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Chapter 52. Killing the Divine Animal.

Section 4. Killing the Sacred Turtles.

IN THE CALIFORNIAN, Egyptian, and Fernando Po customs the worship of the animal seems to have no relation to agriculture, and may therefore be presumed to date from the hunting or pastoral stage of society. The same may be said of the following custom, though the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, who practise it, are now settled in walled villages or towns of a peculiar type, and practise agriculture and the arts of pottery and weaving. But the Zuni custom is marked by certain features which appear to place it in a somewhat different class from the preceding cases. It may be well therefore to describe it at full length in the words of an eye-witness.   1

   “With midsummer the heat became intense. My brother [i.e. adopted Indian brother] and I sat, day after day, in the cool under-rooms of our house,—the latter [sic] busy with his quaint forge and crude appliances, working Mexican coins over into bangles, girdles, ear-rings, buttons, and what not, for savage ornament. Though his tools were wonderfully rude, the work he turned out by dint of combined patience and ingenuity was remarkably beautiful. One day as I sat watching him, a procession of fifty men went hastily down the hill, and off westward over the plain. They were solemnly led by a painted and shell-bedecked priest, and followed by the torch-bearing Shu-lu-wit-si or God of Fire. After they had vanished, I asked old brother what it all meant.   2

   “‘They are going,’ said he, ‘to the city of Ka-ka and the home of our others.’   3

   “Four days after, towards sunset, costumed and masked in the beautiful paraphernalia of the Ka-k’ok-shi, or ‘Good Dance,’ they returned in file up the same pathway, each bearing in his arms a basket filled with living, squirming turtles, which he regarded and carried as tenderly as a mother would her infant. Some of the wretched reptiles were carefully wrapped in soft blankets, their heads and forefeet protruding,—and, mounted on the backs of the plume-bedecked pilgrims, made ludicrous but solemn caricatures of little children in the same position. While I was at supper upstairs that evening, the governor’s brother-in-law came in. He was welcomed by the family as if a messenger from heaven. He bore in his tremulous fingers one of the much abused and rebellious turtles. Paint still adhered to his hands and bare feet, which led me to infer that he had formed one of the sacred embassy.   4

   “‘So you went to Ka-thlu-el-lon, did you?’ I asked.   5

   “‘E’e,’ replied the weary man, in a voice husky with long chanting, as he sank, almost exhausted, on a roll of skins which had been placed for him, and tenderly laid the turtle on the floor. No sooner did the creature find itself at liberty than it made off as fast as its lame legs would take it. Of one accord, the family forsook dish, spoon, and drinking-cup, and grabbing from a sacred meal-bowl whole handfuls of the contents, hurriedly followed the turtle about the room, into dark corners, around water-jars, behind the grinding-troughs, and out into the middle of the floor again, praying and scattering meal on its back as they went. At last, strange to say, it approached the foot-sore man who had brought it.   6

   “‘Ha!’ he exclaimed with emotion; ‘see it comes to me again; ah, what great favours the fathers of all grant me this day,’ and, passing his hand gently over the sprawling animal, he inhaled from his palm deeply and long, at the same time invoking the favour of the gods. Then he leaned his chin upon his hand, and with large, wistful eyes regarded his ugly captive as it sprawled about, blinking its meal-bedimmed eyes, and clawing the smooth floor in memory of its native element. At this juncture I ventured a question:   7

   “‘Why do you not let him go, or give him some water?’   8

   “Slowly the man turned his eyes toward me, an odd mixture of pain, indignation, and pity on his face, while the worshipful family stared at me with holy horror.   9

   “‘Poor younger brother!’ he said at last, ‘know you not how precious it is? It die? It will not die; I tell you, it cannot die.’   10

