Pick from the Past
Natural History, January-February 1925

The Hoop Snake Story

With Some Theories Of Its Origin

NE of the most persistent and widespread snake myths in the United States tells of a large serpent which takes its tail in its mouth and rolls like a hoop. It is further reputed to have a poisonous sting in its tail, which is launched at its enemy from the rolling position. This story has come to be associated with various snakes in different parts of the country. My interest in the story was aroused during a stay in Louisiana, where I could gather eyewitness testimony regarding one of the “hoop snakes” (Abastor erythrogrammus) and the “stingin’ snake” of the genus Faranda. It appears that the supposed habit of rolling like a hoop is an elaboration of the more fundamental belief in a snake with a poison sting in its tail.

Herodotus, the earliest source of some still current misinformation concerning reptiles, is not the fountainhead of this legend, and it does not find place in Pliny, whose voluminous Natural History would surely have included a story so much in his own vein, had he known of it.

My first impression was that this must be one of the universal snake myths, and I thought of the familiar “snake” bracelet or finger ring, in which the head of the snake meets the tail. On inquiry, however, there appears to be no classical or European analogue of the American hoop snake story. (The Midgard serpent of Norse myth, a sea monster represented as encircling the earth, could not, in the opinion of the writer, have had a bearing on the hoop snake story.) Herodotus, the earliest source of some still current misinformation concerning reptiles, is not the fountainhead of this legend, and it does not find place in Pliny, whose voluminous Natural History would surely have included a story so much in his own vein, had he known of it. My search of possible European sources was slight, but it gave no clue to a European prototype of the hoop snake yarn.

Turning to American sources, our search is at once rewarded by finding references to the horn or hoop snake in early accounts of travel in this country. (For a list of volumes which were searched for mention of the hoop snake, I am indebted to Dr. A. H. Wright of Cornell University.) These accounts may speak for themselves. The earliest is in a letter dated 1688 that was written by John Clayton to the Royal Society of London (Force, P., Tracts relating to America, Vol. III, No. 12, p. 44. Washington, 1844):

“There is another sort of deadly snake, the Red-Snake; I once narrowly escaped treading on the back of one of them. They are of an ugly dark brown Colour, inclining to red; their bellies are of a more dusky white, with a large streak of vermilion Red on either side; this too is of the Viper kind, but is not so short, but its tail is more taper and small. The Horn snake, is as they say, another sort of deadly snake; I never saw any of them unless once, shortly after my Arrival in that Country, which I cannot attest to being the Horn-Snake, for I could not distinctly view it, being in a thicket of sumach; it was perched up about two feet high in a Sumach Branch, its Tail twisted about the Shrub, and about a quarter of a yard stood bolt forward, leaning over the forked branch thereof: I could not see the Horne, with which it strikes, and if it wounds, is as deadly as the Rattle-Snake’s Bite. The Gentleman that was with me told me it was the Horn snake; but being in hast, and on Horseback, and the Snake in a Thicket, I could not see the Horn; but had I thought I should never have seen more of them, I should have took a little Pains to have been better satisfied. This I think may not improperly be referred to the Dart Snake.”

“They have likewise the Horn snake, so called from a sharp horn it carries in its tail, with which it assaults anything that offends it, with that Force, that as it is said it will strike its tail into the But end of a Musquet, from whence it is not able to disengage itself.”

Here are a number of elements that go to make up a typical snake story. A description of the mud or rainbow snake (it is impossible to be sure which is meant); a “horn snake,” with the horn in its “front,” apparently one of the tree snakes, or possibly a black snake; and not least, the abundant excuses for not making a more thorough investigation.

The next account is that of Robert Beverly, in a History of Virginia published in London in 1722 (p. 261). He writes: “They have likewise the Horn snake, so called from a sharp horn it carries in its tail, with which it assaults anything that offends it, with that Force, that as it is said it will strike its tail into the But end of a Musquet, from whence it is not able to disengage itself.”

In this short note are two distinct additions that are familiar in later accounts: first, the transference of the horn to the tail; and second, the characteristic of striking with such force as to remain fast in the object struck. No mention is made of the horn being poisonous,—an oversight which is supplied by our next reference.

Alexander Hewatt, writing in 1779 (Historical Account of South Carolina and Georgia, Vol. I, p. 87. London), describes the fangs of the rattler and other genuinely

“He throws himself into a
circle, running rapidly around, advancing like a hoop, with his tail arising and pointed forward in the circle, by which he is always in the ready position of striking.”
poisonous snakes; he then goes on to say: “The horn snake is also found here, which takes his name from a horn in its tail, with which he defends himself, and strikes it with great force into every aggressor. This reptile is also deemed very venomous, and the Indians, when wounded by him usually cut out the part wounded as quickly as possible so as to prevent the infection spreading through the body.”

