Some universal tales have variations shared worldwide. Stories carry lessons for young and old. Stories do not always represent reality so much as they teach lessons, values and morals. The following is a very old story told by Cherokee, Seneca, Hindu, and many other people all around the world.
There was a man who was not kind to animals. One day when he was hunting, he found a rattlesnake and decided to torture it. He held its head to the ground and pierced it with a piece of bark. Then as it was caught there, he tormented it.
“We shall fight,” he said and then burned the snake until it was dead. He thought this was a great jest and so, whenever he found a snake, he would do the same thing.
One day another man from his village was walking through the forest when he heard a strange sound. It was louder than the wind hissing through the tops of tall pine trees. He crept closer to see. There, in a great clearing, were many snakes. They were gathered for a war council and as he listened in fright he heard them say:
“We shall now fight with them. Djisdaah has challenged us and we shall go to war. In four days we shall go to their village and fight them.”
The man crept away and then ran as fast as he could to his village to tell what he had heard and seen. The chief sent other men to see if the report was true. They returned in great fright.
“Ahhhh,” they said, “it is so. The snakes are all gathering to have a war.”
The chief of the village could see that he had no choice. “We must fight,” he said and ordered the people of the village to make preparations for the battle. They cut mountains of wood and stacked it in long piles all around the village. They built rows of stakes close together to keep the snakes out. When the fourth day came, the chief ordered that the piles of wood be set on fire. Just as he did so they heard a great noise, like a great wind in the trees. It was the noise of the snakes, hissing as they came to the village to do battle.
Usually a snake will not go near a fire, but these snakes were determined to have their revenge. They went straight into the flames. Many of them died, but the living snakes crawled over the bodies of the dead ones and continued to move forward until they reached the second row of stakes.
Once again, the chief ordered that the piles of wood in the second row of defense be set on fire. But the snakes crawled straight into the flames, hissing their war songs, and the living crawled over the bodies of the dead. It was a terrible sight. They reached the second row of stakes and, even though the people fought bravely, it was no use. The snakes were more numerous than fallen leaves and they could not be stopped. Soon they forced their way past the last row of stakes and the people of the village were fighting for their lives. The first man to be killed was Djisdaah, the one who had challenged the snakes to battle.
It was now clear that they could never win this battle. The chief of the village shouted to the snakes who had reached the edge of the village: “Hear me, my brothers. We surrender to you.
We have done you a great wrong. Have mercy on us.”
The snakes stopped where they were and there was a great silence.
The exhausted warriors looked at the great army of snakes and the snakes stared back at them. Then the earth trembled and cracked in front of the human beings. A great snake, a snake taller than the biggest pine tree, whose head was larger than a great long house, lifted himself out of the hole in the earth
“Hear me,” he said. “I am the chief of all the snakes. We shall go and leave you in peace if you will agree to two things.”
The chief looked at the great snake and nodded his head. “We will agree, Great Chief,” he said.
“It is well,” said the Chief of the Snakes. “These are the two things. First, you must always treat my people with respect. Secondly, as long as the world stands, you will never name another man Djisdaah.”
And so it was agreed and so it is, even today.
One time Ketox, or Coyote, bounded across the prairie and saw Never-Grows-Larger, the smallest snake, sunning on a large, flat rock.
“You are tiny,” Coyote said. “I would never want to be as little as you. Look at me. You should be as big as me.”
Never-Grows-Larger looked Coyote up and down, then flicked a long, forked tongue out and in.
“Let me see your teeth,” Coyote said.
Never-Grows-Larger opened wide to reveal tiny teeth.
“Look at my teeth.” Coyote snarled to reveal big, sharp teeth. “With no effort at all I could bite you in two.”
Never-Grows-Larger flicked a long tongue out and in again.
“Let us bite each other and see who is more powerful,” Coyote said.
“Are you sure?” Never-Grows-Larger asked.
“I accept the challenge.”
Coyote bit hard enough to almost sever Never-Grows-Larger’s head.
Never-Grows-Larger bit Coyote.
“Now I will go just out of sight, then we will call to each other to see how the other fares.” Coyote bounded through the tall grass and lay down out of sight. “Hey!”
“Hey,” Never-Grows-Larger called faintly.
“Hey,” Never-Grows-Larger said even more weakly.
Pleased with success, Coyote repeatedly called and listened to Never-Grows-Larger’s voice grow soft. “I never doubted I would kill that snake,” Coyote whispered.
After a time, Coyote noticed that the snakebite swelled, and the wound started to hurt.
“Hey.” But the sound was not as loud. Soon Coyote’s entire body hurt and swelled up.
“Hey!” Never-Grows-Larger called loud and clear.
“Hey,” Coyote said softly.
“Hey!” Never-Grows-Larger called again.
Coyote did not respond.
Never-Grows-Larger crawled through the grass to Coyote’s side. The animal lay dead.
