North American Indian: Navaho                            image: navaho

Surrounded by Rainbow on three sides, Father Sky and Mother Earth are depicted in a sand painting that was created for a Navaho Enemyway chant. They are united by the yellow Pollen Path signifying peace, happiness, and prosperity.

This square rectangular sand surface is decorated with two large figures surrounded by blue, red, and white rectangular lines ending in groups of feathers in black, red, and white. Both figures are diamond shaped with rectangular heads, angular arms and legs, and large, curved horns. On top of each head is a motif representing sacred feathers. The faces represent painted leather masks, the decorated horns of which are tipped with feathers. Coral strands encircle their necks. Each figure carries a rattle upright in each hand. The black figure is Father Sky: stars, moon, sun and the constellations decorate his body. Above his head is a medicine pouch that contains his magic paraphernalia. The blue figure is Mother Earth, upon whose body are sacred plants-corn, tobacco, beans, and squash-all growing out of the central Place of Emergence. Over her head flies a bat, her protective guardian. The two figures are connected at the top by a strip of yellow and by Rainbow, whose body ends in two feather clusters; small tufts of feathers are attached to each corner.


The Navaho people live primarily on the Navaho Nation (a reservation approximately the size of New England) in northern Arizona and New Mexico. They are relative latecomers to the American Southwest, having arrived there between 1000 and 1525 CE. In their contact with the Spanish and Puebloan peoples, they acquired horses, goats, sheep, and agriculture. The Pueblo and the Navaho have much in common: their myths, their use of masked figures in ritual, and their practice of making sand paintings are similar and suggest much cultural exchange.

The creation myths of the Navaho relate how they emerged from a series of underworlds onto the Earth Surface. According to one version, First Man, First Woman, and other Holy People created the present world during an all-night ceremony at the Place of Emergence. Using a medicine bundle that they had brought with them from the underworlds, they set in place the "inner forms" of natural phenomena: the earth, the sky, the sacred mountains, plants, and animals. Into this world Changing Woman was born. Impregnated by the sun, she gave birth to twin sons, who killed various monsters that had threatened the Holy People. With the medicine bundle, which she received from First Man, Changing Woman created maize. Then she also created the Earth-Surface People, or Navaho, by rubbing cells off her skin.

In some versions of the myth, Changing Woman is the offspring of Father Sky and Mother Earth. Here they are depicted in a sand painting from an Enemyway chant. Mother Earth and Father Sky stand side by side, joined at the top by a thin line of yellow pollen from head to head. Pollen as the "essence" of the sacred maize is a symbol of peace, happiness, and prosperity among the Navaho.  Father Sky and Mother Earth are depicted thus in order to bring them, their role in creation, and their powers into the midst of the chant.  In this way, events that took place in mythical time become contemporaneous with ritual time.  The creative powers of the beginning are made once more accessible, available to heal injury and restore harmony here and now.

Central Mexico: Aztec                                            image: Coalitcue

This stone figure consists of a female form draped with a blouse of severed human hands and hearts, a skirt of intertwined serpents with skull belt buckles in the front and in the back, ferocious rattlesnakes for hands, and a head composed of two giant rattlesnake heads facing one another. Her feet are giant jaguar claws. From beneath her skirt of serpents flows a serpent of blood.


Coatlicue was one of the five moon goddesses worshiped by the Aztecs. Or, according to another view, she was a single earth goddess with five aspects: the four directions and their center. She embodies the cosmic force that solidifies all that is potential into concrete form, not as matter only but as the dynamic matter of livig things. Through her the transcendent becomes tangible.

For a time, Coatlicue's existence remained unknown. She languished, lonely and barren, in a cloud. When the Sun discovered her, however, and then took her as his bride, all of her powers to create quickened. From this time forward, it was her power that lay behind the seed and its flowering, the animals and their coupling. If this description seems too kind to fit the terrifying vision of the goddess revealed in her statue, it is because Coatlicue, as goddess of life, is actually a vast cosmic process. What appears as cruelty is actually far away from either cruelty or compassion. It is the objective nature of living beings: eat or be eaten.

Justino Fernandez, in his study of the goddess, has described the symbolism of the statue shown here: The skirt of entwined serpents, hanging from two creator gods that form her belt, represents mankind. The skulls that serve as ornaments represent the rhythm of life growing or merging into death. Behind hang thirteen leather thongs that are encrusted with snails. These represent the thirteen heavens that rise up over their foundation in the city at the center of the earth, Tenochtitlan. The goddess is clad about the thorax with a garment of human skin, a reminder that she is connected to Xipe Totec, the flayed god of spring. Hands and hearts are strung together to form her necklace, a reminder of the ritual of human sacrifice, which was necessary in order to maintain the gods and to uphold the cosmic order.

At the highest point of the statue is Omeyocan ( "place of duality"), the thirteenth heaven and the dwelling place of the primordial, androgynous deitv Ometeotl, who gave birth to the first, creator gods. Omeyocan is represented by two rattlesnake heads in place of the goddess's head. In this manifestation of her numinous realitv, the goddess reveals herself not as woman but as cosmic mountain: as the force that underlies the dynamic of life and death, she holds the cosmos together and provides the primary material for the drama that includes both the gods and mankind.  Bloodthirsty and warlike to mortal eyes, she is in reality the principle that provides both stability and endurance to the cosmos.

