Native American Cultures that Use Similar Technology
and Have Similar Themes to Neolithic Culture of the Prehistoric Periods

Anasazi Art and the Three Planes of Analysis

In this instance you have to know what the basis of a formal analysis is.A formal analysis consists of the medium (which is what the work is made out of), the shapes that describe the forms in the work of art and the lines that define the forms as well as the lines’ qualities.For instance they can be thick or thin they can be long or short.We also look at the colors that are being used and if you know your color wheel, there are three levels of color.The three levels are the primary colors, which are red, blue and yellow. The secondary colors purple, green and orange and then a third level of color which is the tertiary level which are the browns.The physical texture the work of art is important and we can also talk about visual texture, for instance is it choppy or is it smooth?How it looks is one way but also how it feels.Is it rough or smooth in terms of how it feels? We also look at its composition (how it is arranged.) 

(1) : orderly method of arrangement (as in the presentation of ideas) : manner of coordinating elements (as of an artistic production or course of reasoning)

(2) : a particular kind or instance of such arrangement <the sonnet is a poetical form>

b : PATTERN, SCHEMA <arguments of the same logical form>

c : the structural element, plan, or design of a work of art --  visible and measurable unit defined by a contour : a bounded surface or volume

(3) The literal shape and mass of an object or figure.

(4) More general, the materials used to make a work of art, the ways in which these materials are used utilized in terms of the formal elements (medium, texture, rhythm, tempo, dynamic contrast, melody, line, light/contrast/value structure, color, texture, size and composition.)


First with an analysis of its physical medium that's used for this work of art which is basically something called fresco, I don't think that this isbuon fresco, which means “true fresco,” A true fresco is plaster, which is made of some kind of mineral lime, chalk (calcium carbonateand you would apply this to the wall as a sort of mud and paint directly on it while it was still damp. You would call this buon fresco.In the case of this wall painting I think it was fresco secco which means dry fresco.The pigments, which are the colors that were used, are more most likely iron ores which are naturally occurring reds in soils.Possibly some berries or pollens and other naturally occurring substances in the landscape were used as pigments too that they would mix with water and then apply to the wall and use various substances to get it to stick.I think in this instance probably water mixed with those substances.Therefore the medium is fresco In terms of shape, the way that you can describe shapes are, you can say its “natural looking shapes” you can say that “unnatural looking shapes.” In this instance you would say that the shapes are geometric looking.Many of the forms look like rectangles and circles.These rectangular shapes are defined by lines that don't vary a lot in terms of thickness. The lines used are all fairly thin lines that describe the boundaries of each of the forms.Sometimes short lines are used but never to create texture. Here lines are just used to define the boundaries of form. There is no light and shadow and the space is a flat diagram with no shading or value structure. There's no indication of where the light is coming from or light source and overall it is a flat diagrammatic, almost cartoonlike, work of art meant to clearly communicate what it is. The colors that are being used could be described as earth colors.There are no primary colors used, such as reds, blues, or yellows. You could describe some of the colors as being secondary colors such as oranges but the colors are mainly earthtone which means they used a tertiary palette of browns. The physical texture across the painting seems to be smooth to the touch and visually there's not a lot of texture.For example there's not a lot of variation in what happens as you move across the picture from left to right. The composition of the work is harder to analyze. Composition is kind of a tough term for a lot of students.They have a hard time understanding what composition is and so I've provided some definitions of composition for you and some diagrams here.The composition with the light yellowish green in the upper left-hand corner of those for diagrams you actually describe it is a symmetrical and asymmetrical composition is something in which the visual weight there's more stuff on the left-hand side and there is on the right-hand side and him the upper right hand corner diagram this one with the white background two spheres on the right-hand side.One large sphere on the left-hand side is still fairly asymmetrical and if you compare this to diagrams you might say that the one on the left seems to be more visually pleasing and more balanced than the one on the right are two bottom diagrams with the white background.However there is one that that is symmetrical.The reason why you can describe is symmetrical as you can cut that in half along a central dividing line.We also refer to that as bilateral symmetry bilaterally symmetrical. In this case you may describe the composition as being symmetrical now there is one other kind of symmetry that discuss later on in lecture and that's called radial symmetry. Radial symmetry is when you take a center point almost like a wheel and you have elements radiating from the center of it in equal measures. This is a blanket and itsradially symmetrical. 
Design of Things in Composition or asym.met.ric adj [Gk asymmetria lack of proportion, fr. asymmetros ill-proportioned, fr. a- + symmetros symmetrical] (1690) 1: not symmetrical 2 usu asymmetric, of a carbon atom: bonded to four different atoms or groups -- adv -- n n, pl -tries [L symmetria, fr. Gk, fr. symmetros symmetrical, fr. syn- + metron measure--more at measure] (1541) 1: balanced proportions; also: beauty of form arising from balanced proportions 2: the property of being symmetrical; esp: correspondence in size, shape, and relative position of parts on opposite sides of a dividing line or median plane or about a center or axis--compare bilateral symmetry, radial symmetry 3: a rigid motion of a geometric figure that determines a one-to-one mapping onto itself 4: the property of remaining invariant under certain changes (as of orientation in space, of the sign of the electric charge, of parity, or of the direction of time flow)--used of physical phenomena and of equations describing them

bilateral symmetry n (1860): symmetry in which similar anatomical parts are arranged on opposite sides of a median axis so that only one plane can divide the individual into essentially identical halves

Contemporary Whirling Logs
radial symmetry n (ca. 1890): the condition of having similar parts regularly arranged around a central axis -- radially symmetrical adj 
Let’s discuss the picture plane.There isn't a lot of space being created by any kind of overlapping.If you look at this diagram you see that the diagram indicates that there's a foreground, middleground and background.

space,  picture plane, and overlapping

  Imagine you're sticking your face against a restaurant window. The things just on the other side of the window closest to you, are at the front of the picture plane. Imagine that you are looking at the diners seated closest to the window.These people are in the foreground.The people seated further back in the restaurant would be in the middleground and the waiter coming in from the kitchen would be in the far background.  In this painting that were looking at.There is only a foreground there's no creation of space. For example, one of the ways you would create space is to make the shape smaller as they move into the background. When you look at this work of art, it is primarily flat, doesn't have a lot of depth, doesn't have a lot of shading and it's a diagrammatic piece which means it just describes the forms.However, we recognize the forms, and they seem almost to be cartoons of things. For instance, there are birds, there's a figure of a man, carrying a spear or staff, who has a hat with feathers.There are fish, birds, and a pot. It looks like one bird is dropping seeds out of its mouth there's something that looks kind of like water but we’re really not sure what it is.In order to understand or interpret what we see we have to understand what is represented and what it may symbolize.This analysis of the content and symbols is called and iconographic analysis Another plane of analysis that deals with symbols or the content is called iconographic analysis or an analysis of the iconography. Iconography is a weird word probably the easiest way to understand it is to think of the fact that you icons on your desktop when you're working with computer icon is a symbol of computer program that opens up and gives you a world of images and ideas and things like that.Another term for icon is used in popular culture. Marilyn Monroe was icon a female sexuality.  If one was to break down the word an icon is a symbol andgraphy means to write. The study of iconography is basically just the study of the subject matter and the symbols used.For instance feathers are used in this work of art. What do they mean? It's all a guessing game, but according to the modern Navajo people (the descendents of the Anasazi) feathers can sometimes represent prayers, marks of honor or sources of ideas that could represent the creative force. Feathers are a symbol of flight, the power of flight, or the power of the bird from which they came.Sometimes when you put feathers together and you make a hat or headdress or adorn a spear with feathers on them you are saying something about the power of the person who is wearing them or possesses the feathers.

