Brownielocks and The 3 Bears
The Hopi Snake Dance is
observed for 16 days in August or the early part of September. (We are
placing it in our August celebrations.)
It is not held annually. It is held every two years. Many believe the Snake Dance worships snakes. That's not true. This entire ceremony is to worship Hopi ancestors and to help bring rain.
(and the details of how it is performed.)
The dance originates to the earliest form of life in the Native American Hopi tribe beliefs. Scholars believe that the dance was originally a water ceremony because snakes were the traditional guardians of springs. Today the dance is primarily a rain ceremony because the Hopi regard snakes as their "brothers" and rely on them to carry their prayers for rain to the underworld (where they believe the gods and spirits of their ancestors live). But, the tourists who come to see the Snake Dance are usually more interested in the spectacle of it, rather than the belief that it has power to influence the weather.
The dance is performed on the last day of the 16-day celebration. It is performed by members of the Snake and Antelope clans from all three of the mesas in Arizona, where the Hopis live. This dance is the grand finale of the 16-days and the start of the Niman Katchina.
Preparations take place during the last 9 days of the period such as making the pahos or prayer sticks (see below), designing the sand paintings (see below), and building the altar around the paintings the will include bowls of water from a sacred spring, green corn stalks, and trailing vines of melons and beans which are all symbolic of the rain that is essential for the survival of the Hopi and their crops.
During the last 4 days, the Snake priests leave their villages to gather snakes, often taking young boys with them. Hope legend says that boys of the Snake clan capture and handle snakes without fear from the time they are born. They stroke the snakes with a feather to make them straighten out their coils (dangerous and implies they will strike). Then they grab the snake behind the head. The priests are usually armed with a digging stick to dig the snakes out of their holes and a snake whip (a rod with two eagle feathers attached).
On the last 2 mornings of the celebration, foot races are held. The runners streak across the plain and up the steep slope of the mesa just before sunrise in a symbolic gesture that represents rain-gods brining water to the village. At one time, these runners were naked with their hair loose to imitate falling rain. Today, they wear underwear and cut their hair short. The winner of the first race gets a ring and a prayer-plume that he plants in his field to ensure a good crop. The second race winner gets a jar of sacred water which he will also pour over his field to bring rain.
On the day the actual dance is held, the snakes (that have been caught by the Snake clan) are washed in a large jar filled with water and herbs and then thrown on a bed of clean sand. Young boys guard the snakes to keep them from escaping. And, they will use their snake whips to stop the snakes from coiling up. The snakes are gathered up in a huge bag. They are carried to the village plaza and placed in a kisi (see below) or snake-shrine.
The big highlight of the Snake Dance Ceremony is when the Snake priests reach into the kisi and grab a snake. They carry the snake first in their hands and then in their mouths!!!
Each priest is accompanied by an attendant who uses the snake whip to prevent the snake from coiling. As the Snake priest and his assistant dance around the plaza, each is followed by a third man called the "gatherer" whose responsibility is to make sure that when the time comes for the dancer to drop the snake, it doesn't go into the crowd. So, at just the right moment, the gatherer touches the snake with his feathered wand, drops meal on it and catches it behind the head. Then he lays it over his arm and goes after another one.
As many as 50 or 60 small whip-snakes, long bull-snakes, and even rattlesnakes can often be seen curling around the gatherers' arms and necks.
Once the bag of snakes is empty, one of the Snake priests makes a large circle of meal on the ground. The gatherers throw all of their snakes into the circle, while the women and girls scatter meal on the wriggling pile of snakes. Then the Snake priests hurry in quickly and scoop up armfuls of snakes and then dash out of the plaza.
The Snake priests carry the snakes off to special shrines where they are released so they can carry the prayers for rain from the mouths of the priests to the underworld (where the rain gods live).
The dance ends with the drinking of an emetic, which makes the dancers vomit and this is believed to purge them of any dangerous snake-charms. With a little luck, dark clouds will form later in the day and rain will come.
Symbols and Customs
The kisi is a shrine that is built to hold the snakes used in the Hope Snake Dance. Four sticks support the shrine (usually cottonwood) that are driven into the ground and tied together at the top to form a cone-shaped structure. It is open on one side and covered with a piece of canvas or animal skin. A one foot deep hole is dug in front of this opening, then a board is laid over the hole. The ground around the kisi is smoothed over until the board is hardly seen. This is the sipapu or symbolic entrance to the underworld (where the spirits and ancestors of the Hopi live).
