How a simple creature, became a living legend
Text and photographs Pat McKrill unless otherwise credited
I’ve been asked to do some research into my “species and legends, and the role they play in folklore”. My material comes from books I’ve collected over the years, and from experiences I’ve had for well over 60 years of dealing with snakes and people in Southern Africa. I’ve enjoyed digging up the old bones and doing the research bit again, and perhaps some readers might think more rationally about their attitude toward our limbless friends.
The local Tonga people of the Zambezi Valley have a cultural belief that the Nyami Nyami is a god and guardian of the Zambezi river, this has been passed on by generations from their ancestors till now that there is a god of the river and a “goddess” his wife protecting the river.
Although one reads of snakes (serpents) in the Bible, despite the most quoted influence on modern man – the serpent in the Garden of Eden – there are also references to its value, medical and mental (wisdom) which are shared by other believers. There is scientific evidence of the existence of snakes some 135 million years back in the Jurassic period – prior to continental drift – and it would intrigue me to know when it was that man actually noticed their presence and began to turn his experiences with them, through stories and fables, into memories that have lasted many lifetimes and will continue to do so. There are the legends that have a history going back to the very first fables, belief, scrolls, drawings or actions epitomising the creature.
Most snake stories tend to malign the creature beyond reason, but there are fortunately, those who through study and experiences, understand the animal for what it is, and celebrate its existence and value on this earth. Yet to this day, the many bad, or mythical beliefs overwhelm the reality and the good. Many stories of frightening sudden encounters with probably our greatest fear, ultimately end up gaining legendary status.
There are carvings, paintings, engravings and drawings dating back thirty thousand years, depicting snakes in southern Europe, and along with the Aboriginal evidence they have in Australia, we too, have our cave paintings going back to long before settlers arrived on our shores. There are a few countries however, that don’t have a ‘snake history’. Ireland is perhaps the most renowned for having no snakes – St. Patrick allegedly (apocryphally) had much to do with that – along with New Zealand, Iceland and Antarctica which also have no indigenous snakes – probably due to their extreme cold climates. How sad. My father, being of Irish descent, undoubtedly deserves the credit for my lack of fear of snakes. He taught me, from the day we went on walks looking for mushrooms in the veld, not to fear them, and I never have.
I doubt that humans will ever really come to terms with snakes, what they are, why they’re on this earth, and the good they do for our environment. In terms of the deaths they cause on this continent, they don’t really rate a mention – in South Africa, only about 20 of our 160 species could be termed to be life threatening – if they bite you and you don’t receive treatment. We record probably about 10 deaths per annum from snakebite, far less than the daily deaths from drowning, smoking, flu, cancer, choking or vehicle accidents, all of which feature in our daily lives without more than a postscript.
Respect them, yes. Fear them, no.
The power of fear in folklore
Learning to overcome fear of snakes
Even in this 21st century, mere mention of the creature precipitates a blood pressure increase in most people. Turn off the TV, close the book, block your ears etc. just to get the snake out of mind. It would just need the yelling of the ‘S’ word wherever you are, to clear a room full of people! To try and assuage some of the unjustified fear people carry with them would be difficult, but I’ll always do my best to tell people the truth, as it has been since the day snakes were put on this earth, and not in the way gratuitously broadcast far and wide by the sensationalists, perpetuating the same unjustified fears. I believe that although some of the more questionable tales started out as simply being ‘fairy tales’ for those prepared to listen, there were others with a less friendly motive, that seemed specifically designed to give the storyteller power over others. Fear is a very powerful thing, even more so, it can be a controlling thing.
Folklore can be defined in many ways. It can fall into the category of legend, myth, or what some of us might term the ‘traditionals’, for example those culturally celebrated perennials starring Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny. The numerous “I was there” stories get embellished and passed on as the truth, till they become legends in their own right. You’ll come across a smattering in this article, to which I’m sure you can add those that you’ve carried along with you over the years…taking them in, and passing them on as fact whenever the occasion arises.
In Africa, we’re overburdened with tales and legends that have become embedded in our memories, more as truths than stories – the snakes get longer, darker, spit and hiss more frequently – so it’s quite hard to convince those who’ve come to believe those stories that they are in fact merely that. Stories.
Author with a python in a “defensive” pose
The ‘Old Chestnuts’
We’ll start with a couple of easy ones, those that pertain world-wide.
The Americans have a snake they call a ‘Hoop Snake’, whilst we have one known as the ‘Wheel Snake’ (Wielslang) here in Southern Africa. Both are believed to bite onto their tail to form a wheel, which can either help them to escape, alternatively to chase their victims through the veld and then bite them as they catch up with them. Another of our snakes with an American link, is our Cobra. According to local legend, the Cobra (Naja spp.) is reputed to drink the milk of cattle – straight from the udder – which is why, according to those who perpetuate the myth, a cow can become ‘dry’. The Americans call theirs the ’Milk Snake’, and it does much the same thing. I was told by a farmer in the north-eastern province, that he knew of a cobra that had drunk the milk from a baby’s bottle whilst it was lying next to the child in the cot.
Consider the fact that a cobra has no less than 20 very sharp, unretractable and pointed teeth in its mouth, each of which could easily puncture the udder or the teat on the bottle. Do farmers seriously envisage the cow standing there in the pastures, casually chewing the cud but getting milked dry whilst its teats are being aggressively punctured? I doubt it.
