The Bruised Serpent
W. H. Hudson

Some hold that our abhorrence of the serpent tribe, the undiscriminating feeling which involves the innocent with the harmful, is instinctive in man. Many primitive, purely animal promptings and impulses survive in us, of which, they argue, this may be one. It is common knowledge that the sight of a serpent affects many persons, especially Europeans, in a sudden violent manner, with a tremor and tingling of the nerves, like a million messages of startling import flying from the centre of intelligence to all outlying parts of the bodily kingdom; and these sensations of alarm, horror, and disgust are, in most cases, accompanied or instantly followed by an access of fury, a powerful impulse to crush the offensive reptile to death. The commonness of the feeling and its violence, so utterly out of proportion to the danger to be apprehended, do certainly give it the appearance of a true instinctive impulse; nevertheless, such appearance may be deceptive. Fear, however it may originate, is of all emotions the least rational; and the actions of a person greatly excited by it will most nearly resemble those of the lower animals.

Darwin, on the slightest evidence, affirms that monkeys display an instinctive or inherited fear of snakes. There are many who would think any further inquiry into the matter superfluous; for, they would argue, if monkeys fear snakes in that way, then assuredly we, developed monkeys, must regard them with a feeling identical in character and origin. To be able thus to skim with the swallow's grace and celerity over dark and possibly unfathomable questions is a very engaging accomplishment, and apparently a very popular one. What is done with ease will always be done with pleasure; and what can be easier or more agreeable than to argue in this fashion: "Fear of snakes is merely another example of historical memory, recalling a time when man, like his earliest ancestors, the anthropoid apes, was sylvan and solitary; a mighty climber of trees whose fingers were frequently bitten by bird-nesting colubers, and who was occasionally swallowed entire by colossal serpents of arboreal habits."

The instinctive fear of enemies, although plainly traceable in insects, with some other creatures low in the organic scale, is exceedingly rare among the higher vertebrates; so rare indeed as to incline anyone who has made a real study of their actions to doubt its existence. It is certain that zoological writers are in the habit of confusing instinctive or inherited with traditional fear, the last being the fear of an enemy which the young learn from their parents or other adults they associate with. Fear is contagious; the alarm of the adults communicates itself to the young, with the result that the object that excited it remains thereafter one of terror. Not only in this matter of snakes and monkeys, but with regard to other creatures, Darwin lays it down that in the higher vertebrates the habit of fear of any particular enemy quickly becomes instinctive; and this false inference has been accepted without question by Herbert Spencer, who was obliged to study animal habits in books, and was consequently to some extent at the mercy of those who wrote them.

It is frequently stated in narratives of travel in the less settled portions of North America that all domestic animals, excepting the pig, have an instinctive dread of the rattlesnake; that they know its whirring sound, and are also able to smell it at some distance, and instantly come to a dead halt, trembling with agitation. The fear is a fact; but why instinctive? Some time ago, while reading over again a very delightful book of travels, I came to a passage descriptive of the acute sense of smell and sagacity of the native horse; and the writer, as an instance in point, related that frequently, when riding at a swift pace across country on a dark night, over ground made dangerous by numerous concealed burrows, his beast had swerved aside suddenly, as if he had trod on a snake. His sense of smell had warned him in time of some grass-covered kennel in the way. But that image of the snake, introduced to give a more vivid idea of the animal's action in swerving aside, was false; and because of its falseness and the want of observation it betrayed, the charm of the passage was sensibly diminished. For not once or twice, but many scores of times it has happened to me, in that very country so graphically described in the book, while travelling at a swinging gallop in the bright daylight, that my horse has trodden on a basking serpent and has swerved not at all, nor appeared conscious of a living, fleshy thing that yielded to his unshod hoof. Passing on, I have thrown back a glance to see my victim writhing on the ground, and hoped that it was bruised only, not broken or fatally injured, like the serpent of the Roman poet's simile, over which the brazen chariot wheel has passed. Yet if the rider saw it—saw it, I mean, before the accident, although too late for any merciful action—the horse must have seen it. The reason he did not swerve was because serpents are very abundant in that country, in the proportion of about thirty harmless individuals to one that is venomous; consequently it is a rare thing for a horse to be bitten; and the serpentine form is familiar to and excites no fear in him. He saw the reptile lying just in his way, motionless in the sunlight, "lit with colour like a rock with flowers," and it caused no emotion, and was no more to him than the yellow and purple blossoms he trampled upon at every yard.

