A Snake is a Snake

By Deepak Shimkhada

Part 1

I suffer from ophidiophobia: the fear of snakes.  Not just snakes, but any type of reptile that crawls on its stomach.  I really don’t know the cause of this phobia.  Except for a few foolhardy folks who find thrills in chasing and catching them, most people I know of are afraid of snakes.

I always have avoided visiting the reptile section when I take my family to a zoo.  On BBC’s radio show Natural Histories: 25 Extraordinary Species that have Changed Our World, Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss say that human beings are hardwired to fear snakes.[1]  According to their findings, monkeys raised in captivity that have never seen a snake show extremely strong responses when they are confronted with one.[2]

Since I published an article about a Nepali painting called Nagapasa – in which I discussed the function of snakes in the game of Karma – a BBC reporter for the show interviewed me.  In the episode that focused on snakes, the reporter wanted to know the origins of the popular game Snakes and Ladders, which was introduced to England in the 19th century from India.  Evidently, the fear of snakes was not limited to the West; it seemed to be a global phenomenon, and it extended to most creatures, including birds.  Birds don’t like snakes because they eat their eggs and chicks.

The fear of snakes has remained buried in the stratum of human subconscious since the beginning of time, regardless of race, religion, and location.  The Old Testament, for example, views the snake as the form of evil.  Hindus, on the other hand, though they may fear snake, revere it and worship it in the form of Naga.  The reverence and worship that a snake receives in Hindu culture perhaps stems out of fear that it contains lethal venom, capable of killing an individual.  The power to kill is what makes humans fear snakes.  When a person suddenly confronts a snake s/he is bound to get stricken with fear.

The genesis of my fear of snakes goes back to more than sixty years ago when I was about eight years old.  At that time I was living in Darkha, a remote village to the northwest of Kathmandu in Nepal.

It was one beautiful afternoon in April and the fields were green and lush.  With nothing to do, I set out to kill time.  My childhood pastime was to catch baby birds and to raise them in captivity.  Every time I brought a chick home, my mother would make me return it to the same place I got it from; it became a game of triumph and defeat, and I continued to play it for a number of years until I left the village.  Here I want to set the record straight that I never lifted a baby bird from the nest.  That would be too easy, and not to mention cruel separating the chick from its mother.  Because I loved challenge and needed to pass time, I would chase baby birds that were learning to fly near their nests.  It was more thrilling than stealing a chick from the nest.  I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew that young chicks that were still in their nests wouldn’t survive if taken before they were ready to leave their nests.  So I didn’t target them.

Like a hunter, I kept going through each bush and tree to check for signs of bird nests.  But one day as I was gazing in the bushes and trees for nests, I suddenly felt a cold and slippery object under my foot.  Yes, I was bare foot because in those days in my village very few people wore shoes.  I looked down and I saw a dark brown snake.  I panicked and ran toward home.  When I finally came to a stop, my heart was pounding and I was ventilating vigorously.

After seeing me in that condition, my mother asked the reason for my panic.  When I told her what happened, she laughed at my unnecessary fright.  She told me that the snake I stepped on was a harmless garden variety.  “The field is full of them; they save our crops from the rats, mice, and gophers that otherwise would destroy them.”  Although my mother’s explanation of the snake I encountered was soothing, it didn’t help subside my fright.  I was still shaking, albeit not as much.

As a person who has lived a full life, I now know the difference between a harmless garden variety and a venomous snake.  But regardless of the difference, my reaction to the incident wouldn’t have changed.  When a person is suddenly confronted with a snake—whether it’s a garden snake or a cobra—the person is bound to react with terror unless he is a snake catcher.

The origin of the fear of snakes goes back to the beginning of time when humans lived in caves.  During pre-historic times, humans had fewer things to defend themselves from crawling creatures and predators.  Perhaps that is when the mythology of snakes, animals, and the surroundings in which they lived might have originated.  This I will take up in part 2.  (To be continued)

[1] Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, Natural Histories: 25 Extraordinary Species that have Changed Our World, London: England, John Murray Publishers, 2015, p. 205.

[2] Ibid.