Sunday, October 17, 2010

House of Herps No. 11

Welcome to the October edition of the House of Herps blog carnival.

Before I go further, just let me clarify that ‘herps’ are reptiles and amphibians (as in herpetologist), NOT unpleasant, sexually-transmitted diseases.

It’s late in the dry season here.

With no rain for six months, the ground is parched and bare, the trees are leafless, and the wildlife, bony and gaunt.
Temperatures rise into the 40s C (104 F), sapping the last moisture from everything, living and dead.

But the rains may come any day.
Or not.

Almost palpable, spoken silently by plant and animal alike, is the question: can I survive until it comes?

Watching this saga, day after day, as the rainclouds build up and then drift away again, I’ve come to appreciate why humans - in every culture and on every continent - turn to superstition and ritual in a bid to influence Nature.

With so many of the ancient rain-making rituals focussing on reptiles and amphibians, hosting House of Herps seemed a great opportunity to enlist a bit of help in my very non-scientific endeavour to bring-on the rain.

So grab your umbrella and come join our rain-making festivities.

Get ready to rock!
For millennia, people have been boogying for rain.

To call up rain, the Karen people of Thailand and Burma, sway to the beat of 'frog drums', whose bronze tympanum is adorned with rain-inducing amphibians.

Bronze frog drum (2nd century AD). The little lumps are frogs.
Photo by IAMCP30 (Flickr).

In China, it's the dragons (surely up there with dinosaurs as the ultimate herp) who fly up to the clouds for rain, so extravagant dragon-dances are the go. The one you see at Chinese New Year began life as a rain-making ceremony.

Photo by Christopher Chan.

Photo by Marion Doss.

But if you can't snare yourself a dragon, don't worry, a snake will do. To conjure rain, the Zuni and Hopi tribes, of south western USA, hold a live venomous snake in their mouths as they bop. The snakes, released at the end of the performance, act as emissaries, carrying the peoples' prayers to the Gods. The ill-starred Hopi rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus nuntius) is even named after its occasional participation in this shindig.
So today, join Cindy at Dipper Ranch, who - in this grand festive tradition - takes her serpent emissary to a party. How do her neighbours react when their small guest shows its stripes (well, spots actually)? Will they dance?? Find out here.

If you’re having trouble carrying your rattlesnake in your mouth, help is on hand. Join Elizabeth, at Yips and Howls, as she dabbles in the art of rattlesnake transportation and demonstrates a practical alternative. Please bring your own aluminium pail.

But before you get too complacent, thinking that we’ve got rain-production in the bag, pay a visit to Explore Missouri. There’s a problem, you see: the susurration of rattlesnakes is disappearing. Why are our divine messengers growing mute? Shelley explains here.

There's nothing like a bit of bribery to get things done.
And it's a time honoured tradition when it comes to rain-making.

To break a drought, the Nguni Zulu of southern Africa bribe a large python (hugely potent in watery affairs) by slaughtering a pure black goat and laying out its skin; the python slithers in after dark to lick up the fat. Meanwhile, in Sudan, the Lafofa people (whose shaman transforms into a red snake) spill milk on a hilltop for rain-begetting serpents, and, in Nigeria, the Bubbure people dress in sackcloth and ashes and offer munchies to the Rulers of Deep Pools: the crocodile, python and water monitor.

So join me here, at Mainly Mongoose, as I strive to give the gift of freedom to one of these sacred monitors. Unfortunately, it proves a little difficult (toilets and Water Gods just don't mix).

Across at Philly Herping, Bernard contemplates sacrificing chipmunks to placate his missing rattlesnakes. But despite injury, disappointment and obscenities, what he conjures in the end is just as alluring. Check it out here.
The Aztec god Xolotl was allied to death,
fire & lightening. Photo by Pablo Necochea.

Then drop by Beetles in the Bush to gawk at the dazzling creature Ted finds while in pursuit of beetles. Although these critters suffered some seriously bad press at the hands of the Aztecs, the Huichol people of Mexico believed they were agents of the Rain Mother, stirring the clouds for rain. Join Ted as he plans a smorgasbord of delicious offerings for his new family member.

If partying and bribery don't work, why not try rituals.

To save their withering crops, Bangladeshi villagers host a lavish wedding ceremony: for two live frogs. The happy couple - their foreheads daubed with red - are paraded through town in a special basket. After the ceremony (staged on a banana leaf) and plenty of feasting, the villagers release the newlyweds into the village pond.

The ground agama (Agama aculeata) defies its
name by sitting about in trees. Photo by Johann du Preez.
The rain-making rituals of the San bushmen of southern Africa are much more practical: they shoot arrows into the thorn trees. Why? Because the Agama lizard is associated with !Khwa, the Rain. "The lizard lies up on the thorn tree; it keeps its head toward the place where the north wind blows and bewitches the clouds". Only when the lizard is persuaded to get down (by the sound of arrows whistling past its ears) will the rain come.

Join Amber at Birders Lounge as - armed only with a camera – she tries valiantly to disturb some laidback lizards. Of course, there's good reason why these jaunty little guys wouldn't hear the whoosh of a passing arrow...

But perhaps the most innovative ritual is performed by JSK at Anybody Seen my Focus. She enlists the help of a charming anole to enact the miraculous transformation that the bush undergoes after rain. Don't miss it.

It takes time, it takes resources, it takes commitment; but deifying a herp has its payoffs.

Can millions of ancient Egyptians be wrong? (rhetorical question).

The Egyptian crocodile god, Sobeka, was as dangerous and unpredictable as his carnate representatives paddling in the Nile. He engendered fear and awe in his followers, who built him huge temples that housed dozens of bejewelled crocodiles, lazing by their pools. The beasts' remains were even mummified and entombed, with all the care given to family members.
Why go to all this trouble?
Because Sobeka controlled the waters of the Nile. It was He that brought the seasonal inundation, essential to the nation's crops and fisheries.

Sobeka's temple at Kom Ombo. Photo by Colin Goh.

So join Olivia, at Beasts in a Populous City, as she makes a pilgrimage through the hallowed halls of the Reptile House. Share her sense of reverence, and discover why the world's reptiles and amphibians deserve our veneration and awe.

And I'll be watching the sky!

Anybody Seen My Focus
Beasts in a Populous City
Beetles in the Bush
Birders Lounge
Dipper Ranch
Explore Missouri
Mainly Mongoose
Philly Herping
Yips and Howls


  1. May you have your rain soon. In my youth I lived and breathed herps, and interacted with many of the species you mentioned, in their natural habitats. What a great blog post.

  2. Great edition of HoH. And I like you blog as well. Nice to see some South African landscape again..

  3. John,
    Ah, we all indulge in follies in our youth (not that I'm mammal biased or anything!).
    We've had one light shower of rain (amid lots of squally but dry thunderstorms) which has turned the trees along the river green (aesthetically nice) but hasn't acheived much else. But it must come soon!

    Nice to hear from you. South Africa is certainly a lovely place.


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