Hopi Snake Dance, late 19th-early 20th century
(courtesy of U.S. National Archives & Records Administration)
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 mouths.
Unlike ophiolatry (serpent worship), the Snake Dance is a plea for agricultural fertility and rain in a beautiful but harsh desert landscape. 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.
A 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. 2.
A “naga” or “nanaga” was one of many walled sites where Fiji boys entered manhood. Explorer 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.” 3.
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 centers of Mohenjo-Daro and 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. 4.
As masters of arcane wisdom, the Nagas bequeathed to Mesoamerica the concept of nagual-- too complex to explain here but thoroughly delineated in the books by Carlos Castaneda about his tutelage with the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus.
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. 5.
Like Homer’s Odyssey, the story involves a subterranean visit. Paradoxically, the Hopi conceptualize this as a realm of both water and stars. 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 abalone.
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.” 7.
According to the mariner/scholar Thor Heyerdahl, ruling families of the Incas artificially lengthened their earlobes to distinguish themselves vis-à-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’.” 9.
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 (now in Navaho National Monument).
Easter Island may have been another stepping stone in the ancient Hopi 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.” 12.
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 Atlantis or Mu. An Edenic island suddenly disappears beneath the waves in a celestial cataclysm destroying many lives.
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 diffusionists.
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), pp. 287-288.
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.
10. 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.
12. Cyrus H. Gordon, Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1971), pp. 54-67.
an excerpt from The Orion Zone: Ancient Star Cities of the American Southwest
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