KEY TO NUMBERS ON MAP INDICATING
THE PRINCIPAL TRIBES
3. Bam burr a
13. Katsina, Daura, Kamuku
16. I jaw
19. Loango Coast
33. An van j a
34. Ila-speaking Peopli
36. Zanzibar and Pembi
43. Muzini River
MAP SHOWING DISTRIBUTION OF SERPENT BELIEFS
Field Museum of Natural History
Founded by Marshall Field, 1893
Vol. XXI, No. 1
SERPENT WORSHIP IN AFRICA
THE LIBRARY B? THE
Wilfrid D. Hambly AUG 26 1931
ASSISTANT CURATOR OF AFRICAN ETHNtftffi^ , T y Qf j^^g
8 Plates in Photogravure and 1 Map
CURATOR. DEPARTMENT OP ANTHROPOLOGY
CHICAGO, U. S. A.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
BY FIELD MUSEUM PRESS
List of Plates 5
I. Python Worship 9
II. The Serpent and Fecundity, Transmigration of Souls,
III. The Rainbow Snake 37
IV. Immunity and Snake-medicines 43
V. Distribution of Beliefs and Probable Lines of Migration . . 49
VI. The Question of an External Origin of African Serpent
VII. Zoological Evidence as an Explanation of Origins 68
VIII. Summary and Conclusions 74
LIST OF PLATES
Map (facing p.l) Indicating Tribes and Distribution of Beliefs.
I. The Sacred White Crocodile of Ibadan, Nigeria. Photograph
by Wilfrid D. Hambly, Rawson-Field Museum Ethno-
logical Expedition to West Africa, 1929-30.
II. Congo Python Which Has Just Swallowed a Goat. Photo-
graph by Edmund Heller, Marshall Field Central African
III. Temple for Python Worship in Dahomey. From a drawing
by Skertchly, 1875.
IV. Native of the French Sudan Holding Sacred Snakes. From
a drawing by D'Ollone.
V. Wooden Boxes from Benin Showing Snake Designs on the
Lids. Cat. Nos. 89691 and 91250. Dimensions 70 x 20 x 10
cm and 45 x 10 x 7 cm. On exhibition in Hall D, Case 16.
VI. Decorated Medicine-man of the Dshang Tribe, Cameroon.
The beaded belt is in the form of a double-headed snake.
Cat. No. 174146. On exhibition in Hall D, Case 1.
VII. Fig. 1. Wooden Serpent from Cameroon. Cat. No. 175746.
Dimensions 212 x 38 cm. On exhibition in Hall D, Case 12.
Fig. 2. Snake Design on the Prow of a Canoe from Dualla.
Cat. No. 175469. Dimensions 70 x 40 cm. On exhibition
in Hall D, Case 5.
VIII. Fig. 1. Panel of Wood for Decorating a House in Dahomey.
Cat. No. 28011. Dimensions 100 x 35 x 2 cm.
Figs. 2-4. Zulu Staffs Showing Snake Designs. Cat. Nos.
28433, 28428, 28426. Dimensions 130 cm, 120 cm, and
100 cm, On exhibition in Hall D, Case 24.
Prior to my journey in Angola and Nigeria as leader of the
Rawson-Field Museum Expedition of 1929-30, I had collated a con-
siderable amount of evidence respecting serpent cults and beliefs of
Africa. The journey in Angola resulted in the collecting of a large
number of carved wooden snakes of excellent Umbundu workman-
ship, but there do not appear to be any beliefs beyond a few minor
ideas relating to the snake as an omen. Dreaming of a snake implies
that the dreamer will be tied and sold into slavery. When the twisted
wooden snake is shaken to the top of the diviner's basket, a twisting
of the limbs with pain is inferred.
At Ibadan in Nigeria the white crocodile is still an object of
veneration (Plate I). The creature is kept in a pool surrounded by
a low wall of mud, and in attendance there is a priest who is responsi-
ble for feeding the reptile. Albinism is rare in crocodiles, hence it is
not surprising that this particular creature should have been chosen
for veneration. Tradition gives its age as two centuries, and there is
little doubt that human victims were at one time offered.
P. A. Talbot (I, p. 24) states that everywhere in Ekoi mythology
the cult of the snake is found to be closely associated with that of the
crocodile. Crocodiles are regarded as guardian spirits of the Lake of
the Dead, where ghosts foregather; consequently the reptiles are
Forty years ago human victims were offered to crocodiles of the
Lagos Lagoon when the waters rose abnormally and threatened to
swamp the inhabitants. A few crocodiles selected by the priests
because of certain markings were treated with great veneration; they
were regularly fed and kept in houses thatched with palm leaves.
These sacred crocodiles were said to be the messengers of Oloso,
goddess of the lagoon and patroness of fishing (Ellis, III, p. 72).
At Ife" I was interested in a pool of sacred catfish which are
associated with the creation of the ocean and its separation from the
land. As will presently be shown, the keeping of crocodiles, serpents,
catfish, and other creatures in sacred places is part of a widely dis-
tributed cultural trait which affects many parts of West Africa, the
Congo Basin, and the region of the Great Lakes.
A survey of the literature dealing with the serpent in relation to
human beliefs and practices reveals a vague and inconsistent use of
the word "worship." The majority of writers have shown themselves
willing to gather under this heading almost any form of cult or belief
relating to the serpent. The difficulty of supplying a rigid and logical
definition of an act of worship is indisputable; but in practice, con-
fusion of thought may be avoided by using the word only in con-
nection with certain beliefs and acts. These might reasonably include
ideas of a superhuman being, a priesthood, provision of a special
house or locality, and also the employment of sacrifice and ritual
procedure. The word "cult" may be used to designate beliefs and
acts whose nature is less clearly defined than is the case with con-
cepts and ceremonies surrounding an act of worship. In a third
category is a large and miscellaneous assortment of beliefs. These
include a use of the fat of snakes as medicine ; wearing of amulets to
guard against snake-bite; magical means, other than amuletic, of
curing snake-bite or becoming immune to the poison.
The subject of serpent worship has suffered from hasty generaliza-
tions and a lack of classificatory treatment. Consequently there has
been assumption of similarities and identities where they do not exist.
With regard to Africa, Frobenius has published a map purporting
to give a distributional survey of beliefs centering around the serpent.
In the absence of all but the scantiest information accompanying the
map, it is impossible to use, evaluate, and criticize the diagrammatic
A survey of Africa in relation to the nature, distribution, inter-
relationship, origin, and migration of serpent cults, worship, and
beliefs, may be conveniently arranged under the headings detailed
in the Table of Contents. Although beliefs cannot always be sharply
demarcated, the divisions under which evidence is grouped are
sufficiently clear to give a logical working classification. Legitimate
use of the terms reincarnation, transmigration, and transformation,
is rendered difficult because of lack of clarity in the minds of native
informants. Transformations are classified (p. 35) and at the same
time are contrasted with reincarnations.
Following arrangement of typological beliefs, there is the necessity
for discussing their possible relationships to each other, their geo-
graphical and historical distribution, also the probabilities of external
origin as opposed to single or multiple internal origin.
SERPENT WORSHIP IN AFRICA
I. PYTHON WORSHIP
In his "Description of the Gulf of Guinea" (1700) Bosnian
describes the python worship of Whydah, in Dahomey, as follows:
"Their principal god is a certain sort of snake which professes the
chief rank among their gods. They esteem the serpent their extreme
bliss and general good." This account remarks on the connection of
the serpent with trees and the sea. "The snake is invoked in exces-
sively wet, dry, or barren seasons, and on all occasions relating to
government." At that time even the king sent presents to the snake
house, "but I am of the opinion," says Bosman, "that these roguish
priests sweep all the offerings to themselves, and doubtless make
merry with them." Then follows a description of the snake house,
and a reference to the decline of the custom of presentations from the
king to this institution. In Bosman's day there was a superstition
to the effect that the sacred snake appeared to the most beautiful
girls in order to induce madness. Such girls had then to enter the
service of the snake temple. Bosman states that the priests per-
suaded the girls to feign frenzy so that they might be sent to the
On the whole, this account is well substantiated by many subse-
quent observers who have left reports deserving of comparative study.
In addition to this there are still in circulation folklore stories which
describe the aggressive attitude of the snake toward beautiful girls.
Burton (1864) states that at Whydah the snake was associated
with trees and the ocean in acts of reverence. The python house
(Plate III) is described as being only a cylindrical hut of clay
covered by a thatched roof of extinguisher shape. Two long, narrow,
doorless entrances faced each other. They led to a raised platform of
tamped earth on which there was nothing but a broom and a basket.
The house was whitewashed, inside and out. A little distance from
the entrance were small pennons of red, white, and blue cottons tied
to some tall poles. In addition to the python the crocodile and
the monitor were local objects of worship. There were seven pythons
reposing on a ledge where the wall joined the roof. These reptiles
often wandered at night, and on one occasion Burton saw a native
bring one of them back to the hut. Before raising it he rubbed his
right hand on the ground, and dusted his forehead as if groveling
before a king. In former times the man who killed a python, even
10 Serpent Worship in Africa
accidentally, was condemned to death, but a fine was later substituted
for capital punishment. The extreme penalty, of which Duncan
gave a detailed description (1847), was death by burning. The
culprit was usually clubbed to death as he rushed from the burning
hut to the river. In the words of Burton he was "mercilessly be-
laboured with sticks and pelted with clods the whole way by the
The account of Skertchly (1874) agrees well with that of Burton.
Skertchly adds the information that a man who accidentally meets
a python has to pay a fine when he returns the reptile. Ordinary
snakes may be killed with impunity. When a child is touched by
a python, the parents have to consent to the adoption of the child
into the python priesthood, and in addition they are required to
pay for his training. Danh is a potent fetish of Whydah and tutelary
guardian of the python. There are no images of the python, and
"adoration" is paid to the living creature only. There are snake
wives; these are women concubines of the priests, ostensibly devoted
to service in the temple. The python priests are very numerous.
When a devotee goes to the python priests, they collect a fee and
promise that his wishes shall receive attention.
In describing the Ewe-speaking people of the Slave Coast, Ellis
is more explicit on some of the foregoing points. Danh-gbi is the
deity of the python that is worshiped in Dahomey, especially at
Whydah, Agweh, and Great and Little Popo. The snake itself is
not worshiped, but rather its indwelling spirit, the outward form of
the python being the manifestation of the god. Ellis proceeds to
explain the connection of the python with gods of war. He states
that before 1726 python worship was new to the Dahomeyans, who
were often at war with the people of Whydah, where python worship
had been in vogue for an unknown period. On one occasion the
pythons do not appear to have performed their defence of Whydah
with success. The attacking Dahomeyans, according to Snelgrave,
seized the sacred pythons, saying, "If you are gods, speak and try
to defend yourselves." There was no response to this challenge, so
the Dahomeyans killed and ate the pythons.
On another occasion the pythons seem to have acquitted them-
selves more gallantly in the defence of Whydah against the
Dahomeyans. On this memorable day the python god actually
appeared and caressed the faltering soldiers with his tail and head.
The chief priest held the python aloft, and so encouraged his men
that they carried everything before them. A splendid temple was
Python Worship 11
built at Savi for the python god Danh-gbi ; here the priests preserved
the python which led them to victory. There is a popular idea,
says Ellis (1890), that the snake who led the way to victory still
lives. He resides in a tree to the top of which he climbs every
morning and hangs down to measure his length. When he is long
enough to reach the earth, he will be able to reach the sky.
The python god is the god of wisdom, earthly bliss, and benefac-
tion. The first man and woman were blind, but he opened their
eyes. White ants are the messengers of the python. Whenever a
native sees a python near a nest of white ants, he places round
the reptile a protecting circle of palm leaves.
Images of the python are made in iron; these are representa-
tions of both the male and female reptile. Along with offerings of
this kind are gifts of water in calabashes. All offerings have to be
placed near to the banks of rivers or on the shores of lagoons, for
the python god loves water. In the enclosure round the temple are
sacred trees. Snakes are free to wander, but the priest retrieves
them. Before he does so, he purifies himself by rubbing certain
fresh green leaves violently between the palms of his hands. Then
prostrating himself before the reptile, he carries it gently home.
Opposite the python house are the schools where any child who has
been touched by a python has to be kept at the expense of the parents,
so that he may be taught the songs and dances peculiar to the wor-
ship. In olden days adults were similarly liable. Not even the wives
and daughters of the most influential chiefs were exempt from this
penalty attached to contact with a python.
A native who meets a python says, "You are my father and my
mother." The native then cries to the god, "My head belongs to
you, be propitious to me." The punishment for a native who kills
a python accidentally is burial alive. For the same offence a Euro-
pean was to be decapitated. Ellis continues with stories of natives
running the gauntlet from the burning hut to the river. One of his
stories is from Des Marchais (1731). Ellis is, however, more than
a compiler of extracts, for he himself was on the West Coast (1886-90) .
Ellis mentions two thousand wives of the python temples; these
are secretly married to the priests with unknown rites of initiation.
It is probable that the priests consummate the union. The ordinary
duty of the wives is to bring water for the pythons, to make grass
mats, to decorate the temple at festivals, and to bring food for the
dancers. In these rites there are excesses in which the wives give
themselves up to libertinage. They say the god possesses them, and
12 Serpent Worship in Africa
he it is who makes them pregnant. Ellis notes that by 1890 there
was a decline of custom noticeable, if comparisons were made with
the year 1886. The annual procession was abolished; so also were
the severe penalties for offences against the python god. "The
temple is now visited only once a year by the headman of Whydah,
who presents animals for sacrifice, while invoking the good offices
of the god on behalf of the king and the crops."
In former times, on the evening preceding the procession, the
priests and Danh-si (python's wives) went round the town, announc-
ing the approach of the festival. They warned all the inhabitants
to close their doors and windows, also to abstain from looking into
the streets. The natives believed that the penalty for watching the
procession would be an attack by maggots which would burst from
all parts of their bodies.
The priests and wives armed themselves with clubs on the morn-
ing of the great day. Then they ran round the town, clubbing to
death any dogs, pigs, and fowls that were wandering in the streets.
This was necessary, because animals might annoy the python god.
It was said that dogs worried him by barking, while poultry pecked
at his eyes. A hearty meal reduced the python to a comatose condi-
tion in which he allowed himself to be carried round in a hammock
with the procession. First came a body of priests and wives armed
with clubs for the destruction of stray animals. Following them
were men beating drums and blowing horns. Next followed the
hammock in which the python was reposing, and round this danced
four priests and four wives, quite naked. The procession continued
a whole day, and at night an orgy was held in the python's honor.
At minor festivals, which were held three times a year, everyone
was allowed to take part in the revelry, which included dancing,
feasting, and singing. On these occasions the priests drank rum
mixed with blood. Before the offering of a human sacrifice the wives
danced with strange contortions while balancing earthenware jars
on their heads. They said possession by the god enabled them to
do this. Public processions in honor of Danh-gbi were held in times
of pestilence, war, and drought. On such occasions human victims
were sometimes sacrificed.
When describing the Tshi-speaking people of the Gold Coast
(1887) Ellis gives an instructive instance of the rise and fall of a
cult. In the year 1824 the Fantis gained an unexpected victory
over the Ashantis, who had usually proved to be their masters.
The happy victors attributed their success to the intervention of a
Python Worship 13
god. This surmise was confirmed by the priests who named a local
god as the giver of victory. It is not clear that this deity was a
python god, but some time after the Fantis had established a cult
of their benefactor, he became identified with snakes which swarmed
in the locality. Furthermore, the god was thought to present him-
self to his worshipers in the form of the deadly ophidia. Other
snakes which accompanied him were regarded as his offspring and
The first sacrifices were human beings, but later eggs were substi-
tuted. If the god did not present himself at the expected time, the
priests made search for the offender, who was heavily fined. The
god did not always assume the form of a serpent; he might manifest
himself as a leopard. When undisguised, he was of monstrous shape
and black in color. The cult, which flourished from 1824 to 1867,
became extinct when troops occupied the site and cleared the
neighborhood of snakes.
Rattray's description of reverence for the python in Ashanti
includes statements which might reasonably be regarded as evidence
of a decadent python cult. But the information is more correctly
classified under totemism.
Johnston refers to divination by observation of tame snakes in
Liberia. The snakes usually employed are the pythons (Python). In
eastern Liberia, behind the Kru and Grebo countries, practices
strikingly like the snake worship of Dahomey exist in many villages.
Buttikofer has statements which suggest that further research in
the hinterland of Liberia would bring to light confirmatory evidence.
Buttikofer states that in several districts there were guardian animals
of which the python was one. Near a lake in Buluma a python of
the species sebae (the large python of Africa), was seen creeping
about. No one dared harm the reptile; on the contrary, it was
guarded and fed. This was the only instance of its kind noted in
Liberia, and it recalled to the observer the python cult of Dahomey.
The word Mossi is applied to a large group of peoples who inhabit
the region on the southern side of the great bend of the river Niger.
Mangin mentions the serpent as one of several animals which are
kept in sacred groves in this region. Within the enclosure the
animals, which include the crocodile and the leopard, are respected,
but they may be killed if away from the sacred grove. The python
is in some localities regarded as the guardian of the village.
The reptile contains a guardian spirit which will accompany a
traveler on his journey if asked to do so. It is forbidden to cut
14 Serpent Worship in Africa
down or even to gather wood in the sacred grove. Every attempt
is made to prevent a stranger from violating the sacred wood, but
if restraint is impossible, the people will offer a sacrifice on his
The Hostains-d'Ollone Mission to the French Sudan (1898-1900)
reported that the Sapos have fetish serpents in two houses encircled
by a sacred enclosure, though the reptiles are sometimes to be seen
loose in the village. These serpents are evidently not pythons,
because according to the report these dangerous serpents are cap-
tured by a man who knows how to handle them with impunity
(Plate IV). The natives say that these snakes give protection to
the village and that they remain harmless by divine command.
It is not until Nigeria is reached that there is evidence of python
worship in any way comparable to that of Dahomey. The art of
Benin certainly suggests the importance of the snake in decorative
design on bronze castings and wood carvings (Plate V). Nyendael
(1704) describes a metal snake of good workmanship on the city
wall. There was also a large metal serpent on the king's palace.
Leonard, who studied ophiolatry in the Niger Delta, says that the
pythons of Benin symbolized the war god, Ogidia; they were brought
from Benin to Brass by a chief, Alepe, some twelve generations ago.
All over the Niger Delta ophiolatry exists. Irrespective of locality
the serpent revered is the python. These creatures are fed and
pampered to such an extent that they become a public nuisance.
In many districts of southern Nigeria the python is the principal
object of ancestral adoration. Known in Brass under the name of
Ogidia, it represents the tribal war god of the people. The god at
times takes possession of the priest, who then speaks in a dialect
from Old Calabar, instead of the Brass dialect. The priest induces
possession by lying in the mud of the river for seven days without
food, but during this time he has a quantity of rum. The priest,
when possessed, will prophesy wars and their results, accidents and
other events, which may be avoided by sacrifices. Straying pythons
are carried to their reservation in the bush by the priest, who must
first perform a special ceremony. When the reptiles are of enormous
size, they are transported on stretchers.
Very seldom is a human being attacked by a python, but, if such
an event happens, the priest is the only one who may effect a rescue.
