Numbers

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Repetition is one of the major devices of Navaho ritual. The attention formerly paid to fourfold repetition has obscured the whole subject of number, since four and multiples of four were selected for emphasis from the vast array of numbers actually found. The analysis of prayers has shown that scarcely any number predominates in Navaho ritual.

Pairing has been mentioned in other connections and twofold repetition is taken for granted.


The sandpaintings illustrate the progressive use of number; those in the Newcomb-Reichard volume were arranged to illustrate its relative importance. If only one painting of a series is made, either for a test or in a more elaborate rite or chant, it is usually chosen from at least two paintings that differ chiefly in color arrangements, depending on the sex of the patient. Another painting may be chosen from a progressively elaborated series. The Snake series admirably illustrates the rule. Two snakes may be adequate, four is a common choice, eight may be used, and the number may be increased to twelve, sixteen, twenty, and sometimes even forty or fifty-six. Multiplication of elements is believed to strengthen power.

Merely a few of the many possible examples of the use of four and multiples will be given because this phase of number is well-known:

Navaho stars have four points.

The signal for a race is '1, 2, 3, 4, go!'

Matthews gives three versions of the number of Earth Pillars; one has four poles at each of the four quarters, one has sixteen, and the third version has thirty-two. In the picture of the People-who-stand-under-the-sky there are six at the south and six at the north.

To announce their presence gods commonly give their call four times, beginning with a faint sound which becomes successively louder and nearer.

Attempts to create new things or to overcome evils are usually unsuccessful three times and successful the fourth.

Mythologically, ritualistically, and often empirically, a request can hardly be refused a fourth time; the very fact of the fourth repetition makes acquiescence compulsory. Refusal the fourth time is serious indeed and rare in the literature.

Four [or a multiple] applies to time reckoning as well as to the designation of space, persons, objects, and actions. The number of days occupied in discussion as well as the number intervening before an assembly or group enterprise takes place is important and depends upon the people as well as on the kind of activity proposed.

When Whiteshell Woman was dying of loneliness, Talking God appeared to her and bade her come to an assembly of the gods four days later.

After the monsters had left only four people in the world, Talking God appeared and bade them meet him at the top of a sacred mountain in twelve days.

Twelve days after being notified, the gods met to perform a ceremony to get back the great shells Gambler refused to give Sun.

The people who desired to travel eastward from the western home of Changing Woman discussed the matter for twelve days, but, once having made a decision, fixed on the fourteenth day as the date of departure.

People allowed considerable time to elapse before they took steps to allay anxiety about one who had disappeared.

The brothers of co, hero of the Night Chant myth, let four nights pass before they began to search for him when he did not return from the hunt.

Twelve days after the Visionary had started making his whirling log, his grandmother began to worry for fear he might leave the family again as he had done once before.

The number of idealized brothers is not the same in all the stories in which they appear. In my test of the Endurance Chant myth there are twelve brothers in addition to the sister, making thirteen in the family. This is understandable since the story and the chant are driving off evil, a situation that requires odd numbers. In what may be the secular form of the story, Matthews records twelve in the family, including the sister, and refers to ten left after the sister and youngest brother had been lost.

A large and unexplainable even number is the reference to 102 years as the age of man - probably the ideal of a long life span. Matthews was also told that 'seven times old age has killed,' meaning that seven full generations of Navaho had existed up to the time he collected the legends.

The number of nights devoted to a rite or ceremony, whether for blessing or exorcism, is odd.

The number five and fivefold repetition must be considered as transitional between good and evil. The rule is that blessing and divinity are represented by even numbers, evil and harm by odd. Nevertheless, five is almost as common as four, although it has a somewhat subsidiary position in the sandpaintings. In the literature, where the full text with all repetitions of prayers, songs, and episodes is available, fivefold repetition is frequent and often five is a 'good' number.

The requirement of odd numbers in Evil rites is more consistently corroborated by description and in practice than that of even numbers for blessing and holiness. Since odd numbers have never been discussed, I cite several typical cases:

The probable reason for groups of five in the sandpaintings of the Bead Chant is that the major figures are predatory animals.

The Eagle Chant was to begin three days after the ceremonial hut was made. Since the Eagle Chant was to give power in eagle-catching, it belongs to the hunting - that is, Evil - category, as Hill indicates: "The beliefs connected with catching eagles paralleled those current in hunting deer, antelope, and bear."

The war party that attacked Taos was on its way three days, including the journey thither and back. A second trip was proposed five days later, another eleven days after the second, and a fourth nine days after the third. The men sweated for three days in preparing for war.

Monster Slayer gave the people three days to prepare for a raid. Five days intervened before offerings were made again. The warriors met once more after seven days, and a fourth time after nine days had passed.

Hill's account of actual warfare shows that these examples are empirical as well as mythological.

The time between the formation of a war party and its departure must be an uneven number of days, the interval being spent in purification and preparation.

Similarly, an odd number of days intervened between the consultation of the singer and the departure of a hunting party.

When a gambler contested with Talking God for deer, he transformed tiny offerings into a great heap of precious stones. Talking God and Black God gave each of those present fifteen pieces, then thirteen, nine, seven, and five. The reason for the odd numbers, mentioned in descending order, is doubtless the subject of the tale: gambling and hunting [since deer are the wager], both uncertain activities.

Matthew's note regarding the attack of the twelve bears in the Story of Deer Owner is interesting in connection with number. He remarks that the episode is weak and inartistic, even wrong, since there were five devices for killing. According to the rule of odd numbers, five might be expected, since Deer Owner was a wizard and was practicing sorcery on the hero.

Numbers in myth "Growth of the Navaho Nation," which recounts the wanderings of the people and the origin of clans, are frequently odd.

Once when the Navaho met new people there were twelve, it is true, but instead of being paired, they consisted of five men, three women, one grown girl, one grown boy, and two small children. Another accession was a family of seven adults. Changing Woman gave the people created at her western home five pets and five canes, with which they later struck water from the desert.

I think odd numbers are appropriate here because the people were setting out into uncertain and foreign territory. On the other hand, when Changing Woman's own power, which is firmly, definitely divine, is referred to, the numbers are two and four.

Ceremonial numbers in exorcistic rites [which may occur even in holiness ceremonies] occur according to the rules:

Unraveling is repeated an odd number of times, the number increasing on the successive nights of the chant.

The fir garment is usually composed of a specific odd number of knots to be tied at various parts of the body, the numbers increasing on successive nights of a single ceremony.

Five hoops recapitulate the were-coyote episode and restoration of Holy man to divine normality.

After the basket drum had been prepared for Rainboy to eliminate the evil resulting from war, it was turned over and hit five times just before Rainboy was called in.

Some uses of number are difficult, if not impossible, to explain on the basis of the rules for good and evil, since odd and even numbers are combined.

The Twins had brought five hoops back from their second visit to their father, Sun. Changing woman set up the black hoop so it would roll to the east. Through it she spat a fourcornered black hailstone. She set up a blue hoop at the south and through it spat a six-cornered blue hailstone. At the west the yellow hailstone had eight corners, and at the north the white one had eleven. A shiny hoop, through which four vari-colored flint knives had been cast, was flung to the zenith.

FIRST TIME

So much importance is attached, in both myth and practice, to beginning an event or to the first time an act takes place as to make initiation a major symbol. The success of the final outcome, toward which careful ceremonial preparations are directed.

In helping his children overcome the most dangerous and powerful of all the monsters, Sun instructed them: "When you reach the earth, don't do anything. Let me do the first slaying." Consequently, the first blow was struck at Big Monster by lightning, sent by Sun, deafening the enemy, depriving him of sense, and softening him for the later blows of The Twins.

In contributing various elements to the blackening rite of the War Ceremony, Crow instructed: "I myself shall be the first to attack the ghost of the enemy."

After Monster Slayer had restored Sun's blue horse, he instructed: "Suppose that in the future one of you returns from war with booty and the first person meeting you asks for some part of it, you must not deny it to him. Such refusal would mean refusal to part with the enemy."

Apparently the first try has power because it signifies the purpose and predicts the outcome. The last of a repeated series is also important because it is culminative; what has been indicated as good has been taken.

Navajo Religion, Vol I; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950

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This site was last updated on November 19, 2017.

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