of the word hashch'e (Holy Ones) as employed in the names of some of the gods
is not generally known. Moreover, it is not generally made public by the knowing
ones who guard its meaning as a secret. Hashch'eltqii, the Talking God of the
east, is the child of hayolkhal hastqin and hayolkhal esdza, to the Dawn Man and
Woman. Hashch'eba'ad, of the south, is the child of nahodaetl'ish hastqin and
nahodaetl'ish esdza, of the Skyblue Man and Woman. Hashch'ehoghan and hadach'ishi,
of the west, the children of nahotsoi hastqin and nahotsoi esdza, of the Evening
Twilight Man and Woman. Chahalqel hastqin and chahalqel esdza, the Darkness Man
and Woman brought forth anlt'ani, the Corn Beetle, and Tadidiin, Corn-pollen.
The spirit of life (nlchi) having been breathed into them, the Corn-beetle was
charged to give speech or voice to the others. When they attempted to speak, however,
Hashch'eltqii could utter only "wuuhu;" Hashch'ehoghan and hadach'ishi
uttered "qawo, qawo;" hashch'ebakha similarly, and hashch'eba'ad, "wu,wu."
And when it was found that they could not speak, it was said of them, "ch'æhasdzi,
it (the child) did not speak, or attempted (unsuccessfully) to speak." By
an approximate anastrophe, ch'æhasdzi became hach'æ, or hashch'e,
the root dzi being dropped completely. Accordingly, hashch'e designates the speechless
or mute one in the sense given. It is here rendered with gods, genii, holy ones,
or some such equivalent. When these speechless divinities were leaving for the
holy places they made the imprint of their faces upon white shell, turquoise,
and other precious stones. At present these imprints are represented by the masks.
Dictionary of the Navaho Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.
every aspect of nature has its holy people . . . . even the stinkbug. Sometimes
you can see them, if only for an instant. They are represented, some of them,
by colors: the blue sky, the evening dusk, the night these are holy people and
one prays to them. There are iron people, crystal people, then the other rocks
" and such people." There are dawn people, twilight people, air, thunder,
and cloud people. One does not talk about such things in nature when they and
their holy people are present. In winter, many will have left bears, for example
so one can speak of bears in winter. The thunder people leave in winter. In
winter, the snow people, the cold air people, are present "like a day shift
and a night shift." White thunder is different. It comes in winter. Thunder
in a snowstorm is startling. "Whoever is the leader of the thunder people
sends white thunder back to their summer place to see what's going on. Navajos
have summer and winter camps and they go check on them, just like the white
Page, 1989: 87-88.
In Mike Mitchell's portrayal, as well as in the great body of Navajo oral literature,
the Holy People are described as having human emotions worry, jealousy, anger,
fear, and joy and are tied genealogically through the clan organization to the
Earth Surface People. They have emotional, genealogical, and physical links
to humans. Western religions tend to see a strong separation between gods and
humans quite different from the Navajo viewpoint. One of my Navajo friends explained
why the Holy People are not perfect beings: "The Holy People are never
described as being perfect because we aren't perfect either. They teach us to
strive for perfection but to be compassionate and patient with ourselves if
we fall short." Consultant A described the omnipresent nature of Navajo
supernaturals: "They are Holy People but not in the sense that they're
way up on high; Navajo Holy People aren't far away like the Christian God. Navajo
Holy People hear you singing. They see you do all these things (in a ceremony).
You also see them when your day goes well." She explained that she meant
this figuratively, since "they never make themselves visible but you interact
with them on a daily basis, and they make your day go right." Navajo opinion
varies concerning the visibility of the Holy People. When the Holy People left
the Earth Surface People after the Creation, they remained nearby, although
most Navajos agree that they cannot be seen in the form of gods. However, the
Holy People can be seen indirectly, that is, they express themselves through
sounds and sights in the natural world. Some Navajos see the Holy People as
disembodied spiritual presences who appear at times of crisis to provide crucial
guidance. One Navajo, who is studying to be a chanter, said that he sees the
Holy People in the faces of individuals he meets during the course of his day.
