Since time immemorial, humans have been irresistibly fascinated by snakes - but most especially by cobras, nurturing an innate, inexplicable desire for close interaction, and even intimacy, with these large, highly venomous, and ostensibly imperious entities. This arcane aspiration has attained expression by all manner of different means - including fear-infiltrated veneration and handling by acolytes of Indian snake cults that perceived cobras as reincarnations of bygone leaders and referred to them as nagas; the fragile balance of respect and control achieved in authentic cobra charming; and even highly-emotive displays of devoted, unreserved love for the regal reptiles that are fervently believed by many to bestow blessings upon their homes and lives.
Yet for many Westerners, cobra cults and other manifestations of humankind's mystical inter-relationship with these serpents are totally alien concepts - exhibiting facets of human and reptilian behaviour that seemingly transcend traditional explanation or rationalisation. And none is more dramatic, or potentially deadly, than the cult of the king cobra Ophiophagus hannah, a truly spectacular species native to forests in the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and southern East Asia.
As thick as a man's arm and sheathed in olive-green scales imparting a deep, velvet-like sheen, coupled with a superimposed series of pale-yellow cross-bands down its body's length and more distinct ones upon its neck, the king cobra is the world's longest species of venomous snake, boasting a very impressive total length of up to 18.5 ft, and with a head that can be the size of a small dog's. It is also one of the most deadly, and most aggressive, snakes – so much so, in fact, that the preferred diet of this most macho of mega-serpents is other snakes (its generic name, Ophiophagus, translates as 'snake-eater').
So the even merest thought of physical contact with so daunting a creature, let alone intimate veneration of it as a reptilian deity, is not for the faint-hearted. And yet, as now revealed in this ShukerNature blog article, examples of such intimacy are indeed documented – whether or not they are explicable, however, is another matter entirely!
THE SERPENT-GOD AND THE SNAKE-PRIESTESS
One particularly dramatic case, recorded in his book On Safari (1963), was witnessed by no less an authority than Armand Denis, the pioneering wildlife film-maker and author. In 1939, during a filming expedition to the Far East, Denis was in northern Burma (now Myanmar), investigating whether ophiolatreia (snake-worship) was still practised there, when he met an old Buddhist priest who told him to travel to a remote mountainous village, where he would be shown all that he hoped to see - and more! Two days later, Denis had arrived, and the next morning he found himself sitting in a flower-decorated oxcart alongside the village's snake-priestess, a beautiful young woman in her early 30s, at the head of a procession containing most of the other villagers, who were bearing gifts for the serpent-god and providing enthusiastic musical accompaniment with an ample supply of bells and gongs.
After a sedate journey along a winding mountain path, Denis and company finally neared a small cave, the journey's destination. Quite a while later, during which time the villagers had busied themselves strewing assorted offerings to the serpent-god on either side of the path leading to the cave, the snake-priestess walked steadily towards the cave's opening, accompanied for part of the way by Denis. At the opening the priestess paused, and called into it. A few minutes later an enormous snake emerged, and coiled itself at her feet. It was a cobra - but no ordinary one, for this was nothing less than an adult king cobra.
Even as the priestess stood there, absolutely motionless, the huge snake rose up with hood outstretched, standing erect and poised to strike. Able to hold itself 3 ft or more above the ground, and positioned less than 4 ft away from her, it was well within range. Yet in answer to the cobra's challenge, the priestess merely bowed her head towards it, slowly, deferentially, and seemingly without fear. Responding immediately, the snake lunged forward, striking at the level of her knees, but in the same instant the woman had moved slightly to one side, so that the cobra's deadly fangs made harmless contact with the fabric of her pure-white skirt. This macabre dance of would-be death between snake and woman, or deity and priestess, was repeated many times, and on each occasion the woman succeeded in avoiding the powerful reptile's fatal fangs - recalling a skilful matador deflecting the terrible horns of a charging bull, but equipped with a skirt of snow rather than a cloak of crimson.
Suddenly, however, the snake-priestess's performance reached its particular climax in a manner never mirrored by that of any matador. With her hands placed behind her back, she moved a little closer to her lethal god, and during a moment when it remained erect but immobile she leaned forward and lightly kissed the king cobra on top of its head! Drawing back instantaneously, she countered the inevitable strike that ensued, after which she promptly kissed the cobra again, and, after deflecting its consequent lunge, kissed it a third time too. The ceremony thus concluded, she simply turned her back on the cobra, and walked away, slowly but apparently untroubled, towards Denis and the waiting villagers. Nor was her confidence betrayed by the cobra - instead of striking her from behind, it merely turned aside and slid swiftly from sight into its cave.
