Native American Legends
The Sun, Moon and Stars
A Navajo Legend
In this present, or Fifth World, the First People had four lights
which had been brought from the lower world. White light appeared
over the eastern mountains, blue light spread across the sky from
the southern mountains, yellow light came from the western peaks
and darkness from the north. These lights were far away and carried
no heat, so the air was always of one temperature and no seasonal
changes occurred although there was darkness and daylight.
"We do not have enough daylight," the people complained.
"We surely need more light."
So First Woman sent Glowworm to the east and told Fox Fire to go
to the south, Lightning Beetle to the west, and Firefly to the north.
Then, when anyone needed extra light, these four were ready to serve
For a time this plan worked very well, but it was not long before
the First People were saying, "These lights are too small.
They flicker on and off so they are of little use to us. We cannot
work in such dim light!" Then others asked, "How can we
see to do anything? We do not have night eyes like Hosteen Owl or
It seemed that First Woman could never please them. Finally she
thought of Fire Man and his glowing mountain, so she sent a messenger
to ask the Fire Man if he could help her.
"Yes," agreed Fire Man, "I can make the land bright
all around Fire Mountain, but the light will not reach the edges
of the land, and there will be smoke."
After that flames leaped high above the mountain top, and there
was no more darkness for some distance. But soon the people were
again complaining. "We do not like the heat and the smoke that
is coming from Fire Mountain," they declared. "The heat
scorches the earth and we are choked by the smoke!"
As everyone was complaining and no one was satisfied, First Woman
decided that she must find a different way by which to light the
After consulting with a council of wise men, she told her helpers
to bring her a large, flat slab of the hardest and most durable
rock they could find. After visiting every mountain and rocky pinnacle,
they returned with a large, flat slab of quartz; it was twice as
long as it was wide, and, when the helpers had placed it on the
ground in front of her, First Woman decided it was large enough
to make two round wheels of equal size.
She had hoped to make four in order to have one for each of the
four directions, but the rock was too small for that many, so only
two could be made. After First Woman had marked two large circles
on the slab, they all set to work with sharp flints and stone hammers,
cutting out the two equal sized wheels. This was not an easy task,
as the quartz was just as hard as the implements with which they
were working, but after a time two round, flat discs lay shaped
and ready for their purpose.
Then First Man and First Woman started decorating the stones in
a manner that would signify the powers that each was to be given.
The first was given a mask of blue turquoise to produce light and
heat, then red coral was tied to the ear lobes and around the rim.
A horn was attached to each side to hold male lightning and male
rain. Feathers of the cardinal, flicker, lark, and the eagle were
tied to its rim to carry it through the sky, and also to spread
the rays of heat and light in the four directions. Four zigzag lines
of male wind and male rain stood at the top and four more hung at
the bottom, and four sunspots were placed for guardians who sometimes
stood on its face, but more often took their places in the four
"Now it is finished," said First Man, "and I will
give it a blessing of mixed pollens, and also a song which will
be sung by a lark who hereafter will be known as the `sun's voice'."
"But this cannot remain here!" stated First Woman. "It
must be placed in the sky!"
No one seemed to know how this was to be done until Fire Man suggested
that it should be carried to the top of the highest mountain and
placed on the tallest peak at the edge of the earth where it could
shine on all of the land at the same time.
So it was taken to the eastern mountains and fastened to the sky
with darts of lightning. Then First Woman and her helpers went back
to decorate the second, round stone disc, which was the same size
as the first.
But First Woman said, "We do not need another bearer of heat
and light, so this one will carry coolness and moisture."
Then they decorated its face with white shell, placed a band of
yellow pollen on its chin, and made a rim of red coral. Magpie,
nighthawk, turkey and crane feathers were fastened on four sides
to bear its weight and its horns held female lightning and soft
winds. Four straight lines placed at the top, and another four at
the bottom, gave it control over the summer rains. When it was finished
this, too, was taken to the top of an eastern peak and fastened
to the sky with sheet lightning.
"Now everyone should be satisfied," remarked First Woman
as she looked at the discs. "Now we have light, heat and moisture,
all coming from the sky."
But again many of the First People were complaining. "This
is not right," they said. "If the sun stays in the east
all the time it will always be summer on that side of the land,
and it will always be winter on the other side."
"The sun must move across the sky," First Man agreed,
"but how can it move when it is only a stone and has no spirit?"
Everyone looked at the two discs and knew that they were just decorated
stones with no life of their own, and they wondered what could be
done about it. Then two very old and very wise men stepped forth
and said, "We will give our spirits to the sun and the moon
so they will have life and power to move across the sky."
One entered the turquoise disc and he was called Jóhonaa'áí,
or Sun Bearer; the other entered the white disc and he was called
Tl'éhonaa'áí, or Moon Bearer. Immediately the
two stones began to quiver and show signs of moving.
