Dances with Snakes: The Real Reason for the Hopi Snake Dance – Part II
The day prior to the final Snake Dance performance in the plaza, before sunrise with Orion and Sirius rising, two warriors of the Snake society make several circuits around the Snake and Antelope kivas, each with a bull-roarer ( tovokìnpi) and a lightning-frame, which respectively represent the thunder and lightning of the monsoon storms that begin in July and continue into August and early September. These weather phenomena are also associated with the Hopi sky god Sótuknang.
Hopi Katcinas drawn by native artists (1904). ( The Commons ) the Heart-of-the-sky god,who is readily i-ecognized by the single curved horn on the headand the rain-cloud symbols on the face and base of the horn. In his left hand he carries the framework of sticks which symbolizesthe lightning. This framework has attached to each angle an eaglefeather, which the painter has indicated in black lines. In the right hand he carries the whizzer or bull-roarer, a slat towhich a string is attached, with lightning represented bj a zigzagband in red. Two bandoleers are represented.
According to Walden University’s Bethe Hagens, Ph.D., who with William Becker researched the Planetary Grid System: “…most bullroarers are linked in some way to the constellation Orion which is located between Taurus (The Bull) and Sirius, widely known in antiquity as The Roarer.” Actually, Mirzam in Canis Major was known as the “roarer,” announcing by a few minutes the rising of Sirius in the east. The bull-roarer is shaped like an Aztec flint knife used to excise human hearts. The wooden lightning-frame looks like a modern, collapsible hat rack without the pegs.
Hopi Katcinas drawn by native artists (1904). ( The Commons ) CiwikoU wears a kilt made of red-stained horsehair, and a ban-doleer. He carries a whizzer or bull roarer in his right hand. A foxskin is tied about his neck.
Starting from a spot somewhere in the desert and ending at the top of the mesa, a footrace is also held. The winner garners a symbolic gourd of water for his cornfields. John G. Bourke, who served as an aide to General George Crook during the Apache campaign, studied the Snake Dance of the “Moquis” (Hopi) in August of 1881.
He draws a parallel between this footrace and that with four Aztec competitors who ran to the top of the 120-step pyramids in Mexico. “ The Aztecs claimed a northern origin. May it not be possible that the forms of their ‘teocallis’ or temples [i.e., truncated pyramids] commemorated a period when their ancestors dwelt upon precipices ascended by stone steps?”—namely, the three Hopi Mesas.
Ancient Hopi village of Wolpi. ( Public Domain )
Day of the Snakes
On the last day the culmination of the ritual is publicly performed in the village plaza. A small, circular bower of live cottonwood boughs has been erected to “corral” the reptiles—perhaps as many as one hundred, about half of which are usually rattlesnakes. This kisi (literally, “shade”) is wrapped with a buffalo hide or a canvas to look like a little tipi.
In front of the kisi, a board is placed over a shallow hole called a sipapu or sípàapuni , which is a symbolic hole to the underworld. The board serves as a foot-drum to be stomped upon by the dancers—again mimicking thunder.
Unlike the katsina dances held in the plaza during the spring and early summer, this late summer ceremony lacks the brilliantly colored, variously shaped masks. The dancers’ long hair is worn loose, with a tuft of red feathers on the crown of the head. The upper face is painted charcoal-black; the chin and neck are kaolin-white; the chest, arms, and lower legs are painted red with iron oxide.
A tortoise-shell rattle is tied below the back of the right knee against the calf. A brownish-red cotton kilt displays a painted black snake outlined in white zigzagging horizontally across it. The lower fringe is sometimes decorated with tiny tin cones or antelope hoofs. A red sash hangs from the right hip, and a bandolier sewn with seashells extends from the right shoulder to the left hip. The dancers are also adorned with shell necklaces, turquoise pendants, and Navajo silver jewelry. The dancers wear buckskin moccasins with fringes at the ankles.
‘Hopi Snake Dance’ (1907) by C. W. Wharton James. ( No Copyright Restrictions )
The Antelope dancers do not take an active part in the Snake Dance itself but merely observe, standing in a line in the plaza while shaking rattles made from the scrotums of antelopes and shaking tortoise-shell rattles on their right calf. They have painted their forearms and lower legs ash-gray, and white zigzag lightning-lines extend vertically down their chest as well as down their arms and legs. A painted white line also extends from the corners of the mouth to each ear, and the chin is painted black.
On the preceding day, they danced with cornstalks along with beans and squash vines in their mouths rather than snakes, thereby stressing their agricultural role. One participant in the line of Antelope dancers wears a headband of cottonwood leaves and carries a medicine bowl and aspergillum, or feather-sprinkler, with which he anoints water to the four world-quarters and the Snakes priests themselves.
Front row, Snake dancers near foot-drum, Oraibi, 1898, next row Antelope dancers, one with cottonwood wreath, medicine bowl, and water-sprinkler. Kisi in background. (Author provided)
The line of Snake dancers is divided into a trio of “carrier,” “hugger,” and “gatherer.” The carrier, of course, manipulates the snake, while the hugger follows close behind with his left hand on the carrier’s left shoulder. The hugger’s job is to constantly distract the carrier’s snake with an eagle feather. The gatherer picks up the snake once the carrier has made a circuit around the plaza.
