Monster Slayer 's Hero Quest — the Navaho Way

By Eloise Hart
Father, give me the light of your mind, / that my mind may be strong; / Give me some of your strength, / that my arm may be strong, / And give me your rays that corn and / other vegetation may grow. -- Navaho prayer to the Sun

Many are the stories of man's search for truth, each in its way deeply moving. The Navaho version is amazing. Uniquely Indian in character and landscape, even today it generates power to heal and protect those who participate in its dramatization. Combining sacred tradition with ritual and dry sand painting, their "search" takes the form of a ceremonial, originally lasting nine days and nine nights, called "Where the Two Came to Their Father" (Eighth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, 1886-'87, J. W. Powell, Director, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1891, pp. 229-285). Its observance was "discovered" accidentally in 1885 by James Stevenson who arrived unexpectedly at the reservation in Arizona just as the Navaho were about to begin a performance for the benefit of a member whose vision was failing due to an eye inflammation. Mr. Stevenson's subsequent report to the United States Bureau of Ethnology revealed what a profound and complex event it was that he and the 1,200 Indians there assembled observed.

Another version of the legend was given to the American artist Maud Oakes during 1942-43 by Jeff King, a 75-year-old Navaho medicine man of New Mexico, who had learned the songs and ceremonies in childhood from the celebrated singer, Hosteen Hozone. "It took four years," he said, "and I am still learning." (Where the Two Came to Their Father, A Navaho War Ceremonial given by Jeff King; text and paintings recorded by Maud Oakes; commentary by Joseph Campbell; Bollingen Series 1, Pantheon Books, New York, 1943.) His sand paintings are based on his remembrances of pictures he had seen (or visioned?) long ago in a cave. Nowadays these symbolic pictures are "painted" according to prescribed patterns, with sprinklings from between thumb and forefinger of ingredients often procured with great difficulty. These include sand of various colors collected from the four Holy Mountains, pollen, ground flower petals, and cornmeal — that food of the gods and of earth people that is power and medicine combined.

While the context of the dramatization is suggestive of earth's beginning and of primordial struggles between the opposing forces of the cosmos, its application is always to present-day conditions. It is conducted to protect warriors from danger — as during confrontations with Colonel Kit Carson's troops during the Fort Sumner years of 1863-68, and later during the Vietnam war — and others from hunger, accident, and sickness of either the body or mind. Invariably those who participate in or who witness the rituals speak of an uplift, and of an almost tangible power aroused in their souls. This evidently is achieved through their identification with the heroic or spiritual forces which the song priest-artist and his assistants awaken within them by impersonations and the use of rhythmic repetitions of particular sounds, colors, and movements — rhythms which enable the patient and observer to feel a closeness inwardly and outwardly with the strength and beauty of their own higher natures. Through this atonement they are profoundly composed. Harmony, health, is restored, and they are protected from the "monsters" that fear and negative feelings had engendered.

Where the Two Came to Their Father is a classic example of the savior story, of Everyman's quest for spiritual attainment. Here the hero is presented as twins — a clever reminder that progress depends upon cooperation between our mind and our heart. The principal story of this epic follows the adventures of Changing Woman's two children, the elder, miraculously fathered by the Sun when she slept in its midday light, and the younger, conceived when she bathed in a pool where water dripped upon her.

Even as infants, the legend relates, these two — who are variously spoken of as one individual, as brothers, and as male and female twins were endowed with unusual power. In just four days they could walk, and, like corn, they grew taller every four days. Even so their safety was threatened. A giant, the Navaho Herod, discovering small footprints around Changing Woman's hogan, came to destroy them, but she hid them under her blanket saying she had made the tracks by pressing her hand in the earth. Thereafter the twins were kept within the four peaks close to home lest the monsters who cause people trouble should kill them.

When they were twelve they inquired about their father and, although they were warned about asking this question, and told it would be utterly impossible to find him, they determined to try. Setting out, they stepped first on two blue crosses, then on clouds, and finally on Rainbow who carried them to a faraway place where the sand shifts downward. Here they encountered Sand Dune Monster who killed passersby by pulling them under the sand. But the heroes started singing songs and praying to him, and as he had never before been treated like this, he allowed them to continue their journey unscathed.

