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Book No. 59

To first story in the book press: 2671

To last story in the book press: 2703

Zuñi Folk Tales

Cushing Frank Hamilton

Zuñi Folk Tales, Frank Hamilton Cushing, 1901






It is instructive to compare superstition with science. Mythology is the term used to designate the superstitions of the ancients. Folk-lore is the term used to designate the superstitions of the ignorant of today. Ancient mythology has been carefully studied by modern thinkers for purposes of trope and simile in the embellishment of literature, and especially of poetry; then it has been investigated for the purpose of discovering its meaning in the hope that some occult significance might be found, on the theory that the wisdom of the ancients was far superior to that of modern men. Now, science has entered this field of study to compare one mythology with another, and preeminently to compare mythology with science itself, for the purpose of discovering stages of human opinion.

When the mythology of tribal men came to be studied, it was found that their philosophy was also a mythology in which the mysteries of the universe were explained in a collection of tales told by wise men, prophets, and priests. This lore of the wise among savage men is of the same origin and has the same significance as the lore of Hesiod and Homer. It is thus a mythology in the early sense of that term. But the mythology of tribal men is devoid of that glamour and witchery born of poetry; hence it seems rude and savage in comparison, for example, with the mythology of the Odyssey, and to rank no higher as philosophic thought than the tales of the ignorant and superstitious which are called folk-lore; and gradually such mythology has come to be called folk-lore. Folk-lore is a discredited mythology – a mythology once held as a philosophy. Nowadays the tales of savage men, not being credited by civilized and enlightened men with that wisdom which is held to belong to philosophy, are called folk-lore, or sometimes folk-tales.

The folk-tales collected by Mr. Cushing constitute a charming exhibit of the wisdom of the Zuñis as they believe, though it may be but a charming exhibit of the follies of the Zuñis as we believe.

The wisdom of one age is the folly of the next, and the opinions of tribal men seem childish to civilized men. Then why should we seek to discover their thoughts? Science, in seeking to know the truth about the universe, does not expect to find it in mythology or folk-lore, does not even consider it as a paramount end that it should be used as an embellishment of literature, though it serves this purpose well. Modern science now considers it of profound importance to know the course of the evolution of the humanities; that is, the evolution of pleasures, the evolution of industries, the evolution of institutions, the evolution of languages, and, finally, the evolution of opinions. How opinions grow seems to be one of the most instructive chapters in the science of psychology. Psychologists do not go to the past to find valid opinions, but to find stages of development in opinions; hence mythology or folk-lore is of profound interest and supreme importance.

Under the scriptorial wand of Cushing the folktales of the Zuñis are destined to become a part of the living literature of the world, for he is a poet although he does not write in verse. Cushing can think as myth-makers think, he can speak as prophets speak, he can expound as priests expound, and his tales have the verisimilitude of ancient lore; but his sympathy with the mythology of tribal men does not veil the realities of science from his mind.

The gods of Zuñi, like those of all primitive people, are the ancients of animals, but we must understand and heartily appreciate their simple thought if we would do them justice. All entities are animals – men, brutes, plants, stars, lands, waters, and rocks – and all have souls. The souls are tenuous existences – mist entities, gaseous creatures inhabiting firmer bodies of matter. They are ghosts that own bodies. They can leave their bodies, or if they discover bodies that have been vacated they can take possession of them. Force and mind belong to souls; fixed form, firm existence belong to matter, while bodies and souls constitute the world. The world is a universe of animals. The stars are animals compelled to travel around the world by magic. The plants are animals under a spell of enchantment, so that usually they cannot travel. The waters are animals sometimes under the spell of enchantment. Lakes writhe in waves, the sea travels in circles about the earth, and the streams run over the lands. Mountains and hills tremble in pain, but cannot wander about; but rocks and hills and mountains sometimes travel about by night.

These animals of the world come in a flood of generations, and the first-born are gods and are usually called the ancients, or the first ones; the later-born generations are descendants of the gods, but alas, they are degenerate sons.

The theatre of the world is the theatre of necromancy, and the gods are the primeval wonderworkers; the gods still live, but their descendants often die. Death itself is the result of necromancy practised by bad men or angry gods.

