Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Snake-Catcher and the Frozen Snake

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 600 words.

This is one of my favorite stories in Rumi. The story starts with the common motif of the man who rescues the frozen snake (it's an Aesop's fable, for example) - but it builds to a quite different conclusion! Rumi's story concludes with an allusion to Moses and the story of his wonder-working abilities with serpents, such as the contest between Moses and Pharaoh's magicians, or Moses and the fiery serpents. The Arabic word nafs used here refers to the soul and its passions.

The Snake-Catcher and the Frozen Snake (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

A snake-catcher, who was following his occupation in the mountains, discovered a large snake frozen by the cold, and imagining it to be dead, he tied it up and took it to Baghdad. There all the idlers of the city flocked together to see it, and the snake, thawed by the warmth of the sun, recovered life, and immediately destroyed the spectators.

Lust is that snake; How say you it is dead?
It is only frozen by the pangs of winter.
Beware, keep that snake in the frost of humiliation,
Draw it not forth into the sunshine of Iraq!
So long as that snake is frozen, it is well;
When it finds release from frost you become its prey.
Conquer it and save yourself from being conquered,
Pity it not, it is not one who bears affection.
For that warmth of the sun kindles its lust,
And that bat of vileness flaps its wings.
Slay it in sacred war and combat,
Like a valiant man will God requite you with union.
When that man cherished that snake,
That stubborn brute was happy in the luxury of warmth;
And of necessity worked destruction, O friend;
Yea, many more mischiefs than I have told.
If you wish to keep that snake tied up
Without trouble, be faithful, be faithful!

"The Snake Catcher and the Frozen Snake" (trans. Coleman Barks)

Listen to this, and hear the mystery inside:
A snakecatcher went into the mountains to find a snake.
He wanted a friendly pet, and one that would amaze
audiences, but he was looking for a reptile, something
that has no knowledge of friendship.
It was winter.
In the deep snow he saw a frighteningly huge dead snake.
He was afraid to touch it, but he did.
In fact he dragged the thing into Baghdad,
hoping people would pay to see it.
This is how
we've become! A human being is a huge mountain range!
Snakes are fascinated by us ! Yet we sell ourselves
to look at a dead snake.
We are like beautiful satin
used to patch burlap. "Come and see the dragon I killed,
and hear the adventures!" That's what he announced,
and a large crowd came,
but the dragon was not dead
just dormant! He set up his show at a crossroads.
The ring of gawking people got thicker, everybody
on tiptoe, men and women, noble and peasant, all
packed together unconscious of their differences.
It was like the Resurrection!
He began to unwind the thick ropes and remove
the cloth coverings he'd wrapped it so well in.
Some little movement.
The hot Iraqi sun had woken
the terrible life. The people nearest started screaming.
Panic! The dragon tore easily and hungrily
loose, killing many instantly.
The snake catcher stood there,
frozen. "What have I brought out of the mountains?" The snake
braced against a post and crushed the man and consumed him.
The snake is your animal soul. When you bring it
into the hot air of your wanting-energy, warmed
by that and by the prospect of power and wealth,
it does massive damage.
Leave it in the snow mountains.
Don't expect to oppose it with quietness
and sweetness and wishing.
The nafs don't respond to those,
and they can't be killed. It takes a Moses to deal
with such a beast, to lead it back, and make it lie down
in the snow. But there was no Moses then,
Hundreds of thousands died.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what kind of snake did the man find in the mountains?
  • why did he bring it back to the city?
  • what happened to the people who came to see the snake?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, 1995. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM