By Reid Ridgway
Snakes have a primordial association with Creation across all seven continents. Many cultures portray the snake as a guardian or caretaker of the divine, or offer the serpent as the guardian of the water or as the symbol of water itself. The snake is charged with ruling the weather or bringing the rain. Snake symbolism figures in the myths and folklore of the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Islamics, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Western Europeans, Biblical stories, Sumerians, Hindus, Buddhists and Norse Vikings, among others.
Snakes have always presented a source of mystery and intrigue to humans. People have often attributed to them a source of spiritual power, magic and cunning intelligence beyond that of ordinary animals. Much of our earliest religious symbolism has the snake representing fertility and creation and, in ancient art, it is often seen accompanying the moon or the goddess as a counterpart.
The snake as a straight line often represents a powerful axis, for example the centre of the earth. With its tail in its mouth, the snake often serves as a symbol of eternity and encircles the heads of the divine. Two snakes intertwined around an axis have long symbolized the knowledge of healing and regeneration, and appears today as the caduceus, the emblem of modern medicine.
The snake makes its appearance early in Genesis (Creation), the very first chapter of the Bible. Aside from humans and angels, the snake is one of just two creatures in the Bible with the gift of speech (the other being Balaam’s ass, as an instrument of God’s word), and is the only one with the will to deliver a message all its own.
It is interesting to note that the Bible never says that snakes are evil. In fact, it uses the snake to symbolize ideas ranging from healing to subtlety, wisdom, trickery and supernatural power. Note the following passages:
“Now the serpent was more subtle than a beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1)
“Be ye therefore wise as serpents ” (Matthew 10:16)
When Moses doubts the Divine voice, God identifies himself by telling Moses to throw down his rod (Exodus 7:1-16), which turns into a snake and then back again when picked up. This rod is later used when Moses sets the plagues upon Egypt, and yet again when he parts the sea for the passage of his people. Moses strikes the rock with this same rod to create water in the wilderness. This very same rod/serpent is one of the objects for which Noah makes room in the Ark.
Many divine serpentine references are found in Hinduism. Lord Vishnu is often depicted as reclining on the cosmic serpent. A favorite myth, rooted in Hinduism but migrating into other cultures and religions as well, including Thailand’s, is the myth of the Naga — a Sanskrit word meaning “serpent”. The Naga is a gigantic crested serpent that guards the springs, wells and rivers. Said to possess great intelligence and magical power, nagas can take the form of a man and walk among us. They can kill with their gaze, and female nagas sometimes marry human men. Many artifacts, stories and festivals celebrate the myth of Naga. Along the Mekong River, in Thailand, 100,000 people gather every year to witness the red fireballs that mysteriously emerge from the river, said to be the breath of the nagas who live there.
In bars and restaurants around Thailand, there appears a famous picture of a large group of American servicemen holding a giant serpent said to be a naga. Thais claim that each of these men died shortly after touching the beast. Crypto-zoologist Richard Freeman is one of many scientists intrigued with the possibility of documenting the existence of a giant serpent, and has explored the phenomena here in Thailand. The Naga has thus far proven elusive, but Freeman thinks that the myths and legends may relate to a real animal that inhabits the Mekong. Freeman suggests there might yet be a few survivors of a primitive group of snakes thought to have been extinct for just 10,000 years. These snakes were primarily aquatic, as big around as an oil drum, and nearly 20 metres in length. Intriguingly, these fantastic serpents had facial crests similar to the depictions and descriptions of the Naga.
After his period of sitting under the Bodhi tree, or Tree of Enlightenment, Lord Buddha sat for seven days under a great banyan tree. Then he left that tree and went to a tree called “The Tree of the Serpent King, Muchalinda”. Muchalinda is a huge cobra who dwelt in a hole among the tree roots. As the Buddha meditated, unmindful of his surroundings, a large storm arose. Muchalinda crept out of his hole and wrapped himself seven times around the Buddha, keeping the Buddha’s head dry with his great hood.
In this story, that recurring role of guardian and protector is attributed to the mighty snake. Snakes have long guarded the Buddhist temples, and can be seen in the artwork of many of the wats here on Phuket. Snakes have always been the lite sentry of the sacred, the keepers of the divine and the holy. They protected the great pyramids of Egypt, and transported Cleopatra to the spirit world; they protected the great temples of the Aztec Indians in Mexico; and they have guarded the world’s intangible treasures, wisdom, knowledge and the entrances to the Underworld.
Snakes are superbly adapted creatures, their shape and flexibility offering keen advantages to a hunter. Their bodies are covered in scales composed, much like our own fingernails, of keratin. Their underbellies have long, flattened scales arranged like the tread of a bulldozer to provide traction. Even a large snake can fit through a very small opening (generally any opening a snakes head can pass through can accommodate the entire body). They can move almost silently, and are sensitive to heat and vibrations, making them at home in either light or darkness. Their muscular bodies make them expert climbers, and nearly all snakes are able swimmers.
Their forked tongues allow the sampling of two gradients along a chemical path, making them expert trackers of their prey. Many snakes come equipped with hollow fangs to inject their quarry with deadly neurotoxins. Others suffocate their prey, constricting it in the grasp of unrelenting coils. Most snakes then eat their food headfirst, and all swallow their victim whole — a specially adapted, unhinged jawbone makes it possible to swallow prey many times the snake’s own body diameter.
