Got a headache? You could take a painkiller or, if you happen to be in the Black Sea town of Kırkpınar between early May and mid June, you could put a snake on your head!
Every country has its share of snake myths.
In the US, some people believe that a woman's birth pains are reduced if she ingests a drink made from the powdered rattle of a rattlesnake; in Thailand, a married couple are not supposed to see a snake together, otherwise the wife will miscarry; and an old English treatment for swollen necks was to draw a live snake across the affected area three times and then to bury the snake alive in a bottle. In Kırkpınar, the snakes treat every sort of ailment but are apparently especially successful at treating skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
Kırkpınar is a small village near the larger town of Bayburt, and some of its female inhabitants make a significant part of their yearly income by hunting and gathering neonate snakes as they hatch in mid May from their underground eggs. These snakes are of the natrix (grass snake) genus, which lives in grasslands and near water and is neither aggressive nor venomous. The young snakes are kept captive in earth-lined boxes and reared on cow's milk for two months, during which period sufferers seeking "snake treatments" arrive from all over Turkey. Ten sessions are deemed necessary for a cure, and treatment takes place on the grass verges around the village where the afflicted lie down in the sun, fully clothed, and wait. The charge for a session with a snake is a very reasonable YTL 5. The reptile is placed onto the affected area and left to its own devices. When (after an average time of 10 minutes) it slithers off the patient, the treatment is deemed to have been completed, and the snake is recovered by its keeper before it can escape. The practice has become so popular that there is almost a festival-like air in town for these six weeks.
Gülfidan Battal is one of the formidable village matrons who go out snake gathering with their children. Her claims of the snakes' healing powers are even more impressive. "They can treat headaches, neck aches, backaches and stomachaches, too. I have patients come from all over Turkey, İstanbul, Antalya and Bursa. One of my İstanbul patients has been coming for three years, and we healed his foot problem." These visitors from far-flung regions stay in the village guesthouse courtesy of the mukhtar (village headman). Of course not everyone can work the snake magic, and the number of female snake charmers in the village is just four. Although in previous years the number of snake women was higher, snake-catching needs dedication, Battal explains. "We wake up before dawn and go out into the hills to catch the snakes before they are too lively. There are not that many snakes, and we know where they hatch, but we are very careful to return them to this area when their work is done in June."
Levent Kaya is one of the thousands who have arrived in the village over the last month, seeking treatment. He has been suffering from headaches and stomachaches for over a year, but after a snake session, he said, "My pain has already lessened." Hacı Canda is the head teacher of the local elementary school and has been treating people with snakes for 10 years. "Most people who come to the village feel the benefits of the therapy, and there are some who come year after year. Some of these people have never found a doctor who can relieve their pain, but after their snake session they tell us they feel better." Halil Batmaz is just 11 years old, but he helps his mother, Gülfiye, administer treatment and earns up to YTL 50 per day. He says he is happy to be helping the sick.
Osman Bulunmaz, a local middle-aged man, explained that in the middle of June the snakes were always released back into the wild. "There are 70 and 80-year-olds living in our village, and they remember snake treatments taking place when they were children. No one is really sure how long this has been going on." There is however a local legend that accounts for the snakes' unique properties. In the area where Kırkpınar's springs start, there was a mill and the owner of the mill was a wonderful man. Villagers who bought their wheat to be milled would sit outside and have picnics while they waited for their flour. One day one of the villagers bought a basket of eggs for everybody to share and he hung the basket on a tree. The next day, a young girl came to the mill and wanted an egg. She climbed up the tree so she could reach the basket, but when she inched along the branch and looked inside, the basket was full of snakes. So great was her surprise and fear that she fell from the branch and broke her leg. The miller, who had seen all this, called forth a curse on the snakes that he hand fed and said, "You must cure the injured or else you will die out." The snakes descended upon the little girl and cured her broken leg and they have been healing the sick ever since.
Of course different people have different reactions to the treatment. Some improve and some don't, Osman Bulunmaz clarifies. "The snakes are particularly effective in treating disorders like erysipelas [an acute streptococcus bacterial infection of the skin] and other skin conditions that have become infected. We put the snakes on the part of the body that hurts, and the body of the snake takes away the infectious microbes. Then we put the snakes into a natural spring that we have in the village that runs with warm water for six months of the year and cold water for the other six months and clean them."
