Notes on the Zuni Origin Myth

Copyright 1998 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College

[These notes follow the Frank Hamilton Cushing version as edited by Barton Wright (University of New Mexico Press, 1988).]

Not all Native American origin myths begin with cosmology, though we will read two that do. The Zuni story is especially interesting in that the original being is envisioned as Áwonawílona, the Maker and Container of All, who begins the creative process by projecting his thoughts outward. In this creative act, the primary being manifests himself as a mist-filled space and a self-realizing image, the Sun. Note that the primary being himself is too abstract for us even to conceive so it is his tangible manifestation, the Sun, to whom we look as our creative father. (The story as conceived is very similar to the German philosopher Hegel's conception of the perceived universe deriving from Absolute Idea (spirit) alienating itself in an external, Material form.) Note also that the creation of nature as we know it requires fecundity; the sun is undifferentiated as energy (light). Hence, Father Sky and Mother Earth are created as the sexual pair from which all nature arises. Humans and all other creatures are created from this pairing on an equal plain, and the creation is accompanied by provision of sustenance -- in the rain-cycle and in the corn-planting-cycle. There is unity from the beginning; the Zuni need only to respect this unity and participate in it.

Origin of Humans
The detailed story of human creation now unfolds. The initial creation of creatures has gone nowhere; they crawl and grope over each other in an ever-more-crowded womb-like cavern of the underworld. It is the First World, the Place of First Formation. The Sun Father wrestles with the problem and solves it by creating twin humans who will descend to the depths and lead the beings out. A foamy bubble on Mother Earth is impregnated and the Twins are born. Note that the birth order of the Twins is taken quite seriously so the elder boy, Ko'wituma leads and the younger boy Wats'usi follows. Thus priority and age are essential aspects of the Zuni culture; knowledge and age are identified. However, both Twins are prepared for their tasks with sacred knowledge, bow&arrows, and shields. The further development of creatures is given into their hands. They float westward down a river (the Colorado?) and find the best place through which to enter the underworld (the Grand Canyon?).

In the First World, the Twins stimulate the native plants by breathing on them, producing a great surge of growth toward the dim shaft of light. (The breath is always of great importance, being the source of energy.) The plants branch where they are grasped so a ladder network is created and the Twins lead creatures upward into the Second World, the Moss World. Importantly, not all creatures are able to achieve this. Many drop back into the First World, where they remain as deformed and demoniac beings. Life is never easy; and only those who are fit and adaptable can survive.

As the Second World fills up, the Twins cause the plant ladder to grow into the Third World, where there is a little more light; it is the World of Mud. The Twins gather beings into groups and guide them into the Third World; thus, diversity of groups of beings is explained by the different times of arriving into this world.

Finally, the beings are conducted into the Fourth World, the Wing World, which is dominated by something like the gray light of morning, cutting across the dome roof, like a wing. In the new experience of light, the beings begin to possess understanding of their nature and the Twins instruct them further, especially telling them about the Sun Father and his sacred knowledge.

The succession of four worlds has brought about the evolution of humans and all other creatures in multiplied populations, in perfected forms, and in their possession of appropriate knowledge. Creation culminates as the Twins lead humans and creatures out of Mother Earth and into the Daylight World. But it is night, when they emerge, so that they will not be blinded. They are a motley-appearing, black, lizard-like assortment of creatures who have been dragged out of the muddy depths. At the first sunrise, they are struck dumb in amazement by the world to which they have been borne. But they survive, clothe themselves, and gain wisdom. The first Wise Man emerges as a leader, bringing water, seeds, and objects of power.

Division of the People
There follows a long period of development and articulation of human traits. This begins in a primordial division into two diverse peoples --- the Winter People and the Summer People. The Wise Man strikes his many-colored powerful staff (meant to "test the hearts and understandings") on a hard place and produces four eggs, two blue ones and two red ones. As described, the two blue eggs will lead to a fruitful land of summer, ease, and plenty. The two red eggs will lead to a somber land of winter, toil, and scarcity. So the strong and hasty people sweep up the blue eggs and rush off; the cautious and deliberate ones stay behind and guard the red eggs. But the blue eggs eventually give birth to magpie and raven which fly off and mock the Summer People; while the red eggs give birth to colorful macaws which brighten the days of the Winter People.

