Native American Legends
The Serpent of the Sea
A Zuni Legend
In the times of our forefathers, under Thunder Mountain was a village
called K'iákime ("Home of the Eagles"). It is now
in ruins; the roofs are gone, the ladders have decayed, the hearths
But when it was all still perfect, and, as it were, new, there
lived in this village a maiden, the daughter of the priest-chief.
She was beautiful, but possessed of this peculiarity of character:
There was a sacred spring of water at the foot of the terrace whereon
stood the town.
We now call it the Pool of the Apaches; but then it was sacred
to Kólowissi (the Serpent of the Sea). Now, at this spring
the girl displayed her peculiarity, which was that of a passion
for neatness and cleanliness of person and clothing. She could not
endure the slightest speck or particle of dust or dirt upon her
clothes or person, and so she spent most of her time in washing
all the things she used and in bathing herself in the waters of
Now, these waters, being sacred to the Serpent of the Sea, should
not have been defiled in this way. As might have been expected,
Kólowissi became troubled and angry at the sacrilege committed
in the sacred waters by the maiden, and he said: "Why does
this maiden defile the sacred waters of my spring with the dirt
of her apparel and the dun of her person? I must see to this."
So he devised a plan by which to prevent the sacrilege and to punish
When the maiden came again to the spring, what should she behold
but a beautiful little child seated amidst the waters, splashing
them, cooing and smiling. It was the Sea Serpent, wearing the semblance
of a child,--for a god may assume any form at its pleasure, you
know. There sat the child, laughing and playing in the water.
The girl looked around in all directions--north, south, east, and
west--but could see no one, nor any traces of persons who might
have brought hither the beautiful little child. She said to herself:
"I wonder whose child this may be! It would seem to be that
of some unkind and cruel mother, who has deserted it and left it
here to perish. And the poor little child does not yet know that
it is left all alone. Poor little thing! I will take it in my arms
and care for it."
The maiden then talked softly to the young child, and took it in
her arms, and hastened with it up the hill to her house, and, climbing
up the ladder, carried the child in her arms into the room where
Her peculiarity of character, her dislike of all dirt or dust,
led her to dwell apart from the rest of her family, in a room by
herself above all of the other apartments.
She was so pleased with the child that when she had got him into
her room she sat down on the floor and played with him, laughing
at his pranks and smiling into his face; and he answered her in
baby fashion with cooings and smiles of his own, so that her heart
became very happy and loving. So it happened that thus was she engaged
for a long while and utterly unmindful of the lapse of time.
Meanwhile, the younger sisters had prepared the meal, and were
awaiting the return of the elder sister.
"Where, I wonder, can she be?" one of them asked.
"She is probably down at the spring," said the old father;
"she is bathing and washing her clothes, as usual, of course!
Run down and call her."
But the younger sister, on going, could find no trace of her at
the spring. So she climbed the ladder to the private room of this
elder sister, and there found her, as has been told, playing with
the little child. She hastened back to inform her father of what
she had seen. But the old man sat silent and thoughtful. He knew
that the waters of the spring were sacred.
When the rest of the family were excited, and ran to behold the
pretty prodigy, he cried out, therefore: "Come back! come back!
Why do you make fools of yourselves? Do you suppose any mother would
leave her own child in the waters of this or any other spring? There
is something more of meaning than seems in all this."
When they again went and called the maiden to come down to the
meal spread for her, she could not be induced to leave the child.
"See! it is as you might expect," said the father. "A
woman will not leave a child on any inducement; how much less her
The child at length grew sleepy. The maiden placed it on a bed,
and, growing sleepy herself, at length lay by its side and fell
asleep. Her sleep was genuine, but the sleep of the child was feigned.
The child became elongated by degrees, as it were, fulfilling some
horrible dream, and soon appeared as an enormous Serpent that coiled
itself round and round the room until it was full of scaly, gleaming
circles. Then, placing its head near the head of the maiden, the
great Serpent surrounded her with its coils, taking finally its
own tail in its mouth.
