edited from Hilda Downer (www.appalachianhistory.net) and en.wikipedia.org/:
The postmaster handed over the small package saying he was sorry it was empty. Indeed, the box felt weightless and upon being shaken, its sound was inaudible like that of the first few flurries of a mountain winter. Because I knew what was inside, I opened the taped end gingerly, but with a quick tug to dislodge the flap – the stubby finger of a rattle flexed outward through the resulting side opening.
It swayed from side to side and lifted its “head” like a big fat bug in rigor mortis. My hand recoiled from the rattle’s touch. Between layers of cotton, six rattles filed away like expensive silverware, a strange gift from a friend in Oregon for me to distribute among my son’s band.
My son knew fiddlers often inserted a rattle in the f-hole for good luck. Could there be some logical rationale behind this superstition? Because rattlesnakes are only indigenous to the Western hemisphere, the root of magical or practical use of the rattle would trace back to Native Americans.
Opposed to the African reverence of the snake as an object of worship, the European Christian association of the serpent with Satan led to a “reversed bad luck” akin to current motorcycle gang and military jewelry depicting a rattlesnake coiled around a skull or dagger.
The famous Revolutionary War flag portraying the rattlesnake and slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me” represented the shared bravery of soldiers and a snake that warns its victims before striking.
The act of keeping a rattle in a musical instrument as an amulet to ward off evil spirits, especially for people steeped in superstition before their arrival to this country, could easily have derived from their own volition.
However, the use of rattles for warding off pests must precede the Revolutionary War, learned from Native Americans as early settlers adopted other natural remedies. The particular practice had to begin prior to the 1900s when the fiddle was considered to be the Devil’s instrument. Therefore, the fiddle was not allowed indoors, but was hung in the barn or on the porch as a compromise for what was useful to get the work done at corn shuckings and the like.
These open spaces had spiders, mud daubers, and mice seeking refuge in a new home. The smell of the rattle sent a strong message to such vermin to stay away. Certainly, from their first encounters with the Eastern Diamondback rattlers from the coastal area to the timber rattlers in the Appalachian Mountains as they migrated westward, settlers felt a need to be in harmony with a world wilder and stranger than fiction.
To keep a part of something on them that belonged, the rattle of a snake with its own music, just might help them become more a part of the new world they had to either adapt to or not survive at all.
In December 1775, Benjamin Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym American Guesser in which he suggested that the rattlesnake was a good symbol for the American spirit:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.
As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal.
Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?