Never-Grows-Larger left Coyote there, then went back to sunning on the rock.
from Texas Indian Myths and Legends by Jane Archer
From Maine and Nova Scotia to the Rocky Mountains, Indians told stories about the Great Serpent. More than a century ago the serpent was considered to be “a genuine spirit of evil.” Some version of the story of the Great Flood of long ago, as recounted here, is told around the world.
Nanabozho (Nuna-bozo, accented on bozo) was the hero of many stories told by the Chippewa Indians. At one time they lived on the shores of Lake Superior, in what are now the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the province of Ontario.
One day when Nanabozho returned to his lodge after a long journey, he missed his young cousin who lived with him. He called the cousin’s name but heard no answer. Looking around on the sand for tracks, Nanabozho was startled by the trail of the Great Serpent. He then knew that his cousin had been seized by his enemy.
Nanabozho picked up his bow and arrows and followed the track of the serpent. He passed the great river, climbed mountains, and crossed over valleys until he came to the shores of a deep and gloomy lake. It is now called Manitou Lake, Spirit Lake, and also the Lake of Devils. The trail of the Great Serpent led to the edge of the water.
Nanabozho could see, at the bottom of the lake, the house of the Great Serpent. It was filled with evil spirits, who were his servants and his companions. Their forms were monstrous and terrible. Most of them, like their master, resembled spirits. In the centre of this horrible group was the Great Serpent himself, coiling his terrifying length around the cousin of Nanabozho.
The head of the Serpent was red as blood. His fierce eyes glowed like fire. His entire body was armed with hard and glistening scales of every color and shade.
Looking down on these twisting spirits of evil, Nanabozho made up his mind that he would get revenge on them for the death of his cousin.
He said to the clouds, “Disappear!”
And the clouds went out of sight.
“Winds, be still at once!” And the winds became still.
When the air over the lake of evil spirits had become stagnant, Nanabozho said to the sun, “Shine over the lake with all the fierceness you can. Make the water boil.”
In these ways, thought Nanabozho, he would force the Great Serpent to seek the cool shade of the trees growing on the shores of the lake. There he would seize the enemy and get revenge.
After giving his orders, Nanabozho took his bow and arrows and placed himself near the spot where he thought the serpents would come to enjoy the shade. Then he changed himself into the broken stump of a withered tree.
The winds became still, the air stagnant, and the sun shot hot rays from a cloudless sky. In time, the water of the lake became troubled, and bubbles rose to the surface. The rays of the sun had penetrated to the home of the serpents. As the water bubbled and foamed, a serpent lifted his head above the centre of the lake and gazed around the shores. Soon another serpent came to the surface. Both listened for the footsteps of Nanabozho, but they heard him nowhere.
“Nanabozho is sleeping,” they said to one another.
And then they plunged beneath the waters, which seemed to hiss as they closed over the evil spirits.
Not long after, the lake became more troubled. Its water boiled from its very depths, and the hot waves dashed wildly against the rocks on its banks. Soon the Great Serpent came slowly to the surface of the water and moved toward the shore. His blood-red crest glowed. The reflection from his scales was blinding–as blinding as the glitter of a sleet-covered forest beneath the winter sun. He was followed by all the evil spirits. So great was their number that they soon covered the shores of the lake.
When they saw the broken stump of the withered tree, they suspected that it might be one of the disguises of Nanabozho. They knew his cunning. One of the serpents approached the stump, wound his tail around it, and tried to drag it down into the lake. Nanabozho could hardly keep from crying aloud, for the tail of the monster prickled his sides. But he stood firm and was silent.
The evil spirits moved on. The Great Serpent glided into the forest and wound his many coils around the trees. His companions also found shade–all but one. One remained near the shore to listen for the footsteps of Nanabozho.
From the stump, Nanabozho watched until all the serpents were asleep and the guard was intently looking in another direction. Then he silently drew an arrow from his quiver, placed it in his bow, and aimed it at the heart of the Great Serpent. It reached its mark. With a howl that shook the mountains and startled the wild beasts in their caves, the monster awoke. Followed by its terrified companions, which also were howling with rage and terror, the Great Serpent plunged into the water.
At the bottom of the lake there still lay the body of Nanabozho’s cousin. In their fury the serpents tore it into a thousand pieces. His shredded lungs rose to the surface and covered the lake with whiteness.
The Great Serpent soon knew that he would die from his wound, but he and his companions were determined to destroy Nanabozho. They caused the water of the lake to swell upward and to pound against the shore with the sound of many thunders. Madly the flood rolled over the land, over the tracks of Nanabozho, carrying with it rocks and trees. High on the crest of the highest wave floated the wounded Great Serpent. His eyes glared around him, and his hot breath mingled with the hot breath of his many companions.
Nanabozho, fleeing before the angry waters, thought of his Indian children. He ran through their villages, shouting, “Run to the mountaintops! The Great Serpent is angry and is flooding the earth! Run! Run!”