"But how shall I know where to go or which paths to follow?"
asked the sun; and the moon asked the same question.
"The eagle is guided by his tail feathers," said First
Man. "We will give you each twelve feathers from the eagle's
tail to point the correct paths you are to follow, and the changes
in the paths will mark the changes in the seasons."
So twelve tall, white feathers were fastened to the top of each
headdress to indicate a different path for each month of the year.
Sun was the first to start on his journey across the sky, while
Moon waited all day, until Sun had reached the peaks of the western
mountains but was still looking back across the land.
At this point Moon queried, "Now?"
And Sun answered, "Now!"
So Moon was about to climb into the sky, when Wind Boy, who had
been standing just behind him, thought he would help by pushing
with a stiff breeze. This breeze hit the Moon Bearer in the back
and blew the twelve feathers forward across his face, so he could
not see where he was going. All he could do was follow where the
tips of the feathers pointed, and, as these were now slanted in
different directions, Moon has always followed strange paths across
First Man and First Woman could do nothing about this, so everyone
went back to where they had been working on the slab of quartz.
On the blanket which had held the two large discs were now many
small pieces of stone of every size and shape, along with the dust
that the chipping and shaping had created. "Look at all this
good quartz that is left!" First Man exclaimed.
And First Woman said, "It must not be wasted! We will use
it to make more lights in the night sky."
So again they took their flint knives and their chisels and stone
hammers, to shape the stars that would shine only at night. There
were a few very large pieces of quartz but there were myriads of
small chunks, and much stardust by the time they had finished their
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."
After that she drew a sky pattern on the ground and placed one
of the large stars in the north. "This will never move!"
she said, "and it will be known as the Campfire of the North.
It will also be known as the traveler's guide and as the lodestar."
Then she placed large stars in the other three directions and one
in the very center of her sky pattern. "These must be placed
in the sky in their correct positions," she told Fire Man,
who had shot two crooked fire arrows into the sky so their trails
formed a ladder, and who now undertook the task of placing the stars
in their proper locations on the blanket of night.
Before Fire Man picked up the first one, First Woman had traced
in the sand a path for each to follow across the skyways, and First
Man had tied a prayer feather on its upper point, giving each star
a prayer to chant as it marched along its designated path. Fire
Man began with the north star and continued climbing the ladder
until all the large stars were in the sky, while First Woman placed
other stars into groups to form the constellations.
It was slow work, as there were many stars and the ladder was very
tall. While all this work was taking place Coyote had been standing
close by, watching every move Fire Man made. Now he saw one fairly
large star still lying on the ground, so he asked First Woman if
he might have it for his own. "You may have that star,"
First Woman agreed, "if you will place it in the sky directly
over your mountain. Part of the time it will be quite dim, but when
it shines brightly its brilliance will indicate your mating season."
So Coyote carefully climbed the zigzag ladder, clinging to the
rungs with one paw while grasping the star with the other, and placed
Canopus, which the Navajo call M'ii Bizo', in the southern sky directly
over Coyote Mountain.
The first two constellations designated by First Woman were Ursa
Major, which was named Náhookos, meaning Cold Man of the
North, and Cassiopeia his wife, who was called Nahookás Ba'áád.
These two were placed on opposite sides of S'tsoh, or the North
Star, which was their home fire; they move around its center and
never leave it. No other constellation approaches them to interfere
with their set routine.
This arrangement of constellations established a law that has persisted
to this day. This law stipulates that only one couple may live by
one hogan fire.
After these, First Woman designed a slender constellation in the
shape of two rabbit tracks, one following the other. This is the
constellation that governs all hunting, and, during the spring and
early summer when the open end points upward, no one may hunt game
animals. In the late fall, when the open end tips toward the earth,
the hunting season begins.
In the days when the Navajo people depended mostly on game for
their food, the laws governing hunting were very strict. No hunting
was allowed during mating season nor when the young were still with
their mothers; and no deer or antelope under the age of two years
were ever killed.
Even today the Navajo do not care for meat from lambs or young
kids, and, now that deer and antelope have almost disappeared from
Navajo territory and have been replaced by sheep and goats, they
use only the older ones for their food, as they believe the meat
provides greater strength.
The next pattern to be made by First Woman was one recognized as
a man with wide shoulders standing in a stooped position with his
hands on his knees in order to support a heavy load of harvest.
This constellation, or "the harvester," commands the Dine'é
to work hard during the harvest season so they may garner sufficient
food for the long, cold winter.
