Gary A. David
The Snake Dance has both attracted and repulsed non-Indian spectators since
the late nineteenth century.
During this infamous ritual performed every
other August on the Hopi Mesas of Arizona, participants handle a mass of
venomous and non-venomous snakes. Some even put necks and bodies into their
Unlike ophiolatry (serpent worship), the Snake Dance is a plea for
agricultural fertility and rain in a beautiful but harsh desert landscape.
However, many spectators would be surprised to learn that this bizarre rite
came from India, the traditional land of snake charmers.
Olive Rush "Hopi Snake Dance"
(1925, oil on board)
SI Art Image Browser, Univeristy of Michigan
An ancient Hopi myth describes a migration from the flooded Third World (or
Era) to the Fourth World.
The ancestral Hopi escaped on reed rafts and made
their way to the mouth of the Colorado River, up which they traveled to seek
their final destination upon the Colorado Plateau.
stepping stone on this monumental journey may have been the remote South
Pacific island of Fiji. Here a fertility and youth initiation ceremony
called Baki took place.
1. Its name is similar to the
Hopi term paki, which
means “entered” or “started being initiated.” (Hopi language does not
recognize the ‘b’ sound.)
The kiva (subterranean prayer chamber) used during
the Snake Dance is called a pakit.
A “naga” or “nanaga” was one of many walled sites where
Fiji boys entered
David Hatcher Childress writes that,
“...one of the ancient
races of Southeast Asia is the Nagas, a seafaring race of people who traded
in their ‘Serpent Boats’ similar to the Dragon ships of the Vikings.”
Originating in India, the Nagas established religious centers throughout the
country, including the Kingdom of Kashi on the Ganges, Kashmir to the north,
and Nagpur in central India.
The Nagas also inhabited the great metropolitan
Harrappa in the Indus River Valley. They founded
a port city on the Arabian Sea and exchanged goods globally, using a
universal currency of cowries.
As masters of arcane wisdom, the Nagas bequeathed to Mesoamerica the concept
nagual -- too complex to explain here but thoroughly delineated in the
Carlos Castaneda about his tutelage with the Yaqui sorcerer Don
The Nagas may also have been the Snake People whom the
Hopi culture hero Tiyo met on his epic voyage across the ocean. In the underworld he enters a
room where people wear snake skins. He is initiated into strange
ceremonials, in which he learns rain prayers. After the young man is given a
pair of maidens who sing to help corn grow, he carries them home to the
The Snake Woman becomes his wife, while the other becomes
the bride of Flute youth. Finally his wife gives birth to reptiles, which
causes Tiyo to leave his family and migrate to another country.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, the story involves a subterranean visit.
Paradoxically, the Hopi conceptualize this as a realm of both water and
Na-ngasohu is the Chasing Star Kachina, who wears a Plains-style
eagle feather headdress and a large four-pointed star painted on his mask. (Kachinas
are spirits in the form of any object, creature, or phenomenon.) Nanga means
“to pursue” and sohu means “star.”
Related to Naga, the Hopi word nga’at means “medicine root” with magical
healing properties. A root is both chthonic and morphologically snake-like.
The term nakwa refers to headdress feathers worn during a sacred ceremony.
6. This plumage suggests the
feathered serpent. Another related word, naqvu’at, means “ear,” and
naaqa refers to “ear pendant,” frequently made of
This jewelry was worn in respectful imitation rather than mere adornment.
Childress describes the so-called Long Ears:
“As tall, bearded navigators of
the world, they were probably a combination of Egyptian, Libyan, Phoenician,
Ethiopian, Greek and Celtic sailors in combination with Indo-Europeans from
the Indian subcontinent.
According to Polynesian legend, these sailors also
have the famous ‘long ears’ that are well known on both
Rapa Nui [Easter
Island] and Rarotonga.”
According to the mariner/scholar
Thor Heyerdahl, ruling families of the
Incas artificially lengthened their earlobes to distinguish themselves
vis-à-vis their subjects.
8. (An earmark indeed! Perhaps
Buddha with his
long earlobes is no coincidence either.)
Author James Bailey believes that these rulers of Peru and some Pacific
islands were Aryan and Semitic peoples originating from the Indus River
Valley. “[Heyerdahl] showed that there lived on
Easter Island the survivors
of two distinct populations; the long-ears, a fair or red-headed European
people who used to stretch their ear-lobes with wooden plugs so that they
reached down to their shoulders and a Polynesian group of conventional
Polynesian type, with natural ears.
The first people had been known on the
island as ‘long ears’, the second people as ‘short-ears’.”