In every Amerindian language there is a term to express this magical power. Among the Iroquoian tribes it is called orenda; among the Siouan tribes some manifestations of it are called wakan or wakanda, but the generic term in this language is hube. Among the Shoshonean tribes it is called pokunt. Let us borrow one of these terms and call it "orenda." All unexplained phenomena are attributed to orenda. Thus the venom of the serpent is orenda, and this orenda can pass from a serpent to an arrow by another exercise of orenda, and hence the arrow is charmed. The rattle-snake may be stretched beside the arrow, and an invocation may be performed that will convey the orenda from the snake to the arrow, or the serpent may be made into a witch's stew and the arrow dipped into the brew.

No man has contributed more to our understanding of the doctrine of orenda as believed and practised by the Amerindian tribes than Cushing himself. In other publications he has elaborately discussed this doctrine, and in his lectures he was wont to show how forms and decorations of implements and utensils have orenda for their motive.

When one of the ancients – that is, one of the gods – of the Iroquois was planning the streams of earth by his orenda or magical power, he determined to have them run up one side and down the other; if he had done this men could float up or down at will, by passing from one side to the other of the river, but his wicked brother interfered and made them run down on both sides; so orenda may thwart orenda.

The bird that sings is universally held by tribal men to be exercising its orenda. And when human beings sing they also exercise orenda; hence song is a universal accompaniment of Amerindian worship. All their worship is thus fundamentally terpsichorean, for it is supposed that they can be induced to grant favors by pleasing them.

All diseases and ailments of mankind are attributed by tribal men to orenda, and all mythology is a theory of magic. Yet many of the tribes, perhaps all of them, teach in their tales of some method of introducing death and disease into the world, but it is a method by which supernatural agencies can cause sickness and death.

The prophets, who are also priests, wonderworkers, and medicine-men, are called shamans in scientific literature. In popular literature and in frontier parlance they are usually called medicine-men. Shamans are usually initiated into the guild, and frequently there are elaborate tribal ceremonies for the purpose. Often individuals have revelations and set up to prophesy, to expel diseases, and to teach as priests. If they gain a following they may ultimately exert much influence and be greatly revered, but if they fail they may gradually be looked upon as wizards or witches, and they may be accused of black art, and in extreme cases may be put to death. All Amerindians believe in shamancraft and witchcraft.

The myths of cosmology are usually called creation myths. Sometimes all myths which account for things, even the most trivial, are called creation myths. Every striking phenomenon observed by the Amerind has a myth designed to account for its origin. The horn of the buffalo, the tawny patch on the shoulders of the rabbit, the crest of the blue-jay, the tail of the magpie, the sheen of the chameleon, the rattle of the snake, – in fact, everything that challenges attention gives rise to a myth. Thus the folk-tales of the Amerinds seem to be inexhaustible, for in every language, and there are hundreds of them, a different set of myths is found.

In all of these languages a strange similarity in cosmology is observed, in that it is a cosmology of regions or worlds. About the home world of the tribe there is gathered a group of worlds, one above, another below, and four more: one at every cardinal point; or we may describe it as a central world, an upper world, a lower world, a northern world, a southern world, an eastern world, and a western world. All of the animals of the tribes, be they human animals, tree animals, star animals, water animals (that is, bodies of water), or stone animals (that is, mountains, hills, valleys, and rocks), have an appropriate habitation in the zenith world, the nadir world, or in one of the cardinal worlds, and their dwelling in the center world is accounted for by some myth of travel to this world. All bodies and all attributes of bodies have a home or proper place of habitation; even the colors of the clouds and the rainbow and of all other objects on earth are assigned to the six regions from which they come to the midworld.

We may better understand this habit of thought by considering the folk-lore of civilization. Here are but three regions: heaven, earth, and hell. All good things come from heaven, and all bad things from hell. It is true that this cosmology is not entertained by scholarly people. An enlightened man thinks of moral good as a state of mind in the individual, an attribute of his soul, and a moral evil as the characteristic of an immoral man; but still it is practically universal for even the most intelligent to affirm by a figure of speech that heaven is the place of good, and hell the place of evil. Now, enlarge this conception so as to assign a place as the proper region for all bodies and attributes, and you will understand the cosmological concepts of the Amerinds.

