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The Great Rites And Their Myths

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Perhaps no feature of Pueblo culture is more distinctive than the calendric arrangement of their religious rites. Other tribes in North America have ceremonies as elaborate as any in the pueblos, and probably in most cases these rituals are regarded as appropriate only to certain seasons of the year, but it is not generally the season that brings the performance: sickness and the need for cure, the fulfilment of a vow, the munificence or ambition of a rich man, are the commoner occasions. In the pueblos, on the other hand, not a moon passes without its necessary and distinctive festivals, which are fruit of the season rather than of individual need or impulse, thus marking a great step in the direction of social solidarity and cultural advancement.

The origin of these ceremonies harks back to the genesis of the tribes. Most of these are formed of an amalgam of clans which from time to time have joined themselves to the initial tribal nucleus, and have eventually become welded into a single body. Each of these clans has brought to the tribe its own rites, the mythic source of which is zealously recounted; and thus the general corpus of the tribal ritual has been enriched. But the joining of clan to tribe has entailed a modification: by adoption and initiation new members have been added, from without the clan, to the ceremonial body, and eventually (a process which seems to have gone farthest in Zuņi) a cult society, or fraternity, has replaced the clan as the vehicle of the rite; again, clans with analogous or synchronous rites have united their observances into a new and complicated ceremony, partly public, partly secret — for the esoteric aspect is never quite lost, each organization having its own rites, such as the preparation of ceremonial objects, the erecting of altars, etc., shared only by its initiates and usually taking place in its proper kiva.

A famous ceremony of the type just named is the Snake-Dance of the Hopi Indians, the most examined of all Pueblo rites. This ritual occurs biennially in five of the Hopi villages; remnants of a similar observance have been recorded from Zuņi and the eastern group of pueblos; and it is probable that a form of it was celebrated in pre-Columbian Mexico. The participants in the Hopi Snake-Dance are the members of two fraternities — the Snake and the Antelope — each of which conducts both secret and public rites during the nine days of the festival. In the early part of the ceremony serpents are captured in the fields and brought to the kiva of the Snake priests, where the reptiles undergo a ritual bathing and tending; the building of the Snake altar, with personifications of the Snake Youth and Snake Maid, the initiation of novices, the singing of songs, and the recitation of prayers are other rites of the secret ceremonial. The Antelope priests meantime erect their own altar, on which are symbols of rain-clouds and lightning, as well as of maize and other fruits of the earth; and lead in a public dance in which symbols of vegetation and water are displayed. The Antelope priests, moreover, are the first to appear in the public dance on the final day, when the snakes are brought forth from the Snake kiva. These are carried in the mouths of the dancing Snake priests, who are sprinkled with meal by the women; and finally the serpents are taken far into the fields and loosed, that they may bear to the Powers Below the prayers for rain and fertility which is the object of the whole ceremony.

The symbolism of the Snake-Dance is in part explained by the myth which, in varying versions, the Hopi tell of the Snake Youth and Maid. It is a story very similar to the Navaho tale of the Floating Log. A youth, a chief's son, spent his days beside the Grand Canyon, wondering where all the water of the river flowed to and thinking, "That must make it very full somewhere." Finally, he embarks in a hollow log and is borne to the sea, where he is hailed by Spider Woman, who becomes his wizardly assistant. Together they visit the kiva of the mythic Snake People, at the moment human in shape, who subject the young man to tests, which, with the aid of Spider Woman, he successfully meets. The Snake People then assume serpentine form; at the instigation of Spider Woman he seizes the fiercest of these, whereupon the reptile becomes a beautiful girl who, before the transformation, had caught the youth's fancy. This is the Snake Maid, whom he now marries and leads back to his own country. The first offspring of this union is a brood of serpents; but later human children are born, to become the ancestors of the Snake Clan. In some versions, the Snake Maid departs after the birth of her children, never to return; or her offspring are driven forth, from them springing a strange goddess of wild creatures, a sorceress who gambles for life with young hunters, and who carries a child that is never born.

In this mythic medley it is easy to see that the forces of generation are the primary powers. The Snake Maid, from the waters of the west, is the personification of underworld life, the life that appears in the cultivated maize of the fields and the reproduction of animals in the wilds (there are many indications that other animals besides snakes were formerly important in the rite). Fewkes regards her as the Corn Goddess herself and in one Hopi myth a Corn Maid is transformed into a snake. The Snake Youth is probably a sky-power, for in at least one version the Sun-Man bears the youth on his back in his course about the earth. The significance of the antelope in the ceremony is not so clear, though the altar of the Ante-lope priests is obviously associated also with the powers of fertility; but it may not be amiss to assume that the horn of the antelope, like the horn of the ram in Old-World symbolism, is also a sign of fertility; certainly the conception of descent from an ancestral horn is not foreign to South-Western myth.

The Flute Ceremony, which alternates with the Snake-Dance, has a similar purpose, though here the emblem of the Sun, an adorned disk encircled by eagle feathers and streamers, is significant of the pre-eminence of the Powers Above; and in the Lalakoņti, which follows, in September, the Flute or Snake Ceremony of August, the women, who have charge of the festival, erect an altar on which images of the Growth Goddess and the Corn Goddess are conspicuous.' In this ritual the women dance, carrying baskets, while the two Lakone maids, adorned with horn and squash-blossom symbols of fertility, throw baskets and gifts to the spectators — all a dramatic plea for a bountiful harvest.

The Corn Maidens are omnipresent in Pueblo rites, one of the most sacred and guarded of the Zuņi ceremonials being the quadrennial drama representing their visit to their ancestors, an observance occurring, like the Snake-Dance, in August. When their fathers issued from the lower world, the Zuņi say, the ten Corn Maidens came with them and for four years accompanied them, unseen and unknown, but at Shipololo, the Place of Fog, witches discovered them and gave them seeds of the different kinds of maize and the squash. Here the Maid-ens remained while the Ashiwi, the fathers of the Zuņi, continued on their journey; they whiled away their hours bathing in the dew and dancing in a bower walled with cedar, fringed with spruce, and roofed with cumulus cloud; each maiden held in her hand stalks of a beautiful plant, with white, plumelike leaves, brought from the lower world. Once the Divine Ones, twins of the Sun and Foaming Waters, while on a deer hunt, found the Maidens in their abode, and when their discovery was related they were sent, at the command of the Sun priest, to lead them to the people. The Maidens came and danced before them all in a court decorated with a meal-painting of cloud-symbols. But as they danced the people fell asleep, for it was night, and during their slumber Payatamu, the diminutive flower-crowned god who plays his flute in the fields, causing the flowers to bloom and the butterflies to crowd after him (Pied Piper and god Pan in one), came near and saw the Maidens dancing. He thought them all beautiful, but deemed the Yellow Corn Maiden the loveliest of all. They read his thoughts, and in fear kept on dancing until he, too, fell asleep, when they fled away, by the first light of the morning star, to the Mist and Cloud Spring, where the gods, in the form of ducks, spread their wings and concealed the Maidens hiding in the waters. But famine came to the people, and in their distress they called upon the Gods of War to find the Corn Maid-ens for them. These two besought Bitsitsi, the musician and jester of the Sun Father, to aid them, and he from a height beheld the Maidens beneath the spreading feathers of a duck's wings. In their kiva the Ashiwanni were sitting without fire, food, drink, or smoke: "all their thoughts were given to the Corn Maidens and to rain." Bitsitsi, borne by the Galaxy, who bowed to earth to receive him, went to the Maidens with the message of the Ashiwanni, which he communicated with-out words; "all spoke with their hearts; hearts spoke to hearts, and lips did not move." He promised them safety and brought them once more to the Ashiwi, before whom they enacted the ceremonial dance which was to be handed down in the rites of their descendants. Even Payatamu assisted. His home is a cave of fog and cloud with a rainbow door, and thence he came bringing flutes to make music for the dancers. "The Corn Maidens danced from daylight until night. Those on the north side, passing around by the west, joined their sisters on the south side, and, leaving the hampone [waving corn], danced in the plaza to the music of the choir. After they had all returned to their places the Maidens on the south side, passing by the west, joined their sisters on the north, and danced to the music, not only of the choir, but also of the group of trumpeters led by Payatamu. The Maidens were led each time to the plaza by either their elder sister Yellow Corn Maiden, or the Blue Corn Maiden, and they held their beautiful thlawe (underworld plant plumes) in either hand. The Corn Maidens never again appeared to the Ashiwi."

Not all myths connected with the maize are as innocent or poetic as this. The witches that gave the seed to the Corn Maidens were the two last comers from the Underworld at the time of the emergence. At first the Ashiwi were in favour of sending them back, but the witches told them that they had in their possession the seeds of all things, in exchange for which they demanded the sacrifice of a youth and a maid, declaring, "We wish to kill the children that the rains may come." So a boy and a girl, children of one of the Divine Ones, were devoted, and the rain came, and the earth bore fruit— bitter fruit it was, at first, till the owl and the raven and the coyote had softened and sweetened it. Here we have one of the many legends of the South-West telling of the sacrifice of children to the Lords of the Waters which seem to point to a time when the Pueblo dwellers and their neighbours, like the Aztecs of the south, cast their own flesh and blood to the hard-bargaining Tlaloque.

The one theme of Pueblo ritual is prayer for rain. When asked for an explanation of his rites, says Fewkes (Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1896, pp. 698-99), there are two fundamentals always on the lips of the Hopi priest. "We cling to the rites of our ancestors because they have been pronounced good by those who know; we erect our altars, sing our traditional songs, and celebrate our sacred dances for rain that our corn may germinate and yield abundant harvest." And he gives the call with which the town crier at dawn announces the feast:

All people awake, open your eyes, arise,
Become children of light, vigorous, active, sprightly.
Hasten clouds from the four world quarters;
Come snow in plenty, that water may be abundant when summer comes;
Come ice, cover the fields, that the planting may yield abundance. Let all hearts be glad!
The knowing ones will assemble in four days;
They will encircle the village dancing and singing their lays
That moisture may come in abundance.



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