The North American Rattle Snake





Neverending story, 2016, dye on silk. 

Emily Erb, 2016.  76th Juried Show at the Woodmere Museum, Philadelphia in 2017




This work depicts the history of guns from 1000 ACE to the present. 



The interwoven snakes form an auryn  – a talisman from The Neverending Story, written by Michael Ende in German in 1979 – which is based on the ouroboros, a circular symbol of a snake eating its own tail to depict a world destroying itself.


The ouroboros itself is an ancient Egyptian icon of such a snake, later adopted by a number of hermetic traditions.  



Rattlesnakes are indigenous to both North and South America:  few  predators;  life-threatening venom.   

They play a more complex role in North America than as harbinger of death and destruction. 


I am not addressing here the snake symbolism of the indigenous peoples of North America whose civilizations run on axes different from that of later immigrants.


Snakes: among the most contradictory symbols everywhere.



The North American rattlesnake represents commitment of two kinds:  to religious faith and to the fight for freedom.


Rattlesnakes have been observed, like other snakes, to bite their tails when excited. 


Rattlesnakes shed their skin periodically and not infrequently, like other snakes, depending on age and ecological conditions. 



The practice of snake-handling, legally interdicted almost everywhere it has been practiced, continues to be a feature of some Pentecostal and non-denominational churches in Appalachia. 





A man balancing a snake on a bible on his head. 

Unknown date.  Image listed as MEDIADRUMIMAGES / TOPFOTO / RETRONAUT




Handling snakes, very often rattle- snakes,  is justified by a passage in the Gospel of St. Mark, is done only under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is taken to be a confirmation of personal faith in the power of the Christian God, and is a practice forbidden to children.  


Death from snake bite is taken to be evidence of inadequate faith.

But not always which seems to speak to the personal, individual nature of the act of handling a snake: a step in an inner spiritual journey of which nobody else can know anything much.




A man handling a rattlesnake during services at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Kingston, Georgia, in 1995.

Reported in 2014 by the UK Guardian newspaper. Photograph John Bazemore/AP.




The rattlesnake has also been a symbol  of North American independence against alien governance since the foundation of the Republic.





The original revolutionary states as a rattlesnake in a cartoon design by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).





The Gadsden Flag – Don’t Tread on Me –  designed in 1775 by a revolutionary general of that name. 

Adopted since by political movements to the right and left; and by many individuals who fly the flag in the first 13 states.





The snake is a symbol of renewal and of mortal danger. To others and to itself if it fails to shed its skin.  



When overexcited,  the rattlesnake begins to devour itself although it is believed that ‘suicide’ is very rare.


During the course of the life of a rattlesnake, the skin-shedding for growth never stops. 


A symbol both of belligerence against alien predators and of spiritual integrity against faithlessness.  Of both the defense of the state by citizens; and the call to individual faith in the power of God.


And in this double metaphor and on the basis of American history, many of us vest hope

for the casting off of old, deteriorating carapace

in the trajectory of the renewal of a civilization. 


A fanciful idea, perhaps. 


But not a murderous fanciful idea.  Nor more complex than the rattlesnake itself, real or symbolic.