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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/June 1882/The Zuni Social, Mythic, and Religious Systems

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 21‎ | June 1882


GENTLEMEN of the National Academy of Sciences—Ladies and Gentlemen: Let me at once present my Indian friends. And now let me introduce some remarks on the mythology and religion of the people whom they represent, the Zuñi Indians of Western New Mexico, the largest of the Pueblo nations, the lingering remnants of a vast culture which gave rise to the cliff and mesa ruins of the far Southwest, by a few words designed rather to define my own position than to illustrate my subject.

The student of the natural history of mankind finds his most difficult subject in the mythology of the lower peoples. Even our own mythology, including our theisms and superstitions, is hard to understand, yet ours is, thanks to just such bodies as the one which I have the honor to address to-day, the simplest of all mythologies, because its range of superstition is circumscribed by that of definite knowledge, its theism simplified in proportion to the extent of material philosophy.

Perhaps first among the causes of our difficulty is the fact that all mythology deals with those forces and things in nature which are beyond our comprehension; that it ends not here, but attempts to explain the origin of things in themselves incomprehensible. In proportion, then, to the lack of definite knowledge in any people, its mythology becomes more complicated and less readily understood. To the same intellectual germ in humanity which quickens the philosophy of the nineteenth century may we look for the cause of the origin and growth of mythology. And thus it happens that we find the scientist of our own places and times and the Zuñi Indian laboring hand in hand in the same field, both trying to explain the phenomena of nature and their existence, the one by metaphysical the other by physical research; the one by building up, the other by tearing down, mythology. In order, then, to comprehend the mythology of a people, we must learn their language, acquire their confidence, assimilating ourselves to them by joining in their everyday life, their religious life, even as far as possible in their intellectual life, by remembering with intense earnestness the reasonings of our own childhood, by constantly striking every possible chord of human sympathy in our intercourse with those whose inner life we would study.

I think I have now sufficiently explained why I have entered into relation with the Zuñi Indians, and become a participator in their religious practices and, so far as possible, beliefs, to the extent of acquiring membership in their gentile organization as well as in their priesthood; and my attitude toward the audience before me is that of an imperfect exponent of Zuñi mythology and belief.

Since my return from the Southwest, time has not permitted a sufficient study of those technicalities which have, during the past few years, been introduced into this class of subjects. I shall therefore have to proceed very simply, much as would a Zuñi priest, could he address you, in a discussion of his mythology and religion.

The Zuñi mythology, or theogony, is a reflection of Zuñi sociologic or governmental institutions, with the added feature of an almost universal spiritualistic philosophy. Hence it follows that a discussion of the one must include at least a brief description of the other. Like all well-known tribes of North American Indians, the Zuñis are divided into gentes, there being in their nation fifteen distinct clans or gentes. These again are combined into phratries, not political confederacies as among the Iroquois and Muscogee, but ecclesiastical bands, or, in other words, into secret medicine or sacred orders, of which there are, including the wonderful and supreme organization of the Priesthood of the Bow, thirteen. Based upon this sociologic structure, the government of Zuñi embraces three principles, the ecclesiastic, the martial, and the political, the outgrowths of which, in their order of precedence, are the priesthoods or caciqueships, the war chieftaincies, and the political chieftaincies. Supreme in national as well as in ecclesiastical office is the priest, or cacique of the sun, or Pekwina, immediately under whom are four secular as well as ecclesiastical high-priesthoods or caciqueships, the priesthood of the Pueblo, or temple of worship in—Zuñi kia kwe armosi—with the auxiliary office tâ shiwan okia, or "Priestess of Seed." Selected by, yet supreme over the latter four priests in martial and secular matters, are the two high-priests, or caciques of war, who may or may not be at the same time master-priests—Pithlan shiwan moson atchi—of the Order of the Bow. These six priests are designated in Zuñi ecclesiastical language "Priests of the Light or Day"; while resident in those special clans, which by heredity furnish the high-priesthoods (mainly the Clan of the Parrots, itself considered consanguineally descended from the gods), are numerous "Priests of the Night or Darkness," any one of whom may be chosen on the death of a priest of the light by the surviving companions. The two priests of war in turn create both the martial and political head chieftaincies, referring the. latter to the four priests of the temple for acceptance or rejection. The martial head chieftaincy, or war chieftaincy, includes the third priesthood of the Order of the Bow, thus combining the ecclesiastical with the martial, and explaining the precedence of the latter over the political office. The third priest of the Order of the Bow, or head war-chief then names three sub-chiefs, themselves necessarily members of his own order. Likewise the head chief creates his own three sub-chieftaincies as well as the second political head-chieftaincy or chief, who in turn names his own three sub-chiefs. We find, then, that the democracy, or republic, of popular tradition, in its reference to the sedentary Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, is, like most other popular traditions regarding these comparatively unknown peoples, erroneous; that in reality their political fabric is set up and woven by an elaborate priesthood, the only semblance of democracy reposing in the power of the council—itself composed of all adults of good standing in the nation—to reject a political head chief as thus chosen, while the power of choosing a substitute remains still in the hands of the martial priests, and that of confirming him in the hands of the four priests of the temple. The latter are considered the mouth-pieces of the priest of the sun, just as the two priests of war are considered at once the mouth-pieces and, in martial and political affairs, the commanders of the four priests of the temple; and, again, the third priest of war, or head war-chief, and the first political chief, brothers to one another, yet differentiated in their functions, are considered to be the mouth-pieces of the two priests of war, the one in times of national disturbance, the other in times of peace. And yet, again, the sub-chiefs of the war-chief, as well as those of the two political head chiefs, are considered the mouth-pieces of their respective superiors.

