The Indian Cobra | The Science, The Myth and The Reality

The Indian cobra is native to the Indian subcontinent. It can be found in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and southern Nepal. It is one of the big four snakes of South Asia and is responsible for the majority of human deaths by snakebite. Unlike other venomous species, like the black spider–which can hurt you and cause you severe pain, but not kill you–the cobra’s venom is capable of killing a human being.

Indian cobra bites are common in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Case reports regarding these incidents, numbering into the hundreds, have been published in books and journals over the past century. In a majority of the cases, however, the particular species of the snake has not been identified.

For Indian cobras, the earliest clinical manifestation of systemic envenoming was drowsiness. This occurs within 30 minutes to three hours. From there, symptoms worsen to include difficulty in opening the eyes, speaking, opening the mouth, moving the lips and swallowing.

Ptosis–the drooping of the upper eyelid–developed within hours in all cases of systemic envenoming. General weakness was almost always the last symptom to develop, followed by paralysis of the muscles in severe cases. The outstanding feature of systemic envenoming is a paralysis of the muscles due to rapid action of neurotoxin.

A Storyteller’s Toolkit

Be it in the mundane, the mystical or the mythological. Storytellers of all ages have drawn upon the same motifs to tell their stories to an audience who awaited with bated breath to know how the story was going to end. A sad ending was definitely bad for business. That’s one of the reasons why so many formulaic plot lines make it to the big and small screen for the viewer’s pleasure.

We have to end with a happily ever after. There is no other way to end a story.

The genre of tragedy, however, provokes the audience to undergo a catharsis and experience a loss as though it were their own.

We, the audience, are usually privy to some knowledge that the protagonist doesn’t possess. We know his best friend is going to betray him. We know that his best laid plans are going to go up in smoke. We know that the decision he is going to make is going to lead to his ruin. We somehow know–as in, possess foreknowledge–of something that the protagonist does not know.

In the story of Julius Caesar, he is warned; time and time again–not to do something. A self-righteous know it all, he did it, anyway. If the forewarning was heeded, we would have all lived in a different reality, but we don’t. We live in a reality where the warnings we give are not heeded. We think we know best. We think we have all the answers. We don’t. We end up ignoring advise we probably should have heeded.

We allow ourselves to partake of the poison that may kill us.

The Mythological Snake

What has any of this got to do with the mythical snake that wants nothing more than to be left undisturbed? We humans are not the cobra’s natural prey. We’re too big and I’m not sure we taste good enough to eat–especially considering all the fast food that we eat.

A cobra only attacks a human if it feels threatened. They have specialised muscles and ribs in the neck that flare out when the cobra feels it is under threat. Cobras are able to raise their body up, spread their hoods and hiss loudly enough to scare off most threats. It’s not all show, though. It is not just a performance. It is not all talk and no action. The message is simple. I will bite you if you come any closer.

The Indian cobra is an important predator and its main diet consists of consuming a large numbers of rats. The venom is thus a well-developed evolutionary strategy to protect itself from predators much bigger and more dangerous than itself.

The snake’s biggest predator is the mongoose. It is fast enough to dart in and bite the back of the cobra’s neck before the snake has the opportunity to defend itself. It seems that the natural antidote to our innate fear of snakes is speed. We need to run for our lives. This is where our evolutionary flight response may have begun.

But not so for the mythological Eve of the Biblical narrative. Did she allow herself to consume venom? Was that the forbidden fruit of knowledge–the knowledge of death? Perhaps it is our fascination with all that is dangerous that propels us on the path forward to see if this venomous creature can truly harm us.

In Indian and Chinese mythology and folklore, snakes were not feared, but revered. They are depicted as powerful guardians, reminding us to steer clear of their path or they will attack. Despite their size, they possess the ability to defend themselves when they feel threatened. Snakes have never courted us, but we have, at times, always courted them.

In mythological tales, snakes are depicted as guardians of jewels, treasures and so on. There are even stories of shape-shifting snakes that can take human form. Avoidance is known to be the most common form of defence strategy of all reptiles.

It seems that snakes have populated our stories far more than we ever did theirs. They’re simply not interested in us. Knowledge of death by cobra bite doesn’t seem to be a bad thing to know about. This is not something that most of us would like to experience first-hand.

Then again, there are those who have–and have lived to tell the tale.


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