As time passed, the peoples were divided into clans according to things they specially liked or understood. Thus, the Summer People were divided into Sun, Frog, Turtle, Toad, First-Growing Grass, Tobacco, and Badger clans. The Winter People were divided into Bear, Coyote, Deer, Turkey, Crane, and Grouse clans. These are totem/moiety groups around which exogamy is defined; thus, each clan is seen as "brothers and sisters" who cannot marry each other but will "cherish each other's offspring" as their own. A Headman is selected out of each clan and breathed upon by the father of the gods to give him exceptional wisdom.

Finally, the clans are bound together by grouping these Headmen into four important societies --- the Priest Society, the Hunter Society, the Great Knife Society (makers of pathways), and the Medicine Society (healers). The basics of social organization are complete.

Migration Begins
The physical world has remained marshy, young, and unstable throughout this period of human evolution. (One can wonder to what degree this represents an archaic memory of the late Pleistocene and paleoindian life in it!) The people have remained at the edge of the Grand Canyon up to this point; however, every convulsion of the earth brings forth fierce creatures from the underworld who prey on the people. It is necessary for the people to find a home place where they can live well. So they set forth, migrating to the east, under the path of the sun. They must find the Middle of the World. The "middle" is an essential concept of home, balance, stability, and rest.

Their first stopping place is the Raised Place (the plain SE of the Canyon along the Little Colorado?). In counsel with the Sun Father, the Twins contrive to "bake the earth" to harden it. Thus, the topography and geology of the present day Southwest is created --- the earth dry and dusty, cut into deep arroyos by floods of water. When the people continue their migration through this new land, they encounter others and learn how to fight and defend themselves. At this point, they are living off of wild plants and animals that they can hunt.

Coming into mountainous places (San Francisco Peaks?), they encounter the People of the Seed, living in houses. There follows a complex creative challenge, in two stages, leading ultimately to the possession of the complete agricultural cycle. In the first stage, they learn how to take advantage of the new soil that is washed down and deposited on the land, planting seeds that germinate into the First-Growing-Grass. Colorful prayer sticks are used and a shrine is built. The six directions are identified with colors --- east/white, west/blue, north/yellow, south/red, underneath/black, and overall/speckled or variegated. In the second phase, the People of the Dew note that the process is unfinished --- in effect, the plants must now grow and bear new seeds. Thus, other rituals of growth and fruition must be invented. Maidens and young men, dance among the plants and, by both gesture and embrace, they encourage the growth. So, as the last day dawns, the people find the ears of corn developed and displaying seeds of all colors. As the celebration ends, as day comes, the three gods --- Dew and Music, Time and Directions, and Flame, bless the people and their corn. They and the dancing Corn Maidens disappear into the morning mists. The people have become who they are --- in full possession of the corn planting cycle and divided into clans, with spiritual leaders and regalia, with established colors and rituals.

Search for the Middle Place
Now the search and migration takes on its final form. It is a second period of earth shaking and instability. (Is this the great volcanic eruption and subsequent drought that led to abandoning the old cliff houses?) The priest Ka'wimosa (Kachina Maker) has four sons and a daughter. He selects the eldest son, Kiaklo, and send him to the north to search for the middle place. But Kiaklo never returns. Thinking it may be too difficult for a lone person, he selects the two middle sons and sends them south; but they do not return either. Finally, synchronously, he sends his youngest son and his daughter to the east along the Little Colorado.

Now we know what must happen of course. East is the path of the sun's creative energy. The daughter and son represent the fertility of man and woman. Indeed, they are remarked as the beautiful ones of the children. So it is no surprise that, while camped at the foot of a mountain, the boy is aroused by his sister and has intercourse with her. But they already know that incest is taboo so she is immediately revolted by what he has done. As she harangues against him, they both change forms into ugly demigod-like beings. And the children, as they are born, are weird and misshapened beings of all kinds. The sister rends the mountain into two pieces in her anger, revealing flowing water. The father and the incest-sons become the attendants and interpreters of the Kachinas, the Koyemshi. The lake [as we will see] will become the land of the dead. [Incest is so common in creation stories that 19th Century Europeans shared the notion that people born of incestuous relations were especially creative people as they matured.]

When the son and daughter also failed to return, the Twins assembled the people and divided them into clan groups, sending one group along the northern most canyons, another along the middle ones, and a third group along the southern most canyons. These groups, widely flung, proceeded generally eastward, meeting up periodically to trade information. Eventually, the advance guard of the middle group comes upon the twin-peaked mountain and its tainted waters.

Now an amazing mysterious experience occurs. As the people attempt to cross the red waters, they become unstable as though manipulated by magic. The women become especially affected and the children on their backs become transformed monstrously. The children are abandoned and are swept into the current and taken under water into the lagoon. Here they encounter the souls of ancient men, living in Kothluwalanwan, the pueblo of the dead. They are greeted as newly dead souls and taught the mysteries of mortality. They are the first of the people to follow the Pathway of the Dead. But their mothers, who know none of this, grieve loudly.

The Twins take control of the situation and talk all others threw the trial and allow them to rest at the other side. From here it is an easy, natural walk up the Zuni River, into the Middle Place where Zuni Pueblo will be built. The gathered clans resume their migration, proceeding up the river, settling in various locations as they move ever closer to the Middle Place. The great cycle of life itself, mortality and the land of the dead, has joined the cycle of planting. All that remains is the knowledge of the sacred place and the rituals of life&death.

Kaiklo, the Elder Son
As it happens, the elder son had not died or become hopelessly lost. Rather he was still engaged in a very long journey to the north. Eventually, virtually blinded and exhausted, he is befriended by a duck who becomes his guide out of the northland. Through various challenges, he perseveres and winds up at the Lake of the Ancients, where he now intuits the troubles of his brother and sister as well as the plight of the people who follow.

After the duck has visited the pueblo of the gods at the bottom of the lake, she is directed to have Kaiklo conveyed into their presence. Kaiklo is borne out onto the lake on a litter by the Koyemshi and he enters the undersea world by way of a reed ladder, very much like descending into a kiva through the roof hole. In the pueblo of the gods at the bottom of the Sacred Lake, Kaiklo receives all of the fundamental knowledge about the gods and demigods, the creation of all, and the fate of his people. At the end, they send him back to the surface of the earth, to be borne off of the lake to the shore. He is instructed to carry this knowledge to his people, for the benefit of their children. And he does this by instructing the Koyemshi in becoming the Keepers of the Kachinas.

There is a loud and joyful procession from the lake to the gathered clans, where Kaiklo is reunited with his people and where he instructs all of the elders and spiritual leaders in the full story of the creation, the Sacred Lake, and the Path of the Dead. At the end, the Koyemshi carry Kaiklo off to Sacred Lake. No sooner have they left but a loud and terrifying procession of other Kachinas storms into the village, bearing the long-lost two brothers, still searching desperately for their elder brother Kaiklo. Having changed physically through their long trials, they are a fearsome lot. They turn everything upsidedown, insideout, looking. Hence, they establish the Kachina tradition of the enforcers, who keep the children in line.

The Final Story
All along, the people have been guided by the idea that the Middle Place will give them stability. Huge storms, earthquakes, and volcanism have shaken them loose and sent them further and further in their search. Now, even having received all of the sacred knowledge of importance to them as a people, the earth begins to shake anew, as indicated by the sacred shells. But there is resistence to traveling; the people have become naively confident and satisfied. The Twins must become war gods and face the final challenges. A story of epic proportions unfolds, a veritable battle of the gods and of all natural forces. Events are literally cast into stone throughout the ensuing cataclysmic battles. But once again the people settle and build on plains and cliffs dotted further up Zuni River. And still there are occasional shudderings of the shells.

In the end, the wise leaders bring all men and beings together in council. The Middle Place must be found for certain. In this final charming story, we should note the inherent logic. The middle place should be in the very middle of the world; thus, what they need is some way of reaching outward along all six directions to locate the very edges of the world. Water Spider, standing high above water on his six legs is the obvious choice. But note that it is really Sun Father assuming the form of Water Spider. Hence it is Sun Father who ultimately gives the Zuni their home place. Then also note that, as Water Spider settles down toward Mother Earth, it is his heart (energy) and his navel (birth cycle) that will mark the Middle Place.

This is Halónawan where Zuni Pueblo was built. But there is one final story. Water Spider has leaned slightly to the south in the process of settling down and this leads to a disastrous flood in which the pueblo is sliced in two by the Zuni River. The people retreat to the heights in fear of the flood and ultimately survive only because they sacrifice two young people, whose rock-pillar forms still are seen. When the pueblo is restored, it is primarily that part of Halónawan on the north side, called Halóna Ítiwana.

With the rebuilding of Zuni Pueblo, the creation is done.