The Adder Snake
Since the Ancient Britains the United Kingdom has harbored superstitions about the British adder, their only poisonous snake. Learn the history behind this wildlife phenomena.
For hundreds of years, Britain has been plagued with superstitions and folklore about its only poisonous snake, the adder. This adder lore is no surprise considering the huge areas these nesting creatures cover during the breeding season. For anyone who has run into one during late spring and early summer, the fear is comparable to the fear of a rattlesnake. Why has the adder retained such an infamous history? Even modern Britain is still haunted by this strange past with a host of medical fallacies and other so-called ailment cures.
Ancient Britains believed that simply crossing the path of an adder was sure to bring bad luck. If someone killed the first spring snake, then good luck would protect him or her against adversity. Beatings of the adder with an ash stick before sunset would supposedly neutralize the evil spirits and protect the snake's attacker. However, as Christianity became more predominant, superstition mixed with religious fervor were seen as a sort of secret charm to render the snake helpless:
According to further paganistic beliefs adopted into Christian Britain, a circle had to be drawn around the snake and a cross put in it to capture it. However, in the ancient English county of Dorset, to find an adder on a doorstep was a bad omen. Someone in the household was sure to die. Worse, though, was a dream about adders. It was not only considered prophetic, but a warning sign of one's enemies plotting against the dreamer.
Even the medical profession, with all its scientific knowledge, has been prone to adder lore mumbo jumbo. In medieval times, gypsies would kill an offending snake and rub its body on any bites it inflicted, or worse, fry some adder fat and spread it across the bites. A fine example of this superstition can be found in 19th century English literature: Thomas Hardy's novel "The Return of the Native" (1878).
Early 17th century doctors preferred more gruesome methods to cure adder bites. Some held a live pigeon against the wound to absorb the poison. Others killed chickens or sheep and applied the still warm carcass against the wound until the carcass turned black from the poison. However, some preferred a more herbal approach using rosemary and betony ointment or a tonic of goosegrass juice and wine. Unfortunately, paganistic approaches still lingered. In Wales, snakebite victims believed that jumping over water in the sight of the snake would neutralize the poison.
Even in the late 19th century, strange adder lore dominated the medical practices of Britain. Dried or abandoned adder skins were thought to cure rheumatism, thorn pricks, or headaches if wrapped around the ailing part. As an added bonus, the snakeskin could be further recycled by hanging it above the household hearth to ensure good luck and adequate protection against fire.
Even into the early 20th century, the less educated doctor still saw the benefits of giving a patient a powdered adder skin potion to cure spleen ailments. This was even added to soup to cure consumption.
Thankfully, most adder lore has drifted into obscurity. Some of the herbalistic remedies have been maintained and are still used in alternative doctor's offices across Britain, sitting side by side with modern medicine.