Serpent Handling in America

Crotalus horridus is frequently used in Appalachian snake handling ceremonies
There are two endemic cultures in America that have snake handling rituals. The oldest is of course the Hopi Indians in northeastern Arizona. The Hopi snake dance takes place every year, usually in late August and it has been closed to the public for many decades. The ceromony is a prayer for rain and the snakes are the emissaries for the prayer to the rain diety. The second snake handling practice occurs in Appalachia and is the subject of a new, six part Animal Planet series, and its purpose is quite distinct from the Hopi ceremony. is a media website for the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. It is carrying a story by Mary Barnett about the new Animal Planet series Snake Man of Appalachia. And, features contributions from Dr. Ralph Hood, Professor of Psychology of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). The six-part series follows Verlin and Reva Short, an Appalachian family deeply involved in religious snake handling who keep more than 40 rattlesnakes and copperheads used in religious services. Hood specializes in studying serpent handling religion and has befriended and studied the Shorts for many years as part of his research into the psychology of religion. Hood has accompanied Short on snake hunts and considers him as a close friend, and acted as a consultant for the series. Getting factual information to the public is one of Hood's roles as he studies the snake handlers. The serpent handling ritual is the result of Pentecostal traditions that take the Gospel of Mark literally and seriously. Hood said there are still many people who identify themselves as "sign followers," who believe, follow and practice signs in the Gospel of Mark. Mark 16:17-18 states, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Hood is often called to testify on behalf of serpent handlers, a practice that is illegal in every state but West Virginia. "There is a real interesting prejudice in American culture that a religious practice can't contain risk. You have an absolute right for religious belief, but you don't have an absolute right for religious practice," he said. Hood argues that just like other high-risk activities, such as professional football or hang gliding—which are not legislated by the courts—consenting adults aware of the risks of handling snakes should be allowed to practice what they believe, even it means risking their own lives.

While I have not had an opportunity to view the first episode it promises to provide a unique insigt into human behavior and Homo sapiens obsession with snakes. The serpent handling practices of Appalachia have been previously studied and written about by Weston La Barre in his now classic text, They Shall Take Up Serpents (Waveland Press).

Labels: , ,