Legends and Lore: Hoop Snakes
“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” to famously quote Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Snakes are wriggly creatures that are both harmful and helpful and strike both fear and love into the hearts of millions, not necessarily at the same time.
As scary as regular snakes are, hoop snakes are a lot worse. The hoop snake lives in North America or Australia, depending on the story. They don’t move the same way as traditional snakes. Hoop snakes bite the ends of their tales to form a hoop. In this hoop form, the snake rolls itself like a wheel or a hula-hoop to get from place to place. While some fear a snake wriggling towards them in the grass, seeing a snake
in the form of a wheel rolling towards you at a fast pace is all the more terrifying.
The origin of the hoop snake isn’t completely clear, but stories have been told in the United States since the early 1700’s. According to legend, the snake bites its tail to form a hoop. It launches itself towards its prey. The only way to escape is to jump over a fence or hide behind a tree. The snake unfurls itself at the last minute and stings its prey with its tail. The prey then promptly dies of the poison.
While no one is really sure how this story started, there is something that could have sparked this legend. If a snake is stressed, sick, or lacking food, it will begin to eat its own tail. This is not a typical behavior of snakes. Perhaps witnesses saw a snake exhibiting such behavior and had no way of explaining it?
There aren’t many stories about the hoop snake other than old tall tales. One story goes a farmer was working in his field when a hoop snake came rolling towards him. The farmer used his hoe as a shield and the snake’s stinging tail got stuck in the hoe. When the farmer returned at sundown to reclaim his hoe, the snake was dead, still stuck to the handle.
Another story tells of a man walking through the woods. A hoop snake came barreling towards him at a high rate of speed. Thinking quickly, the man jumped behind a tree. The snake’s tail struck the tree and it became stuck. The snake died trying to free itself. The man observed the snake and saw the tail was full of poison.
In 1905, the state of Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture actually offered a $500 reward for anyone who could prove the existence of the hoop snake. No one ever came forward for the reward or with evidence.
In Pop Culture
Hoop snakes are one of the few legends that do not typically appear in popular culture. The best example is the Pecos Bill stories. Pecos Bill uses a snake as a lasso, similar to the hoop snake.
A robot was modeled after the hoop snake to mimic its movements, bringing some modern life to the old legend. The rolling robot is helping pave the way for other robotics experiments.
Watch Your Step
The next time you find yourself out in the woods or in the Outback, make sure you look down so you don’t step on a snake. Also make sure you look up occasionally, just in case a hoop snake is rolling towards you. And don’t forget to hide behind a tree!