MythBlast | Hopi Kachinas: The Essence of Everything
Every year in Northeastern Arizona, around July, the Hopi Tribe celebrates the Niman Kachina Festival. The word “Hopi” is shortened from Hopituh Shi-Nu-Mu, a Hopi word meaning “The Peaceful People.” An important use of the word Hopi is to describe one who behaves with civility, manners, respect for all things, and being at peace with those things. Historically the Hopi lived along the Mogollon Rim of present day Arizona in large villages, often in apartment house-like structures built into cliff sides overlooking canyons prevalent during the 12th to 14th centuries, after which time these large villages were, for reasons not entirely clear, abandoned. Today, the Hopi live in villages spread out across northeastern Arizona on ancestral land surrounded by the Navajo Indian Reservation. The two nations used to share what was called the Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area, but a great deal of controversy was generated by this arrangement and the area was partitioned by an act of Congress, also controversial, in 1974. The Hopi city of Oraibi is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously inhabited city within the present boundaries of the United States, dating back to before the 12th century.
The Niman Kachina Festival is an important part of the Hopi tradition; it is also known as The Going Home Ceremony. Kachinas, the central feature of the ceremony, are the ancestral spirits of the Hopi and, in the Hopi tradition, the personifications of all things. Everything has a spirit which may be personified by a Kachina: people, animals, plants, minerals, the elements, features of the landscape such as mountains, water, and sky, all have a Kachina. For six months of the year Kachinas visit the tribe, bringing with them rain for the crops and good health for the people. Their January arrival is celebrated in the Powamu Festival, and the Niman Kachina Festival celebrates the Kachina’s return to their mountain home on the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona. The commencement of the Kachina season coincides with the winter solstice as the Hopi begin to prepare the ground for planting and lasts through the first harvest in July. The Kachinas don’t actually leave for the mountains until the second morning of the festival when a brief sunrise ceremony allows the Kachina dancers to be seen leaving the village heading west. They disappear just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, apparently returning to the mountain, bearing the people’s gifts and prayers for the gods.
Hopi mythology is an example of a mythology so complex and nuanced it is frankly impossible to convey an accurate sense of its significance and influence in the short space allotted for a MythBlast, but one of its aspects, the concept of cyclical time, is a feature shared by many mythologies and conveys ideas of the sacred or numinous in ways that the modern notion of linear, advancing time simply cannot. Cyclical time emphasizes the cycles of life and death, darkness and light, cold and heat, solar and lunar progressions, ages and epochs that give way one to another. Cyclical time is the essence of Mircea Eliade’s notion of the eternal return, making each new year, season, or important day, a recapitulation of the referenced mythic period. Joseph Campbell noted that myths are bound inseparably to a particular time, place, culture, and even geography, and yet there is something fundamentally, perhaps even universally, human reflected to ourselves in myth, and one may do well to engage it in the spirit of the word Hopi: with civility, with respect, and with veneration.
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