If, during the journey back to the village, Denis had suspected that he had been hallucinating, and that this astonishing ritual had never happened, one could surely have forgiven him, for it certainly seems almost beyond belief that such a performance could ever take place. However, he had conclusive evidence for its reality right before his eyes. Clearly visible on the woman's white skirt were many damp, amber-hued stains - the potent venom of a king cobra, the legacy of her audience with her ophidian deity.
This astonishing performance has been witnessed over the years by other Western observers too. Moreover, Dr Desmond Morris’s book Men and Snakes (1965) reports an even more incredible variation on its macabre theme – in which the snake-goddess kisses the king cobra not on top of its head but directly on its mouth! This terrifying deed was also regularly performed by top Burmese snake charmer Saya Hnin-Mahla as the climax of her act with her co-performer, an adult king cobra (see photograph opening this present ShukerNature blog article).
SPITTING IN THE FACE OF DANGER – LITERALLY!
Narrating a selection of his varied wildlife experiences on an LP record (again entitled On Safari), Armand Denis recalled a second, no less extraordinary encounter that he had witnessed between king cobra and human. Just before World War II, Denis was in Singapore on a filming assignment, and in order to complete the wildlife film that he had been working upon he advertised locally for a number of king cobras, a common species in that area. Eventually, he received about a dozen, all adult and extremely belligerent, which he maintained in a securely-fastened crate with a fine wire-netting top, whose mesh they profusely drenched with their potent venom as they struck at it repeatedly in their fury at finding themselves held captive in this manner.
One day, a young Chinese boy, dressed in a strange white garb with deep sleeves, arrived at Denis's hotel, and gravely volunteered his services to Denis as a snake-handler, provided that Denis would give him one of the king cobras at the end of the filming sessions. Although he naturally doubted the boy's capability to handle such dangerous snakes as these in safety, Denis was sufficiently intrigued by his serious demeanour and outlandish offer to allow him to take a look at the cobras, while they writhed irritably but impotently within the confines of their locked crate. The boy soon focused his attention upon one especially large and aggressive specimen, which he considered to be very beautiful, and which, he assured Denis, he would have no problem in handling. Needless to say, Denis swiftly reminded him that this was a lethal creature that no-one would dare to handle in its current, highly emotional state; not until it had quietened down during several days of captivity could it be considered in any way safe to deal with, and only then for filming purposes.
The boy merely smiled, however, and asserted confidently that it would be very easy for him to handle it now - straight away - and in complete safety. He then began to prise up one corner of the crate, and Denis, very much alarmed, implored him to leave the snake alone. In response, the boy paused, and withdrew from the folds of one of his long sleeves a small vial of strange green liquid, which, when uncorked, released a fragrance vaguely reminiscent of freshly-cut grass. He poured some of this into his mouth, and then leaned down to the crate, until his face was well within the cobra's striking range. Hardly daring to look, Denis could only stand and await the inevitable, instantaneous strike that would swiftly bring death to this foolish child. Instead, it was the boy who acted first, and in a very unexpected manner.
Leaning even closer to the crate, he suddenly spat the liquid out of his mouth, spraying it liberally all over the face, head, and body of his chosen cobra! The boy waited for about a minute, and then - to Denis's even greater surprise, and absolute horror! - he casually reached into the crate and lifted the cobra out, his hands around the middle of its body's great length, holding this huge deadly serpent with no more concern than any other child might display when holding a length of cord or a skipping rope. By some uncanny means, the green liquid appeared to have rendered the cobra almost totally passive; true, it reared its ebony-scaled, fist-sized head upwards to gaze evenly at its young captor, but it made no attempt to strike at him.
After a time, the boy placed the cobra back into the crate, bowed solemnly to a still-stupefied Denis, and walked out of his room, promising to come back the following morning, and handle all of the cobras in the crate - but he did not return, and Denis never saw his mysterious visitor again.
When asked during an interview with a British newspaper some years ago to disclose the secret of successful snake training, Yogi Raj Bengali, one of the world's most celebrated snake-charmers, merely smiled, and stated that although some do become accustomed to a certain touch and are quite placid, for the most part snakes cannot be trained; they simply do whatever they want to do.
Bearing in mind that these are the words of an expert in the handling of potentially lethal snakes, it seems safe to assume that the mystical links between king cobras and their contemporary human courtiers have far from vanished, and that there is much still to be comprehended in this most perilous but potent of partnerships.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited: From Singing Dogs to Serpent Kings.