Christine’s note: This is a guest post by regular commenter Aaron Kimel. After Daredevil #507 came out, I knew I wanted to write something about the Snakeroot, since I assumed the group would be relatively unknown to most readers. However, I quickly realized that Aaron was quite the expert on this subject and invited him to write this post. Aaron listed lots of references and interesting anecdotes which I’ve tried to incorporate into this text. When you see special formatting, hover over it for a second or two and additional information will be revealed. Enjoy and don’t forget to say hi to Aaron in the comment section!
The Snakeroot’s past is mired in mystery, not only because it is associated with the ultra-secretive clan of ninja assassins known as the Hand, but because so little has been written about it. While the Hand show up in numerous Marvel books, the Snakeroot have been mentioned only on a handful of occasions. What is clear is that they owe their existence chiefly to Dan Chichester, who first introduced the world to the Snakeroot in Daredevil #319. However, Chichester hardly invented this group alone and seems to have relied greatly upon Frank Miller’s earlier work, Elektra: Assassin. That work is a bit of an oddity though, since it is not clear if, when written, it was intended to fit into regular Marvel continuity. Writers subsequent to Miller have attempted to do so, but the results have not always been consistent. A proper understanding of the Snakeroot requires first an understanding of the Snakeroot’s master and object of worship: The Beast.
In Elektra: Assassin, Miller introduced the mysterious character known only as The Beast. The Hand ninjas involved in that story all worshipped The Beast as a god – Elektra described the Hand as “Slaves to The Beast” – and followed his commands without question. He was described to Elektra upon her initiation into the Hand:
“The Beast is power. The Beast is magic. The Beast will make you clean, Elektra. The Beast is not born of man or woman, yet with each passing year he grows more human in appearance. In time he will take his place in the world above and bring it to ashes. We are his Hand, clawing at the foundation of man’s great lie, clearing the path.”
– Elektra: Assassin #1
He is referred to as “the Jackal’s son” and initially has a minotaur-like appearance and the legs of a goat. Later, The Beast is seen to resemble a cross between a many-tentacled sea monster and the Alien. His skin is so cold that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents using infrared scopes read it as “negative”. He possesses great physical strength, sufficient to survive a spear through the torso and a barrage of laser fire from a S.H.I.E.L.D. particle cannon, but can also cause hallucinations and effect mind control.
The Beast’s most potent weapon is his “mother’s milk”. Since The Beast may be a demon, this could very well literally be the milk of his mother. It is also referred to as “the milk of The Beast”, so it is ambiguous who the source is or if it is even milk at all. When drunk, this milk has the effect of sapping a person’s will, enslaving him to The Beast, and stimulating the animal aspects of the brain. The efficacy of the milk varies with the person ingesting it. It gives off a “foul, rotting, spoiled stench” that can only be smelled by others who have ingested the milk. This makes it easy for Elektra to identify servants of The Beast by smell, though Matt cannot, even with his heightened senses.
The Beast described himself and his goals in vivid detail:
“In the beginning, there was darkness, endless cold. Then came the corruption, the poison: light, life, flesh. Now it crawls across the world – filthy, loud, interrupting the darkness. I am the heart of the darkness, older than light, given flesh to end flesh – all flesh. I built the tool of the darkness. . . . The tool that will break the filthy chain of light and noise and life and flesh. And flesh – all flesh – will burn and scream and die and die and die and die! And the world will be cold and clean. There will be peace, silence, darkness.”
– Elektra: Assassin #7
Supposedly, the Hand has signed onto this plan, willfully or otherwise.
Most recently, The Beast was seen in Elektra: Glimpse and Echo. There, countless Hand ninja souls were fused into the body of The Beast’s groomed protégé. The body could not contain the souls and became The Beast, only to have its head immediately chopped off by Elektra.
In “Fall From Grace”, Chichester introduced the Snakeroot as the chief priests and servants of The Beast. Because of their connection to The Beast, the Snakeroot are “the darkest masters of the ninjitsu” (Daredevil #319), “the darkest cabal of killers the planet has ever known” (Elektra: Root of Evil #3), and “the hidden heart of the secret criminal organization known as the Hand” (Daredevil Annual #10). “They sold what souls they had to walk close with death, to learn his secrets, to cheat his touch” (Elektra: Root of Evil #3). Lord Daito, the Snakeroot’s head, speaks to and is berated by The Beast directly. Through the application of arcane methods, the Snakeroot can extract memories from an unwilling subject, or even extract one’s essence and infuse it into another’s body. Further, resurrection is noted as a privilege of the Snakeroot, though each time one is resurrected, his body becomes more grotesque.
While the Snakeroot, which seems to consist of at most ten members, order regular Hand ninjas about, it is not clear where they stand in the Hand’s leadership hierarchy. They are described as the “Inner Circle of the Hand”, but their goals seem to be distinct from that of the regular Hand. The fact that the Hand could simply elect Skrull-Elektra as their leader in Mighty Avengers #16 without reference to the Inner Circle/Snakeroot weakens any claim that the Snakeroot are the “heart” of the Hand. But, with the revelation in Daredevil #507 that three (four if you include White Tiger) daimyo of the Inner Circle are members of the Snakeroot, perhaps it has now been corroborated that the Snakeroot are the ones running the show.
If one accepts the notion that the Snakeroot are the Inner Circle of the Hand, then they have been in existence since the Inner Circle’s creation in 1590 and have ruled the Hand since the successful overthrow of the Hand’s honorable founder and would-be samurai, Kagenobu Yoshioka, in the spring of 1594. Indeed, Yoshioka’s lover, Eliza Martinez, who committed seppuku at Yoshioka’s death, was the first person successfully resurrected to serve the Hand.
The Snakeroot were seemingly wiped out by Elektra in Elektra: Root of Evil #4 and have not been seen since. To my knowledge, before Daredevil #507 the word ‘Snakeroot’ had not even appeared in a Marvel comic since June of 1995 – fifteen years! It remains to be seen whether Diggle and Johnston will portray the Snakeroot as the servants of The Beast – mother’s milk and all – or in some new light.
A final note: my personal theory – and I have no direct evidence to support this – is that the name “Snakeroot” derives from the name of white snakeroot, an herb that causes “milk sickness” in persons who drink milk from cows that have eaten the herb. If that wasn’t intentional, it’s wonderfully coincidental!
Thanks to Christine for giving me the opportunity to write up an overly-long history about a group and story that I have a soft spot in my heart for. As Peter Graham said, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is ‘twelve’”. When “Fall From Grace” came out, I was thirteen – close enough – and I’ve always had a special fondness for it accordingly.