Snakes on the Brain
can control our fears—even primal fears conditioned by evolution and
genetics. The key, says JEFF GREENWALD, is the stories we tell
ourselves, as individuals and as cultures.
August, walking with a friend near the Point Reyes National Seashore, I
spied a snake on the trail. It was a harmless creature (to humans, at
least): a common Coast Garter, sunning itself beneath a blackberry
branch. I turned to point it out to my friend, but he’d already seen it.
He stood frozen, eyes wide, as if the lazy reptile might strike at any
“It’s just a garter snake,” I said.
know,” he replied sheepishly. “It’s the ‘snake’ part that gets me.”
Fear is a strange thing. The United States sees about twelve deaths a
year from snakebite, compared to 115 traffic fatalities every day. Very few people, however, express a phobia of cars.
human relationship to suborder Serpentes is ancient and ambivalent. It
ranges from the despised serpent of Eden to the honored nagas who bring
Asia’s monsoon rains; from the reptiles entwined around the medical
caduceus to the slithery antagonists in Snakes on a Plane. We may honor them or loathe them, but we’re always fascinated by them.
the early 1980s, my travels in South Asia have made me more aware of
snakes and their very different roles across Eastern and Western
cultures and mythologies. Why do they provoke such strong and varied
reactions? My search for answers has helped me understand why cultural
traditions around the world respond so differently to these amazing
it turns out, there may be a biological reason for our widespread
aversion to snakes. Recent studies by Lynne Isbell, a professor of
anthropology at the University of California at Davis, suggest that
critical aspects of human evolution—from our three-dimensional eyesight
to our ability to perceive color— may be rooted in the tense
relationship between Cretaceousperiod primates and these reptiles. The
success of the primate order hung on our ability to recognize and avoid
humans have been afraid of snakes for a long time is not a fresh
observation,” Isbell says. “That this fear may be entwined with our
development as a species, is.”
or not predation pressure from snakes forced our primate brains to
develop, humans have given serpents an unusually high place in our
Emberton is one of the owners of the East Bay Vivarium, located near my
home in northern California. Since 1970 the Vivarium has sold reptiles
and amphibians to the general public, given educational programs, and
helped people overcome snake phobias. I asked him the pivotal question:
Why do people in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions generally treat
snakes with respect and reverence, while those in the Judeo-Christian
world tend to see them as frightening and evil?
shrugs. “Years ago, there was a poll done asking people why they hate
snakes. Their answer, overwhelmingly, was ‘The Bible.’”
we look for the root of our Western prejudice against snakes, it’s
obvious how superficial (and misogynistic) it is. Our collective
loathing seems to date back to that single morning in Eden, when a
laudable episode of serpentine wisdom was cast as a duplicitous dare.
that canny snake told Eve, “may seem like bliss— but it’s also
ignorance. God knows this, I know it, and that impressive brain of yours
knows it, too. But don’t take my word; have a bite of this
At which point Eve—whose defiant courage would be twisted into a betrayal of everything high and holy—helped herself.
do we find distasteful in this scene? Do we really wish Eve had
refused? Of course not. But something inside of us that clings to
dependency—the lost innocence of the cradle— remains bitter. A snake got
us banished from our little garden, and we’ve been bashing them with
shovels ever since.
not only the Eden myth, Emberton says, in which the serpent serves as a
vehicle for Satan. It’s the whole mindset of Western religion. In the
Old Testament, man was given dominion over the animals. The creatures of
the earth and sea exist for us to use—or extinguish—at our whim.
Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other hand, don’t afford humanity that
has a point. While an Asian pedigree doesn’t protect animals from harm
(ask any rhino, elephant, or tiger), it does grant them an equal share
in creation. From the Vedas to the Jataka Tales,
the stories of Buddha’s past lives, all animals—snakes included—are
capable of being generous, humble, and heroic. They have their own
families, kingdoms, and moral codes.
Snake gods and goddesses—nagas and naginis—are
ubiquitous characters in South Asian lore, bridges between the visible
and elemental realms. They’re viewed with a combination of caution and
playfulness, as befits their mercurial nature. Lord Vishnu, the Great
Preserver of the Hindu trinity, dozes on the infinite coils of
Ananta-Shesha for eight months of the year. Muchilinda Naga—a
seven-headed cobra—rose to shelter Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be,
during his pivotal weeks of meditation on the banks of the Anoma River.
