Tag Archives: Appalachia

A Greater Snake Than the One in Hand – Serpent Handling, scripture and the narrow path of union

“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?”

– 1 Corinthians 3: 1-3

“Now, O Father, thou hast put me to silence for ever and all my former thoughts have quite left and forsaken me, for I see the greatness, and shape of all things here below, and nothing but falsehood in them all.”

– The words of Tat to his Father from the 7th Book of the Corpus Hermetica

The extremity of the serpent handling practices of some Holiness congregations has been the cause for dismay amongst judicial representatives of both the state and religious orthodoxy. These practices represent not only the literal interpretation of certain scriptures, but also the solidification of these scriptures in physical practices that prove the scripture through the successful completion of ritual.

In order to achieve the ignification of the astral light, namely the transformation of fluid mercury (spirit) into manifested mercury (spirit), some chains use forms of violence (e.g. dervishes, flagellants), while others employ orgiastic forms, or a  combination of both…In Saudi Arabia, in order to reach a certain degree of exaltation and supreme fixation, at the center of chains that are prepared with a crescendo of progressive rhythms and movements of the head and torso, the fluidic vertigo is taken on and dominated by an action of the Head of the chain, who, in a state of absolute lucidity, pierces the his body with a sword. Since he is in a state of magical equilibrium, it leaves him unscathed, and shows no signs of entry wounds or blood.

– Introduction to Magic, UR Group

Disapproval from secular authorities is quite understandable. Since they don’t believe in the ritual in the first place, all of this seems like a lot of nonsense that could get someone killed. Religious disapproval is often based on similar grounds. Contemporary religion is, for a good portion of  its adherents, no more than mythically oriented ethics and self affirmation, secular thought dressed in divine clothes to beef up its authority. When people start picking up snakes and drinking strychnine to prove the power of the Spirit things become a bit too real for those who are more comfortable hearing sports metaphors used to describe Sacred teachings.

Not all of the members of the snake handling congregations take up serpents, it is only done as the Spirit calls and marks proof of the Baptism of the Holy Ghost. However, proof is not the only outcome of this practice, traditionally the purpose of asceticism has always been unification with the Divine, and with unification comes participation in the power of the Divine as well. In Holiness congregations this comes in the form of prophecy, healing and successful prayers.

Most Protestant critiques start with “do not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4:7) as their refutation of choice for such practices. Such critiques based on seeing things in terms of hubris miss the opportunity for a deeper understanding.

This split between the physical and mental expressions of belief are common in all religions and philosophies. Pierre Hadot, a classical scholar who studied the ‘spiritual exercises’ of the philosophical tradition, sees this as an inherent problem with the Western world. The gradual shift from philosophy as a way of life to philosophy as a means of discourse has left us with a crippled tradition. Radical practices such as serpent handling present the opposing pole of this split between physical practice and mental abstraction. They are physical demonstrations of Metaphysical truths that often lack the deeper understanding that move these truths to a higher level.

As impressive as they are, these practices remain in the carnal realm, they are the milk that Paul talks about in light of the meat of further Faith leading to absorption in Gnosis. When Protestant critiques use something like Matthew 4:7 to dispute the validity of snake handling they merely flip the pole back to the discursive and deny the validity of the Signs (prophecy, healing, and answered prayers) which are clearly present to the snake handlers. This dance between opposing poles continues to conflate the problem, keeping things at the carnal level, without ever coming to a point where both sides meet in the middle and move up the Ladder to a higher realization.

Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.

Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.

– Luke 10:19-20

This verse does not deny the power demonstrated in something like snake handling, in fact it gives it even greater credence, however it ends in an active admonishment that moves the understanding to a higher level. To rejoice is an activity, the active power over Death is given validity, but the disciples are given the further charge to accept with humility the physical signs of their Faith in light of the greater gift of participation in the Divine.

Shaykh Ahmed al-Alawi presents a similar (and topical) reconciliation in a recollection recorded in Martin Lings’ A Sufi Saint in the 20th Century.

