There can be no question at all of the remarkable power which from time immemorial has been exercised by certain people in the East over poisonous serpents. The art is most distinctly mentioned in the Bible, SEE CHARM, and probably alluded to by St. James (Jas 3:7). The usual species operated upon, both in Africa and India, are the hooded snakes (Naja tripudians, and Naja haje) and the horned cerastes. The skill of the Italian marsi and the Libyan psylli in taming serpents was celebrated throughout the world; and to this day, as we are told by Sir G. Wilkinson (Rawlinson, Herodotus, 3, 124, note, ed. 1862), the snake players of the coast of Barbary are worthy successors of the psylli (see Pliny, 8, 25; 11, 25; and especially Lucan's account of the psylli [Pharsal. 9, 892.]). See numerous references cited by Bochart (Hieroz. 3, 164, etc.) on the subject of serpent taming. Multitudes of modern observers have described the practices of the snake charmers in such terms as to leave no doubt of the fact. One instance may suffice for illustration. Mr. Gogerly, a missionary in India, says that some persons, being incredulous on the subject, after taking the most careful precautions against any trick or artifice being played, sent a charmer into the garden to prove his powers: "The man began to play upon his pipe, and, proceeding from one part of the garden to another for some minutes, stopped at a part of the wall much injured by age, and intimated that a serpent was within. He then played quicker, and his notes were louder, when almost immediately a large cobra-de-capello put forth its hooded head, and the man ran fearlessly to the spot, seized it by the throat, and drew it forth. He then showed the poison fangs, and beat them out; afterwards it was taken to the room where his baskets were left and deposited among the rest.... The snake charmer," observes the same writer, "applies his pipe to his mouth and sends forth a few of his peculiar notes, and all the serpents stop as though enchanted; they then turn towards the musician, and, approaching him within two feet, raise their heads from the ground, and, bending backward and forward, keep time with the tune. When he ceases playing, they drop their heads and remain quiet on the ground." That the charmers frequently, and perhaps generally, take the precaution of extracting the poison fangs before the snakes are subjected to their skill there is much probability for believing, but that this operation is not always attended to is clear from the testimony of Bruce and numerous other writers. "Some people," says the traveler just mentioned," have doubted that it was a trick, and that the animals so handled had been first trained and then disarmed of their power of hurting, and, fond of the discovery, they have rested themselves upon it without experiment, in the face of all antiquity. But I will not hesitate to aver that I have seen at Cairo a man ... who has taken a cerastes with his naked hand from a number of others lying at the bottom of the tub, has put it upon his bare head, covered it with the common red cap he wears, then taken it out, put it in his breast, and tied it about his neck like a necklace, after which it has been applied to a hen and bit it, which has died in a few minutes." Dr. Davy, in his Interior of Ceylon, speaking of the snake charmers, says on this subject: "The ignorant vulgar believe that these men really possess a charm by which they thus play without dread, and with impunity, from danger. The more enlightened, laughing at this idea, consider the men impostors, and that in playing their tricks there is no danger to be avoided, it being removed by the abstraction of the poison fangs. The enlightened in this instance are mistaken, and the vulgar are nearer the truth in their opinion. I have examined the snakes I have seen exhibited, and have found their poison fangs in and uninjured. These men do possess a charm, though not a supernatural one, viz. that of confidence and courage... They will play their tricks with any hooded snakes (Naja tripudians), whether just taken or long in confinement, but with no other kind of poisonous snake." (See also Tennent, Ceylon, 3d ed. 1, 199.) Some have supposed that the practice of taking out or breaking off the poison fangs is alluded to in Ps 58:6, "Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth." The serpent charmer's usual instrument is a flute. Shrill sounds, it would appear, are those which serpents, with their imperfect sense of hearing, are able most easily to discern; hence it is that the Chinese summon their tame fish by whistling or by ringing a bell. The reader will find much interesting matter on the art of serpent charming, as practiced by the ancients, in Bochart (Hieroz. 3, 161); in the dissertation by Böhmer entitled De Psyllorum, Marsorum, et Ophiogenum adversus Serpentes Virtue (Lips. 1745); and in Kämpfer, Amoenitates Exoticoe, 3, 9; 565; see also Broderip, Notebook of a Naturalist, and Anecdotes of Serpents, published by Chambers; Lane, Modern Egyptians, 2, 106. Those who professed the art of taming serpents were called by the Heb. menachashim (מנִחֲשַׁים), while the art itself was called lachash (לִחִשׁ), Jer 8:17; Ec 10:11; but these terms were not always used in this restricted sense. SEE DIVINATION.
