Tag Archives: Snake Handling

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.



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