Western Religions

Published 13 Mar 2017

Any world culture has its own collection of tales relating the story of the world creation; they tell by whom and how the world was created and usually ascribe a particular role to the bearers of the culture in this process. Such early form of literature became known as mythology. Zuni were no different in this regard. The prehistory tribes of Zuni inhabited the territory of New Mexico. The Zuni origin myth gives us clues to how people come to live on the earth from underground. Zunis already exist when the narrative begins, but they live four worlds beneath the surface of the earth, in the womb of the Earth Mother, undeveloped and undifferentiated, however, rudimentary core of Zuni society is already present, in the rain priests and their sacred bundles or fetishes. The Sun Father sends his twin star sons down to bring the people from beneath the earth. When the twins arrive in the fourth underworld, the rain priests convene and agree to begin the process of emergence. It takes four attempts and the aid of insects or plants — trees, reeds, or prayer sticks — to move from one underworld to the next, the plants are used as ladders.

The Zunis seek the Middle of the World, that place where the natural, social, and spiritual elements of life are synchronized. On their first migrations, they acquire agriculture and the religious rites that control precipitation. The first corn seeds are provided by a witch, who emerges with the Zunis. The witch requires the death of a child in return for the seed. Four days later, however, the child is found alive again. This is the first statement of a contradiction elaborated throughout the myth, one central to agriculture: how death yields life. When plants are harvested or animals killed for food, death sustains life. When the old die, they make available resources for the young who replace them. Another change occurs to Zunis’ anatomy – the twins cut off their tails, slice their webbed hands and feet, and wash off their slime. They even provide the Zunis with mouths and anuses to allow them to eat and digest food. Having differentiated themselves from nature, the Zunis now begin to differentiate from each other. They are presented with a choice between two eggs. One of the eggs is a beautiful blue color, the other motley and unappealing. But when the blue egg hatches, a homely, unlucky crow appears and when the motley egg hatches, a beautiful macaw emerges. The people who choose the macaw travel to the south, the land of everlasting summer and become the “Lost Others.”

Those that choose the crow continue on the journey eastward. At this point, two temporary leaders are selected: a brother and sister, children of a rain priest. As they stop to rest the brother sexually violates his sister – children born of this union are the supernatural clowns. Enraged, the sister draws a line between two mountains to separate herself from her brother. A river flows between the mountains, into a lagoon, and this becomes Sacred Lake, which becomes the home for all deceased Zunis. As children try to cross that river they are turned into reptiles and then into marry, dancing spirits – kachina. As people proceed they meet giants who want to stop their search for Middle Place, but the star twins who appeared to be the gods of war help them and the people conquer their foes and continue their search. The Zunis eventually, after a number of crises which arose before the myth ends, settle in the Middle Place, in the shadow of Corn Mountain, alongside the Zuni River and became Zuni, the people of the town.

This myth gives us a number of hints of what was Zunis’ world view. For example as it was stated above they justified the death as integral element of living. Another example is that the evidence that people first had webbed limbs testifies to great probability of acceptance of living being evolution. Also this myth exhibits the strength and persistence of Zuni people to overcome the obstacles on the way to their aim. They also practice an allegoric re-emergence out of underground to the world surface which is described in the myth in every day life as they leave home as far as their habitation is constructed in such a way that they have to climb by a ladder connected to the floor and leading to the top were the entrance is located. This resembles a ritual of re-emergence that commenced millions years ago. This fact also indicates their perception of time as cyclic process. Through the myths they explain the repetition of seasons every year. Kachina spirits are also remembered by contemporary people, they arrange ritual dances wearing special masks. Through these dancing they try to communicate with people from Sacred Lake, the dead and furthermore they encourage weather to provide rain and give them good crops.

Zuni perceive spiritual and material world as a unity that means that they do not make difference between these spheres. To meet their gods they don’t evoke visions or communicate through dreams, they perform special ceremonies and rituals. In this feature the Shoshone differ from Zuni, as their religion is grounded on dreams and visions. Religious concepts were derived from a mythical cosmogony. Among the Shoshone, young men sought power beings through a visionary experience. There was a concept of soul-dualism among Shoshone groups. One soul represented vitality or life; the other was the individual as he was in a dream or vision state. During dreams or visions, the latter soul left the body and moved in the spirit realm. At death, both souls left the body. In Shoshone mythology the mythical animals such as wolf, coyote, rabbit, bear, and mountain lion, were believed to be the predecessors of the modern animals. They lived prior to Indian life, spoke and acted as people do in the present world. They created the world and were responsible for present-day topography, ecology, food resources, and seasons of the year. However, there are also some similar features shared by these two tribes. The same as Zuni Shoshone perform various ritual dances.

Other meso-American peoples, the Aztecs, also perceived the world and life as a complicated interconnection between supernatural forces and beings. They attributed to such notions as earth, mountains features of living being. As regards the Aztec cosmovision human life and destiny are in connection with supernatural forces and that is why people must obey different rituals and sacrifice forms to gain on gods’ disposition. They believed that human body was a transitory place for three spiritualistic forces – heat, the thing which inhales life to people, and breath. Each of these forces has its own center in human body, thus heat is in the person’s head, the second force is in the heart and breath is in the liver. Each force bestows certain abilities upon a person, for example, heat gives character and vital energy, the thing which inhales life remains with the body after person’s death and breath helps person to have various feelings like passion, hatred, happiness etc. So every person, in Aztec understanding, performs as a fusion of three forces due to which each person acquires his/her individual character. After person’s death these forces break their unity and act separately.

The obvious conclusion is that while living in a wild and full of danger world early peoples searched help with divine powers. The believes and religious traditions of the old tribes Zuni, Shoshone, Aztec and many others gave them specific wisdom that kept them in balance with nature and allowed them to survive in those circumstances.


  • Earhart, Byron H., editor, Religious Traditions of the World, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 1993
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