Whitney Barlow Robles—
The serpent who beguiled Eve. Medusa’s ossifying glance. The hypnotic command of Kaa in Kipling’s Jungle Book. Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, turned upside down by a basilisk. These stories, some told thousands of years apart, all present variations on a common theme: that snakes and snake-like creatures have powers of remote control.
The notion that snakes can sway people or prey at a distance—popularly called enchanting, charming, or fascinating—would normally be dismissed as superstition today. But of all the things on this green earth, snakes elicit some of the strongest reactions from humans and other animals. In the words of a 2003 paper in the psychological sciences, “snakes remain special stimuli for humans.”1 The influence snakes hold over others, and over us, undercut any calm claims we might make to keep these creatures at comfortable arm’s length.
During the scientific Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, an era when modern binomial nomenclature and modern museums came into being, naturalists quite soberly entertained snake enchantment in major scientific journals like the Philosophical Transactions of London’s Royal Society. Their debates emerged from close encounters with actual serpents on the ground in unfamiliar colonial environments. They also arose from an influx of firsthand reports told in letters and books, especially from the New World, and especially about uniquely American rattlesnakes.
Accounts from naturalists, colonial settlers, and Indigenous people stretching from Mesoamerica to the present-day northeast seemed to agree: serpents could make birds and small mammals freeze in place, drive them into fits, or lure them into open jaws. In the words of Maryland physician Richard Brooke in 1757, “That Rattle Snakes and most, if not all others in this Country have a power of Charming Birds and Other Small Animals they prey on, is a fact known to hundreds here.”2 After Brooke claimed to see three human confidants suffer a similar fate, he made a personal rule never to stare at a rattlesnake by himself in August, when he believed their vigor peaked. Luminaries like Sir Hans Sloane of the Royal Society and the Quaker botanist John Bartram entered the fray to divine if snake enchantment really existed, if its origins were Indigenous or classical, if its mechanism entailed invisible forces or noxious odors or simply primal fear. It was not fringe science, but a serious natural historical problem.
Human-serpent relations didn’t stop at scholarly discussion. The question was urgent enough that people put their bodies and the bodies of others on the line to test if snake enchantment might be a real phenomenon. In 1737, the Virginia enslaver William Byrd II fell ill from staring at a rattlesnake for too long. Sloane set up a trial that forced a rattlesnake to bite dogs and cats, theorizing that “enchanted” prey had simply been paralyzed by venom from an early bite. (Domesticated animals were frequent victims of early studies on rattlesnakes—and early experimental science more generally.) Bartram suggested “Surprize or Admiration at the Shape and different Colours of this subtil Serpent” might explain their sway over animals and men, though when he tried the experiment on himself by ogling a wild rattlesnake, he didn’t feel a thing.3
That at least some people fell under the spell of snakes must be understood against a broader backdrop of global serpent-human entanglements in the eighteenth century, where either party might be doing the enchanting. Sloane acquired a tame yellow boa in Jamaica that followed him around like a terrier. Snake charmers in India made cobras dance, a practice echoed in Psalm 58 of the Bible: “like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, / that will not heed the tune of the charmer, / however skillful the enchanter may be.” An enslaved man in colonial Maryland named Sambo performed public tricks with a live rattlesnake to earn wages so often denied to people under that most brutal of American institutions. Sambo would cause the snake to stay put, slither around in circles, and chase onlookers until he commanded it to stop. Enchantment was very much a two-way street between snakes and people.
Some thought fear itself was enough to explain snake enchantment, as with prey who freeze at the sight of a predator out of terror or as a strategy to avoid visual detection. Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, is a rather common ailment of our species. Biologists debate if there may be some inborn fear of serpents not only among humans, but also our primate cousins, born deep somewhere in our shared evolutionary past.
When I was in elementary school, a child of rural Illinois where the prairies smelled of cracked pepper, my mom received a call from our neighbor and with it a mission for me. A snake had been found in the garden. Garter, they guessed. The woman was too terrified to approach again, but the work of pruning and watering remained. So they conscripted a child who had a curiosity for reptiles in place of fear. At that point, I had never found a snake in the wild. I accepted the mission with solemn resolve and approached the forbidden bush with gleeful expectation. Upon peeling back the fronds that obscured the object of dread on the ground, however, my countenance changed. I turned toward the neighbor as she watched from a distance, held up a bungee cord colored like a friend of Jack, and watched her laugh in relief.
Decades later, I gave a lecture on the history of human-snake encounters and showed a slide with an etching of a rattlesnake made by the eighteenth-century naturalist Mark Catesby. The second that image appeared on the projector, a woman in the audience trotted out of the room. After the presentation, she apologized for leaving and explained it was because I showed an “S-N-A-K-E”—her fear so intense that the word snake could only be spelled, not uttered. Ever since that moment, I’ve given a trigger warning before such talks.
The lives of human beings and snakes have always been viscerally intertwined, distinctly blighted by phobia, alternating between fascination and disgust. Whether they attract or repel, snakes do something to people.
More recent science can offer gentle reminders of the invisibility, to humans, of animal forces and alien communication systems at work in the world. Prey freezing in fear may not be the full picture, and truth may yet be stranger than fiction. A 2007 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, found California ground squirrels and certain rattlesnakes to be locked in an evolutionary arms race playing out quietly in infrared—a realm of communication undetectable to our unaided eyes. Squirrels, especially when guarding their vulnerable pups, will turn their tails infrared by increasing blood flow and raising their hairs, a process called piloerection that is also at play when your cat gets the zoomies and puffs her tail to twice its usual size. But squirrels only opt for the infrared strategy when confronted with rattlesnakes, which, unlike gopher snakes—another serpentine threat in their habitat—sense infrared (in the form of body heat) by using pit organs on their faces. The squirrels aggressively flick their infrared tails back and forth as visual weaponry, like windshield wipers turned to the last setting by mistake. And it appears to work: rattlers in the study assumed cautious and defensive behaviors in response to such brazen molestation.
While it is unclear how widespread these interactions are, what seemed to be serpent fascination may in some cases have been a power play of a very different sort, though one that still relied on the momentary disconnect of two physical bodies, tethered in a struggle all the same. Enchantment is fundamentally about relationships and hidden connections, and thus, ecology.
The trope of enchantment is deeply rooted in human history, religion and culture, and lived encounters with snakes. It takes on renewed urgency in an age of biodiversity loss, when many snake populations face collapse and people are less and less likely to meet some species in the woods. Action at a distance takes on new meaning, too, when every one of our decisions has outsize consequences in an ever more globalized world facing the long reach of climate change.
When ice melting in the sweating Arctic causes sea-level creep in Florida, and the combustion of fossil fuels half a world away makes a grandmother crumple from heat stroke in India, and endangered timber rattlesnakes carefully hidden from humans by the state of New Hampshire still can’t escape a deadly fungal disease likely driven by warmer winters and wetter springs, perhaps the notion that any action is isolated is the true fairytale of our times. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” the nature writer John Muir once mused, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”4
What might it look like to observe a snake and admit that she and I are not so different, or even so distinct, after all? What might it look like to accept that we are all united by invisible bonds and powers? What might it look like to re-enchant snakes and the natural world?
It might look something like magic.
- Arne Öhman and Susan Mineka, “The Malicious Serpent: Snakes as a Prototypical Stimulus for an Evolved Module of Fear,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(1), 5–9, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01211.
- Richard Brooke to the Royal Society of London, Jan. 1, 1757, add. MS 4439, ff.329–330b, The British Library.
- John Bartram to Peter Collinson, February 27, 1736/7, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734–1777, ed. Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992), 39–40. (While the date is written as 1727, the editors note this as an error.)
- John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 211.
Whitney Barlow Robles is an award-winning writer, historian, and curator based near Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her Ph.D. in American studies from Harvard University. Her work has appeared in venues such as William and Mary Quarterly, New England Quarterly, and Commonplace.