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Full text of "Serpent worship in Africa"

THE UNIVERSITY 

OF ILLINOIS 

LIBRARY 

572. Co 
FA 





KEY TO NUMBERS ON MAP INDICATING 

THE PRINCIPAL TRIBES 

AND LOCALITIES 

1. Senegambia 

2. Mandingo 

3. Bam burr a 

4. Hausa 

5. Mossi 

6. Yoruba 

7. Ashanti 

8. Dahomey 

9. Whydah 

10. Popo 

11. Edo 

12. Benin 

13. Katsina, Daura, Kamuku 

14. Ibo 
16. I jaw 

16. Calabar 

17. Brass 

18. Ekoi 

19. Loango Coast 

20. Bavili 

21. Fang 

22. Bangala 

23. Kouyou 

24. Hottentots 

25. Bushmen 

26. Zulu 

27. Bechuana 

28. BaThonga 

29. Matabele 



30. Makalanga 

31. Konde 

32. Yao 

33. An van j a 

34. Ila-speaking Peopli 

35. Wanika 

36. Zanzibar and Pembi 

37. Betsileo 

38. Wanyamwezi 

39. Masai 

40. Akikuyu 

41. Lumbwa 

42. Fauvera 

43. Muzini River 

44. Nandi 

45. Bagesu 

46. Kavirondo 

47. Baganda 

48. Bahima 

49. Banyankole 

50. Ban 

51. Latuka 

52. Zande 

53. Dinka 

54. Karomojo 

55. Suk 

56. Melinde 

57. Kpelle 



MAP SHOWING DISTRIBUTION OF SERPENT BELIEFS 



Field Museum of Natural History 

Founded by Marshall Field, 1893 



Publication 289 



Anthropological Series 



Vol. XXI, No. 1 



SERPENT WORSHIP IN AFRICA 

THE LIBRARY B? THE 

BY 

Wilfrid D. Hambly AUG 26 1931 

ASSISTANT CURATOR OF AFRICAN ETHNtftffi^ , T y Qf j^^g 



8 Plates in Photogravure and 1 Map 



Berthold Laufer 

CURATOR. DEPARTMENT OP ANTHROPOLOGY 
EDITOR 




CHICAGO, U. S. A. 
1931 



PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 
BY FIELD MUSEUM PRESS 



3 /c/.U*J 



CONTENTS 

PAGE 

List of Plates 5 

Preface 7 

I. Python Worship 9 

II. The Serpent and Fecundity, Transmigration of Souls, 

Totemism 22 

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 

Beliefs 56 

VII. Zoological Evidence as an Explanation of Origins 68 

VIII. Summary and Conclusions 74 

Bibliography 77 

Index 82 



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 
Expedition, 1924-25. 

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. 



PREFACE 

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 
specially sacred. 

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 



8 Preface 

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 
representation. 

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 
snake house. 

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 

9 



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 
fetish priests." 

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 
dependents. 

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 
departure. 

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 
the priest. 



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 
this day." 

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 
snake Ndoma: 

"Have we eaten the flesh of any animal we have killed the same 
day? 

"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 
kind?" 

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 
fertility. 

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 
prosperity. 

(5) Sacred groves are found in addition to temples. 

(6) Acts of worship bring people who offer sacrifice and make 
requests. 

(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 
and animals. 

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 

22 



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 
(Poupon). 

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, 
Figs. 2-4). 

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 
West Africa. 

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 
injury. 

"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 
spirits. 

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: 

Reincarnations : 

(1) Of gods and demons. 
• (2) Of chiefs. 

(3) Of commoners, including women and children. 

Transformations : 

(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 
mysterious power. 



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 

37 



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 
"secret moisture." 

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 
to cross. 

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 
worship. 

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 

43 



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 
burning. 

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 
snake." 

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 
tobacco water. 

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 

emblem. 

(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 
ailments. 

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 
hibernation. 

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 
areas? 



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 
snake beliefs. 

(3) The possible spatial and temporal relationships of these 
beliefs. 

(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 
serpent? 

Although these lines of inquiry have been set out as separate 
items, it is clear that the four are to a great extent mutually 
dependent. 

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 

49 



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 
racial migrations. 

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 
southward. 

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 

56 



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 
women. 

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 
forthwith. 

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 
folklore. 

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 
customs. 

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 
underworld. 

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 
scorpion. 

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 
cobras. 

