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Lions Roar : January 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2012 67 LAST AUGUST, walking with a friend near the Point Reyes National Seashore, I spied a snake on the trail. It was a harmless creature (to humans, at least): a common Coast Garter, sunning itself beneath a blackberry branch. I turned to point it out to my friend, but he’d already seen it. He stood frozen, eyes wide, as if the lazy reptile might strike at any instant. “It’s just a garter snake,” I said. “I know,” he replied sheepishly. “It’s the ‘snake’ part that gets me.” Fear is a strange thing. The United States sees about twelve deaths a year from snakebite, compared to 115 traffic fatalities every day. Very few people, however, express a phobia of cars. The human relationship to suborder Serpentes is ancient and ambivalent. It ranges from the despised serpent of Eden to the honored nagas who bring Asia’s monsoon rains; from the reptiles entwined around the medical caduceus to the slithery antagonists in Snakes on a Plane. We may honor them or loathe them, but we’re always fascinated by them. Since the early 1980s, my travels in South Asia have made me more aware of snakes and their very different roles across East- ern and Western cultures and mythologies. Why do they pro- voke such strong and varied reactions? My search for answers has helped me understand why cultural traditions around the world respond so differently to these amazing creatures. As it turns out, there may be a biological reason for our widespread aversion to snakes. Recent studies by Lynne Isbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Davis, suggest that critical aspects of human evolution—from our three-dimensional eyesight to our ability to perceive color— may be rooted in the tense relationship between Cretaceous- period primates and these reptiles. The success of the primate order hung on our ability to recognize and avoid deadly snakes. “That humans have been afraid of snakes for a long time is not a fresh observation,” Isbell says. “That this fear may be entwined with our development as a species, is.” Whether or not predation pressure from snakes forced our primate brains to develop, humans have given serpents an unusually high place in our collective conscious. John Emberton is one of the owners of the East Bay Vivarium, located near my home in northern California. Since 1970 the Vivarium has sold reptiles and amphibians to the general pub- lic, given educational programs, and helped people overcome snake phobias. I asked him the pivotal question: Why do people in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions generally treat snakes with respect and reverence, while those in the Judeo-Christian world tend to see them as frightening and evil? Emberton shrugs. “Years ago, there was a poll done asking people why they hate snakes. Their answer, overwhelmingly, was ‘The Bible.’” When we look for the root of our Western prejudice against snakes, it’s obvious how superficial (and misogynistic) it is. Our collective loathing seems to date back to that single morning in Eden, when a laudable episode of serpentine wisdom was cast as a duplicitous dare. “Ignorance,” that canny snake told Eve, “may seem like bliss— but it’s also ignorance. God knows this, I know it, and that impressive brain of yours knows it, too. But don’t take my word; have a bite of this pomegranate.” At which point Eve—whose defiant courage would be twisted into a betrayal of everything high and holy—helped herself. What do we find distasteful in this scene? Do we really wish Snakes on the Brain We can control our fears—even primal fears conditioned by evolution and genetics. The key, says JEFF GREENWALD,is the stories we tell ourselves, as individuals and as cultures. PHOTO:BUDDA|DREAMSTIME.COMPHOTO:MELINDAFAWVER|DREAMSTIME.COM