Next they met an old woman traveling west who asked where they were going. "We are on our way to our father, the Sun," they said. "That is a very great distance," she replied. "Even if you start as young men you will surely die before you arrive." However, seeing how determined they were, she let them proceed with a warning: "Whatever you do, don't walk in my path." The boys thanked her and departed, carefully avoiding the old woman's tracks. But after a while they forgot, and immediately grew very weary and old. Fortunately, she was watching from a distance and when they begged her to restore their youth, she did so, by singing to the four directions.

Later they met the Holy People, Dawn, Darkness, and also Spider Woman who was kindness itself when they told her that they were on their way to their father to see if he could help them destroy the monsters that were causing their people so much suffering. She invited them to climb down the four-rung ladder into her underground house (Hades?) and fed them from baskets which, though they never seemed full, were never empty no matter how much they ate. To the older one she gave turquoise and to the younger white shell to swallow for courage, and to each a live eagle feather which she had stolen from the Sun. "Whatever you do, don't show it," she told them, "hide it next to your heart. It will protect you, and will help when you are in trouble." These boons enabled the twins to pass safely through a series of adventures: Cutting Reeds, Rock That Claps Together, Cat Tails That Stab, and Water Bug People.

However, when they arrived at a vast body of water that stretched into the sky and became one with it, they did not know how or where to go. But they knew what to do: each stood on his feather and Rainbow came and carried them over this ocean, "We shall know where we are going," they said confidently, "when we get there." And they did, for in the distance they saw the House of the Sun surrounded by guardians: four big bears, four big snakes, four big winds, and four big thunders. Walking nearer, they met Sun's daughter who, on learning that they were from earth, was greatly alarmed, fearing that Sun would destroy them when he returned. To prevent this, she rolled the older twin in a black cloud and the younger in a blue cloud and placed them in niches under the roof — each holding his feather close to his heart. Soon after the Sun came home he discovered them, but instead of killing them he decided to subject them to a number of tests to determine whether they were Holy People who had somehow gained entry into his House.

One of the tests was to undress and, leaving their feathers behind, enter a sweat-lodge that was so hot no earth-being could possibly survive. But the daughter, ever resourceful, told the twins to crawl into the two holes in its side and to cover themselves with rocks. Later they emerged unharmed despite the tremendous heat, steam, boiling water, and noise. Another trial was to eat cornmeal to which poison had been added. The brothers survived by following the caution of a hunchbacked inchworm to turn the basket of meal right around and eat only half. Astounded that they still lived, the Sun next tempted them with all manner of novel and wondrous gifts. But they did not succumb, merely replied with indifference, "We shall need that in the future, but not now." At last the Sun was convinced they were his children: only his own could have passed so successfully every trial he devised.

Now, as the twins grew whole and resplendent, assuming their divine stature and form, their father took them into a room of his house that was full of sparklings of color so brilliant they could hardly see. Here, in the presence of Thunder People, Lightning, Rainbow, and sun rays, he dressed them in garments of invulnerability: shoes, caps, armor, and knives of flint (flint being the likeness on earth of the Sun) and, placing a small jet "man" inside the elder and a turquoise figure inside the younger, he made them invincible and able to identify with himself. Finally he gave them their names. The firstborn, his son, he called Monster Slayer, and the secondborn, his grandson, Child-Born-of-Water. To this day many a Navaho considers his name so sacred and protective he will not reveal it except in dire emergency. Later in this story Monster Slayer's knowledge of the various monsters' names was one of the weapons which helped him "destroy" them, that is, to understand and assimilate their potency.

Thanking their father for his gifts, Monster Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water prepared to depart, but he detained them until the new moon in May when all nature is becoming strong. "I will give you my wisdom before you go down. You must always use it and hand it down, so that my wisdom will always be on the earth." And, as a seal of approval, he gave them a feather, "and it was not like the one the Spider Woman had given them" that had safeguarded their journey to their father. This new feather signified not only their lofty attainment but the commencement of their mission on earth as ambassadors of the Sun.

