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The Birth Ritual

A Hopi Legend

With the pristine wisdom granted them, the First People understood that the earth was a living entity like themselves. She was their mother: they were made from her flesh, and they suckled at her breast. For her milk was the grass upon which all animals grazed and the corn which had been created specially to supply food for mankind.

But the corn plant was also a living entity with a body similar to man's in many respects, and the people built its flesh into their own. Hence corn was also their mother. Thus they knew their mother in two aspects which were often synonymous: as Mother Earth and the Corn Mother.

In their wisdom, the First People also knew their father in two aspects. He was the Sun, the solar god of the universe. Not until he first appeared to them at the time of the red light, Tálawva, had they been fully firmed and formed. Yet his was but the face through which looked Taiowa, their Creator.

These two universal entities were their real parents, their human parents being but instruments through which their power was made manifest. In modern times their descendants remembered this.

When a child was born his Corn Mother (a perfect ear of corn whose tip ends in four kernels) was placed beside him, where it was kept for 20 days. During this time, he was kept in darkness, for while his newborn body was of this world, he was still under the protection of his universal parents.

If the child was born at night, four lines were painted with cornmeal on each of the four walls and ceiling early the next morning. If he was born during the day, the lines were painted the following morning. These lines signified that a spiritual home, as well as a temporal home, had been prepared for him on earth.

On the first day, the child was washed with water in which cedar had been brewed. Fine white cornmeal was then rubbed over his body and left all day. The next day, the child was washed and cedar ashes rubbed over him to remove the hair and baby skin. This was repeated for three more days.

From the fifth day until the twentieth day, he was washed and rubbed with cornmeal for one day and covered with ashes for four days. Meanwhile, the child's mother drank a little of the cedar water each day.

On the fifth day, the hair of both the mother and the child were washed, and one cornmeal line was scraped off each wall and the ceiling. The scrapings were then taken to the shrine where the umbilical cord had been deposited. Each fifth day thereafter, another line of cornmeal was removed from the walls and ceiling and taken to the shrine.

For nineteen days now, the house had been kept in darkness so that the child could see no light. Early on the morning of the twentieth day, while it was still dark, all of the aunts of the child arrived at the house, each carrying a Corn Mother in her right hand, and each wishing to be the child's godmother.

First, the child was bathed. Then the mother, holding the child in her left arm, took up the Corn Mother that had lain beside the child and passed it over the child four times from the navel to the head. On the first pass, the child was named. On the second, she wished the child a long life. On the third, she wished the child a healthy life. If the child was a boy, she wished him a productive life in his work on the fourth pass. If the child was a girl, she wished that she would become a good wife and mother.

Each of the aunts in turn did likewise, giving the child a clan name from the clan of either the mother of the father of the aunt. The child was then given back to its mother. The yellow light was by then showing in the east. The mother, holding the child in her left arm and the Corn Mother in her right hand and accompanied by her own mother (the child's grandmother) left the house and walked towards the east. Then they stopped, facing east, and prayed silently, casting pinches of cornmeal toward the rising sun in the east.

When the sun had cleared the horizon the mother stepped forward, held the child up to the sun, and said, "Father Sun, this is your child." Again she said this, passing the Corn Mother over the child's body as she had done when she had named him, wishing for him to grow so old he would have to lean on a crook for support, thus proving that he had obeyed the Creator's laws. The grandmother did the same thing when the mother had finished. Then both marked a cornmeal path toward the sun for this new life.

The child now belonged to the family and the earth. Mother and grandmother then carried him back to the house where his aunts were waiting. The village crier announced his birth, and a feast was held in his honor. For several years the child was called by the different names that were given him. The one that seemed most predominant became his name, and the aunt who gave it to him became his godmother. The Corn Mother remained his spiritual mother.

For seven or eight years he led the normal earthy life of a child. Then came his first initiation into a religious society, and he began to learn that, although he had human parents, his real parents were the universal entities who had created him through them: his Mother Earth, from whose flesh all are born, and his Father Sun, the solar god who gives life to all the universe. He began to learn, in brief, that he too had two aspects. He was a member of an earthy family and tribal clan, and he was a citizen of the great universe to which he owed a growing allegiance as his understanding developed.

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