose power for mischief is thought to be hardly limited by the capacity of its stomach. Gratuitous malevolence, according to current stories, has often induced this symbol of the tempter to bewitch dogs and cattle, merely for the sake of testing the efficacy of its magic eyes first, and of its poison afterward; nay, a colored deacon of Navasota, Texas, affirms that he himself was once charmed by a flat-bellied rattlesnake, and favored the local weekly with a circumstantial account of his adventure. On his way home from meeting he took a short cut across a field (a sweet-potato field his neighbors suspect), and was just in the act of climbing a fence when his eye was caught by a piercing glitter in the weeds, a sudden, flash-like gleam that went through him like an electric shock, and made him grab the top rail with a convulsive grip. He tried to jump down, but could not; his legs were paralyzed, and a feeling of numbness began to creep up his body and toward his heart, while his eyes became so rigid that he could not even wink. He found that he could howl, which he did, with all his might; but, instead of being scared, the reptile wagged his tail, and came a little nearer. He gave himself up for lost, when he suddenly thought of a big prayer-book in his pocket, and in the moment when the serpent braced itself for a spring, he hurled at its head a copy of Baxter's "Saint's Rest" (Tract Society edition, 8vo), which, either by its weight or by its orthodox vigor, staggered the fiend for a second or two, during which the deacon effected his escape. The bird and squirrel stories are occasionally varied by a similar termination: the arrival of the witness broke the spell, and the squirrel hopped off, rejoicing; or the linnet perched upon the shoulder of the deponent, and twittered eloquently to express its gratitude for his timely intervention.

Only the insanity of the middle ages could excuse such superstitions; but that the subject has its difficulties is demonstrated by the variety of conjectures which have been offered for its elucidation. The serpent-charm fable has engaged the attention of different ancient and modern philosophers, but their treatment of the question is mostly what logicians call anatreptic, i. e., refuting without concluding anything in the affirmative, and the theories of professional zoölogists are somewhat inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Bichat speaks of a stupefying effluvium (exhalaison hypnotique) by which some reptiles benumb their victims; and Van der Hoeven suggests that the above-described suicidal infatuation of birds and rodents may be nothing but the well known self-sacrificing courage of the nest-mothers in defense of their helpless brood; while some modern ophiologists (Keyserling, Cabanis, and Dr. Hitchcock) have rejected the idea that such sluggish reptiles as moccasins and rattlesnakes—unless assisted by accident or the artificial arrangements of captivity—could capture more agile animals than frogs or moles.

But the dissection of swollen rattlesnakes has revealed more feathers than moleskins, and the prairie moccasins of Kansas and Arizona would have to crawl a long way before they could find a frog. In the sterile border-land of north Mexico and southern Texas swamps and frogs are hardly known to the untraveled natives, while the frequency of poisonous reptiles is almost unparalleled; and on a recent visit to the lower Rio Grande I found that the trade in living serpents, scorpions, and tarantulas has become a regular branch of industry, which in Cameron County, Texas, and Matamoras alone, employs a dozen professional and twenty or thirty juvenile amateurs. In a state of captivity these animals fast with the stoicism of an othodox fakir, so that the question of their proper diet becomes comparatively unimportant; but out in the prairie the embonpoint of the copperheads and yellow rattlesnakes suggests eupeptic habits and a liberal food-supply, though the arid soil yields neither frogs nor moles. Birds there are, in abundance; but how can the most subtle serpent secure them without incurring the suspicion of witchcraft? The opinions of the natives differ as widely as those of the above scientists. Among the less transcendental ones, some hold that the vivoras hunt in night-time, others that they poison the berries of the taxus-tree and surprise the birds while they are prostrated by a fit of gastritis. A rather intelligent ranchero, who had hauled a load of ice water and comestibles for a picnic party of American merchants and Mexican army officers, was present when the autopsy of an overgrown rattlesnake elicited a series of half-digested singing birds, and explained that the Rio Grande vivoras could only indulge in such luxuries since the establishment of the International Telegraph line, which caused the death of so many swift-flying birds that came in contact with the wires. This theory might satisfy the Spanish-American officers, but not an Anglo-American druggist, who had visited the upland prairies on his botanical excursions and had reasons to believe that the prosperity of the wily ophidians was not materially affected by the absence of telegraphic facilities. So he applied to one of the leading vivora-catchers and a week before my arrival in Matamoras obtained a pair of good-sized yellow rattlesnakes, which he added to a more or less happy family of lizards and blacksnakes in an empty room of his suburban cottage.

Reptilians, said he, are generally inexpensive boarders; his four lizards content themselves with a daily fly apiece, and one old horned toad has pursued the road of total abstinence to a length where even Dio Lewis would hesitate to follow; but some snakes make an exception: the Coluber palusiris, or water-blacksnake, is almost insatiable, and the common blacksnake insists on his three daily meals with a firmness that would disgust the business-managers of a fasting girl. The rattlesnakes, too, began to crawl about and ply their tongues in a way that suggested a growing interest in the table-d'hôte arrangements of their new hotel, and cast furtive glances at a little mouse which had been introduced in anticipation of their wishes.

But, either through fastidiousness or a mistaken notion of duty toward their fellow-lodgers, they tarried so long before they broke their fast that their host apprehended a dietetic misunderstanding, and treated them to a nest with five young sparrows the next day. Three of these died before their snakeships condescended to partake; old sparrows, rats, and cockroaches were tried with no better success. The freckled ophidians still seemed to eat under protest, "yielding, but not consenting, to injustice," as Shere Ali said. But, though their proprietor's experiments failed to explain the mystery of rattlesnake-food, he believes that they solved a more interesting problem—the question in regard to the modus operandi of poisonous serpents in the capture of their prey.

