Myths / Mythologies / Legends
THE SERPENT OF THE SEA
ZUNI LoreBased on Frank Hamilton Cushing's version of 1931.
In the times of our forefathers there was a village under Thunder Mountain
called Home of the Eagles. It is now in ruins: the roofs gone, the ladders
decayed, the hearths cold. But when it was alive, it was the home of a
beautiful maiden, the daughter of the priest-chief. Though beautiful, she
had one strange trait: she could not endure the slightest speck of dust
or dirt upon her clothes or person.
A sacred spring of water lay at the foot of the
terrace on which the town stood. Now we call it the pool of the Apaches,
but then it was sacred to Kolowissi, the Serpent of the Sea. Washing her
clothes and bathing herself over and over, the maiden spent almost all
her time at the spring. The defilement of his waters, their contamination
by the dirt of her apparel and the dun of her person, angered Kolowissi.
He devised a plan to punish her.
When the maiden next came to the spring, she was
startled to find a smiling baby boy gurgling and splashing in the water.
Of course it was the Sea Serpent who, like the other gods, can assume any
form as his pleasure. The girl looked all around—north, south, east, and
west—but saw no trace of a person who might have left the beautiful child.
"Whose can it be?" she wondered. "Only a cruel mother would leave her baby
here to die!"
The maiden talked softly to the child, took him
in her arms, and carried him up the hill to her house. There she brought
him into her room, where she lived apart from her family because of her
loathing of dust and dirt. As she played with him, laughing at his pranks
and smiling into his face, he answered her in baby fashion with coos and
smiles of his own.
Meanwhile her younger sisters had prepared the evening
meal and were waiting for her. "Where can she be?" they asked.
"Probably at the spring, as usual!" said her father.
"Run down and call her."
But the youngest sister could not find her at the
spring, so she came home and climbed to the maiden's private room at the
top of the house. And there the maiden was, sitting on the floor and playing
with the beautiful baby.
On hearing this the father was silent and thoughtful,
for he knew that the waters of the spring were sacred. When the rest of
the family started to climb the ladder to see the child, he called them
"Do you suppose any real mother would leave her
baby in a spring?" he said. "This is not as simple as it seems." And since
the maiden would not leave the child, they ate without her.
Upstairs the baby began to yawn. Growing drowsy
herself, the girl put him on the bed and fell asleep beside him.
The maiden's sleep was real, the baby's pretense.
He lay quietly and began to lengthen, drawing himself out, extending longer
and longer. Slowly the Serpent of the Sea appeared, like a nightmare come
true. He was so huge that he had to coil himself round and round the room,
filling it with scaly, gleaming circles. Placing his enormous head over
his own tail into his mouth.
So the night passed. In the morning when breakfast
was ready and the oldest sister had not come down, the others grew impatient.
"Now that she has the child, nothing else matters
to her," the old man said. "A baby is enough to absorb any woman's attention."
But the smallest sister climbed up to the room and
called her. Receiving no answer, she pushed the door, first gently and
then with all her might. She could not move it and began to be frightened.
Running to the skyhole over the room where the others were sitting, she
cried for help.
Everyone except the father rushed up, and pushing
together, cracked the door just enough to catch a glimpse of the serpent's
great scales. Then they screamed and ran back down.
The father, priest and sage that he was, told them
quietly, "I expected as much. I thought it was impossible for a woman to
be so foolish as to leave her child in a spring. But it's not impossible,
it seems, for another woman to be so foolish as to take such a child to
Climbing up to her room, he pushed against the door
and called, "Oh Kolowissi, it is I who speak to you—I, your priest. I pray
you, let my child come to me again, and I will make atonement for her errors.
She is yours; but let her return to us once more."
Hearing this, the Serpent of the Sea began to loosen
his coils. The whole building, the whole village, shook violently, and
everyone trembled with fear.
At last the maiden awoke and cried piteously for
help. As the coils unwound, she was able to rise. The great serpent bent
his folds of his body nearest the doorway so that they formed an arch for
her to pass under. She was half stunned by the din of the monster's scales,
which rasped against one another like the scraping of flints under the
feet of a rapid runner.
