It has been quite a while since I wrote a post, so I thought I should get back to my tales for the past. And what better time than New Year. So, I may have missed the start of the calendar year, but with the sound of Chinese New Year fireworks still ringing in my ears and the remains of a Chinese lantern disintegrating in my garden, it’s still New Year for me.
A browse through my ever growing collection of nineteenth century natural history books suggests to me that snakes were of less interest to those who made a living from the collection and observation of animals. In fact, I could find only a couple of authors who dedicated space within their work to the study of snakes. It is perhaps not surprising that Darwin included snakes in his trilogy of works on evolution and expression. But for this article I choose to move past Darwin and instead focus on George John Romanes’ Animal Intelligence.
Romanes addresses the snake within a chapter on Reptiles, in which it is joined by the Frog & Toad (of limited
intelligence, but can be domesticated); Alligator & Turtles (which showed instinctual drive to find water, but can also be domesticated); and the Tortoise (who demonstrate the ability to recognise specific people). However, half the chapter is dedicated to the snake alone. And the tales he tells (for his work on this creature rests primarily on the anecdote) present the snake as having a dichotomous character. On the one hand they are gentle, domesticated and timid; on the other they are capable of paralysing their prey with fear. In one case reported in the press of these reptiles being kept as pets (in particular a bod-constrictor, a python and several small snakes), they were presented as obedient animals which could join the family for tea, in the same way a dog or cat was part of the family. Children happily (and safely) played with the animals, whilst the curious snake kept an inquisitive eye on the unrecognised visitor in the room. The description of mother pouring tea with the boa wrapped gently and gracefully around her body brings to mind images of a scarf rather than an animal. And so attached were these animals to their family that they pined when left in the care of the zoo for the duration of a holiday. The depth of this emotional attachment is expounded by the death of the python, whose demise was “accelerated by emotional shock” at finding his owner lying stricken on the floor (whilst his mistress had left the house in search of medical help). It should be noted that this death was thought to have been due to natural causes, unlike some cases of the same period where death due to grief was reported in some animals.
The practice of snake charming was a demonstration of both the educability of the snake, and its timid nature. Romanes suggested that the dancing movement was less the result of a trance, and more the expression of alarm and/or unease. A reflection perhaps of the fascination other animals appeared to have upon the sight of the snake. The loss or lack of movement inspired in its prey may help the snake as the hunter to capture and kill its dinner.
The terror demonstrated by the prey is also reflected in the terror felt by the neighbours of the snake-owning family. And their petition for the snakes to be removed from the premises resulted in court proceedings and the story to be published in The Times (25 July, 1872) in the form of a letter from a friend of the family. He also found the nature of the snakes mesmerizing, recalling that “It was long before I could make up my mind to end the visit, and I returned soon after with a friend (a distinguished M.P.), to see my snake-taming acquaintance again….”
Romanes also relays the case of a wealthy man living near Negombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who kept guard snakes as opposed to guard dogs to protect the money he kept at his house. The snakes posed no threat to the residents, only to any thief entering the property. So perhaps snakes weren’t always that timid around humans after all.
Ancient Chinese wisdom observes that the presence of a snake in a house is, in fact, a good omen, for it means that the family will never starve. But be this because they are bringers of wealth, or protectors of wealth, or just a food source, I am not quite sure. People born in the Year of the Snake are said to be financially secure, as well as thoughtful, wise, rational and logical. Their insightfulness and intuitiveness is however balanced by a an sometimes egotistical and conceited side. There are some parallels between these characteristics and the behaviours observed by the nineteenth century observers of the snake, but perhaps not as many as I was expecting. And on that note I will bid you Gong Xi Fa Cai, and wish you a prosperous and happy year of the snake.