The Indians caught up their children and found safety on the mountains. Nanabozho continued his flight along the base of the western hills and then up a high mountain beyond Lake Superior, far to the north. There he found many men and animals that had escaped from the flood that was already covering the valleys and plains and even the highest hills. Still the waters continued to rise. Soon all the mountains were under the flood, except the high one on which stood Nanabozho.
There he gathered together timber and made a raft. Upon it the men and women and animals with him placed themselves. Almost immediately the mountaintop disappeared from their view, and they floated along on the face of the waters. For many days they floated. At long last, the flood began to subside. Soon the people on the raft saw the trees on the tops of the mountains. Then they saw the mountains and hills, then the plains and the valleys.
When the water disappeared from the land, the people who survived learned that the Great Serpent was dead and that his companions had returned to the bottom of the lake of spirits. There they remain to this day. For fear of Nanabozho, they have never dared to come forth again.
In ancient times, there lived some very large snakes that glittered nearly as bright as the sun. They had two horns on their heads, and they possessed a magic power of attraction. To see one of these snakes was always a bad omen. Whoever tried to escape from one instead ran directly toward the snake and was devoured.
Only a highly skilled medicine man or hunter could kill a two- horned snake. It required a very special medicine or power. The hunter had to shoot his arrow into the seventh stripe of the snake’s skin.
One day a Shawnee Indian youth was held captive by the Cherokees. He was promised his freedom if he could find and kill a horned snake. He hunted for many, many days in caves, over wild mountains, and at last found one high in the Tennessee Mountains.
The Shawnee youth made a large circle of fire by burning pine cones. Then he walked toward the two-horned snake. When it saw the hunter, the snake slowly raised its head. The Shawnee youth shouted, “Freedom or death!”
He then aimed carefully and shot his arrow through the seventh stripe of the horned snake’s skin. Turning quickly, he jumped into the centre of the ring of fire, where he felt safe from the snake.
A stream of poison flowed from the snake, but was stopped by the fire. Because of the Shawnee youth’s bravery, the grateful Cherokees granted him his freedom as they had promised.
Four days later, some of the Cherokees went to the spot where the youth had killed the horned snake. They gathered fragments of snake bones and skin, tying them into a sacred bundle. These they kept carefully for their children and grandchildren, because they believed the sacred bundle would bring good fortune to their tribe.
Also on the same spot, a small lake formed containing black water. Into this water the Cherokee women dipped their twigs used in their basket making. This is how they learned to dye their baskets black, along with other colours.
The Cherokee system was based more on responsibility for wrongful actions than on the notion of “justice” in the western sense of the word. Rather than justice, the Cherokee system was ideal for keeping balance and harmony in the spiritual and social worlds.
One day, some Cherokee children were playing outside, when a rattlesnake crawled out of the grass. They screamed and their mother ran outside. Without thinking, she took a stick and killed it. Her husband was hunting in the mountains. As he was returning homethat night, he heard a strange wailing sound. Looking around, he found himself in the midst of a gathering of rattlesnakes, whose mouths were open and crying. “What is the matter,” the man asked the snakes.
The rattlesnakes responded, “Your wife killed our chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake today. We are preparing to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge.” The husband immediately accepted their claim and took responsibility for the crime.
The rattlesnakes said, “If you speak the truth, you must be ready to make satisfaction.” The price they demanded was the life of his wife in sacrifice for that of their chief. Not knowing what else might occur, the man consented. The rattlesnakes told the man that the Black Rattlesnake would follow him home and coil up outside his door. He was to ask his wife to bring him a fresh drink of water from the spring. That was all. When the man reached home, it was very dark.
His wife had supper waiting for him. “Please bring me some water,” he asked her. She brought him a gourd from the jar, but he refused it.
“No,” he said. “I would like some fresh water from the spring.” His wife took a bowl and stepped outside to get him some fresh water. The man immediately heard her cry. He went outside and found the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead. The Black Rattlesnake then crawled out of the grass. “My tribe is now satisfied,” he told the husband.
He then taught the man a prayer song. The Black Rattlesnake told him, “When you meet any of us here after, sing this song and we will not hurt you. If by accident one of us should bite you, sing this song over the person and he will recover.”
And the Cherokee have kept this song to this day.
The Longhouse Society in Kahnewake has announced the Ohki:we for the year. This is an annual celebration to honor “those who have gone before us” by celebrating the entire night with them. The evening begins before sundown with traditional songs. After giving of gifts, the feasting begins and then social dancing continues until just before dawn when the morning songs conclude. (I was happy to see a note in this article which said that out of respect for those who have health problems, smoking inside the Longhouse is not considered acceptable unless ceremonial in nature.)