Once clear of the writhing mass, the maiden was
away like a deer. Tumbling down the ladder and into the room below, she
threw herself on her mother's breast.
But the priest remained, praying to the serpent.
He ended with: "It shall be as I have said; she is yours!"
He and the two warrior-priests of the town called
together all the other priests in sacred council. Performing the solemn
rites, they prepared plumes, prayer wands, and offerings of treasure. After
four days of ceremonies, the old priest called his daughter and told her
that she must give these offerings, together with the most precious of
them all, herself, to the Serpent of the Sea. She must renounce her people
and her home and dwell in the house of Kolowissi in the Waters of the World.
"Your deeds tell me," said her father, "that this
had been your desire. For you brought this fate on yourself by using the
sacred water for profane purposes."
The maiden wept and clung to her mother's neck.
Then, shivering with terror, she left her childhood home. In the plaza
they dressed her in sacred cotton robes, elaborately embroidered, and adorned
her with earrings, bracelets, beads, and other precious things. Amidst
the lamentations of the people, they painter her cheeks with red spots
as if for a dance. They made a road of sacred meal toward the distant spring
known as the Doorway of the Serpent of the Sea. Four steps toward this
spring they marked out sacred terraces on the ground at the west of the
plaza. And when they had finished the sacred road, the old priest, without
one tear, told his daughter to walk out on it and call the serpent to come.
At once the door opened and the Serpent of the Sea
descended from the maiden's room, where he had been waiting. Without using
ladders, he lowered his head and breast down to the ground in great undulations.
He placed his heavy head on the maiden's shoulder, and the priest said.
"It is time."
Slowly, cowering beneath her burden, the maiden
started toward the west. Whenever she staggered with fear and weariness
and was about to wander from the path, the serpent gently pushed her onward
and straightened her course.
They went toward the river trail and followed it,
then crossed over the Mountain of the Red Paint, and still the serpent
was not completely uncoiled from the maiden's room. Not until they were
past the mountain did his tail emerge.
Suddenly Kolowissi drew himself together and began
to assume a new shape. Before long his serpent form contracted and shortened
until he lifted his head from the maiden's shoulder and stood up, a beautiful
young man in sacred ceremonial dress! He slipped his serpent scales, now
grown small, under his flowing mantle. In the snake's hoarse hiss he said:
"Are you tired, girl?" She never replied, but plodded on with her eyes
In a gentler voice he said, "Are you weary, poor
maiden?" Rising taller, walking a little behind her, he wrapped his scales
more closely in his blanket. He repeated in a still softer voice, "Are
you weary, poor maiden?"
At first she dared not look around, though the voice
sounded so changed, so kind. Yet she still felt the weight of the serpent's
head on her shoulder, for she had become sued to the heavy burden and could
not tell that it had gone. At last, however, she turned and saw a splendid,
brave young man, magnificently dressed.
"May I walk by your side?" he asked. "Why don't
"I am filled with fear and shame," said she.
"Why? What do you fear?"
"I come away from my home with a terrifying creature,
and he rested his head on my shoulder, and even now I feel it there." She
lifted her hand to the place where it had been, still fearing that she
would find it.
"But I came all the way with you," said he, "and
I saw no such creature."
She stopped and looked at him. "You came all the
way? Then where has the serpent gone?"
He smiled and replied, "I know where he has gone."
"Ah, my friend, will he leave me alone now? Will
he let me return to my people?"
"No, because he thinks too much of you."
"Where is he?"
"he is here," said the youth, smiling and placing
his hand on his heart. "I am he."
"I don't believe it!" cried the maiden.
He drew the shriveled serpent scales from under
his mantle. "I am he, and I love you, beautiful maiden! Won't you come
and stay with me? We will live and love one another not just now, but forever,
in all the Waters of the World.
And as they journeyed on, the maiden quite forgot
her sadness, and soon she forgot her home too. She followed her husband
into the Doorway of the Serpent of the Sea and lived with him ever after.
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