Now, the organization of each one of the sacred or medicine orders of Zuñi, less in importance than the order of the priesthood of the bow, is a miniature representation of the national ecclesiastical and martial organizations—that is, each order has its pekwina, or high-priest, its four kia kwe armosi, or priests of the temple, its two pithlan shiwan mosun atchi, or priests of the bow, and in accordance with its special office its medicine or prayer-priest or master, and its sacred council. Less strictly secret, yet more sacred, and organized upon similar though more elaborate principles of office, is the church of Zuñi, the order of the sacred dances, or the kâ kâ, which is lodged in six places of worship—the half-underground estufas of the north, west, south, and east, the upper and lower regions of the universe. While the kâ kâ, as a whole, has its supreme high-priests, its priests of the temple, its warrior-priests, and its prayer-masters, each one of these six temples of worship has also its like special system of priesthood, with the added offices of song-priests or masters. Both in its organization as a whole and in its lesser organizations, the kâ kâ seems to be a perfect mirror, as it were, of the mythology of the Zuñi nation, just as the mythology is a reflection of the sociologic organization of the same nation. It is, then, to a study of the organization and functions of the kâ kâ, based upon a knowledge of the national sociologic organization, that we are to look for the most complete and clear exemplification of their system of gods, just as we are to look to the traditional rituals, prayers, songs, and sacred epics of this kâ kâ for a comprehensive idea of their mythology. Knowledge gained from both these sources may in turn be vastly added to, strengthened, and corrected by a close study of their most abundant and beautifully imaginative folklore.

Supreme over all the gods of Zuñi is Hano ona wilona, or holder of the roads of light, corresponding to the earthly pekwina, or priest of the sun, and represented by the sun itself. Beneath him is a long line of gods so numerous that I know not half their names, nor have I recorded them, but they are divided into six great classes: the celestial or hero gods (the demon-gods themselves perhaps the vestiges of a more ancient hero-god mythology), the elemental gods, or the gods of the forces of nature, the sacred animal gods, or the kia pin a hâi and kia she ma a hâi, the gods of prey or wemar a hâi, and the tutelary gods, or divinities of places. While Hano ona wilona is supreme over all, he himself, like the earthly sun-priest, is limited by his own high-priests among the gods—the celestial or hero gods, and they, in turn, by the demon-gods, while the two earthly offices of head political and war chiefs are represented, on the one hand, by the raw or water-wantings beings, or animal gods; and, on the other, by the wemâr a hâi, or gods of prey, while the priests of the night in the human organization (tkwi-na-proa-a shi-wa-ni) seem to be represented by the tutelar gods of the deistic organization. Not less important, then, because they are supposed to act in connection with the latter, are the ancients, or spirits of the ancestors, who form the body-politic of this great system of gods, and are supposed to serve as mediators between the mortals and the gods. In Zuñi belief they have also a definite place of residence assigned to them, notwithstanding which they are supposed to hold constant communion, even to the extent of occasional materialization with those whom they have left behind, to listen attentively to their prayers, and to represent them in some vague way to the higher gods of the Zuñi mythology.

