Native American Literature


The Emergence Myth Complex

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The Emergence Myth Complex


For the desert peoples of the Southwest and for other Native Americans, man did not fall out of the heavens to return there after his death, but issued instead from the womb of the Earth Mother and returned deep within her when his life was done.

Emergence myths are distributed over a wide area of Native America, excepting only the Northeast and the Northwest, but the story reaches its fullest development in the Southwest. Wheeler-Voegelin has established a high correlation between migration myths, some very extensive, and the Emergence myth itself, whose major motifs she summarizes: “Following ascent by natural or artificial means, the people and/or supernaturals (all living things) come from a hole in the ground after preparation of the earth for their habitation (or a scout's discovery of it as inhabitable.) The hole is thought to be preexisting or to be a cave or to have been bored by an animal, a series of animals or the culture hero(es). The means of ascent is either a vine, a stripling plant, a tree or mountain, or a combination of two or more of these. The emergence is actuated by the coming or subsidence of a flood (the termination of some other catastrophe)—in which case the emerging people are refugees—or by the desire for a place lighter, larger and better provided with subsistence forms than the underground habitation.”17 This core may be elaborated with preludes or sequels, so that a single performance may, as Bahr has reported for the Pima, last up to twenty-four hours.18 All of these elements reach their maximum elaboration in the myths of the western pueblos of Hopi and Zuni, and in the origin myth of the Navajo.19

The Navajo came to the Southwest, most anthropologists believe, around A.D. 1500 from the Canadian Yukon, Athabascan peoples who knew nothing of agriculture or the Emergence myth. Under the pressure of forced association with Pueblo refugees from the Spanish reconquest following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, they became agriculturalists and adapted the Pueblo Emergence story to their own purposes, later refining it through contact with the Hopi and the Zuni. For these borrowings they unabashedly give credit in their origin myth, acknowledging that when they emerged they met the Kisani, “house dwellers” or Puebloans, who were already living there, a people with hair cut straight across their brows who taught them about agriculture.

Navajo history began in the darkest, innermost womb of the Earth with several supernatural beings called Holy People, led by First Man and First Woman. Because they could not get along with the insect inhabitants of that world, they left it to emerge into the second, yellow world populated by small animals. This too they were compelled to leave, so they emerged into a third world, where First Man opened his medicine bundle and set out the prototypes of the present creation's mountains, rivers, plants, stars, and so on. With First Woman he also created the first human man and woman, the first Navajos, from two perfect ears of corn and eagle feathers. The people multiplied and grew factious over sexual jealousies and the adulterous behavior of the women, so that the men finally decided to abandon them. When monstrosities resulted from the perverse consequences of this separation, the men decided to firmly reestablish the social order. But Coyote stole Water Monster's baby, precipitating a flood that drove the people up a hollow reed into the fourth world. After the deluge had receded, First Man took out his medicine bundle, into which he had hastily gathered up the inner forms of creation he had made in the third world, and established this present world.

But the world was unstable. Through the scandalous behavior of the women in the third world, monsters roamed the earth and obstacles impeded travel over the land. The Great-Fear-Who-Walks-Alone, Those-Who-Slay-with-Their-Eyes, He-Who-Kicks-Off-Cliffs, Shifting Sand Dunes, all embodied man's deepest fear: that at bottom he and the world through which he moved were finally unknowable and hence unmanageable. To change this the Holy People sent Changing Woman into the world as an infant miraculously discovered one day by First Man and First Woman. She grew quickly to womanhood and gave birth to Twins fathered by the Sun and his alter, the Moon. These two, Monster-Slayer and Born-for-Water, set out to discover their paternity; after they pass the Sun's test, he reveals his identity to them and arms them with powerful weapons they use to slay the monsters and transform the face of the earth. Each then embarks on a series of quests for ritual knowledge, which they bequeath to the Navajo people in the numerous chantway myths of healing. In this way the whole corpus of myths provides a dramatic inventory of Navajo values.

The Zuni myth begins with the emanation of the Sky or Sun Father and Earth Mother from the mind of Awonawilona, the asexual creator who comes to be identified with the Sun emanation. Through the sky the Sun Father passes on his daily journey lonely for companionship and care, for people who will pray to him. To remedy this, he sends his two sons deep within the fourth womb of the earth, where they find a world of total darkness populated by groping amphibianlike creatures with slimy bodies, horns, webbed feet, and tails, who live on wild grass and cannot even control their bowels. It is chaos imagined as the antithesis of all they would become. Under the leadership of the Twins, different birds are sent out to the edge of the world to find a way out, but each in its turn fails. The locust, however, is successful, and the people begin climbing out on a pine tree cut for that purpose. Each time in a different direction, by means of a different kind of tree, the people are led up through three more worlds until they emerge into the light of their Sun Father. During their ascent, the Zuni had constant rainfall, and may even have escaped through a cavern with water rising just behind them. Many of their people had to be left behind during their long stays in each world.

When they came out into the sun, they became aware of their deformities and did not know what to do. To guide them in this world, Spider Woman chose an old man from the Dogwood Clan who was mysteriously living just a short distance from the Emergence Rim. To him she gave power to distinguish between the sacred medicine bundles and to fix the ritual calendar, establishing him as the first sun priest and principal link between the Zuni and the world of the supernaturals. It was he who led the “Raw People,” as they refer to themselves, to perfection at Zuni, the Center of the World.

