The general word for "snake" in Deitsch is "die Schlang," thus, a snake is grammatically feminine.
One reference to the "Schlangekeenich" is translated as "snake queen" rather than "snake king," perhaps due to the use of the term "Keenich" rather than "Keenichen" (or "Keenichin") for "queen bee" in most variants of Deitsch. This reference appears in Richard Wentz's "Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Spirituality" (p. 199). Despite the gender difference between Wentz's reference and the clear reference to a King in this version, other features are identical. For example, the "snake queen's" whistle will rally all snakes "to waylay and fight the wayfarer." This whistle is reflected in the folk tale.
Additionally, there is also a tale called "The Snake King" in the diaspora in Ontario in W. J. Wintemberg's "German Folk Tales Collected in Canada" (Journal of American Folk-Lore, p. 243, 1906).
Phares Hertzog has a article titled "Snakelore in Pennsylvania German Folk Medicine" in "Pennsylvania Folklife" vol. 17 no. 2 (Winter 1967) pp. 24-26. I have this issue and will dig it out. I do not remember his viewpoints on it.
In addition to dragon-types of creatures like the Snallygaster, here are two cryptozoological snakes in oral lore (Wentz refers to them on p. 199): the Reefschlang (Hoop Snake) and the Hannschlang (Horn Snake). The hoop snake appears in wider American lore.
As is the case with much of the rest of "Teutondom," dragons and serpents guard treasure (see also Henry S. Gehman's "Ghost Stories and Old Superstitions of Lancaster County" in "Pennsylvania Folklife," vol. 19, no. 4 (Summer 1970), pp. 48-53). In the case of the Schlangkeenich, the variants seem to reflect local lore regarding real or legendary resources. Gold appears in one variant. Silver, diamonds, and gems (particularly garnet) appear more frequently.
Braucherei is almost schizophrenic when it comes to snakes. Despite many references to "thou, snake, alone are cursed," there are many incantations that call to snake spirits for the removal of poisons, charming, even fertility. As reflected in the story, snakes are simultaneously independent yet fiercely loyal to their King and their den. Another common perspective is that a snake is a snake: not inherently evil or cursed, but it must eat and defend itself as a snake must.
There are several additional folk tales that relate to snakes guarding treasure, though these do not refer to Snake King. They carry some similar themes, though.
(Variant B Harmonized - all nine informants from the area of Palm and Zieglerville, PA - seven of the nine were of Schwenkfelder descent).
Harr and Fraa Keller (name randomly chosen) owned a farm in Franconia (PA). Unfortunately, having been caught placing damaged apples at the bottom of market baskets while placing shiny ones on the top, they had developed a reputation for being untrustworthy and greedy.
One day, Fraa Keller was collecting apples in her field when she spied a small horn-tailed snake (Hannschlang) slithering alongside a rock. Fraa Keller saw what she thought was a mouse in the snake's mouth, so she drew closer to get a better look. As she approached the snake, she could see it was not a mouse but a large garnet crystal in the snake's mouth.
Fraa Keller asked the snake where the garnet came from, and the snake replied that she had been given the garnet as a reward for good service to the Snake King. Fraa Keller grew excited by the idea that the Snake King might have more gems, so she asked where she might seek an audience with the Snake King. The snake responded that she was not permitted to share the location of the den.
Fraa Keller replied that she understood, but she was not about to give up the quest. She asked whether the snake would be willing to trade the garnet for something else. The snake replied that she was thirsty and would welcome a drink, and the hospitality would be rewarded with the garnet.
Fraa Keller ran into her kitchen where she concocted a drink to charm the snake into telling the truth, placing it into a bowl for the snake to drink.1 She then returned to the thirsty snake. The snake dropped the garnet and heartily drank the concoction.
Shortly after finishing, the snake began to feel dizzy, and her vision became blurry. She began to slither back toward the rock, but Fraa Keller stood before her and uttered an incantation.2 The snake panicked but felt a loss of control.
Fraa Keller, having charmed the snake, again asked her where the Snake King could be found. Against her own will, the snake replied with the location. She also added a warning, "Anyone who enters the den and tries to harm the King or to steal his hoard will be buried alive."3
Satisfied with the answer, Fraa Keller released the charm, but the potion had poisoned the snake, and she died.
Fraa Keller took the garnet and ran to her husband. She informed him of the Snake King's hoard, which excited the greed within him, too. Fraa Keller urged Harr Keller to go after the hoard, but, remembering the snake's warning, she advised him to take along a large bag, a beam of wood and a shovel. "After all," thought she, "we would not want the treasure to get buried without tools to release it."
The Kellers went to the location and found a hole wide enough to step into. Fraa Keller did not give it a moment of thought to wonder why the hole was so large when the snake she killed was so tiny. As Harr Keller stepped into the hole, Fraa Keller said, "I will wait for you here to help you out."
Harr Keller stepped into the entrance of the hole. He took one more step and fell into a large pit that was lit only from the sunlight coming in from the hole. However, the sunlight was reflected by garnet crystals that adorned the walls and covered the floor in piles.
Harr Keller began to shovel the garnet from the piles into the bag, but then he heard a loud hiss. A large horn-tailed snake seemed to appear from the wall. Upon his head he wore a gold crown adorned in large, polished garnets.
"You must be the Snake King," Harr Keller said.
The Snake King looked fixedly at Harr Keller and replied, "Yes, and who are you who is stealing my treasure?"
Harr Keller replied with a lie, "Does a snake need treasure? One of your own traded this treasure to my wife for a drink. She has part of the payment in her possession."
The Snake King, being much shrewder than Harr Keller had expected, responded, "Whether a snake needs treasure or not, it is not yours to take, and your claim is a lie."
Harr Keller, recognizing that he was in trouble, took the shovel and attempted to strike the Snake King on the head. However, he hit only the crown, and the garnet deflected the strike. Harr Keller dropped the shovel, and the Snake King stepped upon it.
The Snake King let out a powerful hiss that turned into a whistling sound, and all the snakes in his realm heard his call and headed toward the hole. Fraa Keller, hearing the rustling in the grass, sensed danger. She clutched her garnet and abandoned her post, returning to her kitchen.
Meanwhile, Harr Keller, tried to hide from the Snake King among the garnet piles. Using his mighty horned tail, the Snake King smashed the piles, causing the crystals to fly through the air, pelting Harr Keller in the face.
The commotion caused the roof of the pit to weaken, and dirt began to fall upon Harr Keller's head. Hiding behind a pile of treasure, he reached for the beam of wood, hoping that it would brace the ceiling.
The Snake King approached the beam, and Harr Keller called out, "If the pit caves in, you will be buried, too."
The Snake King responded, "Does a snake need a pit? My kin and I can dig our own way underground." He then used his tail to smash the beam. The ceiling caved in, burying Harr Keller.
The Snake King dug his way to the surface, where his army of loyal kin awaited him. He told them of Fraa Keller's treachery. He ordered them to seek out the woman with garnet. His army made its way toward the Keller's house, passing in horror the body of their deceased sister.
The Snake King slammed through the kitchen door with his horned tail, which allowed his army to enter. Fraa Keller attempted to utter the incantations against the Snake King, but, before the words could leave her lips, the army set upon her, biting, stinging, and twisting around her.
The Snake King found the traded garnet and, taking it in his mouth, returned to the spot where the first snake had been poisoned. He used the garnet to scratch into the soil, beginning a new den where he and his kin could live in peace.
1 There are a few of these hypnotic "truth serum" types of concoctions reported, and they would fall under Verbot because of the removal of another's free will normally violates many tenets of Braucherei. I can say a few of the known ingredients often include hemp dogbane, violets and passionflower, but some of the other reported ingredients are potentially toxic to humans.
2 There are quite a few charms for snakes. An example:
Beiss mich net
Hald dei Saft
Bischt du yetz
Unn'r meinre Graft
Saag die Waahret
Zu meinre Frooget
Little Snake, Little Snake
Bite me not
Hold thy juice (venom)
Thou art now
Under my power
Little Snake, Little Snake
Say the truth
to my question
3 Caving in of ceilings, walls, or vaults is not an uncommon theme in Deitsch folk tales that relate to theft.
Informants (year 2010):
1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 Schwenkfelders requesting no identity
4. K. Freed, Montgomery County
8. E. Renninger, Montgomery County
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