Spies and Snakes – A Charming Story

Maxwell Knight was an adventurous and insatiably curious field naturalist (and MI5 agent-runner). “Naturalists, to be any use at all, must be curious above almost anything else,” he’d say. “They must ever be asking: Why? How? When? Where?”

His curiosity would often lead him to conduct experiments to look at some of the unsolved myths and mysteries of Natural History and on one particular occasion, his attention focused on snake charmers.

Lured by the unknown he gathered together the “thousands of words and hundreds of accounts” written about the work of the mysterious snake charmers. He already knew that the “vitally important part of the so-called “charming” seems to be played by the traditional pipe which is said to call forth the snake, to quieten it, and even make it dance.” However, he knew that it was far more complicated than that as “snakes are deaf and have no organs of hearing as we understand them.”

Not wanting to simply dismiss the stories of snake charmers’ efforts as “mere rubbish” he pondered the possibilities…

My best guess is that he sat back in his armchair and took a moment to reflect and strike a match to light his pipe. Perhaps the thought of the snake being charmed amused him and he may have gently swayed his lit pipe before his eyes and found himself swaying his head to mimic its movements. Whatever happened, he came to this conclusion:

“So far as the dancing goes, I believe that the truth lies in the slow rhythmic movement made by the charmer as he plays his pipe. It’s the movements of the man and his instrument.”

This wasn’t really a great leap for Knight as he’d been fascinated by this subject for quite a while, and he’d managed to get snakes to “follow the movement of a hand or a stick with absolutely no musical inducement whatever.”

He’d experimented with whistles, and even played his best jazz clarinet to snakes, “but without the slightest success in the way of body movement on the part of the serpent so long as I remained absolutely still.”

What he had found, though, was that a “particularly high piercing note” would encourage the snake’s tongue to protrude and flicker, which suggested to him that “vibrations are certainly perceived”.

It was already well-known that snakes are very susceptible to ordinary vibrations on the ground or against a cage – clearly, thought Knight, they may well be equally sensitive to air-borne vibrations. “This would explain even their being called forth from holes, for they are very curious creatures and, if not frightened they like very much to ascertain the cause of anything that has aroused their interest.”

Quotes from Myths and Mysteries (Maxwell Knight, OBE, FLS).

Myths and Mysteries by Maxwell Knight M

Simon H King