The Transformation Era, which the Iroquois account for with the Rival Twins and the Navajo with the Hero Twins, the Zunis explain primarily by a migration sequel that details the events by which the “raw” people establish a social order. Fetishes and shrines are set apart, rituals are instituted, and religious prerogatives validated. Moieties of summer and winter people are established and clans formed. Numerous sacred societies, including the Kachina, Koyemshi, Newekwe, and Shomatowe, are denominated, each with its own developed mythology that branches from the main trunk of the origin myth at the appropriate point. Monsters are overcome by Twins analogous to the Navajo pair, and the shape of the world is stabilized by finding the Center and by a contest to determine the length of the day and the seasons. Agriculture is established, not only as a matter of economy but as the central metaphor for change. In short, having achieved the Center of the world, the Zuni have become their present selves.

The Zuni myth, and to a lesser extent the Navajo myth as well, demonstrate a high degree of what Laura Thompson in speaking of the Hopi has called “logico-aesthetic integration.”20 Though these peoples recognize categories of things based on physical differences that approximate Western scientific notions of phylum, order, and species, “they also have a system of cross-classification not recognized by Western science, which cuts across the empirically established, mutually exclusive orders, and closely relates phenomena from different classes or species into higher orders, which function as independent wholes in the cosmic scheme.”21 One of the purposes of the Emergence myth is to display dramatically this “system of interdependent relationships which give basic structure to the universe,”22 by correlating, through a network of symbolic association, any number of elements, including kinship, sex, animal, bird, and plant species, minerals, colors, directions, seasons and other meteorologic phenomena, topographic features, and supernatural beings. This intersection of the physical and metaphysical, of which the Center is the prime symbol, provides a place, function, and significance for all elements of creation in a highly integrated system emphasizing what the Navajos call hózhó or “beauty,” a concept of wholeness, balance, and integrity of form or being, closely related to the Greek harmonia or the Hebrew shalom. The value of such a system is clear. In a world so structured and charged with the power to affect human life dramatically, it is important to know, for instance, that medical problems have a metaphysical as well as a physical cause, and to seek out not only a physician but a medicine man.

Perfectionism marks the history of emergent peoples. Sometimes this impetus to perfection is expressed through an additive principle, by means of which new life forms are added in each successive world toward the final, total inventory. These man recognizes, names, and appropriates into his logico-aesthetic system, so that by the time the people emerge, the inventory of original inner forms has been completed, although they may later be transformed in their outer appearance. But progress also occurs on clearly evolutionary lines that illustrate changes in physical form, habitation, food, and behavior. Sometimes, as in the Pima-Papago myth, change is expressed as a series of destructions and re-creations, and a race or races of protomen precede the first appearance of real humans, a distinctly Mesoamerican touch. The Navajos, for instance, imagine an emerging race of insectlike people, later supplanted by the uniquely created parents of the Navajo. The Zuni, however, see themselves remaining as persistent identities throughout. Rather than being the last in a series of creations, they undergo a process of continual change from slimy, amphibian creatures of uncertain form, “raw” people, into a human form that is fixed or “cooked” after emerging into the daylight of the Sun Father. This humanization process is further characterized in the Zuni and Hopi myths by a shift in eating habits and residential patterns from wandering, wild seed-grass eaters to city-dwelling agriculturalists.

This processual dynamic of the Emergence myth admirably fits it to a number of ritual functions, especially in view of the fact that man's progress through the lower worlds comprehended moral as well as a physical evolution. Adultery and other forms of sexual and social irresponsibility, which violated the normative categories of relationship, were the source of the violence and discord that drove the protomen from the lower worlds in the Hopi and Navajo stories. In this the Hopi and Navajo differ from the Keresans and the Zuni, for whom the Emergence was an act of good will on the part of the Creator, who leads his people to him either personally or through agents. In both cases, man is remade, becomes perfected, and this establishes the myth's power as a metaphor for integration of all kinds. Since the disruption of the “logico-aesthetic” order of the world is at the root of all mental and physical illness, social disruption, agricultural failure, natural disasters, and other historical events, one must return through ritual, either individually or communally, to the place and time of Emergence, when the earth was young and men were “raw,” and there begin anew the process of reforming self, society, or cosmos according to the prototypical pattern.

Like the Earth-Diver story, the Emergence myth and its migration sequel establish certain principles clearly. Some of the following principles and their corollaries have been stated explicitly for the Navajo by Clyde Kluckhohn.23


  • The world is a cyclically ordered, living reality of
    fragile relationships among intelligent, volitional beings, to whom man is intimately related through his prior forms and history.




  • All things are complementary. Nothing is whole or sufficient in itself. Mind, body, spirit are interrelated.




  • Man's role is actively to maintain harmony and integration among the elements of creation through ritual.




  • Control, order, is good; lack of control, disorder, is not.




  • The world is dangerous because nature is more powerful than man, but is not necessarily feared because power is available for all contingencies.




  • “Sin” and illness are disorder; disorder does not accrue guilt; it requires only repair.




  • Like produces like, and the part stands for the whole. This is the best of all possible worlds; it is this life that counts.




  • Nothing is ever lost; there is an economy even in dying.

In this light the Emergence myth and its sequels encode in dramatic form the metaphysical principles by which man comes to understand the significance of his presence in the world, contemplating the print of his foot in the damp earth of the Emergence Rim, upon which he first stood in the light of the sun.




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