SNAKE BITES AND THE HOPI SNAKE DANCE
BY M. W. STIRLING
Chief, Bureau of American Ethnology
Annual Report of the Board of Reagents of The Smithsonian Institution
The most widely known American Indian ceremonial is undoubtedly the
so-called Snake Dance of the Hopi Indians of Arizona. Actually the Snake Dance is only the concluding feature 6f the elaborate 9-day Snake Ceremonial, which is
held in alternate years at most of the Hopi pueblos primarily as a prayer for rain.
During the preliminary days of the ceremony live snakes, including both venomous
and nonvenomous varieties, are ritualistically gathered from the vicinity of the
pueblo and brought to the kiva. Here they are utilized in the ceremonies,
preparatory to fulfilling their role as messengers upon being released on the final day
when the public ceremony is held, during which live snakes held in the mouth are
Because of the peculiar attitude of the typical white man toward snakes,
once the Hopi ceremony became publicized it aroused unusual interest, with the
result that an enormous literature on the subject has been published since the
first description appeared in print in 1881. Some of the early scientific
investigators bad unusual opportunities of observing the ceremonial in fairly complete
form, so that a number of excellent descriptions were written before the tourist
influx made the Hopi more secretive toward the whites. It is not the purpose of
this paper to discuss the ritual or its esoteric significance. For the benefit of
interested reader a selected bibliography is attached. The intent of this
merely to put in condensed form the answer, at least in part, to one of the
frequent queries received by the Bureau of American Ethnology, namely, "Are
the snake dancers ever fatally bitten; and if not, why not?" (For a detailed
excellent treatment of this matter see Klauber, 1932.) The complete answer
this query is fairly complicated and is largely bound up in the fact that
average white man is highly superstitious regarding snakes, and the Indian
not.  Likewise the typical white man is even more ignorant regarding
habits and actions of snakes thin he is of most other animals, since his
superstitions cause him to avoid them. The Indian, on the other hand, is a
regarding snakes and is as well versed in snakelore as in any other native
The only venomous snake available to the Hopi is the prairie rattler,
confluentus confliuentus. A study of the results of 128 bites by this
revealed 8 fatalities (Hutchison, 1930). Some of these had the benefit of
antivenin treatment, so that a true fatality percentage might be somewhat
Therefore the prairie rattler may be considered a moderately dangerous
Many factors, of course, affect the seriousness of the bite. Among these
be mentioned the size and health of the victim, the location of the bite,
amount of venom injected. Thus we might assume that an adult dancer struck
fairly by a rattler with full poison glands would suffer painful though
serious aftereffects. A small boy participant, on the other hand, struck in
manner, would probably suffer serious results, possibly fatal. A number of
instances of dancers being bitten by rattlers, including some of small boys,
been recorded in the literature by reputable observers. In no case, however,
have uncomfortable results been reported nor have the recipients of the
retired from the ceremony after being bitten. In short, it is evident that
snake dancers do occasionally get bitten by venomous snakes. Since they are
reasonably cautious and skillful in the handling of the rattlesnakes, such
are not very frequent. From reports of competent observers and from the
themselves it would appear that serious results never follow, even though
boy initiates are sometimes struck. The reason for this seeming immunity has
been speculated upon at great length by observers of widely varying ability.
Klauber has listed some of the more common theories which he has summarized
in three groupings, as follows:
A-CONDITIONS AFFECTING THE AUDIENCE
1. The audience is suffering from some form of group hypnotism.
2. The audience Is not qualified to distinguish venomous from nonvenomous
B --- CONDITIONS AFFECTING THE SNAKE PRIESTS
1. The priests have taken an Internal protective medicine prior to the
2. They possess knowledge of antidotes--internal
after an accident, quickly render rattlesnake bite Innocuous and even
3. Sucking, cauterizing, and arresting the circulation by tourniquets are
to In case of accident.
