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A Horned Serpent in a Barrier Canyon Style pictograph, Western San Rafael Swell region of Utah.

The Horned Serpent appears in the mythologies of many Native Americans.[1] Details vary among tribes, with many of the stories associating the mystical figure with water, rain, lightning and/or thunder. Horned Serpents were major components of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of North American prehistory. [2][3]

Horned serpents also appear in European and Near Eastern mythology.


In Native American culture

Rock Art (Pony Hills and Cook's Peak TX)

The Horned Serpent was venerated, in various forms, by the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek, just to name a few. Some myths say it is invisible, or that it brought rain and made a noise similar to (but not the same as) thunder.

Among the Eastern and Western Cherokee Indians, the horned serpent known as Uktena was venerated. Anthropologist James Mooney, describes it thus:

"Those who know say the Uktena is a great snake, as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, and a bright blazing crest like a diamond on its forehead, and scales glowing like sparks of fire. It has rings or spots of color along its whole length, and can not be wounded except by shooting in the seventh spot from the head, because under this spot are its heart and its life. The blazing diamond is called Ulun'suti -- "Transparent" -- and he who can win it may become the greatest wonder worker of the tribe. But it is worth a man's life to attempt it, for whoever is seen by the Uktena is so dazed by the bright light that he runs toward the snake instead of trying to escape. As if this were not enough, the breath of the Uktena is so pestilential, that no living creature can survive should they inhale the tiniest bit of the foul air expelled by the Uktena. Even to see the Uktena asleep is death, not to the hunter himself, but to his family."
Horned serpents (rattlesnakes) tied together on a Mississippian sandstone plate from the Moundville Archaeological Site

According to Sioux belief, the Unktehila (Ųȟcéǧila) are dangerous reptilian water monsters that lived in old times. They were of various shapes. In the end the Thunderbirds destroyed them, except for small species like snakes and lizards. This belief may have been inspired by finds of dinosaur fossils in Sioux tribal territory. The Thunderbird may have been inspired partly by finds of pterosaur skeletons. [4]


Other known names

  • Misi-kinepikw ("great snake") - Cree
  • Msi-kinepikwa ("great snake") - Shawnee
  • Misi-ginebig ("great snake") - Oji-Cree
  • Mishi-ginebig ("great snake") - Ojibwe
  • Pita-skog ("great snake") - Abenaki
  • Sinti lapitta - Choctaw
  • Unktehi or Unktehila - Dakota

In European iconography

The antlered deity of the Gundestrup cauldron, commonly identified with Cernunnos, holding a ram-horned serpent and a torc.

The ram-horned serpent is a well-attested cult image of north-west Europe before and during the Roman period. It appears three times on the Gundestrup cauldron, and in Romano-Celtic Gaul was closely associated with the horned or antlered god Cernunnos, in whose company it is regularly depicted. This pairing is found as early as the fourth century BC in Northern Italy, where a huge antlered figure with torcs and a serpent was carved on the rocks in Val Camonica.[5]

A bronze image at Étang-sur-Arroux and a stone sculpture at Sommerécourt depict Cernunnos' body encircled by two horned snakes that feed from bowls of fruit and corn-mash in the god's lap. Also at Sommerécourt is a sculpture of a goddess holding a cornucopia and a pomegranate, with a horned serpent eating from a bowl of food. At Yzeures-sur-Creuse a carved youth has a ram-horned snake twined around his legs, with its head at his stomach. At Cirencester, Gloucestershire, Cernunnos' legs are two snakes which rear up on each side of his head and are eating fruit or corn. According to Miranda Green, the snakes reflect the peaceful nature of the god, associated with nature and fruitfulness, and perhaps accentuate his association with regeneration.[5]

Other deities occasionally accompanied by ram-horned serpents include the Celtic Mars (who was a healer rather than a warrior god), the Celtic Mercury, and the Celtic sun-god, Lugh, with whom conventional snakes are also often associated.[5]

In Mesopotamian iconography

In Mesopotamian mythology Ningishzida, a prototype of the Biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden, is sometimes depicted as a serpent with horns. In other depictions he is shown as human, but is accompanied by bashmu, horned serpents. Ningishzida shares the epithet Ushumgal, "great serpent", with several other Mesopotamian gods.[6]

In popular culture

In the role-playing game Rifts, Uktena is not only a monstrous spirit of godlike stature but a rival to the Ondi Thunderbird and the Native Americans.

In the role-playing game Werewolf:The Apocalypse, Uktena is a godlike tribal totem to the Uktena tribe of werewolves.

American Space Rock band U.S. Christmas have a song entitled "Uktena" on their Neurot Recordings debut, Eat the Low Dogs.

See also


  1. ^ Horned serpent, feathered serpent
  2. ^ Townsend, Richard F. (2004). Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300106017.  
  3. ^ F. Kent Reilly and James Garber, ed (2004). Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms. University of Texas Press. pp. 29–34. ISBN 9780292713475.  
  4. ^ National Geographic Magazine, December 2005, pages 74-75
  5. ^ a b c Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. pp. 227–8.  
  6. ^ Y de la Torre, Walter R. W. M. (2000) Eden's Serpent and its Pre-Biblical Mesopotamian Prototypes. Retrieved 2008-11-25.

External links


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