Thunderbird, who carries all the clouds in his tail and all the
rains under his wings, was the next constellation, along with Hydra,
"the horned rattler," who was given charge of the underground
The task of placing all of these stars in their proper places was
going slower and slower, for Fire Man could take only a few stars
at a time as he climbed the ladder. Coyote became impatient as he
watched this slow process of placing the constellations. He said
to First Woman, "This is taking too long! Why do you not permit
me to help? Then we would have this work finished twice as fast!"
First Woman answered, "You always make mistakes and then there
But Coyote insisted, saying "I will do exactly as you say
and follow the pattern just as you have placed it on the ground."
First Woman was putting two identical stars into her pattern and
had named them "the twins." The two lines which marked
their paths ran side by side across the sky. She pointed to them
and said to Coyote, "Take these two stars and place them somewhat
to the west where they will walk hand in hand across the center
of the sky."
Then Coyote picked up the two identical stars (Gemini), one in
each hand, and walked to the ladder. He had seen Fire Man climb
the ladder with his hands full of stars and thought he could do
the same, but when he was half way up he chanced to look down, and
the distance was so great that he became dizzy and almost fell.
To make matters worse, Wind boy came whistling by to see what Coyote
was doing, and shook the ladder from east to west. Quickly shifting
the star in his right hand into his left which then carried both
stars, he continued to climb, using his right hand to cling to the
ladder. When he reached the sky he soon found the two places where
the stars belonged, but when he looked at the stars in his hand
he could not tell them apart and did not know which one went to
the right or which to the left.
So he closed his eyes and put one star in place with his left hand
and the other with his right. Immediately a harsh, grating noise
was heard, and he knew they were in the wrong spots and were trying
to change places. He could do nothing about it now, as they were
well beyond his reach, so he hurried down the ladder while the two
stars crossed, one in front of the other to gain their proper paths.
First Woman met him at the foot of the ladder and berated him with
angry words and fierce gestures. "Now look what you have done!"
she cried. "Those two were supposed to establish peace and
friendship among all peoples of the earth. Now they will cause enmity,
strife, and dissension that will plague mankind forever. You shall
carry no more stars to the sky!"
Coyote grumbled as he walked away, "It was not my fault! Wind
Boy shook the ladder and I almost fell off!"
First Woman told him to go away as she was too busy to be bothered,
and went on laying out patterns for constellations which Fire Man
carried to the sky. There was K'aalógii, or Butterfly; Tsídiitltsoii,
the lark who sang his song to the sun every morning; there was Na'ashii,
the lizard; M'iitsoh, the wolf; Atsá, the eagle; Dahsání,
the porcupine, who was given charge of the growth of all trees on
the mountains; and the caterpillar.
First Woman made many, many more until nearly every animal, bird,
and insect had star counterparts in the sky. As Fire Man bore these
up the ladder he carried his fire torch which held burning coals
strapped to his left arm, and as each star was put into the sky
he gave it a spark of fire to light its path so it could find its
way even through the darkest night. All was going very well, but,
as Fire Man was carrying a medium sized star to the east, the straps
that held his torch came loose and the torch fell to the ground
so he had no spark to give this star.
He placed it in the sky, ran down the ladder to recover his torch,
and then hurried back to give it a light, but he could not find
it, as it had started to move and had lost its path in the darkness.
This is called the "black star;" it wanders here and there
and brings bad luck wherever it goes.
It sends out little black arrows to cause pain and sickness and,
if a person who is traveling at night feels a sharp prick in his
shoulder or his back, he will know that the black star is not far
When Fire Man returned to earth, First Woman did not know whether
to give him another constellation to carry to the sky, or not. Not
many stones left on the blanket were large enough to make stars,
but many chips and piles of dust remained.
She filled Fire Man's hands with stone fragments, and he started
climbing; he was halfway up the ladder when he glanced at the stones
in his hands and decided that they were too small and too many to
place individually, so he gave each one a spark of fire and then,
handful by handful, he threw them against the night sky.
Here they may still be seen as close groups of small stars which
represent the small, fire carrying creatures of the earth such as
the lightning beetle or firefly, and the glowworm. As Fire Man was
descending the ladder, Coyote stepped up to the blanket and, grasping
it by two corners, swung it into the air so the stone fragments
and the star dust swept across the sky in a great arc that reached
from horizon to horizon.
This formed the Milky Way which the Navajo call Yikáísdáhí.
They believe it provides a pathway for the spirits traveling between
heaven and earth, each little star being one footprint.
The Coyote dropped the blanket and everyone looked at the sky which
was now filled with stars.
First Woman said, "Now all the laws our people will need are
printed in the sky where everyone can see them. One man of each
generation must learn these laws so he may interpret them to the
others and, when he is growing old, he must pass this knowledge
to a younger man who will then be the teacher. The commands written
in the stars must be obeyed forever!"
Nowadays, it is only the Navajo medicine men who know the constellations
and can explain the laws they represent.
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