The Story

Adder folklore on Dartmoor makes much of the ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) as offering both protection against adders and a cure if bitten. MED Theatre's Adder (2012) - a dance drama with text by Mark Beeson, music by Gillian Webster and choreography by Rosalyn Maynard in collaboration with Linnea Duckworth - looked at the folklore and ecology of the adder on Dartmoor in a wider European context. Adder formed part of MED Theatre's Catchment project, funded by Arts Council England.  

The following interesting folk tale has been recorded on Dartmoor. The source is Freda Wilkinson (c. 1964) [Dartmoor farmer from 1940s], unpublished typescript, extract from chapter titled ‘Rabbits, Warrens, Fieldsports and Wild Life’ p.169:

'...vipers are quite common here, I’ve only actually known of one case of a boy being bitten by one, but we’ve had dogs bitten by them several times, some of them have died or suffered lasting effects, and it’s always been their own fault for sniffing at a snake that hasn’t had time to slither away undetected. However, they are definitely not popular and the few grass snakes and slow worms that are found here are rarely spared when found, on account of looking enough like adders to be suspected of the same nasty habits. There was a tale respecting adders that the late Mrs. W. Hannaford of Sherril [in Widecombe parish, near Dartmeet] used to relate. In her youth they had some neighbours who had a little maid, only about five or six years old and they were worried about her because she wasn’t “doing” (thriving). She had a habit of taking her bowl of porridge out into the court [farmyard] every morning to eat it sitting in the sun on a big stone by the court wall. One morning her mother went out quietly to make sure the child was eating her breakfast and was horrified to see an adder lying on the stone beside the child, with its head raised towards the bowl on her lap. The mother stood frozen, afraid to startle them, the snake started to climb into the child’s lap and the little maid tapped it gently on the head with her spoon saying “Wait your turn, Strakey-back, wait your turn!” And they continued, turn about, to share the porridge. The story ended on a less happy note. The parents concluded without hesitation that the snake’s venom was poisoning the porridge and that was why the girl was ailing. They took the first opportunity of killing it when the child wasn’t there and from that day she started to grow strong again. A Dartmoor version, I suppose, of Little Miss Muffet.’

This resembles a number of other European folk tales, some from England and some from the Continent, all of which feature a snake and a child. One of the earliest is a story by the Brothers Grimm. In most of these stories, the child, a girl, pines away to death after her mother has seen off the snake, in contrast to the Dartmoor version.

Extract from med theatre's adder (2012)

adder folklore myth story play performance