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Ferrebeekeeper often writes about serpents and we write nearly as much about crowns, but the only snake crowns we have written about are the various color crowns of ancient Egypt (which center around Wadjet the cobra goddess). What gives? Well, unfortunately, monarchs of the last thousand years or so have not been so into snakes (which are taboo in Judeo-Christian mythology). The crowns of the Minoans, Aztecs, and ancient Cambodians are largely lost in the mists of time.
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Fortunately there are plenty of fantasy crowns featuring snakes available for Halloween, costume dramas, and general fashion. I have gathered a little gallery of them here for your enjoyment. Which costume crown tickles your fantasy most with its forked tongues?

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And don’t even get me started about crowned snakes!

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Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself).  For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly.  The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood.  A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.

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Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety.  Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day).  Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish.  Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth.  When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib.  Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands.  This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art.  It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology.  Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes:

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The Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) Africa's most infamous venomous snake

Sanofi Pasteur is a French biomedical corporation—the vaccination division of Sanofi-Aventis Group, the world’s third largest drug company. The company produces “Fav-Afrique” a highly effective snake antivenin cocktail used to treat bites from Sub-Saharan Africa’s ten most poisonous snakes…or I guess I should say they used to make Fav-Afrique.  Snake antivenin is difficult and expensive to produce: making Fav-Afrique involves keeping and milking extremely poisonous snakes and then giving this venom to large domestic mammals such as sheep and horses.  A course pf Fav-Afrique costs around $500.00—which is big money in Sub-Saharan Africa—and the production was already heavily subsidized by NGOs and governments.  Yet somehow the entire affair was not economically feasible for Sanofi Pasteur.   There are a limited number of fairly shelf-stable doses left, but the earliest anyone is going to make a comparable product is 2018.

This job looks hard

This job looks hard

Snakebites are not particularly deadly here in the United States where snakes kill maybe 2 people a year, however the reptiles of Southern Africa are more formidable…while medical and emergency infrastructure there is a lot poorer (and there are far more people who live closer to the ground) so an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people a year die of snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is a huge number—for comparison the 2014 Ebola outbreak which (rightly) scared the bejeezus out of everyone “only” killed 6,500 people.

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All of this makes me wonder anew about the way incentives work in the broader affairs of the world. I understand why medical companies don’t want to mess with a process which is dangerous and complicated yet provides little (or no) profit.  Would you want to do that? Pro-market adherents (who increasingly strike me as bastards) would probably argue that the price of a course of antivenin should be much much higher (which is the case here in America with our sky-high health care costs)…but who would then pay for it in Africa?  Should we not have antivenins—even though we know how to make very fine ones which could save many lives?

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

It seems likely that powerful NGOs like the Gates Foundation and Médecins Sans Frontières will step in and take over Fav-Afrique–once they build an organization to master the complicated process of producing it.  Perhaps the entire flurry of media attention (like this article) is a useless kerfluffle designed to get frightened people to read articles…but I don’t feel like it is.  I feel like this whole error begs larger questions of how our system works and doesn’t work.   I don’t have any answers to macro-scale resource allocation questions, but I can see the invisible hand of the market trembling and doing dastardly and stupid things and it bothers me.

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Of course all of this also begs question about what these ten super-poisonous African snakes are and where and how they live. I can answer questions about these amazing and formidable mambas, vipers, cobras, and puff adders!  I will be writing more about them in weeks to come…so even this poisonous cloud has a scaly silver lining.

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Across the vast continent of North America temperatures have plummeted.  As I write this, sub-zero winds sweep across the Great Plains. Buffalo is seemingly gone–buried beneath uncounted tons of lake-effect snow.  Obviously, with all of this November cold, Americans are obsessed with one question:  what happens to snakes in the winter?

This seems somehow wrong.

This seems somehow wrong.

Snakes live in places that get very cold during the winter, yet the poor reptiles are cold-blooded and can’t be slithering around in snow and ice.  In fact, considering that their bodies become the same temperature as their surroundings, how do they avoid becoming snakecicles?  What happens to them when the mercury dips?

Technically speaking, snakes (and other reptiles & amphibians who live in climes which turn cold) do not hibernate—they brumate.   Brumation is a different sort of metabolic dormancy than mammalian hibernation, but there are many similarities. When reptiles go dormant, their breathing and heart rate drop to almost nil.  Brumating reptiles do not eat (or produce waste)—though they wake up occasionally from their dormancy to drink water.

