Myths / Mythologies / Legends
THE ORIGIN OF THE
HOPI SNAKE DANCE
Native American Lore
Long ago two Summer People society membersóa father and his sonólived
in one of the Hopi villages. Whenever offerings were made to the supernaturals,
the son would always say. "I don't believe that these things are ever taken
by the gods. I wonder if there really are any gods." At last he decided.
"I'll find out the truth. I'm going to the Lower Place to see if the gods
really are there, and if they're all they're supposed to be." Explanations
from his father and other religious leaders that the gods do not take the
offerings themselves, but only the essence of the core, did no good. He
set out on his way.
After he had traveled for several days, the Silent
One, a Tewa rain god, appeared to the young man. The Silent One asked:
"Where are you going?"
"I am going to the Lower Place to look for the gods."
"Even if you travel until you grow old, you will
never get there," the Silent One replied. "The Lower Place is too far for
you to reach. Go no further, and do not doubt the existence of the gods."
After saying this, the Silent One turned himself into his supernatural
form and then back into a man again. The youth was frightened and impressed,
but he could not let the rain god deter him. He insisted on continuing
After the young man had traveled further, the Deer-Kachina-Cloud
god appeared, also in human form. Again the youth did not recognize him
as a god, and again the god scolded him and urged him to go back. "I have
horns," the god said, "and I am the gamekeeper of your people." Whereupon
he also transformed himself into his supernatural form and then back to
a man. Despite these warnings, the youth insisted on going on. "Snake Village
is closer than the Lower Place, and that is as far as you can go," said
Deer-Kachina-Cloud. "After visiting Snake Village you must return to your
people." Reluctantly the young man agreed to this.
When the youth had gone another short distance,
Star-Flickering-Glossy Man appeared, dressed in the feathers of many birds.
He warned the young man again: "You can go only to Snake Village, no further.
The snakes will try to bite you, because you are a doubter. Use this herb
on them. In the middle of the village lives the governor of the snake people,
and you should go there right away. The snakes are also spirits who can
change themselves into people."
When the youth reached the village, the snakes did
indeed try to bite him, but he spat the herb in their direction and they
retreated. He reached the snake governor's home unharmed and was received
kindly, though the governor also warned him not to proceed further.
The snake governor had two beautiful daughters,
who treated the youth so well that he slept with one of them that night.
The next day as he prepared to start on his journey home, the governor
offered him his choice of the two daughters to take with him. He chose
the one he had slept the night with.
Next the governor told him to make piki, ceremonial
bread, in white, yellow, red, and blue, and to scatter it, on his return,
before a mountain north of his village. After he had made the piki, he
and his wife began their trip in the company of some of the snake people,
who went with them for a part of the way.
So great was the distance that the young man's wife
had become pregnant and was due to give birth any day by the time they
reached the Hopi village. On their way the young man had already scattered
the piki before the mountain in this order: white, yellow, red, and blue.
Immediately four bands of these colors appeared across the mountains. They
were intended to be used by the Hopi people, and so they have been ever
since: the red for painting pottery, the yellow and red for painting moccasins,
the blue (or green) for painting their bodies.
When the couple reached the foot of the mesa, the
wife said she would remain there until he returned. She told him, however,
that no one must touch him and he must touch no one until he came back
to her. When he climbed to his village at the top of the mesa, the young
man told his people to take him to the kiva, to build a large fire there,
and to gather the whole village. As was expected of him, he told his whole
story from the time he set out to the Lower Place. This took the whole
of the night.
The following morning as he walked down to the bottom
of the mountain to take his wife some food, he met a woman with a water
jar coming up. She was a former lover of his, and without warning she ran
to him and embraced him. When he reached his wife, she already knew what
had happened. Weeping, she said: "You don't care for me, so I shall leave
and return to my people. But your child will always remain with you." She
gave birth to a baby who, like herself, could change into a snake at will.
Then she departed.
That's why the Hopi's dance the snake dance today.
The dancers are the descendants of the child born to the young man and
his snake wife.
Translated from the Tewa by Alfonzo Ortiz.
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