Sacred Texts  Native American  California  Index  Previous  Next 

The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, by Constance Goddard DuBois, [1908], at

p. 85


Wanawut, or Wanal Wanawut, 21 one of the First People born of the Earth-mother (fig. 1), is made of milkweed twine in the woven meshes of which three round flat stones, brought from the seashore, are inserted at intervals in a straight line. This was fastened with stakes in place in the bottom of a trench, and the men who laid it down must stand facing the north, since those who laid the dead Ouiot 22 down did so facing in that direction.

Fig. 1.—Wanawut as sketched by Salvador Cuevas.
Click to enlarge

Fig. 1.—Wanawut as sketched by Salvador Cuevas.

Three days after the taking of the toloache the trench was dug and wanawut placed in it. The trench was about five feet long, fifteen inches wide, and twenty-eight inches or so in depth. According to Salvador Cuevas, a cross trench was dug to accommodate the arms of the figure which would thus be as long as the trench. According to Albañas, there was only one lengthwise trench, the figure, slightly different in shape, being small enough to be included within it. The latter is possibly the more modern form.

When the wanawut is laid down, the chief explains the sacred symbol and gives instruction to the boys in the things pertaining

p. 86

to the spirit. The boys, crouching with feet placed one on top of the other, spring from one of the stones to the other, holding and swinging by the sides of the trench and so out. If they are very small they are assisted in this by their "sponsors." The mothers stand by anxiously awaiting the result, for if a boy should slip and fall it would be a sign that he was not to live long.

Albañas explains more fully the symbolic meaning of this figure:

Wanawut is the symbol of the Milky Way, the Spirit to whom our spirits go when they die. Since the spirit cannot be seen, some symbol of it is required for the instruction of the candidates. This figure is shown to them and explained. Piwish, the Milky Way, was put up where he is as a sign that we are only going to live here for a little while. Death came from Ouiot; but when we die our spirit will be sent to Piwish Ahuta. This rises with Nükülish, Antares. The symbol wanawut was to remind the boys of the spirit. "This will hurt you if you do not obey—the ceremonial law." The main wanawut would be in the sky, but we do not see it. We send our spirits to it in breathing, groaning invocation.

The main idea connected with this object in regard to the spirits of the dead seems to be the wish to free them from the earth, to keep them from returning to it; to "tie" them to the four quarters of the sky; to send them to the Milky Way.

The Milky Way glows brilliantly in the clear atmosphere of Southern California. It is there a much more imposing spectacle than it ever appears to the dwellers in the east. The ethereal quality of it, its vague outline and uncertain luminosity, make it easily an object of veneration.

Wanal wanawut is a double term, wanal meaning an object of string for ordinary use, and wanawut the sacred symbol made of string to which the term for spirit is applied because it symbolizes the spirit. Whether the idea of "tying" the spirit to the four quarters of the sky, especially the sacred north, is the reason for this symbol formed of elaborately woven twine; whether the shape of the wanawut is in some resemblance to the human form, or to a portion of the Milky Way; whether the placing it in the trench signifies the depositing of the ashes in the grave; what the three

p. 87

stones mean; whether the jumping of the boys from stone to stone and out means the escape of the spirit from the grave;—all these and other suggestions of the same sort must be left to speculation as I have had no definite explanation of them.

It is probable that little is remembered of the instruction in the things of the spirit which was given to the candidate in the toloache ceremony; but it is certain that in the old days a definite and well understood system of religious thought existed among those who alone were entrusted with the complete knowledge of the sacred mysteries.


85:21 Wanawut, object of twine used at puberty ceremony. Three stones were employed with it, but wanawut means the twine only. Wanal, a long net for rabbit drives; a seine for sea-fishing.—S.

85:22 See the creation myths given below.

Next: The Sand Painting