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The Hopi maintain a complex religious and mythological tradition stretching back over centuries. However, it is difficult to definitively state what all Hopis as a group believe. Like the oral traditions of many other societies, Hopi mythology is not always told consistently and each Hopi mesa, or even each village, may have its own version of a particular story. But, "in essence the variants of the Hopi myth bear marked similarity to one another." It is also not clear that those stories which are told to non-Hopis, such as anthropologists and ethnographers, represent genuine Hopi beliefs or are merely stories told to the curious while keeping safe the Hopi's more sacred doctrines. As folklorist Harold Courlander states, "there is a Hopi reticence about discussing matters that could be considered ritual secrets or religion-oriented traditions." David Roberts continues that "the secrecy that lies at the heart of Puebloan [including Hopi] life...long predates European contact, forming an intrinsic feature of the culture." In addition, the Hopis have always been willing to assimilate foreign ideas into their cosmology if they are proven effective for such practical necessities as bringing rain. As such, the Hopi had at least some contact with Europeans beginning the 16th century, and some believe that European Christian traditions may have entered into Hopi cosmology at some point. Indeed, Spanish missions were built in several Hopi villages starting in 1629 and were in operation until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. However, after the revolt, it was the Hopi alone of all the Pueblo tribes who kept the Spanish out of their villages permanently, and regular contact with whites did not begin again until nearly two centuries later. The Hopi mesas have therefore been seen as "relatively unacculturated" at least through the early twentieth century, and it may be posited that the European influence on the core themes of Hopi mythology was slight.
Most Hopi accounts of creation center around Tawa, the Sun Spirit. Tawa is the Creator, and it was he who formed the First World out of Tokpella, or Endless Space, as well as its original inhabitants. It is still traditional for Hopi mothers to seek a blessing from the Sun for their newborn children. However, other accounts have it that Tawa, or Taiowa, first created Sotuknang, whom he called his nephew. Taiowa then sent Sotuknang to create the nine universes according to his plan, and it was Sotuknang who created Spider Woman, or Spider Grandmother. Spider Woman served as a messenger for the Creator and was an intercessorary between deity and the people. In some versions of the Hopi creation myth, it is she who creates all life under the direction of Sotuknang. Yet other stories tell that life was created by Hard Being Woman of the West and Hard Being Woman of the East, while the Sun merely observed the process.
Masauwu, Skeleton Man, was the Spirit of Death, Earth God, door keeper to the Fifth World, and the Keeper of Fire. He was also the Master of the Upper World, or the Fourth World, and was there when the good people escaped the wickedness of the Third World for the promise of the Fourth. Masauwu is described as wearing a hideous mask, but again showing the diversity of myths among the Hopi, Masauwu was alternately described as a handsome, bejeweled man beneath his mask or as a bloody, fearsome creature. However, he is also assigned certain benevolent attributes. One story has it that it was Masauwu who helped settle the Hopi at Oraibi and gave them stewardship over the land. He also charged them to watch for the coming of the Pahana (see section below), the Lost White Brother. Other important deities include the twin war gods, the kachinas, and the trickster Coyote.
Maize is also vital to Hopi subsistence and religion. “For traditional Hopis, corn is the central bond. Its essence, physically, spiritually, and symbolically, pervades their existence. For the people of the mesas corn is sustenance, ceremonial object, prayer offering, symbol, and sentient being unto itself. Corn is the Mother in the truest sense that people take in the corn and the corn becomes their flesh, as mother milk becomes the flesh of the child."
Some contemporary writers tend to posit an absolute importance of the feminine to the Hopi and attribute the role of a male Creator (Tawa) to intrusions into Hopi folklore of European beliefs. In this interpretation, the Hopis traditionally saw the goddess Spider Woman as their creator, "Grandmother of the sun and as the great Medicine Power who sang the people into this fourth world we live in now.” The theory holds that under centuries of pressure by white culture, Spider Woman has only recently been replaced by a male Creator and “the Hopi goddess Spider Woman has become the masculine Maseo or Tawa…”
While this view of Hopi mythology is deeply controversial, certainly the Hopi have much in their culture and mythology which emphasized the importance of the feminine. For instance, the Hopi are a matrilineal society, and children belong to the clan of the mother, not the father. The Hopi Mother Nature is symbolized by both Mother Earth and the Corn Mother. "Spider Woman, Sand Altar Woman, and other female spirits [are] conceived to be the mothers of all living things. This mother is represented in the cult by the sipapu, the opening in the floor of the underground ceremonial chamber, or kiva, for the sipapu is the womb of Mother Earth, just as it is the hole through which humankind originally emerged from the underworld."
