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Sunday, 10 February 2013





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Snakes play a major role in religious lore

The very interesting feature article 'Snakes and Charms' in the Daily News of January 22 should have drawn the attention of readers interested in and appreciative of snakes, a word whose very mention brings fright and awe to the minds of many people who always think that all snakes, whether poisonous or otherwise, are mere harbingers of death and disaster, fright and awe.

It is timely that we created a renewed interest among us about this slimy and feared reptile of the jungles. It will also be beneficial for us to think about the manifold service of snakes to mankind down the ages.

Contrary to the negative and obnoxious ideas about snakes of various skin colourations, lengths and other physical features it must be remembered that this ever doomed and cursed slithering creature whose mere sight palpitates our heartthrobs also bestows many benefits to man.

Snakes are crawling creatures that fascinate and repel human beings throughout the world particularly in the tropical and African regions where they are still found in abundance. It is well known that any encounter with a snake, whether harmless or otherwise, fills one with terror and awe, particularly because if venomous, its sting or bite is fatal and once it enters the blood stream very often the victim dies.

Some snakes particularly the mighty cobra which is dreaded throughout the world is highly respected, especially in the Asian countries such as India and Sri Lanka and it has been elevated to the status of a god in certain religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism which have a large stock of lore about the reptile and from time immemorial Asian religious lore has it that the cobra has been a protective animal of even gods throughout the ages.


While the majority of snakes are said to be poisonous some of them are absolutely harmless. It is said that immediately after stinging a victim a snake gets intoxicated, lifeless and faints and comes back to life a few minutes later! In the ancient world the snake was an honoured symbol of medicine and even the Hippocratic Oath displays two snakes. The earliest snake charmers were traditional healers and they treated snake bite victims and their expertise was much sought after to flush out snakes from human abodes whenever they became a nuisance to human settlements.

Snake lore of many countries inform us that these creepy reptiles who have been living alongside man throughout the ages also have a long life. In this context it is useful to discuss the manifold ways in which this dreaded class of animals are serving mankind throughout the world. In Asia especially man is always poised to think about the destructive force of snakes and it is very seldom that we care to think about the important role they play in relation to man's welfare, either directly or indirectly. It is important that we understand snakes as an integral facet of mother nature leaving aside the fear and mysticism we generally attach to them. Civilised people and those with a highly developed aesthetic sense are impressed by their beauty and graceful movements and poets have written about them. Even to the ancient Greeks the serpent represented wisdom and longevity.

The greatest benefit that snakes bring on man is the control of rodents such as rats which all kinds of snakes relish to swallow. From dim historic times rodents have been one of man's greatest enemies as they are carriers of deadly diseases and are great raiders of food stores. Throughout the ages snakes have been very effective controllers of rodents more than any other single natural agency.

Fancy goods

More direct methods of their service to mankind come to us in the use of snakes as a source of food and as a source of raw material in the production of expensive fancy goods. Throughout the centuries reptile leathers have been both ornamental and durable and all kinds of snakes have provided their quota of reptile skins, especially the skins of sea snakes have been highly fancied in this sphere.

In the western countries fashionable women loved to possess snake-skin shoes, purses and handbags made of cured snake skins showing variegated designs. For a long time utility items made of snake skins formed an important part in the fashion circles. Even today snake skins are used for making scarves, belts, shoes, handbags, wallets, purses, cases and a host of other items including sports jackets.

In certain parts of the world such as Brazil even expensive books are bound in snake skins! In neighbouring India snake venom is used in the manufacture of antivenin. The therapeutic use of cobra venom is known throughout the world. While we in Sri Lanka are agitated even at the mere sight of a snake, people in some other countries believe that its flesh is both nourishing and appetising. As such in certain countries snakes are of much appeal as an article of diet. For instance, pythons are a welcome addition to the diet in some parts of Asia and Africa. It is said that the people of tropical America accept boas as a rich article of food. As much as the skins of sea snakes are a rich raw material for the production of ornamental items their flesh is a popular food in Japan.

In some other countries snakes figure as a dietary delicacy on special occasions. Wealthy Chinese hold a feast with snakes as one of the most important and cherished dishes. In many countries snake flesh is sold as a highly priced novelty food for social occasions. Certain varieties of snake venom are used in modern pharmacology. Derivatives of snakes have been in use from time immemorial as effective sources of strength, courage, wisdom and virility, believed to reside in certain organs of the snakes.

Miraculous results

Primitive people carried snake organs in amulets and by doing so they believed that they produced miraculous results. Snakes have always provided material for witchcraft and especially brews of medieval medicine used material derived from snakes.

In some countries snake oil of all kinds has been a popular remedy for athletes and for various human afflictions.

Writers of sensational fiction have often used snakes in their stories either as guardians of secret places or as weapons of retribution or murder. In early warfare live snakes which were thrown on to the enemies were used for large-scale man slaughter. The death dealing activities of snakes have thrown them aside as possessors of supernatural powers and some people believe them to be the incarnation of evil spirits.

Some others admire snakes, adore and worship them as gods' representatives and even today many people in Sri Lanka and India consider the cobra as a national heritage and a symbol of culture and religion.

Particularly the villagers of Sri Lanka avoid killing snakes even if they encounter them in their homes and from the ancient times they have protected them with respect and honour.

All these facts show that snakes are also beneficial to mankind in several ways and what is really lacking is a proper understanding of this ever dreaded creature found throughout the country. So the next time you encounter a snake try not to destroy it.


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