Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Native American Serpent Worship

Native American Serpent Worship

The rattlesnake was the species almost exclusively honored by the red race. It is slow to attack, but venomous in the extreme, and possesses the power of the basilisk to attract within reach of its spring small birds and squirrels. Probably this much talked of fascination is nothing more than by its presence near their nests to incite them to attack, and to hazard near and nearer approaches to their enemy in hope to force him to retreat, until once within the compass of his fell swoop they fall victims to their temerity. I have often watched a cat act thus. Whatever explanation may be received, the fact cannot be questioned, and is ever attributed by the unreflecting, to some diabolic spell cast upon them by the animal.[109] They have the same strange susceptibility to the influence of certain sounds as the vipers, in which lies the secret of snake charming. Most of the Indian magicians were familiar with this singularity. They employed it with telling effect to put beyond question their intercourse with the unseen powers, and to vindicate the potency of their own guardian spirits who thus enabled them to handle with impunity the most venomous of reptiles.109-1 The well-known antipathy of these serpents to certain plants, for instance the hazel, which bound around the ankles is an efficient protection against their attacks, and perhaps some antidote to their poison used by the magicians, led to their frequent introduction in religious ceremonies. Such exhibitions must have made a profound impression on the spectators, and redounded in a corresponding degree to the glory of the performer. “Who is a manito?” asks the mystic meda chant of the Algonkins. “He,” is the reply, “he who walketh with a serpent, walking on the ground, he is a manito.”109-2 And the intimate alliance of this symbol with the most sacred mysteries of re[110]ligion, the darkest riddles of the Unknown, is reflected in their language, and also in that of their neighbors the Dakotas, in both of which the same words manitowakan, which express divinity in its broadest sense, are also used as generic terms signifying this species of animals! This strange fact is not without a parallel, for in both Arabic and Hebrew, the word for serpent has many derivatives, meaning to have intercourse with demoniac powers, to practise magic, and to consult familiar spirits.110-1

The pious founder of the Moravian brotherhood, the Count of Zinzendorf, owed his life on one occasion to this deeply rooted superstition. He was visiting a missionary station among the Shawnees, in the Wyoming valley. Recent quarrels with the whites had unusually irritated this unruly folk, and they resolved to make him their first victim. After he had retired to his secluded hut, several of their braves crept upon him, and cautiously lifting the corner of the lodge, peered in. The venerable man was seated before a little fire, a volume of the Scriptures on his knees, lost in the perusal of the sacred words. While they gazed, a huge rattlesnake, unnoticed by him, trailed across his feet, and rolled itself into a coil in the comfortable warmth of the fire. Immediately the would-be murderers forsook their purpose and
[111] noiselessly retired, convinced that this was indeed a man of God.

A more unique trait than any of these is its habit of casting its skin every spring, thus as it were renewing its life. In temperate latitudes the rattlesnake, like the leaves and flowers, retires from sight during the cold season, and at the return of kindly warmth puts on a new and brilliant coat. Its cast-off skin was carefully collected by the savages and stored in the medicine bag as possessing remedial powers of high excellence. Itself thus immortal, they thought it could impart its vitality to them. So when the mother was travailing in sore pain, and the danger neared that the child would be born silent, the attending women hastened to catch some serpent and give her its blood to drink.111-1

It is well known that in ancient art this animal was the symbol of Æsculapius, and to this day, Professor Agassiz found that the Maues Indians, who live between the upper Tapajos and Madeira Rivers in Brazil, whenever they assign a form to any “remedio,” give it that of a serpent.111-2

Probably this notion that it was annually rejuvenated led to its adoption as a symbol of Time among the Aztecs; or, perchance, as they reckoned by suns, and the figure of the sun, a circle, corresponds to nothing animate but a serpent with its tail in its mouth, eating itself, as it were, this may have been its origin. Either of them is more likely than that the symbol arose from the recondite reflection that
[112] time is “never ending, still beginning, still creating, still destroying,” as has been suggested.

Only, however, within the last few years has the significance of the serpent symbol in its length and breadth been satisfactorily explained, and its frequent recurrence accounted for. By a searching analysis of Greek and German mythology, Dr. Schwarz, of Berlin, has shown that the meaning which is paramount to all others in this emblem is the lightning; a meaning drawn from the close analogy which the serpent in its motion, its quick spring, and mortal bite, has to the zigzag course, the rapid flash, and sudden stroke of the electric discharge. He even goes so far as to imagine that by this resemblance the serpent first acquired the veneration of men. But this is an extravagance not supported by more thorough research. He has further shown with great aptness of illustration how, by its dread effects, the lightning, the heavenly serpent, became the god of terror and the opponent of such heroes as Beowulf, St. George, Thor, Perseus, and others, mythical representations of the fearful war of the elements in the thunder storm; how from its connection with the advancing summer and fertilizing showers it bore the opposite character of the deity of fruitfulness, riches, and plenty; how, as occasionally kindling the woods where it strikes, it was associated with the myths of the descent of fire from heaven, and as in popular imagination where it falls it scatters the thunderbolts in all directions, the flint-stones which flash when struck were supposed to be these fragments, and gave rise to the stone worship so frequent in the old world; and how, finally, the prevalent myth of a king of
[113] serpents crowned with a glittering stone or wearing a horn is but another type of the lightning.113-1 Without accepting unreservedly all these conclusions, I shall show how correct they are in the main when applied to the myths of the New World, and thereby illustrate how the red race is of one blood and one faith with our own remote ancestors in heathen Europe and Central Asia.