Amazing articles on just about every subject...


The Navaho And Their Gods

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE Navaho speak an Athapascan tongue, but in blood they are one of the most mixed of Indian peoples, with numerous infusions from neighbouring tribes, additions having come to them from the more civilized Pueblo dwellers as well as from the wandering tribes of the desert. But various as is their origin, the Navaho have a cultural unity and distinction setting them in high relief among Indian peoples. They practise a varied agriculture, are herdsmen even more than hunts-men, and have developed arts, such as blanket weaving and silversmithing, which have made them pre-eminent among Indian craftsmen. It is chiefly in the matter of habitation that they are inferior to the tribes of the pueblos, for until recently they have persistently adhered to temporary dwellings (partly, it is supposed, because of the superstition which calls for the abandonment of a house in which a death has occurred) — the hogan, or earth hut, for winter, the brush shelter for summer residence.

In particular the Navaho have developed an artistic power which has won for them the admiration of the white race, with whom their work finds a ready market; though it is perhaps in the unmerchantable wares of the mind, in myth and poetry, and their curiously ephemeral sand-painting that their powers are revealed at their best. Their religious rituals are characterized by elaborate masques, far more in the nature of drama than of dance; by cycles of unusually poetic song (though theirmelodic gift is not comparable with that of some other tribes); and by an elaboration and concatenation of myth which truly deserves the name of a mythology, for it is no mere aggregation of unconnected legends, but an organized body of teaching. Among all peoples on the way toward civilization there is a tendency to organize the confused and contradictory stories of uncritical savagery into consistently connected systems; and the Navaho are well advanced in this direction. Very many of the tales found elsewhere in North America as disjointed episodes have been incorporated by them into dramatic series; and in no small sense is their artistic skill manifested by the cleverness with which these stories are assimilated to not wholly congruous contexts — for it is obvious that in their mythology, as in their arts, the Navaho have been wide borrowers, though in both art and mythology they have bettered these borrowings in relation and design.

Another evidence of advancement in Navaho culture is the degree of personification—anthropomorphic personification—attained in their pantheon. Animal-beings are consistently of less importance than manlike divinities, and in the conception of nature-powers the phenomenon is more likely to be the instrument than the embodiment of the potency — lightning is the arrow or missile of the war-god or storm-god, the rainbow is a bridge, light and clouds are robes or bundles, the sun itself is dependent upon the Sun-Carrier, Tshohanoai, who hangs the blazing disk in his lodge at the end of the day's journey. All this represents that consistent intellectualization of nature-myth, which finds one of its earliest expressions in the replacing of immanent nature-powers by manlike gods who make of nature their tool. In their curiously geometrical representations of the gods, it is not animals, nor part animals, that the Navaho draw, but conventionalized men and women, and in their ceremonial masques the divine beings still have recognizably human form and feature.

Of course there are abundant traces of the more primitive type of thinking. The background of the mythic world of the Navaho is filled in with classes of beings, sometimes emerging into distinct individuals, sometimes sinking back into vague kinds, such as are found in the protean strata of every mythology — beings like the Satyrs, Panes, Keres, and Daimones of the Greeks, or the local and household godlings of the Romans. The Yei of the Navaho, for the most part genii locorum, number among them many such kinds: fire-godlings and godlings of the chase, corn spirits and harvest deities, such as the Ganaskidi, or "Humpbacks," who bear cloud-humps upon their backs and ram's horns on their heads, and sometimes appear in the guise of the Rocky Mountain sheep. Other Yei approach the dignity and importance of great gods, though their homes are the wild places—mountains and caverns—of earth: among these Thonenli, the Water Sprinkler, and especially Hastsheyalti, the Talking God (also known as Yebitshai, "Maternal Grandfather of the Gods"), and Hastshehogan, the House-God, hold high positions in the Navaho pantheon and figure importantly in myth and ritual. Hastsheyalti is god of the dawn and the east, Hastshehogan of evening and the west; white maize is Hastsheyalti's and yellow Hastshehogan's; and it is from white and yellow maize that man and woman are created by the gods under the supervision of these two Yei chieftains."

