April 20, 2009

The First Snakes of Spring




I was walking in one of my neighborhood's parks on Sunday and saw two garter snakes sunning themselves. It wasn't particularly warm, but I guess they were tired of hibernating. For me, seeing snakes is a sure sign it's finally spring.

The garter snake is the official reptile of Massachusetts, according to a bill passed by the state Senate and House a couple years ago. This pro-snake attitude is a big change from the state's past. Early settlers in Massachusetts really hated snakes, but also attributed them lots of supernatural power. As a result there is a lot of particularly crazy snake folklore. The following story, which is one of my favorites, was recorded by Clifton Johnson in the late 1800's.

A farmer and his wife had a young daughter with a strange habit. Every evening, she refused to eat dinner with her family, but instead took her plate and ate alone outside. Since she was young, her parents at first humored her odd request. But after the little girl did this for several weeks, her father became curious and secretly followed her outside one evening.

He was surprised to see his daughter sitting by an old stone wall, calmly sharing her dinner with a large rattlesnake that she addressed as Graycoat. Fearing for her life, the farmer rushed from his hiding place and killed the rattlesnake with a shovel, despite his daughter's pleas. Shortly thereafter, the little girl began to sicken. Despite their best efforts, the farmer and his wife watched helplessly as their daughter wasted away and died from an unknown ailment.

Although the girl's parents were puzzled at her death, we shouldn't be. Ancient European legends teach that snakes are often more than simple reptiles. They may really be fetches or fylgias - human souls in animal form. When the father killed the snake, he destroyed his daughter's soul. Medieval legends from Europe teach similar lessons. For example, a legend from Silesia tells how a man found a large dead snake in front of the house after his mother died, while Olaus Magnus wrote in 1555 that a snake will become imbued with the soul of a child whose bowl it shares. If the snake is killed, the child will die. (I found that piece of lore in Claude LeCouteux's excellent book, Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages.)

It's pretty amazing that a belief from medieval Europe could still be found in Massachusetts in the 1800s! Please avoid killing snakes, in case it is true.

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