Native American Legends
Átahsaia, The Cannibal Demon
A Zuni Legend
In the days of the ancients, when the children of our forefathers
lived in Héshokta ["Town of the Cliffs"], there also
lived two beautiful maidens, elder and younger, sisters one to the
other, daughters of a master-chief.
One bright morning in summer-time, the elder sister called to the
younger, "Háni!" "What sayest thou?"
said the háni. "The day is bright and the water is warm.
Let us go down to the pool and wash our clothes, that we may wear
them as if new at the dance to come."
"Ah, yes, sister elder," said the háni; "but
these are days when they say the shadows of the rocks and even the
sage-bushes lodge unthinkable things, and cause those who walk alone
to breathe hard with fear."
"Shtchu!" exclaimed the elder sister derisively. "Younger
sisters always are as timid as younger brothers are bad-tempered."
"Ah, well, then; as you will, sister elder. I will not quarrel
with your wish, but I fear to go."
"Yaush! Come along, then," said the elder sister; whereupon
they gathered their cotton mantles and other garments into bundles,
and, taking along a bag of yucca-root, or soap-weed, started together
down the steep, crooked path to where the pool lay at the foot of
the great mesa.
Now, far above the Town of the Cliffs, among the rocks of red-gray
and yellow -- red in the form of a boulder-like mountain that looks
like a frozen sandbank -- there is a deep cave. You have never seen
it? Well! To this day it is called the "Cave of Átahsaia,"
and there, in the times I tell of, lived Átahsaia himself.
Uhh! What an ugly demon he was! His body was as big as the biggest
elk's, and his breast was shaggy with hair as stiff as porcupine-quills.
His legs and arms were long and brawny, -- all covered with speckled
scales of black and white. His hair was coarse and snarly as a buffalo's
mane, and his eyes were so big and glaring that they popped out
of his head like skinned onions. His mouth stretched from one cheek
to the other and was filled with crooked fangs as yellow as thrown-away
deer-bones. His lips were as red and puffy as peppers, and his face
as wrinkled and rough as a piece of burnt buckskin.
That was Átahsaia, who in the days of the ancients devoured
men and women for his meat, and the children of men for his sweetbread.
His weapons were terrible, too. His fingernails were as long as
the claws of a bear, and in his left hand he carried a bow made
of the sapling of a mountain-oak, with two arrows ready drawn for
use. And he was never seen without his great flint knife, as broad
as a man's thigh and twice as long, which he brandished with his
right hand and poked his hair back with, so that his grizzly fore-locks
were covered with the blood of those he had slaughtered. He wore
over his shoulders whole skins of the mountain lion and bear clasped
with buttons of wood.
Now, although Átahsaia was ugly and could not speak without
chattering his teeth, or laugh without barking like a wolf, he was
a very polite demon. But, like many ugly and polite people nowadays,
he was a great liar.
Átahsaia that morning woke up and stuck his head out of
his hole just as the two maidens went down to the spring. He caught
sight of them while his eyes traveled below, and he chuckled. Then
he muttered, as he gazed at them and saw how young and fine they
were: "Ahhali! Yaatchi!" (" Good lunch! Two for a
munch!") And howled his war cry, "Ho-o-o-thlai-a!"
till Teshaminkia, the Echo-god, shouted it to the maidens.
"Oh!" exclaimed the háni, clutching the arm of
her elder sister; "listen!" "Ho-o-o-thlai-a!"
again roared the demon, and again Teshaminkia. "Oh, oh! Sister
elder, what did I tell you?
"Why did we come out today!" and both ran away; then
stopped to listen. When they heard nothing more, they returned to
the spring and went to washing their clothes on some flat stones.
But Átahsaia grabbed up his weapons and began to clamber
down the mountain. Muttering and chuckling to himself as he went:
"Ahhali! Yaatchi!" (" Good lunch! Two for a munch!").
Around the corner of Great Mesa, on the high shelves of which stands
the Town of the Cliffs, are two towering buttes called Kwilli-yallon
(Twin Mountain). Far up on the top of this mountain there dwelt
Áhaiyúta and Mátsailéma.