It is not the same in the western prairies of North America. Venomous serpents are relatively more abundant there, and grow larger, and their bite is more dangerous. The horse learns to fear them, especially the rattlesnake, on account of its greater power, its sluggish habits and warning faculties. The sound of the rattle calls up the familiar ophidian image to his mind; and when the rattle has failed to sound, the smell will often serve as a warning; which is not strange when we consider that even man, with his feeble olfactory sense, is sometimes able to discover the presence of a rattlesnake, even at a distance of several feet, by means of its powerful musky effluvium. The snake-eating savages of Queensland track their game by the slight scent it leaves on the ground in travelling, which is quite imperceptible to Europeans. In the same way the horse is said to smell wolves, and to exhibit instinctive terror when they are still at a distance and invisible. The terror is not instinctive. The horses of the white settlers on some frontier lands, exposed to frequent attacks from savages, smell the coming enemy, and fly in panic before he makes his appearance; yet when horses are taken from the savages and used by the whites, these too after a time learn to show terror at the smell of their former masters. Their terror is derived from the horses of the whites. The hunter Selous, as a result of ten years of observation while engaged in the pursuit of big game in the heart of Africa, affirms that the horse has no instinctive fear of the lion; if he has never been mauled or attacked by them, nor associated with horses that have learnt from experience or tradition to dread them, he exhibits no more fear of lions than of zebras and camelopards. The fact is, the horse fears in different regions the lion, wolf, puma, red-skin, and rattlesnake, just as the burnt child dreads the fire.

But here is an incident, say the believers in Darwin's notion, which proves that the fear of certain animals is instinctive in the horse. A certain big-game hunter brought home a lion's hide, rolled up before it was properly dried, and wrapped up in canvas. It was opened in the stable where there were several horses, and the covering was no sooner removed and the hide peeled open than the horses were thrown into a panic. The true explanation is that horses are terrified at any strange animal smell, and a powerful smell from the hide of any animal unknown to them would have had the same effect. That fear of a strange animal smell is probably an instinct, but it may not be. In a state of nature the horse learns from experience that certain smells indicate danger, and in Patagonia and on the pampas, when he flies in terror from the scent of a puma which is imperceptible to a man, he pays not the slightest attention to the two most powerful mammalian stenches in the world—that of the skunk, and that of the pampas male deer, Cervus campestris. Experience has taught him—or it has come down to him as a tradition—that these most violent odours emanate from animals that cannot harm him.

So much for this view. On the other hand, our enmity to the serpent, which often exists together with a mythic and anthropomorphic belief in the serpent's enmity to us, might be regarded as purely traditional, having its origin in the Scriptural narrative of man's disobedience and explusion from Paradise. Whether we believe with theologians that our great spiritual enemy was the real tempter, who merely made use of the serpent's form as a convenient disguise in which to approach the woman, or take without gloss the simple story as it stands in Genesis, which only says that the serpent was the most subtle of all things made and the sole cause of our undoing, the result for the creature is equally disastrous. A mark is set upon him: "Because thou hast done this thing thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will place enmity between thy seed and her seed; and it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise its heel." This prophecy, so far as it tells against the creature, has been literally fulfilled.

