Taken from Eddy, Gallup, & Povinelli (1993)
Historical Evidence that Proves Our Love & Hate Relationship with Herpetofauna
Puspita Insan Kamil
December 13, 2022
Around the world, societies have developed folklore as a tool to communicate certain values to members of their own. Interestingly, these folklores somehow have similarities in characteristics - “archetypes,” making the famous psychologist Carl Jung curious if humans actually share collective unconsciousness, even in communities that have never interacted before. Among these characteristics, a lot of them were inspired by real animals, then anthropomorphized and attached to “human archetypes” to give them a role in the story, mostly to illustrate the cause and effect of human behavior in social settings.
If you follow our latest blog post here, then it should be fresh in your mind that it is indeed difficult for humans to love reptiles and amphibians due to several reasons. If we trace back to one of the earliest historical texts, such as the Biblical version of how Adam and Eve were banished from heaven, it was told that Satan, who offered them the forbidden fruit, was disguised in serpent form. Another story that includes serpents in ancient Greek mythology is about Medusa, one of the Gorgon sisters whose snakes on her head can turn anybody who gazes into her eyes to stone. Snakes have consistently been labeled negatively ever since; for example, in Chinese mythology, a serpentine creature called Xiangliu is believed to have nine heads that bring floods and destruction.
However, it turns out that snakes are not always portrayed as devilish creatures. In Zimbabwe, Nyami Nyami is a God of the Zambezi River, also known as the Zambezi Snake Spirit, and is believed to be a protector by the Tonga people. In other cultures, snakes are also considered “holy,” such as in the Balinese temple at Tanah Lot. The snakes here are believed to protect the area and its people from evil, and there have never been any incidents reported though visitors can see and interact with the snakes. Although dangerously venomous, banded sea kraits (Laticauda spp.) are known for their docile nature, rarely biting unless harassed. Very few bites from this snake have been recorded. Maybe the most famous portrayal of our complicated relationship with snakes is the Caduceus, the symbol of medicine used worldwide by health organizations and practitioners, which is believed to be related to the story of Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine. It symbolizes the irony of a snake that is dangerous yet healing. This is also depicted in the myth of Amphisbaena in Africa, a two-headed serpent that has a venomous bite, but in Libya, their skin, when dried, cures a cold. The description of this mythical creature is very similar to the suborder Amphisbaenia, a group of extant lizards that have a blunt tail resembling the head. These harmless lizards can be found living underground in tropical and sub-tropical regions throughout the globe and are usually legless, although some species (genus Bipes) have two small limbs.
Let’s take a look at another group: frogs. In Native American folklore, Aglebemu was a giant monster believed to live in a great river, causing drought. This resonates with the permeable skin of amphibians, which allows them to absorb water. But in many other stories, such as Jin Chan in China or Panama, there are frog-like creatures, such as the Panamanian golden frog, believed to bring luck and good fortune. In Japan, Jiraiya was a ninja whose ability to control water and command frogs and also turn himself into a gigantic toad (you might also be familiar with this portrayal in Naruto!).
The folklores that are recorded historically also don’t do justice to all reptiles or amphibians. Some animals are only portrayed as great or heavenly creatures, such as crocodiles: Sobek in Egyptian mythology and Cipactli in Aztec mythology, whereas in real life, so many people have conflicts with them. All of these stories actually can show us how complicated our relationship with herpetofauna is. Some love them, some hate them. There is a stark difference between some charismatic megafauna that captured the hearts of many, making conservation efforts more system-focused (such as land protection), while for herpetofauna, it is a different case. We still need to fight the hatred of locals who often kill snakes in their backyard, yet we need to advocate for healthy love and respect in pet owners to mitigate the exploitation of endangered species in captivity.