Native American Legends
Great Serpent and the Great Flood
A Chippewa Legend
From Maine and Nova Scotia to the Rocky Mountains, Indians told
stories about the Great Serpent. More than a century ago the serpent
was considered to be "a genuine spirit of evil."
Some version of the story of the Great Flood of long ago, as recounted
here, is told around the world.
Nanabozho (Nuna-bozo, accented on bozo) was the hero of many stories
told by the Chippewa Indians. At one time they lived on the shores
of Lake Superior, in what are now the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin
and the province of Ontario.
One day when Nanabozho returned to his lodge after a long journey,
he missed his young cousin who lived with him. He called the cousin's
name but heard no answer. Looking around on the sand for tracks,
Nanabozho was startled by the trail of the Great Serpent. He then
knew that his cousin had been seized by his enemy.
Nanabozho picked up his bow and arrows and followed the track of
the serpent. He passed the great river, climbed mountains, and crossed
over valleys until he came to the shores of a deep and gloomy lake.
It is now called Manitou Lake, Spirit Lake, and also the Lake of
Devils. The trail of the Great Serpent led to the edge of the water.
Nanabozho could see, at the bottom of the lake, the house of the
Great Serpent. It was filled with evil spirits, who were his servants
and his companions. Their forms were monstrous and terrible. Most
of them, like their master, resembled spirits. In the centre of
this horrible group was the Great Serpent himself, coiling his terrifying
length around the cousin of Nanabozho.
The head of the Serpent was red as blood. His fierce eyes glowed
like fire. His entire body was armed with hard and glistening scales
of every color and shade.
Looking down on these twisting spirits of evil, Nanabozho made
up his mind that he would get revenge on them for the death of his
He said to the clouds, "Disappear!"
And the clouds went out of sight.
"Winds, be still at once!" And the winds became still.
When the air over the lake of evil spirits had become stagnant,
Nanabozho said to the sun, "Shine over the lake with all the
fierceness you can. Make the water boil."
In these ways, thought Nanabozho, he would force the Great Serpent
to seek the cool shade of the trees growing on the shores of the
lake. There he would seize the enemy and get revenge.
After giving his orders, Nanabozho took his bow and arrows and
placed himself near the spot where he thought the serpents would
come to enjoy the shade. Then he changed himself into the broken
stump of a withered tree.
The winds became still, the air stagnant, and the sun shot hot
rays from a cloudless sky. In time, the water of the lake became
troubled, and bubbles rose to the surface. The rays of the sun had
penetrated to the home of the serpents. As the water bubbled and
foamed, a serpent lifted his head above the centre of the lake and
gazed around the shores. Soon another serpent came to the surface.
Both listened for the footsteps of Nanabozho, but they heard him
"Nanabozho is sleeping," they said to one another.
And then they plunged beneath the waters, which seemed to hiss
as they closed over the evil spirits.
Not long after, the lake became more troubled. Its water boiled
from its very depths, and the hot waves dashed wildly against the
rocks on its banks. Soon the Great Serpent came slowly to the surface
of the water and moved toward the shore. His blood-red crest glowed.
The reflection from his scales was blinding--as blinding as the
glitter of a sleet-covered forest beneath the winter sun. He was
followed by all the evil spirits. So great was their number that
they soon covered the shores of the lake.
When they saw the broken stump of the withered tree, they suspected
that it might be one of the disguises of Nanabozho. They knew his
cunning. One of the serpents approached the stump, wound his tail
around it, and tried to drag it down into the lake. Nanabozho could
hardly keep from crying aloud, for the tail of the monster prickled
his sides. But he stood firm and was silent.
The evil spirits moved on. The Great Serpent glided into the forest
and wound his many coils around the trees. His companions also found
shade--all but one. One remained near the shore to listen for the
footsteps of Nanabozho.
From the stump, Nanabozho watched until all the serpents were asleep
and the guard was intently looking in another direction. Then he
silently drew an arrow from his quiver, placed it in his bow, and
aimed it at the heart of the Great Serpent. It reached its mark.
With a howl that shook the mountains and startled the wild beasts
in their caves, the monster awoke. Followed by its terrified companions,
which also were howling with rage and terror, the Great Serpent
plunged into the water.
At the bottom of the lake there still lay the body of Nanabozho's
cousin. In their fury the serpents tore it into a thousand pieces.
His shredded lungs rose to the surface and covered the lake with
The Great Serpent soon knew that he would die from his wound, but
he and his companions were determined to destroy Nanabozho. They
caused the water of the lake to swell upward and to pound against
the shore with the sound of many thunders. Madly the flood rolled
over the land, over the tracks of Nanabozho, carrying with it rocks
and trees. High on the crest of the highest wave floated the wounded
Great Serpent. His eyes glared around him, and his hot breath mingled
with the hot breath of his many companions.
Nanabozho, fleeing before the angry waters, thought of his Indian
children. He ran through their villages, shouting, "Run to
the mountaintops! The Great Serpent is angry and is flooding the
Earth! Run! Run!"
The Indians caught up their children and found safety on the mountains.
Nanabozho continued his flight along the base of the western hills
and then up a high mountain beyond Lake Superior, far to the north.
There he found many men and animals that had escaped from the flood
that was already covering the valleys and plains and even the highest
hills. Still the waters continued to rise. Soon all the mountains
were under the flood, except the high one on which stood Nanabozho.
There he gathered together timber and made a raft. Upon it the
men and women and animals with him placed themselves. Almost immediately
the mountaintop disappeared from their view, and they floated along
on the face of the waters. For many days they floated. At long last,
the flood began to subside. Soon the people on the raft saw the
trees on the tops of the mountains. Then they saw the mountains
and hills, then the plains and the valleys.
When the water disappeared from the land, the people who survived
learned that the Great Serpent was dead and that his companions
had returned to the bottom of the lake of spirits. There they remain
to this day. For fear of Nanabozho, they have never dared to come
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