The serpent’s power to charm is hardly a thing of the past. Teenage boys and their ilk perhaps suffer from serpent charm more than any other type. Imagine some good boy, young or old, staring through a keyhole of the mind at some bare-bosomed Geraldine doing a dirty dance with a constrictor chum in Joe’s Last Chance Inn. Oh how he’d love to be that snake. Then imagine me in my writing chair, the rattlesnake wriggling its way out of its old clothes and showing itself off naked to me. Who am I supposed to be, constrictor that would love to be hanging all over Geraldine, or object of desire for the rattler exposing its nakedness on my cabin floor? Both give me the creeps. Only a snake can have it both ways.
Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona. All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.
It should be better advertised that certain snakes have profound powers of memory. It’s convenient to call their ability to find their way back to their family dens instinct rather than memory, though we wouldn’t dream of saying that it’s instinct that drives us home from another boring day at work. My profoundest respect for rattlers is based on their ability to achieve, on occasion, a last-ditch if primitive form of justice, which we properly should name revenge. The experts remind us that ectotherms, after being mortally wounded, take to death in a leisurely way; so it’s natural that their muscles can continue to contract when they appear to be dead. Woe to the tourist who approaches rattler roadkill with the intention of carrying it off as a trophy to some knotty pine den. If the sun shines auspiciously on it, the roadkill rattler may strike. Even severed heads have been known to bite a hand trying to feed some idle curiosity.
There has to be a moral code, passive-aggressive Manichaen, implicit in such acts. The dead snake’s head must have some faculty—call it deep memory of being wronged—that requires it to strike. The wrongs endured by snakes are historic, predating Eden, but the Edenic Fall no doubt geared the whole of the Judeo-Christian world to bring such violence down on serpents as a species that the snake’s best hope for survival even today is to stay underground. That inclination to bite back—is it an entirely obtuse reaction by a head dead to the need to protect its right to life, or is it a cunning and desperate stab intended to even a long-remembered score? I prefer to conclude that Crotalus horridus carries a primitive ethical code in its body, one designed to gain revenge on an entire species, us, if possible. Is it any wonder that snakes, like impoverished warriors from jungle regions all over the globe, are often taken for terrorists?
God only knows what my personal rattler’s true feelings for me actually are. Dread, pain, fear, loathing, pleasure, apathy, maybe sudden blind attraction to me, the warmth of my dear heart—how can we measure if any of these emotions shivered through its scales? We measure nature by methods so boorishly technical that we conclude that what isn’t measured—dread, pain, loathing, pleasure, apathy, maybe attraction to me—doesn’t deserve chapters in our texts. The ancients managed without all our precisely measured facts, content to see their way through life with a handful of enduring truths. All those ancient snakes were different enough, like so many clocks in a clockmaker’s shop, but collectively they were chthonic timepieces predictably telling time on earth even when cloud cover obscured the cyclic operations of moon, sun, and stars. Women’s menstrual periods, as faithful as the Apostles and phases of the moon, were good enough reason to measure the year by monthly twelves. But serpents were likewise wise enough to come out of the earth each spring to sun themselves like fat new grasses all summer long, then molt before the chill returned to inspire them to descend into their underworld dens for another winter’s snooze. Little wonder then that there are so many ancient frescos, paintings, statues, and figurines depicting the serpent as consort of the Great Mother Goddess, or entwined with the sacred tree, or lurking underground with grains yet to spring out of the soil, or swallowing their own tails in a ouroboric gesture symbolic of the wholesome perfection of the life-death roundeur of a well-seasoned earth. Even the classical Greeks, geniuses of modern sciences, couldn’t ignore the troubling presence their manly philosophy failed to reduce to reason: Their chosen queen Athena, virgin owl-goddess unnaturally birthed from the thundering brain of a jealous sky god, had her feet on the ground in a tangle of snakes.
These were serpents the Greek gods and heroes could destroy but not fathom—not when Zeus conquered the dreaded dragon Typhon, or when Apollo crushed the Python that lurked in the depths of his temple of moderation and self-knowledge, monster that haunted him through his long career of love-failures with women, not to mention his nineteen pederast relationships. To our Greek hero-gods these defeated serpent-monsters, descendants of Gaia, were powerful female troublemakers who needed to be put in their place. Hecate, harmless witch-hag, would be easy enough to keep in her underworld, but anybody with a head as tangled as Medusa’s had to be, for simple masculine heroism’s sake, cut off.
Anti-snake prejudice probably peaked historically when St. Patrick engaged the enemy in the search and destroy phase of his Irish campaign. If one is to credit rumors that persist, it was the entire success of this serpenticide that made the planting of potatoes possible, and in turn energized Irish interest in poetry and God. In their military campaigns the ancient Greeks preferred to capture women instead of snakes, knowing that women, unlike the general population of males that died so easily by their swords, could be caged, controlled, and cursed. To live without them was impossible, so to control them strictly was imperative; otherwise how could any man ever entirely free himself from the likes of a Lamia, serpent-woman immortalized by the poet Keats in brilliant terms:
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed
Dissolved, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seemed, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
No, creatures like this were dangerous to certain men. Best to do what one has to do without establishing eye contact with them, especially if matronly, and best to remember that the name Venus flowers from the same root as the word venom.
