Zuni: Poshaiankia and the Prey Gods

The Zuni fable of Prometheus, Poshaiankia the bringer of civilization, with parallels to Quetzalcoatl, and a discussion of the prey gods.

The prey gods, through their relationship to Pó-shai-aŋ-k’ia, as “Makers of the Paths of Life,” are given high rank among the gods. With this belief, their fetiches are held “as in captivity” by the priests of the various medicine orders, and greatly venerated by them as mediators between themselves and the animals they represent. In this character they are exhorted with elaborate prayers, rituals, and ceremonials. Grand sacrifices of plumed and painted prayer-sticks (Téthl-na-we) are made annually by the “Prey Brother Priesthood” (Wé-ma á-pa-pa á-shi-wa-ni) of these medicine societies, and at the full moon of each month lesser sacrifices of the same kind by the male members of the “Prey gentes” (Wé-ma á-no-ti-we) of the tribe.

A look at this pantheon.
— Orly

The myth concerning Pó-shai-aŋ-k'ia, the God (Father) of the Medicine societies or sacred esoteric orders, of which there are twelve in Zuñi, and others among the different pueblo tribes. He is supposed to have appeared in human form, poorly clad, and therefore reviled by men; to have taught the ancestors of the Zuñi, Taos, Oraibi, and Coçonino Indians their agricultural and other arts, their systems of worship by means of plumed and painted prayer-sticks; to have organized their medicine societies; and then to have disappeared toward his home in Shí-pä-pu-li-ma (from shi-pí-a=mist, vapor; u-lin=surrounding; and i-mo-na=sitting place of—"The mist-enveloped city"), and to have vanished beneath the world, whence he is said to have departed for the home of the Sun. He is still the conscious auditor of the prayers of his children, the invisible ruler of the spiritual Shí-pä-pu-li-ma, and of the lesser gods of the medicine orders, the principal "Finisher of the Paths of our Lives." He is, so far as any identity can be established, the "Montezuma" of popular and usually erroneous Mexican tradition.


In ancient times, while yet all beings belonged to one family, Pó-shai-aŋ-k'ia, the father of our sacred bands, lived with his children (disciples) in the City of the Mists, the middle place (center) of the Medicine societies of the world. There he was guarded on all sides by his six warriors, Á-pi-thlan shí-wa-ni (pí-thlan=bow, shí-wa-ni=priests), the prey gods; toward the North by the Mountain Lion (Long Tail); toward the West by the Bear (Clumsy Foot); toward the South by the Badger (Black Mark Face); toward the East by the Wolf (Hang Tail); above by the Eagle (White Cap); and below by the Mole. When he was about to go forth into the world, he divided the universe into six regions, namely, the North (Pï′sh-lan-kwïn táh-na=Direction of the Swept or Barren place); the West (K'iä′-li-shi-ïn-kwïn táh-na=Direction of the Home of the Waters); the South (Á-la-ho-ïn-kwïn táh-na=Direction of the Place of the Beautiful Bed); the East (Té-lu-a-ïn-kwïn táh-na=Direction of the Home of Day); the Upper Regions (Í-ya-ma-ïn-kwïn táh-na=Direction of the Home of the High); and the Lower Regions (Ma-ne-lam-ïn-kwïn táh-na=Direction of the Home of the Low)."




Prey Fetishes

Prey Fetishes

All, save the first of these terms, are archaic. The modern names for the West, South, East, Upper and Lower Regions signifying respectively—"The Place of Evening," "The Place of the Salt Lake" (Las Salinas), "The Place whence comes the Day," "The Above," and "The Below."

In the center of the great sea of each of these regions stood a very ancient sacred place (Té-thlä-shi-na-kwïn), a great mountain peak. In the North was the Mountain Yellow, in the West the Mountain Blue, in the South the Mountain Red, in the East the Mountain White, above the Mountain All-color, and below the Mountain Black.

We do not fail to see in this clear reference to the natural colors of the regions referred to—to the barren north and its auroral hues, the west with its blue Pacific, the rosy south, the white daylight of the east, the many hues of the clouded sky, and the black darkness of the "caves and holes of earth." Indeed, these colors are used in the pictographs and in all the mythic symbolism of the Zuñis, to indicate the directions or regions respectively referred to as connected with them.

Then said Pó-shai-aŋ-k'ia to the Mountain Lion, "Long Tail, thou art stout of heart and strong of will. Therefore give I unto thee and unto thy children forever the mastership of the gods of prey, and the guardianship of the great Northern World (for thy coat is of yellow), that thou guard from that quarter the coming of evil upon my children of men, that thou receive in that quarter their messages to me, that thou become the father in the North of the sacred medicine orders all, that thou become a Maker of the Paths (of men's lives)."

