and RATTLESNAKE DUST
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 (email@example.com), 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.
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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