Snakes and spiders throughout music and history

In 1974, country and pop singer-songwriter Jim Stafford had a big hit with ‘Spiders and Snakes’. The refrain went, “I don’t like spiders and snakes and that ain’t what it takes to love me…”.

The song concerned the unwanted attention that a young man was displaying towards the object of his desire, by attempting to slip some sort of reptile, i.e. a frog or small lizard down the back of her dress. Now I must admit I’m not one for spiders either – in fact they make my skin crawl. As for snakes…well I can’t say I’m especially enamoured there, besides; it seems rather an odd way to show your affection, or am I just old fashioned? This particular genre of music was called ‘swamp rock’. Another exponent of this queer offshoot of rock ‘n’ roll was Tony Joe White. Tony Joe’s big hit from 1968 was ‘Polk Salad Annie’ – a tune concerning an ‘ingénue’ – who, ‘made the alligators look tame’. So what is it with these people and their (sometimes) fatal attraction to loathsome creatures, especially snakes?

Indeed, we humans appear to have a revulsion and a strange fascination towards snakes, simultaneously. Traditionally, we have ascribed all manner of perceived ‘evils’ to snakes or serpents as the embodiment of all things wicked and sensuous. Medusa, for example, from Greek mythology, was said to be a Gorgon; generally portrayed as having a hideous female face with living venomous snakes in place of her hair. Staring directly into her eyes would turn observers to stone. (One of our prominent female politicians has a similar ability!) When Perseus slew Medusa, Pegasus, a winged pure white stallion, sprang from the blood issuing from Medusa’s neck. Cleopatra, upon hearing of the death of her lover Antony, did away with herself by encouraging an Egyptian cobra to nibble her breast. And of course way, way back, as the creationists would have us believe, Eve listened to the murmurings of a snake in the Garden of Eden; the serpent being identified as Satan or the Devil. But aren’t these tales simply that: tales?

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In Tolstoy’s epic tale – Anna Karenina, Alexei Vronsky, Anna’s lover, says that ‘he (referring to Alexei Karenin the husband) puts me in the position of a “snake in the grass”, which I never meant and never mean to be’. Yet he did seduce Anna, causing her to break away from her husband and son. In other words he is saying, ‘I am not like the serpent from the Garden of Eden’. The inference is that Anna was already estranged and that her self-centred husband was weak for not having the courage to confront Vronsky, and perhaps fight a duel to defend his honour. Interestingly, Tolstoy bestows Vronsky with the same first name as Karenin, thereby suggesting that Anna’s desire for another Alexei leads her to a disappointing recurrence of her first relationship. Sometimes, I wonder if I am a ‘snake in the grass’ as well? We all have our secret thoughts; not shared with even our closest friends, family and intimate partners. At the core of our being is the kernel of who we really are; what we really think; what our essence really is. Indeed, sometimes we ride the snake!

“I’m gonna ride the serpent” is a line from ‘It’s My Life’; a song written especially for the 60s recording group The Animals. Their producer, Mickie Most, solicited material from many sources for the group’s early recording sessions. Many people assumed that the song was a reflection of the hard, working class background of Newcastle, England where The Animals originated from. The Animals always had a rather contentious relationship with songs such as this. They subsequently followed with another ‘hard times’ tune called ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’; could it be that they were attempting to get away from the serpent? I don’t think so.

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Could it be that to ‘ride the serpent’ is a determination to do whatever it takes to remove yourself from an impoverished situation; to take advantage of every possible situation? Perhaps… The song ‘It’s My Life’ was actually written to order by Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico, who worked out of the Brill Building in New York, and the follow-up tune ‘We Gotta Get out of This Place’ was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, also associated with the Brill Building. This is a centre for the popular music industry, in particular music publishing and song writing. Consequently, to me it seems a rather cynical exercise in audience manipulation to write a ‘socially disadvantaged anthem’. It seems to add another layer of meaning to the expression – ‘snake-oil salesman’.

It makes you wonder if ‘snake-oil’ was one of the exotic substances that Jim Morrison of The Doors ingested, out of the massive amounts of psychedelic drugs he took during his short but tempestuous career. ‘While riding the snake’, he once said, ‘you may enter into an extradimensional/transdimensional realm conterminal with the realm of space-time, or “reality” as it is commonly known’. So what did Jim mean by that? Whilst there’s no denying his considerable prowess as a poet, it’s true that Jim was fond of displaying his one-eyed trouser snake on stage during The Doors’ performances. So perhaps we can extend the masturbatory motif to some of his writings as well! Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet once said, ‘Behind every atom of this world hides an infinite universe’. Could that be what Jim Morrison was getting at? Maybe he thought of himself as some sort of snake charmer…

Personally, I doubt if I’ll ever think of snakes as charming – ‘that ain’t what it takes to love me’. I don’t retain the Raptness Keen, though I’m sure that snakes have their appropriate place in the cosmic scheme of things. The only snake I ever came near to, was a brown snake I encountered on the periphery of the golf course when I was out, as a boy, scavenging for lost golf balls with my mates. Needless to say, we stopped…literally! Just recently, we had to serpentine through Glenmore Park to get to a venue where the band was playing. Why? There is not one straight road in the entire suburb! Fortunately, we didn’t see any snakes.

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What do you think? Are you bothered by snakes or spiders? Do you think they are spiritual and represent something deeper? Tell us below.

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