A Journey to the Skeleton House 3
A Hopi Legend
In Shongopavi where the people were first living, a curious young man would often sit at the edge of the village looking at the graveyards. He wondered what became of the dead, if they really continued to live somewhere else. He asked his father, who could tell him very little. His father was the village chief, and he said that he would speak to the other chiefs and to his assistants about it. He asked the village criers whether they knew anything that would help his son.
"Yes," they said. "Badger Old Man has the medicine that will answer his questions."
So they called Badger Old Man, and when he arrived, they said, "This young man is thinking about the dead -- whether they live anywhere. You know about it, and you have medicine that can show him."
"Very well," he said, "I'll go and get my medicine."
So he went to his house, looked over his medicines, and finally found the right one. "This is it," he said, and took it to the village chief.
"Very well," he said. "Tomorrow put a white kilt on your son and then blacken his chin with toho, with black shale, and tie a small eagle feather to his forehead. These are the very preparations used for the dead."
The next morning they dressed the young man in this way, and Badger Old Man spread a white owa on the floor and told the young man to lie on it. He gave the young man some medicine to eat and also placed medicine in his ears and on his heart. Then he wrapped him in a robe, whereupon the young man, after moving a little, "died."
"This is the medicine," Badger Old Man said. "If he hears this, he will go far away but he will also come back again. He wanted to see something and find out something, and with this medicine he will do just that."
After the young man had fallen asleep, he saw a path leading westward. It was the road to the skeleton house. This path he followed, and after a while he met a woman sitting by the roadside.
"What have you come for?" she asked the young man.
"I have come," he replied, "to find out about your life here."
"Yes," the other one said, "I didn't follow the straight road; I didn't listen, and now I have to wait here, after a certain number of days I can go on a little, then I can go on again, but it will be a long time before I shall get to the skeleton house." She pointed to an enclosure of sticks, which was all the house and protection she had.
From here the path led westward through large cactus and gave plants so full that they sometimes hid the way. He finally arrived at the rim of a steep bluff, where a chief was sitting. He was a Kwaniita, and had a white line around his right eye and a big horn for a headdress. He also asked the young man why he had come, and the latter told him.
"Very well," the chief said. "Away over there is the house that you are looking for."
But a great deal of smoke in the distance hid the house from the young man's view. the chief spread the young man's kilt on the ground, placed the young man on it, then lifted it up. Holding it over the precipice, the chief threw it forward, whereupon the kilt carried the young man slowly down like a giant bird.
When he had arrived on the ground below the bluff, he put on his kilt again and proceeded. In the distance he saw a column of smoke rising. After he had proceeded a distance, he came upon Skeleton Woman and asked her what the smoke was.
"Some of those who were wicked while they lived in the village were thrown in there," she said. "The bad chiefs send their people over this road, and then they are destroyed; they no longer exist. You must not go there," she added.
"Keep on this road and go straight ahead toward the skeleton house."
When at last he arrived at skeleton house, he did not see anyone except a few children playing there.
"Oh!" they said, "Here a skeleton has come," and by the time he went into the village, all the people -- or skeletons, rather -- living there had heard about him and gathered to stare.
"Who are you?" they asked the young man.
"I am the village chief's son. I come from Shongopavi."
So they pointed toward the Bear clan, saying, "Those are the people that you want to see. They are your ancestors." A skeleton took him over to the house where his clan lived and showed him the ladder that led up to the house. The rungs of the ladder were made of sunflower stems, and the first rung broke as soon as he stepped on it, though the skeletons went up an down the ladder with no trouble. "I shall have to stay down here," he said; "bring me food and feed me here."
So the skeletons brought him some melon, watermelon, and chukuviki.
When they saw him eat, they laughed at him; they are lighter than air because they never eat the food, but only its odor or soul. And that is the reason why the clouds into which the dead are transformed are not heavy and can float in the air. The food itself the skeletons threw out behind the houses, which is where they got his meal. When he had finished, they asked him what he had come for. He said, "I was wondering whether skeletons lived somewhere. I told my father I wanted to go and find out, and he dressed me up in this way and Badger Old Man gave me some medicine to make it happen."
"So that's what you have come for; well, look at us." Then they added: "It's not light here; it's not as light as where you live. We actually live poorly here. you cannot stay with us here yet; your flesh is still strong and 'salty.' You still eat food; we eat only the odor of the food. But when you go back, you must work there for us. Make nakwakwosis for us at the Soyal ceremony. These we tie around our foreheads, and they represent dropping rain. We shall work for you here, too. We shall send you rain and crops. You must wrap up in the owa women when they die, and tie the big knotted belt around them, because these owas are not tightly woven. When the skeletons move along on them through the sky as clouds, the thin rain drops through these owas, and the big raindrops fall from the fringes of the big belt. Sometimes you cannot see the clouds distinctly, because they are hidden behind these nakwakwosis, just as our faces are hidden behind them."
Looking around, the young man saw some of the skeletons walking around with huge burdens on their backs. These were healing stones, which they carried by a thin string over the forehead that had cut deeply into the skin. Other carried bundles of cactus on their backs, and as they had no clothes on, the thorns of the cactus hurt them. He was told that some had to submit to such punishments for a certain length of time, then were relieved of them and could live with the others.
At another place in the skeleton house he saw the chiefs who had been good here in this world and had made a good road for other people. they had taken their tiponis, their protective medicine, and set them up there, and when the people in the villages have their ceremonies and smoke during the ceremonies, this smoke goes down into the other world to the tiponis or mothers and from there rises up in the form of clouds.
After the young man had seen everything and satisfied his curiosity, he set off to his own village. when he arrived at the steep bluff, he again mounted his kilt and a slight breeze lifted him up. He met the Kwaniita chief, who told him, "Your father and mother are mourning for you now, so you'd better return home." This was the last person he met on his way back.
When he had just about arrived at his house, his body, which was still lying under the covering in the room where he had fallen asleep, began to move, and as they joined once more, it came to life again. They removed the covering, and Badger Old Man wiped his body, washed the paint off his face, and dis-charmed him. Then he sat up.
They fed him and asked what he had found out. He recounted all of his experiences in detail -- the woman with the house of brush, the Kwaniita chief and his flight on a kilt, and all about the skeleton house -- the skeletons with heavy burdens of cactus and stone, and even the skeletons' food.
"I have seen it all myself now, and I shall remember it. We are living in the light here. They are living in the dark there. No one should desire to go there."
Then he told them about the nakwakwosis and bahos. "If we make prayer offerings for them, they will provide rain and crops and food for us. Thus we shall assist each other."
"Very well," they all said. "Very well; so that is the way." And so they returned to their homes wiser than before. And from that time, the living and the dead began to work together for the benefit of both.
Return to Hopi Legends