The former group attained an average height of six-and-a-half feet, and had
white skin with red hair. It may be more than coincidence that the Hopi Fire
Clan were known as the “redheads.” These war-like people lived with the
Snake Clan at Betatakin, a late thirteenth century Arizona cliff dwelling
Navaho National Monument).
Easter Island may have been another stepping stone in the ancient
migration. Some of the tall, long-eared statues called Moai were carved with
red topknots. That Easter Island lies on the same meridian as the current
home of the Hopi may be just another “coincidence.”
Noting the ear-plugs worn by tribes in Tanzania, Bailey comments on the
ubiquity of this artifact: “The ear-plug is itself symptomatic of contact
with sea-people and I believe has a common origin all over the world,
wherever it is found.”
10. One example of this ring-type ear-plug carved
from schist was found in ancient ruins near Phoenix, Arizona.
11. Here we
see artifacts common to both desert and maritime people.
Mythological themes common to disparate cultures also exist. Scholar Cyrus
H. Gordon relates a narrative from the early second millennium B.C. An
Egyptian captain is ship-wrecked on the “island of Ka,” possibly located
near Somalia in the Indian Ocean. (The Hopi ka in
kachina is foreign and
may be related to the Egyptian Ka, or “doppelgänger.”)
This paradise abounds
in not only gorgeous birds but also fish, delicious fruits and vegetables.
There’s only one catch. A serpent thirty cubits (forty-five feet) long rules
it. This giant snake has gold plated skin, lapis lazuli eyebrows, and a
beard extending two cubits (three feet).
After the sovereign serpent threatens to incinerate him for remaining
silent, the captain relates how he and his crew were driven there by a
fierce storm. In turn, the king describes his brethren and children, who
once totaled seventy-two.
“Then a star fell and these
(serpents) went forth in the flame it produced. It chanced I was not with
them when they were burned. I was not among them (but) I just about died for
them, when I found them as one corpse.”
The captain’s boat is then loaded
with fine spices including myrrh, elephant tusks, giraffe tails, and
Before allowing him to leave, the king makes this curious remark:
“It will happen that when you depart from this place, this island will never
be seen again, for it will become water.”
Whether or not he had long ears, the tale does not say. However, we may be
witnessing one of the legendary Nagas. Beside the serpentine motif, this
fabulous story contains a theme redolent of
Mu. An Edenic island
suddenly disappears beneath the waves in a celestial cataclysm destroying
Does the Hopi myth of Tiyo’s journey to the Island of Snakes and the
Egyptian myth of the anonymous captain’s journey to the Island of Ka have a
common source? We will never know for certain.
Likewise, we can only speculate on the seventy-two serpents encoded in the
latter myth. This might refer to an astronomical movement of which astute
mariners were undoubtedly aware. Due to the
precession of the equinoxes,
zodiac stars rising on the first day of spring and autumn shift backwards
(currently from Pisces to Aquarius) one degree every seventy-two years.
is caused by the wobble of the Earth’s axis (its precession) like a spinning
top. In the Egyptian tale the king’s seventy-two relatives were killed by a
falling sidereal event. Hence, the “skyscape” known for a lifetime or more
was overturned, only to be replaced by a slightly altered one.
An isolationist would say that ancient humans lacked the sophisticated
observational skills to recognize a single degree of difference, or that
early civilizations were technologically incapable of crossing oceans. In
fact, many myths contradicting this seem to have been conceived by
I am not suggesting that an elite corps of Old World Whites came to “save”
the scattered bands of “savage” Native Americans, thereby allowing the
latter to flourish. (The cultural genocide in the New World during 16th
through the 19th centuries makes that scenario particularly ironic.) This
view denigrates both cultures, assigning an monolithic imperialism to the
former and an evolutionary inferiority to the latter. In short, this is
racism at its worst.
I am saying that the collective ingenuity of the peoples of North and South
America together with the peoples of Oceania allowed them to sail to distant
lands very early on.
Likewise, the peoples of Europe and Asia used the same
ingenuity to land on equally distant shores. The navigational knowledge of
seafarers from all over the globe must have been a common currency.
be how a serpent cult from India made it to the high desert of Arizona.
1. David Hatcher Childress, Ancient Tonga & the Lost City of Mu’a (Stelle,
Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996), p. 125.
2. Jesse Walter Fewkes,
Hopi Snake Ceremonies: An eyewitness account by
Jesse Walter Fewkes, Selections from the Bureau of American Ethnology Annual
Reports Nos. 16 and 19 for the year 1894-95 and 1897-98 (Albuquerque: Avanyu
Publishing Inc., 1986) p. 274.
3. Childress, Ancient Tonga, p. 135.
4. Mark Amaru Pinkham, Return of the Serpents of Wisdom (Kempton, Illinois:
Adventures Unlimited Press, 1997), pp. 110-111.
