The Woman who Married a Snake
retold by Richard L. Dieterle
Once there was a village situated in the east. The chief of this village had a daughter who was as kind as she was beautiful. She was his only daughter, and her parents loved her very much. Almost all the young men of the village had proposed to her, but she would always refuse. She was never impolite, but always listened to their proposals and found some nice way to decline. None of her suitors was angry with her, and she remained on good terms with everyone. Thus did things go on for some time.
One day she went out to pack wood, but as she returned down the path she usually took she came to a log that lay across the way. There, unexpectedly, was a strange man sitting on the log. He did not block her way, but when she approached, he moved over to make sure that he was not in her way and did not even look up at her. He was strikingly handsome, and when the princess looked upon him, she fell in love at first sight. She sat down next to him and asked, "When I walked up, why did you move away? Don't you like me?" "No," he replied, "I just didn't want to block your way." They sat there talking for some time. She finally asked him where he was from. He told her that he was the son of the Snake Chief, and that he had come there specifically to court her. She knew who he was, for his fame as a warrior was great, and she knew that he lived with a band of Hočągara who lived up river. She consented to marry him and asked, "When shall we leave? I only need to return home to get my belongings." He replied, "We can leave this evening or early tomorrow."
She went home and immediately began packing her things. Her parents asked her what she was doing. They said, "You have never done this before, are you going somewhere?" Then she told him all about it and that her fiancee was the son of the Snake Chief. Her parents were overjoyed, as they knew that the Snake Chief was one of the great ones. Soon she set out to her rendezvous. In time people began to travel up to the Snake Chief's village, but when they returned, they reported that they had not seen the yųgiwi (princess). The Snake Chief's son was also missing, and it soon became apparent that the couple had disappeared. The father of the young woman went out searching for her, but all he found was her clothing in a pile in front of a cave known as the "Snake's Den." He wept and went into mourning, but despite much effort neither he nor anyone else could find a trace of her.
In his village lived a very unpopular man named "Black Dog," whom everyone ridiculed and teased. One day Black Dog declared, "If the chief's daughter really is in the Snake's Den, I am the one who can get her out." This just made people all the more angry with him since they all thought that he was making a joke of the incident. Just the same, he made it known that he was serious. Finally, people brought it to the attention of the chief, who came offering tobacco that he might rescue his daughter if such was at all possible. He accepted the offering and told the people to look for a crevasse near the Snake's Den, and not long afterwards they found such a place and showed him where it was. He prepared for his mission by stripping down completely and diving into the river. The people watched him go in, but he never came back up. They were about to give him up for drowned, when unexpectedly, the water began to roar like a waterfall and to swirl. Soon he emerged from the depths, only now he had horns, four legs, and a body like that of a snake. Yet the people watching were amazed all the more when upon stepping out of the river, he instantly transformed back into human form. He went into the cave and was not seen for some time. Not long afterwards snakes of every kind began coming out one by one. Soon scores of snakes had slithered out of the cave. Then the man himself reemerged dragging the missing princess by her hair. The bystanders were shocked to see that her body from the waist down had turned into that of a serpent.
The man asked all those who had been blessed by serpents to sing their songs. They did as he had bidden them, and very gradually her snake flesh began to recede. Seven days later her human legs could be seen tucked up under her body. Finally, in time, her human anatomy had become completely restored. The chief was very grateful to Black Dog and offered his daughter to him as his wife, but Black Dog replied, "I cannot accept your daughter to wife, O chief, but were you to give her to me as a sister, I would gladly have her so." So Black Dog was made the chief's son. Black Dog was in fact the Chief of the Snake Spirits.
The chief daughter told the people how that the one called the Snake Chief was the leader of the Snake Clan, and that they were the most handsome people. They lived their happy lives in dance and pleasant things. Nevertheless, she did not mind being brought back, because the folding of her legs under her body left her in a state of constant fatigue. Thus she was saved, something that is said to have happened in relatively recent times.1
Commentary. When Black Dog dives into the river, he emerges as a being with four legs and horns, attributes alien to snakes (ordinarily), even though his body is serpentine. Such a creature as described would ordinarily be called a "Waterspirit." This hints at a close affinity between Snake Spirits and Waterspirits, even though most snakes are terrestrial and not aquatic.
Comparative Material. A person whose body is serpentine from the waist down is found in the figure of Erichthonios of Greek mythology.
Links: Snakes, Waterspirits.
Stories: mentioning snakes: The First Snakes, Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief, Snake Clan Origins, The Omahas who turned into Snakes, A Snake Song Origin Myth, The Serpents of Trempealeau, Rattlesnake Ledge, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Twins Disobey Their Father, The Two Boys, Wears White Feather on His Head, Creation of the World (vv. 2, 3, 4), The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Waruǧápara, The Green Man, Holy One and His Brother, The Man who was Blessed by the Sun, The Warbundle of the Eight Generations, Turtle and the Merchant, The Lost Blanket, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth; mentioning a tribe of Snake people: The Seven Maidens; in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧápara, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and the Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake; mentioning caves: Big Eagle Cave Mystery, Silver Mound Cave, Heną́ga and the Star Girl, Little Human Head.
Themes: a human marries a spirit: The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy (a Thunderbird, a Nightspirit, and two Waterspirits), The Thunderbird (a Thunderbird), How the Thunders Met the Nights (a Nightspirit), The Shaggy Man (a Bear Spirit), White Wolf (a Wolf Spirit), The Star Husband (stars), Little Human Head (a Louse Spirit), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (Buffalo Spirit), The Phantom Woman (Waterspirit); a newlywed goes to the home of her husband to live among his kind, a race of Animal Spirits: The Wild Rose (wolves), The Shaggy Man (bears); someone goes out searching for a missing person who was dear to them: Waruǧápara, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, A Man's Revenge, The Man Whose Wife was Captured, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Snowshoe Strings, Brass and Red Bear Boy; someone dives into a body of water and disappears into its depths: The Red Feather, The Birth of the Twins, The Two Boys, The Two Brothers, The Shaggy Man; a man is transformed when he dives into the water from a particular place: Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Diving Contest, The Nannyberry Picker; a powerful spirit lives in a cave: Big Eagle Cave Mystery, Blue Mounds Cave, Silver Mound Cave, Heną́ga and the Star Girl, Little Human Head; a human turns into a (spirit) animal: How the Thunders Met the Nights (Thunderbird), Waruǧápara (Thunderbird), The Dipper (hummingbird), Keramaniš’aka's Blessing (blackhawk, owl), Elk Clan Origin Myth (elk), Young Man Gambles Often (elk), Sun and the Big Eater (horse), The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Were-Grizzly, Partridge's Older Brother (bear), The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother (bear), Porcupine and His Brothers (bear), The Shaggy Man (bear), The Roaster (bear), Wazųka (bear), The Spotted Grizzly Man (bear), Brass and Red Bear Boy (bear, buffalo), White Wolf (dog, wolf), Worúxega (wolf, bird, snake), Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle (buffalo), The Brown Squirrel (squirrel), The Skunk Origin Myth (skunk), The Fleetfooted Man (otter, bird), A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga (otter), The Diving Contest (Waterspirit), The Omahas who turned into Snakes (four-legged snakes), The Twins Get into Hot Water (v. 3) (alligators), Snowshoe Strings (a frog), How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 3) (earthworms), The Woman Who Became an Ant, Hare Kills a Man with a Cane (ant); someone is transformed from the waist down into a cold blooded creature: The King Bird.
1 Paul Radin, "The Young Woman who Married a Snake," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) Winnebago IV, #7j: 1091-1093.