By this he means that he tries to see the holiness, the spirituality, in other
people. Pg. 31-32
In his account of Blessingway, Chanter Slim Curley explained that the Holy people
told humans at the time of Creation:
"This past day and this night alone you have again seen Holy People. From
this day on until the end of days you shall not see them again (in person),
that is final . . . . . Although you apparently can see the wind (now), you
will only hear its voice (in the future). You will see a holy one when you see
a white feather (of an eagle), when you see a bluebird, a yellowbird, a big
blackbird . . . . . . And when white corn, yellow corn, blue corn, variegated
corn, and plants move (grow?) this way, you will be seeing a holy one."
All Holy People are powerful and thus dangerous. As chanter Mike Mitchell explained,
"The Holy People sometimes hurt us . . . . . the way we sometimes hurt
little ants by accident." Farella pointed out that one cannot make a list
of Navajo Holy People from the least to the most powerful; instead, how dangerous
they are depends upon the context: the same supernatural being who is relatively
benign in a Hozhooji (Blessingway) context may be quite dangerous in the context
of another ritual. This type of variation suggests far greater complexity than
Reichard implied in her categorization of Navajo supernaturals as "persuadable
deities," "unpersuadable deities," "undependable deities,"
and "beings between good and evil." Although the Holy People are dangerous
and often capricious beings who may inflict great harm and even death upon humans,
they also want the Earth Surface People to survive and flourish; for this reason,
"they naturally help in ceremonies." Furthermore, they do not withhold
themselves when their presence is sincerely desired and needed. The beneficent
nature of the Holy People is implied in this comment made by a Navajo to writer
Stephen Trimble: "I can call Talking God, Father Sky, Mother Earth, First
Man, First Woman, Monster Slayer, Child Born of Water. I can call them and they'll
listen to me because the holy people have given me these songs, this language,
Navajo prayers convey a sense of the respectful yet compassionate relationship
that exists between the Holy People and humanity through the establishing of
kin relationship. The "Songs of the Earth's Inner Form" from Blessingway
show how much a symbiotic relationship is established. Prayers are addressed
to the Earth, the Sky, and other supernaturals using kin terms, such as "my
mother" or "my grandmother"; in turn, the prayers say that each
of these Holy People "treats you as a mother (would treat her child), addressing
you in endearing terms, `my child, my grandchild,' in response to your pleas":
. . .
. . . . As I stand along the surface of the Earth she (the Earth) she says
child to me,
she (the Earth) says grandchild to me.
Now as I stand along the surface of long life, now happiness she (the Earth)
child to me, she (the Earth) says grandchild to me.
As I stand below the Sky she (the Earth) says child to me, she (the Earth)
grandchild to me.
Now as I stand below long life, now happiness she (the Earth) says child to
(the Earth) says grandchild to me . . .
(Wyman 1970a: 123)
of the Holy People as compassionate and desirous of rendering aid to humans
in a ceremonial context contrasts with Reichard's view of Navajo prayers as
"compulsive words," which must force supernaturals to respond favorably.
She stated, "The gods have . . . . little choice about answering man's
requests when properly formulated." I agree with McAllester that this view
carries overtones of the nineteenth-century definitions of "magic"
and "medicine man." Although a reciprocal relationship is established
in the course of the ceremonial that, in a sense, obligates the Holy People
to help, this relationship is patterned after that of a family wherein one wants
to render aid to a family member. Reichard's interpretation dehumanizes this
reciprocal exchange to a mechanistic transaction laden with magical overtones.
As McAllester pointed out, and as I have found in my own experience in Navajo
culture, it is not mere formality when a Navajo addresses the deities as "my
uncle" or "my grandfather" in song and prayer. The ceremonial
procedures attempt to establish a kin relationship between the protagonist (with
whom the patient is identified) and the supernaturals. Inherent in such a relationship
is the value placed upon cooperation and reciprocity. The language of the prayers
expresses reciprocity rather than compulsion:
Your offering I have made, for you I have made it,
Today I am your child, today I am you grandchild . . . .
Whatever I say to you, you will do it,
Whatever you say to me, I will do it.
(Chanters DT, RM, RW, in McAllister [1980:232])
is my Mother, Sky is my Father, Space, Time, and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting;
1992, Trudy Griffen-Pierce.
it makes a little more sense to speak of religion as one separable part of life
in white society than it does in the Navaho case. The white world is now mainly
a secular world. As clerics so often complain, white people "turn religion
on and off." They may go to church on Sundays and a few other occasions.
Birth, marriages, and deaths are usually solemnized, but most whites do not
feel that religion has anything to do with large sectors of life. With the Navaho
it is quite different. Their world is still a whole. Every daily act is colored
by their conceptions of supernatural forces, ever present and ever threatening.
