Rituals of the Snake

Fig. 1 Navajo sandpainting.

Whirling Snakes, date unknown.

Fig. 2 Navajo sandpainting.

Pollen boy on sun. At each side sun's rattle, trumpet, and arrow of precious stone. Used for male patient only after eclipse of the sun. White snake guardian outside furnishes female protection, date unknown.

Fig. 3 Navajo sandpainting.

Gathering and departure showing the power of repetition, date unknown.

Aby Warburg’s 1895 journey to Orayvi at Third Mesa to visit the remote Hopi and Walpi reservations in the northeast Navajo County, Arizona is perhaps one of the better-known events in his career, the pioneering work in the pueblos go beyond the formerly ethnocentric methods of art-historical research, replacing them with comparative cultural anthropology [1]. The rediscovery of his innovative theory on a universal symbolic history of art that were later reflected in his 1923 Kreuzlingen lecture, in which he attempted to exemplify an analysis of the modern surviving Hopi Snake Rituals and its comparison to snake symbolism in western civilizations[2], that it  would also illuminate his study of classical paganism[3].

Before traveling to Arizona from New Jersey, Warburg proceeded to visit museums and libraries up and down the East Coast- including the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology (established 1879) in Washington, DC. He came into contact with leading  anthropologists, archeologists, ethnologists, linguists, and historians of religion- conversations about pre-Columbian America, artifacts, ornaments, and rites of the Pueblo community strengthened him in his decision to set out for the Southwest[4]: “Warburg’s desire to learn more about Indigenous Americans was formented before he  traveled to the United States… ‘American Indians had become integral to German culture’…As in the United States, the German’s public understanding of Indians came through books (from James Fenimore to Karl May), media representations, spectacles like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and ethnographic displays…visual and material culture, and sometimes [Indigenous] people, were featured in German anthropological exhibits at museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and world’s fairs… fascination with Indians resulted in journeys to Pueblo lands”[5]. The aim was “to visit the Western America both as a modern creation and in its lower Hispano-Indian strata”[6]. The Hopi at this time had already been long infiltrated by Christian missionaries and modern schooling, met with considerable resistance and therefore embroiled in fierce political conflicts.

A number of Warburg’s published photographs[7] of ceremonial activities do carry scholarly significance, largely because they reveal that Warburg never actually witnessed the Snake Dance (or Tsu’tikive) in person as he arrived in Arizona in late April, too early in the cycle (not to mention that the dance would have only taken place every other year, alternating with the  intimately linked antelope dance)[8], when the Katsinam, or cloud/ancestor spirits were still showering their beneficence onto the Hopi for fulfilling their sacred duties. Despite any disappointment, Warburg would have witnessed one of the earlier dances in the Katsinam portion of the Hopi ceremonial calendar. Half of the ceremonial cycle- roughly from December to July is comprised of a series of ceremonies, some clandestine and others public, that acknowledge and honor the return of the Katsinam, who have traveled from their distant home to reside among the Hopi[9] . The Hopi consider all Katsinam deserving of reverence, some are deemed especially sacred. Among these are the Hemiskatsinam, which Warburg appears to have encountered, judging by the photographs from his visit. The Hemiskatsinam typically appear during the final days of the Nímaniw or ‘Home Dance’- the most significant ceremonies of the Katsinam portion of the Hopi ceremonial cycle, as it is the final ceremony performed by the Katsinam on the occasion of their departure from Hopi lands. The Katsinam dance and sing, bringing gifts of fresh corn, fruits, and vegetables for the women, Beautifully painted bows for the uninitiated, boys, and tithu (Katsina dolls)for the girls[10]. In exchange for this bounty, as well as the months of rainfall brought for the harvest, the Hopi ceremonial leaders sing their thanks and praises to the Katsinam over the course of the day from dawn to dusk. 