While this great system of gods, like the kâ kâ, is organized, as a whole, not unlike the ecclesiastical and martial systems of the Zuñis, so also has each one of the six systems of gods, like each of the six estufas of the Zuñis, its offices of high-priests, priests of the house or temple, warrior-priests, etc. As an example of this special organization, let me speak of the gods of the ocean, who under specific names and attributes are further distinguished as "our beloved Pe kwi we, or sun-priest of the ocean; our beloved the ona ya na k'ia a shi tea ni, or priests of the temples of the ocean; our beloved mother, the K'o hak o k'ia, or the goddess of the white shells; our beloved, the three great warrior-priests of the ocean, kia chla wa ni, ku pish tai a, and tsi k'ia hâi a, in whom we do not fail to recognize the two master-priests of the bow, and the third priests of the bow, or head warrior-chief of the martial organization. The lesser personages of Zuñi government are finally represented by the sacred animal gods of the ocean.

Let me give, as illustrations of the deistic conceptions of the Zuñis, without special reference to their rank in this governmental system of the gods, the names and supposed attributes of a few of the principal gods of Zuñi mythology. Hâno ona wilona, or the "holder of the roads of our lives," the supreme priest-god of Zuñi mythology, is supposed to hold as in his hands the roads of the lives of his human subjects, is believed to be able (to use the language of a Zuñi) to see (or perceive) not only the visible actions of men, but their thoughts, their prayers, their songs and ceremonials, to will through his lesser deities whether a thing shall be or shall not be in the course of a human life. I once asked a priest in Zuñi, who was about to go forth on a hunt, "Do you think you will lay low a deer this day?" and he said, "Oothlat hâno ona wilona" (as wills or says the holder of the roads of life). Immediately below Hâno ona wilona are the gods Ahai in ta and Ma 'tsai le ma, the two great deities of the priesthood of the bow, anciently known as Ua nam atch pi ah ko'a, the beloved both who fell (for the salvation of mankind). They are supposed to be twin children of the sun, Hâno ona wilona—mortal, yet divine. They were the guiders of mankind from the four great wombs of earth, the birth-place of the human family, far eastward toward the middle of the world; but, on reaching the eastern portion of Arizona, in the great exodus of the Pueblo races, they are supposed to have been changed by the will of their grandfathers—four great demon-gods—into warriors, and ever since have been the great gods of the order of the priesthood of the bow, and the rulers of the mountain-passes, and enemies of the world. Just so the young man, in modern Zuñi life, who lives for years in peaceful industrial pursuits, and all at once becomes chosen as a proper person for membership in the Order of the Bow, is induced to take a scalp, and henceforth becomes a ruler of his people and his world, a warrior and a member of that most powerful of priesthoods. These two gods are supposed to have been the immediate ancestors of the two lines of priests who are now their representatives, the high-priests of the Order of the Bow; from them, in one unbroken line, has been breathed the breath of sa wa nikia, or the medicine of war, from one to the other of the members of their household, the a si schlan shi we ni, or their children, the priests of the bow, just as has been in the belief of the Roman Catholics the unbroken apostolic succession. Through their wills over the kia sin a hai, or annual gods, with the consent of Hâno ona wilona, or the "holder of the roads of life," are the roads of man's life divided, or the light of his life cut off—figurative expressions for death in the highly poetic language of the Zuñis. Prior to their creation war seems to have been a secondary element in the existence of the Pueblo race; such as it previously was, however, it was represented by the great ancient god of war, the hero of hundreds of folk-lore stories, Atchi a la to sa, or "he of the knife-feathered wings." He is supposed to carry ever about him his many-colored bow, a ni 'to lan, or the goddess of the rainbow, to walk upon his swift arrow, wi lo lo a'te, turquoise-pointed god of lightning, and to be guarded on the right and the left by his warriors, the mountain-lion of the North and the mountain-lion of the West.

