Thursday, November 03, 2011

Snakes alive

Last week, a couple of days before the big snow storm, I came across this snake in the path. I gave it a few jabs with my finger, to hustle it to a safer place, but it refused to move. Just weaved its head and gave me the glassy eye. It was a sunny day, which may have enticed the creature out for a last slither, but it was chilly. Too cold for the snake. So I picked it up and moved it to a sunnier and safer spot, figuring it would warm up and head home.

As it curled around my wrist, I had a flashback that always occurs when I pick up a snake.

When I got to the college library I looked to see if Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain was in the collection, a book I read years ago about the snake handling religious cult of the rural Southern Appalachians. Yes, it was there, and I read it again.

When I was 17 or 18 years old, I and a couple of pals visited a snake handling service in the shadow of Sand Mountain in northern Alabama. We sat in the back row of the tiny wood-frame church on a dirt road and watched as the congregation -- men on one side, women on the other -- worked themselves into an orgiastic frenzy. As the Holy Ghost descended the snakes came out -- rattlers and copperheads -- and were passed about.

For Roman Catholic boys from Chattanooga, it was quite a show, and left a lasting impression. No one got bit that night, as I recall, although snakebite deaths among religious handlers were not uncommon. Whatever spirit was moving among the faithful that evening was affecting the snakes too.

Of believers the Bible says: "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." The handlers take this literally. They take up serpents and they drink strychnine. And they believe, fiercely and passionately that they witness the truth.

Dennis Covington is not unsympathetic. Even as a reporter he became close to the handlers. He participated in their services. And, at least once, he took up a rattler. He says of his own religious convictions: "Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not be Christianity at all."

Culturally, snakes have loomed large in Dionysian ecstasies, as a symbol of Satan, as emblems of power, and in the arts of healing. They seem to embody a bit of all of this among the handlers. "The more faith you expend, the more power is released," writes Covington; "It's an inexhaustible, eternally renewable resource. It's the only power some of these people have."