Myths & Legends



Navajo:  The Creation

Navajo: The Creation

The Navajo creation myth describes the prehistoric emergence of the Navajo nation. A rich narrative with many allegorical references.
— Orly

In the world below there was no sun and no moon, and therefore no light, yet vegetation in innumerable forms and the animal people thrived. Among the latter were Gray Wolf people, Naklétso; Mountain Lion, Nashtuítso; Badger, Naaschí̆d; Locust, Wónĕschĭdĭ; Pine Squirrel, Klozĕslskái and Klozĕslzhí̆nĭ; Blue Fox, Mai-Dotlí̆shĭ; Yellow Fox, Mai-Iltsói; Owl, Náscha; Crow, Gấgĕ; Buzzard, Jésho; four different varieties of the Hawk people, and many others.

Their world was small. At its eastern rim stood a large white mountain, and at the south a blue one. These formed the home of Ástsĕ Hástĭn, First Man. A yellow mountain in the west and a black one in the north harbored Ástsĕ Ĕstsán, First Woman. Near the mountain in the east a large river had its source and flowed toward the south. Along its western bank the people lived in peace and plenty. There was game in abundance, much corn, and many edible fruits and nuts. All were happy. The younger women ground corn while the boys sang songs and played on flutes of the sunflower stalk. The men and the women had each eight chiefs, four living toward each cardinal point; the chiefs of the men lived in the east and south, those of the women in the west and north. The chiefs of the east took precedence over those of the south, as did those of the west over those of the north.

One day, led by their eight brave chiefs, all the men went off on a hunt. It occurred to the head-chief when they had been gone but a short time that the women should have been instructed to clean the camp thoroughly and bake a quantity of bread while all the men were away; so he dispatched the youngest of the four chiefs of the south to the camp to make known his wishes, but instead of doing as bidden, the young chief visited with the head-chief's wife. The hunters were gone four days, at the end of which time they returned with much game, weary and very hungry. To their surprise they found the camp in a very unkempt condition and no bread baked in anticipation of their return. The messenger was called before the head-chief at once and questioned as to the directions he had given the women. He explained that he had told the chief of the women what they were expected to do, but she refused to listen to him, and he was powerless to do more. Then the head-chief went to his wife and demanded to know why she had refused to issue his orders to the women. She curtly replied that that was her business and not his; as it was, the women did more work than the men, for they tilled the fields, made the clothing, cared for the children, and did the cooking, while the men did practically nothing, so if they chose to spend a few days in idleness, it was nothing more than they had a right to do and no one's concern but their own. The chief became angry, and during a quarrel that ensued he was told that he and all his followers might leave if they would, for the women could get along better without them.

Remonstrance and reasoning availed nothing; the chief of the women grew more vehement as she argued, so the head-chief determined to put the women to the test. The following morning he issued orders that all the men in camp prepare to depart, for the women had declared they could live better independently of them and were to be given an opportunity to do so.

Having decided to cross the great river flowing from the east, work at once began on four large cottonwood rafts to be used as ferries. Four days it took to put all in readiness, and at dawn of the fifth day the crossing of the stream began. Orders were issued that all food supplies, clothing, and utensils be left with the women, save enough seed corn to plant crops the next spring, and no males, infant or aged, were to be left behind. Four nú̆tlĭ (hermaphrodites) objected strongly at being taken from the women, but were forced to join the men, as they were needed to care for the babies. Four old cripples, too weak to move, were left behind, but other than these not a male inhabitant remained in the old village at the end of four days. After all had crossed the river, the rafts were fastened securely to the bank in order that the women might not get them and follow.

As soon as the men had landed they began to work with zeal, for houses had to be built, game caught, skins tanned, and land prepared for crops. They suffered much from scarcity of food and clothing the first winter, but managed to exist. The women, however, had bountiful crops, and all through the late fall and winter could be heard reveling in great delight, feasting daily and dancing much of the time to the music of songs sung by the four old cripples. The following autumn found the men in much better circumstances, for they had grown small crops; but the women were less fortunate. Having none but themselves to work and provide for, they had become negligent from the beginning, dissipating the contents of their granaries and allowing their fields to grow fallow. By the end of the second year clothing had become very scarce, and not knowing how to hunt, they had no way to obtain more skins. The men, on the contrary, had grown more prosperous; their well-tended farms yielded an ample supply of corn for the winter, and the pelts of deer and antelope furnished a deal of warm clothing and bedding. The third year found the men living in ease and comfort, while the women had become reduced to absolute want, many having fallen ill from self-neglect. They called across to the men, pleading to be taken over and promising faithful allegiance, but the chief was resolute and refused to forget how he had been wronged.