Etymology: Medieval Latin iconographia, from Greek eikonographia sketch, description, from eikonographein to describe, from eikon- + graphein to write -- more at CARVE
Date: 1678
1 : pictorial material relating to or illustrating a subject
2 : the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject
3 : the imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art

Some scholars such as Marilyn Stokstad refers to this as content.  According to Stokstad book Art History:

"Content includes subject matter, which is quite simply is what is represented, even when that consists strictly of lines and formal elements-lines and color without recognizable subject matter, for example."

"The study of the "what" of subject matter is iconography.  Iconology has come to mean the study of the "why" of subject matter."

An iconographic analysis is the analysis of the symbols and what they mean in the work, or what the work itself symbolizes.

Feathers, depicted in many, many ways, are symbols of prayers, marks of honor or sources of ideas.  They represent the Creative Force, and are taken from birds connected with the attribute for which they might be utilized: goose flight feathers to fledge an arrow because of the long flights of the geese; Eagle feathers for honor or to connect the user with the Creator, Turkey feathers to decorate a kachina mask. As design elements, they mau appear plain, banded, barred, or decorated.
Pahos or Prayer Sticks, are carefully notched and painted cottonwood or cedar sticks with specific feathers attached to catch the wind.  They are planted in the ground at religious sites, and at springs to carry specific prayers to the Creator or to the Kachinas.  Their forms are found in many Pueblo and Navajo designs.


Contemporary Whirling Logs
Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a irit considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator.  Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  A very special kind of yeii is the Yei'bi'chai, grandparent spirit or "talking God" who can speak with man, telling him how to live in harmony with all living things by following a few rules of behavior and using only the basic things he needs to survive.  A symbol of the harmony acheived is the "Rainbow Man", a yeii controlling the rainbow, who gives beauty to those in harmony.
A head dress or a spear can represent power too.Combining the spear with feathers is called a prayer stick or pahos. The pahos is a cottonwood or cedar sticks with feathers attached to it. Some religions, burn incense, money, and even make sacrifices to a deity by cooking animals. The smoke from these burning things “flies” up to the gods.Perhaps like the burning of incense, a feather can represent lifting up and going up to the sky. In this mural there are a series of little creatures that are intermediary creatures that you could probably think of them a little bit as almost being like angels, in some instances I suppose they could be they could be demons.However, both angels and demons are not gods (or creators), but rather sorts of messengers or go-between spirits.They're not creators. According to the Navajo and Hopi peoples the small figure that the larger one carries is a Yeii Spirit,considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator. Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  Based on what we know from the Navajo people, we think that the birds that are represented are actually dropping seeds, so maybe those birds represent some kind of spirit that is dropping seeds in providing things.Perhaps the figure wearing a headdress who has a stick in his hand with feathers on it is carrying a pahos stick.In his right hand which is our left-hand side which you also see is that he is carrying a yeii spirit.Based on the feathers, the pahos, and the yeii spirit he seems to be controlling a possible interpretation of this might be that this is a powerful person.The pahos stick and all the feathers he is wearing on his headdress (which could be equated to be a crown) and the fact that he is actually controlling or holding a spirit in his right hand could represent that he has control of some kind of supernatural forces.  On the right-hand side of the image there's a pot with him with seeds or water flowing through it.There's a bird like form there's even, arrows and thing so we don't really know what all the symbols mean but we could extrapolate from knowing the later symbols from the Navajo culture that this is a powerful priest I sometimes refer to as a shaman who is controlling the spirit and has influence the supernatural world.Maybe he is able to ask the creator spirits, for instance maybe the Thunderbird, to help him with some kind fertility or with some kind of growth.To support the previous iconographic analysis we need to look the mural’s context. How does this work of art fit in with the rest of the culture that produced it.How does it fit in with the context of the Anasazi people? Since the Navajo are in essence a prehistoric culture and are no longer with us, a contextual analysis might include analyzing the Anasazi people by looking at and asking the descendents of the Anasazi for help with this. The Navajo people are most likely the closest living descendents of the ancient Anasazi peoples. A contextual analysis incorporates the interrelated conditions, the history, artifacts, environment the architecture or setting in which these works were found. A breakdown of the terms context from its Latin roots: con means against and text is something that you read.A contextual analysis is one that takes into account a historical, cultural and environmental analysis of a work of art.Contextualism, in terms of art history, is kind of an interesting thing because it's really in some ways little bit more in fact based in a little way where you actually have to know some facts about surrounding cultures and about the area that this thing comes from.I think that iconography is actually the shakiest form of analysis because in iconography you are interpreting symbols but in terms of formal analysis you can misinterpret description and in terms of contextual analysis you're actually looking at the facts that surround it.So let's take a look first at the geography.

Painting from a Kiva in the Kuana Pueblo Bonito c1300-1500 CE
fresco painting still in situ
SW. United States.


Etymology: Middle English, weaving together of words, from Latin contextus connection of words, coherence, from contexere to weave
 together, from com- + texere to weave

1 : the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning

 2 : the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs : ENVIRONMENT, SETTING

contextual analysis
Is the analysis of a work by discussing its history, culture, environment, and or background.
Roughly close to conclusion in music.

contextualism A methodological approach in art history which focuses on the cultural back ground of an art object.  Unlike connoirsseurship, contexualism utilizes the literature, history, economics, and social developments (among others) of a period, as well as the object itself, to explain the meaning of an artwork.

  The geography of the Anasazi people is that they live in the Southwestern United States and the culture of the Anasazi probably the dates were between 550-1400 CE (common era).We know that the Anasazi is not what they called themselves the word Anasazi is actually a term that was given to them by the Navajo people which means “ancient people who are not us” or the “enemy ancestors.”There's an art historian named Ernst Gombrich who described the analysis of symbols and of the development of art over time as being something that happens as a sort of Darwinian evolution.He called this evolution schema and correction. In this instance the Anasazi people were the schema. They were the beginning culture and the Navajo and even the Hopi and some other Southwestern cultures took what they learned from the Anasazi and changed it or corrected it or updated it according to what they needed.