Legend of the First Ohki:we
There was a time when the earth was still new and was inhabited by great serpents. For a period of time there was peace between the serpents and the humans. There arose among these serpents one who decided that it would be the leader of all life on earth. A battle broke out between the serpents and the humans. Because of their tremendous size and power, the serpents were able to move about, easily destroying the villages of the humans and killing many.
As word of this fighting spread to the other villages, the people became afraid for their lives. Some decided to flee to other areas while others set about trying to create defense to protect themselves. as this fighting went on, more and more villages were destroyed and more people were killed. A great panic took hold of the people.
Word spread to other villages that the leaders were to gather to council to try to find a way to destroy these serpents. The leaders and their people journeyed to the meeting site and gathered together to see if there was a plan they could devise which could protect them. For days the people met. No one seemed able to come up with a plan to defeat the serpents. y It happened one night that a young boy and girl were given a dream in which the spirits of many of the people who had been killed spoke to them. The told the two young ones “We have learned of a way to destroy these serpents. Through our working together there will be enough power to bring them to an end. In the morning when you rise, gather the people together and explain what we are going to tell you. We will show you a ceremony which can be used to bridge the gap between our worlds. When the people gather together they are to burn tobacco; they are to call our attention. When we hear this, we will prepare ourselves to journey back to your world. The only way for us to journey from this place to yours and not get lost in between is if the people sing a song which will guide us to the place you have gathered.”
They gave this song to the two young people. “It is most important that the women join with the men in singing this song. The women have a voice that is high and of good quality which can guide us to the place you have gathered. The secret in defeating these serpents lies in our joining together again as families to work together to bring about their end.”
The next morning the two young people approached the people and told them what they had been instructed to do. Together they sang the songs they were given the night before. The people prepared themselves for this ceremony. The young people were told in their dreams that the journey from the other side is long and when the people arrive they will be hungry. They asked that their relatives prepare food for them. They were to join together to partake of this food before they went to battle with the serpent.
Over the next few days, the people made their preparations for this ceremony. Those who were singers sat with the young people to learn the music they had been given. The others busied themselves preparing foods and preparing the site for the ceremony to happen.
Finally the time came when they were ready. As the sun set the speaker stepped forward. He burned tobacco and called to the ones who had gone ahead of the people to return and join the relatives they left behind because their assistance was greatly needed.
When the speaker finished, the singers began the songs and as the voices of the women raised up into the sky, those who had gone ahead could hear this sweet beautiful music of their relatives and they began journeying toward the sound. As those who had gone on before drew nearer, a cold chill covered the area. As the chill moved across the land, fog rose up and the people had to add more wood to the fire to keep warm. They continued to sing. As they sand they realized they were joined by the ones who had gone on before.
Here and there people caught glimpses of loved ones who had gone on ahead out of the corner of their eyes. The people could feel the power of those who came to join them. When the music was finished words of acknowledgement were spoken welcoming those who had returned and the feast began.
So it was that the man who had been chosen to be the speaker stood up and spoke in a voice that was not his own. “Relatives our time here is short, we can remain with you only until the first light of day. The work we must do must be carried out now. We know the place where the leader of the great serpents lives and we must journey there together. We who have gone on ahead can enter into his body but it is not enough. You must also attack him from outside. In this way we can bring about his end. We must move quickly and we must move now.”
All who had gathered together journeyed to the place where the leader of the serpents lived. Because of his size he had chosen a place with a large valley so he would have plenty of room to rest when he returned from attacking the villages.
When they arrived there, he was sleeping. They approached quietly. As they approached, the people could see other beings had joined them. These other beings had not agreed to the leadership of the serpent.
Across the field they saw wolves running, headed to the same place they were going. Above them they could hear the wings of birds flying, headed to this same place. Here and there they caught sight of bears as they moved towards the same place. The people came to understand that his serpent was not solely a threat to them. The serpent’s ambition was a threat to all the beings of the earth.
As they looked about the valley they could now see that the serpent was surrounded by all the different beings and themselves. It must have been that the serpent sensed the presence of all the beings because he suddenly awoke. As he opened his mouth to speak the people saw a white cloud stream forth into his mouth and the serpent began to thrash about. He howled in pain. The people realized that the ones who had gone before had entered the serpent. They knew this was their signal to attack.
All the people together with all the other beings who had gathered there rushed the great serpent. The great serpent continued to fight and thrash about in his own defense. In its thrashing it crushed many humans, animals and birds. Finally, they defeated it.
As it breathed its last breath the white cloud reappeared and came out of its mouth. The speaker turned to the people and spoke again in a voice not his own, “We have accomplished a great thing here. Your grandfathers will be coming soon with the daylight and they will attack the remainder of the serpents. With their leader gone their power will be broken and they will be driven underground. We have to leave now and return to the place we now live. Again we need your assistance. We would like one last dance with you while we are here. One last time to hear the songs you were given before we start our journey back. If in the future, such treats should ever arise again, we would be prepared to come again to help you. Many of us now realize how much we have missed you and we know many of you miss us. We think it would be appropriate that at least once a year we visit with each other for at least one night. You have felt and seen the cold we travel on.”
