Snake charmers were once a fixture at Indian and Southeast Asian markets, festivals and city streets. They hypnotised crowds with their ability to command some of the world’s most venomous snakes. But how charmed do we feel when we watch a snake charmer and his companion–a lethal cobra–perform for an audience?
I’d say we humans are hard-wired to fear snakes. But are snakes hard-wired to fear us? Some snakebites can be lethal to humans, but many snakes are harmless. Which are we dealing with? Often, we haven’t the faintest idea.
Snake charming as a profession is said to have begun in India. It was a nomadic vocation. Snake charmers would go snake-hunting and use snakes that they have captured themselves in the wild. After spotting a suitable snake, the charmer would use hooks and sticks to catch it.
Once caught, the snake’s fangs or venom was removed and the snake was placed into a box, basket or gunny sack. The charmer would then bring it home to be tamed. It could take anywhere between a few weeks to half a year to tame a snake.
Snake charming was typically an inherited profession and aspiring charmers would begin learning the art at a young age from their fathers. They were largely street performers, equivalent to our modern day buskers. The snake charmer would usually choose to perform at a spot where there is good pedestrian traffic.
At the end of the show, the crowd that had gathered would drop money into a till or basket. To further supplement their income, snake charmers would sell accessories, souvenirs, ointments for snake bites, burns and bruises as well as offer photo-taking sessions.
The snake charmer and his companion–usually the cobra–would travel from town to town and city to city to perform for an enthralled audience. He would play some music and the snake would dance. The science on the age-old art is that snakes can’t really hear, but they can see movement as well as feel the vibrations that emanate from the music.
Before snake charming became a form of entertainment, it is believed that the world’s earliest snake charmers were most likely healers. As part of their training, they had learned to treat snake bites. People often called on them to safely remove snakes that had been found in their homes.
Even till today, the caduceus, a symbol for modern medicine, bears the symbols of two snakes intertwined over a staff with wings; presumably in hope that we will be healed, but if not, let’s hope we have a place waiting for us in heaven.