The Southwestern United States
Anasazi 550-1400 CE
  • Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning "ancient people who are not us," or "enemy ancestors"
  • Ernst Gombrich's theory- schema and the correction.
  • circa
  • BC=BCE (Before Common Era- backward)
  • AD=CE (Common Era- forward)


We won't be using B.C. and A.D. We will refer to anything before the common era which means before the birth of the figure of Jesus as BCE (before the common era). Instead of the acronym AD (anno domini “in the year of our lord”) we will call CE the “common era.”So in this instance they lived in the Southwestern United States between 515-1400 in the common era. They lived in was actually kind of a rough environment and there's some evidence that some of the sites that might've just been primarily religious sites.We understand that they might not have been actually functioning sites as a settlement because of the amount of trash left behind.The size and composition of the trash heaps specifically at a site called Pueblo Bonito doesn't to the amount of waste that should have been left behind had the site served as a city.There wasn't a lot of organic waste. There are other sites that archeologists are certain were permanent habitations and the places where the Anasazi lived were very tough environments.We know that there was very little water.We also know that during the day it's enormously hot it gets up to hundreds of degrees very dry very arid and at night it gets very cold city needed to protect themselves from this environment.So for instance they would provide a place for themselves that was shielded from the environment but also probably shielded from people who might attack them, so they would have Cliff dwellings for instance the KeatSeel ruins in the Navajo national monument are actually a site that's built into cliffs wall and you have to climb a ladder to get to it you have it would be very hard to get to these ruins even though they were cut steps in the sides of some cliffs.If an enemy was trying to come down and steal the resources it was very defensible.



Keet Seel ruins in Navajo National Monument, Arizona.

The ruins in-situ.
in situ- In the original location

Ruins at Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
circa 1100 CE

  If you are for instance marauding nomads, and you wanted to attack this site be really tough for you to do that because he would you'd have to do is you have to climb down and they could head you off at the pass and literally push you off a cliff. To get into the buildings you needed ladders so these built-in cliff locations would be almost inaccessible to enemies.It’s possible that at least one site was built entirely for religious or ceremonial purposes. This site in named by archeologists is called Pueblo Bonito.We don’t know what the Anasazi would have called it. It was not built into the cliff’s face and there's some evidence that that site might have actually been primarily a religious city that didn't have year-round residents and talk a little bit more about that in depth later.So the context of Pueblo bonito that were to be looking at is it's a big sort of almost D shaped complex it has a lot of big tall walls.It seems to actually have been built to correspond or map the celestial bodies. There’s petroglyph (“petro” is Latin for stone, “glyphs” is Latin for carving or mark) on a hill called Fajada Butte that looks like a map or a diagram of the Pueblo Bonito and how the complex is oriented towards the sun.

Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito from the north. 
[Copyright David L. Grill]


Petroglyph near the top of Fajada Butte. It is 24 cm by 36 cm and located about 10 m west of the three slab Sun Dagger site (see Sofaer et al. 1979). A, B, C & D indicate features of Pueblo Bonito, shown in the ground plan below.

Figure 1b

Figure lb) Ground plan of Pueblo Bonito. A: East-west oriented wall. B: North-south oriented wall. C: semicircular outline of the building. D: Kiva A. [(c) The Solstice Project, 1995.]

Note: The petroglyph is artificially emphasized because of its inherent low contrast.

  Certain times of year, during the summer solstice, the sun hits the petroglyph and seems to create a shadow map of the siet.This may indicate that the site was built to reference the movements of the Sun, the morning star, and the moon in some ways.The walls and architecture of Pueblo Bonito are located or oriented in such a way that they would actually map or indicating how the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars and therefore would be almost like a giant clock or a calendar.Some of the evidence suggesting this is that the massive walls do not contain living spaces.The walls enclose large interior spaces that can't be used because if you build a fire inside the there's no ventilation and the smoke would actually kill you.  Other evidence that Pueblo Bonito might have been primarily a religious site are the so called “Kiva” structures. According to the Navajo and Hopi these structures are a type of chapel or sweat lodge that was dug into the earth. Worshippers would climb in through a hole in the roof and there are frescoes or paintings on the walls of them.In this instance a lot of the kivas are not intact.There is evidence that suggest the kivas (and by extension Pueblo Bonito) were NOT abandoned but rather ritually destroyed. There is some evidence that the kivas were destroyed on purpose by fire within a very close range of time.The roofs of the kivas are made of timbers in an overlapping almost igloo like pattern of logs that were imported or carried vast distances.The transportation of such large timbers to such an inconvenient place seems to indicate a religious motive to some archeologists. 

Anasazi Pueblo Bonito, 850-1145.
Chaco Canyon, NM

Chetro Kiva, Chaco Canyon New Mexico
This is the original floor plan illustrating both Chetro Ketl I and II. 
Solid areas more recent occupation known as Chetro Ketl I
Hatched areas represent the oldest version of the Great Kiva, Chetro Ketl II,
A, outer wall, ChetroKetl I; 
B, bench Chetro Ketl I; 
C, late veneer over bench face; 
D, fill over wall of Chetro Ketl II; 
E, bench, Chetro Ketl II; F, seating pits; 
G,antechamber area; 
L, vaults, dotted areas show openings in walls of lower vaults; 
M, firebox; 
N, fire screens; 
R, masonry "altar";
T, antechamber wall; 
U, peripheral rooms. 

(from The Great Kivas of Chaco Canyon, by Gordon Vivian and Paul Reiter, 1960. School of American Research, Santa
Fe, NM). 

  Some historians argue that due to the amount ofkivas, the condition of the site, its size, location, and even the name that the Navajo refer to them as (enemy ancestors) that the Anasazi may have been a large conquering empire that built a religious site that was in the middle of the Southwestern United States.The Anasazi may have built the site of Pueblo Bonito as a religious center for a priestly or ruling class and that lived there for centuries and then chose to ritually destroy the site and then abandoned it. Because of its geographic location and the fact that it is oriented along a series of compass lines and roads that correspond to neighboring sites that it was a destination for pilgrims (some historians argue that it was a center for trade,)  Some further evidence that may support the idea that Pueblo Bonito was a religious center are the kivasIn a symbolic way the kivas may have been chapels or “churches.” The fact that they were dug into the ground and in “Mother Earth” and that the walls are adorned with series of paintings could represent religious stories.For instance when you walk into a church sometimes you might imagine when you're looking in the churches that it's a site that magnifies religious or magical power.On the walls of the church are pictures and sculptures that tell the story of whoever the God is.For example in Christian Churches you may encounter stories that relate to the New Testament and tell the story of the life and times of Jesus and then you're able to tell the story to other people using those pictures as a mnemonic device. 

