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The Serpent's Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature
edited by Gregory McNamee
University of Georgia Press, 156 pages


Chris E. Lewallen
The Serpent's Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature
Gregory McNamee
Gregory McNamee is the author or editor of 18 books, the most recent of which are Blue Mountains Far Away, Grand Canyon Place Names, A Desert Bestiary, The Sierra Club Desert Reader, and Gila: The Life and Death of an American River. He is also the author of the text of two books of photographs, In the Presence of Wolves (with Art Wolfe) and Open Range and Parking Lots (with Virgil Hancock). McNamee is a correspondent for Outside, a columnist for the New Times, a contributing editor for the Bloomsbury Review and amazon.com, and a regular contributor to many other periodicals. More than 2000 of his articles, essays, short stories, poems, and translations have appeared in the United States and abroad. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he works as a writer, journalist, editor, and publishing consultant.

Some folktales related to snakes:
Snakes in Folklore
Lithuanian Snake Myth
Pennsylvania folk tale
"Naga: the Serpent" by Soror Ourania
Folk tales of snakes
Mexican snake tale (in French)
Snake tale from Madagascar (in French)
Languedocian folk tale (in French)
Another snake tale (in French)
Urban legends of snakes 1, 2
Ouroboros myth and symbolism 1, 2, 3 (in French)
Book Review: The Serpent's Tale
Publisher's site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Since very early on, the beginning of humanity -- if one believes certain creation myths -- mankind has had a strange love/hate, repulsion/fascination relationship with snakes. This dual relationship is evident in much of the material collected by Gregory McManee, and is discussed in detail in his introduction. Snakes, in Western culture, have tended to be portrayed in a less than favourable light: tool of the devil in Genesis, ungrateful and nasty in European folk tales, engine of suicide for Cleopatra, etc.  Besides the fact that snakes are fascinating animals in terms of their adaptation to environments as dissimilar as sea and desert, as well as with respect to their physiology, it is not in every culture that they are the pariahs we take them to be. If nothing else The Serpent's Tale, a collection of 50 accounts of snakes gleaned from all over the world, should open one's eyes to the wide range of snake-human relationships which have existed across the world and through time.

Gregory McManee's selection of snake-related materials include folk and fairy tales, poems, naturalists' accounts, and even the use of viper mating behaviour as a parallel to the proper Christian husband-wife relationship. The majority of tales come from aboriginal people, particularly those of North America. In these, the snake takes on a number of roles, from fierce and ravenous, to sly like a fox. Some snakes are shape-shifting humans, others simple beasts. Oddly, no Ouroboros (the snake that swallows its own tail) mythology is presented, but given the wide variety of other material this can certainly be excused. Some of the material from older sources such as Pliny the Elder (AD 79) and Aelian (2nd century) is quite humorous in its exaggeration: Indian snakes that can swallow bulls whole, and Ethiopian snakes 200 feet long, capable of killing elephants. Similarly, some of the snake bite cures, like milk ingested and then regurgitated by a snake, are not highly recommended. Some modern material, such as the description of Yosemite rattlers (1901) by the naturalist John Muir, and W.H. Hudson's character's regret [in his classic fantasy Green Mansions (1904)] in having killed a large jungle snake, are evidence that, at least more recently, people have developed a relationship of mutual respect with snakes and an understanding of their place in the ecosystems they inhabit. There's even a tie-in to science fiction (of sorts), "The Rattle Snake Ceremony Song" having been collected from a Yokuts Indian of coastal California by A.L. Kroeber, Ursula K. Le Guin's father.

While some of the material might not exactly be termed page-turning, the short nature of the texts and their seemingly random presentation leads one quickly to a completely different story, making it easy to read the book in bits and pieces, and quickly disposing of pieces of lesser interest. Certainly for the folklore enthusiast, the variety of snake stories contained in The Serpent's Tale should be an ample cross-section of snake lore. For the casual reader the book brings out the diversity of human response to snakes and makes it clear that whatever lack of respect and other hangups we may have about them, these views are not universally held. So shed your serpent-shy skin and wind your way to your local bookstore for a copy of The Serpent's Tale.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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