The Pyrenees is extremely rich in folklore relating to snakes, with tales and uses ranging from the medicinal to the maleficious. As in many European societies, this is in part due to its biblical connections and links with sorcery, not to mention the physical appearance and movement of the beast, all of which conspires to make the snake both feared and mistrusted throughout these mountains.
Alpine ‘snake’ drawn by 18th century Swiss ‘naturalist’ and traveller Johann Scheuchzer. Image taken from http://2.bp.blogspot.com
Like the dragons of the Alps, snakes were reputed to be able to fly in the Pyrenees and could transmit their venom to humans with the merest touch. They also had a reputation as aiding clairvoyance, and several tales tell of a character who was able to guess the secrets of others because he carried a viper in his pocket, or in a bundle of sticks on his shoulder. In the Basque Country, there is a popular saying that having a living snake under one’s foot means you will never lose a game, and in Aragon, some used to keep the dried skin of a snake in their pocket to win at games of cards. Similar uses were made of unfortunate lizards and their tails, with one lizard in a hundred thousand being said to possess a double tail, which if captured and kept would grant its keeper success in any game and lottery they played throughout their life!
Other beneficial qualities of the snake included a reputation for healing, although rather strangely this was through a stone that the snake would always keep balanced on its head. In Serrablo (Aragon) you can still find the serpent stone (piedra de serpiente) which is still said to have curative powers, and in Troncedo (Aragon) the villagers still keep dried snakes, from which they make all sorts of broths, unguents and ointments that are used to treat illnesses and keep the evil eye at bay. These snake soups are also used in Puyarruego (Aragon) by women who give birth at home, to facilitate the process. When the woman is suffering too much during the birth, the midwife will place the dried skin of a white snake around her belly. It has been suggested that this connection between the snake, childbirth, and the relationship of skin shedding in accordance with the cycles of the moon all points towards some manner of link between snakes and lunar cults in antiquity, and also towards their own immortality as creatures, in that they never die simply shed their skin. Mircea Eliade was convinced of this lunar link, describing the moon as the basis of fertility and periodic regeneration, and stating that ‘There are a great many different women-snake relationships, but none of them can be fully explained by any purely erotic symbolism. The snake has a variety of meanings and I think we must hold its ‘regeneration’ to be one of the most important.’ (Eliade, 1996). He also feeds into this the link between the female menstrual cycle, and the snakeskin shedding, both of which traditionally are seen as having relationships with the lunar cycle; after analysing a variety of snake cults and mythologies he concludes that snakes are essentially lunar in character (Allen, 1978).
Gartersnake skin. Photo taken from http://www.naturenorth.com
Throughout many Aragonese and Catalan valleys, villagers would capture garter snakes at the start of summer, kill them and dry them, keeping their desiccated remains in the pantry. If any of their livestock became ill, they would mix a little of the snake’s dried flesh with the animal’s feed to cure them. From the Ariege to Béarn, one used to be able to commonly find a bottle with a drowned snake kept near the hearths. The liquid would be rubbed on any infected or poisoned spots, the theory being that the venom of the dead snake would chase away the venom already in the skin. According to legend, it was enough to simply leave a bottle with oil on the hearth and the snake would come along and drown itself in the bottle. The grease and fat from snakes was also used as a poultice, spread on course paper that could be reused and even reheated! It could also be spread on the breasts of a woman who was suffering pain during breastfeeding. In some areas, a freshly moulted viper skin was seen as an excellent remedy for sore eyes, and highly prized.
Unfortunately, snakes were also killed purely for the great joy of seeing them writhe in agony, much like toads and cats, due to their perceived links with witchcraft, especially during the celebrations of San Juan/Saint-Jean. In Ax-les-Thermes (Ariege), children would spend all day on the 23rd of June collecting snakes, only to toss them into a huge town fire during the night. As the flames began to rise, the snakes would try to escape them by climbing to the top of the fogairol (woodpile), only to fall writhing back into the flames, which caused great joy amongst the onlookers. In Axait, Gourbit and other villages, there was even a competition to see which of the snakes that sheltered at the top of the fogairol were the most beautiful, and when they would fall back into the fire!
In Bearn, only curés, it was believed, had power against snakes, for it was thought that these reptiles were the incarnations of the Devil. One particularly cunning curé lit a large fire to imitate Hell, and hundreds of snakes rushed into it because they were homesick for that diabolical realm. The same town also has a legend that associates snakes with witches, saying that when a man marries a witch unknowingly, he can tell by watching the side of the road, because snakes will follow the wedding carriage but only on the side where the witch sits.
Many villages had diviners who possessed special formulas and incantations that would give power and protection against snakes. These were said to be especially powerful on the first Tuesday of March, both the month and the day being said to be sacred to Mars (‘Mardi’ being Tuesday and ‘Mars’ being March), and on this day the master of a household would rise at dawn to escarnir los serps (‘summon the serpents’). This was still done in Luchonnais (Haute-Garonne) well into the 1950’s, where the elderly villagers would go into the undergrowth with a cane, using the stick to mimic the undulating movements of the snake, and chant the following words:
‘The first Tuesday of March,
The viper comes out of the bush.
May every creeping beast,
Pass its head under its spine,
So that the Great God sees it,
And me as well,
Before it sees me!
This prayer has many variations, but there is always an allusion to God, suggesting that divine assistance in necessary in subduing the devilish snake. In some valleys, this prayer was accompanied by the ‘Our Father’ and several rounds of ‘Hail Mary’. In the valley of Job (Midi-Pyrenees) the prayer went:
On the first Tuesday of March,
Every creeping beast raises its head,
First it is what the snake does,
Serpent, serpent, serpent,
You will not be able to bite me,
No more than I can kiss my elbow.
This last allusion to an impossible act is a humorous way of stopping the serpent from being able to bite the conjurer. In Plantaurel (Ariege), the prayer differs in a notable way:
On the first Tuesday of March,
The viper leaves her hole,
I see her, but she does not see me.
Finally, it is also worth mentioning the connection in Basque mythology between snakes and Sugaar/Sugoi, the latter a being preeminent character in the Euskadi legends and cycles. Sugaar is associated with thunder and storms, flies through the air trailing flames, and his name is said to derive from ‘male serpent’ (Trask, 1997). In order to create storms, he joins his (more famous) female consort Mari, however, aside from that his purpose and legends remain shrouded in mystery.
Allen, D. 1978.Structure and Creativity in Religion: Hermeneutics in Mircea Eliade’s Phenomenology and New Directions. New York: Mouton Publishing.
De Marliave, O. 2006. Magie et Sorcellerie dans le Pyrenees. Bordeaux: Editions Sud Ouest.
Eliade, M. 1996. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Nebraska: University of Nabraska Press.
Trask, L. 1997. The History of Basque. London: Routledge.