Reality strikes (well, almost....)

For years now, I have kept my eyes open in the hope of finding a Northern Copperhead at Valley Forge National Park.

Finally, this afternoon, there it was! The real deal -- a genuine specimen of Agkistrodon contortrix, in the flesh! Unfortunately, it was also dead. But I was able to take a few photos to document the momentous (quite possibly portentous) occasion.

This picture of the snake's whole body (note the hourglass-shaped camouflage patterns) will give an idea of why it's so tough to spot these creatures in the leaves:


Average adult length is about 30", and as you can see by my hand, this one was barely 20", placing it the juvenile/young adult size range. (They're born in the fall, so I'd guess it's a year old.)


A closeup of the head next to my index finger:


It's a shame it's dead, as it would have been fun to catch this little beastie alive! While I'm not a reckless risk taker, I've caught a number of venomous snakes. The need to be very careful lest you get bitten always provides a nice adrenaline rush. The Copperhead is a useful snake and is not nearly as aggressive nor as dangerous as the rattlesnake, so there's no reason for anyone to kill them. (Well, I'd keep children away from them, as pit vipers and kids don't mix. But the bite from a Copperhead is almost never fatal.)

As to possible omens and portents, the snake as an omen is a multifaceted one -- with so many apparently contradictory perspectives as to all but defy analysis:

Throughout history, the snake has been an especially diverse symbol, representing immortality, sin, protection, and femininity. In Animal Dreams, writer, James Hillman discusses the multiple symbolic functions of the snake. The snake has long been a symbol of immortality because it constantly renews itself and is reborn as it sheds its skin. In the shade, the lethargic snake looks dead, yet it comes back to life in the sun. From the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean basin, a coiled snake has come to represent the navel of the universe. Similarly, a snake swallowing its tail is a common symbol of eternity, an "endless cycle of life and death" (Nissenson and Jonas 20). Whereas the snake can represent immortality, it is also an omen of death. The snake is associated with death because of the toxic poison that it secretes (Hillman 25). This prophet of death has long been linked to original sin and evil because of its role as the betraying, seducing villain in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. In Genesis 3:1, the serpent is described as "more crafty than any other wild animals" (The Holy Bible 3) as it cruelly tempts the ignorant Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Hence, the snake has been seen as partly responsible for the fall of man. Many critics of the bible have read the snake's interaction with Eve as kind of sympathetic relation to the original woman. Therefore, the snake is also a feminine symbol because of the strong bond that it shares with the earliest matriarch. Since the snake has such a strong association with woman, it also represents fertility. Snakes were often found beside wells and springs as a promise of life and fertility. The snake is also a contrary symbol of the negative mother because it wraps around, smothers, and swallows things whole. Whereas the snake is a feminine symbol, it is also an undeniably phallic symbol associated with man (Hillman 25). Vedic mythology describes a "cosmic serpent" as the creator of the universe that agitated and stirred the primal oceans (Nissenson and Jonas 20). The snake is more simply a phallic image because it has a long shafted body that stands erect with a stiffened head, secreting fluids from its tip (Hillman 25). We have seen that the snake represents many various, sometimes contrary, things.
Phew! That's a lot of symbology. Masculine and feminine; life and death; original sin and the fall of man; immortality; creation of the universe?

And in my case, this wasn't just a stumbled-upon-at-random omen. I had searched to no avail for one of these incredibly beautiful venomous snakes for years. Now, I'm finally lucky enough to find one, and it's dead!

Partial defeat? Partial victory? If so, over what?

Worst of all omens would be those along political lines. "Copperheads of the North" were awfully active in this area.

(Ye gods! Please don't make me go there!)

posted by Eric on 09.18.05 at 05:55 PM


Fascinating and profound, on so many levels. Yes, snakes have always evoked many mythological symbolisms. Sinuous and sinister, wise and deadly. Very Wanda-like. I have always loved snakes. When I was a boy, we used to catch garter snakes in the field out back of our house, and I used to wrap them around my wrist. The Feathered Serpent -- Quetzalcoatl, the Osiris/Christ-Deity of ancient Mexico. His worship spread south among the Peruvians as well.

The style of it all....

Still looking for those snakes in the woods, eh? I remember about 40 years ago how your mother drove you and I over to the N.J. Pinelands so that we could go searching for rattlesnakes. I remember how much fun it was. Back then I had no fear of such an adventure. Watching Venom ER on Animal Planet has taught me a whole new appreciation of snakes and the importance of keeping my distance. Good luck with the snake hunting.

John Fischer   ·  September 24, 2005 12:03 PM

John, it's great to hear from one of my best childhood friends! Many happy memories. Thanks for visiting, and stay in touch.

Steven, you remind me that there are parallel childhoods somewhere . . .

Eric Scheie   ·  September 24, 2005 12:14 PM

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