The Snake Dance has both attracted and repulsed non-Indian spectators since
the late nineteenth century. During this infamous ritual performed every
other August on the Hopi Mesas of Arizona, participants handle a mass of
venomous and non-venomous snakes. Some even put necks and bodies into their
Unlike ophiolatry (serpent worship), the Snake Dance is a plea for
agricultural fertility and rain in a beautiful but harsh desert
Olive Rush "Hopi Snake Dance"
(1925, oil on board)
SI Art Image Browser, Univeristy of Michigan
However, many spectators would be surprised to learn that this bizarre rite
came from India, the traditional land of snake charmers.
An ancient Hopi myth describes a migration from the flooded Third World (or
Era) to the Fourth World. The ancestral Hopi escaped on reed rafts and made
their way to the mouth of the Colorado River, up which they traveled to seek
their final destination upon the Colorado Plateau.
stepping stone on this monumental journey may have been the remote South
Pacific island of Fiji. Here a fertility and youth initiation ceremony
called Baki took place.
1. Its name is similar to the
Hopi term paki, which
means “entered” or “started being initiated.” (Hopi language does not
recognize the ‘b’ sound.) The kiva (subterranean prayer chamber) used during
the Snake Dance is called a pakit.
A “naga” or “nanaga” was one of many walled sites where
Fiji boys entered
David Hatcher Childress writes that “...one of the ancient
races of Southeast Asia is the Nagas, a seafaring race of people who traded
in their ‘Serpent Boats’ similar to the Dragon ships of the Vikings.”
Originating in India,
the Nagas established religious centers throughout the
country, including the Kingdom of Kashi on the Ganges, Kashmir to the north,
and Nagpur in central India. The Nagas also inhabited the great metropolitan
Harrappa in the Indus River Valley. They founded
a port city on the Arabian Sea and exchanged goods globally, using a
universal currency of cowries.
As masters of arcane wisdom, the Nagas bequeathed to Mesoamerica the concept
-- too complex to explain here but thoroughly delineated in the
Carlos Castaneda about his tutelage with the Yaqui sorcerer Don
The Nagas may also have been the Snake People whom the
Hopi culture hero Tiyo met on his epic voyage across the ocean. In the underworld he enters a
room where people wear snake skins. He is initiated into strange
ceremonials, in which he learns rain prayers. After the young man is given a
pair of maidens who sing to help corn grow, he carries them home to the
earth’s surface. The Snake Woman becomes his wife, while the other becomes
the bride of Flute youth. Finally his wife gives birth to reptiles, which
causes Tiyo to leave his family and migrate to another country.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, the story involves a subterranean visit.
Paradoxically, the Hopi conceptualize this as a realm of both water and
Na-ngasohu is the Chasing Star Kachina, who wears a Plains-style
eagle feather headdress and a large four-pointed star painted on his mask. (Kachinas
are spirits in the form of any object, creature, or phenomenon.) Nanga means
“to pursue” and sohu means “star.”
Related to Naga, the Hopi word nga’at means “medicine root” with magical
healing properties. A root is both chthonic and morphologically snake-like.
The term nakwa refers to headdress feathers worn during a sacred ceremony.
6. This plumage suggests the
feathered serpent. Another related word, naqvu’at, means “ear,” and
naaqa refers to “ear pendant,” frequently made of
This jewelry was worn in respectful imitation rather than mere adornment.
Childress describes the so-called Long Ears:
“As tall, bearded navigators of
the world, they were probably a combination of Egyptian, Libyan, Phoenician,
Ethiopian, Greek and Celtic sailors in combination with Indo-Europeans from
the Indian subcontinent. According to Polynesian legend, these sailors also
have the famous ‘long ears’ that are well known on both
Rapa Nui [Easter
Island] and Rarotonga.”
According to the mariner/scholar
Thor Heyerdahl, ruling families of the
Incas artificially lengthened their earlobes to distinguish themselves
vis-ā-vis their subjects.
8. (An earmark indeed! Perhaps
Buddha with his
long earlobes is no coincidence either.)
Author James Bailey believes that these rulers of Peru and some Pacific
islands were Aryan and Semitic peoples originating from the Indus River
Valley. “[Heyerdahl] showed that there lived on Easter Island the survivors
of two distinct populations; the long-ears, a fair or red-headed European
people who used to stretch their ear-lobes with wooden plugs so that they
reached down to their shoulders and a Polynesian group of conventional
Polynesian type, with natural ears. The first people had been known on the
island as ‘long ears’, the second people as ‘short-ears’.”
The former group attained an average height of six-and-a-half feet, and had
white skin with red hair. It may be more than coincidence that the Hopi Fire
Clan were known as the “redheads.” These war-like people lived with the
Snake Clan at Betatakin, a late thirteenth century Arizona cliff dwelling
Navaho National Monument).
Easter Island may have been another stepping stone in the ancient
migration. Some of the tall, long-eared statues called Moai were carved with
red topknots. That Easter Island lies on the same meridian as the current
home of the Hopi may be just another “coincidence.”