Dr. Köksal Alpay, a professor at the Black Sea Technical University, was quick to dismiss this alternative therapy as quackery. "People who believe they are going to get better are psychologically more likely to do exactly that. It's like giving placebos to people who think pills will help them. There's no science behind the snakes, just psycho-suggestion." Is the doctor's cynicism misplaced, though? There are other cultures that believe tying a snakeskin around the waist of a woman in labor will ease childbirth and that carrying a snakeskin is generally beneficial to health, effective against headaches and in extracting thorns from the skin. In ancient Greek mythology, Aesculapius, the god of medicine, held the snake sacred and it was the emblem of health and recovery. The caduceus, or wand of Hermes, which has come to be used as a symbol for homeopathic medicine, is typically depicted as a short herald's staff entwined by two serpents in the form of a double helix.
More recently, in Australia they have already identified a powerful anticoagulant that could one day be used to treat potentially fatal coronary conditions. Bryan Fry, deputy director of the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne, says, "The natural pharmacology that exists within animal venoms is a tremendous resource waiting to be tapped." In India in August 2007 a team of scientists at the drug development division of the India Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata found that proteins present in snake venom can be used to prepare anti-cancer drugs. Contortrostatin, a component found in copperhead venom, is being used to attack breast cancer cells and to prevent cancer from spreading. A Malayan pit viper has yielded a chemical that could treat stroke. Cobra venom is being investigated for its use in treating Parkinson's disease. Aggrastat is a super aspirin that prevents blood clots and some snakebite victims bleed to death because the venom contains anti-clotting proteins. Researchers in Philadelphia isolated one of those proteins from an African Saw-scaled viper. They built the Aggrastat molecule to mimic the venom's anti-clotting effect and the new medicine helps prevent heart attacks.
Closer to the experience in Kırkpınar is what scientists have proven about "snake oil." Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine used to treat joint pain. Chinese immigrants to the US introduced its use to the West, but due to some peddling fake versions of it, over time the term became a derogatory nickname for all compounds offered as medicines that were fake and ineffective. New studies by Dr. Richard Kunin in 1989 showed that genuine Chinese snake oil made from Chinese water snakes is very high in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), a known pain reliever. EPAs are absorbed through the skin and inhibit the production of inflammatory prostaglandins. Snake oil is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine for relief from arthritis and joint pain. Perhaps the Kırkpınar snakes also exude some type of snake oil as they lie on their patients?
Güncelleme Tarihi: 08 Haziran 2008, 17:32
Whatever the benefits the snakes bring to their patients, they have certainly benefited the villagers. Not only do they earn a significant income from the treatments themselves, but only five years ago Kırkpınar was a relatively deprived quarry area and dynamite blasting nearly wiped out the snake population. Media attention on the unusual medical practices and pressure by environmentalists brought about the introduction of Law 2683, making the area a protected region. Both the snakes and the 40 springs that give the village its name are now under the jurisdiction of Bayburt's governor, who is making efforts to improve the natural environment and to make picnic areas to encourage tourism and travel to the region. Perhaps it's best not to be too sniffy and modern about the snakes of Kırkpınar and their uses. After all, most of us in this shiny technological age are quite happy to take antioxidants and extract of cactus as alternative medicine.
How to get to Kırkpınar:
First travel to Trabzon and then get on the main road to Bayburt. Some 30 kilometers before Bayburt is a road on the right that leads to the Akşar town area. Follow signs from here to Kırkpınar. Buses leave from the Trabzon bus station every hour for Bayburt.
Treatment for snakebites:
With the summer season starting, the number of snakes out and about in the countryside is higher than at any other time of year. In the unlikely event that you are bitten, follow these first aid rules:
Wash the bite with soap and water.
Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
Get medical help.
If you are unable to reach medical care within 30 minutes, a bandage, wrapped two to four inches above the bite, may help slow venom. The bandage should not cut off blood flow from a vein or artery. A good rule of thumb is to make the band loose enough that a finger can slip under it.
A suction device may be placed over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound without making cuts. Suction instruments are often included in commercial snakebite kits.
Under no circumstances should you attempt to treat the bite by:
Putting ice or any other type of cooling on the bite. Research has shown this to be potentially harmful.
No tourniquets. This cuts blood flow completely and may result in the loss of the affected limb.
No electric shock. This method is under study and has yet to be proven effective. It could harm the victim.
No incisions in the wound. Such measures have not been proven useful and may cause further injury.
How to avoid snakebites:
Leave snakes alone. Many people are bitten because they try to kill a snake or get a closer look at it.
Stay out of tall grass unless you wear thick leather boots, and remain on hiking paths as much as possible.
Keep hands and feet out of areas you can't see. Don't pick up rocks or firewood unless you are out of a snake's striking distance. (A snake can strike half its length.)
Be cautious and alert when climbing rocks.
Sunday's Zaman, AA