5. Fewkes, Hopi Snake Ceremonies, p. 303.
6. Ekkehart Malotki, editor, Hopi Dictionary: A Hopi-English Dictionary of
the Third Mesa Dialect (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1998),
7. Childress, Ancient Tonga, p. 158.
8. Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (New York: Pocket
Books, 1966, 1958), p. 340.
9. James Bailey, The God-King & the Titans: The New World Ascendancy in
Ancient Times (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), pp. 196-198.
Bailey, The God-King & the Titans, p. 186.
11. Franklin Barnett, Dictionary of Prehistoric Indian Artifacts of the
American Southwest (Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Press, 1974, 1973), p. 51.
Cyrus H. Gordon, Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and
Ancient America (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1971), pp. 54-67.
Native American Legends
The Origin of some Oraibi Clans
A Hopi Legend
Away down the sípapu in the under-world the people lived in the same manner
as they do here. The wife of the chief of the Bear clan often danced in the
Butterfly dance (Políhtikivee), at which the chief got angry.
The Spider clan had also a chief. The Bear chief sent the Pö'okong to limit
for them another life (kátci) or world and see whether they could not get
out. He was so angry at his wife's participating in the dance, fearing that
she would be led astray, he wanted to go away and leave her.
Pö'okong and his younger brother Balö'ongahoya went in search of another
world, and when they returned, reported that there was an opening right
above them. Pö'okong had reached it by means of a reed on which he had spit
and thus made it strong.
The chief said, as they were still dancing (the
Butterfly dance) they would move in four days. After four days they were
still dancing, and the chief said to some one that he would not tell his
wife anything, but try to find another wife. So he left, being accompanied
by Pö'okong and, Balö'ongahoya, the Pölis still dancing wildly.
They started and went out, Pö'okong first, then Balö'ongahoya, then the Bear
clan chief, who was followed by the Spider clan chief. Then the Bear clan
people, the Spider clan people, and after them many other people came out.
When many were out the Bear chief closed the opening.
When they were out the chief said, ''Well, what
They were in the dark yet, the entrance,
however, being closed.
The chief sent the Eagle who flew around hunting an opening or light. He
returned, and the chief asked:
''Taá um hin nawóti?"
"Well, I found an opening and made it more
light, but it is very hot high up yet. Send another one."
So the chief sent the Buzzard (Wicóko).
The latter ascended higher but got burned (hence he has no feathers on his
head and wings), but he made it lighter, When he returned that chief said:
"Thank you. Well, now what? Now it is
somewhat better. The sky has been opened somewhat more and it is much
The question arose: Which way?
The Bear clan spoke for the South, the Spider
clan for the north, and the latter talking more and getting the greater
crowd, the Spider clan went northward.
The Spider Clan
This clan traveled northward. The chief first, the people following. After
four nights they carne to a nice country, where the "North Old Man" (Kwináe
Wuhtaka) lives. But it was cold there.
The chief decided that there they would stay. So the people were glad and
began to plant corn, watermelon, melons, sweet corn, etc. The chief had
brought with him the cult and altar of the Blue Flutes. When the corn began
to grow the chief put up his altar, sang and fluted, but he did all that
So the corn, etc., grew nicely, but when it
tasseled and the ears began to develop, it became cold and the crop was
"Ishohi!" (Oh!) the people exclaimed.
They tried it another year, but the same: thing
was repeated in every respect. Again no crop.
Another year it was tried, but now the corn only
began to tassel, and the fourth year it was still very small when the frost
killed it. Then there was dissatisfaction. "Ishohí! (Oh!) Our Father, you
have spoken falsely, you said it was good here." So they all also started
southward after the Bear People.
After the first night the chief said to his wife:
"You bathe yourself."
This she did (in warm water). Then she rubbed
her body and collected the small scales which she had rubbed from her skin
and handed them to her husband. He laid them on a blanket until there was a
considerable quantity of them.
He then wrapped this in a reed receptacle, sang over it and waved it four
times, whereupon the scales turned into burros and rushed out.
"What is that?" the people asked.
"Those are burros," the chief said.
So they were glad that now they would not have
to carry everything themselves any longer, and the chief said that now they
would move on towards the rising sun.
The chief and his wife repeated the same performance, but instead of burros,
Spaniards came out. To them the chief said: You put supplies and your things
on the burros and follow the other Hopi (that is, the Bear clan), and when
you overtake them, kill them. So the Castilians went south, and the Spider
people went south-east, following a Stream (Nönö'pbaya, a rolling stream,
because of the high recoiling waves).