My first leaning [in the direction of Sufism] was marked by my attachment to one of the masters of the ‘Isawi Tariqa who impressed me by his unworldliness and evident piety. I made every effort to comply with the requisites of that order [known for its practice of wonderworking], and this came quite easily to me on account of my youth and the instinctive attraction for wonders and marvels which is a part of human nature. I became proficient in these practices, and was well thought of by the men of the order, and I believed in my ignorance that what we did was purely and simply a means of drawing nearer to God. One day when God willed that I should be inspired by the truth we were at one of our gatherings and I looked up and saw a paper that was on one of the walls of the house we were in, and my eye lit on a saying that was traced back to the Prophet. What I learned from it caused me to give up what I had been doing in the way of working wonders, and I determined to limit myself in that order to the litanies and invocations and recitations of the Quran. From that time I began to extricate myself and make excuses to my brethren until I finally gave up those other practices altogether. I wanted to drag the entire brotherhood away from them also, but that was not easy. As for myself I broke away as I had intended, and only retained from that contact the practice of snake-charming. I continued to charm snakes by myself or with some of my friends until I met Skaikh Sidi Muhammad al-Buzidi….

One day, when he was with us in our shop, the Shaikh said to me: “I have heard that you can charm snakes, and that you are not afraid of being bitten.” I admitted this. Then he said: “Can you bring me one now and charm it here in front of us?” I said that I could, and going outside the town, I searched for half the day, but only found a small one, about
half an arm’s length. This I brought back and putting it front of me, I began to handle it according to my custom, as he sat and watched me. “Could you charm a bigger snake than this?” he asked. I replied that the size made no difference to me. Then he said, “I will show you one that is bigger than this and far more venomous, and if you can take hold of it you are a real sage.” I asked him to show me where it was and he said: “I mean your soul which is between the two sides of your body. Its poison is more deadly than a snake’s, and if you can take hold if it and do what you please with it, you are, as I have said, a sage indeed.” Then he said: “Go and do with that little snake whatever you usually do with them, and never go back to such practices again.

This is a very pointed example due to the fact that it comes from Sufism where Quranic authority is usually relied on to dispute unorthodox practices, yet here again we find an active reconciliation that goes beyond verbal or doctrinal refutation. Skaikh Sidi Muhammad al-Buzidi redirects the active energy that Shaykh Ahmed al-Alawi was putting into a physical manifestation of his devotion into a higher level of practice.

Discursive arguments lend themselves to the possibility of misinterpretation, however activity is proven by results. The end to which the action lead to are the measure of their worth.  In our devotion we can either take on the snake in hand, or the snake in Spirit, either way Death will prove the results.

Note: Thanks to Charles Upton of Sophia Perennis for pointing me to the passage in Martin Lings’ A Sufi Saint in the 20th Century, and to Bibliodyssey for the illustration from Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.

See also: Of Snakes & Sufis for more analysis of the serpent handling holiness tradition – Click Here for the article.



The Hearth Fire

Appalachia has a strong Scotch-Irish history, many of the settlers that ended up in the Appalachian mountain range were from Gaelic colonists moving West as the solidification of the United States during the 18th and 19th century conflicted with their ideas of fair taxation and freedom to practice their trades without the interference of government regulations.

In the process of this migration they encountered other groups facing similar displacement;  indigenous cultures and freed slaves that had found refuge in the wilderness of Appalachia seeking to escape from the expanding horizons of the fast forming United States. This intermixing of cultures provides a place where ancient traditions and various lines of transmission came together to produce a potent folk life which unconsciously holds the seeds of gnosis.

In Gaelic communities the beginning of February is marked by the festival of Imbolc, Christianized as the feast day of St. Brigid. This celebration is held in the honor of the first appearance of spring, represented in Gaelic myth as Brigid, the Bride.

She is goddess of the household fire; her position is that of the hearth goddess Vesta, as much as that of Minerva, for evidently she is primarily a fire-goddess. Her name is probably from the same root as the English bright, Gaelic brco. The British goddess, Brigantia, is doubtless the same as the Irish Brigit Mr Whitley Stokes picks out the following instances in proof of her character as a fire-goddess; she was born at sunrise; her breath revives the . dead; a house in which she stays flames up to heaven; she is fed with the milk of a white red-eared cow; a fiery pillar rises from her head, and she remains a virgin like the Roman goddess, Vesta, and her virgins—Vesta, whom Ovid tells us to consider ” nothing else than the living flame, which can produce no bodies.” Cormac calls her the daughter of the Dagda. “This Brigit,” he says, “is a poetess, a goddess whom poets worshipped. Her sisters were Brigit, woman of healing; Brigit, woman of smith work; that is, goddesses; these are the three daughters of the Dagda.”