4. The priests are so purified by the ceremonial emetic as to be immune.
5. They are smeared with a preparation so disagreeable to the snakes (as,
Instance, In odor) that the latter will not bite.
6. They are covered with an Invulnerable preparation, as, for instance, a
7. They are so healthy from outdoor life that rattlesnake bite does not
8. They have an Immunity resulting from a long fast prior to the dance.
9. They build up an Immunity by increasing doses of venom, as is done with
horses in the preparation of antivenin.
10. They have a mysterious hypnotic power over the snakes, akin to that said
be possessed by the snake charmers of India.
11. They are fearless of snakes, which, therefore, are without power to bite
12. They are protected by the religious exaltation of the ritual.
13. They are actually bitten with serious results, of which outsiders are
C - CONDITIONS, AFFECTING THE RATTLESNAKES
1. The snakes' fangs, venom glands, or both have been removed.
2. Their mouths have been sewed closed.
3. They have expended their venom on harmless snakes or other objects In the
4. They have been milked of their venom In the kiva.
5. They are tame snakes used repeatedly in successive years.
6. They have been lately tamed by handling.
7. They are doped or hypnotized.
8. They are starved into submission.
9. They are blinded by the sacred meal, or paralyzed by the tobacco fumes
the ceremonial smokes In the kiva.
10. August Is the blind season for rattlers; they cannot see to strike.
11. They are invariably held In such a way that they cannot bite.
12. The eagle feather snake-wands, prevent their biting.
13. They cannot strike because they are not permitted to coil.
14. Rattlers are relatively Innocuous anyway.
Most of these theories obviously do not hold; others, deserving of
can be proved false. That venomous snakes are actually danced with is, of
course, amply demonstrated. It is also true that a portion of the ceremony
involves the taking of an internal "medicine.
nature and not concerned with the matter of snake bites. After being bitten
dance, the Hopi also take an "antidote"
Indians when bitten by snakes. This "antidote"
scientific tests, however, and found to be completely ineffective (Coleman,
1928). The Indians, of course, do not claim this medicine to have a
effect, but regard it as a protective charm, since their ideas of the cause
disagreeable results of snake bite are quite different from ours (Mindeleff,
1886a),. The emetic taken by the Hopi after the dance for purposes of
purification also quite obviously could have no effect on a poison which
the blood stream.
The fact that the snakes have been kept captive for several days preceding
Snake Dance, during which time they are handled, undoubtedly takes
considerable edge from their aggressiveness, as it is a commonplace
observation of zoo keepers and others that rattlesnakes in captivity tend
to lose much of their fear of those handling them.
The theory has been frequently advanced that the fangs of the snakes have
been removed when they are captured, or later in the kiva. Curtis (1922)
that one of the priests told him that the fangs of the snakes are pinched
the thumbnail when caught. Other later writers have claimed to have
released snakes and found their fangs removed. It is probable that in recent
years, as a result of acculturation, some of the Hopi villages have adopted
precaution. However, it is quite certain that originally this practice was
followed, as too many careful students of the Snake Dance have specifically
testified to the contrary. Klauber, an expert herpetologist, saw at close
rattlers expose their fangs during the dance at Mishongnovi. Lummis reports
rattler hanging by its fangs from the cheek of a dancer. Scientists have
occasionally recaptured rattlesnakes immediately after the dance and found
fangs intact. In 1883, Dr. H. C. Yarrow, a competent herpetologist, was
to the kiva before the dance and examined one of the rattlers, finding its
intact. After the dance, two rattlesnakes were sent to Washington and found
to have been tampered with (Mindeleff, 1886b).
Since rattlesnakes are accustomed to strike from the coiled position, they
doubtless be in a somewhat unfavorable position as carried in the mouths of
dancers. Nevertheless there is ample evidence that they can and do sometimes
strike under these circumstances.
