Snakes are a form of life that many people don’t like. I suppose it’s not that surprising. They’re not mammals, and therefore not warm and cuddly. They have a body shape that is much different than humans and seems strange and foreign. They’re slithery, scaly and cold blooded. They have a weird, somewhat creepy stare with eyes that don’t blink. They seem very creepy and cunning because they blend into their environment, hide in grass or are difficult to see as they climb trees. You might not notice that they are there until you step on one. They have a menacing hiss and a fork tongue that’s strange and scary looking. They have big teeth and produce a nasty bite. Many of them are venomous.
They may be the most hated and feared form of animal life for humans. This is not entirely universal, of course. Snaked do appear in a positive context in some mythology and religion, but in western religion, they tend to be seen in a very negative manner. In the Bible, the first evil entity introduced is Satan taking the form of a snake. Whether it’s the Biblical connotation of snakes or simply their unsettling appearance, snakes are often used as a metaphor for the sneaky, evil and dishonorable in Western society.
Yet, if you consider snakes more objectively, there’s really not much to dislike about them. A few species of snakes are venomous, but the vast majority of snakes are not venomous at all and are quite harmless. Of those which do have potentially lethal venom, most are shy and will try to escape if they encounter humans. There are a few varieties of snake which might be considered to be legitimately frightening animals, because they are both highly aggressive and venomous. But this hardly makes the entire suborder worthy of fear or dislike.
Moreover, snakes have quite a few major benefits to humans. The number one way in which snakes benefit mankind is by virtue of the fact that they primarily eat rodents. A population of field snakes can do a lot to keep the population of rats and mice down in an area. Rodents, of course, do harm human settlement quite a lot. They eat or contaminate food stocks and can be a vector for diseases like bubonic plague. In places like Northern Europe, rats commonly sought shelter in the poorly enclosed structures built by humans. They have historically been both a nuance and a major danger to public health.
It’s been said that Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. To this day I’ve heard the Irish say how he did a great thing because Ireland is free of snakes. This is rubbish, of course. There are no snakes native to Ireland and the climate of Ireland is simply not suitable for snakes to flourish. If introduced to Ireland, a group of snakes might make it through a few seasons, but ultimately it’s just too cool and wet for snakes to make it. The climate of modern Ireland is what keeps it snake-free, not a saint who drove them away.
But even if he had, why would this be something worth thanking him for? A relatively harmless animal driven from a land where people had lived largely in poverty with rodents causing far more harm than snakes. Had Ireland had snakes, it would have been more of a benefit than a problem. During the potato famine, starving rats consumed some of the few food stocks remaining for humans. They also tormented those too weak to fend them off, even gnawing on those in the throws of death. As was the case in much of Northern Europe, the rat was a source of intense misery – one snakes could have made quite a dent in.
I’m just pointing this out to show how ridiculous religious myths can be if you examine them. St. Patrick not only did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, but if he had, he’d be more a villain than a hero.
Upon doing some additional research, I have to correct the point that the climate of Ireland is not suitable for snakes. While it is fairly cold and damp, and therefore not the best place for many species of snakes, there are snakes in Scotland, Scandinavia and elsewhere which are capable of enduring the kind of climate Ireland has. It seems that they simply never had a chance to migrate to the island. It would have been far too cold and harsh during the glacial period and by the time the area had a more suitable climate for snakes, there was no way for them to migrate. The cold Irish Sea provided a barrier.
There is no fossil evidence of snakes ever existing in Ireland. They simply never arrived.
This entry was posted on Saturday, March 17th, 2012 at 7:33 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, History, Misc, religion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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