Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Snapshots of Serpent Deities: The Water Serpent

By Bethany Youngblood

(Wikimedia commons)

For the Tewa Indians living near the Rio Grande in New Mexico, as well as other Pueblo people of North America, the “mythical” Avanyu was believed to be a very powerful god. According to their ancient religion, this deity can supposedly cause both earthly and supernatural events. Like other serpent deities of ancient North America, the beliefs about Avanyu seem to be similar to those found in Meso-America, leading many archaeologists to lump them together under the same term: “Feathered Serpent”.
(Meso-America is the economic name for the geographic area called Central America. It includes Mexico, Guatemala, El Savador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Belize). Here is a brief snapshot of who Avanyu was to his ancient worshippers, and how people explain this myth today.

Artistic Rendition of Avanyu

The Water Serpent

The name Avanyu, or Awanyu, literally means "water serpent" in the language of the Tewa Indians.[1] Avanyu was the deity of rain and lightning, of the river ways and water sources. His symbolic representation is found on pottery as early as A. D. 1000[2] in the form of a zigzagged horned and feathered serpent that shoots lightning from his mouth.

Archaeologist Polly Schaafsma, author of the essay "Quetzalcoatl and the Horned and Feathered Serpent of the Southwest", has this to say about Avanyu:
“The horned serpent continues to be revered as an important deity among the Pueblos and is known by various names among the different linguistic groups, including Kolowisi (Zuni), Paaloloqangw (Hopi), and Awanyu (Tewa)..."[3]
If these descriptions are sounding familiar, it is because there are many serpent deities in ancient North and South America that share common traits. 

In our "Serpent Sanctuary" article we focused on the serpent deities that were associated with fire, the heavens, and wisdom. But there are just as many serpent deities that are associated more with water.

A Comparison

Earlier we mentioned that Avanyu is often lumped together with the pagan Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. Both were “feathered serpents” that probably have their roots in the counterfeits of Babel however, they have differences as well. According to myth, Quetzalcoatl imparted wisdom to the people by appearing in the form of a man whereas Avanyu and other serpent deities of North America did not. In contrast the Pueblo serpent worshippers believed their deity was an actual living creature that resided in the waters of the Rio Grande River, lurking in underwater passageways.[4]

Is it possible that the identity of Avanyu was bestowed on an actual creature living at that time in ancient America? And that the reputation of the snake only continued to grow and grow until it was legend? After all, the fearsome dragons of legend were most likely based off of living dinosaurs of the time. The myths of Avanyu could be much the same.


The Physical Avanyu

It has been speculated that the physical form of the deity Avanyu was really based on a real serpent that inhabited the waterways of the region at that time. The snake could have been a relative of the anaconda in South America, or some other sort of constrictor snake.[5] The Titanoboa, for instance, is an extinct constrictor that could have measured over 40ft in length![6] This gives us a picture of how big these ancient snakes could have been and it would be no surprise if the ancient people revered them.

As to the “plumes” or “horns” said to characterize Avanyu, this is not too far-fetched – in the Sahara there exists the Desert Horned Viper, which has two very literal horns on its face.[7] It is not impossible that a real creature inspired the stories of this pagan god. 

Another theory presented by Peter Faris in his work on Native American Paleontology is that fossils actually gave birth to the idea of a horned water serpent. He suggests that discovery of mammoth skulls or other horned animals in the proximity of rivers could have looked like the remains of an underwater beast.[8]

We may not know for sure what the ancient water serpent looked like, but modern day Pueblo Indians believe the creature, worshiped in the past as Avanyu, is still alive today.[9]

Avanyu still appears on Pueblo pottery today. Photo: Sonia W. and Victor J. Bauer

Commonalities and Connections

The more we study serpent deities the more commonalities appear to connect them all. The same goes for many topics of the ancient world. This is no surprise because we know that mankind once gathered together at Babel and shared one goal and one purpose. Their common beliefs and interests are still discernable today. The prominence of pagan serpent worship reminds us of the first two people who were drawn away from the true God by a serpent in the Garden. Humanity is fooled again and again as they continually reject God’s authority.

Keep looking

Maybe this brief look at the pagan deity Avanyu also renewed an interest in the now extinct, yet fantastic creatures that lived in the ancient world. Never stop questioning and looking for answers! God’s creation is incredible and always proclaiming His glory!

Have you come across any commonalities in your own research? Let us know in the comments or send us an email!

Learn more about ancient serpent deities:

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4]   “Awanyu.” Ryan Roller-Kha-Po Owingeh. Web.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “How Titanoboa the 40 foot long snake was found”. Guy Gugliotta. Smithsonian Magazine. April 2012. Web.
[7] “The Desert Horned Viper.” Jay Sharp. Web.
[8] “Native American Paleontology”. Peter Faris. Web.   
[9]“Awanyu.” Ryan Roller-Kha-Po Owingeh. Web.


  1. Once I understood that ancient man saw what we call dinosaurs, I took a different look at all ancient art, and now I see dinosaur-like creatures often. Thanks for this article.

    1. That's great! Thanks for commenting! It's incredible what happens when you look at the same evidence/artifacts with a different perspective and a biblical lens.