Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

proving at that juncture unusually strong, owing to the advance of the tide, in spite of all its struggling it was borne down the stream, and was unfortunately drowned. We have ourselves known the common ringed snake of our heaths so tamed by a herd-boy as to coil and uncoil itself at his desire, to follow even in the fields for a short distance, and to retreat to the box in which it was usually kept, on his giving a peculiar signal. This specimen was the largest of its kind we have ever seen, being more than two and a half feet in length. It lived for several summers, and died, we believe, from being over-fed, and not being allowed the necessary duration of torpidity during winter. The boas of our zoological gardens and travelling menageries might also be instanced as evidences of the degree of tameness to which serpents may be brought by kind and gentle treatment. It is true that the boas exhibited are more frequently dull and lethargic than lively and tractable, but this is owing to the coldness of our climate, in which they could not exist, were it not for the artificial temperature which is always kept up around them.

Even the most venomous serpents, it would seem, are capable of being tamed, if once deprived of their fangs. Hector St John says that he once saw a rattlesnake in America as gentle as it is possible to conceive a reptile to be. It went to the water and swam whenever it pleased ; and when the boys to whom it belonged called it back, their summons was readily obeyed. It had been deprived of its fangs. They often stroked it with a soft brush; and this friction seemed to cause the most pleasing sensations, for it would turn on its back to enjoy it, as a cat does before the fire. In India, the hooded snake is carried about in a basket, to be publicly exhibited as a show, being first deprived of its fangs, to secure the men from the danger of its bite. At the sound of a flageolet, it is taught to assume a kind of dancing attitude and motions, which it continues: as long as its master continues his music. According to Catesby, the black snake is found to be extremely useful in America in clearing houses of rats, which it pursues with wonderful agility, even to the very roofs of barns and outhouses; for which good services it is cherished by the generality of the Americans, who are at great pains to preserve and multiply the breed. All the mischief this species does is to the farmers' wives, in skimming the milk-pans of the cream, and robbing the hen-roosts of their eggs. It is not uncommon to find it coiled up in a nest under a sitting-hen. It has even been seen taking milk out of the same dish with children, without biting them, though they often gave it blows with their spoons upon the head, when it was too greedy.

Seeing that many of the serpent family, whether venomous or non-venomous, are tamable to a certain degree, we shall be better prepared to comprehend the so-called 'art of charming,' about which so much has been said and gainsaid in almost every country. This

art is peculiar to the East, having been practised in India, Syria, and Egypt, by a race of half-mendicant vagrants from time immemorial. To charm a serpent is, in other words, to possess some mysterious power over the reptile, by which it may be called forth at pleasure, be made to submit to any experiment, and, if venomous, to forego its noxious nature, and become mild and tractable. More than this, the charmer professes to be proof against the fangs of the most venomous, without having recourse to any medicine, and merely by the potency of the spell he possesses. Such a power is utterly denied by the majority of naturalists, who believe that the so-called charmers act only upon tamed serpents, or upon such as have their fangs extracted; on the other hand, some less sceptical entertain the modified belief, that while the charmers may thus often impose upon the public, they sometimes perform very wonderful feats, partly through hardihood, and partly from their superior skill in handling the reptiles so as not to irritate them. Be this as it may, some of their performances are certainly very curious and entertaining

Having heard, while in Egypt, wonderful accounts of the feats of these professional snake-charmers, we were anxious to test what truth there is in them. We may state that the profession-for so it may be called—is divided into two classes, the Riffâr'ey, or snakecharmers proper, and Sa-adee, who do not charm,' but only shew their powers by devouring living reptiles, and obtain a livelihood by travelling about the country, for the purpose of coaxing or charming snakes from out the houses. If it is discovered, or only imagined, that a snake has taken up its quarters in a dwelling-house, whether of the rich or the poor, a serpent-charmer' is immediately sent for; and if successful in coaxing out the unwelcome intruder, he is rewarded ; if good luck does not attend his charming, he gets no remuneration.