In another sense, speaking of "Navaho religion" does violence to the
viewpoint of The People. There is no word or phrase in their language which
could possibly be translated as "religion." It is not that they too
do not have their categories. The outstanding feature of their language is the
fineness of its distinctions. But Navaho categories are much more concrete.
And their categories cut across those of whites. Precisely because the Navaho
world is still a whole, we should not expect to find some separate entity denoted
by a word equivalent to "religion." A famous anthropologist has defined
religion as "man's confession of impotence in certain matters." In
these chapters we shall be talking about all that The People do and say with
respect to those areas of experience which they feel are beyond the control
of ordinary techniques and beyond the rational understanding which works well
enough in ordinary affairs. We shall be speaking of the super natural.
The universe of The People contains two classes of personal forces. There are
the Earth Surface People, living and dead; these are ordinary human beings.
Then there are the Holy People. They are not "holy" in the sense of
possessing moral sanctity, for often their deeds have a very different odor.
They are "holy" in the meaning of "powerful and mysterious,"
of belonging to the sacred as opposed to the profane world. They travel about
on sunbeams, on the rainbow, on the lightnings. They have great powers to aid
or to harm Earth Surface People. But it is better not to call them
gods because the word "god" has so many connotations which are inappropriate.
The Holy People are not portrayed as all-knowing or even as all-powerful. They
certainly are not depicted as wholly good. While they are supplicated and propitiated,
they may also be coerced. Probably coercion is indeed the dominant note. In
general, the relationship between them and the Earth Surface People is very
different from what Christians think of as the connection between God and man.
As described in the Navaho origin myth, the Holy People lived first below the
surface of the earth. They moved from one lower world to another because of
witchcraft practiced by one of them. In the last of the twelve lower worlds
the sexes were separated because of a quarrel, and monsters were born from the
female Holy People. Finally a great flood drove the Holy People to ascend to
the present world through a reed. Natural objects were created. Then came the
first death among the Holy People. About this time too, Changing Woman, the
principal figure among them, was created. After she reached puberty, she was
magically impregnated by the rays of the Sun and by water from a waterfall,
and bore twin sons. These Hero Twins journeyed to the house of their father,
the Sun, encountering many adventures and slaying most of the monsters. In the
course of all these events, the Holy People developed ways of doing things which
were partly practical and partly magical. When they decided to leave for permanent
homes at the east, south, west, north, the zenith, and the nadir, they had a
great meeting at which they created the Earth Surface People, the ancestors
of the Navahos, and taught them all the methods they had developed, so that
The People could build houses, obtain food, marry, travel, and trade and could
also protect themselves against disease, hunger, and war. After the Holy People
had departed, the various clans of the Navahos wandered in the east and the
west, and at last there was a great meeting of all of them in the region where
they now live.
Changing Woman is the favored figure among the Holy People. She had much to
do with the creation of the Earth Surface People and with the meeting at which
they were taught how to control the wind, lightning, storms, and animals, and
how to keep all these forces in harmony with each other. This meeting was a
ceremonial of the Holy People and has become Blessing Way, a ritual which occupies
a key position in the Navaho "religious system." Changing Woman, ever
young and ever radiant in beauty, lives in a marvelous dwelling on western waters.
Some Navahos say that Changing Woman had a younger sister, White Shell Woman,
who was the mother of one of the Hero Twins, Child of the Water. Others claim
that Changing Woman and White Shell Woman are one and the same being. Turquoise
Woman and Salt Woman also seem almost to be variants of Changing Woman, different
names for different aspects of her story and her activities. Next to Changing
Woman in importance is her husband, the Sun. Sun symbolism is all-pervasive
in Navaho religion. Indeed, as Gladys Reichard observes, "the evidence
is quite convincing that all of these master symbols represent the same thing,
Sun's Weapons which aid man in controlling the recalcitrant elements in the
universe." The Hero Twins-Monster Slayer and Child of the Water (sometimes
called Reared-within-the-Earth and Changing Grandchild) are invoked in almost
every Navaho ceremonial. Their adventures establish many of the Navaho ideals
for young manhood. They serve especially as models of conduct in war and can
almost be called the Navaho war gods. The Hero Twins slew most of the monsters,
but they did not kill all of these potential enemies of mankind. Hunger, Poverty,
Old Age, and Dirt survived, for they proved to have a place in human life. The
exploits of the Twins, as well as those of other Holy People, define many features
of the Navaho landscape as holy places. The lava fields, which are so conspicuous
in the Navaho country, are the dried blood of the slain monsters.