The night passed, and in the morning when the breakfast was prepared,
and yet the maiden did not descend, and the younger sisters became
impatient at the delay, the old man said: "Now that she has
the child to play with, she will care little for aught else. That
is enough to occupy the entire attention of any woman."
But the little sister ran up to the room and called. Receiving
no answer, she tried to open the door; she could not move it, because
the Serpent's coils filled the room and pressed against it. She
pushed the door with all her might, but it could not be moved. She
again and again called her sister's name, but no response came.
Beginning now to be frightened, she ran to the skyhole over the
room in which she had left the others and cried out for help.
They hastily joined her,--all save the old father,--and together
were able to press the door sufficiently to get a glimpse of the
great scales and folds of the Serpent. Then the women all ran screaming
to the old father. The old man, priest and sage as he was, quieted
them with these words: "I expected as much as this from the
first report which you gave me.
It was impossible, as I then said, that a woman should be so foolish
as to leave her child playing even near the waters of the spring.
But it is not impossible, it seems, that one should be so foolish
as to take into her arms a child found as this one was."
Thereupon he walked out of the house, deliberately and thoughtful,
angry in his mind against his eldest daughter. Ascending to her
room, he pushed against the door and called to the Serpent of the
Sea: "Oh, Kólowissi! It is I, who speak to thee, O Serpent
of the Sea I, thy priest. Let, I pray thee, let my child come to
me again, and I will make atonement for her errors. Release her,
though she has been so foolish, for she is thine, absolutely thine.
But let her return once more to us that we may make atonement to
thee more amply." So prayed the priest to the Serpent of the
When he had done this the great Serpent loosened his coils, and
as he did so the whole building shook violently, and all the villagers
became aware of the event, and trembled with fear.
The maiden at once awoke and cried piteously to her father for
"Come and release me, oh, my father! Come and release me!"
As the coils loosened she found herself able to rise. No sooner
had she done this than the great Serpent bent the folds of his large
coils nearest the doorway upward so that they formed an arch. Under
this, filled with terror, the girl passed. She was almost stunned
with the dread din of the monster's scales rasping past one another
with a noise like the sound of flints trodden under the feet of
a rapid runner, and once away from the writhing mass of coils, the
poor maiden ran like a frightened deer out of the doorway, down
the ladder and into the room below, casting herself on the breast
of her mother.
But the priest still remained praying to the Serpent; and he ended
his prayer as he had begun it, saying: "It shall be even as
I have said; she shall be thine!"
He then went away and called the two warrior priest-chiefs of the
town, and these called together all the other priests in sacred
council. Then they performed the solemn ceremonies of the sacred
rites--preparing plumes, prayer-wands, and offerings of treasure.
After four days of labor, these things they arranged and consecrated
to the Serpent of the Sea. On that morning the old priest called
his daughter and told her she must make ready to take these sacrifices
and yield them up, even with herself,--most precious of them all,--to
the great Serpent of the Sea; that she must yield up also all thoughts
of her people and home forever, and go hence to the house of the
great Serpent of the Sea, even in the Waters of the World. "For
it seems," said he, "to have been your desire to do thus,
as manifested by your actions.
You used even the sacred water for profane purposes; now this that
I have told you is inevitable. Come; the time when you must prepare
yourself to depart is near at hand."
She went forth from the home of her childhood with sad cries, clinging
to the neck of her mother and shivering with terror. In the plaza,
amidst the lamentations of all the people, they dressed her in her
sacred cotton robes of ceremonial, embroidered elaborately, and
adorned her with earrings, bracelets, beads,--many beautiful, precious
They painted her cheeks with red spots as if for a dance; they
made a road of sacred meal toward the Door of the Serpent of the
Sea--a distant spring in our land known to this day as the Doorway
to the Serpent of the Sea--four steps toward this spring did they
mark in sacred terraces on the ground at the western way of the
And when they had finished the sacred road, the old priest, who
never shed one tear, although all the villagers wept sore,--for
the maiden was very beautiful,--instructed his daughter to go forth
on the terraced road, and, standing there, call the Serpent to come
Then the door opened, and the Serpent descended from the high room
where he was coiled, and, without using ladders, let his head and
breast down to the ground in great undulations. He placed his head
on the shoulder of the maiden, and the word was given--the word:
"It is time"--and the maiden slowly started toward the
west, cowering beneath her burden; but whenever she staggered with
fear and weariness and was like to wander from the way, the Serpent
gently pushed her onward and straightened her course.