If a python has to be carried to the sacred enclosure because of its
depredations, its prey is allowed to remain with it. The snake is
handled carefully so that it may not be annoyed or hurt. Anyone
Python Worship 15
who fails to report an accidental injury to a python is cursed by the
ancestral spirits, who inflict sickness or death. These penalties may
be avoided by intervention of the priest. The punishment for
wilfully killing a python is death. This sentence may, however, be
remitted if the offender pays a fine, offers a sacrifice, and takes a
bath in sacred mud. "These rules are milder than they were before
the days of British administration. Formerly the penalty for killing
a python was death even in the case of a chief. Old penalties survive
in the interior districts." A public levy is made for giving elaborate
burial rites when the python dies from natural causes. Every python
has a human soul within it; this must be liberated by ritual after
the death of the reptile. Any offence against the snake is an offence
against the ancestor. When a python has been killed, the people will
not admit the extermination of their ancestor.
Talbot (1912), Thomas (1914), and Basden (1921) have all
reported on the subject of python cults (probably the term worship
is justifiable) in southern Nigeria. The evidence from these observers
may be briefly summarized as follows :
Talbot gives a description of the river Kwa and adjacent lagoons
in whose dark waters dwells Nimm, the terrible, who is always ready
at the call of her women worshipers to destroy those who have
offended. This goddess manifests herself as a huge snake or as a croco-
dile. In Ekoi mythology the cults of snakes and crocodiles are found
to be closely connected. The python shares with the crocodiles the
guardianship of the sacred lake. The snake is used as a design in
relief on the far wall of Egbo houses. A snake is never driven from
the houses of those who belong to the cult of Nimm. Such people
strew powdered chalk before the reptile, taking care not to frighten
it. If a snake enters a house not protected by Nimm, the owner
must consult a diviner to find out whether the reptile has been sent
by ghosts or juju. The sacred waters of Ndem near Awa are one
of the places where sacrifices are made to the python spirit in the lake.
The victim, usually a white cock or a white goat, is beheaded so that
the head falls into the water. If the head floats, the omen is good, for
Ndem will take it away to devour. Should the offering sink, the
sacrifice must be repeated. Surplus flesh may be eaten in the adjacent
forest; but the man who takes any meat home will die before the
moon and stars have risen. The only person allowed to make a
sacrifice is one of the family of the "Priest of the Holy Water." No
person may approach the sacred pool except under the leadership of
16 Serpent Worship in Africa
In describing the python worship of Dahomey there was evidence
that the reptile was associated with success in war. Talbot gives a
legend of Nigeria which associates the python with warfare. The
python stiffened his body, so allowing some defeated troops to cross a
river. The python relaxed his body and submerged the pursuers in
the river when they attempted to follow. "In gratitude, none of the
people whose ancestors were thus saved, kills or eats the python to
Talbot relates that in 1909 one of his carriers killed a python.
Immediately there arrived a deputation of chiefs followed by a crowd
of people. These demanded the hatchet with which the reptile was
killed, the dish on which the parts had been placed, and a fine to
appease the ghost lest it should return to trouble them.
Continuing with the personal investigations of Talbot, there are
several python cult concepts which are important because of their
corroboration of evidence already adduced. Among the Bini, the
chief juju in the Badagri region used to be the Idagbe, whose symbol
was a large black python. To this creature an annual sacrifice of a
bullock, fish, and beans was made. For this purpose the priests
removed their fine garments and put on simple white cloths before
they sat down near the shrine. The people were blessed by sacred
water which the priests threw from the sacred juju pot. There were
both priests and priestesses, the latter being more numerous. The
sacerdotal offices, which were usually hereditary, involved a long and
arduous training. The priestesses, like those of the Dahomeyans,
would go into ecstasies in which they revealed the future.
Beliefs held by the Ijaw are of particular interest because these
people are probably the oldest inhabitants of Nigeria. The Ijaw
think that pythons hold the spirits of the sons of Adumu, himself a
python, and the chief of the water spirits. Women are forbidden to
mention his name or to approach his temples. At times lights may
be seen gleaming below the surface of the water which this python
deity inhabits. On some occasions the lights rise to the tops of the
palm trees. Serpents are carved on the statue of Adumu at Adum'
Ama on a small tributary of the Santa Barbara River. Here come
all who aspire to act as diviners or prophetesses. Such a priestess is
forbidden to have relationships with a man; her husband is one of the
sacred serpents. Every eighth day the water spirit is supposed to rise
out of the water in order to visit his wife. On that day she sleeps
alone, does not leave the house after dark, and pours libations before
the Owe (water spirit) symbols. Inside her shrine are posts and
Python Worship 17
staves representing serpents whose coils are said to typify the whirling
dance performed in honor of the chief python god Adumu. "It is
the spirit of the python that enters the priestess, making her gyrate
in the mystic dance and utter oracles."
When inspired, she will dance for a period varying from three to
five days, during which she may not drink water. The language
spoken during trance is said to be incomprehensible to the worshipers.
In the Brass country, where Ogidia, the python war god, is wor-
shiped, there are three main festivals in his honor. At the first of
these (Buruolali), there is a presentation of yams at night, by a
woman. These yams, which have been procured by the priests and
chiefs, have to be in the form of serpents. At a second ceremony, a
smooth-skinned male is offered as a sacrifice (Indiolali ceremony).
Thirdly, there is Iseniolali. At this rite, women who have been
appointed by the chiefs and priests gather shellfish. These are cooked
at the shrine of Ogidia amid great rejoicing. Among the I jaw
people, pythons are never killed because they are thought to bring
a blessing on any house they enter. At death the reptiles are buried
with the honors of a chief.
Speaking of the Ibo people, N. W. Thomas says that entry of a
python into the house is a favorable omen. Minor deities inhabit the
bodies of snakes. Pythons are held sacred throughout the region of
marsh lands and waters inhabited by the most ancient tribe of all, the
Ijaw. There are traces of ophiolatry in many other parts. Among the
Ijaw, the cult of Tamuno, a mother-goddess, is exceptionally strong.
The researches of Basden (1921) are more recent than any of
those described. This writer distinguishes between an act of worship
and reverence for sacred objects. Among the Ibos, examples of
sacred objects are numerous and varied. So also are the objects
offered in sacrifice. The python must be added to the list of sacred
animals, which include certain fish and monkeys. "Over the greater
part, if not the whole of the Ibo country, pythons, more especially
the smaller species, are sacred. These reptiles are referred to as 'our
mother,' and to kill one is a grave offence. If a man has the mis-
fortune to kill one, he will mourn for a year, and will abstain from
shaving his head. Monkeys, birds, and various animals are treated
similarly in the regions where they are held to be sacred." If a
person is injured by a sacred tree or reptile, the inference is that he
has committed some offence. With the exception of the python,
snakes are killed without hesitation. Those who have forsaken
paganism include the python among edible meats.
18 Serpent Worship in Africa
West Africa undoubtedly yields evidence of python worship,
especially in Dahomey and southern Nigeria. There is also supple-
mentary evidence with regard to python cults and beliefs. Among
these data must be classed a few facts relating to the beliefs
of the Bavili, a people described by Dennett, who lived for some years
on the Lango Coast.
There are skins of snakes in the sacred groves. Ndoma is a black
snake, which is some six to eight feet in length. The reptile is
said to lift itself on its tail to strike dead any person who attempts
to pass it. Ndoma appears to have some connection with ideas of
moral values. When a man is wearing the iron marriage bracelet
(ngofo), he asks himself the following questions, when he meets the
"Have we eaten the flesh of any animal we have killed the same
"Have we pointed our knives at anyone?
"Did we know our wives on the day of rest?
"Have we looked on women in their periods?
"Have we eaten the long chili peppers, instead of the smaller
Ndoma is the snake which causes man to reflect and reason.
A geographical survey through the Congo, South Africa, and up
the east is negative with regard to the existence of python worship.
Not until the region of Lake Victoria Nyanza is reached is there
evidence of a definitely organized python worship with a sacred
temple, a priesthood, and definite ritual acts including sacrifice.
There appears to be no definite evidence of python worship in Cam-
eroon, but the serpent design is often employed in wood carving and
the equipment of medicine-men (Plates VI and VII).
Accounts of python worship in Uganda have been supplied by
Canon J. Roscoe who spent twenty-five years in that region. His
contributions to the subject are dated 1909 and 1923.
Worship of the python is confined almost entirely to one clan, in
Budu, South Uganda. The temple is situated on the shore of Lake
Victoria Nyanza, on the bank of the river Muzini. The temple is a
large conical hut built of poles and thatched with grass. The floor of
this structure is carpeted with sweet-smelling grass. On one side of
the building is the sacred place of the snake and his guardian, a
woman who is required to remain celibate. Over a log and a stool, a
bark cloth is stretched for the python to lie upon. In one side of
Python Worship 19
the building there is a circular hole so that the python is free to go to
the banks of the river. There the reptile feeds on goats and poultry
which are tied to posts near the water. In addition to this the
python is fed daily on milk from sacred cows. White clay is mixed
with the milk. The reptile lies over the wooden stool and drinks the
milk which is offered in a wooden bowl held by the priestess.
The python is supposed to give success in fishing. He has power over
the river and all that is in it. For this reason a special meal is given to
the python before the keeper goes out to fish. The names of the
python are male names. The time of worship is at new moon. Newly
married men, also the husbands of barren women, make sacrifices
and requests to the python, within whose power lies the assurance of
For seven days before an act of worship no work is done in the
vicinity of the temple. Beating of drums announces the beginning
of the rite. The priest attends with a following of chiefs. The
priesthood is hereditary, and the chief priest is head of the system.
The priest receives the gifts from the people and explains their
requests to the python. A priest, dressed in a ceremonial robe, drinks
from the bowl of the python, then he takes a drink of beer. The
spirit of the python goes into the medium who wriggles on the floor
like a snake, uttering strange sounds and talking in a language
which has to be interpreted to the worshipers. The people stand
round, while the drum is beaten, and the python delivers its oracle.
When the medium has ended his speech, he lies in a state of coma,
during which time an interpreter explains to the supplicants those
things which they must do in order to realize their desires.
This ritual is repeated on each of seven successive days. When
children are born as a result of supplication to the python, the parents
have to bring an offering to the temple. If this is neglected, the
children will sicken and die. The keeper of the python obtains the
milk from the island of Sese. Here the cows belong to the god
Mukasa whose wife is a female python. At one time the kings of
Uganda sent the headmen of each district to ask the python to grant
children to the royal house.
The Bahima believe that the spirits of their dead princes and
princesses enter snakes. A belt of the forest Nzani is sacred to these
reptiles, which are fed and protected by priests in a temple. The
bodies of princes and princesses receive preservative treatment.
There is said to come from the abdomen of the corpse a python, which
is reared for a time, then set free in the sacred enclosure. The same
20 Serpent Worship in Africa
beliefs and practices are carried out in relation to the idea of a
transmigration of the souls of royalty into lions. In the Banyankole
tribe the corpse of a sister of the ruler is wrapped in bark cloth and
carried to the royal burial ground. Here the same rites are enacted
as in the burial of the king. The royal princess is said to be born
again in the form of a python which lives in the sacred forest.
There are two unquestionable areas of python worship, namely,
West Africa and a smaller region in Uganda, but there is no definite
evidence of similar institutions in the great extent of country between
the two centers. There are, however, usages which may be the
residue of a decadent python cult.
Schweinfurth describes the way in which pythons are welcomed to
the huts of the Dinka: "I was informed that the separate snakes are
individually known to the householder, who calls them by name and
treats them as domestic animals. The species which is the most
common is the giant python [Sefrae]. Others are Psammophis punc-
tatus, Psammophis sibilans, and Ahaetuella irregularis." Such a state-
ment as this may indicate that python worship existed in country
lying between the two main centers of python worship. Encourage-
ment of, and respect for pythons may be a relic of a defunct worship,
or the explanation may be more simple. The pythons may be
encouraged because they eat or drive away rats and other small pests.
The following factors are common to the East and West African
forms of python worship:
(1) The python only, but no other snake, is selected for definite
worship. This choice may be due to the impressive size of the large
species of python (Plate II). The reptiles are tractable and non-
poisonous. All observers are agreed that the python rarely attacks
a human being.
(2) Hut structures (temples) contain internal arrangements for
feeding the reptiles.
(3) The python embodies a superhuman being, god of war,
spirit of the water, patron of agriculture, or goddess of fertility.
(4) The king sends messengers and offerings. He asks for
(5) Sacred groves are found in addition to temples.
(6) Acts of worship bring people who offer sacrifice and make
(7) Priests and priestesses are employed; the latter are wives
of the python. Both dance themselves into ecstatic trance in which
Python Worship 21
they make oracular utterances which are given in a language not
understood by the worshipers.
In Uganda the main ceremonies of supplication are carried out
at new moon; to this I have found no parallel in the ceremonies
reported from West Africa. The Uganda ceremonies include the
keeping of special cows for supplying milk to the sacred pythons.
One would not expect this trait of the python-worshiping complex
to appear in the coastal regions of West Africa where few, if any,
cows are kept. In the Lakes Region emphasis is placed on the rein-
carnation of kings in pythons. The idea of reincarnation is common
in West Africa, but there is not the same insistence on the rein-
carnation of kings in pythons. There is, however, the idea of rein-
carnation of a god, which is perhaps the same generic concept as
the reincarnation of a king.
There is a close agreement between the python worship of West
Africa and that of Uganda. A discussion of the noticeable clustering
of python-worshiping centers at two ends of a probable line of
migration across Africa, is a point to be discussed in relation to the
map of distributions. For the present the line of inquiry is confined
to a classification of the main beliefs in connection with serpents.
II. THE SERPENT AND FECUNDITY, TRANSMIGRATION
OF SOULS, TOTEMISM
In describing the python worship of West Africa and Uganda it
became clear that the python was the symbol of prosperity as judged
by appeals to him for success in fishing and agriculture. Childless
women brought their requests to the temple; and when the children
were born, some acknowledgment had to be made to the python.
The rainbow snake guarding a water supply is an idea which carries
with it a general concept of fertility. There are, however, a number
of examples of a specific kind relating to the snake as a symbol of
human fecundity. That this should je so becomes quite plain from
an examination of the zoological evi-ience. These instances of the
serpent as symbolic of human produ2tiveness have apparently no
necessary connection with any act 01 worship; they form rather a
special class of beliefs. With the concept of serpents and fecundity
are sometimes associated ideas of reincarnation, possibly also of
totemism, in the sense of a sentimental alliance between man
Tautain recollects having seen a Mandingo of Bambouk offer a
month's pay to save a python from death. If he had not prevented
its death, his family would have perished. This man avoided tread-
ing on ground which had been covered by the python, presumably
in fear of wounding the reptile itself. He said that the python came
to visit every child born into his family some time in the eight days
following birth. The man expressed his intention of killing all
children who were not so visited, because they would be unlucky.
An Ashanti belief in the influence of the python on fecundity is
expressed in a legend. Originally there were two pairs of men and
two pairs of women, one pair from the earth and one pair from the
sky. These were all sterile until the python was sent by the sky
god, Onyame, to make its home in the river. The python bade the
men and women stand face to face on the banks of the river. Then
the reptile plunged in and sprayed them with water. The women
conceived and brought forth their first children who took the name
of the river as their ntoro. The relationship of the ntoro to a human
being is a concept difficult to understand, but it is totemic in its
import. This ntoro is one of the two great elements in every man
and woman, but it can be transmitted only by the male. The word
is perhaps best translated by "spirit." Sometimes the word ntoro
The Serpent and Fecundity 23
means personal charm, soul, power, character, or will. When people
of the python ntoro see a dead python, they sprinkle white clay on
the reptile and bury it. They would never dream of killing a python.
Everything that has been said of the python ntoro might be said of
the ntoro of the leopard. This statement of Rattray modifies the
idea that such python-nforo beliefs are necessarily an offshoot from
python worship, one of whose strongholds was in adjacent territory.
This account for the Ashanti agrees well with information given by
Westermann (pp. 304, 322, 327) concerning snake totems of the
Kpelle of Liberia.
The Ibo-speaking people of southern Nigeria believe that when a
snake advances toward a woman, it does so as a sign that she has
conceived. There is a belief in the reincarnation of a Ci at this time.
The Ci may be either the spirit of a dead or a living person. The
medicine-man is called in to say exactly what this Ci happens to be.
Taboos will then be imposed on the woman with regard to eating or
contact with certain objects. Talbot speaks of a tree which was
supposed to give fertility to women. A python was coiled round the
tree at certain seasons of the year. To Ibo and Ijaw people the
snake typifies masculinity. There is a belief common to all Hausa
women that if they dream of a snake, they have conceived. The
Bavili of the Lango Coast classify certain snakes under the name
Bobo, which means the "bearing ones." Other snakes are grouped
under the name Sasa, meaning the "procreating ones." In the same
region, the Fan make figures of the snake out of clay. This is done
at a time when boys are ready for initiation. The sexual side of
these rites is strongly developed, and throughout the ceremonies the
snake is the symbol of the male organ.
John Weeks gives a detailed account of the belief that a
woman has conceived when she is visited by a snake. When a man
of the Bangala people finds a snake called mwaladi, which has red
marks on it, lying by his side when he wakes, he assumes that his
wife has conceived. When a woman is sitting or lying down at
the approach of this particular snake, she remains perfectly still.
As the reptile passes by her, she sprinkles a little powdered
camwood over it, and accepts its presence as a warning of her preg-
nancy. Among the Bangala a child born after a warning of this
kind is not regarded with any special respect, nor is a special name
given to it. Such an omen is, however, treated more seriously among
the Bakongo. When a woman while pregnant dreams of running
water, snakes, or water spirits, she believes that her child will be a
24 Serpent Worship in Africa
reincarnation of a water spirit. The spirits inhabit water, snakes
live in crevices near to water, hence to dream of water is to dream
of the water spirits themselves.
As soon as such a child is born, a cloth is tied round it, and no
one is allowed to know the sex before the medicine-man has been
called. The doctor is a specialist who is always called when there
is anything unusual about the birth of a child. An all-night dance
is held. All girls who are born after this dream omen are called
Lombo, and all boys are named Etoko. They are supposed to possess
the nature of snakes, and are regarded as reincarnations of the water
spirits. To such children many presents are made, because they are
credited with the power of distributing good or evil fortune. Snakes
are not harmed in a house where these children live. Lombo and
Etoko children are not allowed to kill snakes lest they should murder
their own relatives. Snakes appear to realize their places of safety,
for they are often found in the houses of Lombo and Etoko children.
These water-spirit children must not be struck on the head because
that is the most vulnerable part of their familiar reptile.
Hofmayr's account of the association of the crocodile with
mothers and with child welfare leaves the impression that there may
have been a transfer of snake beliefs to the crocodile. For women
of the Shilluk, the crocodile has an important significance as the
form under which the female Nikaia, female consort of the supreme
being, Nykang, appears. Nikaia comes out of the water in the form
of a child in order to bring good or bad luck to children. Women
and children make offerings of food to the crocodiles at the river
bank, and the flesh of this reptile is taboo to them. Stuhlmann
notes that in the northeast Congo the rubbing of python's fat on
the ears and back of a woman aids delivery of her child. When
the sun shines while the rain is falling, the Suahili say, "The wife
of the great snake has brought forth."