Changing Woman, the Sun, and the Hero Twins are the four supernatural beings
who seem to bulk largest in the religious thought and lore of The People. In
the background are First Man and First Woman, who were transformed from two
ears of white and yellow corn, and others prominent in the stories of life in
the lower worlds. Most of The People believe that First Man created the universe,
but another version of the incident, possibly due to Christian influence, pictures
a being called be'gochidi as the creator of the world. Another group of Holy
People are the Failed-To-Speak People, such as Water Sprinkler, Fringed Mouth,
Hunchback, and others who are impersonated by masked dancers in the public exhibitions
of the great chants. Still another type are the animals and personalized natural
forces like Coyote, Big Snake Man, Crooked Snake People, Thunder People, and
Wind People. Finally, there are various helpers of the supernaturals and intermediaries
between them and man. Big Fly is "the messenger of gods and of men."
He and Corn Beetle whisper omens and advice to Earth Surface People who are
The origin myth is told with variations by different narrators, but it shows
a good deal of consistency in most of its central elements, and defines for
the Navahos many of their basic conceptions of life. It tells The People that,
from time immemorial, the universe has been a very dangerous place, inhabited
by people who were untrustworthy, if not completely evil. True, not all of the
Holy People are unfriendly to Earth Surface People. Changing Woman gave corn
and other valuable gifts to them. Spider Woman and Spider Man taught them how
to weave. Two of the Holy People helped Woman Speaker's husband, Bent Man, to
escape from the place of ghosts. Spider Man established four warnings of death
or disaster: noise in the windpipe, ringing in the ear, twitching in the nose,
and pricking of the skin on the body. If these warnings are heeded-and The People
take them very seriously-something may be done to avert the danger, or at least
to postpone or lessen it.
But of these beings and powers, of whom we have mentioned only a few, Changing
Woman alone is consistently well-wishing to the Earth Surface People. The other
beings are undependable, even though they may have given mankind many of their
prized possessions. The Sun and the Moon demand a human life each day; the Hero
Twins are often pitiless; First Man is a witch; Coyote is a trickster. When
Woman Speaker died and was buried by First Boy and First Girl, she gave them
ghost sickness because they did not put her left moccasin on her right foot
and her right moccasin on her left foot, as they should have done. All of these
beings except Changing Woman-and many others as well-are forever present to
Navaho consciousness as threats to prosperity. Pgs. 122-125
1946, Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton.
the Navajo rituals - whether initiation ceremony, blessing of a home, or treatment
of a sick man-are based on legends passed on from generation to generation by
specially apprenticed medicine men whose everyday life is devoted to the study
of such matters. And no exploration is more fascinating than the study of legends,
for they inevitably reflect the spirit and aspirations of the people among Whom
The Navajo legends are intricate, allegorical, and graced by figurative expression.
They emphasize the Navajo naivete, and through them one can better under-stand
the Workings of the Navajo mind, for they throw light on every phase of Navajo
life. Like the legends of all primitive peoples, the Navajo legends deal mostly
with the forces of Nature-With the elements personified as gods. These gods
have the same characteristics as the Navajos themselves. They can be kind or
merciless, easily offended or propitiated.
According to Ben Wetherill, the Navajos believe in one supreme deity, and all
the other gods to whom they pray are mediators before him. The medicine man,
by donning the proper mask, body paintings, and paraphernalia, impersonates
these mediators. Since these impersonated gods dance in the ceremonials, one
is tempted to call them dancing gods. Though the Navajos have many goddesses,
some of them superior to male gods, it is always the medicine men who impersonate
The Navajo legends do not tell us anything definite about a creator, nor about
how the world came into existence. They merely assume that the present world
and the eleven lower worlds through which the Dinneh traveled to get here always
existed. They contain no conception of Hell or Heaven. After death, one returns
to the land of peace in the lower worlds whence he came. Spirits from the lower
worlds sometimes return, temporarily, to punish people.
The only god of whom the legends speak as a creator is Bekotsidi, who created
the domestic animals: sheep, asses, horses, swine, goats, fowls-and Mexicans!
