Serpents elicit mixed responses among humankind

Serpents are among the world’s most storied creatures. We are at once attracted to and repelled by them. Many view them as the “personification” of evil.

The ancient Cherokees portrayed the close relationship of good and evil in several of their myths. One of these related the legend of the Mythic Hawk, which represented the Upper World, and the Uktena, which represented the Under World. The Uktena was a monster 30-feet long and as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head and a diamond-like crest in its forehead. The light that blazed from this crest attracted humans to sure death like moths to a flame. On the other hand, by evoking the powers of the Upper World, the Cherokees could slay the monster and extract the crest, thereby obtaining visionary powers that enabled the tribe to balance good and evil.

The serpent that inspired the Uktena myth was, of course, the timber rattler. Our other poisonous snake here in the southern mountains is the copperhead. Cottonmouth moccasins are reported, but that species is, in fact, found no farther inland than about the fall line. Those reporting what they suppose are cottonmouths here are actually encountering northern water snakes, a species that is aggressive in and around water but not poisonous.

Insofar as poisonous snakes go, the rattler and the copperhead are sufficient. Nothing else quite focuses your attention and sets all your nerves on end as suddenly encountering a rattler. My family remembers the time when I set the world record for the standing broad jump. We were camping in the remote Rainbow Springs marsh in the Nantahala Mountains. To make a campfire so as to prepare breakfast, I pulled a limb out of some underbrush that had a timber rattler on the other end approaching 50 inches in length. To this day, I recall the serpent’s powerfully muscular near-black body, which showed just the slightest bit of yellow, and the gleaming totally fearless eyes. Coiled with tail buzzing an alarm, it was in every sense the wildest and most beautiful creature I’ve ever encountered. It was also the most ominous.

The great 20th century naturalist, Alexander Skutch, an American, lived most of his life in Costa Rica, studying birds and recording their life histories. An otherwise gentle soul, Skutch detested any human or wild animal that preyed on birds or their eggs. He made these observations in A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm (Univ. of California Press, 1980):

“Why have serpents been deified by some races and regarded as the embodiment of evil by others? … Is it because a snake has so few attributes of animality that it hardly seems to be animal, but rather a creature of unique category? … It is the only large, widespread terrestrial animal that moves without limbs. It has no evident ears and cannot close its lidless eyes. Its only sound is a hiss, and, although sometimes gregarious … it is never really social. With few exceptions, including certain pythons, it is devoid of parental solicitude, never caring for its young ... The serpent is stark predation, the predatory existence in its baldest, least mitigated form. It might be characterized as an elongated, distensible stomach, with the minimum of accessories needed to fill and propagate this maw—not even teeth that can tear its food … It reveals the depths to which evolution can sink when it takes the downward path and strips animals to the irreducible minimum able to perpetuate a predatory life in its naked horror. The contemplation of such an existence has a horrid fascination for the human mind and distresses a sensitive spirit.”

I don’t agree with either the essence of the Cherokee legend or with Skutch’s observations. Serpents are a life form that epitomizes terrestrial grace. Their body patterns — rings, stripes, hourglasses, spots, etc. — are often as intricate as fine jewelry. They represent a modality of intentness beyond ours. If a serpent strikes, he is fulfilling not a premeditated obligation but a space in his existence that you entered. He does not mind that you exist. He would not mind if you did not exist. He simply does not care one way or another. But he isn’t evil.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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