Celtic Mythology & Religion, Alexander McBain

Fire is a potent traditional symbol of the eternal spirit, and the hearth fire is, in some ways, a continuation of this symbol in the domestic setting. Here the house becomes a temple to the eternal, an outward manifestation of the temple built within the believers, the faithful and the gnostics.

“When a traditional form is on the point of becoming extinct, its last representatives may very well deliberately entrust to this aforesaid collective memory the things that otherwise would be lost beyond recall; that is in fact the sole means of saving what can in a certain measure be saved. At the same time, that lack of understanding that is one of the natural characteristics of the masses is a sure enough guarantee that what is esoteric will be nonetheless undivulged, remaining merely as a sort of witness of the past for such as, in later times, shall be capable of understanding It.”

Symbols of the Sacred Science, Rene Guenon

Appalachia, as the center point of migration for the remnants of so many traditional cultures, became a storehouse for these traditional forms. The manifestations of the Holiness Churches, of Hoodoo, and Deutsch Pow Wow among the Amish and Mennonite, show that even when these transmissions were weakened by forgetfulness, their manifestations still continue to hold the powerful impetus of true tradition, that “rock of ages” that can never be destroyed.

“Minerva is the fifth and last deity mentioned by Caesar as worshipped by the Gauls—their goddess of arts and industry. A passage in Solinus, and another in Giraldus Cambrensis, enable us to decide, with absolute certainty, what goddess answered among the Gaels to the position of Minerva. Solinus (first century A.D.) says that in Britain, Minerva presides over the hot springs, and that in her temple there flamed a perpetual fire, which never whitened into ashes, but hardened into a strong mass.

Giraldus (12th century A.D.) informs us that at the shrine of St Brigit at Kildare, the fire is allowed never to go out, and though such heaps of wood have been consumed since the time of the Virgin, yet there has been no accumulation of ashes. “Each of her nineteen nuns has the care of the fire for a single night in turn, and on the evening before the twentieth night, the last nun, having heaped wood upon the fire, says, ‘Brigit, take charge of your own fire, for this night belongs to you.’ She then leaves the fire, and in the morning it is found that the (ire has not gone out, and that the usual quantity of fuel has been used.” This sacred fire was kept burning continually for centuries, and was finally extinguished, only with the extinction of the monasteries by Henry VIII.”

Celtic Mythology & Religion, Alexander McBain

By 1850 the U.S. census shows that there were 961,719 Irish living in the United States, stretching from Illinois to the east coast. By this time they had already spread into Appalachia, taking with them the traditions they had kept alive at home. Each time the secular authories (whether by government or religion) sought to divide the people quietly pursued the truth.

When the community temples are destroyed, the eternal flame is taken home by the faithful. The Divine presence in the famed European cathedrals exists in the very measurements used to create them, Pythagorean mathematics that contain secrets of the eternal fire.  In the most material understanding these are manifest in the allegorical and symbolic statues and stained glass that adorn the cathedral, but the heart of the secret lies in the very roots of the cathedral’s construction.

When these truths are displaced from the fine edifice of monuments like the cathedrals, something as simple as a hearth fire keeps the secret alive among the people who await the purification of the community.

Thig an nathair as an toll
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.

“The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.”

Carmina Gaelica, Alexander Carmicheal (1900)

Alexander Carmichael collected the folk traditions of the Gaelic people of Scotland in the late 19th century, and discovered that despite institutional attacks from the organized church to stamp out “pagan” practices, in secret the people still carried many of their ancient traditions.

Brigit, the Bride, symbol of wisdom and fire, lived on in the people’s hearts, prayers and blessings awaiting the day when those would come who could hear her again. Just as her release from the Crone of Winter is celebrated in the first days of Spring, her memory sleeps in the Winter of a fallen culture.

