The Fallacy of Reptile Physicians

Dewy-winged dragonfly at dawn. (click to enlarge)  Photo: Jeannean Ryman

The aging woman ambled beside me through the dew-covered grass toward the orange trees, her slight frame dwarfed by my lanky six feet.  She wanted a few oranges to juice for herself and the old man waiting on the front porch.  He was himself a large man, easily tall enough to reach the fruit she needed, but the disease we now call COPD (then, just emphysema) had stolen away his ability to walk any further than from one room to the next inside his home.  Even though she couldn’t reach very high into the trees, with a grandson or two just across the street, it wasn’t much trouble to get help when they wanted to enjoy the sweet, fresh-squeezed juice that the annual crop from the nearby trees yielded.

As we headed into a stand of unmowed grass, I noticed a look of apprehension on my grandmother’s face.  Her eyes were fixed on a flying insect a number of feet away and it was obvious that she was not happy to see it there.  As we continued on our course, the first insect was joined by a second, flitting and performing aerial acrobatics some seven or eight feet away from the first.  Grandma stopped dead in her tracks.  “Snake Doctors!  If they’re around, there’s a snake somewhere around too.  I’m going back to the house.”  She spun around and headed for the back steps with much more vigor than she had evidenced on the way out.  I chuckled and continued on with the bowl she had shoved into my hands, soon filling it with the sweet colorful fruit that grew prolifically on the trees.  I finished the job without seeing a sign of any snake.  The pair of dragonflies cavorting nearby certainly didn’t seem too threatening to me.  I had always liked the queer insects.

When I again joined the pair in the house, my grandmother explained.  “I hate snakes!  And, those snake doctors, those dragonflies, are a sure sign that a snake is around.  They are always near snakes.”  I didn’t want to be impolite, so I waited until I got home to laugh out loud at her foolish words.  In fact, a couple of years later, when I joined the Citizen’s Band radio craze, I chose as my on-air pseudonym, my “handle” as it was called, “Snake Doctor”.  Can’t you just hear it?  “Break one-nine.  This is the old Snake Doctor, looking to get a smokey report.  I’ve got the hammer down and coming your way…”  The vernacular was sillier than the name, by a wide margin, but I still took a lot of ribbing because of that handle.  

It wasn’t until a few years later, as my intellectual curiosity grew, that I realized that my grandmother wasn’t alone in her belief that the dragonfly was not to be scoffed at.  Indeed, the legend in the southern United States has it that these evil creatures actually stay near snakes so that they can sew them up if they are injured.  They are called by one foreign culture, “Devil’s Needle”, and by another, “Eye Poker”.  In South America, the phrase applied to the unfortunate bug is “caballito del diablo”, meaning “the Devil’s Horse”.  Also, much like our southern lore, in Great Britain the Welsh name for the insect translates to “Adder’s Servant”.  In fact, the very name “Dragonfly” evokes frightening imagery, as if the legendary fire-breathing creature has been miniaturized and embodied in the so-ugly-it’s-beautiful insect.  It is, even today, a much maligned insect…one might even think, a dangerous one.  They couldn’t be further from the truth.

This speedy flyer (one of the fastest insects known) is, in fact, a predator, but it eats flies and mosquitoes in huge quantities, helping the human race in an amazing way.  In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the native people have “seeded” the water with the larvae of the dragonfly for generations, understanding that the result was a crop of predators who would help to control the yellow-fever carrying mosquitoes.  The one group of people that does have a valid beef with these speedy, winged insect traps is the beekeepers.  The larger families of the dragonfly have been known to catch and ingest their fair share of honeybees.  That said, they don’t attract snakes and certainly don’t cure them, don’t attack horses and give them diseases as the Australians averred at one time, they almost certainly aren’t used by the Devil to weigh man’s soul as Swedish folklore teaches.

We humans don’t seem to be very adept at determining cause and effect.  The dragonfly is often found near the tall grass at the water’s edge where snakes also happen to frequent.  For some reason, that makes the two species close allies.  The folks in Australia observed horses jumping and stamping in obvious distress at the same time that dragonflies were flitting about.  It is probable that the dragonflies actually were eating the small parasites which were, in reality, tormenting the horses, but the poor “Horse Stinger” got the blame.  The very shape of the body makes the insect the target of disdain and fear, but perhaps the same could be said of my own body when viewed through the eyes of other species.  We jump to wrong conclusions, based on inaccurate assumptions again and again.  The result is a bad rap for an immensely beneficial species.  Fear and animosity are passed from generation to generation, and truth is a victim, as is the persecuted dragonfly.

You do realize by now, that I’m not really talking simply about an insect, don’t you?  Just as I have, you have also seen the individuals, persecuted and maligned by society, their lives made a living hell because of hearsay and conjecture.  They were seen coming out of a certain building; they were observed handing someone a package; they talked to the wrong people.  Who knows?  They just might not wear the right kind of clothes, may not have the right haircut, perhaps don’t even bathe as often as they should.  They are “not like us” and therefore dangerous to our way of life.  Perhaps, they speak a different language, have too many junk cars in their yard, or paint the trim on their houses the wrong shade of green or yellow.  The list goes on forever and it becomes clear that we’re no better at judging humans than we are at judging insects.  

At some point, we need to realize that we might, just might, be using the wrong criteria.  It is obvious that on our own, we have no clue whatsoever.  If you would perhaps allow me to make a suggestion, just one–I would like to propose that we use the original owner’s manual.  Try as I might, I can’t think about this problem without believing that the Teacher had this in mind when He suggested…no, insisted…that we love our neighbors in exactly the same way that we love ourselves.  It is, after all, the most important rule given besides loving our God with everything we have within us.

That’s it.  No convoluted recovery plan.  No mission and purpose statement.  Love others like we love the person in the mirror.  You know what you need to do to put the instructions into action.  Now might be a good time to get busy on that, if you haven’t already done so.  Tell someone about it, too.  Just about the time they start to whisper a juicy tidbit in your ear would be a good opportunity to share it.

I still love dragonflies.  They are amazing, beautiful creatures.  Well, okay, I’ll admit that if you see a close-up of their eyes (all thirty thousand of them in those compound goggle-looking things), you could possibly be freaked-out.  Still, what astounding design and purpose, all wrapped up in an odd and peculiar package…

Almost like…well…like you and like me, huh?

“It is the peculiar quality of a fool, to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own.”
(Cicero~Ancient Roman scholar and statesman~106 BC-43 BC)

“Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged, because the way that you judge others will be the way that you will be judged, and you will be evaluated by the standard with which you evaluate others.”
(Matthew 7:2~ISV)

(Special thanks to my childhood friend, Jeannean Ryman for the use of her amazing photograph today.  Jeannean has a gift for seeing the beauty in the ordinary and then giving us a glimpse.  This and many other wonderful examples may be viewed at if you are interested.)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “The Fallacy of Reptile Physicians

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *