Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
I am up betimes the next morning—I do not want to miss anything. The sun is still only a promise when the men go out for wood. They bring a pile into the hogan and call the patients, who sit in their usual place at the middle point of the back of the house, facing directly east, behind the fire. Red-Point takes a fire drill of wood from his bundle. Curley's-Son brings a bundle of juniper bark, and by rapidly twirling the drill in the hole of the fireboard creates a spark. Only a faint wisp of smoke indicates its presence; but Red-Point blows vigorously though steadily upon the shredded bark which serves as tinder, and soon a lively flame is burning. Curley's-Son, holding it carefully, moves the ignited mass in the ceremonial cross from east to west and from south to north, then lays it under the pile of wood awaiting it at the fireplace, and a good fire results.
Now the women are dismissed as the men prepare for work. A little before nine we, the audience, are called again. The hogan has once more changed its appearance. Everything is swept and in order. I am warned as I step inside the door and behold at my feet four small snakes made in sand, as if one were crawling into the fire from each direction. We women walk around the south side of the fire with its paintings to our places at the north side, I following Atlnaba. Behind the
fire but far enough away to leave a trail is a charming bit of mosaic done in sand. It is like the black cloud of Atlnaba's gray sand-painting blanket, except that it has a variation of the border.
Ordinarily a frame surrounds the cloud. It is composed of wide red and blue stripes, each outlined entirely in white. Tom calls my attention to the fact that this one has the red inside, the blue outside. "There are two branches of this sing," he explains. "Usually the red is outside and the blue in, but since this is to do away with evil caused by lightning the blue must be outside. It will be that way all the way through this sing. If it were sung to bring blessing and ward off evil the red would be outside. This black cloud has the Sky People on it. They are the gods for today."
Everyone familiar with Navajo sand-paintings knows that the outline frame of white, red, and blue represents a rainbow frame or garland, but I had never before heard that the red and blue could be reversed. I notice then that the small light rafts, short stubby versions of the frame upon the cloud, have the blue outside. I am to find that the colors will be used thus consistently every time these elements appear in the chant hereafter.
As I hastily note a few details of this sort, Red-Point is arranging four sticks about an inch in diameter and three feet long. He spits on each one, sticks one end into the fire, and lays it at the side of one of the snakes, always observing the order of direction. He spits again to east, west, south, north, and around, then sprinkles pollen over the Sky People at the west of the house, along the canes and their accompanying snakes, and finally up and down.
He had already sent Curley's-Son to call Marie and Ninaba,
and they come in. But now to my dismay he orders me out. I do not know if I am to be left out permanently or only temporarily, and my chagrin overpowers my hopes as I loiter alone like a naughty child outside at the back of the hogan. Almost at once, to my relief, Tom hunts me up, explaining apologetically: "The old man says you could come in all right, but he don't think you want to. You see, they are all going to undress."
"But I don't mind that as long as there are no white people," I protest. "Your women all do it—why can't I?"
"They are going to take the medicine too, but you can take just a little and use the rest to bathe yourself," he prompts as we edge toward the door.
Inside, the participants have made ready. There are no gay blankets or soft sheepskins for patients, Chanter, or guests. Marie and Ninaba, naked except for their skirts, and with hair unbound, sit on the ground behind the painting of the Sky People. The women whom I now join sit, stripped as are the patients, on the bare floor at the north. Tom has no red headband across his forehead to bind in his short hair; Curley's-Son and Red-Point, as well as the few men visitors, have removed their hair strings and let down their hair. They wear only a gee-string.
The fire is now reasonably hot. The men who are officiating, Tom and Curley's-Son chiefly, replenish it frequently from the large piles of wood on each side of the door. At the side of the fire stands a large old-fashioned soot-blackened Navajo pot in which some concoction is boiling vigorously. As soon as the fire had been ceremonially lighted with the fire drill, Red-Point had put on water to boil in a bucket. Then he had thrown a generous portion of the herbs he had so patiently
chopped yesterday into the pot and added the hot water. Since then he has carefully watched it so that it keeps boiling but does not bubble over. The surplus water stands ready and hot with a few coals under it.
