Published on August 3, 2011 by Amy
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.)
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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.
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.