A Hopi Hero’s Journey: How the Snake Clan Came to Arizona
Joseph Campbell, in his classic book The Hero With A Thousand Faces explores in depth the universal mythic narrative of the culture-hero (traditionally male) who goes forth not to conquer but ultimately to bring back some sort of aid that benefits his people. The elements of these legends are consistent in cultures all across the globe.
“The standard path of mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Snake Clan Mythology and a Hero’s Journey
The Hopi clearly possess this mythological framework. The members of the Snake Clan (Tsu’) recount a lengthy legend of their clan’s origin, which entails a trip across the sea. According to oral history, in the village of Toko’navi (near Navajo Mountain in southern Utah) lived a youth named Tiyo, whose name literally refers to an adolescent boy. This ever-pensive, curious lad was accustomed to sit on the banks of Pisisvayu (the Colorado River) and ponder where its waters flowed. Why, he wondered, when the people’s corncobs grew to only the length of a man’s finger, would this precious life force simply disappear in the direction of the south? He asked if anyone knew what was at the end of the river where all those waters went. “His father said, ‘No, we do not know. But in the end, it must join somewhere with Patowahkacheh, the Great Water. Some of our grandfathers were there in ancient times [italics added], but no one now living is familiar with all the land through which the river passes.’” Finally, the boy resolved to embark upon a journey to solve this mystery.
Inside a hollowed-out cottonwood log sealed at both ends with piñon pitch to resemble a drum, Tiyo floated downstream until he came to the great ocean. Soon he drifted to the island of Kòokyangwso’wúuti (Spider Grandmother), within whose kiva (or subterranean prayer chamber) he solicited her aid. “The Hopi regard Spider Woman as a major deity of their mythology, second in importance to Masau’u... [Late 19th century ethnographer and archaeologist] Jesse Walter Fewkes writes, ‘She is the goddess of wisdom; she can change her form at will.” (Masau’u is the Hopi god of the underworld, death, fire, and the earth-plane. In his book Campbell cites the Navajo version of the monomyth. The Navajo, or Dené, traditionally lived and still live in areas adjacent to the Hopi.)
Grandmother Spider or Spider Woman of Native American lore. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
In the distance lay another kiva on an island belonging to the Snake People. After walking between islands upon a rainbow bridge that Spider Grandmother had created, Tiyo used a special medicine she had given him to pacify, each in its turn, the following animals: a mountain lion (symbolic of the northwest), a bear (the southwest), a gray wolf (the southeast), a wildcat (the northeast), and finally a gigantic rattlesnake (the underworld). He then descended the ladder of the kiva whose walls were covered with ceremonial snakeskin costumes and found a group of men with faces painted a metallic black (yaláhaii, specular iron). They were dressed in blue kilts, the color symbolic of the southwest (the direction of the ocean), and wore many necklaces of shells and coral beads.
Hopi Snake dancer, 1924, northern Arizona (Public Domain)
Testing his stamina, the Snake People tried to make Tiyo dizzy by offering strong “tobacco” (marijuana?), but Kòokyangwso’wúuti helped him by drawing off the smoke through—incredibly—his anus. “The young man described his journey. After that the kikmongwi [chief] said, ‘Well, you have discovered what lies at the place where the river meets the Great Water. We are Snake People. We are different from other people you know. Now we will show you something.” These alien people then donned their snake costumes and turned into all sorts of angry snakes—rattlesnakes, bull snakes, king snakes, etc. Among the men there were also some maidens, who likewise turned into hissing, slithering serpents. Perched behind his ear, Kòokyangwso’wúuti urged Tiyo to keep up his courage, after which the Snake People reverted to their human form and accepted him as one of their own. They then taught him the Snake Ceremony, which is still danced every other year in August on the Hopi Mesas. In addition, he took the prettiest snake maiden as his wife.
Front row, Snake dancers near foot-drum, Oraibi village, Third Mesa, 1898, next row Antelope dancers, one with cottonwood wreath, medicine bowl, and water-sprinkler. Kisi (leaves of “snake house”) in the background. (Public Domain)
Palulukang (Horned Water Serpent) emerging from pottery jar, wrestling with a Koyemsi, or Mudhead kachina clown, Hopi drawing. Kachinas are spirit messengers. (Public Domain)
Maiden and Crone, Hard Beings Woman
In other versions of the myth, Tiyo visits the island kiva of Hurúing’wúuti (Hard Beings Woman). During the day while Tawa (the sun) is aloft, she appears as a withered crone.
Tawa, the sun spirit and creator in Hopi mythology. (Public Domain)
But at night when he returns to this western house, she transforms into a beautiful woman. Alternate versions describe Tiyo spending the night with the lovely Hurúing’wúuti in order to win her favor, thereby receiving many coveted turquoise beads, red coral, and seashells. In the morning, however, she (as in the previous variant) reverts to a repulsive hag. “Hurúing Wuhti owned the moon, the stars, and all the hard substances, such as beads, corals, shells, etc.” This statement demonstrates that the western goddess is related not only to marine shells and coral but also to lunar and sidereal “hard objects.” Hopi scholar Harold Courlander believes that Hard Beings Woman and Spider Grandmother are merely variations of the same archetype, namely, Mother Earth. He goes on, however, to identify the special role of the former deity in the early maritime history of the Hopi: “Huruing Wuhti is associated with the myth that the Hopis came to their present world by a voyage across the sea rather than through the sipapuni.” By some accounts the subterranean Sipapuni is the Hopi “Place of Emergence” from the previous Third World (or epoch) to the current Fourth World. Located at the bottom of Grand Canyon on the Little Colorado River, it is actually a geological feature called a travertine dome. This circular limestone structure gradually deposited by mineral waters measures about 75 feet (23 meters) in diameter and can be seen on Google Earth.