(13) Peculiar growths, such as cephalic protuberances and spinal 
ridges, which have been recorded and greatly exaggerated in primi- 
tive folklore. 

(14) Some snakes have a nearly quadruple penis. All snakes 
have a double penis. 

(15) The habit of spitting venom. 

68 



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 
are prominent. 

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 
horny scales. 

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 
convenience: 

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 
python worship. 

74 



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 
sources. 

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- 
ganda, Fauvera. 



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Rattray, R. S— Ashanti. Oxford, 1912, p. 47. 
Roscoe, J.— I. The Bahima. J. R. A. I., 1907, XXXVII, p. 102. 

II. Python Worship in Uganda. Man, 1909, No. 57. 

III. Snake and Rain Making. J. R. A. I., 1909, XXXIX, p. 189. 

IV. The Bakitara. Cambridge, 1923, pp. 42, 44. 

V. The Banyankole. Cambridge, 1923, pp. 61-62. 

Sayce, A. H. — Serpent Worship in Ancient and Modern Egypt. Contemporary 
Review, Oct., 1893. 

Schmidt, K. P. — Herpetology of the Belgian Congo. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., 
1923, XLIX, Art. I. 

Schneider, W. — Die Religionen der afrikanischen Naturvolker. Munster, 1891, 
pp. 116, 139, 161, 165, 199. 

Schultze, L. — Aus Namaland und Kalahari. Jena, 1907, pp. 224-25, 482. 

Schweinfurth, G. — The Heart of Africa. New York, 1874, I, p. 158. 

Sethe, Kurt. — Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Aegypt. 
V, 1912, p. 10. 

Sibree, J. — Madagascar before the Conquest. London, 1896, p. 231. 

Skertchly, J. A. — Dahomey as It Is. London, 1874, p. 55. 

Smith, G. Elliot — Proc. Manchester Phil. Soc, 1915, X, pp. 1-2. 

Smith, E. W. and Dale, E. M. — The Ila-Speaking People of Northern Rhodesia. 
London, 1920, I, p. 245; II, p. 228. 

Smith, Robertson — Lectures on Religion of the Semites. London, 1901, pp. 120, 
133, 168. 

Spinden, H. J. — Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Handbook 
Series No. 3, Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., New York, 1917, pp. 84, 89. 

Stam, N. — The Religious Conceptions of the Kavirondo. Anthropos, 1910, p. 362. 

St. John, S. B.— Hayti, the Black Republic. New York, 1889, chap. V, p. 187. 

Stuhlmann, F. — Mit Emin Pascha im Herz von Afrika. Berlin, 1894, p. 506. 

Talbot, P. A.— I. In the Shadow of the Bush. London, 1912, pp. 2, 25, 27, 83, 
91, 278, 374. 

II. Life in Southern Nigeria. London, 1923, pp. 9, 43, 89, 91. 

III. The Peoples of Southern Nigeria. IV Vols., Oxford, 1926. 

Vols. II and III contain many well-indexed references to python cults. 



Bibliography 81 

Tautain, L. — Notes on the Beliefs and Practices of the Banmanas. Revue 
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Termer, F. — Snake Dances among Quiche Indians of Guatemala. Int. Cong. 
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Tessmann, G.— Die Pangwe. Berlin, 1910, 1, p. 273, figs. 10, 11; II, pp. 2, 45, 74. 

Thomas, N. W. — Anthropological Report of the Ibo-Speaking People of Nigeria. 
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Thompson, J. E. — Ethnology of the Mayas of Southern and Central British 
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Torday, E. and Joyce, T. A. — Notes on the Ethnography of the Ba Mbala. 
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Tremearne, A. J. N. — I. Notes on Traces of Totemism in Hausaland. Man, 
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II. The Snake in Hausa Folk-Lore. Folk-Lore, 1911, XXII. 

III. Tailed Head-Hunters of Nigeria. London, 1912, p. 207. 

IV. The Ban of the Bori. London, 1914, pp. 101, 150, 340, 408. 
Turner, G. — Nineteen Years in Polynesia. London, 1860, p. 237. 
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Wake, C. S.— The Origin of Serpent Worship. J. A. I., 1872, II, p. 373. 

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Weeks, J.— I. J. R. A. I., 1910, XL, p. 419. 

II. Among Congo Cannibals. London, 1913, p. 131. 

III. Among the Primitive Bakongo. Philadelphia, 1914, p. 113. 
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II. Folk-Lore, XXVI, 1915, p. 75. 

III. Mythology of All Races. Boston, 1925, VII, p. 121. 
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Woodward, H. W.— Bondei Folk-Tales. Folk-Lore, London, 1925, p. 377. 



INDEX 



Abyssinia, 69, 74-76 

Adder, 60, 73 

Adumu, 16, 17 

Agriculture and snakes, 20, 22, 55, 66 

Agweh, 10 

Alose juju, 25 

Amulets, 8, 47, 65 

Anatomical peculiarities of snakes, 68 

Ancestral serpents, 15, 25, 28, 29, 33, 

35, 53, 60, 61, 75 
Andamanese, 51 
Angas, 38 
Angola, 7, 47 
Anyanja, 29 
Arabia, 38, 51, 52, 63 
Archaeology, 58, 61, 64 
Armenia, 54, 57 

Art and serpent, 18, 28, 29, 37, 51, 60, 62 
Aryans, 61 
Ashanti, 13 
Asia, 61 
Association of ideas with structure of 

snakes, 68-73, 75 
Assyria, 63 
Australia, 51, 59, 60 
Awemba, 33 
Azande, 28, 42 

Badagry, 16 

Bagesu, 40 

Bahima, 19 

Ba-ila, 45 

Bakongo, 23 

Ba-Mbala, 38 

Bambarra, 24 

Bangala, 23 

Bari, 34 

Bark cloth, 18 

Ba-Thonga, 30 

Batlaru, 28 

Bauchi Plateau, 38 

Bavili, 18, 23, 38 

Bechuana, 28 

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 

Bori, 27 

Brass, town of, 14 

Brazil, 59 

Bronze casting, 14 

Bull sacrificed, 27 

Burial of python, 23 

Bushmen, 44, 51 

Bush soul, 26, 36 



Calabar, 14 

Camwood, on snakes, 23 

Carving of snakes, 7 

Casting of skin, 68 

Catfish, 7 

Cave paintings of snakes, 28, 51 

Celibacy of priests, 18 

Charms against snake-bite, 47; see 

Amulets 
China, 60 

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 
Conclusions, 74-76 
Cows, and python, 19, 21, 50 
Crocodiles, 7, 24, 25, 66 
Cult, defined, 8 

Dafur, 69 

Dahomey, 9-12, 13, 18, 37 

Dancing and snakes, 9, 16, 17, 24, 57, 

61 
Danh, 10, 12 
Daura, 27 
Dervishes, 65 
Des Marchais, 11 
Devil dance, 61 
Dinka, 20, 50 
Distribution of beliefs, 8, 35, 49-55, 

75-76 
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 

Eket, 26 

Ekoi, 7, 15, 43 

Elamites, 63 

Esa, 38 

Ewe, 10, 38 

Familiars, 25, 36 

Family snake, 34, 39 

Fanany, 30 

Fantis, 12 

Fan tribe, 23 

Fat of snakes, 24, 43, 44, 66, 70 

Fecundity of snakes, 69, 70 



82 



Index 



83 



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 

Grebo, 13 

Greeks, 62 

Groves, sacred for snakes, 13, 16, 18, 20, 
26,28 

Guardian animals, 7, 13, 39; snakes as, 
34, 39, 63, 65 

Guatemala, 57 

Gwari, 27 

Haiti, 59 

Hamites, 50, 53, 63, 67, 75 

Hausa, 23, 27, 52 

Hereditary priesthood, 16, 73 

Herero, 44 

Herpetology, 68-73 

Hibernation of snakes, 37, 48, 53, 61, 

68, 69 
Hindus, 30, 61 
Hopi, 57 

Horned serpent, 28, 62, 72 
Hottentots, 44 
Hova, 31 

Human sacrifice, 7, 12, 17 
Hysteria of priests, 17, 19, 43 

Ibadan, 7 

Ibibio tribe, 26 

Ibo tribe, 17, 23, 26 

Idagbe, 16 

Ife, 7 

Ijaw tribe, 16, 17, 23 

Ikwerri, 25 

Ila-speaking people, 45 

Images of python, 11 

Imerina tribe of Madagascar, 32 

Immunity from snakes, 43-48, 73, 74 

Inca, 58 

India, 57 

Indians, North American, 57-59 

Inherited power over snakes, 47 

Initiation, 41 

Intoxicated snakes, 40, 41, 61 

Iran, 54 

Isis, 66 

Islam, 27, 52 

Japan, 52, 60 

Jinns of Arabian folklore, 63 

Kafirs, 28; see Zulus 

Kagoro tribe, 27 

Kalahari, 38 

Kamuku tribe, of Nigeria, 27 

Katsina, 27 

Kavirondo, 33 

Kenya, 41 

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 
Leopard, 13 
Liberia, 13, 23, 50 
Lions, 20 
Lizards, 29, 71 
Lumbwa tribe, 34 