Ideas of a soul, demon, or supernormal being inhabiting the body
of a snake enter into every African concept of python worship,
guardian rainbow snakes, or snake-human-fecundity beliefs. There
are, however, a series of ideas in which reincarnation is the main
thought, one might say in many instances, the only thought. It
is not improbable that the reincarnation concept is logically
fundamental to every form of African snake worship, snake cult,
and snake belief.
A section of the Bambarra, known as Taroule, will not eat of
the flesh of snakes because they consider that the serpents are their
The Serpent and Fecundity 25
ancestors whose malediction they fear. The serpent is credited by
these people with healing properties. Tradition says that a mother
when nursing her sick child saw a snake enter the door. The reptile
coiled itself on the infant for a short time, then went away. From that
time the health of the child was completely recovered. The Mossi
say that human souls inhabit snakes and crocodiles. To slay these
creatures is to kill an inhabitant of the village. No sacrifice is made
to snakes, and they may be killed outside the village.
Talbot records the trial of a woman of Oban who was accused
of sending her snake familiar to keep open a sore on her husband's
leg. The accused admitted that she had a snake familiar, because
in her country snakes and some other animals were possessed by
women. The accused said, "I left my snake in the bush of my
land when I was brought from my home. When I sleep and dream,
I sometimes see my snake, but not very often. In the daytime I
have not seen it since I was brought here many years ago."
Yoruba and Popo people believe that good men after death spend
their time between reincarnations in different animals, or, more
correctly, the spirits materialize into animals at will. The medicine-
man is said to be able to change into a snake or other animal so that
he can kill an enemy. The transformation is accomplished by cover-
ing the body with a medicine made from soaking roots in a pot.
Very bad men take upon themselves serpent shape, so they can do
evil to others. Instead of asking the priest to make sacrifice to a
sacred python, an evil man may offer the gift in person. He is
judged to be trying to persuade the python to kill his enemy. Bad
men who have assumed snake form live under water, from which
they emerge twice a year to seek victims. At the planting of farms,
also at the new yam harvest, they come out and upset canoes. It
is not permissible to recover a canoe which has been overturned by
one of these snake men. Talbot writes, "As we glided down stream,
our attention was caught by such derelicts, worth a hundred pounds,
a colossal sum in the eyes of these poor natives." Ogugu is held by
the Ikwerri to be one of the most important of female spirits, whose
home is in a tree. If anyone has failed to keep a promise made
to a juju, or swears on its name and does not fulfil the vow, Ogugu
sends a snake to remind the delinquent of the promise. Big snakes
may be sent to lie across the threshold of the house, to enter the
bed at night, or to coil up by the head of the sleeper. The snake
messenger will not leave until the promise has been fulfilled. The
Elei Edda worship a male juju, Alose, who resides in very nimble
26 Serpent Worship in Africa
green snakes (Dendraspis angusticeps) . If anyone kills this snake,
a chief dies. This snake lives in a grove near the village; it comes
out only when the priest sacrifices to it. The reptile is supposed to
bite and kill any bad person.
Most of the Ibibio are of the opinion that the "bush soul" lives
in a man's belly. Some social groups say that the power of sending
out the soul is the prerogative of chiefs and influential members of
a secret society. Usually the soul is sent out when the owner is
asleep. Owners of bush souls are said to have submitted to a special
initiation, carried out by an old man who makes medicine in a cala-
bash. Power of sending out the soul may be inherited, or it may
be bought. As a rule the owners of bush souls will not admit their
power because this is generally put to an evil use. There are several
animals which may be the recipients of these souls, but among the
Eket snake affinities predominate. Talbot states that one of a com-
pany of natives suddenly sprang up, saying that his affinity, a
python, was caught in a trap. The man struggled violently as if
trying to free himself, meanwhile he begged that someone should
go to set free the python. When the search party returned saying
that they had set the reptile at liberty, the man declared, "Now I
am free once more, my soul has come back to me." There are two
kinds of Asaba, or snake souls, one hereditary and totemistic, the
other to be acquired by magical rites. Large sums are paid to the
juju man to perform the ceremony which will enable a man to send
his soul into a python. The python is specially valued as a bush
soul because it guards the sacred waters and groves along with the
treasures buried there. Great care has to be exercised in the choice
of a magician who has to introduce the python into a man. An
evil magician will introduce the female python instead of the male.
This is undesirable as the female will lay eggs in the man, then every-
one will know that he has a bush soul. The novice is made to swallow
a pad and a thread seven feet long; from these the snake is metamor-
phosed inside him. Snake souls may be recognized by having a
peeling skin, a long neck and jaw, and fetid breath.
The Ibo people of Nigeria say that a child of three years who
cannot walk has come from a stream. At Ubulubu the people take
the child to a stream along with an offering of yams on a platter.
There the child changes into a python and goes back into the stream
whence it came. In Asaba a ceremony is performed in the house.
If this rite results in the transformation of the child into a snake,
the reptile is killed. Some people seriously assured N. W. Thomas
The Serpent and Fecundity 27
that they had seen the transformation. Meek states that before
the introduction of Islam among the early people of the Hausa
states, various snakes were totem animals, especially among the
people of Katsina and Daura. Among the Kamuku and Gwari,
snake beliefs still prevail. Snakes are allowed to visit houses, and
it is said that anyone who killed one of these visitors would die.
Tremearne thinks that the various forms of respect for, and beliefs
relating to snakes in Hausaland are a result of the well-defined snake
worship of West Africa. Many Hausa clans claim the snake as
their totem. A special offering of eggs and milk is made, and some-
times the snake is the emblem of the evil eye. "Whether it is the
serpent itself or the spirit that is in it, which is worshiped, I cannot
say. I feel inclined to believe that both ideas exist in the minds of
the Hausa, for whereas Mai-Ja-Chikki is the snake, Dan Musa is
said by some to be the spirit in the snake."
There is evidence to show that some of the Hausa make offerings
of eggs and milk to their snake totems. The gift has to be placed
near to an ant hill or a hollow tree, and incense should be burned at
the same time. "If the totem likes you, it will come out, and you
can then make your supplication." Incense attracts the Bori, or
demons; the association of these with snakes has been described
already. In Daura the totem snake is not killed, but if unfaithful
to its promises, the people will bring a larger snake to drive it away.
In Daura there are proceedings which approximate to a snake cult.
Every year a black bull or a he-goat is killed. The blood forms an
offering to the snake, while the meat is consumed by those present;
no meat may be taken home. If the head of a family cannot be
there, his son, wife, or daughter, will eat his share so that he will
not lose the Baraka, or blessing. A priestly king or priestess dances
round with the skin of the sacrificed animal.
The snake-child belief of the Ibo of Southern Nigeria has a
parallel among the Kagoro of Northern Nigeria. If a child is mentally
deficient or paralyzed, a period of four years is allowed for recovery.
If at the end of that time there is no sign of recovery, the people
say, "It is a snake, not a human being." They throw the child
into a river, and are decided in their verdict that, "if you hide by
the water, you will see the child lengthen into a snake."
The Kouyou tribe of French Equatorial Africa have great respect
for the viper. This snake is a chief and the parent of chiefs. The
reptile goes into the wood to kill animals which are intended as
food for the chief. There is a proverb meaning, "Breathed the
28 Serpent Worship in Africa
serpent — gave the kid to the chief." This snake is the principal
symbol of a widely-spread secret society. In connection with this
there are initiation rites at which a principal performer dresses as
a snake in order to execute an elaborate series of dances. The Azande
say the souls of dead chiefs enter serpents and other animals
Reverence for snakes has been a factor of South African culture
for a long period whose duration is unknown. The antiquity of
mural paintings in caves is uncertain. Hall has enumerated the
serpents which figure in these wall paintings. Some of the serpents
have humps along their backs, others have horns, while one shows
fins, or wings. Three of the paintings show men on the backs of
the snakes. "It is clear that they are variations of one particular
creature." Some of the myths relating to monster snakes of South
Africa will be given; probably the paintings were made to give expres-
sion to the beliefs embodied in these stories. When the zoological
evidence is discussed it will be seen that there is a rational foundation
for the artist's representation of horns and humps along the back.
The Batlaru, a branch of the Bechuana, are men of the python;
that is to say, they take the python as their totem, but the totemism
does not appear to be of a flourishing kind. An early observer,
Casalis (1859), says that the Kafirs of South Africa have a general
belief that the spirits of their ancestors appear to them in the form
of serpents. Callaway states that among the Zulu it is especially
the harmless green and brown snakes, which come fearlessly into
houses, that are considered to be amatongo or ancestors. These
have to be treated respectfully, hence offerings of food are made
to them. There are two ways in which the reincarnated man can
be recognized. If the creature is one-eyed or has a scar it is identified
as the itongo of a man who was thus marked in life. But if the man
had no distinguishing blemish, he is supposed to reveal his identity
in dreams. In 1906 Hartland saw a Zulu who had killed a brilliant
green Imamba snake which he wore around his body. The observer
states this as a sign of the decadence of belief and custom, saying,
"The Kafir dared not have done this in the old days." Kidd says
(1906), that the Kafirs will kill these snakes when the reptiles are
away from the kraal; these absentees cannot be ancestral snakes
because the spirits of ancestors do not wander. The evidence showed
that sacred pythons which wandered had to be brought back to the
temple with reverence. Generally speaking, however, sacred snakes
are immune only when they are in the sacred grove or within the
The Serpent and Fecundity 29
hut they have visited. Again, when a snake attacks a man, he is
justified in killing it; for no ancestor would attack his own people,
especially if they were prepared to feed him. Kidd gives one of the
best accounts of the Zulu attitude toward these visiting snakes. If
a stranger picks up a stick to attack the snake, the people say,
"Hold! Do you not know that this is our ancestor? Would you
kill our ancestor?" When the snake arrives, there is great joy in
the kraal; the people say, "Our ancestor has come to visit us."
Sometimes an ox is killed in honor, and the snake is carefully watched.
If it moves quickly, the people say, "It is so-and-so, who used to
walk very fast." Identification is easier than one might imagine,
for only the chief ancestor would return.
Several investigators have tried to satisfy themselves with regard
to the Zulu idea of the nature of the reincarnation. Kidd was
informed that the backbone of the deceased man turned into a snake;
but some people said that the entrails became the snake. Children
turn into harmless snakes which are used by the diviners. The
Matabele, according to Nielson, believe that when a man dies, his
idhlozi, or self, arises from the grave and assumes the form of one
of three common kinds of snake. The Matabele say that an ancestor
usually returns with evil intent; hence he is held responsible for
sickness and disease. The natives say they do not know whether
the idhlozi lives in a man when he is alive. Some say that the body
itself changes into the snake. Others have the idea that snakes are
merely messengers. Bryant (1917) was told that the ancestor does
not enter any existing snake, but simply materializes into one. A
snake of bright green color with black spottings on the upper part
of the body, if fully grown, is said to be the spirit of a man of impor-
tance, the headman of a kraal, or even a chief. When young and
small, this snake is thought to contain the spirit of a child or of an
unimportant man. A short brown snake which secretes itself in
dark corners of the hut is regarded as the spirit of a female, though
an elderly woman may appear as a large brown snake. "All snakes
and lizards which are regarded as spirits are never molested, or were
not until the Zulu came under other influence." The importance
of these beliefs is reflected in wood carvings of the Zulu (Plate VIII,
Proceeding northward, it may be shown that this idea of visits
from a reincarnated ancestor, in the guise of a snake, extends from
the Cape to the Horn of Africa. The dead of the Yao and Anyanja
may manifest themselves in the form of animals, but this does not so
30 Serpent Worship in Africa
often happen as among the Zulu, who are expecting the visit. The
Yao idea agrees with that of the Matabele; both peoples think that
the ancestor returns with evil intent. The Yao say that if a dead
man wants to frighten his wife, he may persist in coming as a serpent.
The only remedy is to kill the serpent. The accidental killing of a
serpent demands an apology.
Junod has collected information relating to the snake beliefs of
the BaThonga. Mapfindlen was walking along the path of a forest
when he trod on a snake and hurt it. During the night the gods came
to him, and he began to scratch himself all over the body. He saw
the gods against the wall in the form of snakes, and they said, "Thou
hast hurt us." No one else saw them. His mother tried to pacify
him, but he kept saying, "The gods are trying to kill me because I
trod on them." The diviner threw the bones and said, "This comes
from your household gods; has he not trodden on a snake?" Sacrifice
was made to the gods, but the boy died. Further information respect-
ing the reincarnation of gods is shown in the Tonga belief that gods
reveal themselves in little bluish green snakes which live in the
thatch. When disease breaks out, the diviner generally comes to the
conclusion that someone has harmed one of these little snakes. The
gods can also appear in the form of the large green puff-adder. A
story of the Bondei illustrates the idea of reincarnation in a snake.
A man who wished to free a girl from her snake husband hid in the
hut under a pot. When the snake returned, it received a slashing
blow. The reptile shouted, "Who is putting water on my body?
I am a great chief." The Wanyamwezi believe in a white serpent of
a non-venomous kind which may be seen at the grave or the hut of
their parents. This snake, which is a metamorphosis of the deceased
parent, will give a warning of impending misfortune. In his "Travels
and Missionary Labours," Krapf writes that in lower East Africa
there is a belief that the souls of children are reincarnated in snakes.
The author thinks that this belief was derived from the Hindus.
The Konde say that a snake can dwell in the body of a man who then
possesses certain powers. When he is asleep, he can send out his soul
in the form of a snake; but if the animal is killed, he will not wake
again. This idea is almost the same as the snake-soul concept of
The fanany snake or worm of Madagascar, described by Sibree
and discussed by Van Gennep, is rightly classed with the ideas of
reincarnation so prevalent through the whole of East Africa. Sibree
mentions a Madagascar legend of the fanany with seven heads. It
The Serpent and Fecundity 31
will be possible to show later that ideas of a snake with two or more
heads rest upon a rational zoological basis. There are said to be
certain people whose intestines turn into fanany, or the corpse as a
whole may turn in this way. Reference is made to a custom of the
southern part of the island where people take the intestines of their
dead relatives and place them in a pool so that they may turn into
fanany. People who turn into fanany are of noble descent. When
this creature comes to a village, the people say, "Art thou such a one?"
If the correct name is mentioned, the fanany nods its head; then an
ox is killed. The fanany is similar in appearance to the water snake.
Tambahoaka and other people of Arab origin believe that liquids
produced by decay of the body of a chief engender a large sea-serpent
which they call fanany. Van Gennep discusses this fanany reincar-
nation and suggests that the belief may, among the Betsileo, be a
decadent or an incipient totemism. Hartland thinks it unlikely that
totemism could be in its early stages among a people so advanced as
the Betsileo. Against this contention there is the fact that totemic
ideas may originate quickly and spontaneously, for example, in
modern military organization. The basic idea of totemism is of a
simple and fundamental kind implying merely a sentimental relation-
ship between a person and an object.
R. Linton reports on the Fanany Cult of Madagascar:
"There is a belief that the souls of the dead are sometimes rein-
carnated in snakes which seems to be rather widespread in Mada-
gascar. Throughout most of its range the idea is vague and seems
to have no particular significance. The Bara lack it altogether and
kill snakes on sight. Other tribes usually do not kill snakes, but
assign various reasons for it. Where the belief in snake reincarnation
does occur, it is usually linked with other and contradictory ideas of
the fate of the soul. It assumes the importance of a cult only among
the Betsileo, who occupy the southern end of the Central Plateau.
Here the following belief is found : Members of the royal caste (called
the 'Hova' caste, but quite distinct from the Hova tribe, who live
to the north of the Betsileo) carry in their bodies during life a small
insect or larva, described as being about as large as the first joint of
a man's finger. At death the body is squeezed, kneaded, and fastened
upright to the end post of a house. The soles of the feet are slit,
and the matter which runs out is collected in jars placed below.
The process is continued until an insect, believed to be this larva,
appears in the matter in the jars. Although the whole results in a
sort of mummification, the underlying idea is to get the larva safely
32 Serpent Worship in Africa
out of the body before it is buried with ceremony, while the matter,
with the insect, is taken to a sacred wood or a sacred lake and
poured out, or simply left there. The larva is supposed to grow
into a snake called fanany. This is a real animal, a large hand-
some constricting snake, probably a boa. Its skin is unusually
smooth and shiny with mottlings of brown on a light ground.
The natives believe that it has seven tongues. When a Betsileo
man, irrespective of rank, encounters a fanany, he brings a fine
lamba of the type called Arindrano (having a dark center with
white lines) or the type called Lamba Be (having a dark blue ground
with wide stripes of mixed colors, the most valued of all lambas; the
lamba is a shawl or blanket), and puts it on the ground near the snake.
He then repeats the names of all the dead Hova (members of the
royal clan) he knows, asking, 'Fanany are you so-and-so, are you
so-and-so, etc' When the name of the Hova whose soul occupies
the fanany is called, the snake crawls upon the lamba and coils there.
The person then lifts the lamba carefully by the four corners, with the
snake inside, and carries it to a sacred place. There the family
assembles, caresses the snake, and brings it a chicken as food. After
it has eaten, it is released. It is believed that a snake of this species
cannot be killed. Even if it is cut in two, the halves will reunite.
If it is ill-treated in any way, the offender will suffer bad luck or
"This cult in slightly modified form has been introduced among
the Tanala, who live just to the east of the Betsileo, within the last
fifty years. The following story is told by them, and seems to be
true in its essentials. The Tanala had no kings until one of their
clan chiefs submitted to the Imerina tribe (commonly called Hova),
and was accorded royal rank by them on condition that he be their
vassal. At the death of this king, a few days after his burial, a fanany
snake came into the dead man's house. It was put out, but returned
a second time. The Tanala were puzzled and frightened but their
own medicine-men (ombiasy) could not explain the incident. Finally
a Betsileo who had settled in their capital said, 'If this were in my
country, we would know that the soul of the dead king was in this
snake. Perhaps now that you have kings their souls enter fanany
as those of our own kings do.' He performed the regular Betsileo
ceremony, and at the name of the recently deceased king the snake
came on the lamba. Since then the fanany incarnation has been
believed in by the Tanala. However, when the soul occupying a
fanany has been identified, they sacrifice an ox to it instead of a
The Serpent and Fecundity 33
chicken, and then carry it to a secluded place and set it free, saying,
'We have treated you well and made a sacrifice for you. Please
do not come back to trouble us any more.' It is believed that the
snake then goes away and lives in the woods, finally growing to a
great size. When it becomes old and huge, it goes down to the ocean
on the east, plunges in, and disappears."
It may be noted that true boas, related to the American
constrictor, replace the pythons of Africa in Madagascar.
At the burial of a paramount chief of the Awemba and other
people of the plateau of northern Rhodesia a long hollow bamboo
is inserted in the right ear of the corpse in such a way that the upright
tube projects above the surface of the grave. This egress from the
grave is carefully watched for several days. At the end of the second
day a spider emerges from the tube, to be followed a little later by a
python, and at a further interval by a young lion. When the python
appears, it is fed and sent away with a warning against molesting
human beings (Gouldsbury and Sheane, p. 188).
There is no definite statement that the python is the escaping
soul or a reincarnation of the chief, but such a belief seems to be
implied. If this inference is correct, the case is similar not only to
that of Dr. Linton's report, but it bears in addition a similarity to
the evidence collated from Roscoe's books on the tribes of the
Great Lakes region.