It is typical of the Navajo sense of humor to ascribe the creation of the Mexicans
(white people) to a god who created domestic animals. Of course, they used to
capture them for slaves and rear them along with domestic animals. This should
not be construed as an insult to the Mexicans or to us, for animals are often
deified in Navajo legends. Since the Navajo sings a prayer to Bekotsidi when
he needs or wants some domestic animals, in earlier times he probably appealed
to the same god for assistance when he was anxious to capture a slave. Bekotsidi
is the rich man's god. Obviously he could not be a deity of the Navajo who has
no sheep or goats!
When white men describe their Christian God as the Creator, the Navajos assume
they are referring to Bekotsidi. This particular god never appears in Navajo
sand-paintings, nor is he personified by the medicine men in their dances. He
is described as an old man who carries the moon (therefore sometimes called
Klehanoai or Moon-bearer) and lives in a long row of stone houses. The long
row of stone houses is an indirect reference to the Pueblos or Mexicans, who
lived in villages and who had domestic animals long before the Navajos. The
primitive Navajo must have reasoned that Bekotsidi was partial to the pueblo
or white people who had all the domestic animals. And he further must have deduced
that the same god who created the beasts also created the people who possessed
these luxuries which he himself did not have. Perhaps that is why Bekotsidi
does not figure in Navajo sand-paintings and why there is no mask for him.
The Navajo god Johanoai has precedence over all other gods, though he never
figures as a creator nor is he omnipotent. The name means the Sun-bearer, but
since he bears or guards such an important object as the lifegiving sun, he
certainly deserves to be considered the most important deity and therefore,
justly, a sun-god. Johanoai is the father or grandfather of all the other gods.
This would suggest that he is the counterpart of Zeus, the male ancestor of
all the Greek gods. On the other hand he is the Sun-god, which suggests an analogy
to Apollo. Such comparisons, however, are superficial. Unlike the Greek pantheon,
the Navajo gods are independent and democratic, each excelling the other in
some respect. For example, in spite of being the father of most of the other
deities, male and female, the Sun-god is not revered by the Navajos as much
as is one of his wives, Estsanatlehi, who knows how to rejuvenate herself and
is very fruitful. The Navajo gods differ from the Greek gods in another important
respect: they do not become involved in love affairs. None of the Navajo legends
dwells on such a theme, obviously because the Navajos themselves treat sex in
a matter-of-fact way.
The Navajos are not unique in having a sun-god. All primitive races have accepted
the sun as the lifegiver - the one without whom there would be no light, warmth,
or any living creature. The Navajo rises with the sun and goes to bed with him.
Since his hogan doorway always faces east, the rays of the sun awaken him. He
enters his house from the east. As he walks out in the morning, he faces the
sun. In his sandpaintings and ceremonials the east takes precedence over the
other cardinal points of the compass. When he blesses anything, he always begins
the ceremony on the eastern side. He starts the sprinkling of the pollen, the
symbol of all goodness and holiness, from the east side. Thus his every act
begins with the east-the sun.
If it were not for the sun, the Navajo would be groping in darkness. That is
exactly what the First Man and the First Woman were doing according to Navajo
legends. To remedy this, they created the sun from a piece of tsesagi or clear
stone, round like a disk. They decorated the edges with turquoise and around
that they put rays of red rain, lightning, and snakes of many kinds. They gave
the sun to a man, one of the Dinneh, and told him to carry it.
Though the Navajo legends speak of a First Man and a First Woman, they have
no account of their origin. They believe that the First Man created not only
the sun but also the sky, the earth, and the moon from precious stones for the
already existing worlds. Their Adam and Eve, unlike ours, are still living and
are the prototypes not only of human beings but also of animals.
The Sun-god has one home in the east and another in the west where his wives
and children live. Unlike Apollo who rides a golden chariot drawn by four milk-white
horses, the Navajo Sun-god walks across the heavens each day. After breakfast
he lifts the sun off a peg and carries it on his back until he reaches the west
in the evening. He remains there with his family until the sun, hanging on its
peg, cools off. After he is well rested, he puts the sun on his back again and
retraces his steps in the darkness. In the morning he starts on his westward
trip anew. In a way, the story of his travels reflects the nomadic character
of the Navajo tribe.
