monsters—harpies, hydras, scaly giants and werewolves—who tore down mead halls,
carried off virgins and in general made a plague of themselves, apparently
suffered from seasickness. At least they never crossed the Atlantic. Americans
have had to deal only with an occasional Jersey Giant or Sasquatch, and these
local abominations have been pretty much the bumpkin type and have kept to the
Still, a society
benefits from at least one formidable fright. What would Old England have been
like without dragons, or Rumania without vampires? Lacking exotic imports,
Americans have created their own monster. The Old Country technique was to
begin with the tales of minstrels, poets and magicians, embroidering on these
until something suitably frightening to children was created. Being
down-to-earth people, Americans started with a real beast, and then talked it
Up to a level where it could hold its own against any demon St. George ever
knew or slew.
Our monster is the
rattlesnake, which European-Americans first encountered four centuries ago.
Since then we have been so obsessed with the reptile, told so many tales about
it and so frightened ourselves with it that few of us can distinguish the real
beast from the mythic monster.
The first news of
the rattlesnake may have been taken back to the Old World by a Spaniard, Pedro
Cieza de Le�n, who in 1554 published an account of his travels in Peru.
Considering the tales that would follow shortly, his report was matter-of-fact:
"There are other snakes which make a noise when they walk like the sound of
bells. If these snakes bite a man they kill him."
In 1630 a New
England divine, the Rev. Francis Higgeson, wrote, "Yea, there are some
serpents called Rattle Snakes that have Rattles in their Tayles, that will not
flye from a man as others will, but will flye upon him and sting him so
mortally that hee will dye within a quarter of an houre, except the partie
stinged have about him some of the root of an Herbe called Snakeweed to bite
on, and then he shall receive no harme."
writing home to England in 1637, commented, "There is a longe creeple that
hath a rattle in his tayle, that does discover his age; for so many years as
hee hath lived, so many joynts are in that rattle, which soundeth like pease in
a bladder, and this beast is called a rattlesnake."
It would be
unseemly to continue further without noting that the brief quotations from
Cieza de Le�n, Higgeson and Morton, as well as some of the intriguing
information that follows, appear in a marvelous work of science and art,
Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, written
by the late Laurence M. Klauber. Klauber was an engineer-turned-herpetologist
who was the consulting curator of reptiles at the San Diego Zoo for more than
40 years. His Rattlesnakes touches on everything from the morphology to the
mythology of the reptiles, and is without rival as the standard reference work
on the subject. So complete and exhaustive is it that citing Klauber whenever
material from his study is used would be tedious, but it would also be
misleading and ungrateful to minimize the work as a source. The views of other
authorities and numerous personal observations of rattlesnakes follow, but
almost anything anybody wants to know about rattlesnakes appears in Klauber's
two-volume, 1,500-page masterwork ( University of California Press, $50).
After the first
more or less straightforward accounts of the American creeple, stories about
rattlesnakes began to blossom in luxuriant fashion. In 1642 Thomas Lechford
supplied the comforting information that, if bitten, a man would turn the same
color as the offending snake, i.e., "blew, white, and greene spotted."
Since this color combination does not correspond to any known species of
rattler—or man, either—Lechford was perhaps the first in a long line of
reporters contributing to rattlesnake lore without ever having seen one of the
reptiles. In any event, after Lechford the mythologizing of the creeple began
with a vengeance.
A cardinal rule of
monster-making is to think big. Some of the bigger and better rattlers reported
since (and catalogued by state) include:
. Early in
this century a 14-footer lived in the Huachuca Mountains along the Mexican
border. It had the unpleasant habit of slithering after prospectors, running
them into their cabins and laying siege to them. The size and behavior of this
snake suggest it may have been a descendant of the Apache snakes that once
infested this area. Apache shamans would talk giant snakes into ambushing