The kisi goes back to ancient bush shelters that the Hopi ancestors who wandered with no permanent homes lived. When the Hopi changed to being agricultural and needed more permanent housing, they would dig a circular room into the ground, cover it with mud-daubed logs and enter it from above via a ladder. Today, this type of structure serves as their kiva or ceremonial lodge.
Originally, the kiva was as stated above... an underground home with a hole in the ceiling that you could only get into via a ladder. When Hopi Native American Indians first joined together to form villages, they maintained their blood relationships through ceremonies held in the kiva. This established the clans (i.e. Hopi Snake, Hopi Antelope) that are the basic unit of pueblo organization today.
Today the kiva is a ceremonial room that is the center of the clan tribe and religious life. Up until recently, the males were expected to sleep in the kiva until they married.
Modern kivas can be both round or square and built either above or below ground, most of them still retain the basic architectural features: a windowless room entered by a ladder through a hole (serves as a smoke vent for a fire in the center) and a sipapu (hole in the floor) that represents the gateway to the underworld.
All significant clan and pueblo business is conducted in the kiva. And the preliminary rituals for all the Hopi dances take place here.
Pahos or prayer sticks are not very long. They are usually the length of a man's middle finger. One of the sticks will have a flat side known as the "female" stick. The other stick is the "male." Both sides have faces painted on them on one end.
The Hopi legend says that long ago actual human sacrifices were part of the Snake Dance. Today the pathos serve as substitutes for human victims. The Aztecs used images made of dough as symbolic substitutes for human sacrifices to the gods. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this practice was familiar to Native Americans.
The pahos are made by the Antelope priests and the Snake priests on the before the Snake Dance. The male and female sticks are tied together in the center, along with a small bundle of herbs. The sticks are then laid in front of the altar in the kiva in baskets that are tray-shaped. Eventually they are used as offerings to the rain gods as rewards to the winner of the footraces, as well as in the arrangement of symbolic objects that are placed around the sand paintings.
The kiva has this alter that is erected before the Snake Dance. In the center is an elaborate sand painting made of a lot of colored sand. The border is usually made up of bands of red, white, green and yellow that are separated by black lines and represent the cardinal points of north, south, east and west. The rectangular area they enclose can be as large as 3'x4' is filled with rows of semi-circles that are arranged to look like fish scales. These represent rain clouds. The short parallel lines on the border behind them represent falling rain.
The zigzag designs represent lightning are colored yellow, green, red and white and are often shaped like snakes. Each of these lightning symbols has a triangular head with two dots for eyes, parallel bands around the "neck" and one horn attached. The upright sticks set in clay holders and lined up on either side of the sand pictures represent arrows or weapons of war. There also may be other symbolic items arranged around the border as well such as cornstalks and gourds.
Sand paintings are more than a work of art to the Hopi Indians. They symbolize the forces that bring rain to the fields and provide the crops so necessary to the tribe's survival.
Two children around the age of 14 yr. are selected to represent the Snake Youth and Antelope Maid a few days before the Snake Dance takes place.
The girl is dressed in white robes. Her hair is worn loose. She wears a great deal of jewelry also. She holds a ceremonial jar filled with trailing bean and melon vines which symbolize the crops that the tribe needs to flourish.
The boy wears a white kirtle (tunic) and sash. He holds the tiponi (a hollow cottonwood root containing snake rattles, tied with eagle feathers and other birds with symbols representing compass directions.)
Both boy and girl stand at the head of the sand painting while the priests blow ceremonial smoke wreaths, sprinkle meal and water over the painting; and, recite the legend of the Snake Youth and Antelope Maid. This story can take several hours to tell!
The Snake Dance is a form of worshiping the Hopi ancestors and not really snake worship as many believe, the Snake Youth and the Antelope Maid represent the ancestors.
Visit our other Hopi Ceremony Pages!
(Information only. No cartoons except on the Niman Katchina page.)
Return to our August Holidays Page for more celebrations.
Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs 3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2003
Snake animation was public domain.
One of them I reversed but make no copyright claim to.