Two important Navajo deities are sister goddesses. Estanathlehi, the Woman Who
Rejuvenates Herself, or Changing Woman, is the most esteemed deity in the Navajo
pantheon and the most interesting. As soon as she grows to be an old woman,
she becomes young again. Like the seasons, she changes; and like them, she is
immortal. Being made of jewels and turquoise, she is related to the land. She
is the dispenser of corn, seeds, plants of all kinds, precious stones, and medicines.
Thus she is the deity of fruitful nature.
She lives in the west, as the wife of the Sun-god, while her twin sister, Yolkai-Estsan,
White Shell Woman, lives in the Northern Mountains as the Wife of Water. While
Changing Woman is represented by turquoise, related to the land, her sister
is represented by white shell from the ocean, being related to water. In some
of the legends, references to these two sisters are often confusing. Sometimes
Changing Woman is referred to as the elder sister; at other times their names
are used interchangeably, as if both were the same person, just as land and
water are inter-related. We ourselves by the word earth" often mean the
land and sea together as a unit.
Each of these two sisters has a son. Changing Woman's son is Nayenezgani, Slayer
of the Enemy or Monster Slayer, and White Shell's son is Tobadzistsini, Child
of Water or Water Child. It is interesting to note that these deities are never
mentioned as the sons of their fathers, but always of their mothers. This is
not only because the Navajos are a matriarchy, but also because their gods,
like the Navajos themselves, have more than one wife and therefore, for greater
accuracy, only the mother is mentioned as the parent. According to our system
of kinship, these two deities would be cousins, since they are children of two
sisters, but in their legends they are always referred to as brothers. Thus
the kinship of their deities becomes confusing.
Some legends make both of these brothers (or cousins) the twin sons of Changing
Woman. In still others the brothers seem to be the same deity. This apparent
confusion of kinship among their gods may be explained by the fact that Navajos
often will refer to any person in their own clan as a sister or a brother. After
all, they are all descendants of the woman who founded their clan. Relationships
were even more complicated by polygamy and easy divorce, though neither of these
is now practiced on a large scale.
Both Monster Slayer and Water Child kill alien gods who are enemies of Dinneh,
the people. They assist Navajo warriors in battle and help the sick who have
been afflicted through witchcraft, wizardry, or the machinations of enemy ghosts.
Monster Slayer is more powerful than his brother-cousin, Water Child, who plays
a subordinate role. This precedence is picturesquely set forth in the following
two stanzas translated by Dr. Washington Matthews:
Above, among the mountain peaks, he advances,
Now the Slayer of Alien Gods advances!
In danger he advances.
Now the Child of the Water advances,
Below, among the foothills, he advances,
In danger he advances.
the medicine man masquerading as Water Child walks behind the one representing
Monster Slayer. Symbolically, the older brother stands for Light and Heat, while
the younger represents Darkness and Dew. For reasons best known to the People,
the first masquerader is painted black; the second, red. The Navajo explains
this use of contrasting colors by saying that light comes out of darkness, and
that fire reduces wood to charcoal.
In Indah or the War Dance which I witnessed near Kayenta over the Fourth of
July, the body of the impersonator of Monster Slayer was painted black with
charcoal from four sacred plants, while his hands were smeared with white clay.
His black mask with its fringe of red hair had an ornamental feather at its
top. The diamond-shaped holes for lips and mouth had small white shells attached
to them. On one of the cheeks of the mask, white lines had been drawn to represent
lightning. Figures of eight bows were painted in white on his chest, legs, and
arms. He wore a collar of fox skin, a scarlet sash, a belt with silver decorations,
moccasins, and other ornaments. In his right hand he carried a great stone knife
with which, in pantomime gestures, he made as if he were cutting disease out
of the patient.
The body of the impersonator of the second brother, Water Child, who walked
behind Monster Slayer, was painted with red ocher; and his hands were likewise
covered with white clay. On his limbs and chest were drawn eight designs of
the queue, the coiffure used by Navajo men. His red ocher mask had a black triangle
in the center, a fringe of red hair like his brother's, and for the eyes and
mouth, diamond-shaped holes to which small white shells were attached. On the
front of the mask were small white figures of the queue, always in multiples
of four. He, too, wore a fox fur collar and red sash, belt with silver ornaments,
moccasins, and other jewelry. But in his right hand, instead of the stone knife,
he carried a cylinder of pinon which he waved in prescribed fashion in order
to draw out the patient's disease.
So far we have described the deities considered most important by the Navajos.