Puff adders –Bitis arietans – have to be the leaders when it comes to the hard to believe. According to their legendary abilities, they can spring as they strike, covering distances far exceeding their body length, they can strike backwards which is a bit disconcerting. They’ll ‘eat’ or swallow their young if they feel they are in danger, regurgitating them later once the danger is over. To top all of this, they can strike so rapidly, they can puncture a balloon twice before it deflates!
A Puff adder can close its nostrils, but like all snakes, not its eyes!
Or if you’re following my gist, disregard all the foregoing as absolutely untrue.
In South Africa, we have a mildly-venomous grass snake referred to by its obviously post-settler common name, ‘Skaapsteker’ (Afrikaans for ‘sheep killer’) – Psammophylax spp. – presumably because of its alleged ability to kill sheep with one quick bite! This is hard to envisage when one considers that it is a small-mouthed rear-fanged snake, not much longer than about 1 metre. A sheep has fairly thick wool covering its legs, and the animal itself is a tad too large for a finger-thick snake to hunt, kill and eat in one sitting. Even an aggressive defensive bite would be highly unlikely to penetrate the bite area. If a snake was the killer, perhaps a cobra might have been the culprit, no voodoo there.
The greatly feared but non-venomous riverine southern Brown Water snake, Lycodonomorphus rufulus – iVuzamanzi elimdubu in Zulu – is common in the Midlands of Natal and believed to be highly dangerous. I’ve never been able to establish the origin of this belief, even from the most wizened old sangoma I could find, who, despite my assurances that no harm would come to him, would not approach the snake I was holding.
A Brown Watersnake, this species is harmless to humans
Our Python – Python natalensis – is revered by some African tribes who incorporate its movement into their wedding ceremonial dances, whilst others unfortunately kill it, some as a food source, others blaming it for numerous mysterious deaths where the victim is never found. Take this last ‘belief’ to its logical conclusion, whereby, much like the crocodile, it can be blamed for the sudden death of undesirable enemies/relatives/whatever, where after the alleged tragedy, only the bicycle remains as evidence.
The author releasing a python back into the wild
Python are often found near large water bodies from where they would ambush their prey. I’ve heard from rural villagers, of the wrath of an unhappy Python – inHlwathi – which is epitomised in the havoc caused by mini cyclones that suddenly appear in an open field and get bigger and more frenetic as they go, crossing fields and dams, destroying villages, vehicles, cattle and crops in their wake before they suddenly disappear back into the water, almost as quickly as they arrived. This huge twisting tower of wind and water that goes around seemingly unimpeded by obstructions, is that very same python that many of the villagers see on occasion, basking near the dam. Interestingly, villagers in the Zambezi Valley speak of a snake with a fish head, ‘Nyami-Nyami’, the God of the Zambezi River prior to Kariba.
Often, live snakes, body parts/organs of some of our snakes – python and the green and black mamba – are used by ‘medicine men’, Sangomas and witches, to enhance in the minds of their clients, their mythical powers. For a fee of course.
The body parts of a Black Mamba are prized by Sangomas
The Traditional Healers in KwaZulu Natal are significant users of Green Mamba body parts
I was given a small – 700mm – Boa constrictor by the Police, who had confiscated it from a Sangoma who was keeping the poor snake in a 500ml coffee tin. It was being used to frighten the contents out of the average client’s wallet. When the client required affirmation of the powers of the Sangoma, the snake would miraculously appear from the bowels of the camouflaged coffee tin, and entwine itself around his arm – without biting him. A sure confirmation of his powers for the now terrified client.
Our Black Mamba – Dendroaspis polylepis – can grow to in excess of 4 metres and a snake of that size would surely be 25 years old plus, and at that age and size it would more than likely have difficulty in shedding a complete skin, as with the usual complete one-piece moult. This would lead to retention of old skin flaps in the head area, leading to the belief that this is a special species, a Crested Mamba.
The shedding of skin by snakes has given rise to many strange beliefs! Note: the reptile in the photo above and below is an exotic Boa Constrictor
Sometimes the skin “sticks” to the snake for a while as it is shed creating the impression of a “crest” which in turn generates more myths.
The belief continues in that this is the same species which some people believe attacks its victims from the tree branches along a well-used path as the victim heads to the river for water, to wash clothing, or to bathe. It allegedly bites the victims on the head. In order to stay alive, the victim must run quickly to a water source – River, dam etc. – and drink the water, BEFORE the snake gets there, failing which they will die.
The tail end
And finally, some hand-me-downs that put fear into the hearts of even the bravest. As I said earlier, fear is a powerful thing.
If you kill a snake, its partner will seek revenge. They don’t have partners. Relax.
If you kill a snake, you must burn and bury the body before sunset. Not so. Relax.
If a snake stares at you, it’s hypnotising you. Sorry folks, not true. Relax.
Mozambique Spitting Cobras “stare” for their own safety
A Night Adder will stare at you because it does not trust you!
If a pregnant human female comes across a snake in the wild, this will cause her to have twins. Sorry ladies, no such luck.
So next time you see one: stand still, relax, enjoy the moment.
The golden rule “Always stand still”!
About the author
Pat was born in the UK, educated and brought up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and came to South Africa in 1983. He developed an early interest in the study of the behavioural aspects of insects and animals, rather than the deeper scientific side, and he’s worked with snakes for most of his life. Pat conducts educational walks and talks throughout SA and into neighbouring countries where snakes are grossly misunderstood and needlessly killed. He writes articles for a number of publications, and has written the book ‘Getting to Know the Neighbours’, which is all about understanding snake behaviour and is aimed at teaching others how to come to terms with them.
Pat can be contacted at: email@example.com.