Kiva painting from Kuana Pueblo Bonito 1300-1500

 Kiva painting from Kuana Pueblo Bonito 1300-1500 Anasazi Culture

In the kivas of Pueblo Bonito you would find frescoes similar to this one that might represent a religious story because of its location its context gives us a little bit more about that.So the next thing that were in take a look at is actually the patterns that we understand now, these patterns seem to be used over and over again by later cultures, by the Navajo by the Hopi and even by completely unrelated cultures from different time periods and geographic locations.Here are some interpretations these patterns.We are going to apply these patterns and interpretation of these patterns to the Anasazi pots so for instance the border patterns of reoccurring spirals may be connected to the “cycle of life.”We call this step pattern the “Greek Key” because we have also seen it in Greek art.This is interesting that it seems to be in other cultures. Another border pattern that looks like steps and could represent the steps of the Kiva according to the Navajo, look a little bit like jagged clouds moving across the horizon and then of course, there's another border pattern that looks like waves, spirals and again that could be life and renewal.
Border Patterns are used by weavers and silversmiths to establish boundaries and as designs in their own right.  The Hopi silversmiths, especially, have made great use of these foreground/background patterns in their overly jewelry. Many of the recurring spirals and whorls are connected with beansprouts, life springing out, cycles of life, and eternal renewal.  We call this one "Greek key".
Border Pattern, Spirals, whirlwinds, renewal, water
Border Pattern, kiva steps, or Clouds, direction and change
Border Pattern, Waves, spirals, water and cycles, life and renewal

Anasazi Culture
Seed Jarcirca 1250 CE
8" tall
So let's take a look at and Anasazi pot.This “seed jar” would've been used to preserve foodstuffs from rodents and other vermin.The Anasazi and Navajo developed pottery to protect the food.The patterns on the pots may have been just decoration or may have some sort of symbolic meaning, possibly even meant to protect the contents.For example, the lizard on top of this is fairly naturalistic.It looks almost lifelike sculpture in three dimensions of a lizard.It doesn't look geometric, it's not stylized and there are no exagerations.Whereas the lizard painted on the bottom of the jar is flat diagrammatic and stylized in a geometric fashion.It's a cartoon of a lizard.Why was the lizard painted on the jar in the first place and what might it symbolize? Possibly lizards eat rodents geckos attack rodents and things like that, so it's possible that maybe this deeply the lizard on there is not just decorative but meant to scare off rodents or meant as a sort of protection or good luck symbol.Now you have to think of these people were smart as us and there it and they know that rats are can see that and probably not think it's a real lizard so might be just a decoration.

The vessels are ceramic and made using the coil built technique.  Anasazi pottery is mainly geometric in design, but features naturalistic patterns as well.  The designs play with negative and positive space while enhancing the shape of the vessels.  These pots are an example of horror vacui.  They were made with the coil method.  This method consists of making a long snake like form out of clay and spiraling it around a hollow core.  The coils were then smoothed out.  The pots were then fired, probably in a pit, and glazed with a thin coating of watered down clay called slip or engobe.  The way in which all of the pots' surfaces have been covered with decorations and designs is referred to as horror vacui.  Horror Vacui is Latin a fear of empty space.

Anasazi Pottery1125-1200 CE From Arizona, ceramic, paint, iron oxide, burnishedapprox. 13" tall

Kiva steps represented an important monument or place.However, the image of the kiva steps might be similar to decorations or the sides of a coffee mug with no religious or spiritual meaning as all.So when we look at the other two pots we see some of the other symbols that we discussed the border patterns that have spirals waves which might represent renewal which might represent water we have the Kiva steps they could also just be simple geometric designs that don't mean anything which is an interesting idea and will return to that idea in the next lecture.

Navajo Art: Southwestern United States
What are some reasons for making art? What are symbols or icons?

The Navajo are a contemporary group of people that came after the Anasazi so they’re located in our historical era.  We know a lot about them, they're still alive and we use a lot of Navajo ideas to analyze or think through our understanding about Anasazi art.

My thesis for this lesson is to look at the reasons for making art and also do a deeper analysis of the symbols or icons used in the work of art.   I’m hoping that you will be able to relate these ideas and use them in your other classes and when you study other disciplines.  We will be looking at the art and artifacts through the lens of other disciplines, for instance psychology and cultural anthropology.

Anasazi, Kiva Mural in the Kuana Pueblo Bonito c1300-1500 CE
  • Joseph Campbell
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Carl Jung
  • theory of gestalt (collective unconsciousness)
  • geometric
  • naturalistic
  • stylized

Augustus of Primaporta. Early 1st century CE (perhaps a copy of a bronze statue of c.20 BCE.) Marble, height 6'8" (2.03m). Musei Vaticani, Braccio Nuovo, Rome 

Joseph Campbell is a contemporary scholar some people scoff a little bit.  Campbell’s ideas are based in some earlier theories of psychologists, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who were the fathers of analytical psychology. Joseph Campbell takes their ideas and amplifies them a little bit making them a little bit more understandable.  To some people however I need to offer the caveat that Joseph Campbell also looks at things in a very spiritual way.  Joseph Campbell discusses mainly symbols and archetypes.

The symbols that are being used and the symbols that he discusses tie in with something called the theory of the gestalt and Jung’s ideas concerning the collective unconscious.  His theory of the gestalt is that we are all connected by some kind of force or power or telepathic link in which there is a database of symbols that we all understand and share.  According to both Jung and Campbell, this gestalt happens across cultures and across the globe.  This gestalt is something that informs why so many different cultures use a lot of the same symbols to describe works of art to describe their culture to describe their religion.  The reasons why a lot of cultures and religions share symbols and ideas is described by Joseph Campbell that we are linked in a sort of stream of consciousness.

Sigmund Freud and Jung both interpreted these unconscious data base of symbols but differed on the meaning of many symbols.  If you recall Sigmund Freud is the father psychology and he came up with a series of theories having to do with the structure of the mind and the symbols that the mind uses to express psychological complexes.  Some of them are little strange and we tend to laugh at some of them.  For instance a favorite theory that I think is kind of laughable is his idea of “penis envy.” Freud believed that women are born without a penis and that they envy men's penis and the privileges it grants them.  Therefore it frames women’s way of thinking about the world and somehow it makes them less powerful than the male.

Conversely, there's another kind of nutty Freudian theory concerning men.  Freud’s Oedipal Complex is that most men are frightened of their fathers.  The fear is caused by the desire of little boys to sleep with their mothers.  This desire is transformed or results into a fear of their father castrating them and that the so called castration complex.  These are all complicated ideas but in the bottom of it Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both agreed on the idea that we have three sections to our personalities.

The three sections are the ego, superego, and the id or unconscious primal mind.  The unconscious mind is a kind of animal brain is reflexive and deals with primal needs.  For instance, the primal needs of food, shelter, sex comfort and it just doesn't care about how goes about getting them.  Then you have the ego and superego which mediate the id’s primal instincts.    The ego is the part of the mind that is conscious and somewhat reasonable.  It is the part of the mind that reasons out that it might need to develop way to get something the unconscious mind would like, for example food, sex, and or shelter.  Then the superego really figures out a strategy.

