Myths & Legends



Apache: He who became a Snake

The White Mountain Apache are one of several Western Apache tribes, each of which has a different language, history, and culture despite being related. The account of their legends is the result of anthropological work done in and about 1910, recorded for the American Museum of Natural History, collected by Pliny Earle Goddard in Myths and Tales from the White Mountain Apache. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History Vol. XXIV, Part II

Pliny Earle Goddard (November 24, 1869 – July 12, 1928) was an American linguist and ethnologist noted for his extensive documentation of the languages and cultures of the Athabaskan peoples of western North America. He played a major role in creating the academic infrastructure for American Indian linguistics and anthropology in North America.

What follows is an anthropomorphic tale featuring human snake transformation, a tale that has many echoes throughout the world.
— Orly

A man (Naiyenezgani) was living alone. He brought wood there and built a fire. He danced on rawhide against white men and then went to war. He came where the white people were and killed a white woman. He raised up her skirt with a stick and Gila monster was there. “Let that be your name,” he said and Gila Monster was called łenellai. The two of them started back and came to a mountain called Bitcilł'ehe. From there they went back and came to a place called Tsitena'a. A porcupine was there and one of the men said, “My cousin, a porcupine lies here.” They killed it and buried it in the ashes of the fire. At midnight he uncovered it, but Naiyenezgani did not eat of it, only his partner. “My cousin, it tastes like red peppers, taste it,” he said. They lay down again and went to sleep. The next morning there were traces where the one who had eaten had crawled into the water as a snake. Naiyenezgani went back from there and in the yellow light of evening came back to Tatakawa, saying, “Since early this morning I came from Tsitena'a.” When all the people had come together they asked, “What place is called that?” “Big-hawk-old-man says he has been all over earth and seen everything. Send for him,” they said. When he was summoned, he came walking with his cane and sat down. “You are accustomed to say you have seen every place on earth. A man says he has come from Tsitena'a since early this morning,” they told him. “Well, it is not near. I flew from there in ten days and when I came here the yellow light of sunset was over the earth.”

Naiyenezgani then said, “He stayed with me last night and he ate something. It seems he turned into a snake and crawled in the river.”

All the Eagle people, Black Whirlwind, the Sun, the Moon, and the Gan people all started toward Tsitena'a. When they came there, in the presence of the Sun and Moon, Black Gan rolled a turquoise hoop into the water. The water of the river rose up so much. Then Ganłbaiye rolled a hoop of bacinϵ into the water. Next Gan with his face half covered rolled a hoop of tsϵłtcϵϵ in the water and the river was lifted up so much (about a yard). Finally, Ganłtci' rolled a hoop of yołgaiand the water was high enoughabove the river bed that a man could walk under it.

They all entered the bed of the river and followed the man who had turned into a snake. They finally overtook him. There was a snake on the other side which they concluded was the one who had been a man. A turquoise hoop was rolled toward him and it jumped over his neck. From the neck up he took on the appearance of a man. A hoop of bacinϵ was next rolled and it fell to the waist. Next a loop of tcϵłtcϵϵ was rolled which jumped on the man and fell to the hips, above which he took the form of a man. Finally a hoop of yołgai was rolled, and his entire body became human. Then they took him by the hand and led him back. They danced for him twelve nights and he was restored as a man. During the twelve nights, no one was allowed to sleep, but someone did fall asleep. The one who had turned into a snake began to sing, “I am going up. I am going up where the sky comes together,” he said as he sang. He was no longer seen where he had been standing. The man had a sister who began to sing. “Truly, I am going where it is called, mesquites-come-together.” She was no longer where she had been standing.

She is the one who crawls around here in the summertime. The female lives below; the male lives above.

It was here the Indians secured the supernatural power. Naiyenezgani alone had the najonc poles. He alone played with them. There were two of the poles.

My yucca fruits lie this way.


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