Native American Legends
The Snake Tribe
A Cherokee Legend
The generic name for snakes is indädû'. They are all
regarded as anida'wehï, "supernaturals," having an
intimate connection with the rain and thunder gods, and possessing
a certain influence over the other animal and plant tribes. It is
said that the snakes, the deer, and the ginseng act as allies, so
that an injury to one is avenged by all. The feeling toward snakes
is one of mingled fear and reverence, and every precaution is taken
to avoid killing or offending one, especially the rattlesnake. He
who kills a snake. will soon see others; and should he kill a second
one, so many will come around him whichever way he may turn that
he will become dazed at the sight of their glistening eyes and darting
tongues and will go wandering about like a crazy man, unable to
find his way out of the woods. To guard against this misfortune
there are certain prayers which the initiated say in order that
a snake may not cross their path, and on meeting the first one of
the season the hunter humbly begs of him, "Let us not see each
other this summer." Certain smells, as that of the wild parsnip,
and certain songs, as those of the Unika'wï or Townhouse dance,
are offensive to the snakes and make them angry. For this reason
the Unika'wï is held only late in the fall, after they have
retired to their dens for the winter.
When one dreams of being bitten by a snake he must be treated the
same as for an actual bite, because it is a snake ghost that has.
bitten him; otherwise the place will swell and ulcerate in the same
way, even though it be years afterwards. For fear of offending them,
even in speaking, it is never said that a man has been bitten by
a snake, but only that he has been "scratched by a brier."
Most of the beliefs and customs in this connection have more special
reference to the rattlesnake.
The rattlesnake is called utsa'nätï which may be rendered,
"he has a bell," alluding to the rattle. According to
a myth given elsewhere, he was once a man, and was transformed to
his present shape that he might save the human race from extermination
by the Sun, a mission which he accomplished successfully after others
had failed. By the old men he is also spoken of as "the Thunder's
necklace" and to kill one is to destroy one of the most prized
ornaments of the thunder god. In one of the formulas addressed to
the Little Men, the sons of the Thunder, they are implored to take
the disease snake to themselves, because "it is just what you
adorn yourselves with."
For obvious reason the rattlesnake is regarded as the chief of
the snake tribe and is feared and. respected accordingly. Few Cherokee
will venture to kill one except under absolute necessity, and even
then the crime must be atoned for by asking pardon of the snake
ghost, either in person or through the mediation of a priest, according
to a set formula. Otherwise the relatives of the dead snake will
send one of their number to track up the offender and bite him so
that he will die. The only thing of which the rattlesnake is afraid
is said to be the plant known as campion, or "rattlesnake's
master" (Silene stellata), which is used by the doctors to
counteract the effect of the bite, and it is believed that a snake
will flee in terror from the hunter who carries a small piece of
the root about his person. Chewed linn bark is also applied to the
bite, perhaps from the supposed occult connection between the snake
and the thunder, as this tree is said to be immune from the lightning
Notwithstanding the fear of the rattlesnake, his rattles, teeth,
flesh, and oil are greatly prized for occult or medical uses, the
snakes being killed for this purpose by certain priests who know
the necessary rites and formulas for obtaining pardon. This device
for whipping the devil around the stump, and incidentally increasing
their own revenues, is a common trick of Indian medicine men. Outsiders
desiring to acquire this secret knowledge are discouraged by being
told that it is a dangerous thing to learn, for the reason that
the new initiate is almost certain to be bitten, in order that the
snakes may "try" him to know if he has correctly learned
the formula. When a rattlesnake is killed the head must be cut off
and buried an arm's length deep in the ground and the body carefully
hidden away in a hollow log. If it is left exposed to the weather,
the angry snakes will send such torrents of rain that all the streams
will overflow their banks. Moreover, they will tell their friends,
the deer, and the ginseng in the mountains, so that these will hide
themselves and the hunters will seek them in vain.
The tooth of a rattlesnake which has been killed by the priest
with the proper ceremonies while the snake was lying stretched out
from east to west is used to scarify patients preliminary to applying
the medicine in certain ailments. Before using it the doctor holds
it between the thumb and finger of his right hand and addresses
it in a prayer, at the end of which the tooth "becomes alive,"
when it is ready for the operation. The explanation is that the
tense, nervous grasp of the doctor causes his hand to twitch and
the tooth to move slightly between his fingers. The rattles are
worn on the head, and sometimes a portion of the flesh is eaten
by ball players to make them more terrible to their opponents, but
it is said to have the bad effect of making them cross to their
wives. From the lower half of the body, thought to be the fattest
portion, the oil is extracted and is in as great repute among the
Indians for rheumatism and sore joints as among the white mountaineers.
The doctor who prepares the oil must also eat the flesh of the snake.
In certain seasons of epidemic a roasted (barbecued) rattlesnake
was kept hanging up in the house, and every morning the father of
the family bit off a small piece and chewed it, mixing it then with
water, which he spit upon the bodies of the others to preserve them
from the contagion. It was said to be a sure cure, but apt to make
the patients hot tempered.
The copperhead, wâ'dige-askâ'lï "brown-head,"
although feared on account of its poisonous bite, is hated, instead
of being regarded with veneration, as is the rattlesnake. It is
believed to be a descendant of a great mythic serpent and is said
to have "eyes of fire," on account of their intense brightness.
The blacksnake is called gûle'gï, "the climber."
Biting its body is said to be a preventive of toothache, and there
is also a belief, perhaps derived from the whites, that if the body
of one be hung upon a tree it will bring rain within three (four?)
days. The small greensnake is called, sälikwâ'yï,
the same name being also applied to a certain plant, the Eryngium
virginianum, or bear grass, whose long, slender leaves bear some
resemblance to a greensnake. As with the blacksnake, it is believed
that toothache may be prevented and sound teeth insured as long
as life lasts by biting the greensnake along its body. It must be
held by the head and tail, and all the teeth at once pressed down
four times along the middle of its body, but without biting into
the flesh or injuring the snake. Some informants say that the operation
must be repeated four times upon as many snakes and that a certain
food tabu must also be observed. The water moccasin, kanegwâ'tï,
is not specially regarded, but a very rare wood snake, said to resemble
it except that it has blue eyes, is considered to have great supernatural
powers, in what way is not specified. The repulsive but harmless
spreading adder (Heterodon) is called dalïkstä', "vomiter,"
on account of its habit of spitting, and sometimes kwandäya'hû,
a word of uncertain etymology. It was formerly a man, but was transformed
into a snake in order to accomplish the destruction of the Daughter
of the Sun. For its failure on this occasion it is generally despised.
The Wahnenauhi manuscript mentions a legend of a great serpent
called on account of its color the "ground snake." To
see it was an omen of death to the one who saw it, and if it was
seen by several persons some great tribal calamity was expected.
For traditions and beliefs in regard to the Uktena, the Uksuhï,
and other mythic serpents, see under those headings.
Native American Legends
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