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Cultural Significance | Navajo Starlore
Navajo Philosophy and World View
Organization of the Cosmos
Navajo Taboos
Navajo Ceremonialism and Healing
Navajo Starlore and String Games
 Seven Sisters
 Milky Way
 Man with Legs Apart
 North Star
 Pinching Stars
 Big Star
 Horned Star
Graphic Art Forms and Navajo String Games
Variation in Naming String Game Designs
Why are string figures still so popular?


  Navajo Starlore and String Games

Download PDF "Navajo Starlore"

We already know from Toelken’s book, quoted on page 186, that some Navajo string games are closely associated with stars and constellations. In fact, this was evident as early as 1910: in the Franciscan Fathers’ Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language, six string games that represent constellations are listed (S-'tsoh, morning or evening star; Hastiin Sik'ai'7, feet ajar; Dily4h4, Pleiades; S-'[1n7, many stars, S-'ahots'i'7 pinching stars; S-'bidee'7 huloni, horned star). Further evidence was gathered recently during our visits to the reservation, where we obtained a classroom handout written by Avery Denny documenting the association of four string games with specific stars and constellations (see Organization of the Cosmos). In addition, nine string games that represent constellations were found on a wall chart prepared by elementary school teacher Laverne Jones at Many Farms, Arizona:

{e'esis (Milky Way)
S-'[1n7 (Many Stars)
S-'ahots'i'7 (Pinching Stars)
S-'tsoh (Big Star)
Leehyilzhoozh (Milky Way)
Yik1isd1h7 (Milky Way)
S-'bidee'7 (Horned Star)
Dily4h4 (Seven Sisters)
Hastiin Sik'ai'7 (Man with Legs Apart)

These observations parallel those made by Jack and Suzanne Page in the 1980s:

We came across string games at the Navajo Community College in Tsaile, where a medicine man named Andy Notanabah was teaching a class in Navajo astronomy. Some of the patterns created in string games, he said, represent the seven constellations, those that First Man so conscientiously arranged in the sky — Scorpio, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, Aldebaran, Canis Major, Ursa Major, and the belt and sword of Orion. The constellations correspond, as well, to the seven important parts of the human body: the arms, the hands, the legs and feet, the torso, the head, and the heart. So when a child learns the string games, and the names of the patterns formed, he is also learning about the Navajo sky, among other things. Furthermore, the medicine man said, the string game patterns that represent constellations are also geometrically the same as the traditional patterns woven into Navajo rugs (Page and Page 1995:112).

The most extreme example of string game-starlore association is provided by Trudy Griffin-Pierce: “At one time all the constellations, as well as many nonastronomical figures, were produced in string games that had allegorical stories associated with them.” (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:162). So the question becomes: what is known about Navajo starlore, and does this knowledge help us understand what the corresponding string games represent?

Unfortunately, much of Navajo starlore is shrouded in mystery. Father Berard Haile, who lived among the Navajo for more than 50 years, provides us with much of what we know today (Haile 1946). But as he states in the introduction to his book Starlore Among the Navaho: “Starlore is quite unknown among the ordinary Navajo.” This was confirmed recently by Pinxten and van Dooren: “Some told us that knowledge about both the stars and their mythological aspects was ‘medicine man knowledge/talk’ and that only one out of thirteen of our informants actually did have considerable astronomical knowledge” (Pinxten and van Dooren 1992:102). This apparent lack of knowledge frustrated Father Haile tremendously. He often felt that knowledge was being withheld from him: “It is reasonable to assume that a much wider knowledge of the various constellations exists than is here indicated. This knowledge, however, is in possession of some few individuals who are loath to disclose it, owing to the circumstance that astrological pursuits, which require the secret and solitude of night, are opprobriously classified with witchcraft.”(Franciscan Fathers 1910:42). However, Trudy Griffin-Pierce felt that knowledge of constellations was sporadic because constellations are not part of the ceremonial core of the Navajo: “The few that know starlore treasure it as distinctly personal knowledge. Most chanters do not possess astronomical knowledge. This is why the representation of constellations in sandpaintings is often idiosyncratic, why no two chanters draw the constellations identically” (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:103 quoting Haile). Furthermore, she was not convinced that knowledge was being withheld: “It is important to remember that what remains is only the fragments of astronomical knowledge; it is impossible to assess whether one chanter’s view was idiosyncratic or representative of a larger body of knowledge that has been lost.” (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:103).

Even so, one cannot ignore the numerous taboos that prohibit medicine men from sharing sacred knowledge with outsiders. “The Navajo believe that while it is good to pass on knowledge, it is equally important to know which portions of one’s knowledge are appropriate to withhold. The most sacred personal knowledge one must retain, passing it on only at the end of one’s life. The implication is that by sharing all that one knows, by giving it all away, one completes one’s life. And by sharing everything, one is stripped bare, degraded. This is one key to the natural dignity of the Navajo” (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:xx). Haile confirms this observation: “Knowledge of certain details of ceremonial practices must be preserved until one is sure of a ripe old age” (Haile 1947:29). What many Anglos fail to understand is that sacred knowledge is viewed as personal property, and that payment must be made to an elder in order to obtain this knowledge (Locke 1992:18). Clearly, the concept of trade must be honored when requesting knowledge: “An essential aspect of reciprocity is that in order to receive something of value, one must give something of value” (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:34).