Noting the ear-plugs worn by tribes in Tanzania, Bailey comments on the
ubiquity of this artifact: “The ear-plug is itself symptomatic of contact
with sea-people and I believe has a common origin all over the world,
wherever it is found.”
10. One example of this ring-type ear-plug carved
from schist was found in ancient ruins near Phoenix, Arizona.
11. Here we
see artifacts common to both desert and maritime people.
Mythological themes common to disparate cultures also exist. Scholar Cyrus
H. Gordon relates a narrative from the early second millennium B.C. An
Egyptian captain is ship-wrecked on the “island of Ka,” possibly located
near Somalia in the Indian Ocean. (The Hopi ka in
kachina is foreign and
may be related to the Egyptian Ka, or “doppelgänger.”) This paradise abounds
in not only gorgeous birds but also fish, delicious fruits and vegetables.
There’s only one catch. A serpent thirty cubits (forty-five feet) long rules
it. This giant snake has gold plated skin, lapis lazuli eyebrows, and a
beard extending two cubits (three feet).
After the sovereign serpent threatens to incinerate him for remaining
silent, the captain relates how he and his crew were driven there by a
fierce storm. In turn, the king describes his brethren and children, who
once totaled seventy-two. He continues:
“Then a star fell and these
(serpents) went forth in the flame it produced. It chanced I was not with
them when they were burned. I was not among them (but) I just about died for
them, when I found them as one corpse.”
The captain’s boat is then loaded
with fine spices including myrrh, elephant tusks, giraffe tails, and
monkeys. Before allowing him to leave, the king makes this curious remark:
“It will happen that when you depart from this place, this island will never
be seen again, for it will become water.”
Whether or not he had long ears, the tale does not say. However, we may be
witnessing one of the legendary Nagas. Beside the serpentine motif, this
fabulous story contains a theme redolent of
Mu. An Edenic island
suddenly disappears beneath the waves in a celestial cataclysm destroying
Does the Hopi myth of Tiyo’s journey to the Island of Snakes and the
Egyptian myth of the anonymous captain’s journey to the Island of Ka have a
common source? We will never know for certain.
Likewise, we can only speculate on the seventy-two serpents encoded in the
latter myth. This might refer to an astronomical movement of which astute
mariners were undoubtedly aware. Due to the
precession of the equinoxes,
zodiac stars rising on the first day of spring and autumn shift backwards
(currently from Pisces to Aquarius) one degree every seventy-two years. This
is caused by the wobble of the Earth’s axis (its precession) like a spinning
top. In the Egyptian tale the king’s seventy-two relatives were killed by a
falling sidereal event. Hence, the “skyscape” known for a lifetime or more
was overturned, only to be replaced by a slightly altered one.
An isolationist would say that ancient humans lacked the sophisticated
observational skills to recognize a single degree of difference, or that
early civilizations were technologically incapable of crossing oceans. In
fact, many myths contradicting this seem to have been conceived by
I am not suggesting that an elite corps of Old World Whites came to “save”
the scattered bands of “savage” Native Americans, thereby allowing the
latter to flourish. (The cultural genocide in the New World during 16th
through the 19th centuries makes that scenario particularly ironic.) This
view denigrates both cultures, assigning an monolithic imperialism to the
former and an evolutionary inferiority to the latter. In short, this is
racism at its worst.
I am saying that the collective ingenuity of the peoples of North and South
America together with the peoples of Oceania allowed them to sail to distant
lands very early on. Likewise, the peoples of Europe and Asia used the same
ingenuity to land on equally distant shores. The navigational knowledge of
seafarers from all over the globe must have been a common currency. This may
be how a serpent cult from India made it to the high desert of Arizona.
1. David Hatcher Childress, Ancient Tonga & the Lost City of Mu’a (Stelle,
Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996), p. 125.
2. Jesse Walter Fewkes,
Hopi Snake Ceremonies: An eyewitness account by
Jesse Walter Fewkes, Selections from the Bureau of American Ethnology Annual
Reports Nos. 16 and 19 for the year 1894-95 and 1897-98 (Albuquerque: Avanyu
Publishing Inc., 1986) p. 274.
3. Childress, Ancient Tonga, p. 135.
4. Mark Amaru Pinkham, Return of the Serpents of Wisdom (Kempton, Illinois:
Adventures Unlimited Press, 1997), pp. 110-111.
5. Fewkes, Hopi Snake Ceremonies, p. 303.
6. Ekkehart Malotki, editor, Hopi Dictionary: A Hopi-English Dictionary of
the Third Mesa Dialect (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1998),
7. Childress, Ancient Tonga, p. 158.
8. Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island (New York: Pocket
Books, 1966, 1958), p. 340.
9. James Bailey, The God-King & the Titans: The New World Ascendancy in
Ancient Times (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973), pp. 196-198.
Bailey, The God-King & the Titans, p. 186.
11. Franklin Barnett, Dictionary of Prehistoric Indian Artifacts of the
American Southwest (Flagstaff, Arizona: Northland Press, 1974, 1973), p. 51.
Cyrus H. Gordon, Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and
Ancient America (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1971), pp. 54-67.