You don't know who Áhaiyúta and Mátsailéma
were? Well, I will tell you. They were the twin children of the
Sun-father and the Mother Waters of the World. Before men were born
to the light, the Sun made love to the Waters of the World, and
under his warm, bright glances, there were hatched out of a foam-cup
on the face of the Great Ocean, which then covered the earth, two
wonderful boys, whom men afterward named Ua nam Atch Píahk'oa
("The Beloved Two who Fell").
The Sun dried away the waters from the highlands of earth and these
Two then delivered men forth from the bowels of our Earth mother,
and guided them eastward toward the home of their father, the Sun.
The time came, alas! When war and many strange beings arose to destroy
the children of earth, and then the eight Stern Beings changed the
hearts of the twins to sawanikia, or the medicine of war. Thenceforth
they were known as Áhaiyúta and Mátsailéma
("Our Beloved," the "Terrible Two," "Boy-gods
Even though changed, they still guarded our ancients and guided
them to the Middle of the World, where we now live. Gifted with
hearts of the medicine of war, and with wisdom almost as great as
the Sun-father's own, they became the invincible guardians of the
Corn-People of Earth, and, with the rainbow for their weapon and
thunderbolts for their arrows, -- swift lightning-shafts pointed
with turquoise, -- were the greatest warriors of all in the days
of the new.
When at last they had conquered most of the enemies of men, they
taught to a chosen few of their followers the songs, prayers, and
orders of a society of warriors who should be called their children,
the Priests' of the Bow, and selecting from among them the two wisest,
breathed into their nostrils (as they have since breathed into those
of their successors) the sawanikia. Since then we make anew the
semblance of their being and place them each year at "mid sun"
on the top of the Mountain of Thunder, and on the top of the Mountain
of the Beloved, that they may know we remember them and that they
may guard (as it was said in the days of the ancients they would
guard) the Land of Zuñi from sunrise to sunset and cut off
the pathways of the enemy.
Well, Áhaiyúta, who is called the elder brother,
and Mátsailéma, who is called the younger, were living
on the top of Twin Mountain with their old grandmother. Said the
elder to the younger on this same morning: "Brother, let us
go out and hunt. It is a fine day. What say you?
"My face is in front of me," said the younger, "and
under a roof is no place for men," he added, as he put on his
helmet of elk-hide and took a quiver of mountain-lion skin from
an antler near the ladder.
"Where are you two boys going now?" shrieked the grandmother
through a trap door from below. Don't you ever intend to stop worrying
me by going abroad when even the spaces breed fear like thick war?"
"O grandmother," they laughed, as they tightened their
bows and straightened their arrows before the fire, "never
mind us; we are only going out for a hunt," and before the
old woman could climb up to stop them they were gaily skipping down
the rocks toward the cliffs below.
Suddenly the younger brother stopped. "Ahh!" said he,
"listen, brother! It is the cry of Átahsaia, and the
old wretch is surely abroad to cause tears!" "Yes,"
replied the elder. "It is Átahsaia, and we must stop
him! Come on, come on; quick!"
"Hold, brother, hold! Stiffen your feet right here with patience.
He is after the two maidens of Héshokta! I saw them going
to the spring as I came down. This day he must die. Is your face
to the front?" "It is; come on," said the elder brother,
"Stiffen your feet with patience, I say," again exclaimed
the younger brother. "Know you that the old demon comes up
the pathway below here? He will not hurt them until he gets them
home. You know he is a great liar, and a great flatterer; that is
the way the old beast catches people. Now, if we wait here we will
surely see them when they come up."
So, after quarreling a little, the elder brother consented to sit
down on a rock, which overlooked the pathway and was within bow
shot of the old demon's cave.
Now, while the girls were washing, Átahsaia ran as fast
as his old joints would let him until the two girls heard his muttering
and rattling weapons.
"Something is coming, sister!" cried the younger, and
both ran toward the rocks to hide again, but they were too late.
The old demon strode around by another way and suddenly, at a turn,
came face to face with them, glaring with his bloodshot eyes and
waving his great jagged flint knife. But as he neared them he lowered
the knife and smiled, straightening himself up and approaching the
frightened ones as gently as would a young man.
