This is a reworking of an older post with added information, clarification, and an update on the informant.
In the Ozarks, as well as some other places in the South, snakes are often associated with spirits, whether good or bad, and are sometimes considered to be the embodiment of wandering spirits. So, work associated with snakes is usually associated with getting rid of spirits in a person. Sometimes if a family has fallen on hard times, or there’s a sickness that comes up in the family, a power doctor or goomer doctor may first search the area around the house for a sign of a snake. Finding a snake, or a snakeskin, often points toward the cause of the illness. Snakes are often considered the companion of the witch, and it’s thought that a witch can send out the snake as a way of causing harm to a person or their family.
There’s a folk illness in the South associated with snakes, where people believe they have “live things” or sometimes just called “things” inside of them. The idea is that certain parts of certain animals, like snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, etc., general creepy crawlies, can be put into a person’s food or placed in such a way that it will come into contact with the person’s skin, thereby causing these “things” to grow inside of the person and cause them harm.
“A physician at Ozark, Missouri, tells me that some people in that town became convinced that a man with an Aortic aneurysm was ‘goomered’ by a witch who had died some time before. They called a goomer doctor down from Springfield; he decided that there were live lizards and frogs inside the patient said he could feel ‘em wriggling about under the swelling in the poor fellow’s chest! The ceremony which was supposed to remove these creatures lasted several days and nights, but the patient died.” ~from “Ozark Magic and Folklore” by Vance Randolph
One way of getting these “things” out of a person is through what I’ve come to call “rattlesnake magic” or the working of spirits of certain rattlesnakes in order to help drive out the snakes inside of a person. This work is something I learned from a man named Hank who lived out on the White River, so I’m not sure how “traditional” this folk practice is, as I’ve never seen anyone else doing it. His family was one of those families who don’t kill snakes. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, there have been many families in the Ozarks who hold snakes with a certain amount of reverence and would never kill one, especially a rattlesnake. This likely comes in from the beliefs of Cherokee peoples who moved into the area. There’s a common belief that killing a snake means bad luck and ill fortune upon the family. Hank’s grandpa was a Pentecostal minister who was forced out of his church for trying to introduce snake handling to the people.
I met Hank through a folklore informant I worked with for a while. She had gathered up some snake related stories from Hank and his family a few different times, so when I mentioned odd Ozark practices to her she knew exactly who to call.
Hank claimed to have learned his “rattlesnake magic” from an uncle who learned it during a dream after surviving a rattlesnake bite. We met only on a few occasions, and was “initiated” by him on the third time talking to him. Hank’s rattlesnake magic is said to be able to rid a person of any evil spirit plaguing them, if the rite is performed correctly.
At our first meeting Hank just gave me a bunch of snake-lore that he had heard growing up, some of which was similar to what I’ve heard in other parts of the Ozarks, e.g. not killing snakes. When I asked him if he considered snakes to be “spirits” he told me that they could be, but not all of them, and you can know a spirit-snake by the way it acts. Wandering through the woods with Hank he made sure to identify any “normal” snakes we saw versus those he suspected to be spirits in hiding. Hank identified one blacksnake as a spirit by the way it stayed coiled up on a stump despite the fact we circled around it nearly three times. As we left the spot and continued along the trail the blacksnake was still coiled up on that stump as though it hadn’t even noticed us. Odd behaviors in snakes were what led Hank to believe there was something not quite right about them. Identifying a spirit-snake is important in remedying certain problems. Say a person has been having odd things happening around their house and they suspect witchcraft. Well an expert power or goomer doctor would be able to search around the house for a spirit-snake that might be responsible for the trouble. If no snake is found another cure is sought after.
There’s all kinds of magic associated with different spirit-snakes, but rattlesnake magic is by far the most powerful, mostly because of how deadly the snake itself is and also how difficult the initiation into this rite is. It seems that the deadlier the snake the more powerful the magic is in curing a person. Hank also told me he worked with copperheads sometimes, also because of their deadliness. It’s also possible the reverence for the rattlesnake came in through folklore from Cherokee members of Hank’s family.
My initiation was relatively simple. Hank took me out one afternoon to look for a rattlesnake-spirit. After about four hours of hiking around turning over rocks and poking in snake holes, and after seeing a whole host of other snakes, some deadly, most not, we finally found a timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, sunning itself on the edge of a rock outcrop. Hank knelt down slowly, not once looking away from the snake, who remained coiled up and motionless about five feet from us.
“Is it a spirit?” I whispered. Hank motioned for me to keep silent. He watched the snake intently for what seemed like ages. Finally, he slowly stood back up, turned to me, and nodded. At this point I had no idea what was going to come next. I knew that Hank had wanted to find a rattlesnake-spirit but other than that I had no idea what his plans were for the serpent.
