Theosophy among the Hopi

Coen Vonk

Much about the origin and age of the original inhabitants of America remains unknown. Popularizers still propagate the view of the first Americans as semi-savage, prehistoric people traveling from Mongolia via the Bering Strait several thousand years ago to enter an empty continent. Evidence is building, however, that a great many peoples have long lived in what was already a densely populated continent at least as far back as 12,000 years ago — and, as a growing number of controversial findings suggest, many thousands of years before that. Moreover, as shown by the excavation of skulls, several different types of peoples lived in the Americas in ancient times — not only the ancestors of present-day Indians, but also those with different racial characteristics, such as the well-known Kennewick man. The Indians themselves consist of many different tribes, each with its own customs and language, and cannot be lumped together.

In the Southwestern United States hundreds of religious centers which breathe a holy atmosphere have been discovered in overhanging cliffs around the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. These complexes often consist largely of kivas (circular underground stone buildings where ceremonies and initiations were held), round towers, storage buildings, and simple dwellings. No one knows exactly who built these centers or why they were abandoned around 1200 AD, though recent archeological evidence suggests a traumatic episode. The Hopi, who live on a rocky plateau in Arizona about 70 miles east of the Grand Canyon, say that they were built by their ancestors and were abandoned because the inhabitants abused their spiritual powers.


A portion of Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, showing a few of the fifty-two kivas.

A profound esoteric tradition can be found among various Indian tribes, though their ancient heritage was long a closed book to outsiders. Hopi wisdom and religious customs were carefully kept secret until the 1960s when Frank Waters was given the opportunity to live among them and attend their ceremonies. Thirty Hopis from various clans helped him gather material on their traditions and approved its publication in Book of the Hopi, which is full of ancient knowledge and indicates a tradition going back to remote times. (Cf. also "Lessons from the Indian Soul: A Conversation with Frank Waters," Sunrise, June-July, August-September, 1973.) Many universal teachings found in other religions are met with here. There is a high standard of ethics based on the idea of the brotherhood of all living beings, as well as material on cosmology and human evolution. Teachings refer to seven worlds as stages of evolution, as well as to various peoples who have inhabited the earth and their destruction by fire or water in turn when they betrayed their ties with nature. Throughout the myths and ceremonies are interwoven tales of various beings that inhabit, control, and guide the cosmos. Two gods, for example, are said to sit at either end of the earth's axis to make sure it rotates and is in the right position. Sometimes this process goes awry, which the Hopi say once led to the large-scale freezing of the world.

The Book of the Hopi also describes the various initiations which take place throughout the year. Hopi philosophy is an echo of an age-old wisdom, and the Hopi themselves feel that the initiations of today represent faithful but incomplete memories of the original tradition. One of their myths shows how profound the knowledge was when the kachinas or godlike beings still lived among humans. Long ago, it says, in the mysterious Red City in the south,

there were two buildings, one for initiates and one for ceremonial purposes. The ceremonial building was four stories high, terraced like the pueblos we see today. The main door opened to the east, and there were two smaller doors facing north and south.
On the first or ground floor the kachina people taught initiates the history and meaning of the three previous worlds and the purpose of this Fourth World to which man had emerged. On the second floor they taught the structure and functions of the human body and that the highest function of the mind was to understand how the one great spirit worked within man. The spirit or kachina people taught this so that the people would not become evil again and this Fourth World be destroyed like the first three.
In the third story initiates were taught the workings of nature and the uses of all kinds of plant life. . . .
The fourth story was smaller than the three below, making the ceremonial building resemble a pyramid. To this top level were admitted only initiates of great conscience who had acquired a deep knowledge of the laws of nature. Here they were taught the workings of the planetary system, how the stars affected the climate, the crops, and man himself. Here too they learned about the "open door" on top of their heads, how to keep it open, and so converse with their Creator. — Book of the Hopi, p. 68

Initiations and ceremonies among the Hopi reflect this instruction in the ancient wisdom. Initiations are held in the kivas, which symbolize the underworld from which humanity emerged. In the middle is a small round hole — sipapuni, "navel" — that links us via a cord with mother earth. A fire symbolizes the first world, the altar in the kiva the second world, and the elevated platform on which a ladder rests the third world. The ladder projecting through the roof leads to the fourth world and symbolizes the birth of the aspirant who leaves dark space to enter the world of light. The old kivas were predominantly circular, while the kivas now in use are often rectangular: the east-west axis represents the path of the sun, and north-south represents the earth's axis. The floor on the eastern side of the kiva is slightly higher than that on the western side. The raised side is occupied by novices, while the priests sit on the lower level: the more developed one is, the greater the need for humility.

