Changing Woman – who grows old and then young again. Navajo Sand Painting.
Myth and Commentary
I want to begin by recounting the story of how Changing Woman came to be and why she was so important to Navajo mythology. In these dark and tumultuous times I think Changing Woman’s story has a deep resonance for all of humanity. We seem to have forgotten who we are and are in desperate need of guidance that will help shift our current paradigm.
The Navajo word Diné means the People (every Indigenous group defines its inhabitants by using the same word in their own language).
Navajo mythology begins with the creation of the First World. The Insect People moved through the four lower worlds to the fifth world the place where the Navajo live today. In the first world there was no sun, moon or stars, only the oceans stretched out in 4 directions. A flood came and the Insect people moved to higher ground, the second world. The third world was inhabited by grasshoppers so the Insect people moved again, this time to a fourth world with snow covered mountains and Pueblo people. In the Fourth World the Holy People laid two ears of white corn and two ears of yellow corn on the ground and covered them with buckskin creating First Man and First Woman.
Frightened by a flash flood, First Man and First Woman rose up from below from the center of a lake to reach the Fifth World and the place where the Four Sacred Mountains are found today.
(One of these sacred mountains may lie to the west of the village of Abiquiu, New Mexico where I presently live. It is said that Changing Woman was found on a flat – topped mesa wrapped in many colors of light. Anyone who has been to the Pedernal can find pieces of rock called chert/flint cast in every color of the rainbow).
On a level place below the summit First Man and First Woman laid a turquoise figure on two pieces of buckskin that were spread on the stone from east to west in the sun. Wind and Water Sprinkler were there. When the Holy People began to sing the song the wind flowed under the blankets and a child appeared. The Holy People told the couple her name was Changing Woman and instructed them to take her and raise her as their daughter.
By the thirteenth day, Changing Woman had become a young woman, and on that day there was a celebration and the Navajo Night Chant was sung. *
Soon after Changing Woman birthed the hero twins.
In four days the twins had grown into boys. Talking God and Water Sprinkler tested their strength four times and were pleased.
The twins asked Changing Woman who their father was and when they were told they had no father the twins refused to believe her. “We must have a father and we need to know who he is” they responded. Changing Woman was irritated and said “your father is a round cactus then. Be still.” (!)
The twins went south to hunt and saw four birds – a woodpecker, vulture, raven and magpie – and when Changing Woman heard their stories she said they must flee because the birds carried a warning: monsters would kill them. Before dawn the twins ran to the West and met an old woman who lived in an underground chamber who told them that she could help them find their father who was the Sun.
Because the way was fraught with danger Spider Grandmother gave them a talisman to protect them and a special song that ended in “Walk in Beauty.” The twins continued West on the rainbow bridge overcoming four monsters that threatened to kill them. Eventually they reached the House of the Sun where they overcame two more tests to prove to the Sun that they were his children. Then they told their father that monsters were killing the People and the Sun replied that could make the passage from boyhood to manhood and save the Navajo people in the process, which they did.
After a time, Changing Woman became lonely and went to one of the sacred mountains to sit in the sun. The Sun appeared and tried to embrace her but she refused. He wanted her to come live with him. She said no until the Sun promised to give her a house that shimmered on the water and animals and plants for company while the Sun was away on his daily journey across the sky. Then Changing Woman said:
“You are male and I am female. You are of the sky and I am of the earth. You are constant in your brightness, but I must change with the seasons. Remember that I willingly let you enter me and I gave birth to your sons. As different as we are, we are of one spirit. As dissimilar as we are, you and I, we are of equal worth. As different as we are, there must be solidarity between us. There can be no harmony in the universe unless there is harmony between us. If there is to be harmony, my request must matter to you. There is to be no more coming from me to you than there is from you to me.”
The Sun balked at first but finally agreed that she was right and granted her requests for a House in the West that shimmered in the golden light that stretched over the waters at sunset when the Sun returned from his journey across the sky. In this place they came to dwell in Harmony…
In the myth Changing Woman never dies; she grows old and young again with the seasons. In the East she is Earth Woman, in the South Mountain Woman, in the West she is Water Woman and in the North she is Corn Woman.
Changing Woman embodies Nature’s as a whole and since the Navajo trace their lineage through a matrilineal line she is the Mother of all the People.
According to Navajo mythology the first way Changing Woman saves the world is by birthing the twins, the male aspects of herself. This embodied female/male energy is capable of taking action on behalf of all the people, ridding the world of monsters. It is important to note that the twins require the help of Spider Grandmother’s wisdom, guidance and protection because Spider Grandmother is Changing Woman’s older wisdom aspect, a continuation of her mother – line.
