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.
Return to Iroquois Legends