One of our friends, Mr Foster, who resided at Shoobra, about four miles out of Cairo, and from whom we received a great deal of information concerning these serpent-charmers, most kindly volunteered to send to the head sheik' (we believe the word strictly means in Arabic, old man'), and make arrangements with him to meet us at Shoobra, so that we might have an opportunity to judge for ourselves. Everything was satisfactorily arranged, and we had the good fortune to meet the head snakecharmer (as he is said to be in Cairo), together with two of his suite. He had a large leathern bag suspended round his neck by an embroidered strap, and into this cavernous receptacle, when we turned towards him, he thrust his hand, and in a few seconds drew forth a writhing snake. He held it very cautiously, and when we attempted to take it, drew back, making signs that it was dangerous to touch it; and then one of his inferiors, styled Serpent Jack, chimed in, and pointed out to us that it had poison-fangs. Knowing this to be untrue, and that it was a perfectly harmless snake, we insisted on having it given to us, when we opened its mouth, and demonstrated that it had no poison-fangs. Soon a second snake was produced from the bag, which was much more cautiously dealt with than the first; this was a very light gray coloured snake, and had just over each eye a horn. The snake, as the charmer held it, appeared so much like the horned viper or cerastes, commonly called Cleopatra's asp, that at first we imagined it to be really one of these most poisonous and deadly reptiles. But luckily we had, only a week before, caught a horned viper, and studied it minutely; and on looking more closely at the reptile, now in the hands of the charmer, we saw that the head was narrower, and not so flat as that of the asp. We wanted to examine the snake in our own hand, but the charmer objected, saying, in Arabic, that it would bite and-kill us; nevertheless, we persevered, and at last took the serpent from him. Once having possession, we examined it minutely, and found the horns were artificial, and the snake merely a common non-poisonous variety. The artificial horns were most ingeniously managed, and would, we venture to say, deceive any one as to their being fictitious, unless a very close scrutiny was instituted. We at once exposed the deception, and opened the snake's mouth, to prove to the charmer that it had no poison-fangs.

The next performance was to be the display of the man's power as a serpent-charmer, and here let me state that he did not select his own localities in which to search for snakes, but they were chosen for him, and he simply went whithersoever he was directed. Being quite determined that he should not have an opportunity of concealing snakes about him, we had him stripped naked even to his head-gear and slippers, and we are positive he had no snake in his possession when he commenced work. First of all, he tried the hedge on one side of the garden, and his mode of proceeding was somewhat as follows. Walking up and down, and striking the bushes with his cane, he kept repeating in a loud tone in Arabic (so translated to us): 'I adjure you, by the great God, if ye be above, or if ye be below, or wherever ye may be, to come forth. You are only a snake, and God is greater than all snakes-obey this call, and come forth ;' and very much more to the same effect. However, he soon said there were no snakes at this place. Next, he was taken to a small enclosure made for keeping fowls, quite on the other side of the garden. Various things were scattered about inside this tiny bamboo kind of house, amongst which were several logs of wood; no fowls had been there for some time. We kept close to the charmer, and entered the fowl-house together, we looking carefully upon the ground, but seeing nothing in the shape of a snake. The charmer again began his incantation, and rapped about with the cane as before. It might have been a minute, certainly not longer, after he commenced, when, to our astonishment, we saw a snaké wriggling itself from underneath one of the logs; and stooping, the charmer took the snake by the tail, and held it aloft in triumph. Of course the attendants and the charmer's companions ran off, pretending the snake was venomous and vicious; but seeing us take it in our hand and open its mouth, they readily came back. This snake was a common Egyptian species, but we do not know its name. After it was consigned to the bag, which was strictly guarded by an attendant, the next place decided on for a search was the stable. The door was unlocked, but the charmer said he did not think it likely any snakes would be found there, as they objected to the smell; at anyrate, he again commenced, and we kept close beside him as before.

