Religious Superstition: The Holy Ghost, Snakes, and Glossolalia

Many people that might stumble upon my blog are probably already aware of Pentecostal snake handlers and people who purport to speak in tongues. Let me begin with a short video:

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Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, is the act of making unintelligble utterances that are language-like but not a language anyone has ever heard. Or spoken. Ever. The term comes from the Greek, γλῶσσα λαλεῖν, and means “tongue talk” if translated more or less directly. This practice is spoken of in several biblical passages, including 1 Corinthians and Acts. Some researchers, such as anthropologist Felicitas Goodman (1972), believe that glossolalia occurs when the participant is in an induced trance or trance-like state. Others think its a combination of trance and pretense.

One of the places practitioners who use glossolalia derive their inspiration is Mark 16:17, which reads, “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues.”

If you watched the whole video above, then you would have noticed that the other participants in the video suddenly became impatient and even agitated with the lady that was pretending to have the “holy ghost” in her, bouncing around “speaking in tongues.”

I’ve yet to see the researcher that thinks glossolalia occurs because the participant is speaking in an actual language, indeed, several linguists have shown how the syllables and sounds are not language-like at all (Samarin, 1972; Goodman, 1972). Samarin calls glossolalia a “facade of language” that mimics rhythms, melody, and structure of actual language.

Pentecostals slip in and out of “speaking in tongues” quickly and easily and, according to Virginia Hines (1969), no trance is required at all. Her study is in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, which I read each quarter and frequently search their archives. I’ll need to get Goodman’s text again and look through it to see if she included Hines in her literature review. It’ll be interesting to see how she deals with Hines’ research since Goodman published a few years later -or if she read it at all.

Snake Handlers of Appalachia

Related to “speaking in tongues” is the practice of snake handling, also by Pentecostals.

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As with the practice of speaking in tongues, practitioners of snake handling also derive their inspiration from biblical passages. They go one more verse in Mark (16:18): “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

Another passage is in Luke 10:19, “I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.

The video above gives the gist of the superstition: “if I have true faith, I won’t get bit. The holy ghost/holy spirit/Jesus Christ protects me.”

What happens if the practitioner is bitten? This CNN story from 1999 illustrates that answer:

John Wayne “Punkin” Brown Jr., a preacher from Parrottsville, Tennessee, had been bitten more than 20 times over an 18-year period before he suffered a fatal snake bite in an Alabama church last October. He was 34.

The grand parents, according to the story, also had a snake-handling church and took the orphaned grandchildren to snake-handling services. Both of the children’s parents, the mother as well as the father, were killed due to snake bites. And yet it’s very likely that the children will grow up to believe in snake-handling as a valid religious ritual in spite of the demonstrated risk.

The power of belief appears to create a superstition in which adherents find a need to show their peers how pious they truly are in the superstition itself. Such piety can range from the silly (video one) to the dangerous (video two).


Goodman, Felicitas D. (1972). Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hine, Virginia H.(1969). Pentecostal Glossolalia toward a Functional Interpretation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8 (2),  211–226

Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan.

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