The classical 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 outer thickets.
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."
Thomas Morton, 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:
Arizona . 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 whites.