Hank slowly moved toward the snake, tongs ready and pointed at the creature. The rattlesnake was still motionless, but as Hank got closer I could hear the familiar rattle begin to sound. With a skill I could never match, Hank’s tongs flew forward securing the snake as it writhed furiously. Hank effortlessly took hold of the rattlesnake’s head at the base of it’s spine between his first finger and thumb then walked it over to me. The snake still writhed but soon calmed as Hank held it in his free hand. “Suck it’s head.” He said holding the snake up to me. “What?” I asked not knowing what he meant. “Suck it’s head.” He repeated, this time holding the snake even closer to me. And then I briefly sucked the rattlesnake’s head, from where Hanks fingers were securing its mouth shut to the tip of its pointed head. The snake remained motionless almost as though it were asleep. Hank took the rattlesnake’s head into his own mouth now, holding its mouth shit with his lips and letting the long body dangle down to the ground. Arms outstretched he stayed in this position for a moment until he moved one hand back to the snake’s head and the other to its lifeless body. Taking the rattlesnake out of his moth Hank moved back over to where the creature had been caught and gently placed it back onto the rock outcrop. Letting the snake loose, Hank quickly backed away toward me, and the rattlesnake, regaining his life, slithered under the shelter of a nearby boulder.
I’ve only ever seen a rite like this one other time in my life, just last year, when I watched a French documentary called “Reportage sur les Chamans, les maitres du désordre” which can be found in full on Youtube. This documentary, among other things, follows a traditional healer in Morocco who sucks (or blows, I can’t tell) the spirit out of venomous snakes, through the head, in order to heal people later on. Now, I guess it’s possible, and only just possible, that Hank had seen this documentary and was somehow thought to replicate this rite. But, as for me, I believe these two traditions are representative of a much larger grouping of snake-related magics that can be found all over the world. Whether or not Hank was being honest about who taught him this snake magic is of no real concern to me. The fact remains that this red-blooded, Church-going, Arkansan, was performing a rite that seemingly stands in the face of most people’s expectations and beliefs about Southern culture.
“What just happened?” I asked Hank as we walked back through the woods to the truck.
“You sucked out the rattlesnake spirit.” Hank replied nonchalantly.
“And what does that mean?” I asked him.
“Well, you can do the things I do.“
I knew what he meant without needing to ask any more questions.
We walked the rest of the way back in silence apart from talking about the weather and looking at a hidden patch of ginseng that Hank knew about. Back at the house Hank handed me a glass mayonnaise jar containing a coiled up rattlesnake skin with rattle still attached. “What’s this for?” I asked as he handed it to me.
“You can wrap it around a person that you’re working on and it’ll help the bad spirit to come out.” He said, pouring me a cup of water.
“Did you kill it yourself?”
“Yessir, I’ve got more.” He said opening up a cabinet beside the refrigerator. Inside were maybe six other jars like mine, all containing rolled up skins. There were also two bigger skins rolled up and set down in a cardboard box. “I sucked the spirit out of all of these.” He said closing the cabinet back up.
“Do I need to say anything when I put the skin on a person?” I asked him.
This is, unfortunately, information I can’t give out without potentially losing the power myself. I’m not a folklorist, or an anthropologist; I’m an active practitioner of this kind of folk healing, so there are some details about rites and charms that I chose not to reveal.
I met Hank about four years ago, and so far I’ve on had to use the rattlesnake rite a couple times, both times with a great deal of success. Back in November of last year, after having not seen Hank in years, I made my way back to his place on the White River to check in on him. He was still living in the same run-down house as when I first met him. He was sitting on the porch, asleep. I said hello, waking him up from the nap. He barely recognized me, I had to explain our last meeting in great detail before he finally knew who I was. It was also apparent to me that he had started drinking again (when I met him the first time he was very proud about being one year sober) and was possibly on drugs, likely methamphetamines. I talked to him for a little bit but the conversation was broken and hard for me to follow. His house was a disaster; it looked like he hadn’t cleaned anything in a long time. I didn’t get much useful information out of him, mostly just small talk. I ended up leaving after he fell asleep (or passed out) mid sentence. I couldn’t resist doing a little snooping while I was in his house but couldn’t find any of his rattlesnake skins that I had seen the last time I met with him. When I asked him about the skins he just said that they were packed away somewhere. As we drove back up the dirt road toward the highway I couldn’t help thinking about how bad off mountain folk can have it around here, and how things can go from good to terrible in such a short time.
I’ve talked with other healers in the area, and a couple folklorists and none of them have heard of a rite like this one, which leads me to believe that I may in fact be the only practitioner of Hank’s rattlesnake magic who’s still around and active. I hope that’s not the case, of course, but the problem with a lot of folk traditions is that they aren’t so easily spread due to a lot of taboo surrounding sharing practices. I’m hoping that in my own small way I’m helping to preserve this unique Arkansas tradition.