Dear Cecil: My girlfriend’s mother claims that when she was a child many years ago in Virginia, a “hoop snake” once chased her by forming itself into a circle, gimbaling its rotational axis to horizontal, and, balancing perfectly, rolling down a hill at her. I intimated that I wasn’t quite convinced (I fell out of my chair laughing). My girlfriend, however, did not share my sentiments. She respects your opinion highly and asked me to ask you if it was possible. Well? John Sandow, Chicago
I love country folk, but let’s face it, they’re the product of generations of inbreeding. Folklore about hoop snakes is well-known to herpetologists but universally dismissed. I quote from Snakes of Virginia (Linzey and Clifford, 1981): “The ‘hoop snake’ tale is usually applied to the mud snake [Farancia abacura] and to the rainbow snake [Farancia erytrogramma]. Supposedly, the snake takes its tail into its mouth, forms a hoop, and rolls after the nearest human. It then tries to `sting’ the person with its tail. Should the snake jab a tree instead, the poor plant immediately wilts and dies. The whole story is, of course, nonsense.”
To be fair, there’s a germ of truth to the legend. While a hoop/mud snake cannot sting with its tail, it does have a hard spine back there that can draw blood when thrashed vigorously. What’s more, the snake tends to form itself into a flat, hooplike circle when relaxed. If you were an impressionable six-year-old prowling through the swamps and you came across such an apparition, you might easily imagine it was about to hoist itself to the vertical and roll after you. The only problem is, the former six-year-old who became your girlfriend’s mother still believes it.
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