Legend of the Night Chant
Medicine men are believed to be powerful not only in curing disease of body and mind, but also in preventing disease by their ceremonies. These are referred to as "medicine ceremonies," but they are really "ritualistic prayers," of their tradition.
There are many of these ceremonies, each of them having many ritual prayers. Some of the ceremonies last only a day. Some last four days, each with its own sand paintings, as they are usually called today. The principal ceremonies last nine consecutive days and nights. Each of these is based on a story or legend.
The Dine (Navajo) consider the Kieje Hatal (Night Chant) one of the most important chants. It is based on this legend.
Long, long ago, three brothers lived among their people, who are known as the Dine or Dinneh, meaning "people." The oldest brother was rich. The second was a wayward, roving gambler. The youngest was a growing boy. Their only sister was married and lived with her husband a little distance from her brothers.
The second brother often took property belonging to his brothers and then went to distant corners of the earth to gamble. Upon his return, he never failed to relate a story about the wonders he had seen and the Holy People who had revealed many interesting things to him. His brothers never believed him. They called him Bith Ahatini, "The Dreamer."
One day they wished to go hunting, but did not want The Dreamer to go with them. Without telling him, they asked their brother- in-law to accompany them. Near the end of their fourth day away from home, The Dreamer suddenly realized that he had been tricked. Immediately he started in search of the hunters. He hoped to meet them and to help them carry their game--and also to be rewarded by a pelt or two.
He travelled far, but he had not seen them when the sun passed behind the hills in the distance. Near him was a deep, rock- walled canyon, from the depths of which came the sound of many voices. The Dreamer walked to its edge and peered over. Back and forth, from one side to the other, flew countless crows. They passed in and out of holes in opposite walls.
When darkness had covered everything, The Dreamer heard a human voice call from below in loud tones, "They say! They say! They say!"
From the far side came the answer: "Yes, yes! What's the matter now?
"Two people were killed today," the voice replied.
"Who were they? Who were they?"
The first voice answered, "Ana-hail-ihi, killed at sunrise; and Igak-izhi, killed at dusk, by the People of the Earth. They went in search of meat, and hunters shot arrows into them. We are sorry, but they were told to be careful and did not heed. It is too late to help them now; let us go on with the chant."
In the darkness, The Dreamer had become very frightened, but he stayed to listen and to watch. Muffled strains of song came from deep recesses in each canyon wall--the gods are singing! And just within the openings, visible in the glow of a fire, many dancers are performing in unison as they kept time with rattles.
Throughout the night, firelight flickered from wall to wall. and singing and dancing continued. At daylight, the dancers departed, and The Dreamer began again his search for the hunters.
After a short time, he reached his brothers. They are resting from their journey with heavy packs of game.
"Here comes The Dreamer," said his older brother. "I will wager that he has something marvellous to tell us!"
The Dreamer was greeted first by his brother-in-law. "You must have slept near here last night, for you are too far from home to have travelled this distance since daylight."
"I slept near a canyon that is surely holy," replied The Dreamer. "Many people had gathered to dance, the gods sang, and--"
"There! I told you that he'd have some lie to tell," interrupted the oldest brother. He picked up his pack and started on.
"Go ahead," urged the brother-in-law. "Tell me the rest."
The younger brother, also not believing, took up his pack and walked on. As the brother-in-law looked interested, The Dreamer related all that he had seen and heard. "You or my brothers must have killed the people they spoke about," said The Dreamer, as he ended the story.
"Oh, no! It was none of us," his brother-in-law protested. "We have killed no people. Yesterday morning one of us shot a crow and last night we killed a magpie. But there was no harm done."
"I fear there was," said The Dreamer. "They are hunters like you, in search of meat for the Holy People. At the time, they were disguised as birds," The Dreamer explained.
Then the two men overtook the others, the youngest brother asked his brother-in-law, "Did you hear a fine story?"
"It was not a lie," he retorted. "We killed a crow and a magpie yesterday, and the Holy People talked about it in the canyon last night. Look! Here come four mountain sheep. Hurry!" he said to The Dreamer. "Hurry and head them off!"
They had reached the canyon where strange voices had been heard. Four sheep, along large boulders, were carefully threading their way out of the canyon. As the three hunters dropped back, The Dreamer ran ahead and hid himself near the top of the trail.
As the sheep approached, he drew his bow and aimed for the leader's heart. But his fingers would not release their grip upon the arrow, and the sheep passed unharmed. He scrambled up over the rim of the canyon and ran to get ahead of them again. But when the sheep were passing him, the bowstring would not leave his fingers. A third effort to kill them failed, and a fourth effort failed.
He cursed himself and the sheep, but suddenly became quiet. Whom did he see but four gods, the four who had transformed themselves into sheep!
The man in the lead ran up to him and dropped his balil--a rectangular, four-piece, folding wand--over The Dreamer as he sat. Then the man in the lead uttered a peculiar cry. Immediately three other gods appeared behind him. All wore masks.
"Whence came you?" The Dreamer asked them.
"From Kinni-nikai," the Leader replied.
