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Navajo mythology [...] Navajo mythology and how it works in their society. Navajo mythology is a deeply rooted part of their society, and closely tied to the land where they live. They relate their myths to the land, the people, and to their gods, and these stories of creation and emergence permeate their lives and everything they do. The Navajo myths are important to understand, because when the student understands the myths, they will come close to understanding the Navajo people, too.
The Navajo people of Northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern Utah identify with the land where they live, and many of their myths center around important landmarks on their lands, such as Monument Valley in Northern Arizona, and Shiprock in New Mexico. The Navajo were originally nomadic people who moved over the land throughout the seasons of the year, tending their flocks and hunting, but when they were settled on reservation land, they became farmers, weavers, and jewelry makers. As with many Native American cultures, the land is central to their survival and their worship, and myths are central to their spiritual world and well being. One anthropologist, Trudy Griffin-Pierce, who has studied and lived with the Navajo notes,
Emory Sekaquaptewa, the Hopi scholar, uses a beautiful phrase to express the sense of inclusive multidimensional truth with which many Native Americans view the world -- "mythic reality." In place of the exclusivity of the Western notion of science-as-truth, this more inclusive perspective embraces the coexistence of a mythic, spiritual world alongside the physical, quantifiable world (Griffin-Pierce 7).
This is how the Navajo live their lives, and this is one reason their mythology is so important to their lives and their view of the world. Their myths form the backbone of their existence, and are an important way to record the history of this nomadic people. Without their myths, they would not have explanations for their lives, their beliefs, and the colorful culture.
There are literally thousands of Navajo myths that make up their mythology. They have stories about the animals that live on their land, like the Coyote and the Ripener. They have stories about the constellations in the skies, and stories about nearly every major mountain and landscape feature in their world. They have stories about how the Navajo came to be, how long they have lived in the desert Southwest, and how long they will continue to live there. There myths include stories about movement and journeys or odysseys on a quest for enlightenment or solutions. Griffin-Pierce continues, "Navajo origin myths are rich in images of heroes traveling for sacred knowledge and healing power" (Griffin-Pierce 24). Thus, their myths and tales tell the story of their own passage throughout the Southwest, and serve as a history of their people and their environment.
Probably the most important myth is the Creation Myth, or the First Man First Woman myth, which tells the story of how the Navajos came to live in Navajoland. Remarkably similar to the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, the myth discusses the creation of the world, and then the emergence of First Man and First Woman, who build a ceremonial sweathouse, and then set about creating the Navajo people and their sacred homeland. First man creates a "medicine bundle" and takes it into the sweathouse with him, and then performs two ritual acts using the bundle. Spirituality expert Sam Gill describes the acts:
With the first ritual act, two groups of "human forms" arise from the bundle and are designated as the materials out of which the life forms of all things are to be created. The second ceremonial act, which is performed over these human forms, gives rise to a beautiful young man and woman who represent the means of life for all things as they proceed through time (Gill 52).
Then, First Man and First Woman build a hogan (traditional Navajo dwelling), and begin the process of creating human life. First Man creates the first sandpainting during this ceremony. Gill continues, "on the floor First Man constructs, in a manner resembling a painting in sand, representations, in human form, of the life forms of things to be created on the earth surface. He uses the materials (sacred jewels) from his sacred bundle" (Gill 52). It takes all night for First Man to create the their environment, and he sings the first creation songs as he works. This myth is central to the Navajo's view of their world and their place in it, and all the rest of their mythology stems from this Creation myth. The beautiful young man and woman created at first represent long life and happiness, and the creation of all other living things at once represents the Navajo feeling that all things in the universe are interrelated and have their own place and purpose in the universe.
The Creation Myth continues with the creation of several other characters that play central roles in Navajo mythology, including Changing Woman, the woman born of the beautiful man and woman, who actually creates the Navajo people and corn. She has twins, who rid the Earth of monsters and evil, and then, Changing Woman and the other Holy People involved in the creation return below the Earth's surface, never to be seen again (Gill 53-55).
The Creation Myth is the backbone of Navajo mythology, but there are myths for just about everything the Navajos feel is important in life. In addition, the ceremonials performed by Navajo chanters are outlined in many of the myths, and it is here the original chanters learned their roles and began performing the first ceremonials. Expert Gill continues, "Where in the era of creation the concern is with the establishment of proper places and relationships for things in the world, the era of the origin of the ceremonials is concerned with how one lives in that world" (Gill 56). It is important to note that the Navajo see their myths as a tree (Gill 57), and describe the layers of myth as the trunk (the Creation Myth) and branches (the hero stories). Thus, they immediately connect their myths to the land, which is not only fitting, but also profound, since the stories are all so interrelated they rely on each other for support and growth.
Many different bird, animal, insects, and plants also populate the Navajo myths. Many of the favorite myths revolve around Coyote, who is the Navajo trickster, and plays pranks on many of the other people and animals in his myths. It is said that Coyote created the Milky Way by throwing a bag of stars into the sky because he was displeased the creation of the heavens was taking so long. Usually, Coyote's stories are humorous or mischievous, and the chanters tell his story with humor and many breaks for laughter (Gill 57).
The Cornbeetle Girl and Boy are also important to the Navajo myths, but today, most experts believe the term "cornbeetle" is a mistranslation, and the actual term for the pair should be "ripener" Girl and Boy. The ripeners show the importance of corn and the natural world in the Navajo culture, because they appear in many of the Navajo myths and ceremonials, and indicate the success and long life of the people who come in contact with them.
Along with the natural world, there are many myths regarding the Holy People, the Changing Woman and her children, and Spider Woman, another favorite in many myths. Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly, located in the heart of Navajo country, has a commanding feature known as "Spider Rock," named after Spider Woman. It is said Spider Woman taught the Navajo how to make string figures to keep their "thinking and lives in order" (Griffin-Pierce 59).
The myths are important to the Navajo at every time of the year, but they are not recited at all times of the year. Gill continues,
There are seasonal restrictions which may be observed in the recitation of some myths. While some may be told at any time, others are restricted to winter, which is defined as the time after the first frost and before the first spring thunder. The rationale Navajos give for this practice is that during this period certain forces and beings, such as snakes, lightnings, and thunders, are sleeping or not present, so that to talk about them and to tell their stories would consequently be safe (Gill 57).
Their environment even dictates when the myths can be told, as well as so much of the content of the myths themselves.
Spirituality and the Land
There is no word for "religion" in the Navajo language. The Navajo do not believe in religion per se, and they have no organized religion in their culture. They are however, deeply spiritual, and this spirituality is especially prevalent in their rich mythological culture. Anthropologist Griffin-Pierce notes, "In traditional Navajo thinking, spirituality, health, harmony, and beauty are inseparable. All the good things…[continue]
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