Then it was that the youngest of the eight ruling men, in a moment of compassion, confessed his guilt, admitting in a plea to the head-chief for clemency that he was in fact responsible for the attitude his wife had taken. This served only to renew the old chief's anger; he stoutly refused to listen to further appeals and expressed his regret that the first seeds of wrong should have been thus sown. No longer able to keep up the fight, with starvation staring them in the face, and being in nakedness, at the end of the fourth year the women attempted to swim the river in parties, but the attempts resulted only in death, for the swift current would have been too much even for the strongest men to buffet. Seeing this self-sacrifice and realizing that the race would be ultimately exterminated if the women continued it much longer, appeals were made daily to the head-chief to permit the rescue of the remainder. Four times was he sought to grant such permission before he consented, then at dawn of the fifth morning he gave directions to loose the rafts and ferry the women over. A miserable remnant they were, unclad, wan, and wasted; but a return to the old habits of life soon restored them to their former selves, and peace, happiness, and prosperity reigned again.

The broad river that flowed from the east had its source in two very large springs, a he-spring and a she-spring, in which lived two large Water Monsters. These had a pair of youngsters who delighted in emerging from the depths of the spring and swimming out across the meadows in the shallow water where there was neither current nor river banks. Coyote spied them one day, and being ever a meddler and trouble-maker—though withal a fellow of polished mien—stole them, putting the two under the folds of his jacket.

Now there was no sun, moon, or stars to give light; but in the east every morning appeared White Dawn four fingers high. The midday was lighted by Blue Dawn in the south, and late afternoon by Yellow Dawn from the west. The north remained always dark. On the morning following Coyote's return from his trip to the east, ostensibly to discover, if possible, the source of the dawn, the head-chief noticed that it was not so broad as usual—only three fingers high, with a dark streak beneath. A Wolf man was sent to learn what was wrong. He hurried off, returning at nightfall with the report that all was well in the east. The next morning White Dawn was much narrower and the darkness beneath had increased. A Mountain Lion messenger was despatched to seek the cause. He reported everything in normal condition, but those in camp noticed deer in the distance travelling westward at a rapid pace. The third morning the belt of darkness was wider than White Dawn, which now gave an alarmingly dim light. The chief then sent White Hawk to investigate the trouble, under orders of haste. His report, like that of each of the other messengers, was that nothing unusual appeared in the east. More deer, antelope, and other game animals, however, were seen running westward in apparent fright.

On the fourth morning White Dawn was entirely obscured; nothing but darkness appeared in the east. Sparrow-hawk sped away, returning in a very brief time with the report that water was fast rising in the two springs at the head of the river and might soon spread westward in a great devastating wave. Instantly the camp became a scene of commotion. Quickly gathering together what corn and other seeds they could carry, the people started in haste for the White Mountain in the east. On reaching the top they saw the waters climbing rapidly up the eastern slope, so they descended and ran to the Blue Mountain in the south, taking with them handfuls of earth from its crest, and from its base a reed with twelve sections, which a Wolf man carried.

From the top of the Blue Mountain it was seen that the wave of water, fast approaching, would submerge them, so snatching handfuls of earth from it they hurried on to the Yellow Mountain in the west. The oncoming wave seemed higher than ever, so again they ran on, this time toward the north, where the Black Mountain stood, taking as before handfuls of earth and another reed, entrusted to Mountain Lion. Here the water surrounded them and slowly crept up the sides of the mountain. The female reed from the west was planted on the western side near the top, the male reed from the east on the eastern slope, and both at once began to shoot upward rapidly. Into the twelve internodes of the female reed climbed all the women, while the men made haste to get into theirs. Turkey being the last to get in, the foamy waters caught his tail, whitening the tips of the feathers, which are so to this day.