Among other beings of ancient Zuñi mythology we have the marvelous example of Oohe pololon, or "the god of the north wind," whose breath sends the cold winds from the north region and drives the sands of the southwestern deserts, which have been stirred up by the will of the gods of the mountain. Dark and gloomy, like the clouds of the north-land home, ferocious with his shining teeth and glaring pendant eyeballs, wild with his iron-gray halo of ever-waving hair and beard, Oohe pololon is one of the most terrific of Zuñi demon-gods. Then we have the gentle moon, mother of the women of men, through whose will are born the children of women, the representative in this system of deities of the Shewan okao, or seed-priestess, younger sister of the priests of the temple; and the sister of the moon, the beautiful goddess of the ocean, through whose ministrations are awakened the loves of the Zuñi youth, and the good fortune of trade is secured.

While those gods in Zuñi mythology remaining unknown to me are legion, yet I might continue for hours to mention gods and their attributes; as for instance, "he who carries the clouds from the ocean of sunrise to the ocean of sunset and scatters them through the heavens between"; Kwe le le, or "he who infuses the roots of all trees with the spirit of fire, and swings his torch in mid-air, and it forthwith bursts into flames"; Te sha mink'ia, or "he who dwells in the cañons and cliffs of the mountains, ever echoing the cries of his children, men and beasts of mortality."

Interesting among the hero-gods is the great priest of all religious orders save that of the bow, Poskai ank'ia. In the days of the new, yet not until after men had begun their journey toward the east, he is supposed to have appeared among the ancestors of the Zuñis, the Taos, the Coconinos, and the Moqui Indians, so poor and ill-clad as to have been ridiculed by mankind. He it was who taught the fathers of the Zuñis their architecture and their arts, their agriculture and their system of worship, by plume and painted stick; but, driven to desperation by the ingratitude of his children, he vanished beneath the world, never to return to the abodes of men—yet he still sits in the city of the sun, ever listening to the prayers of his ungrateful children.

Let me add one more example: that of Kia nis ti pi, or "the great water-skate," who with his long legs measured the extent of the earth as with a compass, and between the oceans of sunrise and sunset deter-mined the center of the world as the home of the Zuñis. He is represented by a peculiar figure, and this introduces us to a new department of the subject—the conventional system of pictographs whereby the Zuñi sacred orders illustrate their mythological ideas. It is first to a close study of the mythology and theogony of the Zuñis, and then to that of the conventional forms of art among these and kindred peoples, that we are to look for the key to the mysterious and unnumbered pictographs of the great Southwest.

Interesting for comparison with Eastern mythology is the study of the phallic and the serpent symbolism as they occur in highly developed forms among the Zuñi Indians. Yet, again, interesting because of the light that it throws upon the development of human religions and mythologies is the study of the influence of environment, physical, biologic, and sociologic, as exemplified by the religion and mythology of the Zuñis.

I regret most deeply that in the limited time allowed me today I can not go into a discussion of these various questions, and into a production of the hundreds of facts illustrative of them which I have in my possession; but that I have time only to add that, as further illustrative of the connection between the Zuñi sociologic and the Zuñi mythologic systems is the fact that no general names for chiefs of all the departments—ecclesiastical, martial, and political—are to be found in their language, nor is there a general name for their god-priests, hero, demon, animal, elemental, celestial, or tutelar. Yet the term awa nu thla includes the political and martial chiefs in Zuñi government, just as does the name k’ia pin a hâ i include their representatives, the sacred water and prey-gods, of Zuñi mythology.


  1. Lecture before the National Academy of Sciences, delivered in Washington, April 22, 1882.