The unconscious state of mind (the id) is one that we’re not really aware of.  We don't really control it and that's the part dreams.  The ego and the superego think about these dreams thinks about what those dreams mean.

Freud’s and Jung’s theories can be used to figure out the iconography of the the Anasazi Kiva mural.  In this diagram we see the American eagle with the a flag and then this sculpture Augustus of Prima Porta from first century Rome.   The three images share some common kinds of symbols.  For instance you have a staff in all three.

  • Anasazi, Kiva Mural 
  • in the Kuana Pueblo Bonito c1300-1500 CE

  • Augustus of Primaporta. 
  • Early 1st century CE
  • (perhaps a copy of a 
  • bronze statue of c.20 BCE.) 
  • Marble, height 6'8" (2.03m). 
  • Musei Vaticani, Braccio Nuovo, Rome 
  • The three staffs mean different things in each of the images but if you went with Joseph Campbell's ideas about the collective unconscious and the sharing of symbols also maybe Sigmund Freud’s theories both interpret the staff as phallic symbol.  It's also something that can be used as a weapon and so it’s a symbol of power. 
    Similarly you see the eagle holding staff with the American flag, in the Anasazi Kiva mural you see that this man is holding a staff that could be a pahos or a prayer stick.  It could be a symbol of his leadership' like Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf carries a staff.   In the Augustus of Prima Porta it's a little bit more interesting because it set it's a more sophisticated translation of basically a tool or a weapon into something that literally is a symbol of the fact that Augustus led the Senate.  The leader of the Roman Senate would've carried this stick. 


    They also share other symbols. At the base here of Augustus of Prima Porta there is a little Cupid figure that has wings.   This Cupid figure is a Roman god but also a messenger or go-between creature (similar to the Navajo Yeii) that goes between the heavens Mount Olympus and the earth.  Cupid fires off arrows into people making them fall in love.  (How phallic is that?)

    Another interpretation of this Cupid is that he's more of winged victory figure, similar to the Greek god of victory called Nike.  Therefore the wings on the back of a figure like this can also represent winged victory.  Cupid is riding on a symbol of power which is a whale or a dolphin and represents that he has mastered it.  Augustus’ bare feet could represent his apotheosis (ascension to being a god) or his mastery over the land.   These symbols taken together could represent military victory at land and sea.  He also wears a long flowing garment (like a flag) and has various scenes documenting his military victories and his relationship to the Roman god carved into the armor of his chest plate. 


    In all three of these images you have either birds that are flying or creatures that have the ability to fly (the wings).  This could also represent power can represent the ability to travel between different worlds so that the ties in with that no the next analysis that I think we should take a look at is these are all stylized in different ways. The style or how something is stylized can tell us a lot about the meaning of a symbol and also about the culture it comes from. A style usually can be defined by a set of physical and or formal properties.

    For instance clothing styles have physical characteristics or qualities and physical characteristics.  A Goth Rocker’s style is has a limited palette of colors (usually black) sometimes it's formfitting, maybe tights and fishnet stockings, there's often a black leather accessory.  You can see that in Goth Rock there's a definite set of characteristics, color, materials, fit, that are shared.

    The same thing can be said about art.   Each one of these in different periods we’re studying have shared sets of physical characteristics that can define its style. The Anasazi Kiva mural is not very realistic.   It doesn’t look as real or naturalistic as the Augustus of Prima Porta.  The Augustus is very naturalistic and illusionistic.  It’s meant to look like a real person in terms of the musculature the division of the anatomy that proportions.

    In contrast, the Anasazi Kiva mural is stylized in a geometric way.  It's not is naturalistic as the Augustus of Prima Porta.  A way of thinking about that is that the Anasazi are really interested in a clear communication of ideas, almost like the symbols on the doors of men's rooms and ladies rooms or even street signs, where you have a simple diagram that's easy to read.   It's not that they can’t draw well and that they were that were somehow they were a lesser people or more primitive.  They Anasazi were very sophisticated.  They had a very complex way of living and thinking what it means probably is that they are trying to communicate an idea very clearly very simply in a diagrammatic form sort of like this diagram were cartoon of the Eagle on the American flag. The image with the bald eagle and the American flag is just as stylized diagrammatic as the kiva painting.  There's no foreground, middleground background relationship everything pushed up against the front of the foreground.  Perhaps when things are stylized it is meant to reduce the image down into the most understandable and clearly communicative visual vocabulary available to the artist.  The communication of the iconography or symbols is augmented when the image is stylized, for example the symbols used by the Navajo and Anasazi to portray plants are very easily to understand and identify.

    The Anasazi and Navajo portrayal of plants art tie in with Carl Jung's theories of the collective unconscious.   The first idea or notion in this is that plants are primary foods sources and that the plant forms that you see in Navajo art relate to things that they find in the environment that have value or meaning to them.  For example the Navajo blanket with the whirling log design contains stylized images of plants.  It also contains a stylized image of whirling logs.

    Gestalt Iconography?: Navajo interpretations of Anasazi Symbols

    Plants, primary foodsources, tools, materials for basket making, healing provide many images.  Flowers are usually connected with the sun. Common ones such as corn, symbol of life, squash, beans, beansprouts and seeds are very often found in pottery.  The image here, is from a Navajo healing sandpainting, and each plant corresponds here to a compass direction as well.  One unusual symbol, the open flower at the end of the "Squash blossoms" on Navajo necklaces, were not originally from squash at all.   They were symbolic of the pomengranate, brought in by wealthy Spanish colonial settlers, and symbols of the new prosperity the Spanish introduced.  As squash blossoms were already symbols of plenty, the new image took hold easily.  Other plant images include trees, weeds (such as Devils Claw or Jimson Weed) and seed shapes.
    Whirling Logs, an ancient symbol from many cultures, the North American symbol depicted the cyclic motion of life, seasons and the four winds.  Taken from the image of a tree in a whirlwind, this image is found in Navajo sand paintings frequently. It is considered a powerful medicine.

    The swastika like design is similar to the design Hitler unfortunately co-opted as a symbol of Nazi power, however, you can see it in a variety of different cultures.  For instance, a lot of cultures including the Tibetan, Korean and Japanese cultures use the swastika to symbolize powerful movement and a whirlwind or waterspout or a vortex.

    These symbols from the Navajo culture share the same visual characteristics and possibly meaning and therefore it is reasonable to make the leap that some of the symbols mean the same thing from one culture to the next possibly because humans share the same experiences and environment in many different places around the world.  Since we share a lot of the same physical characteristics and we all deal with a lot of same physical resources, we have interpreted portray things, such as a swirling water or a whirlwind in the same way as the Navajo culture does.


    Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a irit considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator.  Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  A very special kind of yeii is the Yei'bi'chai, grandparent spirit or "talking God" who can speak with man, telling him how to live in harmony with all living things by following a few rules of behavior and using only the basic things he needs to survive.  A symbol of the harmony acheived is the "Rainbow Man", a yeii controlling the rainbow, who gives beauty to those in harmony.
    The Hand, represents the presence of man, his work, his acheivements, his legacy.  It also represents the direction of the creative spirit through a man, as a vessel for the Creators power. 

    Feathers, depicted in many, many ways, are symbols of prayers, marks of honor or sources of ideas.  They represent the Creative Force, and are taken from birds connected with the attribute for which they might be utilized: goose flight feathers to fledge an arrow because of the long flights of the geese; Eagle feathers for honor or to connect the user with the Creator, Turkey feathers to decorate a kachina mask. As design elements, they mau appear plain, banded, barred, or decorated.
    Pahos or Prayer Sticks, are carefully notched and painted cottonwood or cedar sticks with specific feathers attached to catch the wind.  They are planted in the ground at religious sites, and at springs to carry specific prayers to the Creator or to the Kachinas.  Their forms are found in many Pueblo and Navajo designs.
    Circular Feather Arrangements are found on pottery, in masks, prayer fans, dance costumes and on Plains "war bonnets" They are also used in decoration on buffalo hide "counts", or story depictions in paint recounting war honors, times of historic contact and other important periods of time.  In a circular arrangement, they are related to the sun, and therefore, to the Creator.


    Other symbols and religious ideas we share could be go-between spirits such as the Navajo yeii spirits that are almost like the Cupid at the base of Augustus of Prima Porta.   The symbols of birds and Yeii spirits can be go-between worlds such as the angels and demons in the Christian and Jewish and Islamic faiths.  In many cultures, go between spirits, such as demons and angels are represented as winged creatures.  The demons have leathery wings and the angels have feathers.  These are pretty common shared symbols.  This is similar to images of handprints found in prehistoric caves you'll see that later on in and in some of the Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures.  The handprints on walls could represent a pronouncement by early man that “I was here” or as in the Navajo and other cultures it can represent the creative spirit and or the hand of god or gods.  Sometimes this common data base of symbols taken from our so called gestalt can be combined.

    The kiva painting from Pueblo Bonito and the Whirling Logs textile both use and combine similar iconography.  The yeii spirits depicted in both have feathers.  These yeii can go between different worlds and even expanded even further into using feathers as a component to a larger design, for instance these pahos or prayer sticks have feathers tied to them.  The pahos is a staff that has a religious power, with feathers it might be a powerful wand or fetich that can transport you to another supernatural world.

    The circular feather arrangement that we see in some Navajo sand painting and in textile designs is similar to the use of circles to depict cycles.   (Sort of like the “circle of life” in the movie the Lion King.)  In this instance circular feather arrangements combine circles and feathers.  This could represent power, because an Eagle is a powerful force that that flies.

    One of the things that happened in Navajo culture is that they developed a form of religious or supernatural medicine that uses these symbols.  This medicine that they developed is a form of sympathetic magic or sympathetic fetishism.  It uses the the idea that if you make something in the physical world and you have a series of rituals that focus your religious or magical power using those physical objects you can somehow manipulate the metaphysical or the spiritual world into influencing the physical world.  In this instance Navajo sandpaintings were a way of communicating stories and culture they were also way of healing people.  This magic and art culminates in the ritual of sandpainting that could be used as a medical tool or a healing tool.

    Let's say this small child is ill. Maybe she is having trouble digesting her food or something like that or she has a fever.  It has been scientifically documented that if you if you show someone you care there's a somatic reaction is a psychosomatic reaction where they actually can be healed, even if they're not getting any medicine by non-traditional healing methods such as faith healing.

    For example, let's say someone (like the little girl sitting in the middle of this sandpainting) became ill and in order to heal her the members of her community got together and gathered up things like pollen and minerals that were associated somewhat with a deity or a religious story. In the process of gathering these things up the girl gets attention.  The pollen and minerals are used to make a design on the ground.  While the shaman or priests make the design they follow a ritual that includes singing or chanting specific stories and prayers designed to communicate or influence both the spiritual and physical worlds.  In the process, stories and religious ideas are communicated and preserved, the little girl gets quite a bit of positive attention and she might feel better emotionally and this could help her heal physically.  She may be healed by the attention and her reaction to it.


    Sand paintings were made by shamans to perform rituals and effect events beyond physical or natural control.  For example if someone was sick the shaman would make a sand painting and have the sick person sit in the center of it.  Then he would chant over the person for hours or even days.  When the ritual was completed he would wipe the sand away from the area and then clean it thoroughly.

    Sand painting and the rituals surrounding it evolved and changed after the incursion of European descended settlers in the United States.  As European settlers invaded they relocated a lot of the nomadic Native American peoples, such as the Navajo, to reservations where they took up a more sedentary lifestyle.  The U.S. in an attempt to provide them with new resources encouraged these Native American groups to raising sheep and one of the byproducts of raising sheep is wool.  Subsequently, the Navajo, who learned about weaving from the Hopi peoples,  became more and more involved with using the wool to weave textiles.  In this instance the weaving and the raising sheep is something that caused the Navajo to develop new traditions and stories concerning weaving.




    Initially the textiles woven in the late 19th century were not as colorful as this Navajo Eye Dazzler blanket.  The designs that they were working with were in earth tones made of locally found botanical pigments and dyes.  With the growth of the travel, shipping, the tourist trade with railroads automobile travel across United States they started making tourist souvenirs.  The blankets became more colorful because they sold better and after a while the Navajo stopped using their sheep’s wool and dyes.  They bought dyed wool from factories from the industrialized areas and began making more colorful (and more marketable) blankets.

    Navajo Eye Dazzler Blanket 1880's

    The initial designs on the blankets were geometric designs that had no real meaning. However, weaving was important to their economic and cultural survival and some religious ideas and stories sprang up around making blankets.  One of the figures that became more emphasized were stories about the “spider woman” who taught them how to weave.

    By the 1930’s there was a woman by the name of Franc Johnson Newcomb, who was the wife of the trader and she was healed by a priest Hosteen Klah in a sandpainting ritual and so she became accepted as a member of the Navajo people.  Newcomb began to glue the sand down in order to preserve the symbols, stories and traditions which were now being threatened by the assimilation of the Navajo people into mainstream US culture.  In 1919 another Navajo shaman-singer, Hosteen Klah, combined the new tradition of weaving with the older one of sand painting and began to make weavings of sand painting to help preserve their traditions.  Unfortunately this was greeted with mixed reaction because weaving was considered a female art and also because creating permanent works based on ritual was considered blasphemous by some. The creation of tapestries based on sandpainting designs is a problem in the Navajo religion.  A sandpainting is very powerful.  It's has powerful psychic or religious energy and so when weaving designs the weaver includes flaws in the plan which discharges some of the supernatural power.


    Hosteen Klah 

    Franc Johnson Newcomb


    These images demonstrate the preservation of the Whirling Logs design as it was documented first in earth toned color blankets.  The Whirling Logs chant is part of a larger chant/song: The Nightway chant.   If you compare the early blanket against the other textile for the 1990’s these later Whirling Logs become more colorful and this might be in response to marketing needs and to the influence of culture surrounding the Navajo people.

    Old, ca 1930, Whirling Logs
    Navajo Sandpainting Textile
    from the Nightway Chant,
    Contemporary Whirling Logs
    Whirling Logs
    Navajo Sandpainting Textile
    Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's

    Let’s analyze the design of this blanket first.  In terms of formal analysis you'll notice that it really doesn't fit in with any of these three ways of describing its composition.  It's really not a symmetrical it's also not necessarily bilaterally symmetrical as we see in the lower right-hand box with a blue background and that three white squares.  It is symmetrical and is in fact what it is a different kind of symmetry called radially symmetrical because everything flowers or spirals from a central point and spins around in swastika like design.  It is also not illusionistic in terms of the space.  Everything is pushed up against the front of the picture plane there's no middle ground.  There's no background space in this textile and the figures are stylized in a geometric way they're based on squares on circles and other geometric forms like diamonds chevrons. The reason for this is it just needed to communicate ideas clearly and diagrammatically and if we start getting into illusionism there's room for ambiguity.

    Design of Things or asym.met.ric adj [Gk asymmetria lack of proportion, fr. asymmetros ill-proportioned, fr. a- + symmetros symmetrical] (1690) 1: not symmetrical 2 usu asymmetric, of a carbon atom: bonded to four different atoms or groups -- adv -- n n, pl -tries [L symmetria, fr. Gk, fr. symmetros symmetrical, fr. syn- + metron measure--more at measure] (1541) 1: balanced proportions; also: beauty of form arising from balanced proportions 2: the property of being symmetrical; esp: correspondence in size, shape, and relative position of parts on opposite sides of a dividing line or median plane or about a center or axis--compare bilateral symmetry, radial symmetry 3: a rigid motion of a geometric figure that determines a one-to-one mapping onto itself 4: the property of remaining invariant under certain changes (as of orientation in space, of the sign of the electric charge, of parity, or of the direction of time flow)--used of physical phenomena and of equations describing them

    bilateral symmetry n (1860): symmetry in which similar anatomical parts are arranged on opposite sides of a median axis so that only one plane can divide the individual into essentially identical halves


    Old, ca 1930, Whirling Logs
    Navajo Sandpainting Textile
    from the Nightway Chant,
    Contemporary Whirling Logs
    Whirling Logs
    Navajo Sandpainting Textile
    Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's
    radial symmetry n (ca. 1890): the condition of having similar parts regularly arranged around a central axis -- radially symmetrical adj 
    Contemporary Whirling Logs
    Whirling Logs
    Navajo Sandpainting Textile
    Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's

    space,  picture plane, and overlapping

    These blankets represent an episode from the Nightway Chant called the whirling log episode.  This design is also part of the Feather or Plumeway and Waterway chants.

    The figures represented are gods, clockwise from the top, they are Talking God (B'ganaskiddy), the teacher; and at the bottom, Calling God (Hastye-o-gahn), associated with farming and fertility. On each side, left and right, are two humpbacked guardians, dressed alike. The humps are usually regarded as back-packs. They are the seed gatherers and bearers. The two guardians usually carry tobacco pouches.

    The Gods carry pahos (prayer sticks), Talking God, elder of the Gods, carries a medicine pouch in the shape of a weasel.

    The story represented is one that takes place where the rivers meet.  A hero sent on a quest encounters whirling water (represented by the black cross) two Yeiis seated on each of the four ends. From these Yeiis, the hero learned how to farm and the Yeii’s give him seeds. After returning home the hero shares the seeds and knowledge with his people and saves them.

    The yeii pair are male and female, male in black, with a round head mask. The female has a square head mask.

    In the sandpaintings, these plants are shown, from the right of Talking God as corn, and clockwise as beans, squash, and tobacco. The plants, and/or other elements of the design are shown in the four sacred colors, white, blue, yellow and black, according to their cardinal positions.

    On the right side, bottom, and left side of the sandpainting is portrayed the Rainbow Yei, a guardian god. There is sometimes a circle drawn, and painted blue, at the intersection of the cross, said to represent the whirlpool which was the destination of the episode's hero.

    Figures in Navajo sandpaintings generally proceed either towards the sunrise or clockwise, depending upon the viewers orientation. For the Navajo, the cardinal directions start in the east (as opposed to our north), and the east is usually shown at the top of a sandpainting, and open (to let in the dawn's light). This is the same orientation of a hogan, whose door is always in the east."

    The story of the whirling log shares in Jung’s and Campbell’s theories.  Each figure, the gods and even the hero, represent Jungian archetypes.

    This is the story of a hero who goes on a quest or “hero’s journey.”  The hero stands at a type of cross roads (the two rivers) which is the vortex where the rivers come together. He travels into a supernatural world (he goes under the water) where he is to learn secret knowledge.  He meets supernatural creatures and learns how to save his people (grow food).

    By the 1990’s some of the rules I just relax a little bit and the rules that relax a little bit because this sandpainting (actually made of sand) is permanent.  We talked about sandpainting that they would've destroyed after they used it in this instance Frank Martin actually put glue down on the board and he makes the sandpainting on a board.  Another interesting element about this painting is that the the borders are actually a frame and that is designed probably in response to European artistic tradition and also to make a more interesting to clients who are collecting this work.

    Frank Martin, Contemporary Sand Painting 1990's

    The next phase we look at is where European industry basically co-opts the Navajo culture and Hopi culture by showing them as colorful people who you want to go visit and they are painting these people and sort of ethnographic way. This poster is an advertisement for the railroads.  It portrays the Navajo in an almost demeaning if picturesque way that exploits there culture and traditions.  The ad seems to say, “Visit these picturesque people and see their sandpainting tradition!”  It’s an interesting idea that the Europeans are exploiting the Navajo artistic tradition as well as the Navajo are exploiting European desire for the Navajo traditions.

    The next phase that we see is the tradition of creating illusionistic painting links into and corrects the earlier Navajo schema or tradition Little River Simpson's whirling logs from about 1999.  In this instance it is again a sandpainting, but it is permanently glued down to the surface.  It depicts the traditional whirling logs design in the center but then changes the schema by including more naturalistic figures.  There is also the illusion of space as we see it in European art in there is a foreground, middleground and background space.  It’s so illusionistic that the artist includes the illusion of light and shadow by giving each figure a cast shadow.

