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Navaho Ritual Myths

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The myth of the creation of the sun, just quoted, gives a vivid picture of a primitive ritual, with its reliance upon mimetic magic and the power of suggestion; the magic depicted is that of the gods, but all Navaho ceremonials, and indeed Indian rituals generally, are regarded as derived from the great powers. The usual form of transmission is through some prophet or seer who has visited the abodes of the powers, and there has been permitted to observe the rites by means of which the divine ones attain their ends. On returning to his people, the prophet brings the ceremony (or "dance," as such rites are frequently called, although dancing is commonly a minor feature) to his people, where it is transmitted from generation to generation of priests or shamans. It is interesting to note that among the Navaho it is usually the younger brother of the prophet, not the prophet himself, who conducts the rite, when once it is learned; and it is their custom to choose younger brothers to be educated as shamans (though the elder brothers are not deterred from such a career, if they so choose) the Navaho reason being that the younger brother is likely to be the more intelligent.

Indian rites may be broadly divided into three classes: (1) rites pertaining to the life-history of the individual — birth, pubescence, death; and to social life — clan and fraternity rites, rites for the making of war and the cementing of peace; (2) rites connected with the elements and seasons, maize festivals, rain dances, the magic fructification of fields and the magic invocation of game; and (3) mysteries or medicine rites, designed to bring health, both physical and spiritual, and to ensure life and prosperity to individual and tribe, — a therapeutic which recognizes that all men are at all times ailing and in need of some form of divine aid. The various elements of the different types interlace, but in general, those of the first class fall into a biographical or an historical series, those of the second class tend to assume a ferial character, and those of the third class depend upon the chance of necessity or of desire for their performance — upon the fulfilment of a vow, the need of the sick for cure, or the like.

Navaho ceremonials are mainly of the latter kind and are in sharp contrast to the calendric rites of their Pueblo neighbours. They are medicine ceremonies, undertaken in the interest of the sick, who individually defray the expenses, although the rite is supposed to benefit the whole tribe; and they are performed at no stated times, but only in response to need. There is, however, some restriction: the Night Chant, the most popular of all Navaho ceremonies, may be held only in the winter, when the snakes are hibernating — perhaps because serpents are regarded as underworld-powers, and related to the maleficent deities of the region of the dead; a similar motive produces a reverse effect on the Great Plains, where the Hako Ceremony and the Sun-Dance are observed only when the world is green and life is stirring.

The Night Chant, like some other Navaho ceremonies, has a nine-day period. On the first day holy articles and the sacred lodge are prepared; on the second, the sweat-house and the first sand-painting are made, and the song of the approach of the gods is sung: prayers and a second sweat-house are features of the third day, while the fourth is devoted to preparations for the vigil which occupies the fourth night, at which the

sacred masks 65 of the gods are sprinkled with pollen and water and a communal supper is followed by a banquet; the principal feature of each of the next four days is the preparation of an elaborate sand-painting of the gods, each picture symbolizing a mythic revelation, and the touching of the affected parts of the bodies of the sick with the coloured sands from the analogous parts of the divine images; the ninth day is devoted to preparations for the great ceremony which marks the ninth night, at which the masque of the gods is presented.

The Tsegihi of the first verse of this impressive prayer is one of the sacred places with which the Navaho country abounds. The myths which explain most of their rites frequently recount the visits of prophets to such places, and it was from such a trip that the Night Chant was brought back: a hunter found his arm paralysed when he attempted to draw the bow upon four mountain sheep; after the fourth endeavour the sheep appeared to him in their true form, as Yei, and con-ducted him to their rocky abode, where he was taught the mystery and sent home to his people. This same man became a great prophet: he made a strange voyage in a hollow log, with windows of crystal, guided by the gods; finally, at a place sacred to the Navaho, a whirling lake with no outlet and no bottom, he beheld the "whirling logs" — a cross upon which rode eight Yei, two on each arm; and by these he was instructed in a mystery of healing, in which maize and rain and life-giving magic play the chief rτles. There are other myths representing similar journeys in god-steered logs, from which the hero returns with a magic gift: on one such trip, the prophet is said to have gone as far as the sea — "the waters that had a shore on one side only" — and there to have learned the art of mixing colours and the use of maize, a food till then unknown to the Navaho.

Upon another myth is based the ceremony of the Mountain Chant. Like the Night Chant, this rite is characterized by a nocturnal masque of the gods, depicting the mythic adventure, and in it the hero ascends to the world above the sky, where the people were Eagles. Here, with the aid of Spider Woman's magic, he defeated the Bumble-Bees and Tumble-Weeds who were the Eagles' foemen, and in return was given the sacred rite. He, however, used his powers to trick the Pueblo people into surrendering their wealth to him; and in a great shell which he obtained from them he was lifted by ropes of lightning up into the heavens, surrounded by his treasure." The story recalls similar ascents in the legends of northern Indians.

Of all the ritual myths of the Navaho the most pathetic is the story of the Stricken Twins." They were children of a mortal girl by a god; and in childhood one was blinded, the other lamed. Driven forth by relatives too poor to keep them, they wandered from one abode of the gods to another in search of a cure, the blind boy carrying the lame. At each sacred place the Yei demanded the fee of jewels which was the price of cure, and when they found that the children had nothing sent them on with ridicule. Their father, Hastsheyalti, secretly placed food for them, for he wished to keep his paternity concealed, and finally gave them a cup containing a never-failing supply of meal. After twice making the rounds of the sacred places, rejected at all, the children's paternity was discovered, and the gods, taking them to the sweat-house, undertook to heal them, warning them that they must not speak while there; but when the blind one became faintly conscious of light, in joy he cried, "Oh, younger brother, I see!"; and when the lame one felt returning strength, he exclaimed, "Oh, elder brother, I move my limbs!" And the magic of the gods was undone. Again blind and halt, they were sent forth to secure the fee by which alone they could hope for healing. The gods aided them with magic, and they tricked the wealthy Pueblo dwellers into giving them the needed treasure. Provided with this, they returned once more to. the abode of the Yei, and in an elaborate ceremony — a nine days' rite they were at last made perfect. The ritual they took back to their people, after which they returned to the gods, one to become a rain genius, the other a guardian of animals. In this myth the abodes of the Yei are usually represented as crystal-studded caverns, which are entered through rainbow doorways. An interesting feature, as touching the primitive philosophy of sacrifice, is the reason given by the Yei for refusing a cure: you mortals, they say, have certain objects, tobacco, pollen, feathers, jewels, which we lack and desire; in return for our healing, you should give them to us: do ut des. The gods of the Navaho are not represented as omnipotent, nor as much more powerful than men: to save the passenger in the floating log from capture by mortals, they must resort to the magic device of raising a storm and concealing their hero — as Aeneas is driven forth by the angry waves, or as Hector is hidden from peril in a cloud.



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