Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pillow magic

I’m not a superstitious person.

I’ve a deep fondness for black cats, and will happily loiter under even the most rickety of ladders.
But sometimes things just happen...

Last Saturday was one of those times.

Now I’m sure you know those cutesy old-wives-tales about placing things under your pillow.

Sleeping on a chunk of wedding cake brings dreams of your future spouse (or devourment by mice), a spoon ensures a snowfall, a bay leaf conjures prophetic dreams and a mirror lets you see the face of your next lover. Oh, and don’t forget that your boyfriend’s unwashed sock will, when slept upon, guarantee he never leaves you (although, by then, you’ll probably want him to).

But these harmless little myths spring from a much darker tradition.
‘Pillow magic’ is big in the shadowy realm of Voodoo.

The idea is that you sneakily conceal a charm (composed of bones, hair, string, herbs, toenails, morsels of black cockerel) within the pillow of someone you hate. (And if you’re pressed for time, you can buy handy little pre-made ‘voodoo pillow bags’ on the internet). This talisman not only disturbs the victim’s slumber, it saps their very life force. Night after night the charm grows stronger (and the victim wastes away) until finally it bursts forth as a monstrous beast or bird (a tupilek) which kills the sleeper. Pretty natty, huh?

Now bearing this in mind, you can imagine my consternation when my field assistant announced on Saturday that she’d found a monstrous beast lurking under her pillow.

Dashing into her room, I confirmed the worst.
Poking out from beneath the pillowcase was a glistening, terracotta coil.
It belonged to a Mozambique spitting cobra who gazed up at me myopically, flicking in and out its little black tongue.

A Mozambique spitting cobra tucked up enjoying some creature comforts. (Yes, I know the colour of this bedding could induce insomnia, without the aid of voodoo, but it was VERY cheap.)
The photograph we failed to take in the heat of the moment.
Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes

Tradition dictates that all voodoo-related entities must be doused with salt and set alight. But even for someone who suffers a snake phobia, this seemed a trifle harsh.
Yet how were we supposed to remove the beast? Spitting cobras are renowned for their... well, spitting. They can spray venom up to 1.5 m (5 ft) and they shoot for the eyes.

Now if you’ve ever wondered how a cobra manages to accurately target its victim’s eyes (this is something I’ve admittedly taken for granted), science has solved the puzzle.

Brave, goggle-wearing researchers have found that spitting cobras do their stuff in response to a jerky head movement by their assailant.
Sixty-five milliseconds after you’ve unwisely turned your head, the cobra begins to rapidly nod and shake its own head, visually pinpointing your precise location. It then stops nodding, and tracks its head in the same direction (and at the same speed) as your own movement (thus compensating for the moving target). And 200 milliseconds after you first began to move, it squirts a jet of venom from its fangs, jerking its head rapidly from side to side as it does so, to ensure a wide, fan-like spray of eye-searing droplets. (You can read a popular account of this research here.)

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t leave one feeling particularly optimistic about extracting a spitting cobra from one’s bed.

A Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica) in action. The species’ venom is more dilute than that of non-spitting cobras. Of course, it can still kill you, if you let the critter bite.
Photo by Steven Gilham.

After some deliberation, we opted for the strategic placement of a postal tube and a bit of judicious prodding with a broom.
Oh yeah, and we squinted a lot.
And - hey presto - it worked like a charm: pre-packaged cobra ready for translocation.

However, while I was busily wielding the broom (and trying in vain not to move my head), I noticed something (even more) disturbing.
The snake was not alone under the pillow.
There was a book there too.
Edging it out from beneath the covers, I looked at the title: ‘Mongoose Watch’ by Anne Rasa.

Now this is a very readable account of a field study of dwarf mongooses carried out in the 1980s. I’d recommend it.

But might it explain our ‘pillow serpent’?

You see everyone KNOWS that mongooses like to kill and eat snakes.

If sleeping on wedding cake can conjure up spouses, and stinky socks, boyfriends, what happens when you snooze on a book about mongooses??

I’ll let you decide.
Not that I believe in superstitions...  



  1. How thrilling! Glad everyone survived unharmed.

    oh! The unintended consequences of pillow magic!

  2. The snake was reading up on the opposition?

    How exciting! Those postal tubes are really coming in handy.

  3. Wow. With that in mind, perhaps I won't be so annoyed when the cat headbutts me in the nose at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow.

  4. .... and I thought that having a fox that liked to cache dinner under my mother's pillow was a bit of a nuisance. I'll take road killed fox dinner over your cobra any day!

  5. Melissa,
    I now check my pillow nightly for uninvited denizens. So far only beetles... I'll probably start dreaming about future love affairs with geeky entomologists.

    Ahh, I KNEW there had to be a sound scientific explanation.

    Your cat's not black, is it?? (Twilight Zone music in the background).

    I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Oh yuk! I daren't even imagine what 'pillow magic' might conjure from a fox's road-killed leftovers.

  6. I own that book.

    And it's never ever going under my pillow. :D


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...