The people agreed that his would be a good thing. It was true for many of them that they had missed those who had gone on ahead. This would give them something to look forward to. It would ease the pain for the loss of their loved ones knowing there would be a coming together for at least one night each year. All the people gathered together for the final songs. They joined together their spirits and their voices and in this way they helped the ones who had gone before to start their journey on the sky road home.
As the eldest brother rose in the east they saw to the west a great gathering of clouds take shape and one of the people said “Look, our grandfathers are gathering to chase the serpents”. As they watched, the grandfathers moved across the land sending powerful bolts of lightning, striking the serpents whenever they were. The serpents were hit with such force that they were pushed underground. Even the place where the great serpent lay was covered by the dust of the grandfathers were picking up with their breath. Soon there was no visible sign of the great serpent. All that remained was a huge hill that now filled the valley where he liked to rest.
The people returned to their villages, free and content that this terrible time was now over. since that time, just before winter’s end , the people gather together and invite those who have gone on ahead to return for one night. This is a night of joy and sorrow. It is a time for us to gather and to honour and to respect those who have gone on ahead of us. In each spring the grandfathers return from the west with their purifying and energizing rains. The power of their lightning still holds the serpents underground so they can never return to the surface and terrorize the earth again. From time to time some of you on earth will be picked to carry on the work of preparing for the feast. Some of you will be chosen to sing, some will be chosen to speak, some will be chosen to be helpers who will carry the duty of remembering the songs and preparing the foods and gathering the people together for this time.
In the times of our forefathers, under Thunder Mountain was a village called K’i·kime (“Home of the Eagles”). It is now in ruins; the roofs are gone, the ladders have decayed, the hearths grown cold.
But when it was all still perfect, and, as it were, new, there lived in this village a maiden, the daughter of the priest-chief. She was beautiful, but possessed of this peculiarity of character: There was a sacred spring of water at the foot of the terrace whereon stood the town.
We now call it the Pool of the Apaches; but then it was sacred to KÛlowissi (the Serpent of the Sea). Now, at this spring the girl displayed her peculiarity, which was that of a passion for neatness and cleanliness of person and clothing. She could not endure the slightest speck or particle of dust or dirt upon her clothes or person, and so she spent most of her time in washing all the things she used and in bathing herself in the waters of this spring.
Now, these waters, being sacred to the Serpent of the Sea, should not have been defiled in this way. As might have been expected, KÛlowissi became troubled and angry at the sacrilege committed in the sacred waters by the maiden, and he said: “Why does this maiden defile the sacred waters of my spring with the dirt of her apparel and the dun of her person? I must see to this.” So he devised a plan by which to prevent the sacrilege and to punish its author.
When the maiden came again to the spring, what should she behold but a beautiful little child seated amidst the waters, splashing them, cooing and smiling. It was the Sea Serpent, wearing the semblance of a child,–for a god may assume any form at its pleasure, you know. There sat the child, laughing and playing in the water.
The girl looked around in all directions–north, south, east, and west–but could see no one, nor any traces of persons who might have brought hither the beautiful little child. She said to herself: “I wonder whose child this may be! It would seem to be that of some unkind and cruel mother, who has deserted it and left it here to perish. And the poor little child does not yet know that it is left all alone. Poor little thing! I will take it in my arms and care for it.”
The maiden then talked softly to the young child, and took it in her arms, and hastened with it up the hill to her house, and, climbing up the ladder, carried the child in her arms into the room where she slept.
Her peculiarity of character, her dislike of all dirt or dust, led her to dwell apart from the rest of her family, in a room by herself above all of the other apartments. She was so pleased with the child that when she had got him into her room she sat down on the floor and played with him, laughing at his pranks and smiling into his face; and he answered her in baby fashion with cooings and smiles of his own, so that her heart became very happy and loving. So it happened that thus was she engaged for a long while and utterly unmindful of the lapse of time.
Meanwhile, the younger sisters had prepared the meal, and were awaiting the return of the elder sister. “Where, I wonder, can she be?” one of them asked. “She is probably down at the spring,” said the old father; “she is bathing and washing her clothes, as usual, of course! Run down and call her.”
But the younger sister, on going, could find no trace of her at the spring. So she climbed the ladder to the private room of this elder sister, and there found her, as has been told, playing with the little child. She hastened back to inform her father of what she had seen. But the old man sat silent and thoughtful. He knew that the waters of the spring were sacred.
When the rest of the family were excited, and ran to behold the pretty prodigy, he cried out, therefore: “Come back! come back! Why do you make fools of yourselves? Do you suppose any mother would leave her own child in the waters of this or any other spring? There is something more of meaning than seems in all this.” When they again went and called the maiden to come down to the meal spread for her, she could not be induced to leave the child.
