Snake-medicine and Envious Eyes

When building a cowshed, or also when it is already built, a hole is drilled into the threshold and the head cut off of a living snake is put inside; the hole is then plugged with a rowan wood plug. Then envious eyes cannot harm the cattle and luck is ensured” (SKMT IV, 1: I 123 §; Hukantaival 2016: 75).

Snakes, especially vipers, occur often in the Finnish magic tradition. A previous post in this blog discussed so-called snake’s court stones: pebbles that became “charged” with the power of vipers. According to the belief tradition, snakes gathered their power, the venom, from the ground while crawling. At the same time, they cleaned the soil, which would otherwise be too poisonous for anything to live or grow. When handled with proper care, this dangerous power was useful in many ways.

The magic objects collections include several snakes’ heads. Cunning man Pekka Ruotsalainen from Maaninka used one of them to prepare medicine for colic in horses. He would pour different liquid ingredients through the snake’s throat three or nine times and then give the medicine to the afflicted animal. Another one has been used similarly to cure epilepsy.

Cunning man Pekka Ruotsalainen and his wife were photographed in the 1920s by Ahti Rytkönen, who brought a snake’s head used by the healer to the museum collections. Finnish Heritage Agency. CC BY 4.0.

In addition to medicine, snake’s heads or skins could be used to protect a building from evil, as in the folklore example above, or even from pests. One snake’s head in the Finnish National Museum has been kept in a wall-crack to prevent all kinds of harmful bugs. A whole viper is in the collection of Satakunta Museum. This one was found inside a hole in a wall timber when an old building was demolished in 1908. At that time, locals could still inform the museum that snakes were concealed in walls to protect the residents against the evil eye, thieves, and other misfortunes (Hukantaival 2016: 320).

This dried viper was found inside a wall timber in an old building in Kyläkarvia. Satakunta Museum. CC BY 4.0.

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