Fortified with these gifts, and with lightning spears and arrows, the brothers returned to earth and set about eliminating the monsters: Rock Monster That Kicks People Off, He Who Kills With His Eyes, Traveling Rocks, and all the other large and small giants and monsters that cause trouble and kill humankind. When this was accomplished they went back to Navaho Mountain and gave their people the teachings that would perpetuate the Sun's power and wisdom. Then, weak and weary from their labors, they expected to die. But this was not to be. The Twelve Holy Ones came and conducted the full ceremonial Where the Two Came to Their Father and the twin-saviors were renewed and live still, their songs and prayers bringing health and good fortune to all who listen with their hearts.

From this short sketch it is easy to see how closely the details of this Indian myth or "way," as some prefer to call it, parallel those of other quest stories that follow a warrior or initiate, the hero-soul of man, through developmental experiences, first in this daylight world of conflicts and challenges; then inwards, through the shadowy regions of Dawn and Darkness where latent faculties unfold; and finally into the radiant House of the Sun. For each one who is ready this journey is a joyous release from the delusions of worldly existence. The dangers, ordeals, monsters, and mentors depict factors that aid in his progress. The helpful assistants, always at hand when needed, are reassurances from within that he already has the strength to proceed. The frightening dangers and monsters are those disharmonious and uncontrolled elements in nature and in himself which, once harmonized and conquered, fortify him with their vigor. According to Navaho belief, good and evil beings and conditions are relative. What appears to be hostile and confusing will become beneficent if "put in order," that is, brought under control. It was by such transformations, by treating Sand Dune Monster and the others as they had never been treated before, that the heroes escaped being eaten and were able to cross over the Great Ocean — a symbol of higher attainment. These and the other tests were given to prove the twins' power, not to destroy them. Like the challenges we face every day, they were opportunities to develop knowledge and strength until, assuming full stature, they became more than human, heroic, and then, identified with their spiritual Source. At that point the two assumed responsibility for the protection, welfare, and instruction of their people.

In addition to the various characterizations, every detail — color, sound, scent, and materials — incorporated in this complex and elaborate ceremonial has special meaning and power. Even so small a thing as the pollen used in the sand painting is important. It is an emblem of light, for "it emits light in all directions, it shines in amongst," and also it gives peace, prosperity, and continuity of life and safety. Colors have particular significance. For instance jet (black), the color of the image Sun placed within Monster Slaver and of the cloud that concealed him when he entered his father's house, represents the mysterious power that confers invisibility and protection and represents also the Place of Emergence and Origin of all things. Turquoise (blue) on the other hand, the color of Child-Born-of-Water's soul-manikin, stands for peace, happiness, and success in both earthly and spiritual endeavors. In an allusion to the Beginnings, turquoise is described as First Woman's "fire," which reminds one that Mayan Indians considered fire to be the first and noblest of all the elements.

The typically Indian, and American, quality of this ceremonial legend is its emphasis on compassion-creativity. Compassion, that starlit quality of the heart, is depicted as a sensitivity to, respect and responsibility, for one's kinfolk, which includes not only human kin but also the strange rock columns of their canyons, the shifting sands, thunder, lightning, spiders, coyotes, white shells, and turquoise. These, they believe, are "people" who differ from men only by having put on clothes of another material. Creativity is that dynamic fusion of an inquiring mind, persistent will, and imagination which in this and other Indian tales enables one to surmount obstacles at every level of endeavor. Changing Woman saved her children from the giant by denying their existence and claiming she had made the tracks around her hogan with her closed fist. To view this as mere deception — a quality abhorrent in many cultures — is shortsighted. Spider Woman gave the twins protection with feathers — the emblem of an awakened and active spiritual soul, the buddhi in man — she had stolen from the Sun. Coyote, in earlier legends, stole fire from the gods, as did the Greek hero, Prometheus, to illumine men's minds. Monster Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water's successive conquests were achieved by their courage, judgment, and initiative. Furthermore, believing as the Indians do that this world is a reflection of the divine, that its seemingly solid appearance is a mirage, an illusion, which must be dispersed if we would see truth in its beauty and fullness, they greatly admire the kind of "trickery" this allegory narrates.

The total impact of Where the Two Came to Their Father brings into focus that higher dimension we otherwise perceive only rarely a dimension which is and always has been the goal of Everyman's spiritual quest. With its attainment one's life is extended. From then onwards he walks, as the Navaho says, with beauty before him, beauty behind him, beauty all around him.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press)


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