A history of the snake-handling churches of Tennessee which is both academic and insightful, containing 178 photos of people handling snakes and drinking poison. There is a general tendency to view the Southern snake-handlers as simple-minded or insane. Such a condescending attitude is, thankfully, absent from this book. Author Thomas Burton seems to have a liking for the subjects of his study, and reports that one of the reasons he stays in contact with them is that “they are good friends. They are strong, courageous, ethical people… I am proud of their friendship.”
Whenever a snake-handler dies of a snake bite, it makes the papers. This helps create the impression that snake-handlers are crazy people who drop dead whenever they perform their insane ritual. This book makes clear that although a practitioner will drop dead now and then, snake-handlers generally are bitten again and again with little or no effect. Even more amazing is their ability to consume poison. It is tempting to dismiss snake-handlers by speculating that they milk the snakes of their venom and switch the jars of strychnine with plain water. Every investigation that I am aware of shows that this is not so.
The snake-handlers take Mark 16:17-18 (and some other Bible verses) literally. They believe that the best way to show their faith is to handle deadly snakes and drink poisons. Also described are their fire-handling abilities, which are completely different from New Age-style firewalks. They have an obsession for filling Coke bottles with kerosene, stuffing a rag in the end and lighting it on fire. This potential Molotov cocktail is then held under the chin and other parts of the body. Removing hot coals from a furnace with the bare hands is not an unknown occurrence.
Particularly interesting is the section of biographical essays of various snake-handlers. These accounts could be dismissed as the product of someone’s imagination if it weren’t for the fact that the author has done such a thorough job of documenting everything in the book. Snake-handlers are as close as the United States gets to a home-grown mystic order (excluding Native Americans, of course). Although only briefly mentioned in the book, parallels to certain Sufi dervish groups are noticeable. There is an emphasis on good behavior (adab in Sufi terms), a disconnection from a “main” or central church body, a transference of powers of immunity (what the snake-handlers call “anointment”), dancing and rhythmic moments that turn into a trancelike state while accompanied by music played on the instruments of the common folk. The appendixes include an electroencephalograph test on an “anointed” person and a technical report on the music used during snake-handling services. The list of references is extensive and complete.
Publisher: University of Tennessee
Paperback: 208 pages