Published on August 13, 2013 by Amy
This mythological creature is prominent in the legend of Navaho Windway so it is fitting that the majority of naturalistic snake sandpaintings in collections are of this short, thick, often horned and feathered beast. Moreover, Big Snakes function as guardians in other types of sandpaintings. Besides their horns and feathers signifying power and speed, red spots on their heads symbolize their dangerous venom, and speckled bodies make them more terrifying. All four Big Snakes in a painting may be straight, crooked, or they may be mixed. As in the case of lightning, with which snakes are equated in Navaho thinking, crooked and straight signify male and female (or relative power) . A painting for Striped Windway (guardian snakes with red tongues) is guarded by a crooked black Big Snake (“mother snake of black water with reflections of the moon and arrow points or antelope hoof prints” – Newcomb), giving a truly frightening effect. Lefthanded said that it was so powerful that the patient often died so it went back to the supernaturals and will never be made again.
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Big Snakes, like all other kinds of snakes, have the characteristic body markings symbolic of their dens (squares or rectangles), deer tracks reminiscent of flesh food (chevrons), and phases of the moon (curves). Thirteen different types occur in sixty-six paintings. There seems to be no preferred type for main theme figures, accessory figures, or guardians, except that the smaller snakes (usually guards) are more likely to bear chevrons only. Over half of the examples are simple chevrons, pointed towards or away from the head.
The next most common type consists of the house, deer track behind and pointing to it, and curves following, two like parentheses followed by two resembling parentheses back to back and hooked inside the first. Another is the same but the deer track points away from the house. There are from one to three examples each of the other nine types. Much has been said about certain arrangements of these symbols being characteristic of given chantways, but this variation does not bear this out, unless the different types indicate various branches and phases of the ceremonial, or the recorders have been negligent in attention to these markings. IN connection with these , as well as many other minor variations found in the reproductions, it should be noted that it would doubtless be just such things, relatively insignificant to us but ritually meaningful to the Navajo, that informants would alter to escape the dire consequences of trafficking in these sacred pictures. Collections of reproductions, therefore, are not the best place to study such minutiae, but unfortunately only a handful of observers have had the time or opportunity to witness large numbers of actual sandpaintings made in ceremonials. It is not worthwhile, therefore, to present diagrams of all the variations, which after all may be nothing more than cautious informant’s or negligent artist’s deviations.
The Great Snake is terrible and transforms men into snakes in his anger, but also may be prevailed upon to give a healing ceremony, as in the Wind and Star Chants.