May 05, 2020

Snakes, Children, and the Human Soul: Ancient Folklore in New England

I used to live in a house that had an old cracked cement wall in the front yard. This was a very urban neighborhood - you could hear the subway go by - but the wall was still home to a colony of garter snakes. Every spring I enjoyed seeing them emerge from hibernation to sun themselves on the wall or walkway.

Garter snakes are the official state reptile of Massachusetts, and they're also harmless. Perhaps I would have felt differently each spring if they had been rattlesnakes or cobras. Still, you should probably treat snakes with respect, as the following tale shows. It comes from What They Say in New England, Clifton Johnson's 1896 collection of local folklore.

Image from this site.
Many years ago there was a little girl who always liked to eat her supper outside. Her parents humored her in this, but one evening they became curious and followed her when she left the house with her plate.

...She went along out there by a stone wall and set down, and she rapped on her plate, and out there come a big rattlesnake, and went to eatin' off the plate with her. And when the snake got over on to her side of the plate too much, she'd rap him with her spoon, and push him away, and say, "Keep back, Gray-coat, on your own side."

Needless to say, her parents were quite horrified to see their young daughter sharing her food with a poisonous snake. They sent her off to stay with some relatives and while she was gone they killed the rattlesnake. It did not quite have the effect they expected.

...The little girl come home again, and then she found out her snake was killed. Arter that she kind o' pined away and died. I've hearn 'em tell about that a good many times, and I s'pose that's a pretty true story (Clifton Johnson, What They Say in New England, 1896, p. 66)

Johnson collected the folk stories in his book from people in rural western Massachusetts (where there are indeed rattle snakes), so I was surprised to see a very similar piece of folklore in Vance Randolph's 1946 classic Ozark Magic and Folklore. The Ozark Mountains are geographically and culturally very far from Massachusetts, but here's that same story again:

There are several old tales about an odd relationship between snakes and babies. According to one story, well known in many parts of the Ozark country, a small child is seen to carry his cup of bread and milk out into the shrubbery near the cabin. The mother hears the baby prattling but supposes that he is talking to himself. Finally she approaches the child and is horrified to see him playing with a large serpent - usually a rattlesnake or copperhead.

Randolph goes on to say:

The mother's first instinct is to kill the snake, of course, but the old-timers say that this would be a mistake. They believe that the snake's life is somehow linked with that of the child, and if the reptile is killed the baby will pine away and die a few weeks later. I have heard old men and women declare that they had such cases in their own families and knew that the baby did die shortly after the snake's death (Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore, 1946, p. 257)

It seems pretty clear from Randolph's book that people took this belief seriously, as several people claimed it had happened in their own families. It wasn't just a fairy tale.

Imagine my surprise then, when I also found a very similar story in Grimm's Fairy Tales, which was first published around 1812. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories in Germany, but here again is that story about killing a snake. In their version of the story the snake brings precious stones and gold to the child when it eats and the child gently hits the snake with a spoon to encourage it to eat more.  Despite these differences the story has the same sad ending:

The mother, who was standing in the kitchen, heard the child talking to some one, and when she saw that she was striking a snake with her spoon, ran out with a log of wood, and killed the good little creature.
From that time forth, a change came over the child. As long as the snake had eaten with her, she had grown tall and strong, but now she lost her pretty rosy cheeks and wasted away. It was not long before the funeral bird began to cry in the night, and the redbreast to collect little branches and leaves for a funeral garland, and soon afterwards the child lay on her bier (Grimm's Fairy Tales, "Stories About Snakes," 1812).

The belief connecting the health of children to snakes actually seems to go way back. It's much older than even the Brothers Grimm. The Swedish writer Olaus Magnus alludes to it in his 1555 book History of the Northern Peoples, which describes life in Sweden in the 16th century. Magnus wrote that:

There are also pet serpents, which in the farthest tracts of the North have the reputation of protective deities. They are reared on cows' or sheep's milk, play with the children indoors, and are regularly seen sleeping in their cradle, like faithful guardians. To harm these creatures is regarded as sacrilege. However, such practices are survivals from ancient superstition, and since the adoption of the Catholic faith are completely forbidden. (Olaus Magnus, History of the Northern Peoples, Book II, Chapter 48, "On the fight waged by shepherds against snakes")

I suspect that this belief is much older than even the 16th century, and Magnus seems to think it is ancient. It certainly seems to allude to some very old beliefs about the human soul. The French academic Claude Lecouteux suggests that by sharing food with a human the snakes in these stories become the human's guardian spirit, or perhaps even the spiritual double of the human. They are a human soul externalized in animal form. When the snake is killed the human soul dies. 

Illustration from History of the Northern People
Of course, I don't think people in 19th century Massachusetts understood it that way, but for some reason the belief still lingered on. Maybe someday I'll figure out exactly how a belief like this traveled from Medieval Europe all the way to Western Massachusetts. But until I do, please be kind to your local snakes. You never know whose soul it might be!


Claude Lecouteux's excellent book Witches, Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages has a lot of information on topics similar to this one. 

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