Garter Snakes dormant in a hibernaculum

Garter Snakes dormant in a hibernaculum

As temperatures dip in autumn, temperate reptiles get all Roman and they seek out a hibernaculum—a sheltered environment which protects them throughout the winter. Hibernaculums are usually deep within the ground in holes, crevices, and burrows which reach beneath the frost line.  Certain species of snakes brumate together to share trace warmth.  Just imagine a colony of hundreds of little garter snakes in suspended animation beneath a snow covered rock wall in that picturesque New England snowscape!

Wait, where are the snakes?

Wait, where are the snakes?

Although it is not exactly the topic of this post, amphibians and aquatic reptiles also brumate—sometimes underwater or deep within the wet mud at the very bottom of ponds and lakes! The turtles, frogs, and newts take in sufficient oxygen through their skin to stay alive in their deeply reduced metabolic state—although they occasionally wake up from their torpor and swim about. An indelible memory of my childhood is seeing some little newt swimming beneath the ice of the frozen cranberry bog which I was standing on!

When spring comes and temperatures become warm enough, the snakes depart from their underground dens and sun themselves until they have sufficient energy to become active. Of course some reptiles live in such wintry locations that they have very little summer.  There are snakes (like northern rattlesnakes) which brumate 8 months out of the year!  Scientists believe that this prolonged dormancy allows the snakes to live longer—like an automobile turned off in a safe garage.

Garter snakes awaken en masse in the spring

Garter snakes awaken en masse in the spring

A model dressed as Angitia

A model dressed as Angitia

The Romans borrowed most of their official pantheon from the Greeks–but the Roman canon of gods was large & diverse: other deities great and small sneaked in from a variety of non-Greek cultural traditions (like Charun the blue hammer-wielding Etruscan god of death or mighty Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, night, and the crossroads). Angitia was a goddess of serpents, snake-charming, magic, and healing among the Marsi, a Latin tribe who lived in the mountainous region of Italy which is today known as Abruzzo. The Marsi (whom I keep miswriting as Martians) were integrated into the original Roman alliance early on in Roman history and their language and culture was quickly subsumed by the growing republic, but Angitia survived in her original form through the long centuries of Roman hegemony. A great temple was built for her on the shores of Lake Fucinus (a large lake drained in the 19th century).

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

Although there is evidence that Angitia was originally a local goddess, the Romans found was to Hellenize her, and writers identified her as a granddaughter of the sun (and sister of the golden-eyed Cretan sorceresses Medea and Circe). Some later sources even equate her directly to Medea, who after all vanished in a serpent-drawn flying chariot after poisoning her children with Jason and Jason’s younger trophy wife.

Medea--Image from an Ancient Greek Vase  (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

Medea–Image from an Ancient Greek Vase (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

In classical antiquity, serpents were strongly associated with healing magic—and this became a particular specialty of the serpent-goddess Angitia. She was reputedly able to cure sickness and poisoning—particularly snakebite. Snakes obeyed her whims and she possessed power of life and death over them by merely speaking a word. The lands which had originally been inhabited by the Marsi also acquired a magical reputation and were alleged to be the haunt of witches, sorcerers, and supernatural beings.

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn't look super happy about it)

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn’t look super happy about it)

Even when the Roman Empire eventually blew apart and was replaced by Christian kingdoms and city-states, the worship of Angitia did not wholly vanish. Throughout the middle ages, Abruzzo was the site of “the Feast of the Serpari” a spring festival dedicated to snakes. Serpent charmers would collect local snakes in order to perform great tricks and shows while healers assuaged pains and illnesses. A statue of San Domenico was draped with snakes and carried through the region in a great procession, after which the snakes were cooked and eaten (although in today’s festival they are replaced with snake-shape confections and sinuous breads).

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Today, to remind you to enjoy yourself on the long Labor Day weekend (and to take whatever joy you can from the dying summer) here are two images of maenads with snakes. I’m sorry they are such small images and that they are distorted from being glazed on non-three-dimensional surfaces of fifth century Greek vases. Still they are very beautiful. The maenads were attendants of Dionysus, god of wine, tragedy, and delirium. The constant drinking drove maenads to euphoric madness and they were quite dangerous (unless you could stay as messed-up as them).  Each of the dancers holds a thyrsus—an sacred symbol of Dionysus which we’ll write about next week.