In this account the name of “Horn snake” is reënforced, and the quality of venom added. This is the only reference to a belief in stinging snakes on the part of the North American Indians which has come to my attention. It would be highly interesting if these legends should be found in North American Indian folklore, and in that case my hypothesis, subsequently stated, of an African origin could be discarded.

The next account in our list is supplied by one J. F. D. Smyth, in 1784 (Tour in the U. S. A., Vol. I, p. 263-65. London). As this is the first account—I had almost said authentic account—which introduces the “hoop,” I shall quote it in full. Referring to a stay in western North Carolina, he writes:

“While I was at Sawra Towns, one day a little lad of Mr. Bayley’s came to acquaint us that he had killed a horn-snake, which being a curiosity that I was extremely desirous of observing and examining with particular attention, I accompanied him to the place where he said he had left it; but when we arrived there, to my great disappointment, it was not to be found. He assured me that it must not have been quite dead, and had recovered so much as to be able to crawl from the spot on which he had left it, and had secreted itself somewhere among the leaves.

“However, everyone, and all the inhabitants, with the greatest confidence asserted, and avowed their having seen such snake, though very seldom.

“They represented them to me as the most formidable and direful foes in existence to the human race, and to all animation; poisonous and fatal to a degree almost beyond credibility.

“He is described as something resembling a black snake, but thicker, shorter, and of a colour more inclining to dark brown. He never bites his adversary, but has a weapon in his tail, called his sting, of a hard horny substance, in shape and appearance very much like to a cock’s spur: with this he strikes his antagonist, or whatever object he aims at, when he least expects it, and if it penetrates the skin it is inevitable and sudden death.

“So very virulent is his poison that it is reported, if he should miss the object he pointed at, and should strike his horn through the bark of a young sapling tree, if it penetrates into the sap or vital parts, the bark or rind will, within a few hours, swell, burst, and peel off, and the tree itself will perish. (What may be an indirect reference to the account of Mr. Smyth appears in Charles M. Walker’s A History of Athens Co., Ohio, p. 97, Cincinnati, 1869: “Early travellers mention the hoop snake, stinging with their tails. and so malignant as to cause the death of a green tree if struck.”)

“As other serpents crawl upon their bellies, so can this; but he has another method of moving peculiar to his own species, which he always adopts when he is in eager pursuit of his prey; he throws himself into a circle, running rapidly around, advancing like a hoop, with his tail arising and pointed forward in the circle, by which he is always in the ready position of striking.

“It is observed that they only make use of this method in attacking; for when they fly from their enemy they go upon their bellies, like other serpents.

“From the above circumstance, peculiar to themselves, they have also derived the appellation of hoop snakes.”

This account may be considered the first in which the hoop snake myth appears in full flower. It is to be noted that the hoop snake story is added to that of the horn snake. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some village genius has invented the hoop snake and blended his creation with the horn snake, the reputation of whose venomous tail sting was a really current snake “myth.”

In a View of South Carolina, by John Drayton, published in Charleston in 1802, appears a list of the snakes of South Carolina that includes the horn snake. Robert Mills, in Statistics of South Carolina, 1826 (p. 102. Charleston), also mentions a species under this name.

John Lee Williams, in a View of West Florida, published in 1827 (p. 28. Philadelphia), lists various snakes and writes that “ . . . a livid looking mud asp, that has sometimes been mistaken for an eel, has in several instances proved fatal to those who expose themselves by wading in muddy creeks.” This looks very much like a reference to the horn snake under a new name, for this snake really lives in mud and its sides and belly are a “livid” red.

The single case of scepticism on the part of a person mentioning the horn snake that has come to my attention in works of the nature thus far quoted is that of J. H. Hinton. In his History and Topography of the United States, published in London, 1832, he writes (Vol. II, p. 185) that “The accounts of the deadly venom of the Horn-snake being without actual attestation by fact, are considered as unfounded.”