They came to a nice place where they stayed one
year and planted and reaped a crop. From there they proceeded south-east,
stopped another year at a certain place, where they again planted, but were
harassed by enemies.
They saved a portion of the crop and proceeding
farther south-east they ascended a bluff or mesa, staying another year and
planting in the valleys.
Thus they stopped in all at ten different places, but being constantly
harassed by the people along the water, they never planted more than once.
Finally they arrived where the sun rises and the Americans (Bahánas) live.
With them they became friends; here they planted, their children learned the
language a little, and they stayed there three years.
They also here learned that the Bear clan had
been there and had already gone westward again. The Spider people followed,
arrived at Oraíbi, where they found , the Bear clan, whom they joined. Their
chief was then Machíto.
They also had the Â'ototo and Áholi Katcinas.
The Bear Clan
This clan had gone south from the sípahpuni.
They had with them the Â'ototo Katcina. They
soon found the Young Corn Ear (Píhk'ash) people with the Áholi Katcina, who
wanted to join them. So the Bear clan chief took them along. They stopped at
a place and here had a good crop because they had the two Katcinas with
The next year they came to a clear stream. In
all they stopped ten times before arriving at the Americans, where the sun
rises. Here they stopped four years. Their children learned a little
The land being scarce, the Americans told them to go west and hunt land for
themselves, and if anybody would be bad to them (núkpana) and cause their
children to die, they (the Americans) would come and cut the Núkapana's
This was told them, because they (the Americans)
had been told that down in the old home there had been Pópwaktû (sorcerers,
So they traveled westward, found the Pueblo, but
no good land that they could get. So they finally arrived at Shongópavi,
where some people lived, and there they settled down.
One time the people saw that the chief, Machíto, held a sweet corn-ear
between every two fingers, at the same time eating from the other hand. Corn
was very scarce at that time, so the people spoke to him about his
greediness, at which he got angry and left, taking with him the Â'ototo and
Hunters later found them at a rock, now Bean
Spreading Place (Báhpu- Möyanpi), where there is still a stone on which
there is some writing called Machítûtûbeni. Machíto left his wife at
Shongópavi, also his people, who then formed the Shongópavi Bear clan. When
the hunters found him they informed the people at Shongópavi.
Some went there to get them back, but Machíto would not listen to them. Then
his wife went to him but he would not listen to her either. So they left
him. Machíto took a big stone and went with them for some distance to make
the landmark between Oraíbi and Shongópavi.
The people said several times:
"Put it here."
But he would not listen until arriving at a
place called "Ocápchomo," where he placed it, thus making a landmark between
the fields of the Shongópavi and his own.
Then Machíto and the two Katcinas went up the Oraíbi mesa where they
remained. Later the Spider people arrived. Machíto asked about their
wanderings and they told him. He wanted to know why the corn would not grow
although they had the Flute cult.
The Spider clan chief accused the "North Old
Machíto then said:
"All right, you may live here, but as your
cult does not seem to be effective, you watch the sun for me, and when
he has arrived at his south limit, you tell me, and we shall have the
Soyál ceremony. Also your pü'htavi does not seem to have been good, so I
want you to make my kind of pü'htavi."
After the matter had been settled between
Machíto and the Spider clan chief, the latter's people came up.
Among these were also the Lizard clan, to which
the Sand clan is related. These names were given to people while wandering.
One would find and see something, perhaps under peculiar circumstances, and
he called after it.
The Lizard people were also asked what they knew and when they said the
Maraú cult, they were also permitted to stay, but were requested to co-
operate in the Soyál ceremony. For that reason Pungñánömsi, who is of the
Bear clan, and village chief, now makes the pûhu (road) in the night of the
Maraú ceremony from the nátsi at the south end of the kiva towards the
The Rattle-snake (Tcû'a) clan also came with the Spider clan to Oraíbi, but
it is not known how or where this clan became a part of the Spider clan, The
Badger people understand medicines, hence they prepare the medicine--for
instance, charm liquid--for the Flute, Snake, Maraú, and other ceremonies.
Another Badger clan and the Butterfly (Pówul) came from Kíshi-wuu. These
brought the Powámu and Katcina cult.
The Divided Spring (Bátki) clan came from where the sun rises.
They came to the village of Oraíbi and arranged a contest at Muyíovatki
where each planted corn, the Blue Flutes sweet corn, the others, Wupákaö,
over which they played the whole day.
The sweet corn grew first, and so the Blue
Flutes to this day go to the village in processions, etc., first closing the
well (batñi) on the plaza.
Later the Drab Flutes (Masítâlentu) had to throw
their meal, mollas, etc., from a distance to the warrior (Keléhtaka) of the
Cakwálâlentu, who put them into the well in the booth for them.