The reeds grew very rapidly, but equally fast rose the waters around them. Four days the reeds grew thus, at the end of the fourth day meeting at the sky. This seemed an impenetrable barrier for a time, but Locust had taken with him his bow of darkness and sacred arrows. With these he made a hole in the sky and passed on into the world above—the present earth.

The earth was small, devoid of vegetation of any kind, and covered in greater part by water in which lived four Monsters with great blue horns. These had their homes at the cardinal points, and just as soon as Locust made his appearance arrows came whizzing at him from all quarters. Failing to harm him with their arrows, which he dodged with ease, the Monsters bade him leave at once, threatening immediate death if he tarried; adding that visitors were not desired and were always destroyed at sight.

Locust replied that he intended no harm, but would insist upon remaining with them for a time, for he had many followers for whom he was seeking a home. Seeing that Locust had no fear of them and had proved too agile to be hit with arrows, the Monsters sought to kill him by trickery. Each took two heavy arrows, swallowed them, and pulled them out through their flanks, saying, "Do this and you may remain." Locust followed their example, escaping unharmed.

"Now," said he, "I did your trick, let me ask you to do one of mine." Then taking four sacred arrows he passed them transversely through his chest, back and forth, one at a time. As he pulled each arrow out the second time he passed it to one of the four Monsters, saying, "If you can do this, my people will not come; if not, then I shall send for them and we shall all make this our home." Each placed an arrow to his chest and pushed, but cringed with pain as soon as it penetrated the skin. Fearing the Monsters might not proceed, Locust quickly blew toward each of the arrows, which shot through their bodies, instantly killing them. In the east now flows Red river, made red by the blood of these Monsters; and holes yet remain through the thorax of the locust.

Impatient at the delay in Locust's return, Badger climbed through the hole in the sky and followed the tracks to where Locust had been in controversy with the slain Monsters. Seeing their bodies lying out in the shallow water, he thought he would go over and inspect them, but he sank into the soft black mud, which made him retreat. The mud blackened his legs, which have remained the same to this day.

With a large stone knife Locust cut off the horns of the Monsters one by one. With those from the one toward the east he made a long sweep with his arm in that direction, and in the distance sprang up an ocean. In like manner he formed oceans to the south, west, and north with the horns of the remaining three. The creation of rivers followed: with a wave of the hand the Rio Grande, the San Juan, the Colorado, the Little Colorado, and others were made. Hair pulled from the bodies of the Monsters was tossed to the winds and from it sprang frogs, snakes, lizards, and reptiles of every kind.

While Locust was doing this the remainder of the people came up. They stood about on the small bare spots of ground wondering what to do. Among them were the four Winds (Ní̆lchi), Black, Blue, Yellow, and White. Each blew toward his respective cardinal point and soon much of the water dried up, leaving a quantity of bare land. But not a sign of vegetation was there at any hand; all was as barren as the desert sands. Luckily each had brought seeds of many kinds from the world below. These they began planting, finishing the task in four days.

After the planting, First Man, First Woman, Wolf Chief, and Mountain Lion Chief each made a speech advising the creation of a number of mountains similar to the ones they had had in the lower world. This was agreeable to all, and accordingly the work was begun. The handfuls of earth caught up hurriedly from the tops of the mountains below as they were driven off by the rising flood were taken to the cardinal points and deposited in the same relative positions, an equal distance apart, as were the submerged mountains from which the earth had been taken. First Sí̆snajĭnĭ, the White Mountain, was made in the east; then Tsótzĭlh, the Blue Mountain, in the south; next Dokóöslit, the Yellow Mountain, in the west, and lastly Dĕpé̆nsa, the Black Mountain, in the north. Having yet portions of each handful of earth remaining, two more mountains, called Chóĭli and Tzĭlhnúhodĭhlĭ, were made near the point of emergence in the middle of the rectangle formed by the creation of the other four. To give each mountain color, white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet were used for those at the cardinal points, while the middle two were colored with a mixture of all these substances.

