I recently had an encounter with a snake. I am not relating an adventure, however, since it was nothing more than a common backyard brown snake that I saw slithering out of the path of my oncoming lawnmower. Still, I must confess that a strong revulsion rose up within me – a sudden seizing of the heart – as I watched this small, brown ribbon weave its way through the grass. The scientific name for this is ophidiophobia, which is just a fancy way of saying that I really don’t care for snakes.
This may not seem a startling confession, since nearly everyone who reads the above paragraph would share my sentiments. But it still seems strange to me that I retain this fear of snakes. Why snakes of all things?
Take dogs for example. Why not be afraid of dogs? I have much more reason to be, considering the fact that my lower back still bears the dental signature of a particularly unfriendly chow. I can still remember the day when two enormous rottweilers menacingly circled around me as a neighbor screamed warnings to remain perfectly still. I ought to be afraid of dogs, but if it had been two garter snakes instead of rottweilers, I would have most likely fainted with fear.
So what is it about snakes? From Eden to the Hesperides it seems that mankind has exhibited a peculiar distrust of the serpent. Is it their reputation for being deceitful, malevolent, and venomous? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I believe our repulsion for snakes lies in a much more simple fact: they are utterly unlike us.
The snake is a writhing, undulating, slick-scaled strand of limbless motion that seems to glide rather than crawl. It lives in obscurity, under slimy rock and root; silently flicking its forked tongue and surveying its surroundings with its obsidian eyes (and it’s the eyes that get you). Look into the eyes of a dog – no matter how fierce – and you see the semblance of a soul; a kindred spirit in some way. Lock eyes with a snake, however, and you see unblinking black windows into nothingness. It is said that the eyes of a snake can charm you; make you forget everything as it draws you into the nothingness that lurks behind them. It is no wonder we shudder at the sight of a serpent.
But not everyone does, and this is a mystery. You see it in the Hindu Naga and Indian snake charmer, in the spirited services of certain southeastern churches, adorning the heads of the Pharaohs, and healing the smitten who will look upon its brazen form. An object of hatred for some becomes an article of worship to others. The infamous reptile, cursed to eat dust, exalted to a place of honor; reviled and revered. It seems there is no middle ground: we adore or despise that which is most unlike us.
I must confess that – concerning snakes – I fall into the latter category; which brings me once again to my backyard. As the snake retreated from the whirling blades of my lawnmower, I felt an incredible urge to overtake it; to dice it into a hundred tiny pieces. But I halted just short of my pursuit when the snake stopped, raised its head, and stared at me with a scaly grin. I returned its gaze for just a moment, and then the snake darted away. I did not follow. Was it my appreciation for life – no matter how personally abhorrent its form – that restrained me? Or maybe a moment of empathetic insight into the existence of this mysterious creature? Perhaps, but I must confess that my motive was primarily pragmatic. As you may already know, snakes eat rats, and the only thing that I hate worse than a snake is a rat.