The Wakerewe have in their society people known as Balogi,
workers of black magic, who can change a person into a snake or other
animal. There is an intelligent cooperation between the Balogi and
the person so changed. The Balogi sends the animal on an errand of
mischief against an enemy; but, before doing so, he shows the animal
something belonging to the intended victim. Perhaps an article of
clothing is indicated, or tracks of the quarry are pointed out in the
sand. This human reptile will capture an enemy or will commit
robbery, but he takes care of the human life within him. The
Wahehe snake catchers handle the reptiles freely. The men say
they have a medicine which cures snake-bite in twenty-four hours.
Death does occur; but in such cases the snake could not have been
a real snake; it must have been a wizard.
The Masai, WaKikuyu, Nandi, Kavirondo, Suk, and other people
of Northeast Africa have beliefs in visits of snakes which contain the
souls of dead ancestors. The Masai say that the soul of a poor
person dies with him, but the soul of a rich man or a medicine-man
goes into a snake as soon as the body rots. The snake visits the
34 Serpent Worship in Africa
kraal to look after the children. The Masai do not kill their sacred
snakes; on the contrary, an offering of milk is made to them. There
is a black snake which is sacred to the Aiser clan whose members
prevent anyone from injuring the creature. One family has its own
snakes which are of the guardian type. A member of this family who
is being defeated in a fight shouts, "The avengers of my mother's
house come out." If his opponent does not run away, the snakes will
come out and bite him. Many other clans and families have sacred
snakes which are peculiar to them. Hollis says that the Bari, Dinka,
and Latuka follow similar customs. Medicine-men of the Masai
carry snakes in their bags. Merker refers to a belief that dead
husbands return as snakes to which an offering of milk is made.
The Nandi kill any snake which enters the hut, but the body is not
thrown out of the door; a special hole has to be made for egress.
If the snake goes to the bed of a woman, it may not be killed. Such
a snake is thought to be a reincarnated ancestor who has come to tell
the woman that her next child will be born safely. This instance
might have been classed with those relating to childbirth and human
fecundity in general. The snake is a totem animal of the Lumbwa.
Hobley says that the Kadimu people, who live near the mouth
of the river Nzoia, believe that they are descended from the python
to whom sacrifices are made on a hillside. Some of the Wanyamwezi
clans look upon certain snakes as sacred, and Hobley thinks that the
belief in snake ancestors is present in this tribe. It is certain that
many Wanyamwezi consider the killing of a snake a deadly sin.
The totems of the Karomojo to the north of Mount Elgon include
snakes. These people think that eating the totem animal would
result in death. Although in certain cases the Kavirondo make
offerings to snakes, their respect does not amount to worship, and
they do not hesitate to kill snakes. When a cobra is seen near a house,
the inmates consult the priest, who prescribes an offering of a sheep
or a cow. This is done to appease the spirit which is supposed to
inhabit the reptile.
The WaKikuyu regard the snake and some other animals as
having a mysterious connection with spirits. When a snake enters
the village, the people offer it milk and fat. These snakes are not
exactly the spirits themselves, but their messengers, who give warnings
of future evils and come to indicate that an offering to the spirits will
be opportune. Hobley gives more explicit information on this point.
If a snake, called Nyamuyathi by the WaKikuyu, enters a hut, it is
necessary to pour some milk or fat on the floor for the reptile to
The Serpent and Fecundity 35
consume. The snake may leave after this offering has been made,
then all is satisfactory; but if the creature remains, a sacrifice of a
sheep is necessary. The melted fat is poured out of the hut with the
request, "We offer you some fat to drink, we beg of you to leave us."
The people think that a Ngoma or spirit has come in the guise of a
snake, and on no account must the creature be killed. After a sacrifice
of this kind the snake generally goes, but the disappearance is
mysterious; nobody sees the exit. If the snake did stay in the hut
after the sacrifice, the woman who owned the hut, also her children,
would be thahu; that is, they would be under the curse of the ancestral
Kollman says that the Wakerewe consider that snakes are to a
certain extent sacred. They will not kill the gigantic snakes that
frequently visit them. Death by snake-bite is considered fortunate.
The Suk believe that at death a man's spirit passes into a snake.
If the spirit is very hungry, it enters the hut in snake form. Milk
is poured on to the tracks, while a little meat and tobacco are offered.
The snake may be killed if it is away from a house, but this involves
killing an ancestor. Should a snake be seen in such a way that its
head is invisible, the custom is to place a handful of grass on the
animal while passing by. If the snake darts up its head while this is
being done, it may be killed with impunity. In this case the killing
of the ancestor is not a culpable act. In Patiko, northeast of Victoria
Nyanza, sacrifices are offered to a demon in the form of a snake
which inhabits a hole. The respect is of a decadent kind, because the
informant admitted that those who offer the food subsequently eat it.
A survey of these data shows that there are several clear divisions
and subdivisions. These are:
(1) Of gods and demons.
• (2) Of chiefs.
(3) Of commoners, including women and children.
(1) The living man can turn himself into a snake.
(2) The living man can send his soul into a snake.
(3) A man can command a snake to do his will.
(4) A man can turn another person into a snake which will
obey his commands.
The only clear geographical distribution is that of the reincar-
nated ancestor concept. This idea is of continuous occurrence from
36 Serpent Worship in Africa
the Cape to Lake Rudolph, including the southern part of Mada-
gascar. Ideas of transformation are spread over the whole continent,
and the informants themselves are not always clear as to the nature
of the relationship between a man and a snake. The bush-soul idea
of West Africa is the most definite of its kind. Here there was noted
a special ceremony for introducing the snake into the person. From
this definite concept and procedure beliefs are graded into the vaguest
of ideas concerning a snake-familiar, over which the owner has a
III. THE RAINBOW SNAKE
Under this heading it is convenient to classify a number of
beliefs and folklore stories relating to snake monsters. The associ-
ation of ideas, which is a natural and logical one, includes guardian-
ship of water, control of rain, and in some instances the comparison,
or even identification of the snake with the rainbow. Snakes are
swimmers, they thrive in a rainy season, hibernation ceases when
the rains begin, many snakes have colors as bright as those of the
rainbow. Thus the rainbow snake, water guardian, concept is not
difficult to understand. The problem of showing a relationship
between rainbow snake concepts and python worship is, however,
one of great difficulty. Perhaps it is best dealt with in a final sum-
mary dealing with the possible interrelationship of python worship
with all other forms of African snake beliefs.
Among the beliefs associated with python worship in Dahomey
was noted a superstition to the effect that the python appeared in
terrifying form to some of the most beautiful girls. These were then
obliged to enter the service of the python temple. The people
(Saracolais) of Senegambia have a legend to the effect that the
prosperity of their country at one time depended on the sacrifice of
the most beautiful and accomplished girl to a snake monster. On
one occasion the victim had been led to the water hole where the
serpent was wont to appear, for it was his custom to drag the sacrifice
under the water. At the critical moment, when the sad fate of the
girl seemed inevitable, a youth dashed up on horseback and claimed
the girl for himself, after cutting the snake monster in two. The
ideas of the snake guarding water, giving general prosperity, and
demanding a girl, are to be found in the beliefs underlying the
python worship of Dahomey. Possibly the story is a survival of a
more definite cycle of ideas associated with a serpent cult of Sene-
gambia. The carved panel (Plate VIII, Fig. 1) represents the rainbow
snake with its tail in its mouth. The carving was probably copied
from decorations on old palace walls described by Waterlot.
A Nigerian folklore story, told by Tremearne, refers to a monster
snake which twisted itself round the trunk of a tree and so imprisoned
several girls who were in the high branches. The snake said that he
was looking for a popular girl named Telale. He wished to possess
her so that he himself might be popular. One by one the girls de-
scended, saying, "I am not Telale; give me room to pass." At last
38 Serpent Worship in Africa
only Telale remained up the tree, and her cruel fate seemed inevitable.
She was, however, saved by a dove who helped her to outwit the snake.
The Esa of southern Nigeria believe that their ancestors send rain
which assures crops for the year. The rainbow is the master of the
rain, which ceases on its arrival. When a rainbow appears, the
Kalahari say that a mighty python is seeking a home. The rainbow
is the great snake of the heaven which cuts a way through the forest
and builds a house. Oshumare is the rainbow god of the Slave Coast.
He takes the form of a great snake which comes from the under-
world, above the edge of the earth, to drink water from the sky.
The name is a compound of shu ("to gather in dark clouds") and mare
(of uncertain meaning). A variety of the python, called by the
Yorubas ere, is the messenger of the rainbow god, and is sacred to
him. Among the Ewe-speaking tribes of the Slave Coast certain
snakes are treated as messengers of the rainbow god, and great
respect is shown to them. Every python has to be treated with respect.
Tremearne's rainbow snake stories, which he collected in northern
Nigeria, raise the question of a possible Semitic source for these
widely distributed rainbow monster myths. This hypothesis needs
consideration later, along with the theory that such stories are sur-
vivals of a decadent python worship. Gajjimare is a demon of
physical disabilities, who, among other things, causes paralysis of the
back. This fiend takes the form of a snake of double gender which
lives in wells. When the reptile comes out, it passes over the sky
and enters an ant hill. The rainbow drinks up the rain, so preventing
any more from falling. If water is placed in a house for the Gajjimare
demon, it will be satisfied, otherwise it will steal money. This
demon (jinn) is distinctly a water spirit which is recognized as far
north as Tunis. C. K. Meek says that the Angas of Hausaland
reverence snakes, representations of which have been dug up on the
Bauchi plateau. The Ba-Mbala call the rainbow Kongol-Meme
("water snake") according to Torday and Joyce. Overberg states
that the Mayombe recognize a serpent Ndok which lives in the
forest and eats spirits.
The Bavili of Lango have an intricate series of beliefs in con-
nection with snakes as guardians of water. Xama is said to be red
in color, but it is seldom seen except as part of a rainbow. It is of
enormous size and lives in the woods. When anyone kills this snake,
rain will not fall. There is a belief that one kind of snake can turn
into another. Xama Luayi is the beneficent rainbow which drives
away Xama Ngonzola, a snake responsible for causing floods. Some
The Rainbow Snake 39
people of the Bavili who gave this evidence raised their hands to their
breasts, then lifting them on high let them drop to their sides, so
making the sign of the rainbow. One man said, "Our father, the
exploder of clouds, may he not hear." Mbumba is a great snake found
in wells. Women will abandon the fish and water they have taken
on finding this snake in the well. The name Mbumba means
Callaway has made a collection of Zulu myths which include
references to a rainbow snake that guards wells. The creature can
be a menace to human life. Quite recently Neville Jones stated that
among the people of the Motopo Hills the snake occupies a distinct
position as a creature of reverence. The natives who have this super-
stitious regard for the snake are the Abenyobi, a branch of the
Makalanga of southern Matabeleland. A native, pointing to a rock
shelter, said that there lived there a snake to which the people
brought presents of food. The snake is regarded as a guardian of the
hidden granaries of the hills. Each family has its own guardian snake
for the granary, but the animal recognizes only the head of the
family, who alone is safe in visiting the store. The Basuto have a
story of a girl who was wedded to a snake which she burnt to death,
whereupon her true and accepted lover was restored to her.
A monster python of the forest figures in several folklore tales of
the BaThonga of Portuguese East Africa. Two brothers went to the
forest where one killed and ate a small python, whereupon he became
very ill. The parents sent messengers to the big snake of the forest,
but these fled in terror when the snake poked out his head. At last a
very small child persuaded the big snake to come to the hut. There
he healed the sick boy, and was conducted back to the forest by the
infant who had persuaded him to attend. There seems to be in this
story an idea of a snake guardian of the forest. More in harmony
with the general run of rainbow snake stories is the Tonga legend of
a snake monster which lives in ponds and cries out when rain is
falling. A man who was returning home through the forest saw this
snake. The reptile was so large that it closed all the breaks through
the trees; consequently the man died after three days of aimless
wandering. In the Drakenberg Mountains there is said to be a snake
which inhabits dark, woody ravines. Any intruder is attacked by
the snake, which hangs from a tree and bites him in the head.
Krapf (1860) relates that a Wanika chief told him of a great
serpent which is seen out at sea, reaching from the sea to the sky after
heavy rain. This is probably a version of the rainbow snake myth.
40 Serpent Worship in Africa
At the ruins of Gede, near Malindi, there is supposed to be an
enormous guardian snake, which would kill any person attempting
to remove anything. People go to this spot to make vows and to
pray for rain. Some of these supplicants told Werner that they heard
voices chanting, "La Illah il Allah." Presently a long, slender,
black and white, spotted snake appeared and quickly vanished
among the stones.
Near to a locality on Lake Victoria Nyanza where there is
definite python worship are the rivers Muzini and Kafu, which are
said to be the abode of sacred snakes. These are believed to be
responsible for sudden rises in the rivers. At Muzini there is a
medicine-man in charge of the river and the sacred snakes, to which
he makes offerings when people wish to cross. Building a bridge
was thought to be useless for the snakes would break it down. It is
necessary therefore, after making sacrifices, to build papyrus rafts
on which the passengers can be carried across. At one time the king
sent periodical offerings of black cows, which the medicine-man
presented to the snakes with the request that they would not kill
human beings. Drowning persons could be saved only by the
medicine-man. According to a popular notion, a snake will take a
person to the bottom of the river, where he will eat out the heart
and tongue, then return the body. In conjunction with these beliefs
there are several taboos. No man who has spent the previous night
with a woman is allowed to cross the river. A menstruating woman
is forbidden to cross. There is a belief that any person with a
deformation of the generative organs will be drowned in attempting
In adjacent hills there were said to be snakes guarding the wells.
Human beings might approach only after making offerings to these
guardian snakes. These snake guardians of the wells are thought to
be of a bright green color broken by orange-gold tints. As this is a
region of python worship, it is not surprising to hear of a general
respect for the python, apart from any definite cult. Roscoe states
that a few men kept pythons in their houses, feeding them on milk,
or an occasional fowl or goat. The people stated that these pythons
did not kill animals in the village of their adoption, but went farther
afield for their prey. The Bagesu say that there is a snake living
in springs where he will attack anyone who goes to draw water. The
priest who is in charge of the spring accompanies the rain-maker to
the well, where they construct a large trough. This is filled with
beer, and the priest takes up a position close at hand. When the
The Rainbow Snake 41
snake rushes out, the man is saved because the creature is attracted
by the beer which eventually makes it drunk. The priest and the
rain-maker then break its fangs, so rendering it harmless. Pots are
filled at the sacred well and left there. The water thus drawn and
left standing will attract rain, which will continue to fall until
stopped by the priest. When there has been sufficient rainfall, the
priest and the rain-maker again visit the spring on the hill. Once
more the snake is tempted to indulge too freely in beer. Then the
water pots are overturned, and the rain ceases. The sun begins to
shine to ripen the harvest.
Routledge describes Akikuyu beliefs relating to a rainbow monster
which lives in lakes and waterfalls. At night it comes out to eat
goats and cattle, but its tail always remains in the water. Some
Masai warriors made their spears hot, then proceeded to attack the
rainbow, which is identified with the snake guardian of the water.
According to a legend, these warriors speared the rainbow in the
neck, which is the only vulnerable part, whereupon it fell dead.
Routledge describes certain Akikuyu festivals which seem to be
associated with the rainy season, the rainbow, and a snake monster.
He describes the way in which each district makes a contribution to
the snake of the river. It is claimed that the ceremony of feeding the
snake is part of an initiation rite into a secret society. Horns are
blown when first the snake begins to feed, then again at the end of his
meal. Beer is part of the offering. This intoxicates the snake so that
a specially appointed man can pull out hairs from the reptile; these
are used as charms. Hobley, whose contact with East Africa has
been more prolonged and more intimate than that of Routledge, does
not agree that this ceremony is connected with a secret society. He
agrees, however, that in former days there was a ceremony at which
the elders used to send two envoys to a certain stream in Kenya.
This water was said to be inhabited by a mysterious creature, more
crocodile than snake.
Apart from a few miscellaneous beliefs and references to the
cure of snake-bites, the literature dealing with Abyssinia does not
assist the inquiry. Hartland has, however, a story of a snake monster
which guarded a beautiful girl, the daughter of a headman in a
Somali town. A certain traveler who wished to visit the girl received
advice from a woman who stopped him on the way. Giving him a
stick, she commanded him to place it on the snake's head, whereupon
the reptile would die. The plan worked so well that the traveler was
able to enter the house and marry the girl.
42 Serpent Worship in Africa
The belief in a rainbow snake monster is reported by Larken
(1926), from the Zande of the northeast Belgian Congo. Ngambue
is a big snake. Its skin is covered with a white powdery substance,
and it possesses a beard. The creature, which has a poisonous
bite, may live in any waters. The well at Yambio is said to harbor
such a snake. The rainbow wangu lives in bogs, or in cracks and
holes near to streams. It is like a snake. The creature comes out
in the rain because it wants to wash, but no tracks of it are ever
found. People who see one of these snakes fly in terror. Some
years ago the guard at Yambio turned out without orders and fired
several rounds at a rainbow snake which seemed to be issuing from
a large ant heap in the vicinity. They said that if it had reached
them, they would all have been dead men. A Zande gun-bearer
was glad to be allowed to go ahead of the party to escape a rainbow
which was moving toward him. Prismatic colors falling on a man
cause great fear.
The main ideas of the foregoing concepts are related to the one
basic thought of the snake as a guardian of water, woods, ruins, or
grain. Of these, the connection of the snake with conservation of
water is the most numerous of the beliefs. Here there is a resem-
blance, fortuitous or otherwise, to the beliefs centering round
python worship in southern Nigeria and Uganda. In Uganda the
python was the guardian of the river and the fish contained therein.
The same may be said of the sacred pythons described in connection
with python worship in southern Nigeria. In python worship and
ideas of rainbow snakes there is the same underlying concept of the
guardianship of something which is sacred. In addition to this
generic unity of ideas there is often the recognition of a supernormal
presence in the python or rainbow monster. There is likewise in
relation to both pythons and rainbow snakes a system of sacrifice
and propitiation, which requires the intervention of a rain-maker
and a priest. Instances of regard for snake monsters are not such
definite acts of worship as are the rites connected with the python,
but they do frequently attain the status of cults.
In arranging snake worship, cults, and beliefs, in a descending
order of social values and importance, the inquiry arrives at the
subject of immunity and snake-medicines.
IV. IMMUNITY AND SNAKE-MEDICINES
Somewhat in keeping with the ideas of snake souls, snake
messengers, and transformations generally, is the concept of im-
munity from snakes. This is an idea which is not to be confused
with the performances of snake charmers in Egypt and Morocco.
The belief in immunity from snake-bite is more closely allied to the
idea of a human soul being in communion with the snake.
Major G. d'Arcy Anderson, a District Commissioner of West
Africa, says that in the Konno country there is a secret society with
the snake as its emblem. A member of this society volunteered to
show his power, so spent a night in collecting snakes. He returned
in the morning with two cobras, one seven and the other nine feet
long, a python twelve feet long and a horned viper four feet long;
there were also four other snakes. He handled these quite carelessly,
although their fangs had not been extracted. The cobra and the
viper killed fowls by their poison.
The fat of snakes is used by the Ekoi in making medicines. In
northern Nigeria it is said that twin sons cannot be bitten by snakes.
