Navajo and European Witchcraft: A Brief Study
As might be expected, there are some similarities to be found between Native American Navajo witchcraft and European witchcraft. The reason being, of course, that “witchcraft” denotes a term that is supernatural in nature, unique as to the individual or individuals possessing that nature or power, and because it is a condition that suggests people who do not possess that nature or power might be fearful of that which they do not know or understand, it empowers the person who does possess the witchcraft to in some ways manipulate or control others. In this way then we might expect to find some similarities as well as differences as suggested by the term between two distinctly different cultures and geographical locations. This essay will explore some of the similarities and differences between Navajo and European witchcraft in order to identify the similarities and differences.
There is a hypothesis about how the Navajo came to be on the North American continent. Believed to be descendants of the North Asian race of Genghis Khan, it theorized that members of the clan crossed the frozen Bering Sea, making their way into North America where they flourished as a race (Coolidge, Dane and Coolidge, Mary Roberts, 1930:3). “The archeological proof of this migration is still lacking, and may be for years to come, but no one who is acquainted with the legends of Dineh can doubt the evidence they offer (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3).” The Navajo are of Athapascanian stock, whose people reside “From the Bering Strait, to the shores of the Hudson Bay and from the Arctic Ocean to the American line (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3),” down the Pacific coast, however never along the coast itself, but inland; and they are then traced along a trail of a southern migration (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3). Thus, it is believed was the path and people who are the ancestors of New Mexico’s Navajo Nation (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3).
Dineh” translates to “The People,” the Athapascans of the north refer to themselves as Tinneh, and their Apache relatives call themselves N’de or Tinde; but with some dialectic variations, most notably on the accent (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3). They, like their Mongolian ancestors, were raiders who scourged the land using force and violence (Coolidge, 1930:3). Eventually, with the colonization of America and the westward movement, they were subdued by European descendants who had colonized America (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3). While the two groups, the Navajo and the white Americans, proved formidable adversaries, the documented descriptions of the Navajo by the whites bear testimony to the Navajo strength, courage and intelligence (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930:3). It should be noted here, too, that the title of “Navajo” is one of Spanish origin, and not a title accepted by “The People (Coolidge and Coolidge, 1930; 12).”
Navajo Traditions in Witchcraft
Navajo prayer and ceremony are structured in a way to bring about certain changes in geographical location, individual or individuals, and especially to disperse or remove foreign or native malevolence (Gail, Sam D., 1981: 37). The elements of prayer have been studied and documented by researchers as (Gail, 1981: 37):
Association/identification with a holy person.
Injunction to effect.
Assertion to effect.
Removal and dispersion of foreign malevolence.
Procurement of protection. Removal and destruction native malevolence. Recovery and restoration of the lost Earth Surface Person.
All Navajo prayers, of which there are many, can be classified into these groups. Only holy people can invoke the prayers, and, if affected by the invocation, only a holy person may remove the prayer (Gail, 1981:38). Those which would occur without the invocation of the holy person are deemed to be committed by witchcraft (Gail, 1981:38).
A theme which emerges with increasing urgency as the emergence of journey proceeds is the need to establish dependable relationships to bring about an orderly world. The sequence of acts which lead only to watery chaos begins by negative means to determine the necessary character of the desired world. The people who are to direct the creation of a new world upon emergence, First Man and First Woman, are born and are given the sacred objects from which will arise the form of the new world. Yet along with their acquisition of certain powers of creation, First Man and First Woman also learned the ways of Witchcraft (Gail, 1981:51).”
In other words, there are worlds above, below and within; and it is man and woman in the world above who stands in grace, while man and woman in the world below are men and women of ghostly apparition, the dead, and witches (Gail, 1981:51).
Because the origins of European descendants in America are well-known, as are the origins of Europeans throughout the European continent; it is possible to dispense with that history and to go to the point of the analysis of this essay and examine European witchcraft.
In European studies, the understanding of witchcraft begins with a understanding of language (Clark, Stuart, 1999:3). That is, the “terms in which they were expressed, and the general systems of meaning they presupposed (Stuart, 1999:3), and in what ways the language lends itself to the belief set in overall terms (Stuart, 1999:3).
In consequence, it has been possible to account for witchcraft beliefs (like any others) in only two ways. First, they have been submitted, if only implicitly, to empirical verification to see whether they correspond to the real activities of real people. With important exceptions, the answer has been ‘no.’ The entity ‘witchcraft’ has turned out to be a non-entity, because for the most part it had no referents in the real world (Stuart, 1999:3).”
In other words, the art of European witchcraft deals with entities, powers, or persons that are not of or on this plane.
In European history, witchcraft and paganism share their roots, and it is the monotheistic Christian tradition that caused paganism to give way to Christianity, and those who continued to practice the rituals, prayers, and worship pagan gods were not just heretics, but often identified as witches (Stuart, 1999).
The Similarities and Differences Between Navajo and European Witchcraft
This essay is too brief to go into the detail needed to completely exemplify the similarities and differences between Navajo and European witchcraft. However, it is in the history of both peoples where the similarities are found, and, likewise, where the differences arise.
First, the Navajo by way of their Asian traditions from an ancient time, pursued stories of creation and the end of life, and compensated for those things which they did not understand or which mystified them with stories, prayers, and rituals. To the extent that they could not fully understand or explain something, they turned to shamans, or holy men, to explain those things for them; or, by way of ritual and prayer, to protect the People from them unknowns which might harm or adversely impact their lives. This is found to be much the same in the European tradition, as Europeans, like the Navajo, have traditions and rituals that were rooted in pagan eras and addressed those things about the world and universe that could not be explained or understood by the majority of the people.
The noticeable difference between the Navajo and European notions of witchcraft begins with the Christian tradition. The Navajo, unlike the Europeans, did not practice monotheism, but continued to divide their gratitude and place the blame for those environmental and social conditions that impacted their lives amongst their various deities. The Europeans, like the Navajos, relied upon holy men to pray and perform rituals for their protection, and to exorcise them from the demons that possessed their spirits and brought chaos into their lives and world.
European and Navajo witchcraft are deeply mired in psychological conditions that lend themselves to the belief of that mysticism (Towner, Ronald H., 1996:231) (Stevens, Phillip, 1997:49). This psychological precondition of susceptibility seems to be the most significant prevailing factor that link the two belief sets.
Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Questia. 10 Nov. 2007 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=62216044.
Coolidge, Dane, and Mary Roberts Coolidge. The Navajo Indians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930. Questia. 10 Nov. 2007 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=72398121.
Gill, Sam D. Sacred Words: A Study of Navajo Religion and Prayer. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981. Questia. 10 Nov. 2007 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=24370860.
Stevens, Phillips. “Children, Witches Demons, and Cultural Reality.” Free Inquiry Spring 1997: 49+. Questia. 10 Nov. 2007 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001517377.
Towner, Ronald H., ed. The Archaeology of Navajo Origins. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996. Questia. 10 Nov. 2007 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=9684050.
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