Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism. (Mythos Series)

Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism. (Mythos Series)

by Gladys Amanda Reichard

See All Formats & Editions

In this in-depth exploration of the symbols found in Navaho legend and ritual, Gladys Reichard discusses the attitude of the tribe members toward their place in the universe, their obligation toward humankind and their gods, and their conception of the supernatural, as well as how the Navaho achieve a harmony within their world through symbolic ceremonial practice.


In this in-depth exploration of the symbols found in Navaho legend and ritual, Gladys Reichard discusses the attitude of the tribe members toward their place in the universe, their obligation toward humankind and their gods, and their conception of the supernatural, as well as how the Navaho achieve a harmony within their world through symbolic ceremonial practice.

Originally published in 1963.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book has been a classic in its field since it was first issued in 1950, and it still stands as uniquely authoritative and intriguingly instructive. . . . [It is] a monument of revelation and insight bridging anthropology, religion, sociology, and history."Publishers Weekly
The reprinting on alkaline paper of the second edition (1963) of Reichard's classic study (first published in 1950) obliges many collections to secure a permanent duplicate. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Bollingen Series (General) Series
Product dimensions:
9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Navaho Religion

A Study of Symbolism

By Gladys Amanda Reichard


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01906-2



NAVAHO DOGMA is based upon a cosmogony that tries to account for everything in the universe by relating it to man and his activities. It assumes that even before man existed, the purpose for his appearance on the earth and his use of all nature's apparatus was formulated — by whom, no one knows. To the Navaho religion means ritual. Each ceremony has its own myth, a long account of deific decrees, from which it derives its authority. In it human activities are so co-ordinated with supernatural adventures and ritualistic explanations that the myth plot aids the chanter's memory. After the scene has been set and the plot developed, most legends become purely descriptive of the sacred properties and the accompanying ritual. The implied explanations must be elucidated by the chanter.

Mythological decree is just as real — that is, 'circumstantial '— to a Navaho as his dinner. Morgan, in his study of dreams about human wolves, bases some of his most important conclusions on a differentiation between circumstantial and imaginary or mythological evidence. My experience convinces me that evidence cannot be separated in this way. When any subject is discussed, whether a Navaho is ostensibly indifferent to religion or a fervent believer, at some point his only recourse is to tradition, especially when cause or purpose is involved.

The song, the myth, the material properties, the ritualistic acts, the rites that make up the ceremonies are held together by an elaborate system of symbolism, a sum total of numerous associations. Various phases of nature, life, and human activity have a place in this system. Before the symbolism, which is in a sense exotic, can be understood, some of the basic Navaho beliefs must, be examined.

One reason for the confusion is that the white man has gone about interpreting Navaho religion as if it were the same as his. Details that define Navaho beliefs, though perpetually surprising in their originality, are not confusing once the principles are grasped. The chant may sound like a jumble of diverse elements; places are introduced, gods characterized, ideals formulated by verbal, musical, and material symbols. Properties demand a wide knowledge of plants, animals, minerals. Tangible and intangible elements are interwoven in the sand- and figure-painting, dance and pantomime, accompanied by songs, drums, and rattles. A good chanter so integrates the innumerable details as to give an impression of a smooth sequence. As we probe deeper we come to comprehend in some degree how the co-ordination is brought about, but we are likely to conclude falsely that the whole thing is merely a feat of memory, not a system at all.

In Navaho religion no one thing has more absolute significance than another. "We may speak of 'high gods' as members of an elaborate pantheon, but Changing Woman or Sun is no more important at a particular moment than the humble roadrunner or a grain of corn. In the entire conceivable span of time the 'great gods' may perhaps dominate, for their power spreads over all space and time. Since, however, for the most part the ceremony is concerned with the specific moment, omnipotence and omnipresence are subordinate ideas, if indeed they exist as absolutes.

Although Navaho dogma stresses the dichotomy of good and evil, it does not set one off against the other. It rather emphasizes one quality or element in a being which in different circumstances may be the opposite. Sun, though 'great' and a 'god,' is not unexceptionally good. He seems always to have aimed to make the world fit for man's habitation. Why then did he father the monsters, the terrible creatures that long hindered the realization of this very purpose? The answer to this and other similar inconsistencies is that what is wholly good is merely an abstraction, a goal that man as an individual never attains. Everything except the concept itself may have some evil in it, but is classified as good if good prevails qualitatively or quantitatively. Similarly, few things are wholly bad; nearly everything can be brought under control, and when it is, the evil effect is eliminated. Thus evil may be transformed into good; things predominantly evil, such as snake, lightning, thunder, coyote, may even be invoked. If they have been the cause of misfortune or illness, they alone can correct it. Like cures like. Examples of good turned to evil are less common, yet when Changing-bear-maiden's lore, which was essentially good, was combined with the power of Coyote, which was innocent of control, it became evil. Good then in Navaho dogma is control. Evil is that which is ritually not under control. And supernatural power is not absolute but relative, depending upon the degree of control to which it is subjected. In short, definition depends upon emphasis, not upon exclusion.