Cheers! To life, fulfillment, and fecundity!

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Photo by Guido Mocafico

Photo by Guido Mocafico

Today is world snake day: maybe you should run out and do something nice for our scaly limbless friends (though don’t hug them—they don’t like that)! Sadly though, many people do not appreciate snakes. Not only are serpents taboo in the Abrahamic faiths (since, according to the creation myth, a snake convinced the original people to disobey the creator deity for the first time), humankind also seems to have an instinctual inbred panic reaction to them. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leftover from when our just-out-of-the-trees ancestors shared East Africa with a bevy of aggressive venomous snakes like the formidable black mamba (or whatever the mamba’s just-out-of-the-trees ancestor was). This human antipathy towards the Ophidia is a shame. Not only are snakes inimical to the rodents and bugs which spell true problems for modern agricultural humans, they are critical to most non-pelagic, non-Arctic ecosystems in numerous ways. Additionally, snakes are very beautiful. They are more colorful than most other creatures and they have a hypnotic sculptural beauty all their own. Just look at the lovely art photo by  Guido Mocafico at the top of the page.

 

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Adam and Eve (Albrecht Durer, 1504, engraving)

Other ancient religions were not as opposed to snakes as the Canaanites and Israelites (who, were, after all, herding people who lived in a dust colored-desert filled with poisonous dust-colored reptiles). Hindus respect the powerful nagas and worship Vasuki, the cobra-king of all snakes. Buddha was sheltered by a hooded cobra. The Chinese creation myth centers on Nüwa, the serpent-goddess who first gave life to animals and humans. In ancient Greece, snakes represented the secrets of the underworld, the healing power of medicine, and the foresight of divine augury. The pre-Greek Cretan culture worshiped a sinuous bare-breasted snake goddess who held a serpent in each hand as she danced. Sadly we know little about this compelling deity other than what is revealed by sculpture.

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Minoan Snake Goddess (Crete, ca. 1600BC)

Going back even farther, the oldest written story humankind currently possesses features a snake as a villain: after all of his trials, Gilgamesh loses the herb of immortality when it is stolen by a water snake. People from the Fertile Crescent really seem to dislike snakes…although that presumes that the Biblical serpent actually was the villain. Maybe the snake was the real hero of Genesis (after all, it is never demonstrated that the tree of knowledge does not perform as advertised). Don’t we long to become as Gods? Isn’t wisdom our greatest collective treasure? What is so great about obedience? After all, did we really want to live forever as naked childlike near-beasts? Perhaps the snake is a pivotal figure in imagining our transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural folk–which is to say from nature to civilization.

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

The Serpent Steals the Herb of Immortality from Gilgamesh (illustration by Ludmila Zeman)

If the snake does represent our coming of age it is ironic: the majority of city-dwelling modern humans probably never see wild snakes in our monstrous concrete cities. This strikes me as a shame. For good or for ill, there really is something sacred about the snake.

Honduran Milksnake

Honduran Milksnake

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

Sand Cat Kitten (Felis margarita) born at Zoo Brno

We all know that cats have mastered internet popularity. Whether through adorable antics on Youtube, elaborate pun-filled digital images, or just general grumpy demeanor, the felids have demonstrated an unparalleled ability to thrive in today’s new media environment. Therefore, to please the cat-loving legions of netizens, I am dedicating today’s post to sand cats (Felis margarita), which are small cats which live in the deep deserts of North Africa, the Middle East, and southwest/central Asia. Also a trio of sand cat kittens was just born in Zoo Brno in the Czech Republic, so expect this post to get super cute!

 

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

A sand cat hunkering down in the deserts of Saudi Arabia

With short legs, a stout body, and a long tail, sand cats are among the tiniest of cats. Full-grown adults weigh only 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). Sand cats live in discontiguous ranges—so they are separated into several subspecies which are evolving in different ways. The tough little cats thrive in the deepest hottest deserts—the Sahara, the Rub’ al Khali, the Lut—where they live without water by surviving on the moisture in their prey. Like all cats, they are formidable predators, but their hearing is superior even to other felids: sand cats have huge highly-refined ears which are capable of hearing tiny burrowing animals moving deep beneath the sand. They survive on rodents such as jerboas, gerbils, and spiny mice, but they also hunt small birds and reptiles (and they are known as a particularly adept killer of snakes). Sand cats have heavy fur on the pads of their paws so they can run across burning desert sands. They co-opt the abandoned burrows of other desert creatures as their own to hide from the scorching daytime heat.

