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Snake charming: from Ancient Egypt to today

We’ve all been capitaved at one time or another by the sight of a snake charmer sitting cross-legged, blowing on a flute, while his poisonous cobra, its puffed-up hood spread wide, rises up out of a basket and sways to and fro in time with the music.

Snake charmers have charmed and mezmorized spectators as well as snakes for centuries. The earliest documented use of snake charming was in Ancient Egypt. There, a rearing cobra with its hood spread wide was a symbol of royalty. At a time when less than ten percent of the population could read and write, snake charmers were high-status, literate men, who served as both healers and magicians. They learned about the various types of snake, what snakes were sacred to which gods, and how to treat people who were bitten by snakes. They were also entertainers, who knew how to charm the reptiles for their customers.

Another early reference to Egyptian snake charming is the biblical account in the Old Testament (Exodus 7:8-12), in which Pharaoh summons the country’s best magicians to compete with Moses and Aaron. The Egyptian magicians change their walking staffs into living snakes, but Aaron does them one better, turning his staff into a snake that eats all their snakes.

Today, snake charmers are still active in Egypt and other North African countries, as well as India and other Asian countries. Many of them can be found on street corners, performing primarily for tourists. Others wander from town to town, performing in smaller villages during market days and festivals. Most of them use the hooded cobra, and in Egypt the most popular species is the aggressive Egyptian cobra, which can grow to a length of almost eight feet and looks most impressive when it puffs up its hood.

So how do they do it? How do they make a snake freeze like a stiff rod? By some accounts, the charmer grabs the snake and applies pressure to a certain spot on its neck, pinching a nerve and causing the snake to stiffen up like a walking cane until the charmer throws it on the ground.

But how does the snake charmer keep from being bitten? Unfortunately, many present-day charmers are apparantly frauds who use non-venomous species, or remove the snake’s fangs or venom glands, or even sew the snake’s mouth shut.

So did the snake charmers of Ancient Egypt employ the same tactics, or did they really make the snake do all those things with no gimmicks? Only they would know.

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