There was a small room adjoining the stable, littered with straw, and roofed with a kind of bamboo thatch. Hardly had we entered this inner apartment, than out crawled a second snake from a crevice in the wall. It turned out to be a nonpoisonous species, but a different species to the one previously caught : although Serpent Jack asserted to the contrary, and said if they did not then and there make us a sheik, we should surely be killed. We saw his inotive : if we were made a charmer, then they could say the gift or power bestowed on us was the reason why the snakes did not bite or harm us. Seeing no objection to his proposal, we thought we would comply. We still had snake number two in our hand; and as we were to be made invulnerable to snake-poison, the charmers thought it wise to try if we had courage to support our opinion by actual proof, in order to shew the snake was harmless, before bestowing on us a charmed life. Will you let the snake bite you, now that you are not a sheik?' said Jack tauntingly. We handed him the snake, and said: 'Yes; we are not afraid.' Then he opened the snake's mouth, and it immediately fastened on our hand. As the reptile's teeth went deeply into the fleshy part of our hand, it was rather sharp practice to bear it without wincing, still we would rather have died, we believe, than exhibit any symptom of fear, or shew that we flinched from the pain. Nevertheless, we bore it; and, with the dangling and twisting snake fixed to our hand, we were made to repeat something in Arabic, word for word, as dictated by the charmer ; and what we may have committed ourselves to, in our ignorance of what we were saying, we shall probably never know. The incantation finished, the snake was, so to speak, choked off our hand, and the blood flowed freely from the punctures made by the teeth. Next, the charmer spat upon the bleeding place three times, saying something in Arabic; and after each prayer, or whatever it was, rubbed the wound with his hand. We were now pronounced a grand sheik; but not, as we were informed, a serpent-charmer of any very great power. It was boldly asserted by the charmer that had we been bitten under ordinary circumstances, and had we not been made a sheik, it would have gone hard with us, even if we had not died outright. We certainly accomplished our purpose, which

was to shew these worthies we were fully prepared to support by test the harmless nature of the snakes.

We are quite ready to admit that we are sorely puzzled about this so-called snake-charming. That we were somehow deceived, we feel sure, yet cannot for the life of us tell how. As the charmers were at Mr Foster's some time prior to our arrival, we were at first disposed to think the snakes had been placed in the situations where we saw them taken. But Mr Foster positively assured us that the men could not by any possibility have gained access to either of the localities where the snakes were discovered. Again, the charmers did not go where they willed, but simply searched where they were directed. We have sometimes thought it probable the Arab might have had about his stick or his person some strong odour attractive to snakes ; if so, and we are rather inclined to this opinion, it was imperceptible to our olfactory organs.

Most persons with whom we have conversed in Egypt believe the snake-charmers have power to compel snakes to quit their hidingplaces. We were talking with an Englishman of education and position a sh time ago about snake-charming.

been about eleven years resident in Egypt, and he tells us that he quite believes in the power of snake-charmers, and related an instance of their power which he witnessed ; it was as follows. A small steamvessel, employed for transport up and down the Nile, became so infested with snakes that the sailors and stokers refused to work in her. The reptiles were lodged in the coal-bunkers, in the hold, in the cabin, and, indeed, no place in the ship was free from them. A pasha, to whom she belonged, sent for the snake-charmers. Four of them came ; and they were placed on the steamer's deck, stripped naked, and told if they cleared the steamer of all the snakes, they should be amply rewarded ; if they failed to do so, they would be considered impostors, and handed over to the tender mercies of the kaidee. They were eminently successful. How many snakes they brought out of the steamer, I am unable to state-at anyrate, a goodly number; and from that time the steamer has been free from snakes.

We often used to watch the snake-charmers performing in the bazaar at Cairo with the hooded snake (Naja haje). One provokes the snake by flapping its face with a rag, torturing it with a stick, and generally worrying it until he provokes it to raise its hood and erect its body; then holding out his hand, he permits the snake to strike at it : immediately the rascal goes through some form of incantation, rubs his hand with a charm, and the wondering crowd throw in the coveted "backshish.' Another, during this performance, keeps up a perpetual droning kind of music, produced from a kind of rude reed instrument, also now and then rattling a tambourine. They also cause the snake to become as stiff and rigid as an iron bar by somehow pressing on the nape of its neck; a good

« ForrigeFortsæt »