What Is a Snake Charmer?

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Traditional snake charming involves a venomous snake, typically a cobra or viper, being "charmed" by the music of a flute. The snake uncoils from a basket, rises and appears to sway as if hypnotized. Most snake charmers are street performers and can be found throughout India, Pakistan, northern Africa and parts of southern Asia.

History

  • The earliest accounts of snake charmers are from ancient Egypt. Healers and educated men learned about venomous snakes and treatment for snakebite and incorporated their knowledge into a form of entertainment. In early India, snake charmers were considered to be holy men.

    Snake charming became well-known in Western society in the early 20th century. The government of India actively promoted the practice to draw tourists and private showings were often held overseas for the wealthy. In some ways, snake charming became symbolic of Indian culture to many Westerners.

Cultural Significance

  • Snakes, particularly cobras, hold a special place in Hindu beliefs. Cobras were considered to be god-like creatures that should be treated with respect. Many depictions of Hindu gods show them being guarded by cobras.

    In rural areas, snake charmers are considered to be healers and magicians and are sometimes asked to rid homes of snakes. Often, snake charming is an inherited occupation, passing from a father to his sons.

Types

  • Aside from the traditional form of charming snakes with a flute, there are some common variations. Often the performer will kiss the top of the snake's head or put the snake's head in his mouth. Snake charmers also have been known to stage combats between cobras and mongooses. Almost any street performer who engages in performances involving live snakes could be termed a snake charmer.

Misconceptions

  • It is widely believed that snakes are lulled into a complacent state by the music the snake charmer plays and that they are literally "dancing to the music." This is not actually the case. Snakes have very poor hearing and cannot hear the music. What is most likely happening is that the snake is reacting to the movements of the flute and slight vibrations in the ground. When the snake rises out of its basket, it is actually just going into its natural defensive posture.

Criticisms

  • The treatment of snakes used in snake charming has been questioned by several animal rights organizations. Snakes are often treated poorly by charmers and the snake's fangs or venom glands are often removed. In some cases, the snake's mouth is sown completely shut except for a small opening which allows its tongue to dart out. Snakes often die of starvation or infection. Many snake charmers go through several snakes a year.

References

  • Photo Credit gregory/Flickr.com
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