After carefully analyzing all the evidence, Klauber advances the conjecture
the principal reason for the lack of serious results from bites received in
Snake Dance is that the poison glands of the rattlers are previously
either by allowing the snakes to strike some soft objects or by the simple
of "milking" the glands. Klauber says:
If I were an Indian engaged In this dance I would not be satisfied to take a
chance on the admitted and known docility of the rattlers, especially having
mind the danger to some of the boys of 8 years, or even less, who, as
priests, take part in the ceremony. Without taking any step which would
the snakes (even temporarily, as by the removal of the replaceable fangs), I
would use the simplest, least apparent, and safest method of rendering the
snakes almost Innocuous, that is, by thoroughly emptying the venom glands.
This statement is based on a personal experience in the milking of well over
To summarize briefly, the popular appeal of the Snake Dance is the result of
white man's peculiar attitude toward snakes. The average person has an
exaggerated idea as to the potency of rattlesnake venom. With moderate-sized
rattlers, such as the species used in the Snake Dance, a bite with full
glands should result fatally in less than I out of 10, in the case of
Owing to knowledge of the habits of the rattlesnakes, previous manipulation
confinement of the snakes, skill in handling, and teamwork in the dance, the
Hopi dancers are not frequently bitten. However, occasional bites do occur
apparently never with serious results. The principal reason for this is
that during previous handling the poison glands of the snakes have been
emptied or the venom considerably reduced in quantity.
BOURKE JOHN G.
1884 The Snake Dance of the Moquis of Arizona, being a narrative of a
from Sante Fe, N. Mex., to the village of the Moqui Indians of Arizona, with
description of the manners and customs of this peculiar people and
the revolting religious rite, the Snake Dance, to which Is added a brief
dissertation upon serpent worship In general, with an account of the Tablet
Dance of the Pueblo of Santo Domingo, N. Mex., etc. New York. Pp. xvi+ 371,
COLEMAN, GEORGE, E.
1928. Rattlesnake venom antidote of the Hopi Indians. Bun. Antivenin Inst.
Amer., vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 97-99
COLEMAN, GEORGE E.
1922. The North American Indian. Vol. 12: The Hopi, pp. xi+281.
DORSEY, GEO. A., and VOTH, H. R.
1902. The Mishougnovi ceremonies of the Snake and Antelope Fraternities
Columbian Mus., Publ. No. 66, Anthrop. Ser., vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 159-261,
FEWKERS, J. WALTER.
1897. Tusayan snake ceremonies. 16th Ann. Rep. Bur. Amer. Ethnol., pp.
267--311, pls. 70--81.
1900. Tusayan flute and snake ceremonies. 19th Ann. Rep. Bur. Amer. Ethnol.,
pt. 2, pp. 957-1011, pls. 45--63, figs. 42-46.
FEWKES, J. WALTER, assisted by STEPHEN, A. M., and OWENS, J. G.
1894. The snake ceremonials at WalpI. Journ. Amer. Ethnol, and Archaeol.,
4, pp. vi+126 40 ills, map.
HUTCHISON, R. H.
1929. On the incidence of snake-bite poisoning In the United States and
of the newer methods of treatment. Bull. Antivenin Inst. Amer., vol. 3, No.
1930. Further notes on the incidence of snake-bite poisoning In the United
States. Bull. Antivenin Inst. Amer., vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 40-43.
KLAUBER, L, M.
1932. A herpetological review of the Hopi Snake Dance. Bull. Zool.
Soc. San Diego, No. 9.
1886a. An Indian Snake Dance. Science (Supplement)
1886b. An Indian Snake Dance. Science, vol. 8, No. 178, pp. 12-13.
VOTH, H. R.
1903. The Oraibi summer snake ceremony. Field Columbian Mus., Publ. No. 83,
Anthrop. Ser., vol. S. No. 4, pp. 263-358, pls. 148-219.
donald j haarmann
Eventually we eliminated all flaws,
using the method of proof by
exhaustion - anyone, including us,
who tired to analyze the model
would get exhausted before they
understood it well enough to find
Nature 428, 261 (2004)
On Savas Dimopoulos and his work