The Hausa say that a man will be immune from snake-bite if he
rubs his legs with a certain pulverized creeper. Talbot says that
the Ekoi leave the body of a poisonous snake across the path where
it has been killed. If this is done, snake-bite is avoided until a new
moon shines in the sky. There is evidence that there are Ekoi
beliefs in "bad parts" of the python. The gall, when used in a
certain way, is capable of producing dire results; the gall of the
leopard has similar qualities, and among the Ovimbundu the gall
of the crane is said to be poisonous. There can be no doubt that
a number of beliefs relating to the magical properties of snakes have
to be classed with a large group of similar concepts; they have no
special connection with, or derivation from, snake cults and python
A valuable snake-medicine used in northern Nigeria has a some-
what complicated method of preparation. The purpose of the
medicine is to render the owner invulnerable and capable of avoiding
pursuit from an enemy. The charm given by Tremearne implies
that the worker of magic must cut off the head of a black snake and
in it plant a seed of the ramma plant. "Bury the head in a grave
which must be seven days old. Pour water on it for three consecu-
tive nights, when the shoots of the ramma plant will appear. Seven
44 Serpent Worship in Africa
days after, take some fat from the body of the snake and at mid-
night proceed to the grave. Strip quite naked, lie down, and rub
some snake's fat on the plant. An Aljan in the form of a man with
a big head will appear. He will try to frighten you, but you must
keep on with the charm. You will also see another man in the form
of a big snake. When the plant has grown to a height of three or
four feet, go again to the grave at midnight and strip naked. Pull
up the ramma plant, adjust it as a girdle and go home. Afterwards,
if anyone attempts to strike you, pull off your girdle and wave it in
your hand. It will then become a snake that will bite your enemy."
In the region of Stanley Falls people have been observed to wear
the fangs of a snake as a charm against snake-bite. The Herero are
acquainted with many snakes of which the Ondara is the largest
and most poisonous; even the breath, and the track along which
the reptile has crawled are regarded with awe. Through some
strange idea of homeopathy, parts of this serpent are credited with
healing virtues. A sick man is rubbed with mucus from the track
of the snake. The heads and skins of the young snakes are pulverized
with leaves, boiled, and kept in stock as a healing salve. Fritsch
writes that in southwest Africa doctors who cure snake-bite form a
special professional class, just as do the primitive medicine-men who
specialize in the cure of dysentery or fever. The doctor has a series
of charms and spells for rendering the bites of poisonous snakes
harmless. Novices have to be trained until they are immune even
from the bite of the puff-adder. An infusion is made from many
fragments including the stomach of a cow. This concoction is made
up into little pouches which are worn round the neck.
Schultze observes that the Hottentots treat snake-bite in a some-
what rational manner. In the first place they suck the wound through
the ordinary cupping horn, after the punctures made by the fangs
have been deeply incised. The wound is then filled with charcoal
mixed with powder from the dried body of a lizard. A Hottentot
kills the snake which has bitten him. He cuts out the poison glands
and drinks water containing a few drops of the poison. The remainder
of the poison he dries and keeps for future use. The Bushmen make
poison for their arrows from the venom of snakes. They are said to
have an antidote against this poison. In northern Rhodesia the
medicine-man fastens a ligature between the puncture and the heart.
Following this rational procedure, he cuts the wound, sucks it, then
applies leaves. Some of the Wabusa wear amulets of snake skin to
avoid being bitten by a certain kind of water-snake. Parts of the
Immunity and Snake-medicines 45
snake are mixed with fragments from other animals to form a paste.
At the initiation of boys into tribal life this paste is rubbed into cuts
which are made below the second joint of the right thumb, on the
right shoulder, and above the right eye. This procedure is said to
give success in shooting.
Smith and Dale have considered the question of immunity and
cure among the Ila-speaking people of northern Rhodesia. Medi-
cine-men say that snakes will run away from a person who has
bathed in the fumes of the Mompelempempe bush, whose root is
also used in compounding medicines which are rubbed into the wound.
The wound may also be rubbed with a beaded charm which is worn
round the neck. The writers (Smith and Dale) proved from personal
experience that parts of the Kabwenge bush, soaked in warm water,
can give great relief from the poison which the spitting cobra squirts
into the eyes of its victim.
A man named Munyuni was famous for his cures of snake-bite.
He kept snakes in his hut quite fearlessly. He pulled a snake out
of a hole, extracted its fangs, and carried it in a bag; when he stroked
its head, it became quiet. The process of becoming immune is a
secret which is handed down from father to son. Munyuni stated
that he had doctored his own children, just as his father had doctored
him. The procedure is to take the fangs, the tip of the tail, and some
roots, then pound them together. This mixture is rubbed into cuts
which are made between the thumbs and the first fingers, also
between the great toes and the next. The operation has to be
repeated at intervals of several years. Sometimes a boy is immunized
by standing in the smoke of a fire on which the heads of snakes are
In his book "Travels in Zanzibar and Pemba" (1898), Fitzgerald
remarks that his servant appeared to possess some special power
over snakes. This control was said to be the effect of a charm.
One day this man came to camp dragging a large puff-adder with
a rope around its neck. In spite of the fact that the snake was
unharmed the man took off the rope and lifted the snake into a box.
On one occasion when Fitzgerald told his man to skin a snake, the
skin was brought without the head. The servant explained that the
head had been buried so that the wizards could not use it for black
magic. They would make "bad medicine" out of the head.
Loveridge, who recently (1928) wrote on the snakes of East
Africa, remarks that Macharia, the Wanyamwezi professional snake-
catcher, handled snakes in the most fearless manner. One day he
46 Serpent Worship in Africa
walked into camp with an old pillowcase containing cobras, a mamba
over eight feet long, puff-adders, and small fry. He opened the bag
a little and peered in, then shook the receptacle until the snake he
wanted was uppermost, put in his hand and drew out the mamba.
Loveridge subsequently chloroformed this snake and found that
the poison sacs and fangs were intact. Macharia claimed that he
was immune from snake-bites because he allowed the young of
poisonous species to bite him from time to time. In addition to
this he rubbed a concoction of roots into the wounds. From the
southern part of Portuguese East Africa Junod has collected informa-
tion respecting prevention and cure. There are some magicians who
can bewitch ordinary food so that it will turn into a snake in the
stomach. Fortunately there is a medicine which can be introduced
into the tongue so that the food is made to reveal its true character.
Snake-bite is treated with the powder of a snake which has been
burnt to ashes and mixed with other ingredients, the whole being
treated with common salt. Cuts are made at all the joints of the
body, likewise in front of the neck, and the powder is rubbed in.
Children are inoculated so that when bitten the venom will not
affect them. The people say that the "doctor has preceded the
The Masai doctor treats snake-bite by cutting with a large thorn,
pressing the wound, burning it with a glowing iron, and causing the
patient to eat a root which makes him vomit. The Nandi, as already
described, have to respect a snake which visits the bed of a woman.
The people prefer, however, that the snakes should not visit them.
In order to prevent this, they place upright on the roof of the hut
a stick from the sacred tree Carissa edulis. There are several kinds
of wood which are made into charms which are supposed to keep
snakes out of the house. The principal medicine-man carries in
his bag certain snakes from which he derives his power. When a
man has been bitten by a snake, he is scarified and made to drink
Bruce (1804) inquired into the subject of immunity from snake-
bite. He states that the remedies of the Nuba and the Abyssinians
are derived from different shrubs which he examined and described
in detail. When a person is bitten, the people chew some of the
remedial root and apply it to the wound, which is sometimes sucked.
If this root is chewed frequently in a morning, immunity against
snake-bite is given. In order to be efficacious, the roots have to
be ground to powder by the hands of a virgin; if this powder has
Immunity and Snake-medicines 47
been correctly made, it may be moistened, rubbed on the hand, and
relied on to prevent a snake or scorpion from biting.
The backbone of a python wrapped in bark and hung in the house
is regarded by the Wa Ganda as a preventive of colic and convulsions.
At Fauvera the fat of the python is considered as a specific against
earache and rheumatism. At Ngalangi, Angola, I observed a chief
wearing two necklaces made from the vertebrae of a python. He
declared that these ornaments, owing to the suppleness of the python,
cured his rheumatism.
A man might reasonably think himself immune because he made
quick recovery after being bitten. Possibly the snake had recently
emptied its glands; or the man may have been only slightly struck
by one of the fangs.
The evidence respecting immunity and snake-medicines may be
grouped under four headings.
I. Immunity from the bite of snakes as a result of:
(1) Inherited power.
(2) Membership of a secret society having the snake as an
(3) Immunity as a result of training, including inoculation.
II. Treatment of snake-bite by rational and magical methods.
III. The wearing of charms against snake-bite.
IV. The use of snake fat, snake skin, or pulverized snake as a
cure for snake-bite, also as a cure or preventive for certain specific
Most observers have remarked on the fearlessness with which
priests and priestesses handle large pythons. These snakes are,
however, non-poisonous, and their general harmlessness and domes-
ticability are well attested. Very seldom do they attack human
beings. The question of immunity in handling poisonous snakes is
another problem, but in this connection it must be admitted that
many poisonous snakes, unless disturbed suddenly and startled, are
reluctant to strike. It is a matter of common observation that
certain individuals, above all others, have an indefinable influence
over various domestic animals, such as horses, mules, camels, and
oxen. In the language of everyday speech, "he manages them well."
Another person, possibly as a result of his own nervousness, makes
the animals restive and troublesome. It is impossible to explain this
subtle influence and competent handling fully and satisfactorily, but
there is no doubt a basis of observation and inference. At the outset
48 Serpent Worship in Africa
it must be recognized that primitive man has deep faith in his
magical protections; this gives the snake-medicine-man full confidence
in his own abilities; consequently he is calm, imperturbable, and
capable of quick action. Primitive people show a marvelous
acquaintance with the most minute habits and movements of animals.
The snake-man no doubt knows every sign and symptom the reptile
makes. There may be times at which snakes can be handled with
some freedom, for example, when they are waking from sleep or
Evidence relating to cures from snake-bite indicates that the
treatment to some extent rests on a basis of common sense; it is by
no means entirely magical. When beliefs in the efficacy of the parts
of the python are found, especially if near to centers of python
worship, there is a fair assumption that such beliefs may be derived
from ideas of the sanctity of the python. So widespread is the use
of parts of animals in primitive medicine that it would be unjustifiable
to deduce the employment of snake remedies in general from some
now forgotten snake cult. There is one possibility which should not
be overlooked in considering immunity. Python and snake worship
were undoubtedly more firmly established in Africa years ago than
they are at present. It may well be that in cases of alleged immunity,
especially when the immunity is said to be hereditary, we are dealing
with a survival of some power formerly associated with a priesthood
specially concerned with snake worship.
Following a presentation of these data relating to snake worship,
cults, and beliefs of Africa, there remains the problem of external
or internal origin. In addition to this it is necessary to consider
the interrelationship of the concepts which have been detailed. If
these concepts are of internal origin, what is their probable genesis?
What are the migratory lines within Africa? And to what extent
are the various snake concepts allied with geographical and cultural
V. DISTRIBUTION OF BELIEFS AND PROBABLE
LINES OF MIGRATION
In connection with this division of the subject the following
points are important:
(1) The possible relationship of the python-worshiping centers
of Uganda and Nigeria.
(2) The geographical distribution of each of the main groups of
(3) The possible spatial and temporal relationships of these
(4) Correlation of python worship and snake beliefs with other
factors of African culture. In other words, what are the racial and
cultural affinities of these concepts and practices surrounding the
Although these lines of inquiry have been set out as separate
items, it is clear that the four are to a great extent mutually
One of the most important questions is the possible relationship
between the python worship of Uganda and that of West Africa.
The points of comparison between these two centers have already
been given in detail. Briefly, they are : The acceptance of the python
as a supernatural being; the housing of the reptile, which is fed and
generally cared for; the appointment of priests and priestesses who
undergo special preparation; belief in the python as a source of
productiveness in relation to human fecundity, agriculture, and
fishing; making of petitions and the offering of sacrifices; ecstatic
dances of priests and priestesses. These go into trance during which
they prophesy and answer the requests of worshipers. These points
suggest relation rather than independent origin, though it has to
be admitted that the points of resemblance are of a rather general
nature. Zoological observations prove that the python is likely to
be accepted anywhere as an object of adoration. The idea of an
indwelling being is fundamental to all primitive thought with regard
to animal life. Almost every cult demands the services of priests
and priestesses, who usually dance themselves into hysteria before
prophesying. The concept of fecundity in connection with the python
is apt to arise at any time and at any place because of the reptile's
50 Serpent Worship in Africa
prolificacy. The value of these resemblances lies in the fact that
they all occur together in each of the python-worshiping centers
which lie on lines of known migrations.
Knowledge of racial migrations in Africa points to the probability
that python worship passed across the continent from east to west.
To a certain extent the movements of African races are understood ;
the defect of our knowledge lies in the absence of a chronology for
the mass movements of races. It is known, however, that under
Hamitic pressure in the Horn of Africa the primitive Negro of the
Lake Region moved across the continent from east to west, sending
branches of the migratory stem into the Congo area, in which the
movement was from north to south and from east to west. There
is not a fragment of evidence to suggest that the intrusive Hamites
brought python worship with them.
The most reasonable suggestion is that the worship is indigenous
to the early Negroes of Uganda though the ritual is now practiced
by people who are somatically and linguistically Hamitic. The
migration of python worship was probably of a purely racial char-
acter. The forms of worship are found in their fullest structure and
activity at both ends of the main racial migratory line; that is, in
Uganda at the eastern end, and southern Nigeria and Dahomey at
the western end of the line. Around the main eastern and western
centers are sporadic beliefs in the supernatural nature of the python,
to which respect is shown. The terminus of the Congo forest line
of the migration is in Lango, where snake beliefs and practices are
strong, though there is no actual python worship. The Dinka,
living one-third of the way across from east to west, encourage
pythons to live in their huts. According to Schweinfurth, the
reptiles were respected, fed, and called by name.
Python worship is most perfect in detail in Uganda, its hypo-
thetical source of origin. Here there are sacred cows for supplying
milk to the python. The rites by which the royal dead pass into
pythons are well established. There is clearer evidence respecting
the supplications of childless people. When the main masses of
migrants had passed across the continent, they were fifteen degrees
north of the equator; that is, to the north of Dahomey, Ashanti,
and Nigeria. Owing to pressure from the Fulani and the Hausa,
these Negro tribes from East Africa had to move south into the
unfavorable coast regions of the area from Liberia to the mouth of
the Niger. It is precisely in these non-Bantu regions that python
worship, cults, and beliefs are found at present. They were excep-
Distribution and Migration of Beliefs 51
tionally strong at Brass, the terminus of some of the oldest of these
The idea of the snake as an announcer of conception and as a
symbol of fecundity shows no geographical distribution which is
capable of supporting a special theory. The best examples of the
birth-fecundity snake concept come from Senegal, central Congo,
and Kenya, so giving a line roughly corresponding with the hypo-
thetical line of python worship. The rainbow snake is found every-
where, notably among the Yoruba, Hausa, Bavili, Zulu, Zande, and
Masai. The rainbow snake, guardian monster myths are like those
from Semitic sources, such as are detailed by Robertson Smith in
his "Religion of the Semites." There is correspondence only in
general concept of demons in snake monsters which guard a well,
a ruin, or a sacred spot. If one follows an inclination to link these
snake monster beliefs of Africa with Semitic migrations which are
known to have taken place in North and East Africa, there at once
occurs a difficulty. A very widely distributed series of rainbow
snake, well guardian monsters is to be found in the mythology of
the aborigines of Australia, and how is their cultural, or other contact
with the Semites, to be proved? It seems wiser to regard the rainbow
snake monster as an independent local product resulting, as the
zoological discussion suggests, in a natural association of snakes,
water, wells, rain, and rainbows.
It is always possible, of course, that before the first dispersal of
mankind there were certain fundamental magical beliefs, possibly
including ideas of snake monsters, and that these spread with the
first distribution of the human race. We do not, however, find
support for such an idea in considering the beliefs of such peripheral
and early migrants as the Tasmanians, Tierra del Fuegians, Veddas,
Andamanese, and Negritos. Had the snake monster myth been
generated in very early prehistoric times, one might reasonably
expect some kind of marginal distribution. The snake paintings of
South Africa are usually classed as Bushman products, and in general
great antiquity is accepted. The Bushmen used to live at least as
far north as the region of Lake Victoria Nyanza, and there is the
possibility that they came into racial and cultural contact with the
python worshipers of that region. On the other hand the zoological
evidence will make clear that there is good reason why beliefs in snake
monsters of the type depicted should have developed in situ. Some
snakes of the region have the very peculiarity which is shown in
the cave paintings, namely, the possession of prominent head scales.
52 Serpent Worship in Africa
There are two folklore stories, one from Senegal, the other from
northern Nigeria, which might be reasonably regarded as the by-
products of a decadent python worship. Bosman (1700) states that
at Whydah, Dahomey, the sacred monster python appeared to the
most beautiful girls, who were then claimed for service in the python
temple. The present-day stories tell of snake monsters which
appeared to girls with the intention of capturing or devouring them,
but there is nothing more than this general resemblance of ideas to
suggest a cultural and historical connection. If such a union of
ancient belief and folklore is accepted, there arises the difficulty
of disposing of the story of the girl-devouring snake of Japan. This
tale is fundamentally like those from West Africa, and there is con-
siderable possibility of such stories having independent invention
wherever large snakes exist.
This point illustrates the almost insuperable difficulty of judging
the extent of relationship among the main classes of snake beliefs
which have been described. Examination of python worship, snake-
monster myths, reincarnation, transformation, snake-fecundity ideas,
and alleged immunity, shows two basic concepts which are seldom
absent; these are the reincarnation and birth-snake ideas. The
latter may be described as a derivative of the former, so in tracing
out similarities there is only one really basic concept, namely, that
of reincarnation. This is such a widespread and generic kind of
concept that it cannot be received as evidence of the derivation of
one class of snake beliefs from another. Krapf, in relating an East
African story of reincarnation in a snake, says that the idea was
taken from the Hindus. Werner tells the story of the snake-demon
guardian of ruins near Malindi, and concludes by reference to the
similarity of the tale and others of like kind, with those of Semitic
origin. Tremearne has collected many West African stories of jinns
in snakes. He says that the Hausa have borrowed many of their
ideas from the Arabs. Bearing in mind that Semites have migrated
along the north and down the east of Africa from pre-Islamic times,
it is certain that they have left their mark on every branch of thought
and activity. Semitic snake beliefs, such as those given by Robertson
Smith in "The Religion of the Semites," leave a reader willing to
admit the influence of the Semites on African beliefs in snake demons
and guardian monsters. These beliefs are certainly more common
on the two main lines of Semitic incursion than they are elsewhere
in Africa. Something too must be allowed for the general ring of
a story, or a series of stories; almost any resemblances, except those
Distribution and Migration of Beliefs 53
depending on a comparison of many unusual and minute items, can
be explained away one by one. In ethnology, as in legal proceedings,
it is not only permissible, but good method, to analyze each detail
of evidence. Nevertheless the mental impression produced by the
evidence as a whole is of importance. It is unfair to dispose of items
of resemblance one by one, without regard to the impression pro-
duced by their union.
Consider, for instance, the idea of the ancestor visiting the kraal
in the form of a snake. This concept is of unbroken distribution from
Lake Rudolph to Natal, from the Suk to the Zulu. The idea is a
simple one which on our own showing, from zoological considerations,
might rise times without number. In spite of this I am willing to
believe that the idea represents a spread of thought rather than a
number of independent origins. The tract over which this idea is
found is, owing to geographical factors, a highway covering more
than half the length of the continent; therefore one can be sure of
the ease of communication. Moreover, there have been waves of
Hamitic invasion down this area with a resultant culture of con-
siderable uniformity. Again, the acceptance of an idea is easier
than the invention of one, especially in grades of society where
stereotyped concepts and reactions of a formal kind are the rule.
On our own showing, ideas of reincarnation might arise from slough-
ing of the skin, hibernation, and the frequenting of burial places,
but the demonstration that they did so presents a difficult problem.
Zoological evidence will suggest the probable rise of a snake cult
wherever there are snakes. In addition to this, analysis of zoologi-
cal data will show the possibility of a rational zoological basis for
each variety of snake beliefs. But the instance of East Africa shows
an easy communication from north to south, and the line is one
characterized by somewhat uniform culture. With these points in
view, I think the idea of the ancestral snake visitor is transmitted
rather than separately invented in many centers. There is an elabo-
rate process of reasoning by analogy involved in the transition from
observation to the formation of definite beliefs and practices. There-
fore it would appear illogical to urge independent origin against the
more facile method of transmission among adjacent peoples. Ancient
racial and linguistic affinities of the Hamites and Semites have been
postulated. Their origin is said to have been in southwest Asia,
whence they came in successive streams into the Horn of Africa,
and passed down the eastern side of the continent. It is certain
that the Hamites came into contact with the python worshipers of
54 Serpent Worship in Africa
Uganda. But the visiting snake ancestor is not part of the python
worship of that region, and there is no justification for supposing
that the Hamites detached a single belief which they then carried
Ananikian's account of the folklore of Iran and Armenia suggests
that the ideas of visiting snakes and snake monsters may have been
brought from those regions, which are the hypothetical home of the
Hamites. The tales related by Ananikian mention several points
which occur in the snake beliefs of East Africa. These are the idea of
an ancestor visiting the home in the form of a snake which has to be
fed with milk. Shahapet, the Iranian serpent ghost, appears both
as man and as serpent in order to guard houses and graves. The
guardian house snake of Egypt has already been described. Common
to Iran, Armenia, and East Africa is the idea that the serpent brings
good luck to the house. The reptile must be treated kindly and
respectfully; for, if it departs in anger, there will be great misfortune.
East African customs of making sacrifice to the visiting snake have
been discussed. The snake monster, guardian of treasure and thief
of girls, is an Iranian and Armenian motive of folklore. In parts of
east and northeast Africa the monster is regarded as still functioning,
and sacrificial offerings are made. In the regions of Iran and Arme-
nia, somewhere near the hypothetical home of the Hamites and
Semites, is to be observed in folklore the residue of beliefs, which in
Africa at the present time form an integral part of tribal life. This
is especially true of the ancestral snake visitor concept. Survival of
a cult in greatest force, at a point farthest from its place of origin,
was an axiom of the methodology of the late W. H. R. Rivers. Dixon
also, in his "Building of Cultures," has shown the same possibility,
with the reservation that the factor may survive in its pristine
strength at the place of origin. A theory which derives East African
from Asiatic beliefs is therefore in harmony with the known facts of
snake beliefs in Asia and Africa, while the hypothesis agrees well
with what is known of the basic pnnciples of culture migration.
The diffusion of the visiting snake concept would naturally be
strengthened by a northerly reflux of Zulu tribes, who more than
others have fostered this snake belief. The Yao, for example, have
the idea of a visiting snake ancestor, but they did not take from their
Zulu opponents the full force of the concept. Zulu invasion passed
from south to north over country, which may already have been in
acceptance of the snake-ancestor-visitor idea, communicated by the
passage of Hamites from north to south. This suggestion of a spread
Distribution and Migration of Beliefs 55
and reflux of the concept may account for its firm establishment
from Natal to Lake Rudolph.
Python worship of West Africa is found to be strongly entrenched
among people of Negro blood who speak non-Bantu languages, and
of these the Ijaw are the best example. In East and West Africa
the python is associated with success in agriculture and fishing.
These occupations were followed by Negroes who were driven out by
pastoral immigrants. Beyond the single instance of sacred cows
being kept to supply milk to the pythons, there is no association of
python worship and pastoral pursuits.
My general conclusion is that python worship is an indigenous
factor of Negro culture; but on the contrary African ideas of rain-
bow snakes, snake monsters, and birth-snakes, are derived from
Hamito-Semitic beliefs of southwestern Asia.
The possibility of these various beliefs having originated outside
Africa is further discussed in the next chapter by surveying serpent
beliefs in many parts of the world.
VI. THE QUESTION OF AN EXTERNAL ORIGIN OF
AFRICAN SERPENT BELIEFS
A cursory survey of snake worship in all parts of the world has
been given in the Hastings Dictionary of Religion and Ethics,
though many of the instances given are far too vague to be classed
under such a heading. J. G. Frazer has given in "Totemism and
Exogamy" a list of people who regard the snake as their totem. Such
an enumeration might be extended or greatly restricted, according
to the precise meaning which is attached to the term "totemism."
Oldham (1905) has produced a book stressing relationship between
the serpent and the sun in primitive and classical belief. In 1892
Lubbock gathered instances of so-called serpent worship. He writes,
"Nor do I believe that serpent worship is to be traced to any common
local origin, but on the contrary, I think that it sprang up in many
places and at very different times." E. B. Tylor (1871) remarks that
the study of serpent worship is "a rational and instructive subject
of inquiry, especially notable for its width of range in mythology and
religion." Tylor then brings from all parts of the world examples of
what is termed ophiolatry, the word being used in the broadest sense
to include all kinds of myths and vague beliefs. Tylor wrote at a
time when the incipient science of anthropology was being laid on
the foundations provided by recently promulgated doctrines of
biological evolution. At that time, and at the present day, there is
an idea of the uniformity and parallelism of human minds. Homo-
geneity of construction and working of human mentality is, according
to this view, productive of like ideas in the form of certain types of
social organization, totemism and exogamy, and concepts of god.
Present-day anthropologists are concerned with a detailed study of
the origin and spread of cultural factors, usually in restricted areas.
No one hypothesis will serve to explain all the facts of origin and
distribution. It seems clear that each problem will have to be
examined on its own merits and data. There is no rule of universal
application, no golden key, evolutionary or otherwise, which will
unlock every door. Some factors of material culture, such as out-
rigger canoes, types of tipis and moccasins, and methods of arrow
release, though presenting their own peculiar difficulties, are easier
to trace than those beliefs which are sometimes classed as non-
material or spiritual factors of culture.
Fergusson (1869), Wake (1872) and Hyde Clarke (1876) have
discussed the question of serpent worship, though they have all
External Origin of African Serpent Beliefs 57
included much mythology and vague superstition under the heading
of worship. At the time of these writings, philology, or more correctly
a comparison of vocabularies, was a favorite method of approach in
any anthropological problem. This comparative study of words is
the method of Hyde Clarke in particular, and there is no difficulty in
accepting the thesis that certain words and superstitions would be
brought from West Africa to the West Indies, Central America, and
Brazil during the course of the slave trade. This is no longer a thesis,
but a palpable fact. Neither is there any difficulty in believing that
there was an exchange of ideas among early inhabitants of India,
Mesopotamia, Iran, Arabia, and eastern Europe. If, however, the
inquirer insists on maintaining a definite concept of the term "snake
worship," it will be found that the only real resemblance among
widely separated forms of snake veneration is the employment of
snakes in ceremonies which have no fundamental resemblance. But,
on the contrary, if the inquirer is willing to accept the presence
of several general ideas underlying snake worship as evidence of
migration, there is no difficulty in proving connection. The snake
seems to be generally associated with the sun, rain, guardianship,
fecundity, wisdom, evil, sacred trees, reincarnation, the rainbow, the
operation of demons and gods through the reptilian body, trans-
formation, totemism, and use of snake parts in concocting medicine.
But the mere presence of such general ideas, which can be shown
to arise very readily from zoological facts, cannot be reasonably
accepted as evidence of culture contact.
The very general nature of so-called snake worship, and the vague-
ness of beliefs which are often quoted as vestiges of snake worship,
are best realized by examining some of the evidence from parts of
the world other than Africa.
The snake dance of the Moquis of Arizona was described in
detail by Bourke in 1884, and the ceremony now attracts a large
number of tourists. It is said, however, that the Hopi hold the most
sacred dance of this kind when there are no alien spectators. There
is processional dancing with rattlesnakes between the teeth, keeping
of snakes in a sacred edifice, and liberation of the reptiles toward the
four cardinal points when the rites are concluded. The ceremony is
intended to assure a supply of rain. Termer has very recently (1928)
described a snake dance of the Quiche* Indians of Guatemala. At
an annual festival snakes are gathered and placed in a house three
days before the ceremonies. All the dancers are men, with the
exception of the principal dancer and guardian of the snakes, who is
58 Serpent Worship in Africa
a woman. The dances are both comical and obscene, and during
their presentation the performers have snakes inside their shirts.
Rites of this kind were celebrated before the conquest at a festival
described by Sahagun. In the mythology of several North American
Indian tribes there are references to a snake monster which devoured
men and animals. In the Iroquoian myth the monster is a horned
serpent which swallowed the thunder boy, who was eventually
rescued by Thunder and his warriors.
Thompson has recorded the symbolism of the snake during
a Mayan initiation into the arts of sorcery. Spinden's "Ancient
Civilizations of Mexico and Central America" summarizes his own
observations and those of many other investigators in these fields.
Serpents are shown in the early pottery of the archaic period. The
serpent motive entered largely into Mayan art, and was of great
importance in all subsequent arts in Central America and Mexico.
In decorative art the serpent was often conventionalized, and parts
of other animals were added. Sometimes a human head was placed
in the jaws of the serpent, possibly to indicate its wisdom. Quetzal-
coatl was represented as a feathered serpent in Mexican art.
Inferences from archaeological evidence may be very misleading as
the form of the serpent is peculiarly adaptable to every kind of
geometrical figure, consequently symbolism is not always implied.
Garcilaso de la Vega says of the pre-Inca people, "They worship
great snakes and adore the demon when he presents himself in the
figure of some beast or serpent and talks with them." There is some
evidence for a belief in the rainbow snake among the Bribri of Costa
Rica. Captain John Smith says that among the Indians of Virginia
"some have their legs, hands, breasts, and faces, cunningly em-
broidered with divers marks, such as beasts and serpents artificially
wrought into their flesh with black spots." John Heckewelder (1762)
describes the Indians of Pennsylvania and Ohio as being elaborately
tattooed. He examined a veteran who bore among many designs
those of the water lizard, a large snake on the right cheek and temple,
and on the lower jaw the head of a wild boar. Bossu states that he
saw an Indian of Arkansas with a great snake tattooed on his body
to commemorate his slaughter of such a reptile. The large snake-
mounds of Ohio are of great archaeological interest.
In general the findings of archaeology, of ethnology past and
present, and likewise mythology, indicate that the serpent was of
importance in New World beliefs, but there is nothing to indicate
connection with African beliefs, with the exception of snake cults
External Origin of African Serpent Beliefs 59
imported from the latter continent at the time of the slave traffic
with West Africa. St. John (1889) has said that few people living
outside the republic of Hayti have any idea of the extent to which
snake worship has entered into the voodooism of the Negro popula-
tion; neither is the worship confined to the lower strata of society.
St. John's statements were severely criticized, but he asserts that
renewed inquiries confirmed his early findings. It is claimed that
voodoo rites include initiation of novices; the presence of a sacred
snake; spirit possession of priests and priestesses; ecstatic dancing;
requests from worshipers; and giving the oracle after consultation
with the deity which resides in the serpent. "The priestess stands on
the serpent's cage and passes into convulsions during which the
oracle issues from her mouth." The officiating priest sings African
songs which are repeated by the bystanders.
Johnston (1910) says that snake worship in Hayti is of doubtful
occurrence owing to the rarity of snakes there. Such harmless
snakes as do exist are tolerated in some villages and fetish temples
for their rat-killing propensities. The idea has therefore got abroad
that they are kept as sacred animals by the voodoo priests and
priestesses. Those seeking scientific truth on voodooism should
doubt much of what has been written on this subject. Johnston
rather negatives his own cautionary remarks by stating that the
python worship of Africa was no doubt introduced by slaves into
Hayti, Cuba, Louisiana, Carolina, Jamaica, the Guianas, and Brazil.
If this is admissible, it is difficult to understand why the evidence of
St. John respecting the survival of snake cults in Hayti (1889) should
be discountenanced. Furthermore, Johnston's idea that snakes are
rare in Hayti is a misconception, as snakes are both abundant and
conspicuous on the island, though there are only a few species, and
Hayti, like the rest of the Greater Antilles, has no poisonous snakes.
There are boas, blind snakes, and also some colubrine snakes.
Beliefs of the Australian aborigines respecting snakes may be
divided into two classes — rainbow serpent myths and certain totemic
ancestors of snake form. A. R. Brown has made an extensive survey
of the literature relating to the former class of beliefs. These ideas
of a rainbow-snake-guardian inhabiting water holes occur in every
part of Australia. The monster is injurious, though it may communi-
cate power to medicine-men. The rainbow snake is sometimes asso-
ciated with quartz because of the prismatic colors. At Boulia,
Queensland, some of the medicine-men obtain their power by aid of
Kenmare, a large supernatural water snake with a manlike head. This
60 Serpent Worship in Africa
snake drowns people, and may also do injury by pointing the bone.
Sometimes a man sees this snake wriggling on the surface of the
water, whereupon he runs home and calls the medicine-man. The
Kabi tribe believes in two snakes of the carpet species each forty
miles long. Ualali tribesmen speak of a snake monster which haunts
deep water holes and swallows human beings. This creature is
visible in the milky way as a dark shadow. The natives paint the
snake on posts in order to make rain. Wogal is a water snake of
west Australia. It is regarded as dangerous for anyone to approach
the hole where this animal lives; the medicine-man only may do so.
Paintings in the northwest show snakes in the act of devouring human
beings, whose arms and legs are seen projecting from the monster's
mouths. Spencer and Gillen say that the mound springs of the
Urabunna country are explained by native tradition. These natural
features are said to mark the halting places of a snake ancestor. At
public ceremonies of the Warramunga the performers represent this
snake by curved red bands on their bodies, and in addition to this
ground drawings are made. People stroke these drawings, saying
that they are soothing the snake. The Warramunga have a story of
a totemic snake ancestor which kept its tail in a water hole, while its
body stretched for one hundred and fifty miles. At each resting place
the snake ancestor left spirit children which now enter the bodies of
There are poisonous sea snakes in the Pacific, but no land snakes
in Polynesia east of Samoa. Possibly some form of sea snake gave
rise to the Samoan legend quoted by Turner. The Samoan deity,
Saveasiuleo, at once ruler of destinies of war and other affairs, had
the upper part of his body reclining in the house with spirits of
departed chiefs, while his extremity stretched far away into the sea in
the form of an eel or serpent. Mariner refers to the Tongan's
reverence for a sea snake which was supposed to be the embodiment
of a god.
There is no evidence of anything approaching snake worship in
China, unless one is prepared to accept the dragon as a transformed
snake. In Japan there are some large, but harmless snakes; the only
poisonous species is a kind of adder. The country folk look on the
flesh of this reptile as a specific for most diseases. The peasants
harbor a belief in a boa which is supposed to swallow women and
children. Legends of Shintoism refer to battles with monstrous
snakes; Susa is a hero who had a titanic conflict of this kind. He
saw an elderly man and woman with a maiden between them, seated
External Origin of African Serpent Beliefs 61
weeping in melancholy manner. In reply to his question they said
that the eight-forked serpent of Koshi came each year and devoured
one of their girls. "It is now the time of its coming, and therefore
do we weep," said they. The monster's eyes are red as the winter
cherry. It has one body with eight heads and eight tails. Moreover
its body is overgrown with moss, pines, and cedars. Its length extends
over eight valleys and eight hills. Susa made the serpent drunk with
sake. Then he drew his ten-span sword and killed the creature; and
the river ran with blood.
Fergusson, relying on his own archaeological observations in
India, also on classical literature from Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin
sources, has dealt in some detail with the evidence for a cult of the
snake as a symbol of wisdom, healing, the sun, and rain. He sup-
poses this worship not to have been adopted by people of Aryan
speech. Fergusson's details of mythology and art in reference to
serpent cults and superstitions are of interest, but disappointing in
that they leave the reader still in need of accounts of the keeping and
feeding of snakes, their worship by priests who were masters of
ceremonies, and the making of supplications with sacrifice. Fergus-
son wrote in 1869, and his use of terms presents difficulties. He
employs the word Turanian in the sense of non- Aryan, the Turanians
being a people who were ousted by the Aryans. Persians and settled
Iranians gave the name Turanian to nomads of the steppe region of
central Asia. Disregarding the fact that culture elements may be
borrowed without racial mixture, Fergusson says, "Eventually the
worship of the serpent may become a valuable test of the presence of
Turanian blood in the veins of people among whom it is found to
prevail." The reverence of Hindus for the cobra is a matter of com-
mon knowledge, and the snake is freely represented in conjunction
with Hindu deities, also on the masks of devil dancers. For examples
of anything approaching worship it is necessary to turn to modern
ethnological inquiry in India. Crooke (1922) gives an account of
snake worship as a Divali rite. About the beginning of the cold
season the snakes hibernate, and the rites mark their departure.
The cult may be connected with that of ancestors, because in India,
as elsewhere, the snake is supposed to embody the family dead. The
Gammallas, a caste of Telugu distillers, on Divali day bathe early in
the morning. They then repair to an ant hill, the abode of snakes,
prostrate themselves before it, and pour a little water into one of the
holes. Offerings of flour paste are carried round the hill before being
pushed into the crevices. A thread is wound five times round the
62 Serpent Worship in Africa
ant hill. After a day of fasting the people return to remove the
thread, to offer milk, and to perform other ritual acts. An image of
the cobra is made of cow dung and worshiped. Any snake which
appears after this ceremony is called ungrateful, and is killed
The Ao Nagas have many snake beliefs, but nothing that amounts
to worship. There are prayers to the effect that the spirits of snakes
killed in clearing forest to build a house may not take revenge. The
flesh of the snake is taboo. A pregnant woman may not kill a snake,
lest the child should have a tremulous tongue. To see a snake when
it is going uphill is unlucky; when the snake is going downhill the
sight of it is lucky. Sores are due to contact with the python.
Death from snake-bite is called apotia; that is, it brings disgrace to
the family. The property of the deceased has to be destroyed, and
his name must not be mentioned with the names of the honorable
dead, no matter what deeds of note he may have performed.
To the ancient Greeks snakes were sacred because dead heroes
might appear in their bodies. Certain gods had been snakes, or
might become visible as such. Snakes were associated with the gods
in mythology and art. Snakes were kept at shrines where offerings
of cakes and honey were made to them. Asklepius manifested him-
self through the huge, tame snakes kept in his temples. Herodotus
speaks of the serpent which defended Athens and received its honey
cakes as an offering. The Phoenician serpent, shown with its tail in
its mouth, was a symbol of Taaut, god of the heavens. In modern
European folklore there are survivals of old superstitions respecting
the serpent. In Ruthenia a saucer of milk may sometimes be seen
on the doorstep of a cottage. The peasant says that the milk has
been placed there for a snake, who will bring bad luck if he is not fed.
