From edition

Review of Two Books on Snakes

Books under Review:

Them that Believe. The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition, by Ralph W. Hood Jr. and W. Paul Williamson. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008. xvi+301 pp. ISBN 978-0-520-25587-6.

The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent. Why We See so Well, by Lynne A. Isbell. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. xi+199 pp. ISBN 978-0-674-03301-6.


The two books under review take contrasting approaches to understanding the role of snakes in our evolution as primates and the evolution of religious traditions. While the methods as well as subject matter barely overlap, the two books work in a complementary way. Together they foster a much more accurate understanding of both the surprising role of venomous snakes in the origins of our mental abilities and the psychology of those who utilize them in their religious ceremonies.


Review of Two Books on Snakes

Snakes are certainly animals upon which few people are neutral. Some people, including myself, actually love and are positively fascinated by them. Others have intense phobias virtually impossible to extinguish. The majority may say they do not like them, but they are more or less ambivalent. Historically, serpents have been the most common animals used in religious traditions and still figure prominently in many. The most prominent today are the many variants of Hinduism. However, rarely today are live snakes, especially dangerously venomous ones, used in religious services. As a visiting biology professor from India told me recently, many Hindus, including herself, go to special temples to worship snakes, but live ones found in the fields are usually quickly dispatched. Not so in some areas in the Southern Appalachians not far from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee. There are numerous serpent handling churches in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina and elsewhere. These churches are offshoots of the Pentecostal tradition that began around 1900 and specifically are derived from the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy.

Ralph Hood and Paul Williamson have studied the serpent-handling tradition for many years. Williamson wrote his dissertation on applying a phenomenological interview technique to allow the practitioners of this rather unusual practice of Christianity to describe their experiences in their own words, followed by an intensive and close analysis of patterns and themes. While presenting some of this work, the book is much more. It is the best scholarly evaluation available of all aspects of the tradition from its origins in, and eventual suppression by, mainstream Pentecostalism, theological origins, the nature of the services themselves including the sermons, the incidence of snake bites and deaths, legal issues, the centrality of ‘anointing,’ and even a little on the biology of the snakes used in the ceremonies. A short review cannot do this book justice, so I encourage everyone interested in either snakes or religion to read it. I guarantee that you will find some cherished beliefs of what you thought you understood challenged and your appreciation of religious diversity enriched. For this book, based on an archive of records and recordings gathered over many years, is a sympathetic attempt to ‘get inside’ those who practice snake handling, why they do it, what they get from it that counters the risks, in addition to gathering together and critically reviewing historical facts, current status, and scholarly writings on snake handling.

Briefly, the tradition developed from the charismatic, emotional, tradition of Christianity that was recreated in the Pentecostal movement. Unlike mainline Pentecostals, however, the snake handling churches stayed true to their interpretation of Mark 16:17-18. “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my Name shall they cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues, They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them, they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover” (original King James Version of 1611). The first two and the last of these Five Signs are still major components of Pentecostalism, but the snakes have been cast out. While some of the members of snake handling churches do, occasionally, drink poisons such as strychnine, it is not a major ritual since the sign is couched as a conditional. The ritual itself, which I first witnessed at a Kentucky church in the presence of, I need to point out, the authors of this book, follows an emotionally charged sermon and is accompanied by loud and joyous music and singing. Only people moved to handle the snakes when they are brought out and passed around are encouraged to do so. The frame of mind underlying this process of anointing is all important. Handlers often report that God seems to be moving on them, they may report that God is taking over their bodies, they have feelings of empowerment, good feelings and joy, there may also be a feeling of ‘flow’ or the sense of not actually ‘being there.’ These are powerful emotional rewards that can counter the risks of being bitten and help explain the hundreds of times practitioners participate in this ritual. Although the frequency of bites per snakes and people involved is surprisingly low, bites and deaths do occur, sometime with tragic consequences for families.

The marginalization of this cultural and religious tradition obscures its durability in a modern society. Practitioners are often members of extended families that have carried it on for generations. They are often urban as well as mainstream in education, occupation, and most variables that would be used to describe typical adherents of conservative evangelical and Pentecostal sects. The snakes used are typically locally captured copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, often well cared for and released afterwards, especially as winter approaches. Thus, the snakes are not vilified as evil, just as they are not worshipped as deities as happens in serpent cults. Although the tradition is not much more than 100 years old, it is, in my opinion, linked to some extent with the serpent-worshiping cults. In both traditions snakes are objects of ambivalence, fascination, and fear, and these have ancient evolutionary roots in the human psyche. This is admirably shown in the short important book by Lynne Isbell on the role of snakes in the evolution of the most important sense underlying our mentality – vision.

Isbell’s argument will only be briefly summarized, as it delves into many details of nonhuman primate evolution and the neuroscience of vision and the brain. The bottom line is this: Primates have a highly sophisticated visual system involving, among other attributes, forward facing eyes, good depth perception at close range, color vision, and an enlarged and sophisticated visual brain for processing information rapidly, even unconsciously. The evolutionary factors leading to these changes, along with a lessened reliance on olfaction, has been much debated and includes theories involving capturing insects and identifying ripe fruit, among others. Isbell shows that no theory is as consonant with the comparative and biogeographical data as her claim that venomous snakes, which did not really radiate till well after mammals evolved, were major risks to ancient primates. The success of the primate order depended on the ability, rapidly and accurately, to recognize the presence of cryptic deadly snakes. This led to the reorganization of the brain and, eventually, the accomplishments of human intelligence. Thus, the Genesis story in which the serpent was the source of our ability to ‘know’ was far truer than the ancient storywriters knew.

It was not just cognitive prowess that the serpent unleashed, however, but also emotional responses that are difficult to appreciate today when snakes pose little risk to most populations of humans, especially urban dwellers. The psychic potency of snakes is not a result of being taught to fear them. We have a brain evolutionarily honed to be emotionally charged when encountering snake stimuli—hence the prevalence of snakes in stories, myths, and religions. Much experimental psychology research on humans as well as monkeys documents the salience of snakes, even today, for our perceptual and emotional systems. In this respect, as in so many others, that research demonstrates how critical it is for those interested in the political and cultural life of our species to confront the evolutionary legacies that inform so much of our behavior, often in ways we have yet to fathom. Do the snake handlers of Appalachia overpower their ambivalence and fears in a most courageous way by using, ironically enough, an evolved emotional system that reflects the power of snakes and our emotional brain? Ironically enough, I say, because the snake handlers themselves would attribute their courage to their direct relationship with God. This may not be a message that Isbell was consciously imparting nor one the snake handlers would accept; nonetheless it might be an unexpected link between these two books that challenge, in different ways, our misunderstandings, if not overt prejudices, about fearsome animals and alien religious practices.

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