For this reason such words as 'always,' 'never,' 'most important' are out of place in describing supernatural ideas, because no category is exclusive — all overlap or include exceptions. The classes of deity illustrate the monistic principle. The characterization of First Woman in some settings puts her in a class wholly evil, yet she, like Sun, seems to have had the vision of a world made for man, and the purpose of bringing it into being. When she withdrew from that world she said she would bring colds and similar afflictions, thereby allying herself with evil, yet the part she played in the creation and training of Changing Woman was totally good.

To illustrate further the position of a being in more than one category let us consider the chanter. Though by effort and training he may get control of supernatural power, he is not a success until he is that power. Before taking up the singer's course he is human; while learning to sing he identifies himself with the mythological heroes who experienced dangerous adventures in order to gain the power of the chant; as he intones their names and uses their symbols he becomes successively the Persuadable, the independable, even the Unpersuadable Deities; and as he uses the properties that stand for them he may become the Helper of Deity, of man, and even of the evil powers. According to a basic principle of Navaho ritual, identification, the chanter incorporates within himself the entire complex of godly notions and even has the power to make others like himself, that is, like gods. He is a center that receives power from all proper sources and distributes it to all worthy subscribers.

The Xavaho, though apparently specific, may actually be generalizing. They often give particular reasons for belief or ritual that may be identical with those given at other times to explain other things. For example, to the question what would happen if a man looked at his mother-in-law, the invariable answer is: "He wouldn't feel good. He would go crazy and act like a moth at the fire." This seems a distinctive enough punishment until we learn that the same fate is in store for anyone who breaks an incest rule, who sees a ghost, or wittingly desecrates a sacred object. It is indeed a general penalty for breaking familiar taboos.

Again we may be misled into jumping to conclusions concerning the character of certain supernaturals or their functions when we read for the first time that someone, let us say Coyote, "will have charge of dark cloud, heavy rain, dark mist, gentle rain, and vegetation of all kinds." It seems a lot when we consider how thoroughly Coyote is despised. Then we find that, at a time when his power was requested and he obdurately refused, the gods offered to put him in charge of darkness, daylight, heavy rain, gentle rain, corn, vegetation of all kinds, thunder, and the rainbow, and he accepted. This list is not too different from the first, and at least concerns the same individual. Continuing the analysis of mythology we find that Frog, who was beaten in a race by Rainboy, was recompensed for the loss of his body by the return of his feet, legs, and gait, and by being put in charge of 'dark cloud, heavy (male) rain, dark mist, gentle rain, and holiness wherever they may be and further, that Rainboy, after initiation, was put in charge of 'heavy and gentle rain, snow, and ice.' By this time we may well ask, "Who is in charge of rain?," for Changing Woman too has charge of female rain and vegetation of all kinds. We must, therefore, conclude that despite the precise specification, these promises are stereotyped, signifying, "We shall give you our best if you will help us"; in other words, they are actually a rationalization or systemization. No particular being is in charge of rain, because one is dependent upon another.

The confusion of analogical thought should constantly be kept in mind when a classification is being studied. When the Navaho says two things, which turn out to be very different, are the 'same,' 'similar,' he is not avoiding the truth, but construing the words with meaning entirely different from ours. The primary meaning of 'alike' in Navaho is 'used for the same purpose,' 'having the same function' — analogous rather than homologous. Consequently, things may be ' alike ' when they are symbolically associated or complementary.

Several characteristics of the Navaho language frequently cause misunderstanding. Words may be bipolar; that is, a word may have a meaning obvious in a particular context, and in another setting the opposite. An element that means 'up' may also mean 'down'; one that at times means 'on' or 'upon' may mean 'off' or 'off from on'; 'from (there)' frequently means 'to here, hither.' Hence, good may sometimes be evil and vice versa.

Another linguistic habit, of considering a whole, all, or any one of its parts as the 'same,' affects classification. For example, djic means 4 medicine bundle as a container,' 'medicine bundle with all its contents,' 'contents of medicine bundle,' or a 'separate item of a medicine bundle.' The chanter knows perfectly well that the hide or muslin wrapper is not the ' same ' as the bull-roarer, that the ' wide board ' differs greatly from the talking prayersticks or from the otterskin collar, yet in certain circumstances each is djic. He is acutely aware of the context and, therefore, of 'sameness' and 'difference,' whereas his questioner is unable to determine the meaning because he is ignorant of the cultural context.

Aware of diversity in interpretation, the conscientious investigator does not take as final a Navaho's statement that another prayerstick, another rite, another song, is the same as the one he has seen or heard. By attending the second day's performance as well as the first and, subsequently, the third and fourth, he gets his most valuable data. Compiling the details day by day is very different from comparing elements from various chants only, although eventually we must do that too.

The following examples are given in some detail in an attempt to make the reader realize that a revamping of assumptions is essential if Navaho categories are to be compared with our own. On the day Wyman saw the sandpainting illustrated in An Introduction to Navaho Chant Practice, Figure 23, he asked what painting would be used the next day. "Just like this, only blue," was the reply. The next day the painting was that of Figure 24 of the same work, a picture much more complicated and with many different features; even similar details in the second painting were colored differently from those in the first. Both had the same function, but the second elaborated on the themes of the first.