have a special place in Nepali culture. Nag Panchami, a holiday devoted
exclusively to snake worship, is so ancient that it cuts across caste
and religious boundaries. Families prepare ceremonial offerings of milk
and tack colorful posters of serpents above their doorways, petitioning
the noble reptiles for nourishing monsoon rains and protection from
relationship dates back to prehistory. Serpent deities inhabited the
Kathmandu Valley aeons ago, when it was a vast inland sea. But the sea
was ultimately drained by the bodhisattva Manjushri, forcing the nagas
to relocate in small ponds and aquifers, the “snake lakes” that now dot
favorite naga tale is set centuries ago, when a devastating drought
parched the Kathmandu Valley. In desperation, Nepal’s king turned to a
great guru named Shantikar. The Buddhist sage ordered his disciples to
round up the cartel of nine nagas who controlled the monsoon rains and
protected the earth’s bounty of underground treasures. But the nagas,
still peeved by their eviction, were not eager to help. Especially
reluctant was Karkot Nagaraja, their king. He had to be captured in a
sack and carried to Kathmandu under protest.
it is the nature of nagas to be generous. At last they complied, and
rain filled the reservoirs. For this, the nagas were rewarded with a
personal teaching from the great Shantikar himself. When the audience
ended, the noble snakes bowed to the saint, and as a parting gift, they
each drew portraits of themselves—using their own blood as ink. The
paintings would serve as a kind of panic button, to be used at desperate
times. When the images were worshiped, the snake gods promised, the
crucial rains would fall.
Eastern religion has always honored snakes, a cautious admiration for
them was once part of Western culture as well. More than four thousand
years ago— long before the Old Testament was compiled— a charismatic
serpent appeared as Ningishzida, the Mesopotamian god of the underworld.
Like the Asian nagas he was an earth spirit, and a patron of the trees.
the son of Apollo and Koronis, was the first physician in Greek
mythology. His worshipers included Hippocrates, the pioneer of Western
medicine. Asclepius’ first tutors were snakes; he watched them bring
healing herbs to each other. This may explain why nonpoisonous snakes
were allowed to slither around on the floors of ancient Greek hospitals
(a practice since discouraged by the AMA). It may also explain how the
Rod of Asclepius, entwined by a single serpent, became the symbol of
medicine. And there’s a more ambiguous link between snakes and medicine:
The earliest pharmaceuticals, which included venom, could be lifesaving
or lethal, depending on dosage (and luck). A serpent thus provided a
good allegory for the medical profession, with its mixed success rate.
strangest nod to serpents that I’ve come across, in Western
spirituality at least, is found in gematria, a form of Hebrew writing
inspired by Greek geometry. In this mystical system of Jewish wisdom,
each Hebrew letter is assigned a number. A common example is chai, which in Hebrew means “life” (as in l’chaim,
“to life”). The two letters that make up the word have a combined value
of 18, a highly auspicious number in Jewish tradition. Every word in
Hebrew thus has an occult numerical value—and a strong (not to mention
divine) relationship with words of identical values. It turns out that
the numerical value of the word for “serpent” is 358: identical to the
value for the word “messiah.”
Christians might bristle at this, but it makes perfect sense. Both
snakes and messiahs, after all, are masters at the art of liberation. A
snake literally sheds its skin, emerging as a rejuvenated being. A
messiah offers the same opportunity, metaphorically: a chance to
reinvent ourselves, and emerge with an overhauled soul. There’s even a
biblical root to this bit of wordplay. In one of the more controversial
passages in the Gospels (John 3:14-16), Jesus himself is compared to a
bronze serpent that Moses displayed on a pole during the Exodus to cure
victims of snake bite: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,
so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him
may have eternal life.”
these many and varied stories about snakes show, if nothing else, is
that we have a surprising amount of control over our fears—even primal
fears, conditioned by evolution and genetics. The key to this control
seems to be the stories we tell ourselves, as individuals and as
cultures. Sometimes, those stories trade one fear for another. If one
believes what the Bible says, for example, fear of death is
mitigated—but snakes become creatures of darkness.
few days ago, at the Oakland Zoo, I stood by the snake enclosure and
watched as parents brought their children up to the glass. Terror and
fascination were common first responses, but the children usually calmed
down when the parent read the descriptive notes about the reptile’s
diet, lifestyle, and love of climbing trees.
makes sense. In the West, the stories we’re read about bears, lions,
monkeys, and elephants have tempered our fears about those sometimes
dangerous animals, and motivated their protection and conservation. But
there are almost no stories featuring benevolent snakes. My guess is
that it will take the serpentine equivalent of Winnie the Pooh or
Curious George to dispel our ancient loathing and welcome Ophidia out of
a few of us will continue to honor these iconic animals in our own way.
Last week, walking alone in the Berkeley Hills, I saw a snake poised on
the path ahead. Its head was held high; it seemed lost in thought. I
felt a thrill pass through me, and crept forward to offer a few drops of
my soy-based protein shake. This time, I was the one left feeling
sheepish. It was only a stick.