Each woman, I find, has brought with her a small enamel pan and a sackful of clean sand which she has deposited on the ground before her. The Chanter's assistants arrange everything for the patients. They set a basket on the middle of the cloud and at the side of each patient arrange a pile of sand which they scoop out in the form of a basin. Around it Red-Point places four hoops of cottonwood which he has cut and painted to resemble white snakes. I find myself totally unprepared. But Atlnaba helps me out. She calls to little Ben outside to bring a pan and tells Tom to bring me some sand.
By this time I realize that I am to witness the administration of the emetic which is indispensable for purification. We must make ourselves acceptable to the gods we shall invite. We have cleaned the hogan, purified it with new herbs, invoked the gods by sprinkling pollen with a prayer. We have washed our hair with soapweed, we must now cleanse our bodies inside and out. Red-Point finishes off the final preparatory detail as he places an eagle feather against each side of the basket, one for Ninaba and one for Marie.
All is now in readiness for Tom has brought in a large bucket full of cold water. Ruby waits outside for orders to get more. We form into a procession around the fire, lining up north of the east snake while Red-Point sings. At a particular accented word in the song we cross the east snake right foot forward, stop and wait for the next accented word when we cross the south snake left foot forward, repeating likewise for west and north snakes, and the whole circuit four times.
[paragraph continues] We have already gone around the fire this way once upon entering, and we do so once more at the end of the rite. Atlnaba has brought Yikadezba and Djiba, her sister. Djiba can walk, but only uncertainly, so Atlnaba carries her. But Red-Point directs Yikadezba just as he does us. For some unexplained reason she has tied a long string to her big toe. Most earnestly she tries to do as she is told but does not know right from left and succeeds in consistently getting the "wrong foot forward" at the same time taking exaggerated strides in her attempts to do exactly right. All burst into loud laughs as they watch her and egg her on.
Red-Point now takes the cane lying beside the black snake at the east, pokes its end into the fire, then presses it to the soles of his feet, along his legs, hands, arms, chest, back, and head, singing the while. He repeats the performance, pressing it to the same parts of Marie's body, then Ninaba's. Once more he goes through with it using the cane belonging to the white snake of the south, first on himself, then on the patients. When he gets to the cane belonging to the blue snake of the west, Atlnaba begins to treat herself with the one Red-Point has replaced at the east. She presses the end which is covered with ashes firmly and repeatedly to her ankles and wrists. She has rheumatism, and this will make it better. Her husband and Tom use the poker cure also but in a more general way as Red-Point uses it for his patients.
Latterly the fire has become hotter and as we proceed with the pokers the men heap more and more of the dry crackling wood upon it. Red-Point takes down the sack of drying mixed herbs and puts a handful in the patients' basket and a portion into the dish standing on the floor before each of the audience. He then pours over each portion some of the brew
from the sacred pot. Curley's-Son follows with the bucket of cold water and fills each pan until the medicine is lukewarm. After the liquid settles Red-Point strains the solid parts off from the top of the basket through a brush he has placed near it during the preparation. Handled with care this brush made of fine pliant sticks makes an excellent strainer. After the patients' medicine is clear Red-Point passes the brush around and we each strain our medicine and rub the herbs over parts of our bodies.
Over the ceremonial basket Red-Point sifts a cross of white pollen as he murmurs a prayer. He treats each of our dishes to the same blessing and follows it with one of yellow. The patients stir their supply with the eagle feathers, we stir ours with our index fingers. Each of the audience arranges his sand before him to form a basin as Red-Point settles into his usual place at the southwest point of the hogan and starts singing. After repeating the burden of his song several times, he stresses a word as he accentuates the lilt of his rattle and Marie and Ninaba stoop and drink of the concoction in the basket directly with their lips. We have been told to wait. They take four long draughts and sit waiting miserably. By this time the sweat is dripping from us all, running in streams down our faces and in tickling trickles down our backs. It feels like flies, but the heat and smoke have driven them to the crevices between the house logs of the roof as far removed as possible from the fire. We have no such refuge.