The Snake Dance that Warburg had hoped to see is not a Katsina dance as it is part of the much less formal portion of the ceremonial cycle, it was only known to him only through descriptions  and photographs, the “most pagan of all the ceremonies”, as both animal and dancer still formed a desire for unity[11]. Unlike classical culture’s triumph over the beast and its sacrificial death ; by contrast, at the end of the Hopi ceremony the snake could return to nature, unharmed (Fig. 1 & 2). The snake, “which dwells in the folds of the earth, shedding its skin to live again, represents the earthly form of lightning: celestial energy that discharges from the clouds and dispenses life-giving rain”[12]. The Snake Dance is a prayer for rain and other beneficial endeavours including fertility and well-being. Ceremony is essential for ensuring rain [13], occurring on the last day of a multi-day series of rituals and ceremonies. Pairs of Snake Dancers circle the plaza holding rattlesnakes in their mouths while soothing the animals with feathers, then releasing them in a circle drawn in cornmeal, interacting with them in a focused and calmly manner: “The snakes are treated with reverence, since they carry the prayers of the people to the spirits of the underground world”[14]. When the dance is complete, the snakes are gathered and released in four directions (Fig. 3).

Warburg had thus posited that the Pueblo communities were in a historical progression or even an evolutionary sequence, from a primitive pagan culture to a symbolic culture on its way to an enlightened technical culture, a view that Warburg grew more critical as he regarded the existence of Pueblo communities “perched as they were between physical and conceptual ‘grasp’, as endangered”[15]. Colonial achievements like the railroad, telegraphy, and schooling systems were destroying the mental distance humans need from their environment to be able to reflect and contemplate it calmly. The Primitivist discourse in the 1920s was discerned as a response to anxieties about industrialisation, urbanism, capitalism, materialism, and technological advancement- both “a byproduct of and a reaction against modernity. Colonial conquest fueled modernity, which wrought genocide, dispossession, and oppression on colonized peoples… a paradigmatic form of imperialist nostalgia” [16]. Representations of the Hopi Snake Dance by modern artists in the United States were spurred by primitivist discourse; whereas nineteenth-century writers and artists depicted the Snake Dance as grotesque and wild, the many modernists who painted the dance in the 1910s and 1920s presented it as dignified, mystical, and communal[17]. Ultimately for Warburg, magic and mythology were under threat by industrial modernity and had to be constantly renewed to maintain balance.


[1]  Uwe Fleckner, “In Search of a Symbolic Art: Aby Warburg’s Journeys to the Land of the Pueblo,” essay, in Lightning Symbol and Snake Dance- Aby Warburg and Pueblo Art, 2022, 14–19, 15.

[2]  Justin B. Richland, “Aby Warburg’s Travel to Hopiland: Lines and Limit of Knowledge,” essay, in Lightning Symbol and Snake Dance- Aby Warburg and Pueblo Art, 2022, 162–67, 162.

[3]  David Freedberg, “Pathos at Oraibi: What Warburg Did Not See,” 2004, 4.

[4]  Sascha T. Scott, “Aby Warburg’s ‘Magic Serpent Culture’: Representations of the Hopi Snake Dance,” essay, in Lightning Symbol and Snake Dance- Aby Warburg and Pueblo Art, 2022, 315–21, 315.

[5] Scott, 315.

[6] Fleckner, 15.

[7] Note on photography and other illustrative material as per Richland’s article and the Warburg Institute: a moratorium is in place for all culturally sensitive material, including all photographs taken by Warburg of the ceremonies as there are protocols of secrecy on sharing  Hopi practices and knowledge with non-members, something Warburg likely missed and misunderstood at the time respectively. Refer to the reading list (bibliography) on the subject below.

[8] Richland, 163.

[9] Richland, 163.

[10] Richland, 163.

[11] 1. Kurt W. Forster, “Aby Warburg: His Study of Ritual and Art on Two Continents,” trans. David Britt, October 77 (1996): 5–24, https://doi.org/10.2307/778958, 9.

[12] Scott, 316.

[13] Scott, 316.

[14] Scott, 316.

[15] Scott, 318.

[16] Scott, 318.

[17] Scott, 318.

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