The Satanic theory concerning snakes—that "destructive delusion" which, Sir Thomas Browne shrewdly remarks, "hath much enlarged the opinion of their mischief"—makes it necessary for the theologian to believe not only that the serpent of Paradise before its degradation walked erect on two legs, as the Fathers taught—some going so far as to give it a beautiful head as well as a ready tongue but also that after the devil had cast aside the temporary coil something of his demoniac spirit remained thereafter in it, to be transmitted by inheritance, like a variation in structure or a new instinct, to its remotest descendants. There is the further objection, although not an important one, that it would be unjust to afflict the serpent so grievously for a crime of which it had only been made the involuntary agent.

Believers in an instinct in man inimical to the serpent might still argue that the Scriptural curse only goes to show that this reptile was already held in general abhorrence—that, in fact, the feeling suggested the fable. That the fable had some such origin is probable, but we are just as far from an instinct as ever. The general feeling of mankind, or, at any rate, of the leading men during the earliest civilised periods of which we have any knowledge, was one of veneration, even of love, for the serpent. The Jews alone were placed by their monotheistic doctrine in direct antagonism to all nature-worship and idolatry. In their leaders—prophets and priests—the hatred of the heathen and of heathen modes of thought was kept alive, and constantly fanned into a fierce flame by the prevalent tendency in the common people to revert to the surrounding older and lower forms of religion, which were more in harmony with their mental condition. The proudest boast of their highest intellects was that they had never bowed in reverence or kissed their hand to anything in nature. In such circumstances it was unavoidable that the specific object—rock, or tree, or animal— singled out for worship, or for superstitious veneration, should to some extent become involved in the feeling first excited against the worshipper. If the Jews hated the serpent with a peculiarly bitter hatred, it was doubtless because all others looked on it as a sacred animal, an incarnation of the Deity. The chosen people had also been its worshippers at an earlier period, as the Bible shows, and while hating it, they still retained the old belief, intimately connected with serpent-worship everywhere, in the creature's preternatural subtlety and wisdom. The priests of other Eastern nations introduced it into their sacred rites and mysteries; the Jewish priests introduced it historically into the Garden of Eden to account for man's transgression and fall. "Be ye wise as serpents," was a saying of the deepest significance. In Europe men were anciently taught by the Druids to venerate the adder; the Jews—or Jewish books—taught them to abhor it. To my way of thinking, neither blessing nor banning came by instinct.

Veneration of the serpent still survives in a great part of the world, as in Hindustan and other parts of Asia. It is strong in Madagascar, and flourishes more or less throughout Africa. It lingers in North America, and is strong in some places where the serpents, used in religious serpent dances, unlike those of Madagascar, are venomous, and it has not yet wholly died out in Europe. The Finns have a great regard for the adder.

It may be added here that there are many authenticated instances of children becoming attached to snakes and making pets of them. The solution of a question of this kind is sometimes to be found in the child-mind. My experience is that when young children see this creature, its strange appearance and manner of progression, so unlike those of other animals known to them, affect them with amazement and a sense of mystery, and that they fear it just as they would fear any other strange thing. Monkeys are doubtless affected in much the same way, although, in a state of nature, where they inhabit forests abounding with the larger constrictors and venomous tree-snakes, it is highly probable that they also possess a traditional fear of the serpent form It would be strange if they did not. The experiment of presenting a caged monkey with a serpent carefully wrapped up in paper and watching his behaviour when he gravely opens the parcel, expecting to find nothing more wonderful than the familiar sponge-cake or succulent banana—well, such an experiment has been recorded in half a hundred important scientific works, and out of respect to one's masters one should endeavour not to smile when reading it.

A third view might be taken, which would account for our feeling towards the serpent without either instinct or tradition. Extreme fear of all ophidians may simply result from a vague knowledge of the fact that some kinds are venomous, that in some rare cases death follows swiftly on their bite, and that, not being sufficiently intelligent to distinguish the noxious from the innocuous—at all events while under the domination of a sudden violent emotion —we destroy them all alike, thus adopting Herod's rough-and-ready method of ridding his city of one inconvenient babe by a general massacre of innocents.