The primitive religion of every Amerindian tribe is an organized system of inducing the ancients to take part in the affairs of men, and the worship of the gods is a system designed to please the gods, that they may be induced to act for men, particularly the tribe of men who are the worshipers. Time would fail me to tell of the multitude of activities in tribal life designed for this purpose, but a few of them may be mentioned. The first and most important of all are terpsichorean ceremonies and festivals. Singing and dancing are universal, and festivals are given at appointed times and places by every tribe. The long nights of winter are devoted largely to worship, and a succession of festival days are established, to be held at appropriate seasons for the worship of the gods. Thus there are festival days for invoking rain, there are festival days for thanksgiving – for harvest homes. In lands where the grasshopper is an important food there are grasshopper festivals. In lands where corn is an important food there are green-corn festivals; where the buffalo constituted an important part of their aliment there were buffalo dances. So there is a bear dance or festival, and elk dance or festival, and a multitude of other festivals as we go from tribe to tribe, all of which are fixed at times indicated by signs of the zodiac. In the higher tribes elaborate calendars are devised from which we unravel their picture-writings.

The practice of medicine by the shamans is an invocation to the gods to drive out evil spirits from the sick and to frighten them that they may leave. By music and dancing they obtain the help of the ancients, and by a great variety of methods they drive out the evil beings. Resort is often had to scarifying and searing, especially when the sick man has great local pains. All American tribes entertain a profound belief in the doctrine of signatures, – similia, similibus curantur, – and they use this belief in procuring charms as medicine to drive out the ghostly diseases that plague their sick folk.

Next in importance to terpsichorean worship is altar worship. The altar is a space cleared upon the ground, or a platform raised from the ground or floor of the kiva or assembly-house of the people. Around the altar are gathered the priests and their acolytes, and here they make prayers and perform ceremonies with the aid of altar-pieces of various kinds, especially tablets of picture-writings on wood, bone, or the skins of animals. The altar-pieces consist of representatives of the thing for which supplication is made: ears of corn or vases of meal, ewers of water, parts of animals designed for food, cakes of grasshoppers, basins of honey, in fine any kind of food; then crystals or fragments of rock to signify that they desire the corn to be hard, or of honeydew that they desire the corn to be sweet, or of corn of different colors that they desire the corn to be of a variety of colors. That which is of great interest to students of ethnology is the system of picture-writing exhibited on the altars. In this a great variety of things which they desire and a great variety of the characteristics of these things are represented in pictographs, or modeled in clay, or carved from wood and bone. The graphic art, as painting and sculpture, has its origin with tribal men in the development of altar-pieces. So also the drama is derived from primeval worship, as the modern practice of medicine has been evolved from necromancy.

There is another method of worship found in savagery, but more highly developed in barbarism, – the worship of sacrifice. The altar-pieces and the dramatic supplications of the lower stage gradually develop into a sacrificial stage in the higher culture. Then the objects are supposed to supply the ancients themselves with food and drink and the pleasures of life. This stage was most highly developed in Mexico, especially by the Nahua or Aztec, where human beings were sacrificed. In general, among the Amerinds, not only are sacrifices made on the altar, but they are also made whenever food or drink is used. Thus the first portions of objects designed for consumption are dedicated to the gods. There are in America many examples of these pagan religions, to a greater or less extent affiliated in doctrine and in worship with the religion of Christian origin.

In the early history of the association of white men with the Seneca of New York and Pennsylvania, there was in the tribe a celebrated shaman named Handsome Lake, as his Indian name is translated into English. Handsome Lake had a nephew who was taken by the Spaniards to Europe and educated as a priest. The nephew, on his return to America, told many Bible stories to his uncle, for he speedily relapsed into paganism. The uncle compounded some of these Bible stories with Seneca folk-tales, and through his eloquence and great influence as a shaman succeeded in establishing among the Seneca a new cult of doctrine and worship. The Seneca are now divided into two very distinct bodies who live together on the same reservation, – the one are "Christians," the other are "Pagans" who believe and teach the cult of Handsome Lake.

Mr. Cushing has introduced a hybrid tale into his collection, entitled "The Cock and the Mouse." Such tales are found again and again among the Amerinds. In a large majority of cases Bible stories are compounded with native stories, so that unwary people have been led to believe that the Amerinds are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.



November, 1901.

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