In the field of ethnobotany, Wyman corroborates my conclusion. Defining the terms 'Navaho family' and 'Navaho genus' he writes: "The Navajo think of plants as falling into large categories according to their use (purpose or method). ... They regard the species in a category as being definitely related in some way, although the same species may sometimes belong to more than one category. In a few instances, these groups do contain a number of species from the same botanical family, although this is because they have similar morphological or pharmacological properties. ... A Navajo [botanical] family may be named for the ceremonial in which the constituent species are used; the etiological factor held responsible for the disease treated with the herbs; the disease or disease group itself ...; the supposed pharmacological effect of the herbs; the method of preparation for use; the method of administration. Family names may be combinations of these factors."

Much attention has been devoted to classifying Navaho ceremonies, but it is difficult to reconcile such statements from informants and texts as: "The Shooting Chant is the same as the Hail Chant. ... Everything [in the Hail and Water chants] is exactly the same. ... Our paintings, prayer-sticks, tobacco pouches, bundle properties, our rattles are alike."

A superficial glance at the myth or any part of the ritual of the Shooting, Hail, or Water chants shows marked differences in the elements specifically mentioned. The purpose, however, is the same; afflictions caused by lightning, hail, and water are felt to be so similar and the association among the symbols of the three chants so close that one may be substituted for another.

The chant name is another case in point. The choice is arbitrary; one item of an associated group is just as likely to be selected as another. The places, times, functions, and origins from which chant names may be chosen are infinite. The name selected for a particular chant may combine many associations, either of the chant symbols or of symbols representing a cross section of the dogma.

'Shooting Chant' is a short form of na'atoe', 'concerning-the-shooting-of-objects-that-move-in-zigzags.' Lightning, snake, arrow, or indeed any one of many other names might have been chosen; all indicate what the chant stresses. Hail stands for things injured by cold storms. Most storms are accompanied by lightning and wind, but summer storms with hail are less usual, as are winter storms accompanied by lightning. Consequently, a chant is differentiated from the Shooting and the Wind chants, by its distinctive symbols related to hail; at the same time these symbols are associated with the main symbols of the other chants. Unlike the Shooting, Hail, Wind, and Water chants, the Bead Chant gets its name from the major conflict of the explanatory myth, whose purpose was to obtain valuable ornaments symbolized by the word 'bead'; the Endurance Chant from its chief episode, a race between the powers of evil, represented by Changing-bear-maiden, and the power of good, symbolized by Youngest Brother.

What for many years has been called the Mountain Chant is named for the dwelling place of the many spirits the chant invokes, summarized by Bear, Snake, and Porcupine, The Night Chant, which supersedes all others, is named for the time during which a major performance, the dance of the masked gods, is held. Another common name for the Night Chant, Grandfather-of-the-gods (γé'i' bitcei'), refers to Talking God, leader of the dance.

The freedom of association illustrated by sandpaintings and chant names indicates the existing confusion similar to that which accompanies an attempt to classify disease, and is comparable with that which arose in classifying plants. Since the ideal is well-being, one of the most frequently encountered irregularities is bad health. Causes of disease are fixed by analogy; medically and ritualistically determined causes coincide only by accident. A ceremony may be recommended to drive away fear, to cure symptoms — colds, fever, sore throat, fatigue, itching, lameness, rheumatism — and, since disharmony may show up in ways other than illness, the same ceremony may be held to attract the good offices of animals, rain, and the protective gods. Although disease is included, it is by no means the chant's exclusive purpose; affinity with our medical terms, if there is any, is fortuitous. The ceremonies should, therefore, be classified on magical-associational, rather than medical, principles.

The Bead Chant is said to be sung for skin irritations, yet RP sang it for a young man who had some serious abdominal trouble and no itching. According to Kluckhohn and Wyman, the Bead, Eagle, Feather, Wind, and Awl chants were sung for head affections. The Night Chant is supposed to be especially effective as a cure for insanity, deafness, and paralysis; the Mountain and Hand Trembling chants purport to cure mental uneasiness and nervousness — ailments not further defined. The Shooting Chant is armor against diseases caused by snakes, lightning, and arrows, but the Wind Chant features snakes as extensively; it protects against their power and the harm of storms.

A few mythical examples illustrate the ease with which the Navaho make comparisons by selecting similars and minimizing contrasts:

A wandering clan, People-of-the-large-vucca-place, affiliated with the dzil náxodilni' because their red arrow holders, similar to shawl straps, looked much alike.

The People-of-base-of-the-mountain, finding that they had headdresses, bows, arrows, and arrow cases similar to those of the tane'szahni', concluded that they were 'close' relatives. These two clans have since been so intimately affiliated that their members may not intermarry.

When the People-of-water's-edge met the People-of-the-mud-place, they noticed that their names had much the same meaning and that their headdresses and accouterments were alike. They therefore became great friends, but not so 'close' that their members could not intermarry.

Traditionally the Navaho were willing to make clan affinities on the basis of comparable traits; today they readily accept friendship and co-operation by pointing out analogies.


Excerpted from Navaho Religion by Gladys Amanda Reichard. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews