From Maine and Nova Scotia to the Rocky Mountains, Indians told stories about the Great Serpent. More than a century ago the serpent was considered to be “a genuine spirit of evil.” Some version of the story of the Great Flood of long ago, as recounted here, is told around the world.
Nanabozho (Nuna-bozo, accented on bozo) was the hero of many stories told by the Chippewa Indians. At one time they lived on the shores of Lake Superior, in what are now the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the province of Ontario.
One day when Nanabozho returned to his lodge after a long journey, he missed his young cousin who lived with him. He called the cousin’s name but heard no answer. Looking around on the sand for tracks, Nanabozho was startled by the trail of the Great Serpent. He then knew that his cousin had been seized by his enemy.
Nanabozho picked up his bow and arrows and followed the track
of the serpent. He passed the great river, climbed mountains,
and crossed over valleys until he came to the shores of a deep
and gloomy lake. It is now called Manitou Lake, Spirit Lake,
and also the Lake of Devils. The trail of the Great Serpent
led to the edge of the water.
Nanabozho could see, at the bottom of the lake, the house of
the Great Serpent. It was filled with evil spirits, who were
his servants and his companions. Their forms were monstrous
and terrible. Most of them, like their master, resembled spirits.
In the centre of this horrible group was the Great Serpent himself,
coiling his terrifying length around the cousin of Nanabozho.
The head of the Serpent was red as blood. His fierce eyes glowed
like fire. His entire body was armed with hard and glistening
scales of every color and shade.
Looking down on these twisting spirits of evil, Nanabozho made
up his mind that he would get revenge on them for the death
of his cousin.
He said to the clouds, “Disappear!”
And the clouds went out of sight.
“Winds, be still at once!” And the winds became still.
When the air over the lake of evil spirits had become stagnant,
Nanabozho said to the sun, “Shine over the lake with all
the fierceness you can. Make the water boil.”
In these ways, thought Nanabozho, he would force the Great
Serpent to seek the cool shade of the trees growing on the shores
of the lake. There he would seize the enemy and get revenge.
After giving his orders, Nanabozho took his bow and arrows
and placed himself near the spot where he thought the serpents
would come to enjoy the shade. Then he changed himself into
the broken stump of a withered tree.
The winds became still, the air stagnant, and the sun shot
hot rays from a cloudless sky. In time, the water of the lake
became troubled, and bubbles rose to the surface. The rays of
the sun had penetrated to the home of the serpents. As the water
bubbled and foamed, a serpent lifted his head above the centre
of the lake and gazed around the shores. Soon another serpent
came to the surface. Both listened for the footsteps of Nanabozho,
but they heard him nowhere.
“Nanabozho is sleeping,” they said to one another.
And then they plunged beneath the waters, which seemed to hiss
as they closed over the evil spirits.
Not long after, the lake became more troubled. Its water boiled
from its very depths, and the hot waves dashed wildly against
the rocks on its banks. Soon the Great Serpent came slowly to
the surface of the water and moved toward the shore. His blood-red
crest glowed. The reflection from his scales was blinding–as
blinding as the glitter of a sleet-covered forest beneath the
winter sun. He was followed by all the evil spirits. So great
was their number that they soon covered the shores of the lake.
When they saw the broken stump of the withered tree, they suspected
that it might be one of the disguises of Nanabozho. They knew
his cunning. One of the serpents approached the stump, wound
his tail around it, and tried to drag it down into the lake.
Nanabozho could hardly keep from crying aloud, for the tail
of the monster prickled his sides. But he stood firm and was
The evil spirits moved on. The Great Serpent glided into the
forest and wound his many coils around the trees. His companions
also found shade–all but one. One remained near the shore to
listen for the footsteps of Nanabozho.
From the stump, Nanabozho watched until all the serpents were
asleep and the guard was intently looking in another direction.
Then he silently drew an arrow from his quiver, placed it in
his bow, and aimed it at the heart of the Great Serpent. It
reached its mark. With a howl that shook the mountains and startled
the wild beasts in their caves, the monster awoke. Followed
by its terrified companions, which also were howling with rage
and terror, the Great Serpent plunged into the water.
At the bottom of the lake there still lay the body of Nanabozho’s
cousin. In their fury the serpents tore it into a thousand pieces.
His shredded lungs rose to the surface and covered the lake
The Great Serpent soon knew that he would die from his wound,
but he and his companions were determined to destroy Nanabozho.
They caused the water of the lake to swell upward and to pound
against the shore with the sound of many thunders. Madly the
flood rolled over the land, over the tracks of Nanabozho, carrying
with it rocks and trees. High on the crest of the highest wave
floated the wounded Great Serpent. His eyes glared around him,
and his hot breath mingled with the hot breath of his many companions.
Nanabozho, fleeing before the angry waters, thought of his
Indian children. He ran through their villages, shouting, “Run
to the mountaintops! The Great Serpent is angry and is flooding
the earth! Run! Run!”
The Indians caught up their children and found safety on the
mountains. Nanabozho continued his flight along the base of
the western hills and then up a high mountain beyond Lake Superior,
far to the north. There he found many men and animals that had
escaped from the flood that was already covering the valleys
and plains and even the highest hills. Still the waters continued
to rise. Soon all the mountains were under the flood, except
the high one on which stood Nanabozho.
There he gathered together timber and made a raft. Upon it
the men and women and animals with him placed themselves. Almost
immediately the mountaintop disappeared from their view, and
they floated along on the face of the waters. For many days
they floated. At long last, the flood began to subside. Soon
the people on the raft saw the trees on the tops of the mountains.
Then they saw the mountains and hills, then the plains and the
When the water disappeared from the land, the people who survived learned that the Great Serpent was dead and that his companions had returned to the bottom of the lake of spirits. There they remain to this day. For fear of Nanabozho, they have never dared to come forth again.