   “‘But it will die if you don’t feed it and give it water.’   11

   “‘I tell you it cannot die; it will only change houses to-morrow, and go back to the home of its brothers. Ah, well! How should you know?’ he mused. Turning to the blinded turtle again: ‘Ah! my poor dear lost child or parent, my sister or brother to have been! Who knows which? Maybe my own great-grandfather or mother!’ And with this he fell to weeping most pathetically, and, tremulous with sobs, which were echoed by the women and children, he buried his face in his hands. Filled with sympathy for his grief, however mistaken, I raised the turtle to my lips and kissed its cold shell; then depositing it on the floor, hastily left the grief-stricken family to their sorrows. Next day, with prayers and tender beseechings, plumes, and offerings, the poor turtle was killed, and its flesh and bones were removed and deposited in the little river, that it might ‘return once more to eternal life among its comrades in the dark waters of the lake of the dead.’ The shell, carefully scraped and dried, was made into a dance-rattle, and, covered by a piece of buckskin, it still hangs from the smoke-stained rafters of my brother’s house. Once a Navajo tried to buy it for a ladle; loaded with indignant reproaches, he was turned cut of the house. Were any one to venture the suggestion that the turtle no longer lived, his remark would cause a flood of tears, and he would be reminded that it had only ‘changed houses and gone to live for ever in the home of “our lost others.”’”   12

  In this custom we find expressed in the clearest way a belief in the transmigration of human souls into the bodies of turtles. The theory of transmigration is held by the Moqui Indians, who belong to the same race as the Zunis. The Moquis are divided into totem clans—the Bear clan, Deer clan, Wolf clan, Hare clan, and so on; they believe that the ancestors of the clans were bears, deer, wolves, hares, and so forth; and that at death the members of each clan become bears, deer, and so on according to the particular clan to which they belonged. The Zuni are also divided into clans, the totems of which agree closely with those of the Moquis, and one of their totems is the turtle. Thus their belief in transmigration into the turtle is probably one of the regular articles of their totem faith. What then is the meaning of killing a turtle in which the soul of a kinsman is believed to be present? Apparently the object is to keep up a communication with the other world in which the souls of the departed are believed to be assembled in the form of turtles. It is a common belief that the spirits of the dead return occasionally to their old homes; and accordingly the unseen visitors are welcomed and feasted by the living, and then sent upon their way. In the Zuni ceremony the dead are fetched home in the form of turtles, and the killing of the turtles is the way of sending back the souls to the spirit-land. Thus the general explanation given above of the custom of killing a god seems inapplicable to the Zuni custom, the true meaning of which is somewhat obscure. Nor is the obscurity which hangs over the subject entirely dissipated by a later and fuller account which we possess of the ceremony. From it we learn that the ceremony forms part of the elaborate ritual which these Indians observe at the midsummer solstice for the purpose of ensuring an abundant supply of rain for the crops. Envoys are despatched to bring “their otherselves, the tortoises,” from the sacred lake Kothluwalawa, to which the souls of the dead are believed to repair. When the creatures have thus been solemnly brought to Zuni, they are placed in a bowl of water and dances are performed beside them by men in costume, who personate gods and goddesses. “After the ceremonial the tortoises are taken home by those who caught them and are hung by their necks to the rafters till morning, when they are thrown into pots of boiling water. The eggs are considered a great delicacy. The meat is seldom touched except as a medicine, which is curative for cutaneous diseases. Part of the meat is deposited in the river with kóhakwa (white shell beads) and turquoise beads as offerings to Council of the Gods.” This account at all events confirms the inference that the tortoises are supposed to be reincarnations of the human dead, for they are called the “otherselves” of the Zuni; indeed, what else should they be than the souls of the dead in the bodies of tortoises seeing that they come from the haunted lake? As the principal object of the prayers uttered and of the dances performed at these midsummer ceremonies appears to be to procure rain for the crops, it may be that the intention of bringing the tortoises to Zuni and dancing before them is to intercede with the ancestral spirit, incarnate in the animals, that they may be pleased to exert their power over the waters of heaven for the benefit of their living descendants.   13