Thither went the Mountain Lion. Then said Pó-shai-aŋ-k'ia to the Bear, "Black Bear, thou art stout of heart and strong of will. Therefore make I thee the younger brother of the Mountain Lion, the guardian and master of the West, for thy coat is of the color of the land of night," etc.

To the Badger, "Thou art stout of heart but not strong of will. Therefore make I thee the younger brother of the Bear, the guardian and master of the South, for thy coat is ruddy and marked with black and white equally, the colors of the land of summer, which is red, and stands between the day and the night, and thy homes are on the sunny sides of the hills," etc.

To the White Wolf, "Thou art stout of heart and strong of will. Therefore make I thee the younger brother of the Badger, the guardian and master of the East, for thy coat is white and gray, the color of the day and dawn," etc.

And to the Eagle, he said: "White Cap (Bald Eagle), thou art passing stout of heart and strong of will. Therefore make I thee the younger brother of the Wolf, the guardian and master of the Upper regions, for thou fliest through the skies without tiring, and thy coat is speckled like the clouds," etc.

"Prey Mole, thou art stout of heart and strong of will. Therefore make I thee the younger brother of the Eagle, the guardian and master of the Lower regions, for thou burrowest through the earth without tiring, and thy coat is of black, the color of the holes and caves of earth," etc.


Thus it may be seen that all these animals are supposed to possess not only the guardianship of the six regions, but also the mastership, not merely geographic, but of the medicine powers, etc., which are supposed to emanate from them; that they are the mediators between men and Pó-shai-aŋ-ki'a, and conversely, between the latter and men.

As further illustrative of this relationship it may not be amiss to add that, aside from representing the wishes of men to Pó-shai-aŋ-ki'a, by means of the spirits of the prayer plumes, which, it is supposed, the prey gods take into his presence, and which are, as it were, memoranda (like quippus) to him and other high gods of the prayers of men, they are also made to bear messages to men from him and his associated gods.

For instance, it is believed that any member of the medicine orders who neglects his religious duties as such is rendered liable to punishment (Hä′-ti-a-k'ia-na-k'ia=reprehension) by Pó-shai-aŋ-ki'a through some one of his warriors.


The fetich worship of the Zuñis naturally reaches its highest and most interesting development in its relationship to the chase, for the We-ma-á-hâ-i are considered par excellence the gods of the hunt. Of this class of fetiches, the special priests are the members of the "Great Coyote People" (Sá-ni-a-k'ia-kwe, or the Hunting Order), their keepers, the chosen members of the Eagle and Coyote gentes and of the Prey Brother priesthood.

The fetiches in question Represent, with two exceptions, the same species of prey animals as those supposed to guard the six regions. These exceptions are, the Coyote, which replaces the Black Bear of the West, and the Wild Cat, which takes the place of the Badger of the South.

In the prayer-songs of the Sá-ni-a-kía-kwe, the names of all of these prey gods are, with two exceptions, given in the language of the Rio Grande Indians. This is probably one of the many devices for securing greater secrecy, and rendering the ceremonials of the Hunter Society mysterious to other than members. The exceptions are, the Coyote, or Hunter god of the West, known by the archaic name of Thlä′-k'iä-tchu, instead of by its ordinary name of Sús-ki, and the Prey Mole or god of the Lower regions, which is named Maí-tu-pu, also archaic, instead of K'iä′-lu-tsi. Yet in most of the prayer and ritualistic recitals of this order all of these gods are spoken of by the names which distinguish them in the other orders of the tribe.


While all the prey gods of the hunt are supposed to have functions differing both from those of the six regions and those of the Priesthood of the Bow, spoken of further on, they are yet referred, like those of the first class, to special divisions of the world. In explanation of this, however, quite another myth is given. This myth, like the first, is derived from the epic before referred to, and occurs in the latter third of the long recital, where it pictures the tribes of the Zuñis, under the guidance of the Two Children, and the Kâ′-kâ at Kó-thlu-ël-lon-ne, now a marsh-bordered lagune situated on the eastern shore of the Colorado Chiquito, about fifteen miles north and west from the pueblo of San Juan, Arizona, and nearly opposite the mouth of the Rio Concho. This lagune is probably formed in the basin or crater of some extinct geyser or volcanic spring, as the two high and wonderfully similar mountains on either side are identical in formation with those in which occur the cave-craters farther south on the same river. It has, however, been largely filled in by the débris brought down by the Zuñi River, which here joins the Colorado Chiquito. Kó-thlu-ël-lon signifies the "standing place (city) of the Kâ′-kâ" (from Kâ=a contraction of Kâ′-kâ, the sacred dance, and thlu-ël-lon=standing place).


Source:  F. H. C. [1]

Culture:  Zuni (Ashiwi)

Language Group:  Zuni or Zuñi is a language isolate spoken mainly in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, and in parts of Arizona. Zuni has been influenced to some extent by other languages in the areas where its spoken, in particular Hopi, Keresan, Tanoan, and also Navajo.

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