 

A sand cat with a snake

A sand cat with a snake

Sand cat populations are diminishing in the wild as human development encroaches on the edge of their habitat–but the true depths of their hellish deserts are places where humans are unlikely to build condominiums, so sand cats are merely listed as near-threatened. Until recently sand cats did not do well in zoos, and they are a somewhat unfamiliar animal. Because they are used to profoundly arid climate, they would die of respiratory infections when brought into humid locations. Today zookeepers know to keep their sand cats in dry arid enclosures—which mean the creatures are beginning to do much better in captivity. In 2012, the first captive sand cat kittens were born in a zoo in Israel, and this year three kittens were born in the Czech Republic. Look at how adorable they are (well, assuming you are not some timid burrowing desert creature).

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

Sand cat kittens at Zoo Brno (credit: Zoo Brno)

A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

Tonight we travel once again to the ancient and mysterious island of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  Ferrebeekeeper has already visited Gotland as the (possible) land of origin of the enigmatic Goths and as a place which is absolutely covered in beautiful medieval churches, but in this post we push further back in Gotland’s mysterious past to contemplate an ancient sculpture.   The Smiss stone (Smisstenen) also known as the Ormhäxan (which means snake-witch stone) is a carved picture stone shaped like a huge piece of toast which shows three zoomorphic serpent creatures entwined in a sort of triskelion pattern.  Beneath the creatures, an apparently female human figure with legs spread holds aloft two writing serpents.

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

As you can see, the actual stone is even more amazing than the already astonishing description (I get the sense that the red paint was added by a later hand, but, alas, I am unable to find an explanation for the brightness of the color).  The stone was discovered in an ancient cemetery in Smiss in the När parish.  Scholars and archaeologists have dated the stone’s construction back to 400–600 AD, the late Vendel era when great migrations changed the Germanic world–but all of the experts disagree concerning the stone’s meaning and purpose.

The "Hall of Picture Stones" at the Gotland Museum in Visby

The “Hall of Picture Stones” at the Gotland Museum in Visby

Some historians (the reputable ones) believe the stone shows a pagan goddess or sorceress…perhaps Hyrrokkin (a snake wielding giantess) or maybe some unknown deity left out of the Eddas.  Other thinkers have speculated that the stone depicts a Minoan snake goddess (although who knows how she got to Gotland from Crete), Odin making love (?), or Daniel in the lion’s den (???).   I am usually good at determining how people perceive visual art, but I confess to being perplexed by these latter interpretations.  The lovely knots and sinuous serpentine animals look very much like Celtic, Pictish, and Mercian designs to me–which would comfortably place the stone’s figures within the cryptic North Sea pantheon of late antiquity.  Unfortunately, there is little and less which is certain about the faith and folktales of that time.  We are left with a haunting beautiful sacred stone, but like so many of the most compelling statues from humanity’s history, the real meaning slips from our grasp and we are left with haunting conjecture.

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

Here is a dark Baroque masterpiece.  Using a polished shield as a mirror, Perseus has just severed the dreadful head of Medusa, a gorgon capable of turning anyone who sees her into stone.  Medusa’s head was subsequently used by Perseus as a weapon to slay the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda–but the weapon proved too dangerous for him to keep so he gave the head to Athena, goddess of victory and wisdom.  She set it on her shield (or sometimes her breastplate) and the Gorgoneion thus became a symbol of divine protection and luck as well as a charm for warding off evil.

Through the artist’s imagination, we are allowed to see what Perseus is not: the horrible head of the demigoddess with her countenance contorted in mortal outrage.  Despite her death, the many serpents which make up her hair remain alive and infuriated.  One even bites her forehead in pique. Where her blood pours on the ground, serpents and worms spring to life.  Spiders, scorpions and lizards appear in order to abet the general creepy horror of the scene (as do the stormy clouds and desolate landscape.

Detail

Detail

Rubens was the master of using color and motion to express the sensual and the grotesque.  The full dynamism of his style is evident in this grisly tableau which simultaneously evokes the drama of earlier Medusa paintings by Da Vinci & Carravagio while also bringing some of the detail and imagination of Flemish still life composition to play.

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