CASKE 2000 > Stories > Culture > Belize > Snakeman and the Ancient Mayan Medicine
Snakes evoke fear and repulsion in western cultures. Yet the same animal that represents the devil in the bible was the symbol of medicine in Ancient Greece and is still found today on ambulances and pharmacies in many countries. The Ancient Mayan people revered snakes. Rattle snake representations and drawings have been found on numerous pieces of pottery and murals and is the most prominent feature on the head dress of their goddess of the herbs Ix Chel. Like the Chinese, they believed in the healing properties of certain species. The legacy they have left in Central America is a supposed cure-all snake bone medicine called Cascabel which is still used by traditional healers.
In the last 10 years new controversy over this ancient medicine has been brewing in the backroom lab/clinic of a man known as Snakeman. 20 years ago his fascination with medical science, traditional healing and Mayan culture led him to Belize and to an incredible discovery. A few days with the local legend in Belize introduced me to the world of Mayan medicine and gave me a very informative look at the skepticism and politics of the western medical establishment. Forgotten by most who now place their faith in western chemical medicines, some traditional remedies are said to have no side effects and to boost the immune system to help the body fight ailments naturally. In a world of mutating diseases and increasingly resistant strains, modern medicine is losing ground and epidemics we thought long gone are reappearing. Maybe the solutions lie in new variations of old secrets preserved by a few healers who keep the faith.
Preparing a 3 year sea kayak expedition to document the traditional lifestyles and medicinal knowledge of indigenous people in Central America, I first came in contact with Peter Singfield 2 years ago. We both had belonged to a few mailing lists where we exchanged information and views on various tropical diseases. Peter often engaged with other medical professionals in long discussions to express his strong disapproval of many western medicines, often focussing on their toxic side effects, questionable efficacy and future obsolescence. We stayed in contact until our expedition arrived in Corozal town, near the border of Mexico in northern Belize. We didnt have to look far for the man known as "Snakeman." In Corozal we were surprised that the single mention of Peter or "Snakeman," always brought a knowing expression on peoples faces. Everybody knew him. His medicine, enthusiasm, and longwinded but passionate stories had built his fame. People had warned us about Peters ability to speak without ever stopping even to breathe. After a quick phone call, we saw an old Volkswagen Rabbit stop in front of our bungalow. A large man with a pony-tail half hidden under a cap came out while his Mayan wife remained sitting in the car. He walked over to us with a great smile and we ended up talking for a couple hours just there in front of our bungalow.
Twenty years ago he left Canada where he was a mechanic and electrical engineer at the National Research Institute. He had studied chemistry and medicine as a hobby and decided to move to Belize to focus his life on natural medicine. In the course of his studies and investigations, he became friendly with the elderly Mopan Mayan Healer Don Eligio Panti. Panti, who has gained posthumous fame (he died in 1996 at the age of 103) as the mentor of Dr. Rosita Arvigo, the author of Sastun, was born in Guatemala and was the last known Mayan Shaman with the title "Doctor-Priest".
During Peters research and studies of natural medicines and Mayan culture, history and legends, Peter met a healer from El Salvador who introduced him to Cascabel. Cascabel is the Spanish word for rattlesnake, and from what the legends say, the source of one of the most potent medicines known to the Ancient Maya. Today varieties of Cascabel are still used in Central America and particularly in Mexico, but none have proven very effective in healing major ailments. This was until Peter discovered a sub-species of the tropical rattle snake called Tzabcan (Crotalus Durissus) in northern Belize which produced a much more potent strain of Cascabel. Singfield explains that the few Mayan codices (texts) that have been unearthed refer to a Cascabel preparation in which no agitated rattle snakes shall be used. Supposedly it was believed that the anger in the snake causes changes in the make up of the medicine and that only the docile ones are acceptable. Rattlesnakes, particularly tropical species, are quick, lean vipers known for their aggressive behavior, but the Tzabcan (Yucatec Mayan for Rattle Snake) is an exception. He theorizes that the docile and meaty Tzabcan is the rediscovered snake of lore. Wolfgang Wooster a Ph.D. in herpetology spent two months in Belize to verify Peters discovery, and officially classified it as a new sub-species, known only in that region.
