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The Serpent and the Sacred Fire, by Dennis Slifer

Review by Betsy Marston

Rock Art – March 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Serpent and the Sacred Fire: Fertility Images in Southwest Rock Art
by Dennis Slifer
Published in 2000 by Museum of New Mexico Press
ISBN 0-89013-346-8

“I am glad I have seen your nakedness; it is beautiful; it will rain from now on.”

— Talashimtiwa Hopi Indian from Oraibi, 1920

THE RECORD ON ROCK left by the Southwest’s early people is mostly mystifying. What do those galaxy-like clusters really represent? What are those handprints saying?

Some experts have come up with explanations for every pecked petroglyph or painted pictograph, yet lingering doubts persist: Can we be certain they mean what we think they mean?

But when the lines on the walls of a cave or boulder show us a woman giving birth or a couple having intercourse, well, translation seems a lot easier. In his book The Serpent and the Sacred Fire: Fertility Images in Southwest Rock Art, Dennis Slifer focuses on sexual images that don’t take guesswork; they had to have been created to celebrate fecundity, abundance and the fact of life itself.

Slifer says past anthropologists have been loath to study “some of the more prurient (to their Victorian sensibilities) images.” Even the wildly popular hunch-backed flute player, Kokopelli, “is usually sanitized and censored as if it were petro-porn,” he says. This book lets it all hang out, in 16 color plates and 150 amazing line illustrations.

–Betsy Marston

High Country News