"Whither are you going?"
"To Taegyil, to hold another chant four days from now. Won't you come along?"
"No, I couldn't travel so far in four days."
But after a little persuasion, The Dreamer agreed to go. He was told to disrobe. While he was obeying the order, the Leader breathed upon him, and his raiment became the same as that of the four gods. Then all took four steps eastward, changed into sheep, and bounded away along the canyon's rim.
The hunters in hiding became restless because The Dreamer did not return. So they ventured out to where they could see the trail on which they had last seen him. No one was in sight. One of them went to the rock where The Dreamer first hid near the sheep. He followed the tracks from hiding place to hiding place until he reached the fourth and last one.
There he found his brother's clothes, with his bow and arrows upon them. He traced the four human footsteps to the east and found that they merged into the trail of five mountain sheep. The oldest brother cried in his remorse. He had always treated The Dreamer with scorn, but he now realized that he had been wrong.
The gods and The Dreamer, transformed into mountain sheep, travelled very far during their four days' journey. On the fourth day they came to a large hogan, which is an earth-covered lodge of the Dine (Navajo). Inside are numerous Holy People, both gods and men.
When The Dreamer entered the hogan with his four holy companions, a complaint at once arose from those inside a complaint about an earthly odour. The Leader of the five who had just arrived took The Dreamer outside and had him washed with yucca-root suds.
Inside the hogan stood four large jewel posts, upon which the gods hung their masks. The eastern post was of white shell, the southern of turquoise, the western of abalone, and the northern of jet. Two jewel pipes lay beside a god sitting on the western side of the hogan. He filled both pipes with tobacco and lighted them, passing one to his right and one to his left.
All in the hogan smoked, the last to receive the pipes being two large Owls sitting on each side of the entrance at the east. Each smoker drew in deep draughts of smoke and puffed them out violently. While the smoking continued, people came in from all directions.
At midnight, lightning flashed, followed by heavy thunder and rain. All were sent by Water Sprinkler, who was angered because he had not been told about the dance before it began. But a smoke with the Holy People quickly appeased him. In a short time, the chant began and lasted until morning.
Some of the gods had beautiful paintings on white deerskins, resembling those the Dine (Navajo) now make with coloured sands. These paintings they unfolded on the floor of the hogan during the successive days of the chant.
The last day of the dance was well attended, with people coming from all directions. Throughout the performance, The Dreamer paid careful attention to all the songs, prayers, paintings, and dance movements. He studied closely every sacred apparatus used in the dance--its form, its color, its size. When the chant was over, he had learned all the details of the ceremony--of Kieje Hatal, the "Night Chant."
The gods permitted him to return to his people long enough to perform the chant with his younger brother and to conduct it for people afflicted with illness or with wickedness. They spent nine days in its performance.
Then he returned to the gods at Taegyil, where he now lives. His younger brother taught the ceremony to his earthly brothers, the Dine (Navajo). They conduct it under the name Kieje Hatal, "Night Chant," or Yebichai Hatal, "The Chant of Paternal Gods."
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Ritual poetry, in relation to lyric poems, is more communal and less personal in expression, composition, and performance. While the actual texts of ritual poems may appear quite short, often elements are intended to be repeated many times. In other cases, individual passages or poems may be part of much larger performance productions, great ceremonies lasting as long as eight or nine days, which could be considered whole poems or dramatic productions in themselves.
Wiget subdivides ritual poetry into integrative, restorative, and transformational modes. Integrative rituals function as rites of passage, assisting the individual to pass safely from one stage of life, or identity, to another. Thus there are ceremonies for birth and naming, for puberty and initiation into adulthood, for death and dying. Among the integrative songs, Wiget also includes healing songs intended to enable the sick or dying individual to make safe passage back to the community.
One of the most widely known healing songs is a lyric that forms part of the Navajo Night Chant. The Night Chant is a major ceremony of healing for the Navajo people; when performed in full it lasts ten days and nights and involves many ceremonial observances such as face and body painting, ingestion of medicines, dry painting of sacred pictures, and feasting and dancing. The poem is sung as part of the ceremonial activities of the third day; the words allude to a particular place, which is said to be the House of Dawn, and also to sacred or holy beings that are part of the spiritual reality of the Navajo people.
The Night Chant ceremony of which the song is a part is performed to cure and reintegrate the individual into a healthy, viable community. The title of N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), comes from this poem; the novel depicts the struggle of an alienated young man to heal himself of deep psychological distress and reintegrate himself into his Pueblo community. In the novel, the poem appears as sung by one of the characters; it becomes part of Abel’s healing.
The words of this song, as translated by Washington Matthews, express fundamental Navajo ideas regarding the ideal relationship of the individual to the universe:
Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .May it be beautiful all around me.In beauty it is finished.
The English word “beauty” is used to translate a Navajo term that encompasses concepts of balance, harmony, and movement through time. Balance is expressed in the alternation and repetition of parallel figures and tropes: Dawn and evening light, clouds and showers, and plants and pollen are paired and joined in the poem. The rhetorical pairing and...
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