Lots of people have a strong aversion to snakes. True story: I used to be terrified of the slithery bastards until I put myself through a home-brewed program of systematic desensitization with the help of a local pet shop. I started handling juvenile king snakes and moved on to wily corn snakes and larger, less timid specimens. I considered myself “cured” after I picked up and held (or was held by) a seven foot banana python. Even now, I still drop in and pick up a snake or two, just as a booster of sorts.
My phobia is a common enough one. Recent studies even seem to indicate that fear of snakes is hardwired in the human brain. Somewhere deep in that tangled nest of neurons that make us human lives the memory of a primal ur-snake that frightened one of our monkey ancestors enough that we’ll always carry it with us. Call it primeval traumatic stress disorder.
One of the ways that we humans deal with things that we don’t understand is to mythologize them. We worship them, or at least try to placate them. Snake gods are common enough in the world’s religions. In European cultures, the snake often symbolizes evil or death: the Norse had the World Serpent Jörmungandr, a reptilian monster that will one day rise forth from the waters and poison the skies, and in the Christian mythos, Satan appears to Adam and Eve in the form of a snake. In Eastern cultures, the snake can represent good luck, fertility or wisdom.
No matter what they represent, all of mankind’s gods eventually die. As a new cult rises to prominence, the deities of the old cult are neglected, eventually forgotten, even demonized. The gods of one generation become the demons or bogeymen of the next.
Snakes have been a part of America’s mythological substrate from its earliest days – well before the first white man stepped foot upon its shores. The Aztecs and Navajo people both told stories of snake people living deep within the earth, protectors of ancient wisdom that they would sometimes gift upon those they deemed worthy. The ancient Natchez Indians revered the rattlesnake, as did those enigmatic people we know as the “Mound Builders.” For the most part, these gods, like so many others, were crushed beneath the heels of a muscular new faith – Christianity – and assumed their new roles as shadows of their former selves: demons and monsters.
America’s reptile gods went underground, but they never really went away. In 1934 the Los Angeles Times reported about rumors of an entire civilization of lizard men living beneath the city. More recently, in 1988, rumors circulated of a reptilian cryptid haunting Lee County, South Carolina. UFO abductees periodically claim to have been spirited away by “Reptoids” for bizarre medical experiments. Somewhere there’s a Medicine Man, and he’s puffing away on a pipe and laughing at the White Man. (Well, maybe just one particular white guy: David Icke. A former sportscaster, Icke gave up his career to proclaim the truth as he knows it: bloodsucking reptilian aliens control the world, manipulating human destiny to enrich themselves at our expense. I did say it was the truth as he knows it.)
Much like the real snakes that inspire them, reptile people are capable of shedding one old skin and acquiring a new one that better suits them. While it’s highly unlikely that real reptile or snake men roam the American continent, they’re not at all hard to find in the nation’s popular culture.
Television is rife with them: the visitors from the television series V, Land of the Lost’s Sleestak, and Star Trek’s Gorn all seem to tape into the primeval human fear of snakes. Same with Sssssss’s hapless lab assistant-cum-snake-man, and who can forget the hybrid cobra man in 1984’s Dreamscape? Our scaly friends pop up plenty in books, too, from Raymond E. Feist’s Pantathians to Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men.
Then there are some people, like the aptly-named “Lizard Man” who take this pop culture archetype to the next level by transforming their bodies through tattooing, surgery and implants. He’s a modern myth in the making, in every sense of the word. I mean, you can even follow the guy on Twitter.
The snake men are here, they never left. They’re a part of the American cultural landscape, and who knows where they’ll pop up next: your television, your dreams, maybe even on a deserted country road near that spooky old swamp. We had probably better get used to them.