Archaeological work in Mesopotamia has brought to light many
examples of the snake in stone, brickwork, and pottery. Toscanne
has given a large number of illustrations, combined with a summary of
what is known and what is surmised, concerning the serpent in Elami-
tic beliefs. The antiquities portrayed show snake-men, serpents on
tombs, a snake goddess with a reptile round each arm and one round
her neck, a small altar with a human figure feeding a snake, two-
headed snakes, and horned snakes and dragons.
Von der Osten says that from earliest times the use of the twist
is found in Elam as an ornament, and the twist in the form of two
interlaced snakes has a symbolical meaning. Finds at Susa prove
an extensive use of snake designs for magical purposes. Von der
External Origin of African Serpent Beliefs 63
Osten summarizes evidence to show that stones of snake design were
prayed to by childless Hindu women. The Elamite clay statuettes
of the bull and the buck, both of Indian origin, are symbols of
fertility; these are shown combined with the snake. Twists symbol-
izing snakes persist in Hittite ceramic art which is derived from
Elamite precursors. Koldewey refers to serpent figures which used
to be at the Ishtar gate. Jastrow describes seal cylinders showing
male and female figures sitting opposite to one another with the tree
of life between them, while behind the female figure is an upright
serpent. The serpent is a common figure on the so-called boundary
stones. Babylonian and Assyrian diviners employed designs which
may afford an explanation of widespread and ancient beliefs in
hybrid creatures, such as satyrs, mermaids, fauns, harpies, sphinxes,
and winged serpents, all of which have persisted into modern
Probably most investigators who examined this archaeological
evidence would be willing to accept much of the surmise with regard
to Elamitic snake beliefs. At any rate, one may safely conjecture
that the serpent was of importance to people whose civilization is the
first of which there is any definite evidence. For the reason pointed
out in connection with Central American snake designs we must be
cautious in accepting these as evidence of snake worship.
Robertson Smith, in his "Religion of the Semites," has many
references to the importance of the serpent in Semitic folklore. This
point is important, because in our search for influences which may
have affected African beliefs, it must be remembered that North and
East Africa have been racially and culturally affected by Semitic
incursions, both pre- and post-Islamic. East Africa has been deeply
affected by Hamitic invasions over long periods, and the same may
be said of the north of the continent. No one has given a satisfactory
account of the origin of Hamites and their linguistic and other
relationships with Semites; but the influence of these peoples on
Africa has been unmistakable. Semitic mythology is replete with
legends of serpent demons. Jinns are corporeal beings which often
take the form of a snake; they are not phantoms, for, if killed, a body
remains to be seen. The jinns have a mysterious power of appearing
and disappearing, also of changing form. They can avenge them-
selves in a supernatural way by inhabiting trees and human dwellings.
The snake is said to represent these jinns because of its rapid appear-
ance and disappearance. Robertson Smith groups one class of legends
under the concept of a healing snake guardian of water springs, and
64 Serpent Worship in Africa
sacred fountains; some of this information he has taken from Blunt's
"Pilgrimage to Nejd." One typical Semitic legend tells of two
men who lived a generation before Mohammed. These men set fire
to a tangled thicket with the idea of bringing it under cultivation.
No sooner had they done this than the demons of the place fled away
with doleful cries, and, as they did so, they took the form of white
serpents. Trees are said to be inhabited by spirits, which take the
form of serpents when they wish to move about.
The claim that the culture of Egypt spread round the whole world
makes necessary a careful examination of the evidence for snake
worship in Egypt. In 1915 Elliot Smith said that if a map of the
world is taken, and one plots out the geographical distribution of such
remarkable customs as building of megalithic monuments, worship
of sun and serpent, customs of piercing ears and tattooing, couvade,
massage, complex story of creation, deluge, divine origin of kings,
swastika, and mummification, there is a certain geographical dis-
tribution of the complex. If each is considered alone, there are
breaks in the chain and many uncertainties. On the whole, however,
Elliot Smith and Perry are of the opinion that this culture complex,
along with dual organization, originated in Egypt, and was carried
round the world by culture bearers. As Marett and others have
pointed out, this statement involves a large number of assertions
each of which requires careful individual examination. Dixon, in his
"Building of Cultures," criticizes the evidence for origin of mummi-
fication in Egypt. In the "History of Tattooing and Its Significance,"
a section is devoted to the thesis that tattooing originated in Egypt.
There was undoubtedly some tattooing in Egypt, probably as early
as 2000 B.C., the most remote date for which there is any evidence of
puncture tattooing. There is, however, no suggestion in the literature
of ancient Egypt to warrant the opinion that tattooing originated
there, or that it was ever of any social, religious, or other importance.
In view of the time and effort devoted to this question of the
origin of tattooing in Egypt, with negative results so far as Professor
Elliot Smith's assertions are concerned, I am reluctant to accept any
statement with regard to the Egyptian origin of snake-sun beliefs.
There are, however, many Egyptian serpent beliefs, both ancient and
modern, which may assist in tracing the origin of African beliefs and
Sayce has stated that there is a general belief in the divine char-
acter of the serpent in Egypt at the present day. Even the myths
which the old Egyptians associated with the snake are still prevalent.
External Origin of African Serpent Beliefs 65
Popular belief still has it that as a serpent grows old, wings grow out
of its body. There are also legendary serpents which kill by darting
flames in the victim's face. These ideas are expressed in paintings on
the tombs of the kings at Thebes. Houses have their guardian snakes
which will drive out intruding snakes. The guardian snake is called
harras-el-bet, the guardian of the house. Sayce's informant said that
there was such a snake in his home at Helwan near Cairo. The
reptile would glide over the people who were asleep, but it did no
mischief. Another popular superstition is to the effect that water
drunk from the horn of the rhinoceros is an antidote to snake poison.
Sayce calls attention to the voyage of Paul Lucas, 1714, during which
that traveler saw the wonder-working serpent which was revered by
the inhabitants of Upper Egypt. The only modern customs relating
to serpents are those described by Lane who tells of the exhibitions
of dervishes who handle, and partially swallow, snakes which are
alleged to be poisonous. Meakin describes the same kind of per-
formances in Morocco.
Various egyptologists have extracted from the Book of the Dead
and other papyri, a considerable amount of information respecting
the presence of snake beliefs in early dynastic Egypt, and later.
In "Ancient Records of Egypt," Breasted has given many
references to the uraeus. "Dreadful is thy serpent crest among
them." "I mixed for them ointment for their serpent crests." "Thy
serpent crest was mighty among them." "His majesty saw a dream
by night, two serpents upon his right hand and two upon his left.
Then his majesty awoke and found them not."
In describing Egyptian amulets, especially those that were
wrapped in mummy swathings, Petrie interprets the uraeus as being
associated with the words, "knowledge," "divine life," "royal power
and judgment," and "giving life and being." Serpent's skin was
sometimes worn to guard against the bite of reptiles. Amulets in
serpent form were numerous; these were designed to wear round the
neck, or to place on the finger, or round a staff. The serpent with
arms, Nehebka, was one of the forty-two judges of the dead. Accord-
ing to the Book of the Dead, this serpent points out the way in the
The sun god is generally represented with the head of a sparrow-
hawk. On the top of the head is a disk representing the sun, and
round this is the fire-spitting serpent which destroys the sun's
enemies. There are many enemies to oppose the progress of the sun
across the sky. One of these, the cloud and storm serpent, is the
66 Serpent Worship in Africa
embodiment of all that is terrible. Isis is represented as a serpent,
the ancient guardian of Ra; and to accommodate himself to her,
Osiris also takes serpent form. Osiris is the type of resurrection. In
Buto dwelt Uto in the form of a serpent.
The snake is associated with phallicism in a picture to which
Pierret calls attention in "Le pantheon £gyptien." The group shows
three deities. On the right is Reshep, a Phoenician god. The central
figure is the Syrian goddess Qadesh who is standing quite naked on
the back of a lion. In her left hand she is holding a snake. Ammon
is shown with the genital organ erect. Another picture shows Horus
standing on two crocodiles, holding in each hand two snakes and a
The song in praise of Ra says, "Thou passeth through the heights
of heaven, thy heart swelleth with joy, the serpent fiend hath fallen,
his arms are hewn off; the knife hath cut asunder his joints." A
vignette from the Papyrus of Ani shows Ani, clad in white, spearing
the serpent fiend. The Papyrus of Nu has a section on the repulsing
of serpents and worms. Nu, the overseer of the house of the seal,
triumphant, said "Hail! thou serpent Rerek, advance not hither."
Again, from the Papyrus of Nu, there are the words, "Alighting from
the boat I depart, and the serpent fiend passeth me by." A picture
in this papyrus shows a man in the underworld spearing a pig, while
he has a serpent attached to a cord. There is a papyrus in Leningrad
which gives an account of a sailor who was cast away on an island.
There he converses with a serpent of fabulous length. One of the
sacred animals at Thebes was the serpent. The serpent is mentioned
among secret names connected with magical practices. Erman gives
a translation which reads, "As a preventive against witches cut off
the head and wings of a large scarabaeus. Cook these parts in
serpents' fat and drink this mixture." Maspero has collected some
Egyptian text references which show the snake as a patron of agri-
culture. Lexa has published translations of Pyramid texts, one of
which contains a formula for protection against serpents, while
another formula was used for directing serpents against an enemy.
These ideas, which have prevailed in so many parts of the world
in association with peoples showing great disparity of race, language,
and religion, are far too vague and generic to support a theory of
the world-wide distribution of serpent beliefs from one center. In
Africa there are serpent concepts which correspond in a general way
with any and all of these widely distributed ideas that can be reduced
to a few basic concepts of fertility, reincarnation, power, and wisdom.
External Origin of African Serpent Beliefs 67
Although there is little evidence beyond the influx of the Hamites
and Semites to support the idea of intrusive serpent concepts into
Africa, another line of thought, namely, the zoological, gives many
valuable suggestions respecting the association of serpent beliefs
with the morphology of snakes.
VII. ZOOLOGICAL EVIDENCE AS AN
EXPLANATION OF ORIGINS
If the problem of origins is approached from a zoological point
of view, there is logical ground for believing that every thought
connected with the snake would be likely to arise repeatedly. The
main points relating to the structure and habits of serpents may
be conveniently summarized under the following headings. These
are then considered in relation to world-wide serpent concepts which
have been classified and discussed with special reference to Africa.
(1) Quick noiseless movements which make the reptile appear
and disappear mysteriously.
(2) The habit of living near graves, hollow trees, old walls of
deserted ruins, and ant hills.
(3) Enormous size and crushing power of the python (Plate II).
(4) The bites of poisonous snakes have a quick and, to the
primitive mind, magical mode of operating.
(5) Darting out of a forked tongue.
(6) Often brilliant colors and color phases.
(7) Casting the skin.
(8) The viviparous snakes bring forth large broods. The python
lays a large number of eggs.
(9) Two-headed snakes may have given rise to popular super-
stitions regarding snake monsters with two or more heads.
(10) Hibernation during cold and drought. Snakes usually
reappear with the seasonal rains, they swim well, and many species
are seen in water.
(11) The serpent has a fixed penetrating gaze which appears to
deprive the prey of powers of movement.
(12) The habit of hissing, and spreading a hood in the case of
(13) Peculiar growths, such as cephalic protuberances and spinal
ridges, which have been recorded and greatly exaggerated in primi-
(14) Some snakes have a nearly quadruple penis. All snakes
have a double penis.
(15) The habit of spitting venom.
Zoological Evidence as an Explanation of Origins 69
(16) Peculiar method of swallowing, during which the epiglottis
is protruded in tubular form. Thus breathing is possible, when to
all appearances the reptile should be suffocated.
The foregoing points require further explanation to show how
they might give rise to the snake beliefs under discussion.
There are, of course, many animals other than the snake which
play an important part in African folklore, medicinal practices, and
magico-religious beliefs. But the zoological evidence given is suffi-
cient to show why the serpent should figure so largely in primitive
beliefs and practices. There is no other animal which combines so
wide a distribution with so many peculiarities, which must be very
mysterious to minds not furnished with any scientific explanation.
Pythons of various kinds have a distribution ranging from the
southern Sahara to Natal. The Python sebae, the largest of all,
may be found almost anywhere in this area. The species Python
regius is found through the Sudan from Senegal to Dafur. Pythons
of some species attain enormous size, have great crushing power,
are non-poisonous, are easily tamed, seldom attack human beings,
and are slow to bite if handled gently. With these points in view
it is not difficult to understand why the python should have been
selected as a suitable snake for captivity in temples. The reptiles
are easily controlled by the priests, and at the same time are harmless
to those who come with petitions and sacrifices.
Association of the snake and the rainbow may arise by a very
natural association of ideas. Many snakes are brilliantly colored;
pythons have a brilliant iridescence of the skin when it is fresh;
return from hibernation is usual when the rains begin ; they are good
swimmers, and may often be seen in lakes and rivers.
There are natural explanations of the association of the serpent
with birth and fecundity. When the rains begin, the ground in
certain localities may well appear to be bringing forth snakes by
some magical process of spontaneous generation. To the Egyptians
the scarabaeus was a symbol of resurrection and life. This is
explicable because the eggs, laid under ground, hatched quickly and
simultaneously under favorable seasonal conditions. Casting the
skin may suggest a rebirth and a bringing forth of new life. The
male genital organs are of a structure which would naturally lead
to the association of the snake with conception and fecundity. The
double penis is common to all snakes. In vipers each half of the
penis bifurcates, thus giving a quadruple structure. The organ has
70 Serpent Worship in Africa
to be withdrawn by invagination, consequently snakes remain in
the act of copulation for a considerable time.
Many travelers have passed over large tracts of Africa without
seeing a snake, and this is true even in places where snakes are said
to be plentiful. On this account, a critic might say that my theories
presuppose very unlikely observations on the part of the natives.
This, however, is quite untrue. Primitive folks are keen observers
of animal life, and they will bring to the collector, with ease, an
abundance of objects which he himself has been unable to find.
If it be granted that the general habits and habitats are known to
natives, the objection may be raised that observation is unlikely to
have extended to an appreciation of anatomical structure. This
point may also be refuted, for, almost everywhere in Africa, snakes
are cut up to serve as food. Moreover, parts of snakes, such as the
gall-bladder and fat, are used in mixing magical potions.
To people who are inclined to associate the snake with virility
the expansion of the cobra's hood is suggestive. With regard to
prolificacy it may be said that the young, either in the form of eggs
or viviparous births, are numerous. K. P. Schmidt, whose assistance
with zoological details I greatly appreciate, opened a female of
the species Bitis nasicornis and removed thirty-one foetal young.
These were arranged in two rows of fifteen and sixteen, respectively.
These facts are in themselves sufficient to show why the snake is so
frequently associated with ideas of the male principle, birth, concep-
tion, and fecundity. It has already been pointed out in detail how
frequently such ideas are linked with python worship, the pregnancy
of women, the announcement of conception, and the maturing of
boys. The acceptance of a zoological hypothesis makes clear
the reason why women ask the python to grant them children; the
supplication of childless people was noted as a special point
in the python worship of Uganda.
One important section of snake beliefs includes the transmigration
of the dead into serpents, and the power of certain living people to
transform themselves into snakes. The fundamental zoological
facts which may have given rise to these beliefs are: the quick
noiseless movements of snakes; their power to do an injury in a
quick magical way, such as is supposed to be the method followed by
ghosts; hibernation with quick resurrection; and the habit of slough-
ing the skin. It cannot be truly said that beliefs and practices
centering round snakes are merely part of a wider range of super-
stitions focused on animal life in general. The snake, more than
Zoological Evidence as an Explanation of Origins 71
any other animal, is prominent in African belief and custom. There
is a worship of the snake more definite than the veneration accorded
to any other creature. Serpent beliefs are classifiable into the main,
and probably derivative subdivisions already detailed. But while
giving serpent beliefs of Africa a distinctive place in the animal cults
of the country, it is necessary to admit that such factors as reincar-
nation and the use of the parts in magic are of a common generic
type. Totemism with belief in snake ancestors seems to form part
of the group of ideas in which transmigration and transformation
Primitive man's power of observation may be accepted as an
established fact which shows that he has taken the first stage in
scientific inquiry. This phase has not left him content, for in his
folklore he has launched out on the troubled sea of explanations.
Mythologies explain origins, and folklore tales describe the way in
which the leopard got his spots, or the antelope obtained a thin neck.
The stories of snake monsters are understandable both in detail and
general principle. The whole series of zoological points enumerated
serves as a general background for mythology and folklore relating
to monster reptiles. Among these points the size, crushing power,
venomous attack, rapidity, hissing, darting a forked tongue, and
mode of swallowing the prey whole, are sufficient to warrant the
formation of stories. The habitats of snakes in old ruins, disused
wells, and caves naturally give some verisimilitude to tales of hidden
monsters of snake-like form.
There are zoological reasons for a belief in two-headed snakes.
In the region of Kilimanjaro there is a reptile which the inhabitants
call vitshwa wibili; that is, "two heads," because of its slender taper-
ing form and the similarity of its extremities. The Ba-Ila of northern
Rhodesia call a certain snake shibudikila. The creature is said to have
two heads, and its name is used idiomatically, meaning, "to come
suddenly." The sight of this reptile brings bad luck. The idea of
double-headedness may be ascribed to the extreme slenderness of the
tail and the head. Buttikofer calls attention to the Liberian snake
Calabaria reinhardtii. This is a small creature about two feet long,
with a very blunt head and tail ; the natives call it "two-headed." The
very abundant African blind snakes (Typhlops) have a similar body
form. There is perhaps a further reason for a belief in two-headed
snakes through observation of certain snake-like lizards; that is, lizards
without legs. These are nearly the same diameter throughout their
entire length. When disturbed, they have a habit of raising the tail
72 Serpent Worship in Africa
in much the same manner as a snake raises its head. Only by close
examination can the two ends be distinguished. E. Bretschneider,
quoting Levshin's work on the Kirghiz-Kaizaks (I, p. 143), refers to
a belief in two-headed snakes in Russian Turkestan. Eryx jaculus has
a short obtuse tail and a small head. This resemblance between the
head and the tail may have been the basis of the popular conception
regarding two-headed snakes.
There are also dicephalous anomalies in snakes which show one
body bifurcating into two heads. This bifidism is possibly due to
the presence of two germ nuclei in a single embryonic disk. Or,
according to Cunningham, there may have been a separation of the
blastomeres produced in first cleavage. For a time the development
might be independent, then later there was a partial fusion. The
double-headed snake is able to grow and move, and even though the
phenomenon is rare, the presence of a few instances would be most
impressive. Such a creature would be shown in a village from
which the story would spread rapidly. At each telling the snake
would grow larger, and the number of heads would increase with
the enthusiasm of the story-teller.
Sayce's information respecting the fire-spitting serpents of Egypt
may have a rational basis. Certain cobras have the power of
ejecting venom by a spasmodic movement of the poison gland, in
such a way as to spurt the poison through the air for a considerable
distance. Loveridge says, after considerable observation in East
Africa, that "beyond doubt the cobra does aim at the face." In
discussing the fire-spitting serpents of Egyptian mythology, Sayce
relates the conversation of a Nile boatman, who said that his
blindness of one eye was due to an attack by the fire-spitting
serpent. The informant was, however, stating that he was attacked
by the monster of fable. In truth he was probably injured by a
spitting snake which has a distribution as far north as Assuan
on the Nile.