For two decades now Singfield has produced the traditional Mayan cascabel powder by skinning, drying, baking, grinding and sifting Tzabcan snakes. Villagers who had always killed the snakes out of fear and discarded them now bring them to Peter. It is the locals who have appropriately named him Snakeman.
Cascabel doesnt treat the disease per say, it is a strong immune system enhancer which promotes rapid healing for many ailments. Snakeman has successfully treated patients with AIDS, cancer, terminal diabetes, ulcers and severe burns, infections and gangrene. One spoon taken daily also boosts the immune system against most ailments including malaria, dengue fever and others. People who have taken his treatments, locals and foreigners alike, remain strong adherents, while scientists and officials avert their eyes from a science that doesnt conform to the western model.. Snakeman explains that western doctors and the FDA require the identification of a pure chemical substance.
"How can you isolate an active ingredient when you dont know what you are looking for because we have no concept of what medicine enhances the immune system, nor what combination of compounds augmenting and reacting with each other causes it. After baking the snake dry at 320 degrees Fahrenheit no organic components are left, its gone through the transformation, its dehydrated only minerals are left. Its like cement, you could mix that with sand and build with it. Well then how can a mineral be a medicine? Well God knows. When we put it in analysis with pharmaceutical researchers down here in the late 80s thats what they were doing, culture tests and everything. . . I told them from the beginning it doesnt apply to that. You can put it in a culture with a lethal disease and it doesnt kill the disease, it only works with the immune system. Well it took them two years to figure that out. They spent more than a half million dollars researching in that direction before they agreed with me."
I ate a mouthful of it and couldnt discern much taste more than that of toasted fish bones.
What Singfield knows is that his particular Cascabel works well. For years he tried to document it and share his discoveries but gave up after realizing that the western societies werent ready to "make the leap of faith" to use medicines they couldnt isolate or produce synthetically. His euphoria over his discovery faded over the years. He tired of what he referred to as "banging his head against an insurmountable wall of skepticism", and million dollar dreams were slowly replaced by realistic altruism. Snakeman returned his focus to the local patients and his few dedicated patients abroad, and continued his studies on the efficacy of Cascabel on other diseases. A look at his website (http://www.wireworm.com/snkm/index.htm) shows pictures of the impressive work of his medicine. Particularly striking is a photo sequence of a severe burn victim. The patient, a drug addict, had tried for the third time to steal from dealers and had been taught a lesson. The dealers had held his hand in the flames of a camp fire for nearly a minute. Embarrassed and in severe pain he avoided medical treatment for four days and by the time he arrived on Peters doorstep serious gangrene and infection had set in and had advanced all the way up to the shoulder. The western solution would have been immediate amputation and an I.V of powerful antibiotics for weeks. On high dosages of Cascabel, the infection and gangrene receded within days and by the second week tissue had begun to regenerate. The time elapsed sequence shows the recovery to the point where the man regained full usage of the arm.
According to Singfield the side-effects and after effects of medicines used to combat serious diseases and infections are so severe that they often have to be treated as well, not so with Cascabel. With great fervor he explained that things like chemo-therapy, malaria prophylactics and strong antibiotics all do their job of destroying the foreign agent causing the disease, but in the process also adversely affect the immune system and white blood cell count, in addition to other toxic side effects. The only byproduct of Cascabel is blood sedimentation. Its unavoidable, he says, that when new tissues generate, dead tissues are reabsorbed into the body and in strong cases can produce a significant amount of byproduct. The dead cells being absorbed into the blood stream cause the blood sedimentation count to go up forty to sixty times above normal and the kidneys produce a very thick urine. To aid the kidneys in cleansing the blood he prescribes the highly effective and simple Mayan remedy, an infusion of corn silk, drunk like tea.
