Showing posts with label snake handling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label snake handling. Show all posts

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vava Suresh of Thiruvananthapuram

According to one article in The Times of India, five out of the ten best cities to live in India are located in Kerala. This Indian state is a popular tourist destination for multiple reasons, including its spectacular scenery, world class yoga, and Ayurveda treatments. Not mentioned in the article is the state's exceptionally rich snake fauna - it’s difficult to understand why this was overlooked. One Kerala man is exceptionally well known for his efforts to conserve snakes, Vava Suresh of Thiruvananthapuram. Locally he is known as the 'Snake Man' and is estimated to have rescued and conserved 5000 snakes which have strayed into the human world in and around Trivandrum. Vava Suresh attributes his passion for snakes from childhood experiences which started at about age twelve. He is well known for rescuing and releasing endangered species of snakes and collecting eggs and protecting them during incubation, and then releasing the neonates into natural habitats. One recent article about him included the following, "Time and again, he has paid the price for flirting with danger. Hardly a few months ago, he was battling for life in a hospital ICU after being bitten by an enraged cobra. The skin on his hands bears the mark of several viper bites." The photos below show Vava Suresh's snake handling and education efforts as well as documenting his encounter with a Russell's viper. The photos were recently sent to me by Dr. A. Biju Kumar at the University of Kerala.

Friday, January 13, 2012

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).