Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

“They Shall Take Up Serpents…”

November 3rd, 2009 · 5 Comments


Yesterday’s quick mention of religious snake handling set us off on a minor research tangent. We’re accustomed to witnessing the practice via cheesy TV segments, which have always struck us as a tad too overproduced to convey the emotional appeal of grasping serpents in the name of the Lord. Fortunately, The Tubes now contain a full version of the greatest snake-handling documentary ever made: 1967’s Holy Ghost People. The clip above contains the meat of the ritual; the snakes come out around the 4:20 mark, as the infectious guitars whip into a frenzy.

Watching the clip above, we couldn’t help but recall Lawrence Wright’s insightful take on Jimmy Swaggert:

I felt an unhappy kinship with this man. I could sense the raw and sometimes dangerous expansiveness of the human spirit. His was not a religion I could believe in—but then mere belief was not what he was after: it was surrender, total abject surrender of the spirit. And of course part of me longed for exactly that, the ecstatic abandonment of my own busy, judgmental, ironic mentality.

For those with a yen to learn more, an invaluable snake-handling bibliography is available here.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    This is where the Stephen Jay Gould fact/value dichotomy between science and religion really breaks down. For many, faith tests facts. And curse you, MK, now I’ve got to find out the name of that western North Carolina snake handling leader in the 80’s who died from a bite. Wayne something or other, I want to say.

  • scottstev

    I remember an article (in the WashPost Magazine) about a secular journalist who went to Snake-Handling country for a story and ended up joining the church he was writing about. I don’t remember his motivations for joining, but I can’t imagine it was a literal belief in the theology. But stranger things have happened.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Thinking of this guy? Charles Prince was his name, and he could’ve lived if he’d accepted medical treatment:

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1367&dat=19850820&id=e5wWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=FhQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3284,6026665

    @scottstev: I have to say, I can see the appeal. I got a lump in my throat while watching the clip above. There is something alluring about the sheer ecstasy of this brand of worship. Of course, it’s all fun and games until you get bitten…

  • Gramsci

    Bravo, I believe it was indeed Charles Prince.

    Obeyesekere’s “Medusa’s Hair” is a brilliant study of Hindu and Buddhist snake symbolism, and once you think about all the Freudian issues wrapped caduceus-like around the meaning of snakes, I think it’s safe to say the snake-handlers are not just doing this because of the Bible.

  • scottstev

    @ Gramsci – I would postulate that you are correct. I think in such a small reputation-based community such as small-town Appalachia, there are few ways to get ecstatic without damaging your family honor. By going crazy in church, you can thread that needle.

    Until I read the article, I couldn’t see why the practice should be banned. But seeing how the sheriff was bitten, I can understand that a community won’t want to put itself in danger if folks get in over their heads.

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