An odd notion strikes me from nowhere right now. Did I fail to mention that the rattlesnake at my feet was doing a belly-dance? Given that its head and tail amount to a fraction of its entire self, that its body is belly entire, what other kind of dance could she have been doing as she squirmed out of her old skin? Consider too that in mating season rattlesnakes tend to travel in pairs, that in the time of great snake heat the other one, her mate, might have been lurking inside the cushion of my chair, actually.
My father, a deeply religious man, does not hesitate to name snakes Satan, and if he had had a weapon in hand he would have made short work of the little four-foot rattler at my feet, belly-dance and all. He can’t tolerate open windows and doors, and if there’s a crack anywhere in his belief system he fills it with concrete belief. But his loving rebel son, with a mind more ajar, has long wondered how Satan got his scales and tails. Some distance from actual rattlesnakes, as well as religious study in a wizened library, is required if one is to do historical justice to this sorry tale.
What facts did I find in books? That following Constantine’s great victory over invading hoards in A.D. 310, the new Christian administrators of the Empire started making use of leftover pagan god body parts. Cloven hoofs, horns of all sizes and shapes, old goat beards, tridents, sphinx wings, and a whole range of serpent stuff—fangs, scales, forked tongues—all these were solid construction materials for a brand new line of devils necessary, we now know, to fan the flames as more and more idols, books, pagans, Moors, Jews, and eventually Christians themselves were consigned to fire. Personally, I think the ancient Hebrews thought better of Satan, employing him first for unpleasantries as God’s agent in the Garden of Eden, then promoting him from betting partner to a career as prosecuting attorney of innocent Job, with the author of Second Samuel eventually conferring on him all the rights and privileges that go with becoming a proper noun. Imagine the motherly pride the Church Fathers felt as their Satan-child swelled in their minds. They had replicated Zeus’s parthenogenic birth of Athena and Dionysios, a feat so extraordinary that only someone as remarkable as Dr. Frankenstein, thanks to modern technology centuries later, could accomplish anything like it again.
Once the Church Fathers had accomplished their miraculous births, how could theologians resist the urge to picture the Author of Our Woe in their texts, their carefully wrought words providing forms just dim and spectacular enough to be useful to believers eager to conjure this new terrible Lord of the Underworld? As other artisans, painters, sculptors, and artificers got in on the act, Satan, latter day sphinx with head of a man and serpent-beast body sometimes winged, abandoned all Nature to begin his reign as Art.
Voila! Thus Evil, otherwise so banal, officious, and righteous as an arrogant boss, now brilliantly haunts the corridors of the mind as evil god.
If rattlesnakes could speak with our one tongue, wouldn’t they complain about guilt by association, the heavy scapegoating laid like jackboots on their heads? What are we, they would say, but beautiful sausages that stuff ourselves once or twice a year with a flea-ridden mouse no human would touch? Compare us with yourselves, you devourers of whole chickens, pigs, cows and mishmashed bratwursts. We are more family-oriented and spectacularly more colorful, efficient, and peace-loving than you. Do you resent us because we spend your workdays lolling in our dens with family, or sunbathing on warm rocks? Do you fear we will unionize your office help for more vacation time? Instead of licking us, wouldn’t you prefer to join us for a change?
Crotalus horridus rattles us to the core.
The flesh shimmers imagining the wonder of the thing: This tunnel of rib-caged flesh adorned by sun-shined scales, its tapered tail circled by rings designed to give fair warning to enemies, as if this creature’s head is so swollen with dignity that it prefers not to squabble with inferiors; the muscular undulations that move it over the ground in a motion unifying power and grace; the spark of electrical life centered in a brain that animates eyes just like ours—curious, wary, confused—at once omniscient and ignorant; the inclination to stay home, the sunny rocks near the cave on the south-facing bluffs; the need to interrupt a life of lounging to feed, molt, mate, and without progress, pension portfolios or management improvement schemes, to carry on a process that has worked to perfection from the dawn of life until now, when the triumph of mankind has made the snake our enemy.
But could that rattler undressing itself at my feet have imagined me to be its enemy? It showed me no shame as it did its little undressing act. At worst it was wholly indifferent to my presence in the room. Maybe live and let live was all its thought, or (I doubt it) perhaps it wanted to make me privy to rattlesnake ways, wanted me to share the feeling of making a new breast of things. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what I really saw at my feet in the cabin that day, certain only that I am here now writing this, and the snake is here too now requiring me to take another look at it. Especially in the absence of fear that we might be swallowed by monsters we’ve never seen, some of our tales swallow us.
So where are we now? Here and now, earthlings all, we are pinkish globs of cells so dominating that July Fourth rattlesnakes are inclined to let us be. Winters we curl our warmblooded selves into a mass, preferring to write longhand, our scrawl a crawl toward another day of spring sunlight that may uncongeal the blood. Then we will walk, not drive, through the woods, going slow enough to see with each step. Maybe there, by the side of a path, we’ll be privileged to see one in time, just before it turns tail and disappears. How beautiful, the colors, the motion, the designs on its back. What wonderful inherent organism, its ability to renew itself by slipping out of itself, a sheath too narrow and sinuous to be any mammal’s womb. Little wonder that even the jealous Jehova, who has managed to maintain his grip on millions of minds, once upon a time gazed on all rattlesnakes that creep on the ground and said yes, they too are good.