The Yei are in the main beneficent and kindly to man. Another class, the Anaye, or Alien Gods, are man-destroyers — monsters, giants, beasts, or bogies. The worst of them were slain by the Sons of the Sun long ago, but the race is not yet utterly destroyed. Still another evil kind is made up of the Tshindi, or Devils, ugly and venomous, — among whom is numbered the Corpse Spirit, which remains with the body when the soul departs to the lower world. Other classes comprise the Animal Elders, such as are universal in Indian lore; the Digini, half wizard, half sprite, dwelling in the strange and fantastic formations with which volcanic fire and eroding waters have made the Navaho country picturesque; and the Water-Powers, among whom Tieholtsodi, of the waters beneath the earth, is the most powerful.'

The highest place in the Navaho pantheon is held by Estsanatlehi, the " Woman Who Changes " — for, like the Phoenix, when she becomes old, she transforms herself again into a young girl and lives a renewed life. Though she originated on earth, her home is now in the west, on an island created for her by the Sun-Carrier, who made her his wife. From that direction come the rains that water the Navaho country and the winds that foretell the spring; and it is therefore appropriate that the goddess of nature's fruitfulness should dwell there. The younger sister of Estsanatlehi is Yolkai Estsan, the White Shell Woman, wife of the Moon-Carrier, Klehanoai. The white shell is her symbol, and she is related to the waters, as her sister, whose token is the turquoise, is akin to the earth; white is the colour of the dawn and the east, blue of midday and the south, and it is with the magic of these colours that the two sisters kindle the sun's disk and the moon's — although, according to Navaho myth, which is by no means always consistent, the Sun-God and the Moon-God were in existence before the sisters were created.

Of the male deities worshipped by the Navaho, the most important are the brothers, Nayanezgani, Slayer of the Alien Gods, and Thobadzistshini, Child of the Waters. In some stories these are represented as twins of the Sun-Carrier and Estsanatlehi; in others, Thobadzistshini is the child of Water and Yolkai Estsan. These two brothers are the new generation of gods which overthrow the monsters and bring to an end the Age of Giants. Their home is on a mountain in the centre of the Navaho country, to which warriors betake themselves to pray for prowess and success in war. Klehanoai, the Moon-Carrier, is sometimes identified with a deity by the name of Bekotshidi, represented as an old man, and regarded as the creator of many of the beasts, especially the larger game and the domestic animals; his home is in the east, and many of the Navaho think that he is the god worshipped by the white men.

Another mythic pair of importance are the First Man, Atse Hastin, and the First Woman, Atse Estsan, who were created in the lower world from ears of maize; it is they who led the First People into the world in which we live. Coyote, who is a conspicuous figure in adventures serious and ludicrous, though he never plays the rôle of demiurge, such as he sustains among many Indian tribes, is sometimes represented as accompanying these two Elders from the lower world. Spider Woman is an underground witch (the large spiders of the South-West make their nests in the ground), friendly with her magic; and Niltshi, the Wind, saves many a hero by whispering timely counsels in his ear. Other beings are little more than lay figures : such are Mirage Boy, Ground-Heat Girl, White-Corn Boy, Yellow-Corn Girl, Rock-Crystal Boy, Pollen Boy, Grasshopper Girl, etc. — a few out of the multitude which seem to be, in many cases, merely personifications of objects important in ritual practices.

The most important cult-symbols employed by the Navaho are arranged in groups according to their system of colour-symbolism 31 — white, the mantle of dawn, for the east; blue, the robe of the azure sky, for the south; yellow, the raiment of the sunset, for the west; black, the blanket of night, for the north. Thus, the " jewels" of the respective quarters are: east, white shell beads and rock-crystal; south, turquoise; west, haliotis shell (regarded by the Navaho as yellow); north, black stones or cannel-coal." Birds are similarly denoted by the hues of their feathers; animals by their hides; maize by the colour of its kernels — white, blue, yellow, and, for the north, variegated (the north is sometimes all-colours, in-stead of black). The colours are used also in the sand-paintings, or drawings, which form an important and distinctive feature of Navaho rites; and in the painting of the prayer-sticks, frequently adorned with feathers, which, with pollen and tobacco, in the form of cigarettes, are the principal articles offered in sacrifice. Navaho rituals comprise many elaborate ceremonies, a conspicuous feature of which are masques, or dramatic representations of myths, in which the actors personate the gods. A convention of these masques is the representation of male deities with rounded, and of female with rectangular faces, a distinction which is maintained in the sand-paintings.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com