Initiations are often preceded by deep concentration and silence to prepare for transmission of the ancient wisdom to the new members. The members of a kiva are often given a message or song to use or pass on to the clan, and it is clear that initiations are not intended to help a privileged few, but to serve the entire clan as well as the entire world. After the initiations, plays are usually performed in the kiva or in the village square. Masked or painted men may appear in the kiva, symbolizing messengers from the world of the kachinas, the unseen forces from the world above us. The plays in the village square are usually accompanied by various dances and involve the entire village. These plays and dances transmit an ethical message or symbolize the history of humanity, the origin of the universe, the operation of unseen forces, and the battle between spirit and matter, among other things.

The Hopi have a total of nine mystery plays which are connected both with the position of the sun in relation to the earth and with the origin of the earth and the universe. The first, Wuwuchim, takes place around November. It is a preparation for the birth of the new year and also reflects the first invisible preparations for a universe in dark space. Soyal, the second initiation ceremony held at the winter solstice, relates to the great birth of light or bright space. It symbolizes not only the birth of light but also the laying down of patterns at the birth of the cosmos and, on a smaller scale, of the patterns for developments during the coming year. During Powamu, around the end of January and beginning of February, initiations take place which relate to the appearance of the kachinas (in this case comparable with the manasaputras in Hindu mythology), humanity's attainment of maturity, and an accompanying purification. This is also the time when children between the ages of six and eight enter the initial stage of adulthood. They are invited to join a Powamu kiva and enter the first stage of initiation, known as "still too young to fly." Frightening ceremonies also take place during this festival, such as the rites of the monster kachina, which underline human beings' responsibility for their behavior. For adults, the main emphasis is on the profound purification that takes place in the kivas.

These first three initiations are the most important and seem to have been preserved in greatest purity. It is noteworthy that there are no longer any ceremonies during the spring. However, a legend explains why, thereby implying that originally these existed. The next three ceremonies, in summer, symbolize the development of life and are followed by three in the autumn which represent nature, man, and creation in a completely developed state. The cycle is then complete.

The symbols used by the Hopi, as seen in certain rock drawings, are very abstract and difficult to understand. Well-known is the labyrinth, which stands for the emergence of man and his travels on the Road of Life. Others portray different clans or kachinas, or refer to well-known myths such as the one about a humpbacked insect-like being, Kokopelli (Kokopilau), who plays a flute. Many of these names are so ancient that no one knows exactly how to pronounce them, and associated with Kokopelli is a song whose meaning is no longer known even to the Hopi. One myth relating to this figure tells of the fourth people who, on entering a certain land during their migrations, ask an eagle for permission to live there with him. They are accompanied by two insect people (mahus). The eagle says that first they must pass two tests. He tells one mahu that he is going to poke an arrow into his eye. The arrow approaches closer and closer to his eye but the mahu does not even blink. "You are a people of great strength," observes the eagle, "but now I am going to shoot an arrow through your bodies." He does so, but the mahus play on their flutes, and their playing becomes more and more beautiful until their wounds finally heal. Then the people are allowed to live in the land. The flute players are symbolized by Kokopelli. Even today music is played for those who are ill, and they are surrounded with love and care to make sure they recover.

Over the last half century particularly, some Indians have been trying to build a bridge of understanding between their culture and other peoples, particularly the Europeans. They are seeking to make Indian philosophy known to the world, not to gain respect or because they hope that other peoples will come and sit at their feet or adopt their manners and ceremonies, but because they see that the modern world is getting into trouble and could benefit from their insights. Some also realize that the Indian people are dying out and their wisdom must be passed on to other races.

As Western civilization slowly reawakens to the deep connection between man and nature, and realizes that damage inflicted on nature will ultimately rebound on mankind, interest in the Indian way of life and myths, and above all in their organic understanding of nature, continues to increase. American Indians have always understood that humans must not take from nature more than they need, and that if they take something, something must be given in return. The present scientific outlook of ecology remains largely mechanistic, while for the Indians the earth and the entire cosmos are ensouled beings. The reactions of nature are ensouled and intelligent, too, and aim at restoring balance and harmony. Rather than being purely material mishaps or punishments inflicted by some Supreme Being, phenomena such as earthquakes, rain, storms, tornadoes, fires, floods, droughts, and epidemics are caused in part by our attitudes. Feelings such as hate, anger, and pride disturb the inner balance of nature much more than our pollution of the land and sea, which is ultimately a result of the same selfish feelings. Indians were taught from childhood that the ideas they cherish must be carefully chosen and controlled, and harmonized with the will of nature.

Today there is a great need to realize that man and nature are linked inwardly, not just outwardly. Study of traditions worldwide, whether of great civilizations or tribes like the Hopi, helps us become aware of our connectedness with one another, of the journey we are making together, and of the responsibility we all share for one another.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)

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