Map of travertine dome at Grand Canyon. (Source: Google Earth, 2017)
The Hero Returns
Tiyo eventually returned with his snake mana (maiden) to Toko’navi. “At that time only the Divided or Separated Spring (Bátki) clan [also spelled Patki, or Water Clan] and the Póna (a certain cactus) lived at that place, but with the arrival of this young couple a new clan, the Snake clan, had come to the village.” After the couple’s return, Tiyo’s wife gave birth to a brood of snakes, which began to bite so many Hopi children that he was forced to return to the Snake People in order to proffer them his herpetological offspring. Thereafter the woman bore only human children.
Two Hopi Indian kachina dolls (male and female), ca.1900. (Public Domain)
Later the Snake Clan migrated to Kawestima, which are the cliff dwellings known as Betatakin and Keet Seel located in the Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona. Incidentally, the name of this national monument is actually a misnomer because the Navajo neither built the two villages nor ever inhabited them. Instead the ruins belong to the ancestral Hopi known as the Hisatsinom, or Ancient Ones. Subsequently the Snake Clan moved to the village of Walpi on First Mesa, where they reside to this day.
This legendary oceanic voyage that led to the origin of the Snake Clan clearly exemplifies the essential monomyth of the “hero’s journey” about which Joseph Campbell has extensively written. The fact that its first two members, Tiyo and his anonymous serpent-wife, joined the Water Clan at Toko’navi village merely emphasizes their common maritime tradition. Two other names for the Water Clan are the Houseboat Clan and the Dwelling-on-Water Clan. It is interesting to note that the so-called “serpent effigies” of the god Palulukang, the Horned or Feathered Serpent, are kept by these two clans. At Walpi, the Snake Clan was responsible; at Sichomovi also on First Mesa, the Water Clan was responsible. The Hopi Palulukang is analogous to the Mayan Kukulkán and the Aztecan Quetzalcóatl.
Right: Moqui (Hopi) Snake Dance, Hualpi (Walpi) plaza, 1899. Photo by Ben Wittick. Note observers standing on top of “snake rock.” Upper-left: Walpi village in the distance, First Mesa. Lower-left: Hopi maiden with butterfly whorl hairstyle and pot.
In addition to Hopi legends of sailing eastward on reed rafts across the Pacific Ocean from the previous Third World, which was destroyed by a deluge, to the current Fourth World, many cultural and linguistic similarities exist between the peoples of the South Pacific and those of the American Southwest. I will leave you with just one example. The Samoan word sua and the Hopi word tsu’a both mean “snake.” The sound and the sense are the same. Contrary to the mainstream academic paradigm, it was the collective ingenuity of the peoples of both North and South America together with the peoples of Oceania that allowed them to make landfall on distant shores in very early times. The astronomical and navigational skills possessed by these globally dispersed serpent seafarers (sometimes called the Nagas) must have been the common currency of the day.
Top image: Left: Hopi snake dancer (adobegallery) Right: A Hopi male during the annual snake dance and ritual prayers for rain, 1946 (public domain)
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press/Bollingen Foundation, 1973, 1949), p. 30.
Alexander M. Stephen, “Hopi Tales,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 42, No. 163, January/March, 1929, pp. 35-36. From the description of these people, who made garments, shoes, and ropes from yucca as well as axes and hoes from stone, we may assume that they are a very early group of ancestral Hopi, perhaps the so-called Basketmakers.
Harold Courlander, The Fourth World of the Hopis: the Epic Story of the Hopi Indians As Preserved In Their Legends and Traditions (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1991, reprint 1971), p. 85. One account calls it the “Far-Far-Below River,” which implies that it flows to the underworld, where the great ocean lies—thus, the reference is to the Third World, or the era prior to the present one. G. M. Mullett, Spider Woman Stories: Legends of the Hopi Indians (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1991, reprint 1979), p. 11.
Carol Patterson-Rudolph, On the Trail of Spider Woman: Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and Myths of the Southwest (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Ancient City Press, 1997), p. 42.
Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, op. cit., pp. 69-71.
H. R. Voth, The Traditions of the Hopi (Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, Pub. 96, Anthropological Series, Vol. VIII, March, 1905), p. 31.
Courlander, The Fourth World of the Hopis, op. cit., p. 88. The tobacco used in ancient times was much more potent than that smoked today, especially if it were mixed with the hallucinogenic plant jimsonweed (Datura wrightii).
Voth, The Traditions of the Hopi, op. cit., p. 5.
Patterson-Rudolph, On the Trail of Spider Woman, op. cit., p. 78.
Courlander, The Fourth World of the Hopis, op. cit., p. 204.
Voth, The Traditions of the Hopi, op. cit., p. 34.
Harry C. James, Pages From Hopi History (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1974), pp. 18-22.
Jesse Walter Fewkes, Hopi Katcinas (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1985, reprint of Twenty-First Annual Report to the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1903), pp. 50-51.
Susan B. Martinez, Ph.D., The Lost Continent of Pan: The Oceanic Civilization at the Origin of World Culture (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Co., 2016), p. 221; Hopi-English Dictionary of the Third Mesa Dialect, edited by Kenneth C. Hill, Emory Sekaquaptewa, Mary E. Black, and Ekkehart Malotki (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998), p. 649.