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5 july 2011

I can be startled by snakes – they make notoriously sudden movements out of dead stillness – but I am not afraid of them; I'm probably even a little too curious about basking snakes for my own good, given that I live in Texas, home of bad men and rattlesnakes. And I've eaten rattlesnake here in Texas: like chicken, true, but only if you think of the boniest, greasiest chicken imaginable. Snake fear and snake food are two of the many topics in Drake Stutesman's thought-provoking Snake, an early entry in the Reaktion Books Animal series.

Stutesman also discusses snake systematics, snake mythology, snake venom, snake style, and snakes in art. Through her study curves the shape of the snake, an "S" that she sees curling primordially around the human imagination. At times, even the suggestion of sinuousness is enough for Stutesman to identify some phenomenon or artwork with the colubrine. She sees snakes everywhere. Soon after reading this book, you will too.

Horses and dogs evolved into their present form thanks to close contact with human species, and modern humans have evolved in close companionship with horses and dogs; we are all symbionts of a sort. Snakes were around long before we were, though, and it might be said that humans (or more likely, our distant primate ancestors) evolved to have deep innate reactions to snakes. Snakes are dangerous things; being attuned from birth to avoid slithery S-shapes might have saved many a hominoid infant. As a result, once our species came to articulate its ideas about the world, snakes dominated our imaginations.

Like all the best Animal books, Snake is full of little units of lore that I won't soon forget. One of the little-sung heroes of herpetology is 18th-century scientist Felix Fontana, who "proved that [snake venom] was not toxic if swallowed and that only blood contact counted" (106). Mercifully, Stutesman doesn't explain the exact experimental procedure Fontana used to arrive at that finding.

Equally intriguing is a long discussion of something called "treacle." I'm used to "treacle" as the English term for what Americans call "molasses," and of course in its figurative sense of discourse so cloyingly saccharine that it cannot be taken unironically. But the English word "treacle" descends through the Romance languages from the Greek θηριακή [theriaké], which signifies the remedy for the bite of a wild animal: quintessentially, the bite of a snake. Like all good homeopathic preparations, medieval treacles were made from what bit you. Treacle used to consist of mashed-up snakes, opium, turpentine, wine, and spices, "mixed into a paste that is 75 per cent honey" (111). This concoction was exceedingly good treatment for snakebite, and for that matter just about anything else: pure honey is a good salve on its own, and opium will make you forget about anything the honey doesn't cure. Snake paste was mostly snake oil, but didn't hurt the preparation. I'm not quite sure how "treacle" came to mean molasses. And on the whole, I'm glad Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup doesn't contain rattlesnake. But the process of turning a word from a cure-all into a dessert ingredient points up the wonderful arbitrary flux of language.

One cavil: Snake needs a transfusion of commas. Written by an American, edited in England, the book is printed in China and possibly not proofread anywhere. (Lack of copy-editing care is the sole weakness of this otherwise marvelous series.) Here's a sample sentence: "People have been known to die of fright when bitten by a harmless serpent and one of the most common anxiety dream animals is the snake but interpretations of why this is vary" (146-47). Nobody's been known to die from the stress of parsing an unpunctuated sentence, but that comes close to being a test case.

Stutesman, Drake. Snake. London: Reaktion, 2005.