Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 16. The Zuñi Creation Myth

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 16. The Zuñi Creation Myth

The Zuñi creation epic, though never committed to writing, is several literary stages in advance of the Wa˙lam Olum. The Zuñi are a sedentary people living in the high valleys of what is now New Mexico. When Coronado discovered them in 1540 they were distributed among the Seven Cities of Cibola, subsisting on agriculture and an extensive trade with adjacent tribes in blankets, salt, cotton, and silver and turquoise jewelry. Like the Walam Olum their Creation Myth purports to give a history of the tribe from the creation of the world to its settlement in its present location. The manner in which it is preserved in entirety is exceedingly interesting. It is serial in composition, and the various parts are each committed to one of the priestly orders called the Midmost, whose office is hereditary in a single clan, outranking all other clans and priesthoods as “Masters of the House of Houses.” Each division of the Epic is called a “Talk,” but the completed serial is known as “The Speech.” When performed in order accompanied by dance and symbolic rites, it constitutes the most interesting literary survival in the New World.

In structure the parts of the Zuñi myth indicate development from primitive song sequences, the narrative parts of which have been shaped, as already suggested, out of prose, into a blank verse matrix. Within this the speeches of the Uanami, or Beloved Gods, which were naturally the first parts to take permanent literary form, are enclosed. These speeches are more lyric in feeling than the narrative parts, and, says Cushing, “are almost always in faultless blank verse measure, and are often grandly poetic,” an observation which is borne out by his own incompleted translations. See the following speech of the Beloved Gods, taking counsel how they will prepare the earth for men:

  • Let us shelter the land where our children are resting.
  • Yea, the depths and the valleys beyond shall be sheltered
  • By the shade of our cloud shield.
  • Let us lay to its circle
  • Our firebolts of thunder, to all the four quarters
  • Then smite with our arrows of lightning from under!
  • Lo the earth shall heave upward and downward with thunder!
  • Lo the fire shall belch outward and burn the world over
  • And floods of hot water shall seethe swift before it!
  • Lo, smoke of earth stenches shall blacken the daylight
  • And deaden the sense of them else escaping
  • And lessen the number of fierce preying monsters
  • That the earth be made safer for men and more stable.
  • Or later, in another measure, Pautiwa, the “cloud sender and sun priest of souls,” speaks in the councils of the gods to the K’yah’he:

  • As a woman with children
  • Is loved for her power
  • Of keeping unbroken
  • The life line of kinsfolk,
  • So shalt thou, tireless hearer,
  • Be cherished among us
  • And worshipped of mortals
  • For keeping unbroken
  • The tale of Creation.
  • The prose portions of the tale relate how Awonawilona, the All Father, was “conceived within himself and thought outward in space; whereby mists of increase, steams potent of growth, were evolved and uplifted.” By this process of out-thinking he concentrated himself in the form of the Sun, forming out of his own substance the Fourfold-Containing Earth Mother and the All-Covering Father Sky. The world of men were the offspring of these two.

    In the beginning men existed in an unfinished state in the lowest of the four cave wombs of the Earth, groping in darkness. Then appeared the first saviour who by virtue of his innate “wisdom-knowledge” made his way to the upper world. At his entreaty the Sun Father impregnated with his beam the Foam Cap of the sea, from which were brought forth the Beloved Twain, twin gods of Fate and Chance, who figure in all pueblo folk-lore, “like to question and answer in deciding and doing.” In one of their metamorphoses they are described:

  • Strong were they Twain,
  • Strong and hard favoured.
  • Enduringly thoughtful were they Twain
  • Enduring of will.
  • Unyieldingly thoughtful were they Twain
  • Unyielding of will.
  • Swiftly thoughtful were they Twain
  • Swift of will.
  • The rest of the story, dealing with the rescue of men by the Beloved Twain, the rendering of the earth stable and safe, and the teaching of the arts of war and peace, is too involved for recapitulation. Tribal history is indicated, but in a mythological, mystical manner. The Zuñi are by temperament disposed toward symbols and abstractions, for which their language is well adapted.

    The following description of the creation of the twin gods is an excellent example of the rhythmic, unmeasured matrix:

  • To them the Sun Father imparted, still retaining, control-thought and his own knowledge-wisdom, even as to the offspring of wise parents their knowingness is imparted, and as to his right hand and his left hand a skilful man gives craft, freely, not surrendering his knowledge.