Before the rise of monotheism, snake worship in one form or another was nearly universal. A symbol of the Great Goddess in Old Europe, a fertility icon in Southeast Asia, the creator-god Damballah in Africa, a representation of the celestial equator in Mayan archaeoastronomy, a companion to the god Shiva in India, the "adversary" of human beings in Judaism and Christianity, and a powerful force of mystery everywhere, the snake has long played a part in the imagery from which magic is made. Because serpents shed their skins and thus seem to renew themselves, people of many cultures consider them an emblem of long life. An ancient Roman serpent arm band typifies the use of the snake on protective and luck-bringing jewelry, and such jewelry continues to be worn to this day.
As the most conspicuous venomous serpent in the Americas, the rattlesnake has a long history of use in folk-magic charms and medical recipes. A picture of a pre-Columbian stone disk from Moundville, Alabama, depicting two rattlesnakes tied in a knot, can be found on the page on eye-in-hand amulets. Because rattlesnakes are only indigenous to the Western hemisphere, any magical recipe specifying rattlesnake parts, as opposed to general snake parts, must be of Native American origin or adapted from the earlier snake-lore of another continent by the folk-magicians of America.
THE RATTLESNAKE AS "REVERSED BAD LUCK"
Although in Africa the snake is an object of reverent worship, the European Christian identification of the serpent with Satan has led to the snake's use as a form of "reversed bad luck," by self-identified social outcasts. As the foremost American poison-bearing serpent, the rattler -- and to a lesser extrent the Asian cobra -- can frequently be found on reversed bad luck motorcycle gang and military jewelry and tattoos, along with the black cat, 8-ball, and lucky 13. Typical amulets, belt buckles, or key chain charms from this sub-culture show the rattlesnake coiled around a skull or a dagger.
The rattler has a reputation for bravery because it warns its victim before it strikes. The famous Revolutionary War flag depicting the rattlesnake and the slogan "Don't Tread On Me" probably expresses the sort of bravado that led 19th century men to use rattlesnake rattles (or gold facsimiles of them) as lucky watch fobs. It may also be as an emblem of bravery -- or as a remnant of African snake-worship -- that rattlesnake rattles are placed in hoodoo style conjure bags designed to produce gambling luck, especially by poker players, for whom a bluff or show of strength is part of the game.
My favourite use for rattlesnake rattles is the Appalachian fiddle-players' custom of placing them in one's instrument before entering a fiddle contest. Even folks who do not believe the rattles will help them win a contest may add a rattle to their fiddle to make it "sound better." The origin of this belief is unknown, but it is quite commonly encountered, even to the present day. In the South, rattlesnake rattles are sometimes placed in guitars for the same reason. In 1999, James Beverly (firstname.lastname@example.org), who had purchased some rattles from me to use in his instruments, wrote with this information:
I just got back from the music festival in Owensboro, KY. A lot of elder (over 70) fiddle players from Appalachia were there and I asked about the rattlesnake rattles in the fiddles (which most had). Here were the responses:To correspond with musicians about the folkloric use of rattlesnake rattles in fiddles, see Phil Campbell's Rattlesnakes and Fiddles page.
1) All mentioned that the rattles inside "sang along" with the music giving it a better & sweeter sound.
2) One wonderful old gentleman from North Carolina said that his grandfather told him that "way back, the fiddle used to be a woman's instrument and putting the rattles inside 'masculinizes' it for men folk to play".
RATTLESNAKE SKIN, DUST, and POWDER
Because the rattlesnake sheds its skin, powdered whole rattlesnakes are used in Latin American folk-medicine involving skin diseases.
To cure eczema and boils: dry and powder the entire rattlesnake (some say just the skin, others say just the rattles) and sprinkle the powder on food; alternatively, use the powder to make a poultice and apply directly to the skin. (cf. John O. West, Mexican-American Folklore, August House, 1988)
In the African-American hoodoo tradition, powdered snake skin (Rattlesnake Dust) -- either from a snake that has been killed or from "sheds" that one finds -- is an important ingredient in a mixture called Goofer Dust. Some practitioners insist that the skin used in this compound must come from a rattlesnake; others prefer the skin of a king snake (because of its presumed mastery over other reptiles) or say that any species of snake will do. Additional ingredients in Goofer Dust are graveyard dirt, powdered sulphur, red pepper, black pepper, mullein, and a variety of other herbs. The mixture is used to jinx, cross, trouble, mess up, or even kill one's enemies.
The typical hoodoo logic of "reversing bad luck" further leads to the use of the Rattlesnake to cure a "crazy" spells that have been put on someone. For a detailed eyewitness account of such a cure, performed in 1929 with Rattlesnake Dust and Adam-and-Eve Root, see the web page on the famous root worker Aunt Caroline Dye. For a couple of simple African-American spells using Rattlesnake Skin to ward off evil, see the web page on protective magic spells collected in the 1930s by Harry M. Hyatt.
Rattlesnake salt seems to be exclusively Latin American. To make it, a rattlesnake (rattles and all) is chopped up and placed in a container of salt. After six months the dried meat is discarded and the "rattlesnake salt" is ready for use.
To prolong life: sprinkle rattlesnake salt on the food you eat, at least once a day. (ibid.)
Rattlesnake salt also appears in a two-part Mexican-made "budu" (voodoo/hoodoo) charm labelled -- in English on the box front -- "Alleged Rattle Viper Sperm Incense" which i happen to own. The other box panels and inserted paper of instructions are entirely in Spanish, but the English-language front label seems to be a pick-up from an African-American hoodoo product: it depicts the Helping Hand labelled "Power Hand", a pair of dice rolling a lucky 7, an open book labelled "Bible Prayer," a four-leaf clover labelled "Good Luck," two money bags marked with $ signs and labelled "Success Happy Living," a hand holding a horseshoe magnet attracting stacks of dollar bills and coins labelled "Business Finances," two running red devils labelled "Run Devil Run Disturbs Run Enemy,' and a nest of cockroaches labelled "Jinx Removing." In the center of this wealth of imagery is a long-haired bearded man naked to the waist who is making what could best be described as "hypnotic gestures" toward a giant rattlesnake.
Despite the name of the product, "Incienso Marca-Brand Esperma de Vibora de Cascobel" is not incense per se, it is "rattlesanke salt" -- and the Spanish name ("Incense *Brand* Rattlesnake Sperm") indicates that the manufacturer was aware of the fact that the appropriated English label did not accurately describe the contents.
The two parts consist of packages of coloured rattlesnake salt, one off-white and the other coral-pink, which are to be used in (forgive my rusty Spanish translation) "rituals of Santeria, budu (voodoo), magical healing both black and white, spiritual healing, cleansing, and purification." A page of text inside the box explains that rattlesnake salt cures "hysteria, excessive wrath, mental illness, symptoms of insanity, uncontrollable tremors, phobias, delusions of grandeur, feelings of worthlessness, fantasies of persecution, and diabolical possession." A side-panel label on the box adds that rattlesnake salt will also protect one from envy and will prevent fights from breaking out in one's place of business or work.
The instructions given on the text-sheet call for the practitioner to lay the two colours of rattlesnake salt out in the doorway in a sort of sand painting depicting two S-shaped rattlesnakes and then to burn a black candle and a white candle on their respective heads, recite a lengthy prayer to "The Adorable Tetragramaton," extinguish the candles, sweep up the salt, and discard it at a crossroads.
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