Cobra Grande: An Amazonian Vision of Human-Environmental Relations

By Nicholas C. Kawa, Ball State University §

On a Saturday morning in late October, I accompanied my friend Cândida and her four brothers on a fishing trip to Lago Comprido, a seasonal lake found on an island in the middle of the Madeira River. When we arrived, we crossed swamps on fallen logs and then made a short canoe trip through a shallow flooded section of forest before arriving to a temporary camp. After starting a small fire, some of us went to search for a seasonal pond to net the armor-plated catfish (bodó) that we hoped to prepare for our afternoon meal (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Armor-plated catfish (Pterygoplichthys pardalis) held in a pan of water after being caught on a fishing trip. (Source: Nick Kawa)

As we set off, we entered a gnarled swamp forest or bamburral, full of fallen palm fronds with needle-like spines that stuck in the feet of those of us who had foolishly made the trip without rubber boots. Further along, we came upon a deep, dried creek bed that looked like a canal. We descended into it and followed its course. While walking, Cândida’s brother Sapo [1] off-handedly mentioned that the canal we were passing through was a trail created by Cobra Grande, the “big snake” of Amazonian folklore. As I walked with palm spines deep in the soles of my feet, I pondered this revelation.

Within minutes of hearing this, Cândida’s oldest brother who followed from behind, called out to us. “Hey guys,” he shouted, “you just stepped on a sucuriju!” He informed us in other words that we had just walked over an anaconda (Eunectes murinus). I emitted a laugh, in partial disbelief, but turned around nonetheless. I began to walk back slowly, suspecting that Cândida’s brothers were playing a practical joke on me. Instead, her oldest brother stuck his hand down in the mud and unearthed a snake, about 5 feet long. It was, after all, a small sucuriju, or a young anaconda. Sapo grabbed the snake from his brother and held it up: “There you go,” he exclaimed, “this is one of the little ones left behind by their mother, Cobra Grande” (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Sapo holds up a small anaconda (Eunectes murinus) left behind by its mother, Cobra Grande. (Source: Nick Kawa)

Cobra Grande is a massive snake, much larger than the largest anaconda, and in many Amazonian folk tales it is implicated in the region’s ever-shifting topography and hydrology. Seasonal fluctuations in precipitation result in constant shifts in the size and form of regional waterways, and the accumulation of silt on an odd sandbar can sometimes lead to the formation of an island overnight. In other cases, a shallow spot on the edge of the floodplain may form an enclosed pond, trapping fish like the bodó that we sought. As Hugh Raffles (2002) documented in his book In Amazonia, a number of waterways are carved out by rural Amazonians, some being simply cleaned or widened while others are laboriously excavated by community work parties. However, when the origin of a channel is ambiguous, or no known history is associated with its formation, then it is sometimes recognized as the work of Cobra Grande.

Talking to one affable farmer in the floodplain community where he had been born, he told me without prompting that the “old-timers” said that the channel that connected the floodplain lake to the Madeira River was created by a big snake. I had heard similar stories from others when discussing the origins of channels that simply “appeared” along the river overnight. On several occasions, tales were related to me about Cobra Grande’s appearance at the community of Cantagalo, upriver from the town of Borba where I was living. In most versions of the account, it is said that during a large party in honor of a saint, a reveler commits an offensive act that provokes the ire of Cobra Grande. With a whip of its tail it beats the earth causing a crack to form across the front half of the community. The crack rapidly widens until a massive slab of land breaks off into the Madeira River, hurling unfortunate partygoers who were perched near the floodplain’s edge, and who are subsequently swallowed up by the muddy river water below.

The story of Cobra Grande is a compelling narrative, much like that of Curupira and other mythical beings of Amazonian folklore, but it is more than a quaint folk tale. Cobra Grande is a central Amazonian metaphor that reminds that our surroundings are in constant flux, and that humans are not the only ones responsible for this ongoing transformation. Although we cannot always identify the other forces responsible for shaping our evolving world, an imagined snake can be a useful reminder that they are always present.

Through the recent engagement with posthumanism [2] and multispecies ethnography, anthropologists are granting more attention to the activities and agencies of those that are “other-than-human.” To be sure, this perspective is nothing entirely new. In fact, it has been long established and popularized in Amazonian thought, thus revealing the hidden imbrication of contemporary social theory with Amazonian folklore.

A few years ago, David Graeber wrote: “Contemporary anthropology often seems a discipline determined to commit suicide. Where once we drew our theoretical terms – “totem,” “taboo,” “mana,” “potlatch” – from ethnography, causing Continental thinkers from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre to feel the need to weigh in on the resulting debates, we have now reduced ourselves to the scholastic dissection of terms drawn from Continental philosophy (deterritorialization, governmentality, bare life…) – and nobody else cares what we have to say about them. And honestly, why should they – if they can just as easily read Deleuze, Agamben, or Foucault in the original?”

To end this “bizarre process of self-strangulation,” as Graeber puts it, it is important to recognize the ways that folkloric stories, like that of Cobra Grande, resonate with contemporary (academic) social theory. Perhaps privileging one over the other isn’t necessarily as productive as discovering the ways in which they may buttress one another, potentially forging new directions in the study of our evolving world. Considering the anthropocentrism that underlies much of modern thought, stories like that of Cobra Grande offer useful alternative perspectives for thinking more broadly about ecology and the lives of others at a time when it is very much needed. Ironically, the greatest lesson of the Anthropocene is that rather than encourage anthropocentrism, it should urge deeper eco-centric thinking and a greater attunement to the lives of others on this earth—those under our feet, growing up out of sidewalks, crawling into our homes.

1. Sapo’s name means “toad” in Portuguese. Many rural Amazonians whom I met (especially men) were known by nicknames that were taken from animals and other Amazonian biota. I knew several people named after fish (traíra, bodó, pacu), cats and dogs (gato, cachorrinho), and domesticated livestock (boi, pinto). Two young brothers were also known as “seed” (caroço) and “sweet manioc” (macaxeira). Others were ant (formiga), caiman (jacaré), macaw (arara), and monkey (macaco). One man in town was even known by everyone as “Batman” (using the word from English).
2. Posthumanism is not to be confused with “transhumanism,” which relates to the idea of humans merging with technology and transcending the limitations of the physical body. It is not an apocalyptic view of life after humans either. Instead, it is an attempt to move past anthropocentrism and the prioritization of human lives over those of other beings and things. Although Kohn (2013) and Haraway (2008) do not identify themselves as posthumanist scholars per se, their work is part of a broader body of anthropological scholarship that seeks to move anthropology and ethnographic research beyond humans and human representations.

Works Cited:
Graeber, David. 2010. Endorsements for HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Accessed Feb. 29, 2010.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Raffles, Hugh. 2002. In Amazonia: A Natural History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nicholas C. Kawa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Ball State University. His research focuses on issues of biodiversity management, agricultural sustainability, and long-term human-environmental interaction in Brazilian Amazonia. He serves as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Culture and Agriculture section of the American Anthropological Association. He is also author of the forthcoming book Amazonia in the Anthropocene: People, Soils, Plants, Forests (University of Texas Press; May 2016).

This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others