Moroccan Serpent Charming
In this second post on human-reptile interactions in Morocco, let’s take a look at one of the most charismatic, flamboyant ways that humans and reptiles cross paths: snake charming. Even in parts of the world where snake charming does not exist as a widespread practice, many people easily conjure a stereotyped image of the snake charmer: a man playing a flute to a swaying cobra that has reared itself up out of a basket. While the performance itself enchants residents and tourists alike in places where snake charmers do exist, delving beneath the surface of the stereotype can produce some surprising results.
Although a main attraction of snake charming performances rests on the perceived danger of the act, often (or even usually) charmers deceive spectators by using harmless species or otherwise dangerous species that have been rendered harmless by removing fangs and/or venom glands, or by having the mouths sewn shut. A storyteller from Jmaa el-Fna square in Marrakech (the epicenter of Moroccan snake charming) recalled that charmers normally purchased defanged snakes, but that one time a charmer bought a snake with fangs intact, then died after a bite from that snake (Hamilton 2011, p. 10). We must wonder how many of these professionals die from similar accidents, and how those deaths are perceived in the community. We must also wonder the fate of those snakes forced into captivity for charming, and the fate of populations from which those individuals come. The storyteller’s account also sparks questions about who collects, de-fangs, and sells the snakes in Morocco if the charmers do not do it themselves. This is a question whose answer I have not found in the literature so far.
Snake charmers of most locations favor cobras (India – Naja naja, West Africa – Naja nigricollis, Sudan – Naja haje), generally avoiding vipers for their trade (Corkill 1939). I suspect that snake natural history drives this preference. Cobras, as active, visually oriented animals put on excellent shows by rearing up, displaying their hoods, and swaying back and forth as they track the movements of a snake charmer. Vipers, on the other hand, as much bulkier animals reliant on ambushing their prey, lay on the ground, none too anxious to move until the aggressor (the snake charmer) provokes them to strike in defense. We can easily see why audiences would prefer the former. Moreover, to those intimately familiar with the reptiles’ behavior, a cobra’s strike is much easier avoided than a viper’s for several reasons (speed, predictability, and relative striking range), making them safer subjects to charm.
A passage in the Old Testament of the Bible references a type of snake that cannot be charmed: “the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.” (King James Bible; Psalms 58). According to one medical doctor devoted to the study of herpetology, “It seems probable that ‘the deaf adder’ of the Psalms.. may have been the Levantine Viper, which is found in Palestine and Syria as well as in Iraq, where one of its local names is HAIA TURSHA, i.e. the ‘deaf snake’” (Corkill 1939). His evidence seems merely circumstantial, but if this were the case, then we might believe that even then, more than 2,000 years ago, snake charmers existed and they avoided vipers for their performances.
Contrary to this idea that snake charmers avoid working with vipers, a quick search of “Jmaa el Fna” or “Morocco snake charmers” on Google images shows that Moroccan charmers most certainly include a viper species called the puff adder, Bitis arietans, in their shows. Some photos show charmers possessing several individuals of those species in addition to cobras or harmless snakes. Even old descriptions by westerners who travelled to Morocco during the last two centuries clearly demonstrate the presence of vipers in the Moroccan snake charming scene.
In the earliest description I have found so far, Joseph Thomson describes a performance including “two snakes—a deadly looking cobra and the even more repulsive lefa or puff adder. The former rears a foot of its body from the ground, and holds its head at right angles, ever ready to strike. The lefa, on the other hand, lies flat, watching the performer with its cold glittering eyes” (1889). His greater repulsion at the puff adder’s appearance might hint at why a charmer would choose to use that species if typical Moroccan audience members also found the viper more awful. However, that hint alone does not begin to answer the question of why Moroccan snake charmers choose to work with vipers when snake charmers throughout other parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and India avoid them. The cobra clearly puts on more of a show than the viper does: “The charmer tempts the lefa to spring at him, while he moves round with swaying body and a dancing step, chanting continuously. As he thus turns and twists, the cobra ever keeps itself partially erect, watchfully following the movements of its owner, its head turning round on its body as on a pivot. At times it strikes at him” (Thomson 1889). Eventually he pulls out a small snake, almost certainly a nonvenomous species, and lets it bite his tongue and leg, producing a hush over the audience.
Religion plays an important role in this early description of snake charming: “The stamp of religion was put on all their doings. They commenced with invocations to Allah and Sidi Aissa, raising their hands imploringly. At times they would address a prayer to Mohammed, and then all hands were held in a supplicating attitude.” (Thomson 1989). This potential religious aspect plays a role in later publications that bears examination.
Nearly two decades after Thomson’s account, we discover an episode of snake charming that shares many of the same elements: invocations to God and Sidi Aissa, several musicians, money collection, inclusion of multiple snakes in the performance, and provocation of one snake to bite the main performer.
At the beginning of the performance described by Meakin (1906) the principle charmer invokes “our lord Mohammed ben Aïsa” and has the crowd say a Fátihah (prayer from the beginning of the Quran), indicating at least some element of religion in the performance. He explicitly indicates that those who give money will gain God’s blessing and protection. The excerpt clearly demonstrates that money has long been an aim of the performance, as the performer spends much time teasing money out of the audience.
He eventually pulls out two snakes, the first of which is evidently a venomous species that has not been defanged, though the venom glands may be removed, as it is “darting out its fangs”. He drapes the second snake over his neck. He indicates that saints protect him from the serpents by saying “I take refuge with the saint who was dead and is alive” and swinging the snake near the crowd saying, “Their fangs mean death, if you only knew it, but for the mercies of my lord, the son of Aïsa.” He makes one of the snakes (we don’t know which one) go partway down his throat headfirst, then pulls it out. Then he asserts that the snakes are not de-fanged and proves it, allowing the snake to bite him, drawing blood. However, a non-venomous species could also conceivably draw blood, so perhaps it is the snake whose “fangs” we have not seen, and it is actually harmless. If it is a venomous species, then perhaps the venom glands are removed and the fangs left behind. I am inclined to believe that it is a harmless species based on the comment “The seemingly angry snake has now fastened on his arm, and is permitted to draw blood, as though in reward for its recent treatment.” A venomous species would not bite and hold on of its own accord, but would rather bite and quickly recoil, waiting for the venom to do its work. Some harmless species though might “fasten” to an aggressor.
A foreigner in the audience offers up a chicken as part of the show, which the performer shoves into the snake’s face. At this point he holds the snake behind the head, and “in a moment the fangs are shot out” (seeming to indicate the first snake demonstrated) and the bird dies after a few minutes of struggle during which the charmer holds the chicken to the ground with his foot. Although some men of various countries and time periods have claimed immunity to venom thanks to divine power, magic, or repeated exposure (inoculation), I think it more likely that he used different snakes on himself and on the chicken to “prove” to the audience the “authenticity” of the danger he faces and survives by the grace of God and Sidi Aïsa.
Fast forwarding to 1970, we find an article on forms of musical performances in Morocco that also links snake charming to religion: this time to a specific “religious fraternity” called the Esawa.
It is difficult to think of Marrakesh and the Jma al-Fna without having snake charmers come to mind, for it is unlikely that there is any day in the year when a troupe is not present in the city – and, indeed, in most of the cities of the Maghrib. As is the case with the Gnawa, there are two functions involved with snake-charming. There is, of course, the public display of skill in persuading the snake to obey its masters, but there is also- more importantly – an element of esoteric ritual. Very often the snake charmers are members of the Esawa cult, a group that claims to have a special affinity for serpents. The Esawa, like the Gnawa, is a religious fraternity; it was founded by Sidi Muhammad Ibn ‘Aisa, who was born in 872 (1465-66). The order is characterized by a fanatical devotion to its particularly zenophobic brand of the Muslim religion (they despise Christians, Jews, and even Berbers) and by a deep devotion to serpents and scorpions, of which they regard themselves as protectors. Often today the snake charmers call upon Sidi Muhammad Ibn ‘Aisa at the outset of a performance in the following manner: ” ‘Now, every man who believes in our lord Muhammad ben Aisa, say with me a fathah … .’ Each of the onlookers extending his palms side by side before his face, they repeat the prayer in a sing-song voice.”
As a part of their ritual, certain subgroups of the Esawa are expected to bite off the heads of snakes and fill their mouths with scorpions. In contrast to the Esawa healing practices (where only men participate), women too take part in these rites; the women perform on the bandīr (frame-drum), while the men dance and handle the serpents. As an aside, we might point out that, though Esawa snake charmers are inured to the cameras and even tape recorders of visitors from abroad, this is not the case in other, ritualistic situations. The present writer, recording Esawa music at Tangier, had his recording nearly ruined by a nafir (trumpet) player in the ensemble, who pointed the bell of his instrument straight at the microphone and blew for all he was worth.
