May 09, 2009
More New England Snake Lore
I always associate this time of year with snakes, so here's another post about them. My last snake post was about a piece of European lore found in Massachusetts, but the Algonquians had a lot of snake lore as well.
There are many varieties of snakes in New England, including two poisonous species: the copperhead (agkistrodon contortix) and the timber rattlesnake (crotalus horridus). Snakes are powerful creatures, representing the underworld, the soul, and spiritual warfare. It was believed that snakes have the ability to control the weather.
Rattlesnakes were both revered and feared by many Native American groups. For example, if an Ojibwa encountered a rattlesnake, he would address it as Grandfather, propitiate it with tobacco smoke, and ask for its blessing. Alexander Henry, a fur trader in the Great Lakes in the 1700's, relates how a band of Ojibwa sacrificed a dog to a rattlesnake in an attempt to bring favorable weather. Even those Native Americans who killed rattlesnakes did so with great respect. The Potawatomi of Ohio would sprinkle the body of a dead rattlesnake with tobacco and pray over it to avoid its wrath.
Among the Algonquians of southern New England, the underworld god Hobomock would most often appear to shamans as a snake, and dreaming about a snake was a sign that an individual was destined to become a shaman. Rattlesnakes were one of the guardian spirits (along with hawks and crows) that helped shamans heal their clients - and kill their enemies.
After the New England tribes converted to Christianity, they associated snakes with old pagan practices. For example, the Wampanoag of Cape Cod told how Elisha Naughaught, one of their church deacons, was attacked in the 1700's by a group of black snakes. They were perhaps sent by an enemy pagan shaman, and are clearly indicative of underworld powers.
I got my information from two sources: William Simmons's Spirit of the New England Tribes, and Thomas Palmer's Landscape With Reptile, a fantastic book about the history and lore of rattlesnakes in Massachusetts. Once extremely common in Massachusetts, rattlesnakes are now only found in the Blue Hills south of Boston.