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Dances with snakes: the sacred dance of Hopi Indians

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For thousands of years the Hopi tribe in northern Arizona has performed an unusual sacred ceremony that involve serpents and their nature.
Hopi, formerly called Moki or Moqui, in Spanish, are the westernmost group of Pueblo Indians, situated in what is now northeastern Arizona, on the edge of the Painted Desert.
In modern times the so-called Snake Dance, locally known as Tsu’tiki or Tsu’tiva, has gained notoriety, above all because its participants put live snakes in their mouths and wrap them around their necks.
The snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, might include garter snakes, gopher snakes, bull snakes, sidewinders, as well as rattlesnakes.

The Hopi believe that their intimacy with rattlesnakes and other species engenders rainfall and fecundity upon the high desert, creatures that certainly does not represent the demonic element as displayed in most Christian churches.
The biennial native ritual is held every other August during years that alternate with the Flute Ceremony.
In even-numbered years, the Snake Dance occurs in the villages of Oraibi and Hotevilla on Third Mesa, and in Shongopovi and Shipaulovi on Second Mesa while, in odd-numbered years, it is held in Mishongnovi on Second Mesa and Walpi on First Mesa, with the latter village retaining the strongest tradition.

The sixteen-day ritual (with some accounts that claim only nine days) encourages the final maturity of the crops, mainly corn, beans, and squash, during the annual agricultural cycle.
After being gathered from each of the four directions (northwest, southwest, southeast, and northeast, in that order), the snakes are individually baptized by washing them with milky yucca-root suds, that probably symbolizes seminal fluid.
In fact, these “messengers of the underworld” must be pure enough to carry the prayers of the people to the ancestor-spirits below, but they must also be clean enough to place between the dancers’ teeth.
The ritual is called the Snake-Antelope Ceremony because it involves both the Snake society (Tsuutsu’t) and the Antelope society (Tsöötsöpt).
Traditionally, in a semi-subterranean, communal prayer-chamber called kiva, the Antelope priests construct an altar in the form of a sand-mosaic which commonly measures about 76.2 cm square with an effigy of a cougar facing east in the center and four differently colored snakes along the sides.
The colors of the sand correspond to the four types of corn and the four directions: yellow/northwest, green (or blue)/southwest, red/southeast and white/northeast.
Also seen in the mosaic are four zigzag lightning-snakes, each made with its symbolic color and each with a triangular head and a curved horn on the side of the head.
Weapons symbolize the warriors’ (qalèetàataqt) specific maleness, the warrior gods, of whom the warriors are representatives, are explicitly phallic, the lightning-snake is the arrow of the gods, while the lightning striking the cornfields is the act of fertilizing them.
The warriors, who make prayer-sticks (pahos) for the Snake Dance shortly after the winter solstice, also provide a “male medicine” made from various roots for the August ceremony.
The reason is that the Snake ceremony is not only a prayer for rain but also an exhibition of manliness and fearlessness. The “baldric” of the Warrior Chief, a belt worn diagonally across the chest, is then coiled up on the figure of the cougar, and the medicine-bowl of the Warriors is set on it.

And what about the stars?
For the Hopi, the primary winter constellation is Orion.
They and other pueblo peoples associate stars, Orion in particular, with warfare and his belt is sometimes conceptualized as a warrior’s baldric.
According to popular belief, constellation itself is a war chief (kahletaka), and Orion dominates the heavens at midnight in the winter.
But he also appears at dawn in the summer after his late spring absence of a couple months when he was sojourning in the underworld, to then become invisible to living humans.
The night sky over north-eastern Arizona is brilliantly clear, and Orion is a great constellation, only rivaled at this latitude by the Plough turning around the pole star to the north and by the Scorpion lying low on the southwesterly horizon.
But, when Orion is up, it dominates the sky over the Hopi villages.

Not by chance, the Antelope altar is both a representation of the cosmos, or an imago mundi , and a re-creation of it.
The whole altar complex represents the world as it was formed by earth, air, water, plant life, and mankind, and each step of its construction is accompanied by songs that describe its formation and occupation, and by purification by sacred water.
Interestingly, the songs are secret, and no outside person being allowed to hear them.

Before midnight on the eleventh day of the ceremony, the marriage of the Snake Maiden and Antelope Youth takes place, that symbolically merge the two societies.
Directly following this, the chanting of sacred songs (pavásio): sung in an unknown foreign language for the benefit of the snakes themselves and not for the people, these songs continue in the kiva until Orion rises to hover upon the eastern horizon.
The day prior to the final Snake Dance performance in the plaza, before sunrise with Orion and Sirius rising, two warriors of the Snake society make several circuits around the Snake and Antelope kivas, each with a bull-roarer (tovokìnpi) and a lightning-frame, which respectively represent the thunder and lightning of the monsoon storms that begin in July and continue into August and early September. Weather phenomena also associated with the traditional Hopi sky god, Sótuknang.

Images from web – Google Research