Grandad Said, “Snakes is Snakes”

Don Cuervo hates snakes

A snake does something snakey. Maybe a boa constrictor?
Photo by Nick Rickert on Unsplash

Another thing I don’t get about Mexico is all the plumed and feathered serpents in their mythology. If you ask me, regular snakes are bad enough, but flying snakes? 

Oh, Sweet Christ, no.

When I was 6 or 7, out camping in the Sierra Nevadas with mom and dad, and I had to pee. So I walked over to the nearest pine tree and started peeing.

There was a hole in the ground, and I started peeing down the hole. Made sense at the time.

Next thing I know, there’s a rattlesnake coiled up in front of me, rattling like crazy. I mean right in front of me. I was standing close to the tree, and the snake was practically on top of my shoes.

I don’t know if I was hypnotized or terrorized or both. All I remember is staring at the snake. Its head, sunlight glinting off its coils, its tail buzzing at me. 

I was standing there with my pants unzipped, staring at this pissed-off snake that’s not even inches away from me, thinking I was about to die.

I probably peed on myself. I don’t remember. Maybe I froze and stopped peeing. I probably woulda been bit if I woulda kept peeing on the snake.

I know there were birds in the trees. I remember before and after that, the forest smelled like pine trees and sunshine.

But I don’t remember any of that from right then. I remember staring at the snake’s head, watching its tongue flicking in and out, listening to the dry buzz of its rattle.

Then I saw my dad’s denim-clad arm chopping downward. Did he push me away from the snake at the same time? I don’t remember. I remember Dad’s arm coming down right in front of my face, then seeing the snake’s jaws clenching in the hot dirt, its body writhing and coiling around the shovel’s blade.

I took a step back, still terrified but finally freed from the hypnotic rattle. Dad flung the snake into the forest with the shovel. Its body writhing as it flew through the air like it still wanted to kill me.

I can see it now if I close my eyes, that body twisting against the cloudless blue sky…

I had nightmares for years after that. Always the same. I was spiraling down a large, dark hole into the earth. Not quite falling, not quite flying, tumbling, spiraling downward, bumping against the crumbly dirt walls of the hole in the darkness, knowing that eventually, I would land at the bottom, the snake would be there, and it would bite me.

I never landed, never got bit, but the certainty and the terror never changed, no matter how many times I woke up with my heart pounding, as terrified as I had been that day in the forest.

Dad’s dad was stationed in the Pacific in World War 2 and one morning came across a snake on his way to the shower.

It was three or four feet long and half as big around as his thumb and he had no idea what kind of snake it was, but he killed it anyway, because, “snakes is snakes as far as I am concerned.”

Then of course there’s the snake in the Garden of Eden. I’ve never been much for the Bible, but I don’t think it’s an accident that a serpent that tempts Adam and Eve.

Of course, Eden, if it ever existed, was somewhere over in Persia or Mesopotamia, and folks around here have a different set of stories.

I’ve been reading about Quetzalcoatl, who it seems has been the god of almost everything at one time or another since about 200 AD up until the Spanish showed up.

Somehow he ended up becoming linked with Venus, and since that is the morning and evening star, he became associated with death and resurrection.

All that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, because somewhere in there he also found the time to descend to the hell of Mictlan to anoint the bones of the ancient dead to give birth to the men who currently inhabit the earth.

I would have thought that just one plumed serpent would be enough, but just the other day Raven came home and was telling me a snake story Santa Sofía told her, something about how some of the Maya communities in the Yucatan believe a snake spirit guards the water in the rivers, cenotes, and wells. His whipping tail moves the clouds that bring rain.

This may have been the same deity or a different one, but Raven was also telling me how, long ago, during a severe drought, the Mayan god Chaac, Lord of the Rain, harnessed a giant feathered snake named Tzukan to carry water from the sea to refill them the caves and cenotes of the Yucatan.

Tzukan had never seen the ocean before and wanted to stay and live there. But Chaac filled hundreds of vessels with water and forced Tzukan to carry them back to the cenotes for the people.

After they returned to the cenotes, Tzukan whipped his body and attacked Chaac, but Chaac killed Tzukan with thunder, shattering his body into thousands of drops of water that fell to the earth as rain which replenished the land and filled the rivers and cenotes with water.

That didn’t end the battle, though.

Slowly, at the bottom of the caves, the water droplets coalesced. The reformed Tzukan fled to the sea, where Chaac conjured an enormous gust of wind and Tzukan was once again rent into thousands of droplets.

In this way, Chaac forced Tzukan to become the guardian of the cenotes and rivers so they would never run out of water again.

Chaac did promise to allow Tzukan to return to the sea when he was old, but this was a trick because Chaac knew that Tzukan, being a snake, would never grow old, but would rejuvenate over and over, forever.

That bit about rejuvenation reminded me of something a friend of mine back home, Michelle, says. She says by focusing on my fear of snakes I am looking at everything all wrong. 

That snakes are symbols of rejuvenation and regeneration because they shed their skins as they grow and mature. She says I should learn to look at snakes differently, as symbols of growth, transformation, and rebirth. 

Especially now that Raven and I have started new lives here in Tulum.

So I’m thinking about it.

All the same, I wonder what Grandad would say to all that if he was around to hear it. He’d probably just shrug and say, “snakes is snakes” and light a cigarette.



Snakes and Maya Spirituality, Belize Yucatec Maya