On them depend life and security, as is evident from their attributes. The sun,
water, seasons, and Nature in general, the prerequisites for life, are represented
by Sun-god, Water God, Changing Woman, and White Shell Woman; while security
from the supernatural, or the enemy, is afforded by the deities who are slayers
of monsters, known as Monster Slayer and Water Child.
Besides these supreme gods, there are a great many other gods who dwell in Canyon
de Chelly, Rainbow Bridge, Red Horizontal Rock, and many other sacred rocks
and caves in Navajoland. They are known as yei. They are married and have families.
The male yei are called yebaka and the females, yebaad. Among the yei are Hastseoltoi,
the Divine Huntress or Goddess of the Chase; Tonenili, the Water Sprinkler or
Rain God; Ganaskidi, the Harvest God; and Hastsezini, the Fire God. While there
is only one Sun-god, one Changing Woman, and so forth, there are usually many
yei of the same name. Thus we have many Goddesses of the Chase, many Rain Gods,
Harvest Gods, and so on.
In the accompanying sketches I have shown a group of yei. They are represented
in Navajo sandpaintings in color, each having some gray, black, white, blue,
and yellow in various combinations. They look very impressive. Only one of the
sketches represents a yebaad; the others are all yebaka. Dsahadoldza, the Fringed
Mouth, as the name indicates, has a fringed mouth. The sandpaintings and masks
that represent these gods are decorated with a mouth which has radiating lines
like those in the sketch. The zigzag lines on their bodies represent the lightning
which they use like a rope to lift logs and send them floating down the river.
The fringed mouths help Navajos who are in difficulty.
Hastse'hogan, House God, is one of the more important yei. He is also the god
of the evening. He is a friend of man and assists him in trouble. In some sand-paintings
he is carrying weapons of punishment for anyone who does not obey the Talking
God, the god of the morning. Ganaskidi, the Humpback or Harvest God, belongs
to the Mountain Sheep People. These yei sometimes appear to the Navajos in the
form of Rocky Mountain sheep. The masquerader in the rituals wears a crown made
of the skin of a Rocky Mountain sheep. (From a distance I saw a few specimens
of this animal in the canyons of the San Juan River.) In the ceremony in which
the Harvest God takes part, water from a sheep's eye cures sore eyes; a horn,
pressed against the patient's head, relieves headache; a tendon from the heel,
applied to the leg of the patient, relieves him from pain.
The masqueraders who represent Yebaad, or female gods, in the ceremonies are
usually boys or small men. They wear skirts and the female square masks, let
their hair down, and carry twigs of juniper in their hands.
Hastsayalti, the Talking God, sometimes referred to as Yeibichai, the maternal
grandfather of all gods, is the most important character in the Night Chant,
sometimes called the Yeibichai Dance. His masquerader, as in all other Navajo
impersonations, does just the reverse of what the god's name implies. He never
throughout the rites. However, he makes signs and utters the peculiar whoops
that sound like WU' U! He always comes to the rescue of men in difficulty. He
is also the god of the morning. The lines making up his mouth and eyes symbolize
the mist below rising to meet the clouds above.
Once I was surprised to see the Hopis impersonating this same Navajo god in
one of their dances on Black Mesa. It was in Mishonguovi village and it was
in the Koa Katchina dance that Yeibichai appeared. All other impersonators were
grouped in pairs, while Yeibichai had to dance by himself, using his right foot
most of the time. Thus, as might be expected, the Hopis gave Yeibichai, a Navajo
god, a somewhat comic role.
Despite the great pantheon of gods, it seems that Navajos have no sacred days
or Sabbaths. Their gods do not require a special day to receive their worship,
just as they do not demand any special temples or places of worship. According
to the Wetherills, the Navajos have a few shrine-like places into which, in
passing, they throw a rock after making a wish, so that eventually a great pile
of rocks is collected.
The Navajos also have alien gods or monsters who figure conspicuously in Navajo
mythology and are analogous to the giants of European folklore. Monster Slayer
and Water Child together have slain most of them. To facilitate their task,
Sun-god outfitted them with iron clothes consisting of shirt, cap, leggings,
moccasins, knife, and other weapons.
Among the slain alien gods was Yeitso, an armored giant, who could drain a lake
at one drinking. Some think Yeitso refers to the dinosaurs which at one time
roamed the country. Monster Slayer slew him and Water Child scalped him. They
cut off his head and threw it to the other side of what is now Mt. Taylor. There
it lies now in the form of the volcanic hill called by the Mexicans El Cabezon,
the Great Head. The blood of Yeitso is the red lava that still covers the high
cliffs of the mountain.