There are also economic reasons for withholding sacred knowledge, as Ray Williamson relates:

Ceremonial details are frequently kept secret. To learn the proper way to conduct a particularly detailed healing ceremony may take years of apprenticeship and practice. Widespread knowledge of the details of these ceremonies might cause the medicine men who have worked so hard to learn them to be less in demand. The payment for a given ceremony can range up to a thousand dollars, depending on how complicated and uncommon it is. Of more importance, though, widespread knowledge of the ceremonies’ details could also take power from the ceremonies by making them common rather than unusual rituals (Williamson 1984:175).

Much of what we know about Navajo starlore comes from the study of their art, particularly sandpaintings and ceremonial rattles, which often depict constellations (Williamson 1984:169). The best example is the sandpainting that depicts Mother Earth and Father Sky (see figure, from Newcomb et al. 1956:19). The body of Father Sky is decorated with the sun, the moon, big stars, numerous constellations, and the Milky Way, which is depicted as a band of diamonds spanning the chest. The sun and moon are nearly always drawn with horns, a mark that they possess extraordinary powers (Williamson 1984:169). Mother Earth & Father Sky

However, many of the constellations in sandpaintings and rattles are rendered in a subjective, stylized form that has more to do with the stories about them than with an objective view of the sky. This has made identifying some stellar groupings especially difficult (Williamson 1984:170). One last major source of star symbolism is the star ceilings located on the roofs of shallow caves in the canyons. Each contains between ten and one hundred stars. Some of these star ceilings are 50 to 75 feet above the ground. Little is known about the rites that take place in these caves (Williamson 1984:175).

Regardless of whether our knowledge of Navajo starlore is complete or not, several concepts are firmly established. First, the Navajo organized the stellar patterns differently than did the early Greeks and Babylonians who gave us most of the constellations we recognize today (Williamson 1984:164). Second, according to Navajo legend, the stars are made of crystal, a material that shines only when illuminated by another light source. For this reason, each of the constellations has its own igniter star which provides light for the entire constellation. Remarkably, the Navajo word for glass translates as “rock star” (Williamson 1984:166). Third, specific constellations were used to tell time and to mark the beginning and ending of ceremonial, agricultural, and hunting seasons. (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:64). Finally, the constellations serve as a cultural text, evoking a body of oral literature that provides moral guidance and tells people how to live their lives (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:141). This is a key concept in understanding the connection between constellations and string games.

Griffin-Pierce explains further:

The stories associated with constellations provide moral guidance, reminding the Earth Surface people to adhere to the values essential to the establishment and maintenance of harmony in their lives and in the universe. The constellations serve as powerful symbols because they are universally visible. First Woman, in Newcomb’s (1967:83) version of the Creation, implies that the stars are an important cultural text when she says, “When all the stars were ready to be placed in the sky First Woman said, ‘I will use these to write the laws that are to govern mankind for all time. These laws cannot be written on the water as that is always changing its form, nor can they be written in the sand as the wind would soon erase them, but if they are written in the stars they can be read and remembered forever.’” (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:142).

The eight major constellations recognized today are: N1hook-s bik2'ii (Male Revolving One), the Big Dipper; N1hook-s ba'd1aii (Female Revolving One), Cassiopeia; Dily4h4 (no agreed-upon translation) the Pleiades; '!ts4'ets'0z7 (First Slim One), Orion; Hastiin Sik'ai'7 (Man with Legs Ajar), Corvus; '!ts4'etsoh (First Big One), the front part of Scorpius; Gah heet'e'ii (Rabbit Tracks), the tail of Scorpius; and Yik1isd1h7 (Awaits-the-Dawn), the Milky Way (Griffin-Pierce 1992a:78 and Table 4.3). Of these, five are represented in string games (Pleiades/Seven Stars, Four Stars/Milky Way, Man Standing with Legs Apart, North Star, Three Stars).

Of the twenty-eight secondary constellations listed by Griffin-Pierce, most of which are unidentified, six seem to have string game equivalents: S-'ahots'i'7 (Pinching or Fighting Stars), lower branch of Hyades; K'aal0gii (Butterfly I/Butterfly II), unidentified; T['iish tsoh (Big Snake, Bull Snake), unidentified; Na'ash='ii (Lizard), unidentified; Atsinlt['ish (Lightning A, Lightning B, Lightning C), unidentified; and 'Ats1 (Eagle), unidentified.

Of the thirteen individual stars and planets listed by Griffin-Pierce (Table 4.3), three have string game equivalents: S-'tsoh (Big Star I/Big Star II/Big Star III), Venus; N1hook-s bik-' (Revolving Ones Igniter), Polaris; and S-'bidee'7 (Horned Star), unidentified. One constellation not listed by Griffin-Pierce also has a string game equivalent: W0siz7n7 (Measuring Worm) (Klah 1942:59). The cultural significance of each is examined in the other pages within this section.


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