There is no doubt that this list of references to the hoop snake could be much extended. I have not examined current sources, for there is no difficulty in gathering any number of contemporary accounts of the hoop snake and the horn snake from alleged eyewitnesses, especially in anyone of the southern states. These accounts are not to be confused with yarns spun for the misinformation of the traveler. If one expresses doubt, he runs real danger of seriously offending the narrator; and the stories are attached to perfectly definite and well-known species of snakes, which are greatly dreaded and shunned. The first specimen of the “stingin’ snake” that I collected, I brought in alive to a camp in Louisiana, and I had difficulty in convincing my camp mates that it was not by virtue of occult power over snakes that I escaped the predicted death. I had already gathered accounts from a considerable number of eyewitnesses, of the death of various animals from the sting of the “stingin’ snake,” and when I confronted my informants with the living source of their fears, they were forced to make the difficult choice between their traditional belief and the evidence of their eyes and of common sense.

In the locality in question (Natchitoches Parish), it was Farancia abacura, the horn snake or mud snake of other sections, to which the stinging powers were attributed. There was no hoop snake story current in this section of Louisiana. Only one family, which had come from Georgia, knew of it. All the members of this family would have been glad to take oath to having seen the veritable hooping of the hoop snake in their native state. They apparently referred their experience to the rainbow snake (Abastor erythrogrammus), which in many parts of the South is known as the “hoop snake.”

Both of these snakes lend themselves well to their legendary roles. They are large, brilliantly colored serpents, which because of their habits are very rarely seen, for they burrow in soft mud or soil in wet localities, or frequent swampy areas which are sparsely inhabited. The terminal scale of their tail is considerably enlarged and is spinous or horn-like, so that the examination of a dead snake, the only kind ever examined, lends apparent support to the theory of a sting. Further support is derived from the actions of the living snake, though it is doubtful if the authors or bearers of the “stingin’ snake” stories ever observed the reptiles alive. When held in the hand, the mud snake (which is the more familiar to me) coils around the hand, and explores or feels about with the tip of the tail with sufficient force to give a considerable prick, though I doubt if even a large snake would penetrate the skin with its tail spine. This is the normal, or slightly modified, habit of constricting snakes in general, which attempt to tuck the tail beneath a coil or otherwise secure a purchase for it, to enable them to constrict.

An account by T. G. Dabney (Copeia, No. 73, p. 73. 1919), who was a good observer both of snakes and of human reactions to them, illuminates the problem of explaining the many eyewitness accounts. He writes, concerning a specimen which was brought to him:

“It had just been killed, but had enough vitality for tail movements. It was carefully carried on a fire poker to the porch for good light. The poker was pressed on the tail, which set up a lively oscillation, and the observer distinctly saw a sting, protruded and withdrawn ’in a flash,’ but saw no repetition of the exposure. A dissection showed the tail vertebrae descending in a diminuendo to the fine pointed extremity of the tail, and no place for a ’sting.’ This shows that we are very likely to see what we expect to see, when snakes are involved; and the average person is prone to accept first impressions, and any extravagant statement about snakes, without any inclination to verify, or disprove them.”

The most pronounced development of a tail spine in snakes that has come to my notice is that of some of the blind burrowing snakes of the family Typhlopidae. Living specimens held in the hand make the same exploration with the tail spine, which is very sharp, as I have described above in the case of the horn snake. Mr. Herbert Lang, leader of the American Museum Congo Expedition, informs me that the African natives believe that the tail of these burrowing snakes is used as a sting, and that these snakes are relatively abundant in Central and West Africa. It seems a plausible hypothesis, therefore, that the stories of stinging snakes were brought from Africa by the negroes imported as slaves. The transfer of this reputation from the burrowing snakes of Africa to American burrowing snakes offers no difficulty to anyone familiar with the permutations and combinations of popular names for animals.

The habit of the common black snake of eastern North America of gliding along at great speed over the tops of bushes, without descending to the ground, may have a bearing on the origin of the belief in the hoop snake’s rolling method of progression.

The habit of the common black snake of eastern North America of gliding along at great speed over the tops of bushes, without descending to the ground, may have a bearing on the origin of the belief in the hoop snake’s rolling method of progression. Where the horn snake and rainbow snake do not occur, there seems to be a tendency to identify the hoop snake with the black snake or blue racer.

The only remaining hypothesis for the origin of the stories of the stinging snake and the hoop snake that has come to my attention rests on the comparison with scorpions. Scorpions do have a veritable sting in their tails, and they do advance with the sting raised over the back “in the ready position of striking.” The remoteness of the scorpions from snakes in zoölogical classification seems to offer little difficulty to the popular imagination. In the same section of Louisiana where I collected my first hoop snakes, I heard repeatedly about “stingin’ lizards.” My informants thought they had scored a clear triumph against my scepticism when they showed me scorpions to prove their assertion that there were “stingin’ lizards” that really could sting!

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