The poor younger sister clung to the elder one, and sank moaning
by her side, for the smile of Átahsaia was as fearful as
the scowl of a triumphant enemy, or the laugh of a rattlesnake when
he hears any old man tell a lie and thinks he will poison him for
"Why do you run, and why do you weep so? Asked the old demon.
"I know you. I am ugly and old, my pretty maidens, but I am
your grandfather and mean you no harm at all. I frightened you only
because I felt certain you would run away from me if you could."
"Ah!" faltered the elder sister, immediately getting
over her fright. "We did not know you and therefore we were
frightened by you. Come, sister, come," said she to the younger.
"Brighten your eyes and thoughts, for our grandfather will
not hurt us. Don't you see?"
But the younger sister only shook her head and sobbed. Then the
demon got angry. "What are you blubbering about?" he roared,
raising his knife and sweeping it wildly through the air. "Do
you see this knife? This day I will cut off the light of your life
with it if you do not swallow your whimpers!"
"Get up, oh, do get up, háni!" whispered the elder
sister, now again frightened herself. "Surely he will not cut
us off just now, if we obey him; and is it not well that even for
a little time the light of life shine-though it shine through fear
and sadness-than be cut off altogether? For who knows where the
trails tend that lead through the darkness of the night of death?"
You know, in the speech of the rulers of the world and of our ancients,
a man's light was cut off when his life was taken, and when he died
he came to the dividing-place of life. The háni tried to
rally her and rose to her feet, but she still trembled.
"Now, my pretty maidens, my own granddaughters, even,"
said the old demon once more, as gently as at first, "I am
most glad I found you. How good are the gods! For I am a poor, lone
old man. All my people are gone." (Here he sighed like the
hiss of a wildcat.) "Yonder above is my home" (pointing
over his shoulder), "and as I am a great hunter, plenty of
venison is baking in my rear room and more sweet-bread than I can
eat. Lo! It makes me homesick to eat alone, and when I saw you and
saw how pretty and gentle you were, I thought that it might be you
would throw the light of your favor on me, and go up to my house
to share of my abundance and drink from my vessels. Besides, I am
so old that only now and then can I get a full jar of water up to
my house. So I came as fast as I could to ask you to return and
eat with me."
Reassured by his kind speech, the elder sister hastened to say:
"Of course, we will go with our grandfather, and if that is
all he may want of us, we can soon fill his water-jars, can't we,
"You are a good girl," said the old demon to the one
who had spoken; then, glaring at the younger sister: "Bring
that fool along with you and come up; she will not come by herself;
she has more bashfulness than sense, and less sense than my knife,
because that makes the world more wise by killing off fools."
He led the way and the elder sister followed, dragging along the
shrinking háni. The old demon kept talking in a loud voice
as they went up the pathway, telling all sorts of entertaining stories,
until, as they neared the rocks where Áhaiyúta and
Mátsailéma were waiting, the Two heard him and said
to one another: "Ahh, they come!"
Then the elder brother jumped up and began to tighten his bow,
but the younger brother muttered: "Sit down, won't you, you
fool! Átahsaia's ears are like bat-ears, only bigger. Wait
now, till I say ready. You know he will not hurt the girls until
he gets them out from his house. Look over there in front of his
hole. Do you see the flat place that leads along to that deep chasm
beyond?" "Yes," replied the elder brother. "But
what of that?"
"What but that there he cuts the throats of his captives and
casts their bones and heads into the depths of the chasm! Do you
see the notch in the stone? That's where he lets their blood flow
down, and for that reason no one ever discovers his tracks. Now,
stiffen your feet with patience, I say, and we will see what to
do when the time comes.
Again they sat and waited. As the old demon and the girls passed
along below, the elder brother again started and would have shot
had not Mátsailéma held him back. "You fool of
a brother elder, but not wiser, No! Do you not know that your arrow
is lightning and will kill the maidens as well as the monster?"
Finally, the demon reached the entrance to his cave, and, going
in, asked the girls to follow him, laying out two slabs for them
to sit on. "Now, sit down, my pretty girls, and I will soon
get something for you to eat. You must be hungry." Going to
the rear of the cave, he broke open a stone oven, and the steam,
which arose, was certainly delicious and meaty. Soon he brought
out two great bowls, big enough to feed a whole dance. One contained
meat, the other a mess resembling sweetbread pudding. "Now,
let us eat," said the demon, seating himself opposite, and
at once diving his horny fingers and scaly hand half up to the wrist
in the meat-broth. The elder sister began to take bits of the food
to eat it, when the younger made a motion to her, and showed her
with horror the bones of a little hand. The sweetbread was the flesh
and bones of little children. Then the two girls only pretended
to eat, taking the food out and throwing it down by the side of
"Why don't you eat?" demanded the demon, cramming at
the same time a huge mouthful of the meat, bones and all, into his
wide throat. "We are eating," said one of the girls. "Then
why do you throw my food away?" "We are throwing away
only the bones."
"Well, the bones are the better part," retorted the demon,
taking another huge mouthful, by way of example, big enough to make
a grown man's meal. "Oh, yes!" he added; "I forgot
that you had baby teeth."
After the meal was finished, the old demon said: "Let us go
out and sit down in the sun on my terrace. Perhaps, my pretty maidens,
you will comb an old man's hair, for I have no one left to help
me now," he sighed, pretending to be very sad. So, showing
the girls where to sit down, without waiting for their assent he
settled himself in front of them and leaned his head back to have
it combed. The two maidens dared not disobey; and now and then they
pulled at a long, coarse hair, and then snapped their fingers close
to his scalp, which so deceived the old demon that he grunted with
satisfaction every time. At last their knees were so tired by his
weight upon them that they said they were done, and Átahsaia,
rising, pretended to be greatly pleased, and thanked them over and
over. Then he told them to sit down in front of him, and he would
comb their hair as they had combed his, but not to mind if he hurt
a little for his fingers were old and stiff. The two girls again
dared not disobey, and sat down as he had directed. Uhh! How the
old beast grinned and glared and breathed softly between his teeth.
The two brothers had carefully watched everything, the elder one
starting up now and then, and the younger remaining quiet. Suddenly
Mátsailéma sprang up. He caught the shield the Sun-father
had given him, -- the shield, which, though made only of nets and
knotted cords, would ward off alike the weapons of the warrior or
the magic of the wizard. Holding it aloft, he cried to Áhaiyúta:
"Stand ready; the time is come! If I miss him, pierce him with
your arrow. Now, then--" He hurled the shield through the air.
Swiftly as a hawk and noiselessly as an owl, it sailed straight
over the heads of the maidens and settled between them and the demon's
face. The shield was invisible, and the old demon knew not it was
there. He leaned over as if to examine the maidens' heads. He opened
his great mouth, and, bending yet nearer, made a vicious bite at
the elder one.
"Ai, ai! My poor little sister, alas!" with which both
fell to sobbing and moaning, and crouched, expecting instantly to
But the demon's teeth caught in the meshes of the invisible shield,
and, howling with vexation, he began struggling to free him of the
encumbrance. Áhaiyúta drew a shaft to the point and
let fly. With a thundering noise that rent the rocks, and a rush
of strong wind, the shaft blazed through the air and buried itself
in the demon's shoulders, piercing him through ere the thunder had
half done pealing. Swift as mountain sheep were the leaps and light
steps of the brothers, who, bounding to the shelf of rock, drew
their war-clubs and soon softened the hard skull of the old demon
with them. The younger sister was unharmed save by fright; but the
elder sister lay where she had sat, insensible.
"Hold!" cried Mátsailéma, "she was
to blame, but then-" Lifting the swooning maiden in his strong
little arms, he laid her apart from the others, and, breathing into
her nostrils, soon revived her eyes to wisdom.
"This day have we, through the power of sawanikia, seen for
our father an enemy of our children, men? A beast that caused unto
fatherless children, unto "menless" women, unto "womenless"
men (who thus became through his evil will), tears and sad thoughts,
has this day been looked upon by the Suit and laid low. May the
favors of the gods thus meet us ever."
Thus said the two brothers, as they stood over the gasping, still
struggling but dying demon; and as they closed their little prayer,
the maidens, who now first saw whom they had to thank for their
deliverance, were overwhelmed with gladness, yet shame. They exclaimed,
in response to the prayer: "May they, indeed, thus meet you
and ourselves!" Then they breathed upon their hands.
The two brothers now turned toward the girls. "Look ye upon
the last enemy of men," said they, "whom this day we have
had the power of sawanikia given us to destroy; whom this day the
father of all, our father the Sun, has looked upon, whose light
of life this day our weapons have cut off; whose path of life this
day our father has divided. Not ourselves, but our father has done
this deed, through us. Haste to your home in Héshokta and
tell your father these things; and tell him, pray, that he must
assemble his priests and teach them these our words, for we divide
our paths of life henceforth from one another and from the paths
of men, no more to mingle save in spirit with the children of men.
But we shall depart for our everlasting home in the mountains--the
one to the Mountain of Thunder, the other to the Mount of the Beloved
-- to guard from sunrise to sunset the land of the Corn-priests
of Earth, that the foolish among men break not into the Middle Country
of Earth and lay it waste. Yet we shall require of our children
the plumes wherewith we dress our thoughts, and the forms of our
being wherewith men may renew us each year at "mid sun".
Henceforth two stars at morning and evening will be seen, the one
going before, the other following, the Sun-father--the one Áhaiyúta,
his herald; the other Mátsailéma, his guardian; warriors
both, and fathers of men. May the trail of life be finished ere
divided! Go ye happily hence."
The maidens breathed from the hands of the Twain, and with bowed
heads and a prayer of thanks started down the pathway toward the
Town of the Cliffs. When they came to their home, the old father
asked whence they came. They told the story of their adventure and
repeated the words of the Beloved.
The old man bowed his head, and said: "It was Áhaiyúta
and Mátsailéma!" Then he made a prayer of thanks,
and cast abroad on the winds white meal of the seeds of earth and
shells from the Great Waters of the World, the pollen of beautiful
flowers, and the paints of war.
"It is well!" he said. "Four days hence I will assemble
my warriors, and we will cut the plume-sticks, paint and feather
them, and place them on high mountains, that through their knowledge
and power of medicine our Beloved Two Warriors may take them unto
Now, when the maidens disappeared among the rocks below, the brothers
looked each at the other and laughed. Then they shouted, and Áhaiyúta
kicked Átahsaia's ugly carcass till it gurgled, at which
the two boys shouted again most hilariously and laughed. "That's
what we proposed to do with you, old beast!" they cried out.
"But, brother younger," said Áhaiyúta,
"what shall be done with him now?" "Let's skin him,"
said Mátsailéma. So they set to work and skinned the
body from foot to head, as one skins a fawn when one wishes to make
a seed-bag. Then they put sticks into the legs and arms, and tied
strings to them, and stuffed the body with dry grass and moss; and
where they set the thing up against the cliff it looked verily like
the living Átahsaia.
"Uhh! What an ugly beast he was!" said Mátsailéma.
Then he shouted: "Wahaha, hihiho!" and almost doubled
up with laughter. "Won't we have fun with old grandmother,
though. Hurry up; let's take care of the rest of him!"
They cut off the head, and Áhaiyúta said to it: "Thou
hast been a liar, and told a falsehood for every life thou hast
taken in the world; therefore shall thou become a lying star, and
each night thy guilt shall be seen of all men throughout the wide
world." He twirled the bloody head around once or twice, and
cast it with all might into the air. Wa muu! It sped through the
spaces into the middle of the sky like a spurt of blood, and now
it is a great red star. It rises in summer time and tells of the
coming morning when it is only midnight; hence it is called Mokwanosana
(Great Lying Star).
Then Mátsailéma seized the great knife and ripped
open the abdomen with one stroke. Grasping the intestines, he tore
them out and exclaimed: "Ye have devoured and digested the
flesh of men over the whole wide world; therefore ye shall be stretched
from one end of the earth to the other, and the children of those
ye have wasted will look upon ye every night and will say to one
'Ah, the entrails of him who caused sad thoughts to our grandfathers
shine well tonight!' and they will laugh and sneer at ye."