In general, these serpent charmers were, and are, distinct tribes of men in their several countries, professing the power they claim to be an inherent and natural function. The most famous serpent charmers of antiquity were the Psylli, a people of Cyrenaica; and that theirs was believed to be a natural power appears from the story told by Pliny, that they were accustomed to try the legitimacy of their newborn children by exposing them to the most cruel and venomous serpents, who dared not molest or even approach them unless they were illegitimate. He thinks their power resided in some peculiar odor in their persons, which the serpents abhorred (Hist. Nat. 7, 2). Lucan says the same; and the passage in which that poet speaks of them affords a complete exposition of the ancient belief concerning the charming of serpents. He chiefly describes the measures which they took to protect the Roman camp. When the encampment was marked out, they marched around it chanting their charms, the "mystic sound" of which chased the serpents far away. But not trusting entirely to this, they kept up fires, of different kinds of wood, beyond the farthest tents, the smell of which prevented the serpents from approaching. Thus, the camp was protected during the night. But if any soldier, when abroad in the daytime, happened to be bitten, the Psylli exerted their powers to effect, a cure. First they rubbed the wounded part around with saliva, to prevent, as they said, the poison from spreading while they assayed their arts to extract it (Pharsalia, 9). SEE ENCHANTMENT.
In this account we find the voice repeatedly mentioned; and it is to "the voice of the charmer" that the Psalmist refers. We may suppose that, as in the passage we have quoted, the charmers use a form of words — a charm — or else chanted a song in some peculiar manner. So Eusebius, in mentioning that Palestine abounded in serpent charmers in his time, says that they usually employed a verbal charm. This is still one of the processes of the Oriental serpent charmers. Roberts says that the following is considered in India the most potent form of words against serpents: "Oh, serpent! thou who art coiled in my path, get out of my way; for around thee are the mongoos, the porcupine, and the kite in his circles is ready to take thee!" The Egyptian serpent charmer also employs vocal sounds and a form of words to draw the venomous creatures from their retreats. Mr. Lane says, "He assumes an air of mystery, strikes the walls with a short palm stick, whistles, makes a clucking noise with his tongue, and spits upon the ground; and generally says, I adjure you by God, if ye be above, or if ye be below, that ye come forth; I adjure ye by the most great name, if ye be obedient, come forth; and if ye be disobedient, die! die! die!'" (Modern Egyptians, 2, 104). SEE ADDER.
With regard to the manipulation of serpents by the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 4), we may remark that in modern times the psylli, or charmers, by a particular pressure on the neck of the cobra or haje, have the power of rendering the inflation of the animal — which is a character of the genus — so intense that the serpent becomes rigid, and can be held out horizontally as if it were a rod. This practice explains what the soothsayers of Pharaoh could perform when they were opposing Moses, and reveals one of the, names by which the Hebrews knew the species; for although the text (Ex 4:3) uses, for the rod of Aaron converted into a serpent, the word נחשׁ, nachash, and subsequently (Ex 7:15) תנין, tannin, it is plain that, in the second passage, the word indicates "monster," as applied to the nachash just named — the first being an appellative, the second an epithet. That the rods of the magicians of Pharaoh were of the same external, character is evident from no different denomination being given to them; therefore we may infer that they used a real serpent as a rod — viz. the species now called haje — for their imposture, since they no doubt did what the present serpent charmers perform with the same species by means of the temporary asphyxiation, or suspension of vitality, before noticed, and producing restoration to active life by liberating or throwing down. Thus we have the miraculous character of the prophet's mission shown by his real rod becoming a serpent, and the magicians' real serpents merely assuming the form of rods; and when both were opposed, in a state of animated existence, by the rod devouring the living animals, conquering the great typical personification of the protecting divinity of Egypt. SEE SERPENT.