Who is this Mohammed ben Aïsa, or Sidi Aissa, that charmers mention over and over? The previous account begins to answer that question. Within Morocco, as in many other Muslim countries, there exists a somewhat mystical element of Islam called Sufism. Sufi brotherhoods bring together groups of men who follow a particular saint’s tariqa, meaning “path” or “way”, with regard to religious practice. Sufi orders exist within Islam as a means for people to develop closer personal relationships with God, though particular doctrines vary. Teachers within Sufi brotherhoods are called sheikhs; they aim to bring their students closer to God. It seems that Mohammed ben Aïsa founded a Sufi brotherhood, earning himself continued respect as a saint.
Delving into the literature provides references to at least one particular brotherhood whose members deal with serpents: the Isawi Tariqa (possibly the same group as the Esawa described above, given the sketchy nature of transliterating names from Arabic). Their penchant for snake charming among other unusual practices seems to have earned them a less than savory reputation among other brotherhoods. According to a traveller’s 1886 account on Sufi brotherhoods,
Foremost among these singular religious bodies is the strange sect known as the Isowa. Its members are adherents to the faith of a saint named Ben Isa, whose tomb is at Fez. This holy man, in order to prove his saintship, is said to have cast himself from the top of a high tower, and to have fallen without injury.
His saintship, thus attested his followers to profess to be equally invulnerable to physical injury. They assert that snakes, scorpions, and all other venomous creatures cannot injure them, and that they therefore handle them with impunity. They also make it appear that they can eat and handle articles on fire, and in these kind of tricks they are very expert.
Again, due to transliteration difficulties between English and Arabic, we might assume that “Isowa” corresponds to Isawi/Esawa and that Leared’s “Ben Isa” is the same as ben Aïsa, the saint referenced by snake charmers of the previous accounts, leading us to conclude that Sidi Aïsa did indeed form a brotherhood whose adherents now show an affinity for snake charming.
In a description of the life of Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi from western Algeria who lived from 1869 to 1934, we learn more about this particular brotherhood and gain insight into how members other Sufi brotherhoods might have viewed it:
His first contact with esoteric religious fraternities was with what is perhaps the most exotic and notorious of all North African <<ways>>, the ‘Isawi Tarika. Amongst the followers of this <<way>>, snake-charming, fire-eating and other practices are extensively used. The Shaikh himself became proficient snake charmer. However, one day God willed that his eyes should alight on a saying traced back to the Prophet—the Shaikh does not say which—which made him realise the error of his ways: he gave up these practices for the time being except snake-charming (no reason is given for making this exception). There appear to have been two stages in his dissociation from the ‘Isawi followers, though he does not so say in so many words: for he says that at first he avoided the practices by making <<excuses to my brethren>>, but also that he wished to take the entire brotherhood away from them too. Evasion by excuses and attempted conversion of his fellows presumably followed each other.
Eventually, when Ahmad al-‘Alawi met his “true Teacher”,
The Teacher dissuaded him from continuing with his remaining ‘Isawi practice, snake-charming, with the help of a parable (the snake in own body, i.e one’s soul, is far more venomous and worth charming), though apparently he had no disrespect for the founder of the ‘Isawi order—as far as the prediction of spiritual eminence for the disciple had the form of saying that one day he will become like that founder.
The connection between a specific Sufi brotherhood and snake charming deserves more attention, as religion can do much to shape humans’ views of and interactions with reptiles all over the world and in a variety of contexts. I would like to explore whether snake charmers might still charm as a way of demonstrating the power of religion to protect them, whether audiences find the entertainment to also have some kind of religious in addition to secular value, and whether the huge influx of tourism in Morocco may have changed the approach to snake charming.
Corkill, N. L. 1939. Snake Specialists in Iraq. Iraq 6:45-52.
Gellner, Ernest. 1963. Sanctity, Puritanism, Sécularisation, and Nationalism in North Africa. Archives des sciences sociales des religions 15: 71-86.
Grame, Theodore. 1970. Music in the Jma al-Fna of Marrakesh. The Musical Quarterly 56(1): 74-87.
Hamilton, Richard. The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco. New York, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. 2011.
King James Bible. Online edition: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/. Accessed 11/23/2013.
Leared, Aurther. Morocco and the Moors. London: Sampson Low, Mauston, Searle, & Rivington. 1876. Available online: https://archive.org/details/moroccoandmoors00leargoog
Meakin, Budgett. Life in Morocco and Glimpses Beyond. 1906. Available online: https://archive.org/details/lifeinmoroccoand017316mbp
Thomson, Joseph. Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco. London: George Philip & Son. 1889. Available online: https://archive.org/details/travelsatlassout00thom