Snakemans struggles for recognition and legitimacy over the years have marked him. He will tell you that the most difficult and disheartening part of his natural medicine practice is the constant battle to silence and convince the doubters. He has become extremely cynical about the current state of affairs in industrialized countries and the amount of propaganda people accept as truth. The toughest decision he has had to make was to abandon his pursuit of mainstream acceptance and a place among the pantheon of great medical discoveries. "I am no saint", he will tell you, and he emphasizes that his original intention was to make money. He was convinced he had discovered the Holy Grail of medicine and would be suitably rewarded. These days he rarely even bothers to add more testimonials to his website and disdains patients who are "moderns", people from first-world societies. It is too much hassle with not enough reward.
"How do you convince a man who is dying from terminal stomach cancer, that everything he thinks he knows about his disease, medical treatment, health care, etc.is bullshit? He should place absolute trust in a medicine that comes from a snake some guys dug out of a jungle? Even if he has exhausted all his options for treatment within accepted medical science, he is so brainwashed by the media and the AMA that he tries to hedge his bets by pursuing another course of treatment while on mine. That renders the Cascabel completely ineffective because the modern medicine neutralizes any progress made by his immune system."
Apparently as the Cascabel works to augment the immune-system, the chemo-therapy, anti-biotics, etc. go to work to attack the disease agent and in the process tear down the bodys natural defenses as well.
"Screw it you know. I dont need to deal with that. People who despite what I say, take anti-biotics or chemo on the side in addition to the Cascabel. I keep one modern cancer patient a year to pay the bills. The rest are local people. They listen to what I say and it works and theyre extremely grateful. The ancient Mayans didnt have chemistry to tell them why their medicines worked. There were no such things as chemically pure isolates."
He continued to explain that most ancient Mayans knew and used a number of bush remedies and herbal medicines for everyday problems and went to see the shaman for anything serious. People believed, were cured, and nobody knew down to the exact atom why. A society of healthy millions flourished in this area, while the squalor of the cities in "civilized" Europe bred plagues and disease. These people must have been doing something right.
Snakeman believes that medicine is all marketing , propaganda, politics and money these days, and down here in Belize he is away from all that. He looks a little wistful about that last part, especially as he often will sell medicine below production cost to locals or even barter. It costs him about 35 cents to produce a gram. He sells it to local people, who mostly live subsistence lifestyles, for 25 cents, to friends and other Belizeans for 50cents and to patients abroad for $1.00. As for marketing and promotional budgets, they dont exist. The businessman in him dreams of multi-million dollar investment capital to fund major case testing, push the medicine through FDA licensing procedures, start a promotional campaign and turn islands of mangrove into natural farms to breed and raise the snakes. "I could be fully operational within a year," he says.
As we were talking he walked around his over-grown garden picking bananas and cassava. His wife and her extended family were in the kitchen cooking. We then moved into his study/garage room and he tinkered around with his dusty and finicky computer while we picked up various gadgets and bits of moldy electronics he had constructed or salvaged. His hard drive crashed and his floppy drive malfunctioned as he tried to copy a file off a disk wed given him. Unfazed, he opened a plastic bottle of home-brewed sugar cane wine, poured us some and proceeded to take the computer apart and fix it in front of our eyes.
"That wine is a blood tonic. Itll make your head spin and its good for you. Most of the snakes I get come from the cane fields. The workers bring them to me and I buy them and sometimes I get a little of this too."
He could be fully operational within a year. He could have his name in lights, in print, on the label of a bottle on the shelf of a chain store pharmacy. He also might have to tone down his notoriously provocative rhetoric and ubiquitous and controversial presence on the internet to make himself more marketable. With better facilities etc., his life might get easier. But, a snake in a farm isnt the same as a snake in the grass. It all wouldnt be as much fun.
Views the photos: Snakeman 1 ; Snakeman and JP ; Snakeman 2 ; Snakeman 3
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