“The mystical truth which is realized in the sage is virtual in the folk. If the folk are the field, the sage is the fruit of the tree which grows in the center of it, a fruit which, even as it takes its place in the eternal domain of God’s attributes, also cyclically returns to the field from which it grew, via its seed, to propagate wisdom. The folk correspond to the Aristotelian materia, that which receives the imprint of forms, and the sage to forma, that which shapes or “informs” the material which allows it to appear. And the tree corresponds to Tradition in the sense employed by French metaphysician René Guénon: that body of spiritual Truth, lying at the core of every religious revelation and a great deal of folklore and mythology, which has always been known by the “gnostics” of the race since it is eternal in relation to human time, representing as it does the eternal design or prototype of Humanity itself. A traditional culture permeated by half-understood mystical lore on the folk level is a fertile matrix for the full development of the gnostic, the sagacious individual, who, by means of his darshan, his willingness to allow himself to be contemplated as a representative of spiritual Truth, returns the seed of wisdom to the folk who venerate him.”

“Fair Nottamun Town”: Mystical and Alchemical Symbolism in an Appalachian Folk Song, Charles Upton

In folk etymologies there are hidden secrets that dance around the investigations of scholars. In the Sanas Cormaic, a 19th century collection of Gaelic etymologies, Brigit’s Gaelic name, Breo Saighead, was said to mean “the fiery arrow.”  Academic etymologist’s scoff at such an attribution and miss the line of truth that it transmits.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…”

– Therese of Avila

We so often seek the flame in those that reflect the outward power of our culture. In celebrities and scholars, in political leaders and religious figures, our expectations are put to bring us some shred of truth to move forward with.  All the while, in quiet homes in rural Appalachia, and around the world in places where the tradition has been pushed to the wilds, the true fire burns bright, awaiting those who can see it to herald the Spring.

Of Snakes & Sufis

Folks like to throw around a roughed up Rumi quote now and again. It seems to be the general consensus that it’s classier to quote Rumi than to pull out some Tony Robbins to salute the day.  It feels good when you wake up to softly murmur:

“The wind is pouring wine! Love

used to hide inside images. No More!”

…even if that’s not Rumi, but rather Coleman Barks playing the part of Rumi.

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (Rumi) was Muslim theologian and jurist and as such his writing, when translated directly, has quite a different feel to it.  Barks’ Rumi is fleshy, thick and sensual, translated more accurately Rumi isn’t so forgiving to Western mores:

“Oh people! Beware of these ephemeral things!

Rise up, travel to the celestial world! The spirit has attained to perfection within your frame, yet you talk about your perishing body. Jesus sits before you, but out of stupidity your heart decides to serve his ass’s hooves! Oh pure spirits!

How long will you dwell in these piles of dust like rubbish and the people of hell? The trumpet of good fortune was blown some time ago: Oh you who were born of the living, lift your heads from this dust!“

Jalal al-Din Rumi, trans. William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love

The Mawlawī Sufi Order that carries on the tradition of Rumi is only one branch of Sufism. Their public performances are highly choreographed and beautiful to watch, with clean white garments and tall cylindrical head wear, they are perfect pictures of harmony and balance.  Exactly what the Western world, attuned to Barks’ translations, would like to see from the lineage of the Poet of Divine Love.

The current Order is also only a remnant of the original lineage, which had the honor of being tied by marriage to the Caliphate during the Ottoman Empire. In 1925 the Mawlawī Order was banned by the Turkish government at the time, and when it was openly reinstated in 1954 became a popular tourist attraction.

With the lineage’s ties to the aristocratic line, and their openness to public performance,  it’s no surprise that their rituals are such beautifully arranged presentations. Other Sufi Orders, such as those found in Kurdistan are not as often shown to the West. Their rites, which involve self inflicted wounds and ecstatic trance, do not fit as well with an image of orderliness that is easily commodified.

It would surprise many that these rites bear a striking resemblance to a tradition that is often maligned in the United States, the snake handling Holiness congregations of Appalachia:

It should be noted that Sufi Orders such as those found in Kurdistan also face a similar misunderstanding in the Muslim world. The Mawlawī Order, for all of it’s harmony, was banned by a fundamentalist orthodoxy, and those Orders that follow  more physically extreme devotions are faced with a greater threat of persecution.

What ties the Holiness congregations and the Kurdish Sufis together is the conditions from which they emerge. Living in harsh economic environments, in often extreme poverty, the people have very little hope outside of their devotion.

From a place of privilege their devotions may seem shocking, however at the edges of civilization the Wine of ecstatic transcendence provides a relationship to the Divine that gives them relief from the daily hardships they face.

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine; nor for princes strong drink:

Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted.

Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.

Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.

Proverbs 31:4-7