When the mountains were finished and the people looked about, it was proposed that a sky should be made to cover the earth. "But," said one, "what of the earth itself; is it not too small to furnish food for the people who shall later come to live upon it?" None had thought of this, but reflection, followed by a discussion, brought them all to the one opinion—they would enlarge the earth and at the same time spread the sky above. Accordingly, the chief who had spoken asked if anyone had a piece of turquoise weighing as much as a man, and the skin of a large male deer which had been smothered to death in pollen. First Man answered that he had. A large white shell and the skin of a doe which had been smothered in pollen were next requested. First Woman responded with them. The two skins were then placed on the ground, side by side, with their heads toward the east. Upon the one was put the turquoise and a piece of abalone shell; on the other the white shell and a pearl. First Man and First Woman then called for Kósdĭlhkĭh, Black Cloud, and Ádĭlhkĭh, Black Fog. These came and spread out over the skins four times each, lifting and settling each time. When Fog lifted the last time it took up with it the skin with the turquoise and abalone and began to expand, spreading wider and wider until a blue film covered all, in the form of the sky. As the turquoise skin expanded, so also did the white-shell skin, broadening the earth as it grew. During this period of transition the people all travelled eastward, and being Holy People, covered great distances each day. At the end of the fourth day they stopped. Then also the sky and the earth ceased widening, having reached their present dimensions. Since the two skins had been placed with their heads toward the east, the heads of the sky and the earth are now in that direction.

As yet there was neither sun nor moon to shed light, only dawn, circling the horizon in the four colors—white in the east, blue in the south, yellow in the west, and black in the north. Deeming it necessary that they should have light to brighten the world, and warmth for the corn and the grass, on their return to the earth's centre one of the chiefs made a speech advocating the creation of a sun and a moon.

First Man and First Woman placed two sacred deerskins on the ground as before. On the buckskin a shell of abalone was placed, on the doeskin a bowl made of pearl. The shell contained a piece of clear quartz crystal, and the bowl a moss agate. The objects were dressed respectively in garments of white, blue, yellow, and black wind, and were carried to the end of the land in the east by First Man and First Woman. With their spirit power Ástsĕ Hástĭn and Ástsĕ Ĕstsán sent both the shell and the bowl far out over the ocean, giving life to the crystal and the agate as they did so, directing that the one who would be known as Chĕhonaái, the Sun, should journey homeward through the sky by day, shedding light and warmth as he passed; the other, Klĕhonaái, the Moon, must travel the same course by night. To each were given homes of turquoise in the east and west, and none but the Winds and the gods, Hasché̆ltĭ and Haschógan, were to visit them.

Upon their return Ástsĕ Hástĭn and Ástsĕ Ĕstsán were asked if they would leave the sky in so plain a condition, or if they intended to beautify it with jewels. They replied that it was their intention to dot it with many bright stars. All those who had bits of white shell, turquoise, crystal, pearl, or abalone were directed to contribute them for the making of the stars. These were placed upon the two deerskins by First Man and First Woman. The seven stars of the Great Dipper, Nôhokos Bakú̆n, were the first to be set in the sky. Next, those of Nóhokos Baád, his female complement, were placed in the blue dome. Then followed Ĕté̆tso and Ĕtĕtsózĭ, Sóntso and Sontsózĭ, and Dílgĕhĕt, the Small Dipper, Sonhótsĭ and Klĕkái Stáĭ, the Milky Way.

In each instance the arrangement of the stars in the constellation was made when the fragments of precious stones were placed upon the skins, where Ástsĕ Hástĭn and Ástsĕ Ĕstsán imparted glowing light to them and delivered them to the Winds to carry to the sky. Only a small portion of the gems had been thus transformed and sent up, when a fine-looking, well-dressed stranger came up to watch the proceedings. In reply to his question as to what was being done, his attention was directed to the sun, the moon, and the many stars already created, while more were soon to follow. The man was Coyote, son of Darkness. He watched the work for a time, when, seeing his chance, he caught the large deerskin containing the pile of jewel fragments and flung it skyward, blowing into the bits four times ere they could fall, scattering them all over the sky. Thus it is that there are myriads of stars irregular in arrangement and without names. As he strode off Coyote explained curtly that there were already enough sacred things to worship.