Whereupon he slung the whole mass aloft, and tsolo! It stretched
from one end of the world to the other, and became the Great Snow-drift
of the Skies (Milky Way). Lifting the rest of the carcass, they
threw it down into the chasm whither the old demon had thrown so
many of his victims, and the rattlesnakes came out and ate of the
flesh day after day till their fangs grew yellow with putrid meat,
and even now their children's fangs are yellow and poisonous.
"Now, then, for some fun!" shouted Mátsailéma.
Do you catch the old bag up and prance around with it a little;
and I will run off to see how it looks."
Áhaiyúta caught up the effigy, and, hiding himself
behind, pulled at the strings till it looked, of all things thinkable,
like the living Átahsaia himself starting out for a hunt,
for they threw the lion skins over it and tied the bow in its hand.
"Excellent! Excellent!" exclaimed the boys, and they
clapped their hands and wa-ha-ha-ed and ho-ho-ho-ed till they were
sore. Then, dragging the skin along, they ran as fast as they could,
down to the plain below Twin Mountain.
The Sun was climbing down the western ladder, and their old grandmother
had been looking all over the mountains and valleys below to see
if the two boys were coming. She had just climbed the ladder and
was gazing and fretting and saying: "Oh! Those two boys! Terrible
pests and as hardhearted and as long-winded in having their own
way as a turtle is in having his! Now, something has happened to
them; I knew it would," when suddenly a frightened scream came
up from below.
"Ho-o-o-ta! Ho-o-o-ta! Come quick! Help! Help!" the voice
cried, as if in anguish. "Uhh!" exclaimed the old woman,
and she went so fast in her excitement that she tumbled through
the trap door, and then jumped up, scolding and groaning.
She grabbed a poker of piñon, and rushed out of the house.
Sure enough, there was poor Mátsailéma running hard
and calling again and again for her to hurry down. The old woman
hobbled along over the rough path as fast as she could, and until
her wind was blowing shorter and shorter, when, suddenly turning
around the crags, she caught sight of Áhaiyúta struggling
to get away from Átahsaia.
"O ai o! I knew it! I knew it!" cried the old woman;
and she ran faster than ever until she came near enough to see that
her poor grandson was almost tired out, and that Mátsailéma
had lost even his war-club. "Stiffen your feet, --my boys,
--wait--a bit," puffed the old woman, and, flying into a passion,
she rushed at the effigy and began to pound it with her poker, till
the dust fairly smoked out of the dry grass, and the skin doubled
up as if it were in pain.
Mátsailéma rolled and kicked in the grass, and Áhaiyúta
soon had to let the stuffed demon fall down for sheer laughing.
But the old woman never ceased. She belabored the demon and cursed
his cannibal heart and told him that was what he got for chasing
her grandsons, and that, and this, and that, whack! Whack! Without
stopping, until she thought the monster surely must be dead. Then
she was about to rest when suddenly the boys pulled the strings,
and the demon sprang up before her, seemingly as well as ever. Again
the old woman fell to, but her strokes kept getting feebler and
feebler, her breath shorter and shorter, until her wind went out
and she fell to the ground.
How the boys did laugh and roll on the ground when the old grandmother
moaned: "Alas! Alas! This day--my day--light is--cut off--and
my wind of life--fast going."
The old woman covered her head with her tattered mantle; but when
she found that Átahsaia did not move, she raised her eyes
and looked through a rent. There were her two grandsons rolling
and kicking on the grass and holding their mouths with hands, their
eyes swollen and faces red with laughter. Then she suddenly looked
for the demon. There lay the skin, all torn and battered out of
"So ho! You pesky wretches; that are the way you treat me,
is it? Well! never again will I help you, never!" she snapped,
"nor shall you ever live with me more!" Whereupon the
old woman jumped up and hobbled away.
But little did the brothers care. They laughed till she was far
away, and then said one to the other: "It is done!" Since
that time, the grandmother has gone, no one knows where. But Áhaiyúta
and Mátsailéma are the bright stars of the morning
and evening, just in front of and behind the Sun-father himself.
Yet their spirits hover over their shrines on Thunder Mountain and
the Mount of the Beloved, they say, or linger over the Middle of
the World, forever to guide the games and to guard the warriors
of the Land of Zuñi. Thus it was in the days of the ancients.
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