Native American Legends
Battle with the Snakes
An Iroquois Legend
There was a man who was not kind to animals. One day when he was
hunting, he found a rattlesnake and decided to torture it. He held
its head to the ground and pierced it with a piece of bark. Then
as it was caught there, he tormented it.
"We shall fight," he said and then burned the snake until
it was dead. He thought this was a great jest and so, whenever he
found a snake, he would do the same thing.
One day another man from his village was walking through the forest
when he heard a strange sound. It was louder than the wind hissing
through the tops of tall pine trees. He crept closer to see. There,
in a great clearing, were many snakes. They were gathered for a
war council and as he listened in fright he heard them say:
"We shall now fight with them. Djisdaah has challenged us
and we shall go to war. In four days we shall go to their village
and fight them."
The man crept away and then ran as fast as he could to his village
to tell what he had heard and seen. The chief sent other men to
see if the report was true. They returned in great fright.
"Ahhhh," they said, "it is so. The snakes are all
gathering to have a war."
The chief of the village could see that he had no choice. "We
must fight," he said and ordered the people of the village
to make preparations for the battle. They cut mountains of wood
and stacked it in long piles all around the village. They built
rows of stakes close together to keep the snakes out. When the fourth
day came, the chief ordered that the piles of wood be set on fire.
Just as he did so they heard a great noise, like a great wind in
the trees. It was the noise of the snakes, hissing as they came
to the village to do battle.
Usually a snake will not go near a fire, but these snakes were
determined to have their revenge. They went straight into the flames.
Many of them died, but the living snakes crawled over the bodies
of the dead ones and continued to move forward until they reached
the second row of stakes.
Once again, the chief ordered that the piles of wood in the second
row of defense be set on fire. But the snakes crawled straight into
the flames, hissing their war songs, and the living crawled over
the bodies of the dead. It was a terrible sight. They reached the
second row of stakes and, even though the people fought bravely,
it was no use. The snakes were more numerous than fallen leaves
and they could not be stopped. Soon they forced their way past the
last row of stakes and the people of the village were fighting for
their lives. The first man to be killed was Djisdaah, the one who
had challenged the snakes to battle.
It was now clear that they could never win this battle. The chief
of the village shouted to the snakes who had reached the edge of
the village: "Hear me, my brothers. We surrender to you. We
have done you a great wrong. Have mercy on us."
The snakes stopped where they were and there was a great silence.
The exhausted warriors looked at the great army of snakes and the
snakes stared back at them. Then the earth trembled and cracked
in front of the human beings. A great snake, a snake taller than
the biggest pine tree, whose head was larger than a great long house,
lifted himself out of the hole in the earth.
"Hear me," he said. "I am the chief of all the snakes.
We shall go and leave you in peace if you will agree to two things."
The chief looked at the great snake and nodded his head. "We
will agree, Great Chief," he said. "It is well,"
said the Chief of the Snakes. "These are the two things. First,
you must always treat my people with respect. Secondly, as long
as the world stands, you will never name another man Djisdaah."
And so it was agreed and so it is, even today.
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