However, Hopi religion was and is presided over by men, as were most political functions within the villages. Most importantly, it was only men who perform the required dances and ceremonies which brought rain to the Hopi.
Hopi legend tells that the current earth is the Fourth World to be inhabited by Tawa's creations. The story essentially states that in each previous world, the people, though originally happy, became disobedient and lived contrary to Tawa's plan; they engaged in sexual promiscuity, fought one another and would not live in harmony. Thus, the most obedient were led (usually by Spider Woman) to the next higher world, with physical changes occurring both in the people in the course of their journey, and in the environment of the next world. In some stories, these former worlds were then destroyed along with their wicked inhabitants, whereas in others the good people were simply led away from the chaos which had been created by their actions.
Two main versions exist as to the Hopi's emergence into the present Fourth World. The more prevalent is that Spider Grandmother caused a hollow reed (or bamboo) to grow into the sky, and it emerged in the Fourth World at the sipapu. The people then climbed up the reed into this world, emerging from the sipapu. The location of the sipapu is given as in the Grand Canyon.
The other version (mainly told in Oraibi) has it Tawa destroyed the Third World in a great flood. Before the destruction, Spider Grandmother sealed the more righteous people into hollow reeds which were used as boats. Upon arriving on a small piece of dry land, the people saw nothing around them but more water, even after planting a large bamboo shoot, climbing to the top, and looking about. Spider Woman then told the people to make boats out of more reeds, and using island "stepping-stones" along the way, the people sailed east until they eventually arrived on the mountainous coasts of the Fourth World.
While it may not be possible to positively ascertain which is the original or "more correct" story, Harold Courlander writes, at least in Oraibi (the oldest of the Hopi villages), little children are often told the story of the sipapu, and the story of an ocean voyage is related to them when they are older. He states that even the name of the Hopi Water Clan (Patkinyamu) literally means "A Dwelling-on-Water" or "Houseboat". However, he notes the sipapu story is centered on Walpi and is more accepted among Hopis generally.
Upon their arrival in the Fourth World, the Hopis divided and went on a series of great migrations throughout the land. Sometimes they would stop and build a town, then abandon it to continue on with the migration. However, they would leave their symbols behind in the rocks to show that the Hopi had been there. Long the divided people wandered in groups of families, eventually forming clans named after an event or sign that a particular group received upon its journey. These clans would travel for some time as a unified community, but almost inevitably a disagreement would occur, the clan would split and each portion would go its separate way. However, as the clans traveled, they would often join together forming large groups, only to have these associations disband, and then be reformed with other clans. These alternate periods of harmonious living followed by wickedness, contention, and separation play an important part of the Hopi mythos. This pattern seemingly began in the First World and continues even into recent history.
In the course of their migration, each Hopi clan was to go to the farthest extremity of the land in every direction. Far in the north was a land of snow and ice which was called the Back Door, but this was closed to the Hopi. However, the Hopi say that other peoples came through the Back Door into the Fourth World. This Back Door could be referring to the Bering land bridge, which connected Asia with far north North America. The Hopi were led on their migrations by various signs, or were helped along by Spider Woman. Eventually, the Hopi clans finished their prescribed migrations and were led to their current location in northeastern Arizona.
Most Hopi traditions have it that they were given their land by Masauwu, the Spirit of Death and Master of the Fourth World.
Hopi tradition tells of sacred tablets which were imparted to the Hopi by various deities. Like most of Hopi mythology, accounts differ as to when the tablets were given and in precisely what manner.
Perhaps the most important was said to be in the possession of the Fire Clan, and is related to the return of the Pahana. In one version, an elder of the Fire Clan worried that his people would not recognize the Pahana when he returned from the east. He therefore etched various designs including a human figure into a stone, and then broke off the section of the stone which included the figure's head. This section was given to Pahana and he was told to bring it back with him so that the Hopi would not be deceived by a witch or sorcerer. This one is Truth, the stone has an Indian face of black, white and grey with black feathers, and it is not etched but looks more like ink that soaked into the stone.
Another version has it that the Fire Clan was given a sacred tablet by Masauwu, who as the giver of fire was their chief deity. In this version the human figure was purposely drawn without a head, and a corner of the stone was broken off. Masauwu told them that eventually the Pahana would return bringing the broken-off corner of the stone, but if in the meantime a Hopi leader accepted a false religion, he must assent to having his head cut off as drawn on the stone.
