Dreaming of Snakes: Appalachian Superstitions

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Snake handling service held in Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky at the Pentecostal Church of God, September 15, 1946. Company funds have not been used in this church and it is not on company property. Most of the members are coal miners and their families. (National Archives and Records Administration, photo by Russell Lee)
Snake handling service held in Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky at the Pentecostal Church of God, September 15, 1946. Company funds have not been used in this church and it is not on company property. Most of the members are coal miners and their families. (National Archives and Records Administration, photo by Russell Lee)

Snakes have long been a subject of intrigue, fear, and mysticism in the mountains of Appalachia.  Perhaps this is due to the Genesis story which speaks of the cursed serpent in the Garden of Eden, or maybe it is thanks to the fact that when the early colonists arrived in the New World, one of the first creatures to greet them was the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Coming from a land where the only venomous snake was the extremely passive Adder, the British settlers were terrified by rattlesnakes, whose bites often brought death among 17th century colonists.

Evidence of the incredible fear early English settlers felt toward the native snakes can be spotted in the dozens of newspapers articles from the period which offer almost laughable instructions on how to survive a bite from the ferocious rattlesnake.

By the mid-1700s, however, Americans had come to realize that the continent had been inhabited by these serpents long before they had arrived and accepted their presence as a mere fact of life in the New World. Around this same time, the nation began experiencing a rise in tensions with the Motherland.

In 1750, the Crown began sending convicted criminals to live in America, an act that outraged colonists who had no desire to live alongside thieves and revilers.  The following year, a satirical commentary published in his Pennsylvania Gazette, by legendary writer Ben Franklin suggested that in response, colonists begin sending rattlesnakes to England.

Franklin’s popular article made him famous and gave the American colonists a newfound pride in the slithering reptile that had for so long haunted their dreams — at the outbreak of war, the rattlesnake became an American symbol and one the nation’s first flags prominently featured the creature with the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me”.

In the decades ahead, a new brand of mountain religion would develop in which believers known as “snake handlers” would interpret a verse of Scripture that captured a conversation between Jesus and his Apostles in which he proclaimed, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16.18) to literally mean that they could handle deadly snakes and not suffer.

Though the popularity of this religion which can be traced to an offshoot of the Church of God reached its zenith in the early days of the twentieth century, it never became fully mainstream and for most mountainfolk, the thought of having anything to do with a potentially deadly snake was revolting — as everything about serpents was taken to mean an omen of misfortune.

Extremely superstitious and fearful of snakes, it should come as no surprise that mountaineers had several premonitions about dreams which featured a snake.

“My granny always said that if you dream about a snake, you need to take a good long look at the people around you, because one of them isn’t really your friend and they’re out to get you… they’re a snake in the grass,” writes one Appalachian Magazine reader.

Another person stated that dreams of snakes reveals that someone is out telling lies about you.

When it comes to dreaming of snakes, according to Appalachian folklore and superstition, there’s someone out there who isn’t doing you well… watch your back!

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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