It might be objected that in Europe, where animosity to the serpent is greatest, death from snakebite is hardly to be feared, that Fontana's six thousand experiments with the viper, showing how small is the amount of venom possessed by this species, how rarely it has the power to destroy human life, have been before the world for a century. And although it must be admitted that Fontana's work is not in the hand of every peasant, the fact remains that death from snake-bite is a rare thing in Europe, probably not more than one person losing his life from this cause for every two hundred and fifty who perish by hydrophobia, of all forms of death the most terrible. Yet while the sight of a snake excites in a majority of persons the most violent emotions, dogs are universal favourites, and we have them always with us and make pets of them, in spite of the knowledge that they may at any time become rabid and inflict that unspeakable dreadful suffering and destruction on us. This leads to the following question: Is it not at least probable that our excessive fear of the serpent, so unworthy of us as rational beings and the cause of so much unnecessary cruelty, is, partly at all events, a result of our superstitious fear of sudden death? For there exists, we know, an exceedingly widespread delusion that the bite of a venomous serpent must kill, and kill quickly. Compared with such ophidian monarchs as the bushmaster, fer-de-lance, hamadryad, and ticpolonga, the viper of Europe—the poor viper of many experiments and much, not too readable, literature may be regarded as almost harmless, at all events not much more harmful than the hornet. Nevertheless, in this cold northern world, even as in other worlds where nature elaborates more potent juices, the delusion prevails, and may be taken in account here, although its origin cannot now be discussed.

Against sudden death we are taught to pray from infancy, and those who believe that their chances of a happy immortality are enormously increased when death comes slowly, approaching them, as it were, visibly, so that the soul has ample time to make its peace with an incensed Deity, have not far to look for the cause of the feeling. It is true that death from hydrophobia is very horrible, and, comparatively, of frequent occurrence, but it does not find its victim wholly unprepared. After being bitten he has had time to reflect on the possible, even probable, consequence, and to make due preparation for the end; and even at the last, although tortured to frenzy at intervals by strange unhuman agonies, however clouded with apprehensions his intellect may be, it is not altogether darkened and unconscious of approaching dissolution. We know that men in other times have had no such fear of sudden death, that among the most advanced of the ancients some even regarded death from lightning-stroke as a signal mark of Heaven's favour. We, on the contrary, greatly fear the lightning, seldom as it hurts; and the serpent and the lightning are objects of terror to us in about the same degree, and perhaps for the same reason.

Thus any view which we may take of this widespread and irrational feeling is at once found to be so complicated with other feelings and matters affecting us that no convincing solution seems possible. Perhaps it would be as well to regard it as a compound of various elements: traditional feeling having its origin in the Hebrew narrative of man's fall from innocency and happiness; our ignorance concerning serpents and the amount of injury they are able to do us; and, lastly, our superstitious dread of swift and unexpected death. Sticklers for the simple-— and to my mind erroneous—theory that a primitive instinct is under it all, may throw in something of that element if they like—a small residuum existing in races that emerged in comparatively recent times from barbarism, but which has been eliminated from a long-civilised people like the Hindoos.

For my own part I am inclined to believe that we regard serpents with a destructive hatred purely and simply because we are so taught from childhood. A tradition may be handed down without writing, or even articulate speech. We have not altogether ceased to be "lower animals" ourselves. Show a child by your gestures and actions that a thing is fearful to you, and he will fear it, that you hate it, and he will catch your hatred. So far back as memory carries me I find the snake, in its unwarrantable intrusion on the scene, ever associated with loud exclamations of astonishment and rage, with a hurried search for those primitive weapons always lying ready to hand, sticks and stones, then the onset and triumphant crushing of that wonderfully fashioned vertebra in its scaly vari-coloured mantle, coiling and writhing for a few moments under the cruel rain of blows, appealing not with voice but with agonised yet ever graceful action for mercy to the merciless; and finally, the pæan of victory from the slayer, lifting his face still aglow with righteous wrath, a little St. George in his own estimation; for has he not rid the earth of another monster, one of that demoniac brood that was cursed of old, and this without injury to his sacred heel?