Monday, August 2, 2010

A Strange Wailing Sound

North Carolina leads the nation in copperhead snake bites:

In 2009, 499 snake bites were reported to Carolinas Poison Center. Of those, 228 were identified as copperhead bites. About 30% of all reported snake bites are “dry,” which means venom is not injected.

Most bites can be treated with wound care and pain management. Some serious bites require antivenom. July and August are the most common months for people to get bitten.

North Carolina has five venomous snakes that cause the majority of snake bite poisonings (copperhead, cottonmouth, eastern diamondback, pygmy, and timber), but it’s the copperhead that causes the most bites. Copperheads are not usually aggressive snakes, but they will bite to protect themselves or to secure food. Children who are playing outdoors and adults who are gardening are especially at risk for snake bites.

( Asheville Citizen Times, 8/2/10, )

The photos are of my 2009 neighborhood copperhead, which I’ve not seen this year. I’d like to think I’m a devout pacifist regarding venomous snakes, but I might make an exception depending on the circumstances.

However, I must say that a story related by James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee has influenced my response to snake encounters:

58. The Rattlesnake's Vengeance

One day in the old times when we could still talk with other creatures, while some children were playing about the house, their mother inside heard them scream. Running out she found that a rattlesnake had crawled from the grass, and taking up a stick she killed it. The father was out hunting in the mountains, and that evening when coming home after dark through the gap he heard a strange wailing sound. Looking about he found that he had come into the midst of a whole company of rattlesnakes, which all had their mouths open and seemed to be crying. He asked them the reason of their trouble, and they told him that his own wife had that day killed their chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake, and they were just now about to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge.

The hunter said he was very sorry, but they told him that if he spoke the truth he must be ready to make satisfaction and give his wife as a sacrifice for the life of their chief. Not knowing what might happen otherwise, he consented. They then told him that the Black Rattlesnake would go home with him and coil up just outside the door in the dark. He must go inside, where he would find his wife awaiting him, and ask her to get him a drink of fresh water from the spring. That was all.

He went home and knew that the Black Rattlesnake was following. It was night when he arrived and very dark, but he found his wife waiting with his supper ready. He sat down and asked for a drink of water. She handed him a gourd full from the jar, but he said he wanted it fresh from the spring, so she took a bowl and went out of the door. The next moment he beard a cry, and going out he found that the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and that she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead, when the Black Rattlesnake came out from the grass again and said his tribe was now satisfied.

He then taught the hunter a prayer song, and said, "When you meet any of us hereafter sing this song and we will not hurt you; but if by accident one of us should bite one of your people then sing this song over him and he will recover." And the Cherokee have kept the song to this day.

In Sacred Formulas, Mooney shares more on the subject, beginning with a Cherokee song used in the treatment of snake bite:


1. Dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa (song).
Sgĕ! Ha-Walâ´sĭ-gwû tsûnlû´ntani´ga.
2. Dayuha, dayuha, dayuha, dayuha dayuha (song).
Sgĕ! Ha-Usugĭ-gwû tsûn-lûn´-tani´ga.
(Degâ´sisisgû´nĭ).—Kanâgi´ta nâyâ´ga hiă´ dilentisg´ûnĭ. Tă´lĭ igû´nkw’ta‘tĭ, ûlĕ´ talinĕ´ tsutanû´nna nasgwû´ tâ´lĭ igû´nkw’ta‘tĭ´. Tsâ´la aganû´nlieskâĭ´ tsâ´la yikani´gûngû´âĭ´ watsi´la-gwû ganûnli´yĕtĭ uniskûl‘tsû´nĭ. Nû´‘kĭ nagade´stisgâĭ´ aganûnli´esgûnĭ. Akskû´nĭ gadest´a‘tĭ, nûû‘kĭ nagade´ sta hûntsatasgâ´ĭ. Hiă-‘nû´ i´natû akti´sĭ udestâ´ĭ yigû´n‘ka, naski-‘nû´ tsagadû´lăgisgâ´ĭ iyu´stĭ gatgû´nĭ.



1. Dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa, dûnu´wa.
Listen! Ha! It is only a common frog which has passed by and put it (the intruder) into you.
2. Dayuha, dayuha, dayuha, dayuha, dayuha.
Listen! Ha! It is only an Usu´‘gĭ which has passed by and put it into you.

(Prescription.)—Now this at the beginning is a song. One should say it twice and also say the second line twice. Rub tobacco (juice) on the bite for some time, or if there be no tobacco just rub on saliva once. In rubbing it on, one must go around four times. Go around toward the left and blow four times in a circle. This is because in lying down the snake always coils to the right and this is just the same (lit. “means like”) as uncoiling it.


This is also from the manuscript book of Gahuni, deceased, so that no explanation could be obtained from the writer. The formula consists of a song of two verses, each followed by a short recitation. The whole is repeated, according to the directions, so as to make four verses or songs; four, as already stated, being the sacred number running through most of these formulas. Four blowings and four circuits in the rubbing are also specified. The words used in the songs are sometimes composed of unmeaning syllables, but in this case dûnuwa and dayuha seem to have a meaning, although neither the interpreter nor the shaman consulted could explain them, which may be because the words have become altered in the song, as frequently happens.

Dûnu´wa appears to be an old verb, meaning “it has penetrated,” probably referring to the tooth of the reptile. These medicine songs are always sung in a low plaintive tone, somewhat resembling a lullaby. Usu´‘gĭ also is without explanation, but is probably the name of some small reptile or batrachian.

As in this case the cause of the trouble is evident, the Indians have no theory to account for it. It may be remarked, however, that when one dreams of being bitten, the same treatment and ceremonies must be used as for the actual bite; otherwise, although perhaps years afterward, a similar inflammation will appear on the spot indicated in the dream, and will be followed by the same fatal consequences. The rattlesnake is regarded as a supernatural being or ada´wehi, whose favor must be propitiated, and great pains are taken not to offend him.

In consonance with this idea it is never said among the people that a person has been bitten by a snake, but that he has been “scratched by a brier.” In the same way, when an eagle has been shot for a ceremonial dance, it is announced that “a snowbird has been killed,” the purpose being to deceive the rattlesnake or eagle spirits which might be listening.

The assertion that it is “only a common frog” or “only an Usu´‘gĭ” brings out another characteristic idea of these formulas. Whenever the ailment is of a serious character, or, according to the Indian theory, whenever it is due to the influence of some powerful disease spirit the doctor always endeavors to throw contempt upon the intruder, and convince it of his own superior power by asserting the sickness to be the work of some inferior being, just as a white physician might encourage a patient far gone with consumption by telling him that the illness was only a slight cold.

Sometimes there is a regular scale of depreciation, the doctor first ascribing the disease to a rabbit or groundhog or some other weak animal, then in succeeding paragraphs mentioning other still less important animals and finally declaring it to be the work of a mouse, a small fish, or some other insignificant creature. In this instance an ailment caused by the rattlesnake, the most dreaded of the animal spirits, is ascribed to a frog, one of the least importance.

In applying the remedy the song is probably sung while rubbing the tobacco juice around the wound. Then the short recitation is repeated and the doctor blows four times in a circle about the spot. The whole ceremony is repeated four times. The curious directions for uncoiling the snake have parallels in European folk medicine.


Jim Parker said...

Mooney's book is fantastic.

I never knew there were dry venomous snake bites.

GULAHIYI said...

I wondered about that when I read it. Could it be that some of the "dry" bites are from non-venomous snakes that have misidentified as poisonous?

Christopher C. NC said...

As much as I garden and as many times as folks have told me there are copperheads in such and such a place, you'ld think I would have seen one by now. Not yet. Maybe today. Saw a nice big rat snake up in a shrub last week and see garter snakes quite often, but so far no copperheads or rattlers.

dwbrewin said...

I think the "dry" bites are more of a warning and don't penetrate deep enough to activate the gland or the snake has not had a chance to manufacture more venom from a previous kill. The snake really has no advantage in using their venom on something they can't eat.