Thus they went toward the river trail and in it, on and over the
Mountain of the Red Paint; yet still the Serpent was not all uncoiled
from the maiden's room in the house, but continued to crawl forth
until they were past the mountain-- when the last of his length
came forth. Here he began to draw himself together again and to
assume a new shape.
So that ere long his serpent form contracted, until, lifting his
head from the maiden's shoulder, he stood up, in form a beautiful
youth in sacred gala attire! He placed the scales of his serpent
form, now small, under his flowing mantle, and called out to the
maiden in a hoarse, hissing voice: "Let us speak one to the
other. Are you tired, girl?" Yet she never moved her head,
but plodded on with her eyes cast down.
"Are you weary, poor maiden?"--then he said in a gentler
voice, as he arose erect and fell a little behind her, and wrapped
his scales more closely in his blanket--and he was now such a splendid
and brave hero, so magnificently dressed! And he repeated, in a
still softer voice: "Are you still weary, poor maiden?"
At first she dared not look around, though the voice, so changed,
sounded so far behind her and thrilled her wonderfully with its
kindness. Yet she still felt the weight on her shoulder, the weight
of that dreaded Serpent's head; for you know after one has carried
a heavy burden on his shoulder or back, if it be removed he does
not at once know that it is taken away; it seems still to oppress
and pain him. So it was with her; but at length she turned around
a little and saw a young man-a brave and handsome young man.
"May I walk by your side?" said he, catching her eye.
"Why do you not speak with me?"
"I am filled with fear and sadness and shame," said she.
"Why?" asked he. "What do you fear?"
"Because I came with a fearful creature forth from my home,
and he rested his head upon my shoulder, and even now I feel his
presence there," said she, lifting her hand to the place where
his head had rested, even still fearing that it might be there."
"But I came all the way with you," said he, "and
I saw no such creature as you describe."
Upon this she stopped and turned back and looked again at him,
and said: "You came all the way? I wonder where this fearful
being has gone!"
He smiled, and replied: "I know where he has gone."
"Ah, youth and friend, will he now leave me in peace,"
said she, "and let me return to the home of my people?"
"No," replied he, "because he thinks very much of
"Why not? Where is he?"
"He is here," said the youth, smiling, and laying his
hand on his own heart. "I am he."
"You are he?" cried the maiden. Then she looked at him
again, and would not believe him.
"Yea, my maiden, I am he!" said he. And he drew forth
from under his flowing mantle the shriveled serpent scales, and
showed them as proofs of his word. It was wonderful and beautiful
to the maiden to see that he was thus, a gentle being; and she looked
at him long.
Then he said: "Yes, I am he. I love you, my maiden! Will you
not haply come forth and dwell with me? Yes, you will go with me,
and dwell with me, and I will dwell with you, and I will love you.
I dwell not now, but ever, in all the Waters of the World, and in
each particular water. In all and each you will dwell with me forever,
and we will love each other."
Behold! As they journeyed on, the maiden quite forgot that she
had been sad; she forgot her old home, and followed and descended
with him into the Doorway of the Serpent of the Sea and dwelt with
him ever after.
It was thus in the days of the ancients. Therefore the ancients,
no less than ourselves, avoided using springs, except for the drinking
of their water; for to this day we hold the flowing springs the
most precious things on Earth, and therefore use them not for any
profane purposes whatsoever.
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