“See! it is as you might expect,” said the father. “A woman will not leave a child on any inducement; how much less her own.”
The child at length grew sleepy. The maiden placed it on a bed, and, growing sleepy herself, at length lay by its side and fell asleep. Her sleep was genuine, but the sleep of the child was feigned. The child became elongated by degrees, as it were, fulfilling some horrible dream, and soon appeared as an enormous Serpent that coiled itself round and round the room until it was full of scaly, gleaming circles. Then, placing its head near the head of the maiden, the great Serpent surrounded her with its coils, taking finally its own tail in its mouth.
The night passed, and in the morning when the breakfast was prepared, and yet the maiden did not descend, and the younger sisters became impatient at the delay, the old man said: “Now that she has the child to play with, she will care little for aught else. That is enough to occupy the entire attention of any woman.”
But the little sister ran up to the room and called. Receiving no answer, she tried to open the door; she could not move it, because the Serpent’s coils filled the room and pressed against it. She pushed the door with all her might, but it could not be moved. She again and again called her sister’s name, but no response came. Beginning now to be frightened, she ran to the skyhole over the room in which she had left the others and cried out for help.
They hastily joined her,–all save the old father,–and together were able to press the door sufficiently to get a glimpse of the great scales and folds of the Serpent. Then the women all ran screaming to the old father. The old man, priest and sage as he was, quieted them with these words: “I expected as much as this from the first report which you gave me.
It was impossible, as I then said, that a woman should be so foolish as to leave her child playing even near the waters of the spring. But it is not impossible, it seems, that one should be so foolish as to take into her arms a child found as this one was.”
Thereupon he walked out of the house, deliberately and thoughtful, angry in his mind against his eldest daughter. Ascending to her room, he pushed against the door and called to the Serpent of the Sea: “Oh, KÛlowissi! It is I, who speak to thee, O Serpent of the Sea I, thy priest. Let, I pray thee, let my child come to me again, and I will make atonement for her errors. Release her, though she has been so foolish, for she is thine, absolutely thine. But let her return once more to us that we may make atonement to thee more amply.” So prayed the priest to the Serpent of the Sea. When he had done this the great Serpent loosened his coils, and as he did so the whole building shook violently, and all the villagers became aware of the event, and trembled with fear.
The maiden at once awoke and cried piteously to her father for help. “Come and release me, oh, my father! Come and release me!” she cried.
As the coils loosened she found herself able to rise. No sooner had she done this than the great Serpent bent the folds of his large coils nearest the doorway upward so that they formed an arch. Under this, filled with terror, the girl passed. She was almost stunned with the dread din of the monster’s scales rasping past one another with a noise like the sound of flints trodden under the feet of a rapid runner, and once away from the writhing mass of coils, the poor maiden ran like a frightened deer out of the doorway, down the ladder and into the room below, casting herself on the breast of her mother.
But the priest still remained praying to the Serpent; and he ended his prayer as he had begun it, saying: “It shall be even as I have said; she shall be thine!” He then went away and called the two warrior priest-chiefs of the town, and these called together all the other priests in sacred council. Then they performed the solemn ceremonies of the sacred rites–preparing plumes, prayer-wands, and offerings of treasure.
After four days of labor, these things they arranged and consecrated to the Serpent of the Sea. On that morning the old priest called his daughter and told her she must make ready to take these sacrifices and yield them up, even with herself,–most precious of them all,–to the great Serpent of the Sea; that she must yield up also all thoughts of her people and home forever, and go hence to the house of the great Serpent of the Sea, even in the Waters of the World. “For it seems,” said he, “to have been your desire to do thus, as manifested by your actions. You used even the sacred water for profane purposes; now this that I have told you is inevitable. Come; the time when you must prepare yourself to depart is near at hand.”
She went forth from the home of her childhood with sad cries, clinging to the neck of her mother and shivering with terror. In the plaza, amidst the lamentations of all the people, they dressed her in her sacred cotton robes of ceremonial, embroidered elaborately, and adorned her with earrings, bracelets, beads,–many beautiful, precious things.
They painted her cheeks with red spots as if for a dance; they made a road of sacred meal toward the Door of the Serpent of the Sea–a distant spring in our land known to this day as the Doorway to the Serpent of the Sea–four steps toward this spring did they mark in sacred terraces on the ground at the western way of the plaza. And when they had finished the sacred road, the old priest, who never shed one tear, although all the villagers wept sore,–for the maiden was very beautiful,–instructed his daughter to go forth on the terraced road, and, standing there, call the Serpent to come to her.
Then the door opened, and the Serpent descended from the high room where he was coiled, and, without using ladders, let his head and breast down to the ground in great undulations. He placed his head on the shoulder of the maiden, and the word was given–the word: “It is time”–and the maiden slowly started toward the west, cowering beneath her burden; but whenever she staggered with fear and weariness and was like to wander from the way, the Serpent gently pushed her onward and straightened her course.