Madagascar, 30-32 
Makalanga, 39 
Mamba, 46 
Mandingoes, 22 

Marriage to serpents, 11, 16, 20, 39, 41 
Masai, 33 

Masculinity and snakes, 23 
Matabele, 29, 30 
Maya, 58 

Medicine for snake-bite, 8, 33, 45 
Medicine-man, 24, 25, 32, 34, 40, 46 
Mexico, 58 

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 

Nagas, 62 

Nandi, 33, 46 

Negritos, 51 

Negroes, 16, 17, 50, 55 

Niger delta, 75; see Nigeria 

Nigeria, 7, 17, 18, 23, 26, 38, 49 

Nikaia, 24 

Nile, 72; see Egypt 

Nimm, goddess of a lagoon, 15 

Ntoro, spirit in python, 22 

Nyendael, 14 

Nykang, god of Shilluks, 24 

Offerings to snakes, 40, 61 ; see Sacrifice, 

Food, Milk, Ox, Goat, Sheep 
Ogidia, 14, 17 
Ogugu, 25 
Ohio, 58 
Old Calabar, 14 



84 



Serpent Worship in Africa 



Oloso, 7 

Omens, 7, 17, 23; see Dreams 

Ophidia, 13 

Ophiolatry, 8-21 

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 

Osiris, 66 

Ovimbundu, 7, 43 

Owe, a water spirit, 16 

Ox, killed as sacrifice, 29, 32 

Pacific islands, 60 

Papyri, 66 

Penis of serpent, 68, 69 

Persians, 61 

Phallicism, 66, 75 

Philology, arguments from, 57 

Phoenicians, 66 

Pointing-bone, 10 

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, 
47,49 

Priesthood, for snakes, 7, 9-21, 26, 47, 
49 

Procession with python, 12 

Prolificacy of snakes, 69, 70 

Puff-adder, 30, 45, 46, 72 

Purification, 11 

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 
Quetzalcoatl, 58 
Quiche Indians, 57 

Ra, 66 

Rain and snakes, 37-42, 57, 69 

Rainbow snake, 22, 37-42, 59, 69, 76 

Rattlesnake, 57 

Reincarnation, 19, 21, 23, 34, 35, 52, 

62, 74 
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 

Samoa, 60 

Sarcolais, 37 

Scarab beetle, 69 

Scorpion, 66 

Secret societies, 43, 47 

Semites, 38, 51, 52, 63, 67 

Senegal, 69 

Senegambia, 37 

Seven-tongued snake, 32 

Sheep sacrificed, 35 

Shilluks, 24 

Shintoism, 60 

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 
Python 

Snelgrave, 10 

South Africa, 28, 39, 72; see Zulus 

Species of python, 20 

Spider, 33 

Spitting cobra, 43, 45, 68 

Suahili, 24 

Sudan, 69 

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 

Tasmanians, 51 

Tattooing, 58, 64 

Temple for snakes, 10, 18, 62 

Tonga, 60 

Totems, 28, 31, 34, 56, 60 

Trance, 49 

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 

Turanians, 61 

Turkestan, 72 

Types of belief, 8, 35; zoological founda- 
tion for, 68-73 



Index 



85 



Uganda, 18-20, 42, 49, 50 
Uraeus, 65 

Veddas of Ceylon, 51 

Victoria Nyanza, 18, 40 

Viper, 27, 43 

Virility, 70 

Visiting snake, 22, 25, 27, 54; see Birth 

Snake, Zulus, Masai, Kavirondo 
Viviparous snakes, 68 
Voodoo, 59 

Wahehe, 33 

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- 

21 

Yam harvest, 25; offered to snake, 26 
Yao tribe, 29, 54 
Yoruba, 7, 25 

Zande, 28, 42 

Zoological foundation of beliefs, 28, 53, 

68-73 
Zulu tribes, 28, 39, 53, 54; see Visiting 

Snake, Birth Snake, Ancestral Snake 



1 

s 




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 




4 



2 AUG 2 6 1931 
wwm Willing 



1. WOODEN PANEL FROM DAHOMEY. 2-4. ZULU STAFFS