Then the Winds were stationed at the horizon to guard the earth, and at the four sacred mountains in the east, south, west, and north, to act as messengers for the Hasché̆ltĭ and Haschógan—Talking Gods and House Gods—who had their abodes on them. On the same plane, one behind the other, the Winds were ranged in streaks, White, Blue, Yellow, and Black. Outside of all Coyote placed a streak of Red Wind. This forced itself to the inside many years later and gave rise to disease and premature death, for as the good Winds are life-breathing, so the evil Winds are life-taking. Even now the Red Wind takes the lives of many children every year.

The Dĭgí̆n made their homes near Chóĭli, close to the place of emergence. It was there that all ceremonies took place. From their homes the people saw a dark Cloud settle and cover the top of Chóĭli. For four days it kept lowering until the mountain was completely shrouded in dark blue fog. They did not know whether it portended good or evil, but realized that something of moment was at hand. Ástsĕ Hástĭn ascended the mountain through the fog to learn what it meant, but found nothing unusual. As he turned to descend, a faint, apparently distant cry reached his ears, but he paid no heed. Ere long the same sound came to him again; then a third and a fourth time, whereupon he turned and walked in the direction whence it came. On the eastern slope he found a tiny baby, and wrapping it in rays of sunbeams he carried it home to his wife.

The Cloud that descended was a portion of the sky which had come to meet the Earth; from the union of the two Yólkai Ĕstsán, White-Shell Woman, was born. In twelve days the baby had grown to maturity, subsisting on pollen only. Ástsĕ Hástĭn and Ástsĕ Ĕstsán sent messengers to all the Dĭgín to tell them of the marvel and to summon them to a ceremony which would be held four days later. Word was sent also to the gods on the four sacred mountains.

Ástsĕ Ĕstsán dressed Yólkai Ĕstsán in fine garments ornamented with beautiful jewels. At the western side of her hogán she placed a sacred deerskin and laid upon it several wool and cotton blankets, covering the whole with a mountain-lion skin. These were arranged as the seat of honor for White-Shell Woman, for whom was about to be held a ceremony celebrating her maturity.

On the appointed day all assembled. The first matter to decide was the number of songs to be sung. Some wished fourteen, others thought twelve sufficient. Hasché̆ltĭ, Talking God, sang the songs and chose to sing fourteen. When he had finished, each of the Holy People sang six songs, making in all two hundred and eighty-two. An entire night was thus consumed. At dawn Ástsĕ Ĕstsán came into the hogán with a white-shell bowl containing yucca root, a black tózŭs, or water bottle, containing black rain, and a blue one with blue rain. From each bottle she poured a little water upon the yucca root and proceeded to wash Yólkai Ĕstsán and all her finery. That done, Yólkai Ĕstsán was directed to run toward the rising sun for a short distance and return. Many of the young people followed, a chosen singer chanting eight songs during their absence. The ceremony finished, the assemblage returned to their homes, each of the selected singers taking one of the blankets from the seat in return for his services.

Although all the people then on earth were of the Dĭgí̆n, only a few had god-like powers, particularly First Man, First Woman, Yólkai Ĕstsán, and the Winds. The lesser Holy Ones worked much in clay, making pottery and adobe houses. The designs they used in their earthenware, however, were of a sacred nature, to be used only in ceremonials, and when the Fox, Wolf, Badger, Bird, and many other people repeatedly employed sacred symbols to adorn their cooking pots, First Man and his wife became very angry and called a council, which, in addition to themselves, was attended by Chĕhonaái, Yólkai Ĕstsán, and Ní̆lchi, the Wind People.

The wicked people had homes throughout the land, many of which were built of stone, upon the plains, and others in the cliffs. The councillors decided that these people and their homes must be destroyed, but how to effect this was a problem.

First Woman and Chĕhonaái thought it would be wise to give birth to demoniac monsters and let them devour the evil ones, but First Man objected, and finally the council agreed that the Winds should perform the task by bringing forth a devastating storm. The faithful were warned and given time to seek refuge under the water, inside the sacred mountains, in the higher cliffs, and in the sky. Then the Winds came. For four days terrific storms raged, hurling men and trees and houses through the air like leaves. When they abated hundreds of houses lay in ruins which may yet be traced by heaps of stones scattered throughout the Navaho country.