Te'elget, a great four-footed beast with horns resembling those of a deer and
skin like that of the gopher, was killed by Monster Slayer, who shot an arrow
through his heart. As trophies and proof of his prowess, Monster Slayer brought
to his mother, Changing Woman, a piece of the beasts bowel, filled with blood,
and pieces of his lungs and liver.
The Tse'nahale, "the great winged creatures that devour man," were
two huge monsters. The male preyed upon Navajo men and the female preyed upon
Navajo women. They resembled eagles and lived on Ship Rock. They, too, were
slain and their feathers carried away by the victorious brothers as trophies
and proof of their strength.
Tsetahotsiltali, He Who Kicks People Down the Cliff, is another of the monsters
who lived up to his name. He was accustomed to kicking Navajo men down a cliff,
whereupon twelve of his children devoured the corpses. Monster Slayer killed
him and threw his body down the selfsame cliff to the twelve children, who devoured
their own father's corpse, one eating his eyes, another an arm, a third his
liver, and so on. Monster Slayer next killed the bloodthirsty young of the dead
monster-all except one, who ran faster than the rest and disappeared in the
high rocks. But when Monster Slayer caught up with him, he found him so ugly
and filthy that he did not consider him worth the trouble of killing. He let
him go and live in what is now the State of Utah, to become the progenitor of
the Piute tribe of Indians, "a people ugly, starved and ragged, who never
wash themselves, and who live on the vermin of the desert." In this remark
we see not only the contempt for a neighboring tribe, but also a glint of humor
characteristic of Navajo thinking.
In their ceremonials the medicine men chant the stories of the extermination
of these monsters. In one chant,
Changing Woman relates a part of the story by enumerating the trophies the two
monster slayers brought to her as evidence of their heroism:
Slayer brings for me,
Of Te'elget he brings for me,
Truly a lung he brings for me,
THE PEOPLE are restored.
of Water brings for me,
Of Tse'nahale he brings for me,
Truly a wing he brings for me,
THE PEOPLE are restored.
two more stanzas to this chant, complying with the symbolic four. They speak
of two other heroes who bring her other trophies - Le'yaneyani, Reared Below
Ground; and Tsowenatlehi, the Changing Grandchild, whose identity is not clearly
defined. Some say that these two names refer to the two brothers already described.
Whether this is true or not, I may as well give the two stanzas here to complete
the mystic number. The two slain monsters mentioned in them are Tse'-tahotsiltali,
He Who Kicks People Down the Cliff; and Binaye Ahani, Some More Alien Gods Who
Slay People with Their Eyes, or what we would call Evil Eyes.
brings for me,
Of Tse'tahotsiltali he brings for me,
Truly a side-lock he brings for me,
THE PEOPLE are restored.
brings for me,
Of Binaye Ahani he brings for me,
Truly an eye he brings for me,
THE PEOPLE are restored."
It is not
surprising that the Navajos have all these gods-gods of goodness, gods of evil,
gods of sickness, gods of health, gods of everything. We ourselves, despite
all the sanitation, machinery, modern medicines and surgery, are still unable
to conquer many of the scourges in our present day. Many of us are looking for
new sources of help to overcome our fears, uncertainties and vicissitudes, and
many new sects and new concepts of psyche are springing up daily. The Navajo,
living under the most arduous and difficult circumstances and lacking explanation
for many natural phenomena, has looked up to the supernatural. Thunder is frequent
on the mesas and the deep narrow canyons; blinding lightning comes crashing
down against cliffs and tremendous rocks tumble down at his feet with a frightful
impact; torrents swell up the washes and carry uprooted trees and huge rocks
which not even a giant could move. It pours, it rushes, and it dries like parchment
all within a very short space of time. Epidemics descend on him like lightning
and wipe out entire families. All of these make a deep impression on the primitive
mind of the Navajo.
Such quick and devastating powers of nature have required an explanation and
the Navajo lacking the knowledge has created his gods. Since he as a weak and
helpless creature needs miraculous mediators to approach these gods for appeasement
or forgiveness, he has created his medicine men. The medicine men are the mediators
before these powerful personages. They are guards and guardians, both in sickness
and in health, in war and in peace.
Gods, Tom-toms; By S.H. Babington, 1950.