There has been some guesswork to account for the snake monsters
on cave walls in South Africa. Some of the snakes are horned, and
others have a crest along the back. In South Africa, Peringuey's
puff-adder has the nostrils turned upward and outward. The species
Bitis caudalis is a horned adder of Southwest Africa. The horn is
merely a raised scale which has no known function. The head of
Bitis nasicornis is very large and hideous, being triangular in shape,
and having an erect horn-like process arising from the tip of its nose.
The Ingongoki is a rather rare snake of northern Rhodesia. The
Zoological Evidence as an Explanation of Origins 73
ridge on its back is a hard bony structure, marked by a series of white
In dealing with the real or supposed immunity of certain medicine-
men, who claim that snake poison does not harm them, there are
points of herpetology which must not be overlooked. I have already
discussed the value of an early training in handling snakes without
disturbing them. For all that is known to the contrary, the man
who claims immunity may be speaking the truth when he says that
he is safe because at intervals he allows very young snakes to bite
him. But experiments of N. Morrison (Nature, 1928, p. 684)
showed that the poison of adders eight days old was as virulent as
that of adults. There may be some real value in the practice of
introducing snake poison mixed with herbs into cuts in the flesh.
This is part of the training of novices. These physical aspects of
immunity and immunization are important; I think they support
my previous suggestion, that men who claim special familiarity and
immunity, either as an acquired or an hereditary power, may be the
representatives of a snake-cult priesthood, now defunct. There is in
Africa no liaison with animal life quite like this snake-man control
with its physical basis of immunity for the man.
Thus far the discussion has succeeded in classifying the snake
beliefs of Africa into definite categories, varying from definite worship
to miscellaneous beliefs. It is clear that there is no justification for
assuming the introduction of snake beliefs into Africa from any other
country. On the contrary, the zoological evidence shows that
common observation is sufficient to account for each and all of the
snake cults and beliefs which have been classified. What is more
important still, each type of snake belief can be satisfactorily
correlated with a definite zoological fact.
VIII. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The preliminary chapters of the inquiry were concerned with
a classification of ideas which have hitherto been vaguely assembled
under the term serpent worship. Although ideas merge into one
another, the following arrangement has a logical and working
I. (1) Python worship.
(2) Concepts of fecundity, transmigration of souls, trans-
formation into snakes, and totemism in the sense of a
sympathetic bond between a man and the snake
which is his clan token or personal emblem.
(3) Reincarnation in snakes may be that of gods, kings,
demons, or commoners.
(4) Transformation takes the following aspects. A living
man can turn himself into a snake, or he can tempo-
rarily send his soul into a snake. A man may claim
that he can successfully command a snake to do his
will, or he may turn another person into a snake which
will then obey him.
(5) Inherited power over snakes may be a family asset, or
immunity may be the result of membership of a secret
society which has a snake as its emblem. There may
be a claim that immunity results merely from inocu-
lation with an anti-venom. Study of the means of
securing immunity includes consideration of the ideas
which prevail with regard to treatment of snake-bite,
and the wearing of charms, including the skin and
vertebrae of the snake; also the use of snake's fat
because of its protective and curative properties.
(6) Mythology and functioning beliefs relating to rainbow
serpents and other snake-monsters.
This classification gave a measure of clarity and precision which
led to the establishment of the following points.
II. Examination of African python worship in relation to cults
and beliefs from other parts of the world provides no evidence that
Africa received python worship from extraneous sources. On the
contrary, the evidence is strongly in favor of an indigenous origin of
Summary and Conclusions 75
III. The habits, habitats, and anatomical structure of snakes are
such as to encourage the above-mentioned beliefs, in any part of the
world where snakes occur. It has been shown how each of the main
African snake beliefs might arise from observation and analogy.
Within the African continent itself migration of ideas has probably
played a more important part than has independent invention. Easy
communication from east to west, and from north to south; known
Hamitic and Semitic movements; also the appeal made by trans-
migration and fecundity ideas to all grades of society, have assisted
a ready diffusion.
IV. There is nothing more than a superficial resemblance between
the snake beliefs of Africa and those of ancient Egypt.
V. The most fundamental ideas of all kinds of African snake
beliefs are those of reincarnation and fecundity.
VI. The distribution of python worship is clear. The main foci
are the southwest shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza; also several centers
in the coastal regions of the west, from Ashanti to the mouth of the
Niger. Python worship was probably indigenous to an ancient,
possibly aboriginal Negro population, which was driven to the west
by racial pressure in the east. Eventually the python-worshiping
people were forced into unfavorable situations in the Niger delta,
where they are found at present. Around the main centers of python
worship are python cults; also python and snake beliefs, which
cluster as shown on the map of distributions.
VII. Association of the snake with conception, phallicism, and
fecundity is most prevalent in the areas now devoted to python
worship, though such ideas now occur without python worship.
VIII. The rainbow-snake-rain concept, with ideas of snake
monsters guarding water holes, is found in all parts of Africa. There
has probably been a Semitic influence on these tales, especially with
regard to the introduction of jinns into the snake monsters. The
concept, however, seems to be a very natural association of ideas;
for we find the rainbow snake in all parts of Australia as well as in
other parts of the world.
IX. The idea of a snake ancestor visiting the dwelling has a
strong and clearly defined distribution from the Suk to the Zulu.
Probably the idea was carried down the east of Africa by Hamites.
Centuries later the Zulu, who still hold this concept tenaciously, sent
many hordes to the north, up the east coast. This served to strengthen
76 Serpent Worship in Africa
and revive the idea of snake-ancestor visitors, wherever the concept
was falling into desuetude.
X. Sometimes the visiting snake ancestor announces a con-
ception. In other instances conception is inferred from the visit of
any snake to the hut where there is a married woman. The snake-
ancestor visitor and the birth-snake are probably of the same generic
belief and probably both are derived from early Hamito-Semitic
SUMMARY OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF PRINCIPAL FACTORS IN
SNAKE BELIEFS OF AFRICA
Python Worship. — Whydah, Dahomey, Liberia, Mossi people
of French Sudan, Benin, Brass in southern province of Nigeria,
Ekoi, Ijaw, and Ibo people of Nigeria, Lango Coast north of the
Congo Estuary, southeast of Lake Victoria Nyanza, the Bahima,
Dinka of the Upper Nile, the Banyankole of Uganda.
Rainbow Snake and Other Snake Monsters.— Senegambia,
northern provinces of Nigeria, Esa of southern provinces of Nigeria,
Bavili of the Lango Coast, Ba-Mbala, Zulu, Makalanga, Matabele,
BaThonga, Wanika near Malindi, River Muzini near Lake Victoria
Nyanza, Bagesu people of Mount Elgon, Akikuyu, Zande, Betsileo.
Snake Souls, Transformation, Transmigration of Souls. —
Bambarra country of West Africa, Mossi people of the French
Sudan, the Yoruba, the Ikwerri, the Ibibio, the Ibo, people of
Katsina, Daura, and Kamuku provinces of northern Nigeria, Gwari
and Kagoro people of northern Nigeria, Kouyou people of French
Equatorial Africa, Azande, and region of the Drakenberg Moun-
tains. The snake visitor, usually the announcer of a conception, and
almost invariably thought to be a reincarnated ancestor, is found
among the Zulu, Matabele, Yao, Anyanja, BaThonga, Wanyamwezi,
MaKonde, Betsileo of Madagascar, Masai, Nandi, Kavirondo,
Suk, Bari, Dinka, Latuka, Lumbwa, Kadimu people living near
Lake Victoria Nyanza, Karomojo, and WaKikuyu.
Snake and Fecundity.— Mandingo people, Ashanti (totem of
python) , Ibo people, Fan, Bangala, Suahili, Yoruba. The concept also
accompanies those of python worship and transmigration of souls.
Immunity from and Power over Snakes. — Konno district of
West Africa, Ekoi people, northern provinces of Nigeria, Hottentots,
Bushmen, Ila-speaking people of northern Rhodesia, Zanzibar and
Pemba, Wanyamwezi, BaThonga, Masai, Nandi, Abyssinia, Ba-
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Abyssinia, 69, 74-76
Adder, 60, 73
Adumu, 16, 17
Agriculture and snakes, 20, 22, 55, 66
Alose juju, 25
Amulets, 8, 47, 65
Anatomical peculiarities of snakes, 68
Ancestral serpents, 15, 25, 28, 29, 33,
35, 53, 60, 61, 75
Angola, 7, 47
Arabia, 38, 51, 52, 63
Archaeology, 58, 61, 64
Armenia, 54, 57
Art and serpent, 18, 28, 29, 37, 51, 60, 62
Association of ideas with structure of
snakes, 68-73, 75
Australia, 51, 59, 60
Azande, 28, 42
Bark cloth, 18
Bauchi Plateau, 38
Bavili, 18, 23, 38
Beer for snakes, 40, 41, 61
Benin, 14, 16
Betsileo, 31, 32
Birth snake, 22-36
Bite of snakes, 35, 43-48, 62
Blood, drinking of, 12
Boas, 33, 60
Book of the Dead, 65
Brass, town of, 14
Bronze casting, 14
Bull sacrificed, 27
Burial of python, 23
Bushmen, 44, 51
Bush soul, 26, 36
Camwood, on snakes, 23
Carving of snakes, 7
Casting of skin, 68
Cave paintings of snakes, 28, 51
Celibacy of priests, 18
Charms against snake-bite, 47; see
Chloroforming snakes, 46
Clan snake, 28, 31, 34, 56, 60
Classification of beliefs, 7, 21
Clay snakes, 23
Clustering of beliefs, 21
Cobra, 43, 45, 61, 62, 70, 72
Colors of snakes, 68, 69
Conception and snake visitor, 22-36
Cows, and python, 19, 21, 50
Crocodiles, 7, 24, 25, 66
Cult, defined, 8
Dahomey, 9-12, 13, 18, 37
Dancing and snakes, 9, 16, 17, 24, 57,
Danh, 10, 12
Des Marchais, 11
Devil dance, 61
Dinka, 20, 50
Distribution of beliefs, 8, 35, 49-55,
Divination, 7, 15, 29, 63
Double-headed snakes, 31, 61, 68, 71
Drawings of snakes, 28, 51, 60
Dreams of snakes, 23, 24, 25, 28, 30, 65
Eating snakes, 24; see Killing
Ecstasy, 16, 20
Eggs, sacrificed, 13, 27; of snakes, 69
Egypt, 43, 64-66
Ekoi, 7, 15, 43
Ewe, 10, 38
Familiars, 25, 36
Family snake, 34, 39
Fan tribe, 23
Fat of snakes, 24, 43, 44, 66, 70
Fecundity of snakes, 69, 70
Gall of snakes, 43, 70
Girls and snakes, 9, 37, 41, 60
Goat sacrificed, 27
Gods in snakes, 13, 14, 30, 62; see Rein-
carnation and Transformation
Groves, sacred for snakes, 13, 16, 18, 20,
Guardian animals, 7, 13, 39; snakes as,
34, 39, 63, 65
Hamites, 50, 53, 63, 67, 75
Hausa, 23, 27, 52
Hereditary priesthood, 16, 73
Hibernation of snakes, 37, 48, 53, 61,
Hindus, 30, 61
Horned serpent, 28, 62, 72
Human sacrifice, 7, 12, 17
Hysteria of priests, 17, 19, 43
Ibibio tribe, 26
Ibo tribe, 17, 23, 26
Ijaw tribe, 16, 17, 23
Ila-speaking people, 45
Images of python, 11
Imerina tribe of Madagascar, 32
Immunity from snakes, 43-48, 73, 74
Indians, North American, 57-59
Inherited power over snakes, 47
Intoxicated snakes, 40, 41, 61
Islam, 27, 52
Japan, 52, 60
Jinns of Arabian folklore, 63
Kafirs, 28; see Zulus
Kagoro tribe, 27
Kamuku tribe, of Nigeria, 27
Kikuyu, beliefs of, 33, 41
Killing of serpents, 10, 17, 24, 25, 26,
27, 29, 32, 62, 70
Kings and serpents, 20, 40, 65
Konde tribe, 30
Kouyou tribe, 27
Kpelle tribe of Liberia, 23
Kraal, visited by serpents, 28, 34
Kru of Liberia, 13
Lango Coast, 18, 23, 50
Latuka tribe, 34
Liberia, 13, 23, 50
Lizards, 29, 71
Lumbwa tribe, 34
Marriage to serpents, 11, 16, 20, 39, 41
Masculinity and snakes, 23
Matabele, 29, 30
Medicine for snake-bite, 8, 33, 45
Medicine-man, 24, 25, 32, 34, 40, 46
Migration of beliefs, 49-55
Milk offered to snakes, 19, 27, 34, 40, 62
Milky Way, a snake, 60
Moon and serpents, 21, 43
Morocco, 43, 65
Mossi, 13, 25
Motopo Hills, South Africa, 39
Mourning for python, 17
Mud, sacred, 14
Mural paintings of snakes, 28, 51
Muzini River, Victoria Nyanza, 18
Mythology and serpents, 7, 15, 52, 58,
61, 65, 71; see Folklore
Nandi, 33, 46
Negroes, 16, 17, 50, 55
Niger delta, 75; see Nigeria
Nigeria, 7, 17, 18, 23, 26, 38, 49
Nile, 72; see Egypt
Nimm, goddess of a lagoon, 15
Ntoro, spirit in python, 22
Nykang, god of Shilluks, 24
Offerings to snakes, 40, 61 ; see Sacrifice,
Food, Milk, Ox, Goat, Sheep
Ogidia, 14, 17
Old Calabar, 14
Serpent Worship in Africa
Omens, 7, 17, 23; see Dreams
Orgies, 12; see Priests, Priestesses,
Possession, Hysteria, Frenzy, Trance
Origins of serpent worship, multiple, 8;
outside Africa, 56-67; zoological evi-
dence of, 68-73; summary, 74-75
Ovimbundu, 7, 43
Owe, a water spirit, 16
Ox, killed as sacrifice, 29, 32
Pacific islands, 60
Penis of serpent, 68, 69
Phallicism, 66, 75
Philology, arguments from, 57
Pools sacred, 7, 15
Popo, 10, 25
Possession by serpent spirit, 11, 14, 16
Power over snakes, 43-47
Pregnancy, announced by serpent, 22-
24, 34; see Birth Snake
Priestesses, and python worship, 7-21,
Priesthood, for snakes, 7, 9-21, 26, 47,
Procession with python, 12
Prolificacy of snakes, 69, 70
Puff-adder, 30, 45, 46, 72
Pyramid texts, 66
Python, ancestral, 15, 34; crushing
power, 68; distribution of beliefs, 9-
21, 49; distribution of species, 69;
eating python, 16; god in python, 10,
13; house for python, 9, 10, 14, 18,
62, 69; image of, 11; king and python,
12; killing of, 9, 11, 15, 16; metamor-
phosis, 26; transport of, 12, 14; war,
10, 16; wives of python, 11; worship
of python, 9-12
Qadesh, a Syrian goddess, 66
Queensland, Australia, 59
Quiche Indians, 57
Rain and snakes, 37-42, 57, 69
Rainbow snake, 22, 37-42, 59, 69, 76
Reincarnation, 19, 21, 23, 34, 35, 52,
Rhodesia, 33, 44
Rum, drinking by priests, 12
Sacred animals, 17; catfish, 7; cows, 19;
crocodile, 7, 24, 25, 66; groves, 13, 16,
18, 28, 32; mud, 14; pools, 7, 32;
shrines, 16; water, 16
Sacrifice, human, 7, 17; of animals, 27,
29, 40, 61 ; see Offerings
Scarab beetle, 69
Secret societies, 43, 47
Semites, 38, 51, 52, 63, 67
Seven-tongued snake, 32
Sheep sacrificed, 35
Sky and python, 11, 22
Slave Coast, 38; trade, 59
Snakes, bite of, 35, 43-48, 62; charms
against bite, 8, 47, 65; house for, 9,
10, 14, 18, 62; messenger snake, 29;
see Birth Snake; not sacred, 10, 17;
peculiarities summarized, 68; soul in
snake, 26, 30, 76; spitting, 72; see
Cobra; totem, 10; wives, 10; see
South Africa, 28, 39, 72; see Zulus
Species of python, 20
Spitting cobra, 43, 45, 68
Suk, 33, 53
Summary of book, 74, 76
Sun god, 65
Swallowing, method of, 69
Symbolism of snakes, 57, 58, 62
Syrian goddess, 66
Taboos and snakes, 9-18, 22, 23, 40
Tamunu, a mother goddess, 17
Tanala, tribe of Madagascar, 32
Taroule, tribe of West Africa, 24
Tattooing, 58, 64
Temple for snakes, 10, 18, 62
Totems, 28, 31, 34, 56, 60
Transformations, 26, 33, 35, 74, 76
Transmigration of souls, 20, 25, 35, 74,
76; see Reincarnation
Treatment of snake-bite, 43-48
Trees and snakes, 11, 17, 23, 44, 68
Types of belief, 8, 35; zoological founda-
tion for, 68-73
Uganda, 18-20, 42, 49, 50
Veddas of Ceylon, 51
Victoria Nyanza, 18, 40
Viper, 27, 43
Visiting snake, 22, 25, 27, 54; see Birth
Snake, Zulus, Masai, Kavirondo
Viviparous snakes, 68
Wakerewe, 33, 35
Wanyamwezi, 34, 45
War god, and python, 14, 16
Water spirits, and snakes, 16, 23, 38
Wells guarded by snakes, 37-42
West Africa, 7-18
West Indies, 57, 59
Whydah in Dahomey, 9, 10
Wives of snakes, 11, 20, 39, 41; see
Wizards, 33; see Medicine-man
Python, Marriage, Girls
Wood carving of snakes, 18, 29, 37; see
Art, Bronze, Images
Woods guarded by snake, 42
Worship of python; defined, 7, 8; ritual
in West Africa, 9-18; in Uganda, 18-
Yam harvest, 25; offered to snake, 26
Yao tribe, 29, 54
Yoruba, 7, 25
Zande, 28, 42
Zoological foundation of beliefs, 28, 53,
Zulu tribes, 28, 39, 53, 54; see Visiting
Snake, Birth Snake, Ancestral Snake
Field Museum of Natural History
Anthropology, Vol. XXI, Plate III
TEMPLE FOR PYTHON WORSHIP IN DAHOMEY
Field Museum of Natural History
Anthropology, Vol. XXI, Plate IV
NATIVE OF THE FRENCH SUDAN HOLDING SACRED SNAKES
Field Museum of Natural History
Anthropology, Vol. XXI, Plate V
WOODEN BOXES FROM BENIN
Field Museum of Natural History
Anthropology, Vol. XXI, Plate VI
DECORATED MEDICINE-MAN OF THE DSHANG TRIBE, CAMEROON
Field Museum of Natural History
Anthropology, Vol. XXI, Plate VII
1. CARVED WOODEN SERPENT, CAMEROON. 2. PROW OF CANOE, CAMEROON
Field Museum of Natural History
Anthropology, Vol. XXI, Plate VIII
2 AUG 2 6 1931
1. WOODEN PANEL FROM DAHOMEY. 2-4. ZULU STAFFS