The Story of Changing Woman

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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.

 

Commentary:

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.”

The Grandmothers

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When I first arrived in Abiquiu the Pedernal stood out above the other mountains with its imposing triangular shape and flattened top. Initially this mesa fascinated me because Georgia O’Keefe painted it so often, but after a while, although I liked the Pedernal it became one mountain amongest many others… However, I also knew that the Navajo’s mythical Changing Woman was born on this flat – topped mesa,and that story continued to intrigue me.

For the Navajo, Changing Woman is the daughter of the Earth and Sky – a personification of the Earth and Universe. She represents the cyclical repetition of the seasons – spring summer fall and winter –aligning each with a different aspect of human life – birth, maturation, old age, and death. In this seasonal round Changing Woman lives out the different stages of her life as a child, daughter, mother, and old woman who dies, but who also is born again each spring…

The legend tells us that as a young woman Changing Woman was dressed in white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, and blessed with bee pollen… While bathing she was impregnated and two twins –monster slayer and child of water who after their births soon left their mother to journey westward to seek their Father, the sun. Changing Woman was lonely so one day she created the Navajo People from the skin of her body with the help of the holy people who came down from the mountains to assist her. Changing woman also created the Blessingway, a sacred ceremony for young girls that is still used today to celebrate the first bleeding or menstruation. After the original teachings were passed on the holy people left Changing Woman, but they promised that she would always feel their presence in the sound of the wind, the birds, and through the first green shoots of corn.

Pedernal, the imposing butte with its flat top or ridge lies in the heart of the Jemez mountain range at ten thousand feet.. Seen from one side it appears wide and flat, the way I see it from my house. However, an hour’s drive will take you into the startling Indian red, orange, ochre, grass green mountains behind the mesa, and from the other side the top appears peaked and narrow. The high butte is ringed by a long sheer cliff band almost impossible to climb, although ancient Puebloan peoples found their way to its summit.

The name Pedernal is the Spanish word for flint, the stone that can be found in abundance on and around this volcanic mountain. Puebloan peoples used the rock to make beautifully crafted tools like arrowheads and scrapers for hunting and skinning animals. Worked pieces and flakes of this rainbow –like chert can also be found at many ancient Puebloan ruins.

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The Pedernal was settled around 1161 CE and Indigenous people stayed until 1275 CE when the area was suddenly abandoned, possibly due to drought. The remaining artifacts include pottery shards that are typically black on white and jars with rounded bottoms so that they could be laid in a bed of hot ashes in the fire pits. Chert is abundantly common here.IMG_1074.JPG

Because I am so intrigued by the sharp, opaque, translucent flakes I collect them and spend a lot of time arranging them in different ways, much like I do with pottery shards. “Play” allows my mind to become still. This practice has become a daily meditation, much like bird watching from my window that overlooks red willow river.

After gazing at the Pedernal for months I developed a peculiar longing to get physically close to the actual mesa. I wanted large pieces of the stone to line my path to the birdfeeder, but there was something more ethereal pulling me too – and so two days ago – my friend and I drove out towards the base of the mountain… This drive takes about an hour and is absolutely stunning – a visual feast – crags, and sandstone statues, oyster to red dirt, thick Juniper, pinion, and deep green spruce and Ponderosa pine forests, huge clumps of black sagebrush, colder temperatures and the occasional clump of snow left me with the sense that I had entered another world, one where bears and elk found home. Seeing the mesa from behind gave me a sense of belonging to this place that I simply cannot describe beyond believing that I was called here by Changing Woman. Perhaps other Indigenous voices and holy people were calling too  in spirit if not in body.

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Above: Pedernal from behind

The night after this excursion I had a dream of my dearly loved grandmother that died in my early twenties. In the dream I was at her bedside, telling her I loved her, washing her face, rubbing cream on her hands and pitifully thin arms, listening to her rapid shallow breathing, feeling so helpless, and so guilty – all this while she lay in a coma. The next morning, thanksgiving day, she died at dawn.

My dream repeated the original experience with one dramatic change. Instead of the numbness and terrible nameless guilt I experienced at her death, in the dream I now understood that my grandmother had been waiting for me to make the trip down from Maine to the New York hospital to be with her, and that once we had said goodbye, she could die in peace. Astonished, I felt for the first time in fifty years that my presence had been enough. When I awakened from the dream the lifetime of guilt I had carried was gone and I was free to feel, to grieve as much as I needed to, which seemed to me to be some kind of miracle. Surely Changing Woman had wrought this reversal changing the storyline I had lived for so long.

Today the Pedernal is no longer a mountain in the distance, it is a holy dwelling place where Nature still sings the song of creation and those of the grandmothers who inhabit this sacred space in between the two worlds.