Myths & Legends



Sioux: The Snake Wife

A legend from the Sioux involving a wily snake, cannibal Giants called Thunder-Men, and a lot of valor. A tale found in Lewis Spence’s Myths of the North American Indians.
— Orly

A certain chief advised his son to travel. Idling, he pointed out, was not the way to qualify for chieftainship.

"When I was your age," said he, "I did not sit still. There was hard work to be done. And now look at me: I have become a great chief."

"I will go hunting, father," said the youth. So his father furnished him with good clothing, and had a horse saddled for him.

The young man went off on his expedition, and by and by fell in with some elk. Shooting at the largest beast, he wounded it but slightly, and as it dashed away he spurred his horse after it. In this manner they covered a considerable distance, till at length the hunter, worn out with thirst and fatigue, reined in his steed and dismounted. He wandered about in search of water till he was well-nigh spent, but after a time he came upon a spring, and immediately improvised a song of thanksgiving to the deity, Wakanda, who had permitted him to find it. His rejoicing was somewhat premature, however, for when he approached the spring a snake started up from it. The youth was badly scared, and retreated to a safe distance without drinking. It seemed as though he must die of thirst after all. Venturing to look back after a time, he saw that the snake had disappeared, and very cautiously he returned. Again the snake darted from the water, and the thirsty hunter was forced to flee. A third return to the spring had no happier results, but when his thirst drove him to a fourth attempt the youth found, instead of a snake, a very beautiful woman. She offered him a drink in a small cup, which she replenished as often as he emptied it. So struck was he by her grace and beauty that he promptly fell in love with her. When it was time for him to return home she gave him a ring, saying: "When you sit down to eat, place this ring on a seat and say, 'Come, let us eat,' and I will come to you."

Having bidden her farewell, the young man turned his steps homeward, and when he was once more among his kindred he asked that food might be placed before him. "Make haste," said he, "for I am very hungry."

Quickly they obeyed him, and set down a variety of dishes. When he was alone the youth drew the ring from his finger and laid it on a seat. "Come," he said, "let us eat."

Immediately the Snake-woman appeared and joined him at his meal. When she had eaten she vanished as mysteriously as she had come, and the disconsolate husband (for the youth had married her) went out of the lodge to seek her. Thinking she might be among the women of the village, he said to his father: "Let the women dance before me."

An old man was deputed to gather the women together, but not one of them so much as resembled the Snake-woman.

Again the youth sat down to eat, and repeated the formula which his wife had described to him. She ate with him as before, and vanished when the meal was over.

"Father," said the young man, "let the very young women dance before me."

But the Snake-woman was not found among them either.

Another fleeting visit from his wife induced the chief's son to make yet another attempt to find her in the community.

"Let the young girls dance," he said. Still the mysterious Snake-woman was not found.

One day a girl overheard voices in the youth's lodge, and, peering in, saw a beautiful woman sharing his meal. She told the news to the chief, and it soon became known that the chief's son was married to a beautiful stranger.

The youth, however, wished to marry a woman of his own tribe; but the maiden's father, having heard that the young man was already married, told his daughter that she was only being made fun of.

So the girl had nothing more to do with her wooer, who turned for consolation to his ring. He caused food to be brought, and placed the ring on a seat.


The Ring Unavailing

"Come," he said, "let us eat."

There was no response; the Snake-woman would not appear.

The youth was greatly disappointed, and made up his mind to go in search of his wife.

"I am going a-hunting," said he, and again his father gave him good clothes and saddled a horse for him.

When he reached the spot where the Snake-woman had first met him, he found her trail leading up to the spring, and beyond it on the other side. Still following the trail, he saw before him a very dilapidated lodge, at the door of which sat an old man in rags. The youth felt very sorry for the tattered old fellow, and gave him his fine clothes, in exchange for which he received the other's rags.

"You think you are doing me a good turn," said the old man, "but it is I who am going to do you one. The woman you seek has gone over the Great Water. When you get to the other shore talk with the people you shall meet there, and if they do not obey you send them away."

In addition to the tattered garments, the old man gave him a hat, a sword, and a lame old horse.

At the edge of the Great Water the youth prepared to cross, while his companion seated himself on the shore, closed his eyes, and recited a spell. In a moment the young man found himself on the opposite shore. Here he found a lodge inhabited by two aged Thunder-men, who were apparently given to eating human beings. The young stranger made the discovery that his hat rendered him invisible, and he was able to move unseen among the creatures. Taking off his hat for a moment, he took the pipe from the lips of a Thunder-man and pressed it against the latter's hand.

"Oh," cried the Thunder-man, "I am burnt!"

But the youth had clapped on his hat and disappeared.

"It is not well," said the Thunder-man gravely. "A stranger has been here and we have let him escape. {291}When our brother returns he will not believe us if we tell him the man has vanished."

Shortly after this another Thunder-man entered with the body of a man he had killed. When the brothers told him their story he was quite sceptical.

"If I had been here," said he, "I would not have let him escape."

As he spoke the youth snatched his pipe from him and pressed it against the back of his hand.

"Oh," said the Thunder-man, "I am burnt!"

"It was not I," said one brother.

"It was not I," said the other.

"It was I," said the youth, pulling off his hat and appearing among them. "What were you talking about among yourselves? Here I am. Do as you said."

But the Thunder-men were afraid.

"We were not speaking," they said, and the youth put on his hat and vanished.

"What will our brother say," cried the three in dismay, "when he hears that a man has been here and we have not killed him? Our brother will surely hate us."

In a few minutes another Thunder-man came into the lodge, carrying the body of a child. He was very angry when he heard that they had let a man escape.

The youth repeated his trick on the new-comer—appeared for a moment, then vanished again. The fifth and last of the brothers was also deceived in the same manner.

Seeing that the monsters were now thoroughly frightened, the young man took off his magic hat and talked with them.


The Finding of the Snake-Wife

"You do wrong," said he, "to eat men like this. You should eat buffaloes, not men. I am going away. When I come back I will visit you, and if you are eating buffaloes you shall remain, but if you are eating men I shall send you away."

The Thunder-men promised they would eat only buffaloes in future, and the young man went on his way to seek for the Snake-woman. When at last he came to the village where she dwelt he found she had married a man of another tribe, and in a great rage he swung the sword the magician had given him and slew her, and her husband, and the whole village, after which he returned the way he had come. When he reached the lodge of the Thunder-men he saw that they had not kept their promise to eat only buffaloes.

"I am going to send you above," he said. "Hitherto you have destroyed men, but when I have sent you away you shall give them cooling rain to keep them alive."

So he sent them above, where they became the thunder-clouds.

Proceeding on his journey, he again crossed the Great Water with a single stride, and related to the old wizard all that had happened.

"I have sent the Thunder-men above, because they would not stop eating men. Have I done well?"

"Very well."

"I have killed the whole village where the Snake-woman was, because she had taken another husband. Have I done well?"

"Very well. It was for that I gave you the sword."

The youth returned to his father, and married a very beautiful woman of his own village.



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