Scattering Violets

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Snake Spirits: Health and Wealth

"Snake, snake, come swiftly 
Hither come, thou tiny thing,
Thou shalt have thy crumbs of bread,
Thou shalt refresh thyself with milk."

-The Brothers Grimm, “Stories About Snakes: First Story”

Many animals that can be found in and around households – both domesticated and wild – have sacred powers in European lore. Of these, the snake has special significance among Germanic, Slavic, and Baltic peoples. Claude Lecouteux writes that “the snake…is one of the most ancient forms” that house spirits take (The Tradition of Household Spirits 131-132).

The story from which the passage above comes relates how a little girl, by feeding the snake milk and bread crumbs, enjoys health and vitality. When her mother kills the snake in fear, the little girl slowly wastes away into death. This story was collected by the Brothers Grimm in Hesse in central Germany, but it bears many similarities to tales told farther north in Lithuania and Latvia and east in Russia. Snakes were revered as “hearth guardians,” living in a special place under the hearth and even being brought to the dinner table to be fed at certain times of the year (133). Alternatively, snakes might live in the cellar, underneath the house, or in the stables, and milk would be brought to the entrance of those places for the snake. It was considered bad luck to kill a snake or otherwise treat it so badly that it might vacate the home: disease and other misfortune would surely take its place.

The species featured in these tales is the grass snake (Natrix natrix or Coluber natrix), but here in North America we have similar species. Black rat and corn snakes (both in the Pantherophis genus) are also nonvenomous constrictors that feed on rats, mice, lizards, and even other snakes. Like the grass snake, they are docile, emitting an unpleasant musk when frightened or shaking their tails in leaves to mimic rattlesnakes rather than attacking when threatened. They often can be found in and around houses and outbuildings because these are the places their food sources tend to frequent. My farmhouse has at least one that occupies our cellar and attic, judging by the snake skins we find in those places.

Protective Spirits

Snakes are venerated across Europe for many reasons – their symbolic regenerative powers via shedded skins; their strength and speed despite lacking limbs; some species’ venomous bites that can seriously injure and even kill; their ability to move quietly and strike suddenly a symbol of cunning. Aside from all their streamlined beauty and strange (to us) power, snakes that make their homes in human dwellings also serve an important practical function: consuming disease-bearing vermin. Remember that the bubonic plague was borne by rats, who were infested with fleas contaminated with the bacteria. When snakes consumed the rats (and the fleas on them), the fleas couldn’t bite humans to spread disease.

In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages, the authors explain that certain “ailments had invisible causes -- from airborne poisons, elves, dwarves, or demons -- that required invisible help from spiritual forces to counteract them” (30). In other words, some diseases were believed to be caused by evil spirits and therefore needed a spiritual cure. While the field of medicine has advanced exponentially and I will always advocate for appropriate treatment from a medical professional for any illness or disease, the concept of a spiritual aspect of disease and illness is not out of the question for me. In animism, everything is both material and spiritual – everything is a spirit. In this framework, spirits of disease exist as naturally as spirits of trees, mountains, and clouds. (By the same token, medicine is also enspirited.) Why couldn’t spirits be effectively called upon to help protect against disease and illness, alongside mundane preventive measures?

Bringers of Wealth

Snakes in folklore are also regarded as guardians of treasures who could bring wealth to members of the household. This brings them in close kinship with the drac and alf – household spirits who take many forms, reside in the hearth, are placated with offerings of food and milk, and bring prosperity to their human cohabitants.

In the second snake story that the Grimm brothers recorded, a little girl was kind to a snake, so it brought out a little golden crown (echoing Baltic lore of crowned serpents). The little girl took the crown when the snake returned to its den, and when it emerged again, it was so overcome with grief that it bashed its own head against a wall until it died. The story ends thus: “If the girl had but left the crown where it was, the snake would certainly have brought still more of its treasures out of the hole.”

Similarly, the dragon that features in the Grimm tale “The Devil and His Grandmother” bribes three defecting soldiers with a whip that manifests gold. Lecouteux also mentions a German belief in a “pecuniary drac,” a type of household spirit that steals gold from neighbors and brings it to the master or mistress of a household (Demons and Spirits of the Land 146).

Hidden Occupants

We haven’t seen any snakes in and around our house, but we know they’re there. They are hidden, mysterious, occasionally leaving evidence of their presence but otherwise keeping to themselves, blessing us with their good deeds (hey, no mice in the pantry!) as long as we respect them and let them be. Maybe because of all the snake activity, I tend to envision our house’s dominant spirit as generally snake-formed, perhaps as my German and West Slavic ancestors did. Time will tell whether this inclination is true, as I continue to familiarize myself with the spirits of the house and land we now occupy.


Works Cited

Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Inner Traditions, 2015.

---. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages. Ed. Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark. U of Pennsylvania, 2002.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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