Soon another council of the same dictators was called, this time to discuss how more people might be created. First Man sent Wind messengers to bring Black Fog Boy and Black Cloud Girl, Precious Stone Boy and Precious Stone Girl, White Corn Boy and Yellow Corn Girl, Blue Corn Boy and All-Color Corn Girl, Pollen Boy and Cricket Girl, and Rain Boy and Rain Girl. These twelve were laid side by side on four sacred deerskins and covered with four others. The Spirit Winds of the west came and blew between the skins; the Spirit Winds of the east came and blew also; then came Hasché̆ltĭ from the east, with rainbows in his hand, calling "Wu-hu-hu-hu-u"; and Haschógan from the south, with sunbeams in his hand. They walked up and gently tapped the skins with their bows and beams. Hasché̆ltĭ of the west and Haschógan of the north came next and gently tapped the skins. Then the skins lifted, revealing twelve beautiful young people perfectly formed. Ástsĕ Hástĭn bade them arise and stand, and then with Hasché̆ltĭ in the lead and Haschógan behind, they four times encircled the sacred mountains Chóĭli and Tzĭlhnúhodĭhlĭ, halting close to the hole whence the Holy People emerged. There Ástsĕ Hástĭn made them an extended speech, telling them that they had been brought forth from the elements to people the earth; that they must rear children and care for them as kind fathers and mothers, teaching them to be good to one another; and that it would be necessary for them to plant corn and other seeds at once. The Dĭgí̆n, First Man continued, were about to leave, to go into the rivers, the oceans, the cliffs, the mountains, off to the horizon, and to the sky, but they would ever keep watch over their people and would help those who showed them respect and reverence in prayer and song. To Yólkai Ĕstsán was entrusted future guardianship of the people. It would be her duty to furnish the he-rain and the she-rain, to fructify all crops, and bring forth abundant grass and seeds.

Then the Dĭgí̆n took their departure, vanishing the people knew not whither. Yólkai Ĕstsán turned westward to her whiteshell home on the horizon, far out across the wide waters. Arriving there she determined to make a few more people. Cuticle rubbed from her body, with bits of white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, she placed between two sacred deerskins, male and female, and called for the Spirit Winds of the east, the Spirit Winds of the west, Hasché̆ltĭ and Haschógan, who came and breathed upon and tapped the deerskins as once before, and lo! there arose four pairs of people.

Each pair was given a walking-stick—one of white shell to one, staffs of turquoise, abalone, and jet respectively to the others. Black Fog and Black Cloud came and spread out over the water. Upon these the new people took up their journey eastward to join others like themselves. For four days they travelled on Fog and Cloud, reaching the earth at the end of the fourth day, where, on the following day, they were welcomed by Chĕhonaái, the Sun. There, too, the Bear, the Wolf, the Great Snake, the Mountain Lion, the Weasel, and the Porcupine met them at the direction of Yólkai Ĕstsán, to guard them on their long land journey. The Lightning also she made, to protect them from above.

They journeyed eastward, stopping to camp and rest at the end of the first day. For water they had but to prod the earth with their walking-sticks and a spring gushed forth. The first of the four, the man of White Shell, stuck his staff into the ground and water came up at once. "The water is close," he remarked, from which speech he took his name, for the others henceforth called him To Ahánĭ, Water Is Close. The following night the Turquoise Woman brought water, but it was bitter, so she said, from which fact she took her name of To Dĭchínĭ, Bitter Water. The man who tried for water on the third night found only a muddy flow, so the others called him Hashklí̆shnĭ, Mud. The fourth night they camped in sight of the Dĭné̆ (Navaho) whom they had come to join. The woman of the fourth pair called attention to the houses in the caves, after which they called her Kí̆nya Ánĭ, Houses in the Cliffs.

The following day they were welcomed by the twelve who had been created and given dominion over the land but a short time before, and from these twenty have the pure-blood Navaho descended.


Source:  E. S. C. [1]
Culture:  Navajo
Language Group:  Athabaskan


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