After each of the carriers has made his round, a circle of cornmeal about 20 feet (6.09 meters) in diameter is drawn together with six radial lines - signifying the four inter-cardinal directions plus the zenith and nadir. The snakes are then heaped in the middle while women pour the cornmeal heaped on woven plaques on them. The snakes are finally gathered up and taken out to the four directions where they had been found, bearing with them prayers for precipitation and agronomic bounty. The Snake dancers conclude the ceremony by ingesting an emetic that causes them to vomit over the edge of the mesa. A great feast is then held to celebrate the hopefully successful rain-making and crop-engendering ritual.
Dancers and “handler” followed by “hugger,” Oraibi, 1896. (Author provided)
The Snake society believes that these reptiles are kin—that they are, in fact, their elder brothers. Late 19th century ethnographer and archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes contends that the Snake society (or fraternity) is linked to the historic origin of the Snake Clan.
“…when the proper time comes, the men of the Snake family who have been initiated into the Snake fraternity, and the descendants to whom these prayers, songs, and fetishes were transmitted, assemble, and in order that their work may resemble the ancestral, and thus be more efficacious, they gather the reptiles from the fields, dance with them as of old, personating their ‘mother,’ the Corn and Mist maids, in the kiva dramatization, and at the close of the dance say their prayers in hearing of the reptiles that they may repeat them to higher deities. In other words, they strive to imitate the conditions, as far as possible, which tradition ascribes to that favored place of the Snake people, where corn is plentiful and rain abundant. The worship of a Great Snake plays no part, but the dance is simply the revival of the worship of the Snake people as legends declare it to have practiced when Tiyo was initiated into the mysteries in the world which he visited.”
These historic photos show the Hopi Snake-Antelope Ceremony held every other August. (Author provided)
Hopi legends describe the culture-hero Tiyo (“Youth”), who journeyed in antiquity to the Island of the Serpent People in the Pacific Ocean in order to receive the snake ceremonies for his people and a snake maiden as his bride. Thus, the source of Hopi serpent wisdom was essentially trans-oceanic.
Top image: Left: Hopi snake dancer ( adobegallery) Right: A Hopi male during the annual snake dance and ritual prayers for rain, 1946 (public domain)
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. 650, p. 598.
Edward S. Curtis, Frederick Webb Hodge, editors, The North American Indian: Hopi , Vol. 12 (Norwood, Massachusetts: The Plimpton Press, 1922), p. 135.
Malotki, Hopi Dictionary , op. cit., p. 654, p., 645.
Curtis and Hodge, The North American Indian , op. cit., pp. 144-145.
Weston La Barre, They Shall Take Up Serpents: Psychology of the Southern Snake-Handling Cu lt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969, 1962), p. 100.
Malotki, Hopi Dictionary , op. cit., p. 460, p. 368.
Curtis and Hodge, The North American Indian , op. cit., p. 145.
Parsons quoted by Richard Maitland Bradfield, An Interpretation of Hopi Culture (Derby, England: privately published, 1995), p. 323.
Ibid., pp. 287-288.
Frank Waters and Oswald White Bear Fredericks, Book of the Hopi (New York: Penguin Books, 1977, 1963), p. 291, pp. 222-223. This “foreign language” has been identified as Keresan of either the Acoma or the Zia (Sia) pueblo. Waters mistakenly writes “western horizon” rather than eastern horizon.
Malotki, Hopi Dictionary , op. cit., p. 609.
Mischa Titiev, Old Oraibi: A Study of the Hopi Indians of Third Mesa (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1992, reprint 1944), p. 151.
Bethe Hagen, “Timbre of the Spheres,” http://missionignition.net/bethe/timber_of_the_spheres.php.
John G. Bourke, Snake-Dance of the Moquis: Being a Narrative of a Journey from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Villages of the Moqui Indians of Arizona (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1984, 1884), p. 114. In my previous books I have claimed that the proto-Aztecs were called the Chichimecs (“People of the Dog”), who first lived in the American Southwest, particularly at Chaco Canyon, and later migrated into the Valley of Mexico to become one of the most powerful tribes centered around Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City.
Malotki, Hopi Dictionary , op. cit., p. 142, p. 504.
See Chapter 7, Gary A. David, The Orion Zone: Ancient Star Cities of the American Southwest (Kempton, Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2006), pp. 151-167.
Jesse Walter Fewkes, Hopi Snake Ceremonies (Albuquerque: Avanyu Publishing, Inc., 2000, 1986, reprint of Tusayan snake ceremonies , Sixteenth Annual Report to the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1897), p. 304.
See my article “A Hopi Hero’s Journey: How the Snake Clan Came to Arizona” on the Ancient Origins website, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-americas/hopi-hero-s-journey-how-snake-clan-came-arizona-009125
Event Link: Summer Solstice Chaco Canyon