During the first week of their confinement his rattlesnakes disdained to chase their game, and the stupidity of the bugs and young birds made it easy enough to collar them whenever they were wanted; but one morning the gamins of the neighborhood caught an old blackbird and sold it to the zoölogical druggist for two pieces of stick-candy. The blacksnakes were covered up with an old apron to prevent their interference, and the vivoras who had fasted for twenty-four hours, rather then eat cockroaches, got one more chance at a square meal. After fluttering around in an excited way for a while, the bird settled down in a corner, and the two snakes prepared for action. They lowered their heads, and, without moving the tail-end of their bodies, approached the bird by a gradual extension of their coils; but he was all suspicion, and recommenced his fluttering before their cat-like advance had brought them within range. The snakes separated then; the female rolled herself up in the blackbird's corner and her mate took post in the center of the room, but, after readjusting their coils, neither budged an inch; they bided their time.

Dashing his head against the windows seemed to tire the bird after a while. Presently he came down, but alighted in a rather inaccessible place, took wing again, and, alighting in his old corner, finally blundered into the water-pot. He hopped out with drenched wings and devoted a few seconds to the rearrangement of his toilet, unconscious or heedless of the proximity of the female partner of the hostile alliance. She watched all his movements, and her tail quivered in a curious way when she saw him poke his head under his right wing, the one turned toward the corner; she seemed to know that he would repeat the same manœuvre on the left-wing side. He did so, and she had him directly. Drawing herself up, she poised her neck like a dart, braced herself by contracting the rear coils, and let drive. A loud screech, a few feathers flying, and a terrified bird darting through the room like a blind chicken—cause and effect coinciding with shotlike suddenness.

Instead of following him she returned to her favorite nook, where she was soon after joined by her mate. The difficult part of the job was done. Three or four times the bird managed to take wing, staggered around in a circle once or twice, and then eat still. The chemicals began to operate. First its legs and then its wings commenced to tremble; trying to stand upright, it put its feet farther and farther apart and finally spread its wings, but to no purpose; a convulsive tremor seized it, and with a gasp it fell over on its side; and only at that moment did the snakes glide up to take possession of their prey. The same experiment was tried with a ground-squirrel and two half-grown chickens, and always with an analogous result. No animal likely to offer serious resistance was captured outright by the rattlesnakes. They managed to fetch it a bite and let it go, relying on the virus to do the rest.

Two causes conspire to make this the only practicable course for a moderate-sized reptile not gifted with the wildcat-like agility of the blacksnake. In the first place the fangs of a serpent are not rigid like those of a fox or shark, but movable and rather slender, and utterly unfit for seizing and holding struggling animals, excepting those of the smallest size. The poison-teeth of a rattlesnake are even retractile, and, being only attached to the palate by an elastic ligament, can be drawn backward by a temporal muscle, like the blade of a clasp knife into its handle, and are too feeble to penetrate the skin of a tapir or hog, which animals attack and devour the most poisonous snakes with perfect impunity. With such teeth they can only administer a snap-bite.

On the other hand, the effect of the poison is never instantaneous: a man can walk two or three miles before his bitten leg begins to swell; a snake-bitten dog can run for a couple of minutes without exhibiting any signs of uneasiness. A large bird may possibly fly away and out of sight, while even the smallest birds are able to take wing for a moment, and rats to make a dash toward their holes. The snakes know this, and bide their time with all the complacency of a veteran angler who holds a fish by a long line and permits it to exhaust its strength before he pulls home.

In the course of the countless ages during which men and serpents have been co-inhabitants of this planet, it is not only possible but certain that some hunters or wood-cutters happened to witness the last act of an oft-repeated tragedy, the strange movements and subsequent convulsions of a bird or little rodent hopping, perhaps, in a helpless way around or even toward a snake that had watched it with glittering eyes. The first act they could only have seen indistinctly and from a distance, since their approach would have saved the victim by scaring it away in time. So they jumped at the conclusion that the eyes of the reptile had bewitched the poor creature, and found believers who would be very sorry to demolish such a delightfully mystic theory by prosaic investigations; as for cognate reasons our spiritualistic contemporaries prefer to believe that the writing on the slate was produced by the "dear friend in the spirit-land," rather than by the evaporation of sal enixum or muriate of ammonia; not because they are ignorant of the fact that minutes and hours may intervene between a cause and its visible effect, but because they yearn to substitute mystery for simple and intelligible truth. Not everybody could be expected to investigate the matter by expensive and laborious experiments, but all unmystified human beings could and should be able to foresee the result in regard to the main point, or suspend their opinion altogether rather than accept the enchantment theory. Not their poverty but their will consents. The witchcraft delusion had long been exposed in all its bottomless absurdity when people still believed in weather-wizards, were-wolves, and broomstick excursions through the chimney; and, after ninety-eight "mediums" have been caught in flagranti, the ninety-ninth can collect a roomful of grown-up persons who are kind enough to think it possible that disembodied souls could handle a fiddle-stick, or that flying beans and cherry-stones emanate from a spirit-popgun.

Venomous serpents would disappear without the aid of St. Patrick if they had to rely on the charm of their eyes for a dinner; for a rattlesnake, deprived of its chemicals, would starve as surely as a "magic slate-writing medium" in a like predicament.