This same story holds that three other sacred tablets were also given to the Hopi. These were given to the Bear Clan by their patron deity Söqömhonaw, and essentially constituted a divine title to the lands where the Hopi settled after their migrations. The Hopi had a Universal Snake Dance. The third of these was etched with designs including the sun, moon, stars, clouds, etc. on one side with six human figures on the other. A letter from the Hopi to the President of the United States in 1949 also declared that "the Stone Tablets, upon which are written the boundaries of the Hopi Empire, are still in the hands of the Chiefs of Oraibi and Hotevilla pueblos..."
Historically speaking, the kachina religion long predates European contact, and its traces have been found which date to as early as 1325 A.D. However, it remains an open question among scholars as to whether the kachina religion was an indigenous creation, or an import from Mexico. The similarity of many aspects of Hopi religion to that of the Aztecs to the south strongly suggest the latter to many scholars. For example, the Hopi horned or plumed serpent Awanyu uncannily resembles the Aztec Quetzecoatl, as does the Hopi legend of the Pahana.
To the Hopi, kachinas are supernatural beings who represent and have charge over various aspects of the natural world. They might be thought of as analogous to Greco-Roman demi-gods or Catholic saints. There are literally hundreds of different Kachinas, which may represent anything from rain to watermelon, various animals, stars, and even other Indian tribes. However, the kachinas are also thought to be the spirits of dead ancestors, and they may come to the Hopi mesas in the form of rain clouds.
The Hopi say that during a great drought, they heard singing and dancing coming from the San Francisco Peaks. Upon investigation, they met the Kachinas who returned with the Hopi to their villages and taught them various forms of agriculture. The Hopi believe that for six months out of the year, the Kachina spirits live in the Hopi villages. After the Home Dance in late July or early August, the Kachinas return to the San Francisco Peaks for six months. The Hopi believe that these dances are vital for the continued harmony and balance of the world. It serves the further and vital purpose of bringing rain to the Hopi's parched homeland.
The true Pahana (or Bahana) is the Lost White Brother of the Hopi. Most versions have it that the Pahana or Elder Brother left for the east at the time that the Hopi entered the Fourth World and began their migrations. However, the Hopi say that he will return again and at his coming the wicked will be destroyed and a new age of peace, the Fifth World, will be ushered into the world. As mentioned above, it is said he will bring with him a missing section of a sacred Hopi stone in the possession of the Fire Clan, and that he will come wearing red. Traditionally, Hopis are buried facing eastward in expectation of the Pahana who will come from that direction.
The legend of the Pahana seems intimately connected with the Aztec story of Quetzalcoatl, and other legends of Central America. This similarity is furthered by the liberal representation of Awanyu, the horned or plumed serpent, in Hopi and other Puebloan art. This figure bears a striking resemblance to figures of Quetzacoatl, the feathered serpent, in Mexico. In the early 16th century, both the Hopis and the Aztecs believed that the coming of the Spanish conquistadors was the return of this lost white prophet. Unlike the Aztecs, upon first contact the Hopi put the Spanish through a series of tests in order to determine their divinity, and having failed, the Spanish were sent away from the Hopi mesas.
One account has it that the Hopi realized that the Spanish were not the Pahana based upon the destruction of a Hopi town by the Spanish. Thus when the Spanish arrived at the village of Awatovi, they drew a line of cornmeal as a sign for the Spanish not to enter the village, but this was ignored. While some Hopi wanted to fight the invaders, it was decided to try a peaceful approach in the hope that the Spanish would eventually leave. However, Spanish accounts record a short skirmish at Awatovi before the Hopis capitulated. Frank Waters records a Hopi tradition that the Spanish did ignore a cornmeal line drawn by the Hopis and a short battle followed.
Tovar [the leader of the Spanish] and his men were conducted to Oraibi. They were met by all the clan chiefs at Tawtoma, as prescribed by prophecy, where four lines of sacred meal were drawn. The Bear Clan leader stepped up to the barrier and extended his hand, palm up, to the leader of the white men. If he was indeed the true Pahana, the Hopis knew he would extend his own hand, palm down, and clasp the Bear Clan leader's hand to form the nakwach, the ancient symbol of brotherhood. Tovar instead curtly commanded one of his men to drop a gift into the Bear chief's hand, believing that the Indian wanted a present of some kind. Instantly all the Hopi chiefs knew that Pahana had forgotten the ancient agreement made between their peoples at the time of their separation. Nevertheless, the Spaniards were escorted up to Oraibi, fed and quartered, and the agreement explained to them. It was understood that when the two were finally reconciled, each would correct the other's laws and faults; they would live side by side and share in common all the riches of the land and join their faiths in one religion that would establish the truth of life in a spirit of universal brotherhood. The Spaniards did not understand, and having found no gold, they soon departed.