The second and most critical way Changing Woman saves the world from “monsters” is because she secures the matrilineal line for the People. The matrilineal system traces descent through maternal roots. Men who marry move to the wife’s residence (matrilocal) and become part of the maternal family. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers bring up the children, protecting, guiding, and teaching the children the ancestral family stories. This system unites Navajo society and creates the social structure of the culture connecting generations through kinship.
Although in present day Navajo culture Patriarchy has eroded women’s power the four tenets (harmony, beauty, balance, peace) remain part of the judicial system of the Navajo people.
I love this story because it demonstrates the evolutionary and eternal nature of Woman; her intimate relationship to Nature, her ability to give birth, to mother, to let go, her ability to endure, her need for animals and plants as companions and her willingness to stand her ground until she is able to get what she needs. Changing Woman matures from a passive figure who is acted upon by the forces of Nature into a self-directed female power who knows what she wants, and one who finds peace in choosing relationships with animals, plants and humans on her own terms.
Initially, Changing Woman is impregnated by the wind – the power of the spirit moving across the land – and not through sexual intercourse. Spirit and the Body of the Earth are the two equally creative aspects involved in her birth. The same holds true for her children, who are male, but conceived and birthed in a similar manner without the need for male insemination (no room for Patriarchy to enter here), suggesting to me that all three are parts of one spiritual/bodily whole that cannot be separated. As creative principles (beyond gender stereotypes) they work together as a triad to rid the world of monsters, to make the Navajo world a safe place, and to secure the matrilineal line. According to Navajo mythology securing the matrilineal line is primarily how Changing Woman saves the world.
Changing Woman’s “divine” birth and that of her children also demonstrates the more than human aspect of Nature and that Nature is both Source (wind/sun) and Context (earth/water) of all there is, a belief that fosters equality of all species and interdependence upon the planet that is our home.
On one level, with the birth of her children we see that Changing Woman recognizes the transient state of motherhood and care – giving, knows that her twins must seek their own destiny and that it is important to let them go. Human mothers must do the same if they are to move into their own lives in the most creative ways.
When the twins seek out Grandmother Spider and are guided and protected by her we see the importance of the matrilineal line expressed as grandmother; the latter also knows how important it is for boys (and girls) to discover and align themselves with the father principle in order to become creative and balanced adults.
The twins ability to destroy “the monsters” that threaten the people suggests defeat occurs only by harnessing both creative female and male powers together because the twins are Changing Woman’s children.
It’s interesting to note that from a biological perspective we learn that the female x chromosome is responsible for creating both male and female children and that all descent comes through our “Motherline” so here we find concrete evidence for the importance of this female creative principle and the physical importance of the matrilineal line.
We live in a time when Patriarchy’s destructive forces – the “monsters” of endemic woman hatred, white male privilege, hubris, and arrogance, greed, war, lust for power, an obsession with technology, and profound indifference to the loss of species and the pollution of our planet – all Patriarchal values – are destroying Life as we know it. We must seek a paradigm that promotes relationships with others that is based on equal power, respect for all species, and one that promotes reciprocity and sustainability for all. This paradigm is the gift that the story of Changing Woman offers us. The paradox is we seem to need to return to our “original instructions” so that we can move on.
To shift the present pattern, we must heal the frightening divisions that Patriarchy has created between women and men. The Sun (son) demonstrates his willingness to comply with Changing Woman’s requests, and only by giving her the respect and equality that she deserves are they both able to walk in beauty and live in harmony. Walking in balance, harmony peace and beauty are the four tenets of Navajo mythology.
In conclusion it must be noted that Changing Woman’s requests include her insistence upon having the company of animals and plants, which demonstrates the importance of the intimate link between Women and Nature and how critical it is to recognize that it is up to women to lead the way in terms of advocating for the future of the Earth and all Life.
*Navajo Night Chant:
The origins of the Navajo Night Chant are ancient stretching back into pre- history for perhaps thousands of years to the original Indigenous inhabitants of Canyon de Chelly. This most sacred of ceremonies occurs during the winter months and is a ritual of healing performed to cure those who are ill, to remove chaos, and to restore order and balance within the Navajo Universe. This chant is also a stunning piece of poetry.
These words are some of my favorite and were taken from the Night Chant.
“Beauty is before me
And beauty is behind me
Above and below me hovers the beautiful
I am surrounded by it
I am immersed in it
In my youth I am aware of it
And in old age I shall walk quietly
The beautiful trail.
The mountains, I become part of it . . .
The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters,
I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen . . .
I become part of it.”