Thus they went toward the river trail and in it, on and over the Mountain of the Red Paint; yet still the Serpent was not all uncoiled from the maiden’s room in the house, but continued to crawl forth until they were past the mountain–when the last of his length came forth. Here he began to draw himself together again and to assume a new shape.
So that ere long his serpent form contracted, until, lifting his head from the maiden’s shoulder, he stood up, in form a beautiful youth in sacred gala attire! He placed the scales of his serpent form, now small, under his flowing mantle, and called out to the maiden in a hoarse, hissing voice: “Let us speak one to the other. Are you tired, girl?” Yet she never moved her head, but plodded on with her eyes cast down.
“Are you weary, poor maiden?”– then he said in a gentler voice, as he arose erect and fell a little behind her, and wrapped his scales more closely in his blanket–and he was now such a splendid and brave hero, so magnificently dressed! And he repeated, in a still softer voice: “Are you still weary, poor maiden?”
At first she dared not look around, though the voice, so changed, sounded so far behind her and thrilled her wonderfully with its kindness. Yet she still felt the weight on her shoulder, the weight of that dreaded Serpent’s head; for you know after one has carried a heavy burden on his shoulder or back, if it be removed he does not at once know that it is taken away; it seems still to oppress and pain him. So it was with her; but at length she turned around a little and saw a young man-a brave and handsome young man.
“May I walk by your side?” said he, catching her eye. “Why do you not speak with me?” “I am filled with fear and sadness and shame,” said she. “Why?” asked he. “What do you fear?”
“Because I came with a fearful creature forth from my home, and he rested his head upon my shoulder, and even now I feel his presence there,” said she, lifting her hand to the place where his head had rested, even still fearing that it might be there.”
“But I came all the way with you,” said he, “and I saw no such creature as you describe.”
Upon this she stopped and turned back and looked again at him, and said: “You came all the way? I wonder where this fearful being has gone!”
He smiled, and replied: “I know where he has gone.”
“Ah, youth and friend, will he now leave me in peace,” said she, “and let me return to the home of my people?”
“No,” replied he, “because he thinks very much of you.”
“Why not? Where is he?”
“He is here,” said the youth, smiling, and laying his hand on his own heart. “I am he.”
“You are he?” cried the maiden. Then she looked at him again, and would not believe him.
“Yea, my maiden, I am he!” said he. And he drew forth from under his flowing mantle the shriveled serpent scales, and showed them as proofs of his word. It was wonderful and beautiful to the maiden to see that he was thus, a gentle being; and she looked at him long.
Then he said: “Yes, I am he. I love you, my maiden! Will you not haply come forth and dwell with me? Yes, you will go with me, and dwell with me, and I will dwell with you, and I will love you. I dwell not now, but ever, in all the Waters of the World, and in each particular water. In all and each you will dwell with me forever, and we will love each other.”
Behold! As they journeyed on, the maiden quite forgot that she had been sad; she forgot her old home, and followed and descended with him into the Doorway of the Serpent of the Sea and dwelt with him ever after.
It was thus in the days of the ancients. Therefore the ancients, no less than ourselves, avoided using springs, except for the drinking of their water; for to this day we hold the flowing springs the most precious things on earth, and therefore use them not for any profane purposes whatsoever. Thus shortens my story.
Frank Hamilton Cushing, Zuni Folk Tales, 1901
Long ago, in that far-off happy time when the world was new, and there were no white people at all, only Indians and animals, there was a snake who was different from other snakes. He had feet-big feet. And the other snakes, because he was different, hated him, and made life wretched for him. Finally, they drove him away from the country where the snakes lived, saying, “A good long way from here live other ugly creatures with feet like yours. Go and live with them!” And the poor, unhappy Snake had to go away.
For days and days, he traveled. The weather grew cold and food became hard to find. At last, exhausted, his feet cut and frostbitten, he lay down on the bank of a river to die.
The Deer, E-se-ko-to-ye, looked out of a willow thicket, and saw the Snake lying on the river bank. Pitying him, the deer took the Snake into his own lodge and gave him food and medicine for his bleeding feet.
The Deer told the Snake that there were indeed creatures with feet like his who would befriend him, but that some among these would be enemies whom it would be necessary to kill before he could reach safety.
He showed the Snake how to make a shelter for protection from the cold and taught him how to make moccasins of deerskin to protect his feet. And at dawn the Snake continued his journey.
The sun was far down the western sky, and it was bitter cold when the Snake made camp the next night. As he gathered boughs for a shelter, Kais-kap the porcupine appeared. Shivering, the Porcupine asked him, “Will you give me shelter in your lodge for the night?”
The Snake said, “It’s very little that I have, but you are welcome to share it.”