The digestive system of a snake, another marvel of evolution, works very slowly. Some of the world’s largest snakes, the reticulated python, for instance, or the South American anaconda, may not eat again for a whole year after ingesting a large animal.
Thailand is reputedly home to both the world’s largest population and the most diverse number of species. Several varieties live almost exclusively in the sea, and many snakes that live only in the canopies of trees — never so much as touching the earth. Some species live under the ground, almost never coming above it. Thailand is home to cobras, kraits, adders, vipers, boas, pythons, vine snakes and sea snakes; harmless snakes and deadly poisonous snakes; tiny slender snakes and giant snakes; snakes of every colour and pattern imaginable.
Snakes, like all earth’s creatures, are an important part of the ecosystem. Without them, Thailand would be overwhelmed in a plague of rats, mice and insects. Many people kill snakes in fear and ignorance of their true nature. All snakes are discriminating eaters, and are generally only interested in pursuing their natural diet. No snake goes looking for an encounter with humans. While many snakes defend them selves aggressively if provoked, most would prefer to flee if given the chance. People are generally bitten by a snake in one of two circumstances: most commonly, where they are harassing the animal; less frequently, where they surprise one by stepping on or too near it or touching one by reaching into a place they can’t see into.
In addition to being a part of the natural fauna of Thailand, snakes form a small part of the local economy. Snake farms abound in Thailand, including here on Phuket. Some are research and development facilities for medicine and anti-venom, the most prominent of these operated by the Red Cross. Snake venom is used to derive a surprising number of commercial medicines, including treatments for chronic arthritis and tuberculosis,
Other snake farms are mainly tourist attractions, where performers enact daring stunts with deadly snakes, kissing the king cobra and dodging the strikes of multiple snakes in a ring. Many of the Thais who run such businesses are very knowledgeable about the snakes they keep, and are happy to share their knowledge. Although it may seem that provoking these snakes is cruel, they are not harmed in any way, and in fact are probably better off being relieved of their confinement. The snakes are generally well fed, housed and groomed for parasites daily. It’s good business to take care of the creatures. The shows can be quite amazing, if you’d like to get a close look and learn more about the many local varieties.
The legal and illegal trades in exotic snakes thrive throughout Thailand. Legitimate breeders harvest their snakes for sale as pets, food or leather. Other people are regularly caught at the borders with thousands of endangered or rare snakes collected from the wild to feed the voracious Asian appetite for exotic foods and medicines. If you choose to buy any snake or snake product in Thailand, please be sure it comes from a breeding farm, and not from the wild —and that it comes with documentation to prove this. Besides just being environmentally responsible, your native country may have potent laws and stiff fines waiting for you upon your return if you make a poor decision.
If you’re fortunate enough to see a snake in the wild, please just observe it. There’s rarely need to kill a snake, and never a need to provoke or harass one. They’re not seeking to harm you, but only hunting their natural prey. If the snake is in an area where it could be dangerous to you or others, such as in your house or garden, call the snake farm and have an expert remove it for you. Unless you have a lot of experience in handling snakes, you’ll probably wind up the loser, given that snakes can be adept at defending themselves, and many are indeed deadly poisonous. If no one is around, and you’re frightened, offer the snake an easy escape route, opening doors or clearing a path. Stay well away and just watch. The chances are good the snake will be just as relieved as you are to avoid any confrontation.
Many snakes can strike nearly half of their body length, and a rare few can spit venom into your eyes from a distance of several metres. Remember, snakes are a symbol of the divine, of wisdom, knowledge and protection for good reasons. Don’t be unwise. Stay calm. Show respect, even reverence. Upon its safe departure, you shall indeed be blessed. Enjoy the good fortune afforded by your encounter with this most magical of all creatures.
REFERENCES: 1. Robert T. Mason, The Divine Serpent in Myth and Legend (1999). http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/5789/serpent.htm
2. Richard Freeman, In the Coils of the Naga Fortean Times www.forteantimes.com/articles/166_naga.shtml
3. Kurt Schwenk, “Why Snakes Have Forked Tongues”, Science, Vol. 263 (1994).
4. National Geographic http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/97/ kingcobra/html/jwindow.html
The King of Snakes
A king cobra can see a moving person from a distance of 100 metres,and can smell water at a distance by making use of its tongue.
King cobras aren’t really cobras at all; they belong to a different genus than all other species of cobra.
The king cobra can rear up to a third of its length (up to two metres, in some cases) and can move forward in this threatening pose.
King cobras are reportedly more intelligent than other snakes, and learn to recognize and distinguish their keepers from others.
King cobras mostly dine on other snakes, including members of their own species
King cobras cause fewer than five deaths a year.
Many scientists think that king cobras mate for life.
King cobras are the only snake that makes a nest for its young.
A female king cobra is able to store male sperm, and, after her last contact with a male snake, can have multiple broods two or three years.
Some of the world’s largest snakes, the reticulated python, for instance, or the South American anaconda, may not eat again for a whole year after ingesting a large animal