The four drinks of the emetic should cause the patients to vomit but Marie never vomits even when she is ill. They sip some more of the greenish-yellow medicine and now we may drink also. Thinking to myself, "When in Rome do as the Romans do," I bow to the inevitable. The medicine has a bitter
taste quite in keeping with its bilious color. I have often encountered more disagreeable tastes in our own medicines. Marie and Ninaba continue conscientiously their struggles with it, resorting to the feathers for aid, and after long minutes succeed but only with strain on Marie's part. I know she has not eaten anything and has a severe headache.
Atlnaba no more than swallows the stuff when up it comes in the most satisfactory manner. She takes more, and if ever there was internal purification, she is pure. Her husband is as conscientious about it; but Tom finds work to do, wood to be put on fire, water to be poured in basins, anything to keep him away from his own medicine. He does as he advised me, takes just a little, uses the rest to bathe.
By now the fire has risen and the hogan is suffocating. Even Atlnaba, my own model of endurance and the object of my constant admiration, pulls back to the remotest circumference of the house after covering over her sand basin neatly with the surplus from the outside edges. As she wipes the perspiration from her face, it registers complete misery. Marie and Ninaba look wretched, too, and as my eye wanders about the circle I see the same drawn expression on the faces of all but Red-Point. He is as active and as cheerful as always, pleased because all is being done thoroughly and well. I enjoy a certain exultation because, although I am not inwardly pure, I have not moved from my original place even when the fire reached its height.
At last there remain only small bits of wood for the fire and small amounts of medicine in each bowl. Marie and Ninaba stand up and rub the remainder over all parts of their bodies; the entire audience follows their cue. The liquid has a clean refreshing feel, but the sticks and leaves which have
settled to the bottom adhere to our bodies, which, even if dripping, are clean. Red-Point shakes a few ashes from the end of a poker into Marie's and Ninaba's basins of sand and Curley's-Son covers them over with fresh sand making them little mounds. We all shake ashes into our own basins before covering them. Under the big piles of wood there were two neat sets of small regularly arranged and evenly shaped sticks. These are now laid on the fire, one set from east to west, the other crossing it. The flames die down, only the hot coals remain. Red-Point jumps over the fire; reversing his customary direction, he starts at the west and jumps to the east and back, then from north to south and back. Curley's-Son and Tom imitate him exactly. Red-Point tells the audience to go outside.
We sit facing the door while Tom and Curley's-Son gather up the sand of the paintings and take it out for deposit. As we wait, the agonized expression gradually gives place to smiles, and we rub the drying leaves off our backs, arms, and legs. Never did sun and wind feel so good, never was a breath of fresh air so delightful. After the few minutes which have sufficed to dry us off, we come into the house again. The fire is tame once more, only a glowing bed of coals with the four pokers in their cross formation. The air is comfortably cool and has a slight pleasant fragrance.
Once more we take our places and wait, as Curley's-Son and Tom sprinkle the coals with water and move them back and forth with a poker in each hand until all the fire is gone. They gather the remains into a gunny sack and deposit them outside. Soon after they return, we place the sand which formed our receptacles on the sacks and pieces of old cloth in which it was brought in. Then forming a procession we march in
single file to a place near an anthill about one hundred yards northeast of the hogan where lie also the lifeless remains of the once vehement fire. Here we deposit our sand.
As we return from performing this office we sit near the patients at the rear of the hogan. Near us stands a basket filled with clear water on which bits of dried herbs are floating. Red-Point takes a large bunch of eagle feathers, dips the tips into this medicine which smells like sweet grass, and gives us and the house a generous sprinkling. It is a cool refreshing shower. We breathe the smoke of the purifying incense placed on the coals of benediction and dress.
Marie goes off to her own house, her head aching too violently for her to want food. I go in the opposite direction to mine, marvelling on the way: "There is a communion of suffering, as well as a communion of Saints? Certainly I have never before felt this sort of oneness with other individuals. Can I ever make anyone understand how utterly inoffensive and unobjectionable this barbaric-sounding rite appears?"
I despair but I do not think it matters. I am a part of this activity and feel exhilarated at the turn the affair has taken. Tomorrow I shall be casually accepted.