Entertainment or Religion?
Snake charming is the ancient practice of playing and instrument and feigning that the sake has been hypnotized. Traditionally, charmers have used the pungi, a clarinet-like instrument. The snake charmer will perform seemingly dangerous movements such as getting close and handling the snake. Snake charming is predominantly a form of entertainment both historically and in the present but its origins from ancient times has religious implications.
Snake charming has been documented as early as ancient Egypt. The earliest snake charmers were considered healers and possessed magical abilities. These individuals might be sought to help with sickness and with other issues requiring divine intervention (Houlihan, 2003).
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Snake charming has a long history in India where under Hindu belief the serpent is considered sacred. Snakes were believed to be connected with the Gods and served as protectors, especially cobras. In India, snake charmers were considered holy men due to the ability to control the snake (Houlihan, 2003). Over the centuries, in most parts of the world, snake charming evolved into more of an entertainment than religion. Charmers often incorporated dancing, music, and magic shows into their acts (Houlihan, 2003). It is not uncommon to see snake charmers working streets or to appear in carnivals and fairs.
In the early 1900’s, in the United States, there was a resurgence of snake charming as a form of religion. The practice began in rural Appalachia and continues today in small Christian Churches. This practice became known as ‘snake handling’.
By Russell Lee — This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 541335., Public Domain
Snake handling is considered an act of faith by followers of the practice. Handling the snake reveals the strength of one’s faith in God protecting the person from being bitten or killed (Houlihan, 2003). The dangers associated with snake handling have reduced the religious practice to a small minority of churches. Despite the dangers associated with the practice, there are still some diehard practitioners left (Houlihan, 2003).
Most snake handling and snake charming that is done today is done for the purpose of entertainment. Belly dancers often incorporate the snake into their routines (Houlihan, 2003). Although still having some religious implications, snake charming is a form of entertainment today. The practice is often viewed as dangerous and cruel to the animal.
Houlihan, Patrick F. (May/June 2003, Vol. 3, Issue 6.). Spellbound: Charming the Snake & Scorpion. Ancient Egypt Magazine.