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
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.)