“I am grateful,” said Kais-kap, “and perhaps I can do something for you. Those are beautiful moccasins, brother, but they do not match your skin. Take some of my quills, and make a pattern on them, for good luck.” So they worked a pattern on the moccasins with the porcupine quills, and the Snake went on his way again.
As the Deer had told him, he met enemies. Three times he was challenged by hostile Indians, and three times he killed his adversary.
At last he met an Indian who greeted him in a friendly manner. The Snake had no gifts for this kindly chief, so he gave him the moccasins. And that, so the old Ones say, was how our people first learned to make moccasins of deerskin, and to ornament them with porcupine quills in patterns, like those on the back of a snake. And from that day on the Snake lived in the lodge of the chief, counting his coup of scalps with the warriors by the Council fire and, for a long time, was happy.
But the chief had a daughter who was beautiful and kind, and the Snake came to love her very much indeed. He wished that he were human, so that he might marry the maiden, and have his own lodge. He knew there was no hope of this unless the High Gods, the Above Spirits took pity on him, and would perform a miracle on his behalf.
So he fasted and prayed for many, many days. But all his fasting and praying had no result, and at last the Snake came very ill.
Now, in the tribe, there was a very highly skilled Medicine Man. Mo’ki-ya was an old man, so old that he had seen and known, and understood, everything that came within the compass of his people’s lives, and many things that concerned the Spirits. Many times, his lodge was seen to sway with the Ghost Wind, and the voices of those long gone on to the Sand Hills spoke to him.
Mo’ki-ya came to where the Snake lay in the chief’s lodge, and sending all the others away, asked the Snake what his trouble was.
“It is beyond even your magic,” said the Snake, but he told Mo’ki-ya about his love for the maiden, and his desire to become a man so that he could marry her.
Mo’ki-ya sat quietly thinking for a while. Then he said, “I shall go on a journey, brother. Perhaps my magic can help, perhaps not. We shall see when I return.” And he gathered his medicine bundles and disappeared.
It was a long and fearsome journey that Mo’ki-ya made. He went to the shores of a great lake. He climbed a high mountain, and he took the matter to Nato’se, the Sun himself.
And Nato’se listened, for this man stood high in the regard of the spirits, and his medicine was good. He did not ask, and never had asked, for anything for himself, and to transform the Snake into a brave of the tribe was not a difficult task for the High Gods. The third day after the arrival of Mo’ki-ya at the Sun’s abode, Nato’se said to him, “Return to your own lodge Mo’ki-ya, and build a fire of small sticks. Put many handfuls of sweet-grass on the fire, and when the smoke rises thickly, lay the body of the Snake in the middle of it.”
And Mo’ki-ya came back to his own land.
The fire was built in the center of the Medicine lodge, as the Sun had directed, and when the sweetgrass smoldered among the embers, sending the smoke rolling in great billows through the tepee, Mo’ki-ya gently lifted the Snake, now very nearly dead, and placed him in the fire so that he was hidden by the smoke.
The Medicine-drum whispered softly in the dusk of the lodge: the chant of the old men grew a little louder, and then the smoke obscuring the fire parted like a curtain, and a young man stepped out.
Great were the rejoicings in the camp that night. The Snake, now a handsome young brave, was welcomed into the tribe with the ceremonies befitting the reception of one shown to be high in the favour of the spirits. The chief gladly gave him his daughter, happy to have a son in law of such distinction.
Many brave sons and beautiful daughters blessed the lodge of the Snake and at last, so the Old ones say, his family became a new tribe: the Pe-sik-na-ta-pe, or Snake Indians.
The Little Boy and The Rattlesnake
The little boy was walking down a path and he came across a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake was getting old. He asked, “Please little boy, can you take me to the top of the mountain? I hope to see the sunset one last time before I die.” The little boy answered “No Mr. Rattlesnake. If I pick you up, you’ll bite me and I’ll die.” The rattlesnake said, “No, I promise. I won’t bite you. Just please take me up to the mountain.” The little boy thought about it and finally picked up that rattlesnake and took it close to his chest and carried it up to the top of the mountain.
They sat there and watched the sunset together. It was so beautiful. Then after sunset the rattlesnake turned to the little boy and asked, “Can I go home now? I am tired, and I am old.” The little boy picked up the rattlesnake and again took it to his chest and held it tightly and safely. He came all the way down the mountain holding the snake carefully and took it to his home to give him some food and a place to sleep. The next day the rattlesnake turned to the boy and asked, “Please little boy, will you take me back to my home now? It is time for me to leave this world, and I would like to be at my home now.” The little boy felt he had been safe all this time and the snake had kept his word, so he would take it home as asked.
He carefully picked up the snake, took it close to his chest, and carried him back to the woods, to his home to die. Just before he laid the rattlesnake down, the rattlesnake turned and bit him in the chest. The little boy cried out and threw the snake upon the ground. “Mr. Snake, why did you do that? Now I will surely die!” The rattlesnake looked up at him and grinned, “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”