Near East: Mesopotamia, Neo-Babylonian Period            image: mushhush

The composite nature of the Mushhush expresses the great range of its powers: as a scale-covered dragon with the head of a horned serpent, the forelegs of a lion, the hind legs of a bird, and a serpentine tail ending in a scorpion stinger, it could represent several underworld deities.  However, it came to be associated with Marduk, the patron deity of ancient Babylon.

This fierce guardian figure has the head of a serpent with horns above the eyes, a large curl behind, and two smaller curls at the top of the neck.  Its head, neck, body, and tail are covered with scales.  Its forelegs are those of a lion, its hind legs are those of a bird, and its tail ends in the stinger of a scorpion.


This image is one of many identical representations of the Mushhush that stood in horizontal registers on the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon.  Its task was to guard the entrance to the city of Marduk.  Furthermore, the road that passed through the gate was called Aiburshabu, or "the enemy shall never pass."

The ferocity of the Mushhush is evident in the fact that it brings together in its person the strengths of four dangerous animals that were well known to the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia:  the head of the horned viper, the stinger of the scorpion, the forelegs of the lion, and the talons of a bird of prey.  The Mushhush would have been recognized by all who passed it as an epiphany of Marduk, placed on the gate to frighten away any evil or aggressive force that might seek to enter the city.

Marduk (known also as Bel, "lord") was originally an obscure Sumerian deity.  During the Amorite period (1826-1526 BCE), he became extremely important when his city rose to political prominence.  Gradually, he assimilated the aspects of the Sumerian Enlil, the god of storms, who served also as the model for the king.  The nature of Marduk is best spelled out in the famous Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish.

According to this myth, the primordial beings Apsu and Tiamat were free to create anything and everything simply tat whim, without any sense of order, continuity, or meaning.  Among their offspring were the creator gods, who wanted to establish an orderly cosmos.  To do this, they organized themselves and founded a divine court.  Such purposeful activity was resented by Apsu and Tiamat, who did not wish to be accountable to anyone, and so they spawned a brood of monsters to destroy the court of the godss.  Chief among these was Kingu, who was invested with the Tablets of Destiny, the divine blueprint that authorizes the direction taken by creation.

First Ea, the god of wisdom, overcame Apsu by means of magic spells and cunning.  Then his son Marduk engaged Tiamat in single combat, armed with bow, mace, lightning, net, and winds.  He rode into battle in a chariot drawn by a team of four creatures:  Killer, Relentless, Trampler, and Swift.  Tiamat was destroyed, and out of her body Marduk fashioned the universe.  Then he took the Tablets of Destiny and fixed them on his own breast, so that control of the world would be under the proper authority of the heavenly court.  As chief executor of the royal power of the creator gods, Marduk carried out their plans and established the cosmos:

(Translation from the Enuma Elish cited in  Gray, John.  Near Eastern Mythology.  New York, 1969)

The Lord trod on the legs of Tiamat,
With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull.
With the arteries of her blood he had severed,
He split her like a shell-fish into two parts;
Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky,
Pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.
He quartered the heavens and surveyed the regions.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He constructed stations for the great gods
Fixing heir astral likenesses as constellations.
He determined the year by designating the zones.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Moon he caused to shine, the night to him entrusting,
He appointed him a creature of the night to signify the days.

India: Central Medieval.  The Goddess Camundâ                    image: Camundâ

The insatiable Camundâ is the most terrible aspect of Devî, the Hindu great goddess.  Born from the forehead of Ambikâ (another name for Devî), the goddess Kâlî was endowed with such strength that she was able to destroy an army of demons, decapitating their chiefs, Canda ad Munda.  Henceforth, she was also known as Camunda.  Dry and blackened, Camundâ is an eater of corpses.  Yet she remains emaciated, because her hunger can never be satisfied.  In constant agony, she fills the world with her terrible cries.

A damaged stone sculpture, this piece shows a horrifying hag with gaping mouth, bulging eyes, and matted hair crown.  Her "jewelry" consists primarily of serpents writhing about her neck, hips, and waist.  Camundâ appears bearing a halo and a crown and wearing the panther skirt of an ascetic.  Her bony body is adorned with a skull garland and serpents, and a scorpion crawls on her sunken belly.  Originally this figure would have had four arms and in each hand a weapon or some other symbol of her power (chopper, noose, skull, or spear).  She would either have been dancing in a cremation ground or standing triumphantly upon the corpse of at least on of her victims.

The devotional image of Camundâ, Hindu goddess of death and destruction, once stood in a goddess temple or in a shrine of a temple dedicated to her consort, Siva.  Because she is also a manifestation of Pârvatî, the wife of Siva, Camundâ wears the panther skin of the ascetic and matted locks.

The iconographic elements seen in this figure are distributed throughout Indian art.  Multiple manifestations of one divinity are commonplace in Hinduism.  The fierce goddess us said to gave appeared first as Durgâ when all the male gods combined their energies to bring her into being, in order to overcome the demon horde.  Subsequently, she created out of herself still other forms.  In her manifestation as Kalî, the dark goddess, she created the even more terrifying Camundâ.

In Hinduism, the deity is both the source of life and the dealer of death.  Thus devotion to Camundâ is necessary in order to acknowledge the full reality of the goddess.  Camundâ is not only a goddess who harms.  Hindus believe in an ongoing cycle of rebirth:  just as life ends inevitably in death, so, too, death is the release that promises a new existence.  For this reason, a demon about to be destroyed by Camundâ will often smile or clasp its hands in a worshipful gesture to express its ecstasy at being freed by the goddess from its demon birth.