A Hopi Hero’s Journey: How the Snake Clan Came to Arizona

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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: separationinitiationreturn: 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.

SakwaWakaKatsina (Katsina-Blue-Cow), a Hopi Kachina figure

SakwaWakaKatsina (Katsina-Blue-Cow), a Hopi Kachina figure ( Myrabella /CC BY-SA 4.0 )

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.

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)

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.

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