    Little River Simpson Whirling Logs c1999sandpainting

    space,  picture plane, and overlapping

    The response or changes in the original Navajo schemas in art also change in the creation of Navajo Kachina dolls.  The depiction of kachinas goes through similar schema and correction.  This one from the 1920’s we have a figure that doesn't look very naturalistic the body of this water drinking girl is actually very blocky and unrealistic. The headdress and body are flat geometrically stylized that represents that character.  Now these dolls were made initially to educate Navajo children about the gods and goddesses that they would be seeing acting out acting out in the in the ceremonies. Over time these dolls became very valuable.

    Kachina Palhik’ mama 
    (Water Drinking Girl)
    c 1920 wood pt. Yarn front view

    Kachina Chief (Eototo.) by Tino Youvella, 
    Chief of all the Kachinas. 
    Controls the seasons, and is the leading figure in the Bean dance.

    Sun Kachina by Tino Youvella, 
    (Tawa.) Represents the spirit of the Sun God, 
    appears in many Kachina dances. 

    The Sun, giver of life, warmth, growth, all that is good.  This is a style of showing the sun as the face of a kachina mask.  Similar styles are seen throughout the Southwestern Indian cultures.  May or may not also show "rays" signifying the four directions

    This Kachina chief doll by Tina Uvalde is actually almost like a G.I. Joe action figure.   This figure is very naturalistic it's very realistic, but the thing that both of these have in common is that both of them have helmets or masks on that look like traditional masks.  The artists are preserving the mask and still educating that the figures themselves have become much more naturalistic and realistic over time.

    In conclusion, the main ideas that I want you get from this is schema and correction the development of the new on art form and tradition and the fact that traditional art forms change over time in response to outside cultures influence.

        (Alaska, Canada, and as far south as Washington State)


    The Kwakiutl, Tlingit, and Haida Peoples

    According to the Brittanica, 

    member of any of the aboriginal North American peoples inhabiting a narrow belt of Pacific coastland and offshore islands from the southern border of Alaska to northwestern California.

    The most sharply delimited culture area of native North America was the Northwest Coast. It covered a long narrow arc of Pacific coast and offshore islands from Yakutat Bay in the northeast Gulf of Alaska south to Cape Mendocino in modern California. Its eastern limits were the crest of the Coast Ranges from the north down to Puget Sound, the Cascades south to the Columbia, and the coastal hills of Oregon and northwest California. The Kuroshio (Pacific Ocean current) offshore warms the coast and deluges it with rain. The northern Coast Range, cresting at heights of 5,000 feet and more, rises steeply from the sea and is cut by a myriad of narrow channels and fjords. The shores of Puget Sound, southwest Washington, and the Oregon coast hills are lower and less rugged.

    Coastal forests are dense and predominantly coniferous with spruces, Douglas fir, hemlock, red and yellow cedar, and, in the south, coast redwood. These forests support an abundant fauna. Most important from the cultural point of view was the aquatic fauna, for it was on this that the areal culture depended primarily. Five species of salmon; herring; oil-rich "candlefish," or eulachon; smelt; cod; halibut; and mollusks abounded.

    The peoples of the Northwest Coast linguistically consisted of a series of units related to widespread "stocks" of native North America (see North American Indian languages). From north to south the following linguistic divisions occurred: Tlingit; Haida; Tsimshian; northern Kwakiutl, or Heiltsuq; Bella Coola; southern Kwakiutl; Nootka; Coast Salish; Quileute-Chimakum; Kwalhioqua; Chinook. Then along the Oregon Coast and northwest California a series of small divisions occurred: Tillamook, Alsea, Siuslaw, Umpqua, Coos, Tututni-Tolowa, Yurok, Wiyot, Karok, and Hupa.

    Culturally, Northwest Coast groups can be classified into four sub area units, or "provinces": the northern one, including speakers of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and the Tsimshian-influenced Haisla (northernmost Heiltsuq or Kwakiutl); the Wakashan province, including all other Kwakiutl, the Bella Coola, and the Nootka; the Coast Salish-Chinook province, which included various enclaves of other speech down to the central coast of Oregon; and the northwest California province plus the Athabascan-speaking Tututni-Tolowa.

    The Northwest Coast was densely populated. Estimates of density in terms of persons per square mile mean little in a region where long stretches of coast consisted of uninhabitable cliffs rising from the sea. But early historic sources indicate that many villages had hundreds of inhabitants. One conservative population estimate of 129,000 persons on the coast at the dawn of the historic period must represent nearly the maximum that the area could support without improvement of the already complex technology.

    Knife Handle
    19th Century CE
    NW Coast
    Haida (probably)
    ivory, pearl, shell, wood, 
    Height 4 1/8’’ width 1 5/8’’
    Form:  The function of this object is not really certain.  It was probably used as a knife handle.  It is made from ivory, pearl, shell, and wood and is symmetrical.  The human and animal forms are combined into a composite or compound creature.

    Iconography:  The composite nature of the iconography probably is linked to Kwakiutl, Haida, Tlingit, and Eskimo folk tales and mythology.  The Haida believed that supernatural beings, especially animals had human spirits within them.  Tribes of the NW Coast often claimed to be descended from such beings.  In many of the Northwestern peoples myths the idea of a human spirit that inhabits animal forms may be illustrated here.  The combination of human and animal forms might represent the anthropomorphic human spirit that resides in animals or could be a reference to the ideas of transformation as told in the stories concerning the Raven.  Please read the tale of Raven in Liaisons.  This object may be an expression of the use of the fetish in Native American culture.  The Brittanica describes this as an art object in which there is a "combination of the concept of a guardian spirit with fetish worship and fabricate idols representing plants, animals, and human spirits."

    Context:  Scholars at the Dallas Museum of art suggest that this was probably a knife handle but may have been a fetish object.  The Brittanica explains that the term fetish comes "from anthropological writings in which "fetish" (also spelled fetich) referred to a charm thought to contain magical or spiritual powers."  It is safe to assume that if this object was not used as a knife handle it was used as some sort of fetish and was probably sculpted in a small scale so that it was easy to carry.  If compared to the Kachina figures of the Hopi peoples and one may be able to draw the conclusion that this object served a similar purpose designed to influence the world through some sort of sympathetic magic or as a didactic tool. 


    Tlingit Clan House

    Tlingit, Grizzly Bear House-partition screen 
    c 1840 cedar paint and human hair 15'x8'

    Form: Both works are a part of or actually a work of decorative architecture.  The clan house is made of planked and carved wood which is then painted.  The facade (front or facing) of the building is decorated with stylized anthropomorphic (human) and zoomorphic (animal like) forms.  The rendering or design of these forms, according to Stokstad, consists of "two basic elements: the ovoid, a slightly bent rectangle with rounded corners, and the formline, a continuous shape-defining line."  The ovoid form is a stylized in a geometric fashion.  The formline could also be referred to as a contour line.  Both the partition and the facade of the clan house are symmetrical.  The doorway is at the center of the design.

    Iconography: The iconography of these two structures is fairly complex.  The house is symbolic of a womb like structure.  Entering into the doorway of the house is equivalent to being consumed.  Through the rituals inside one is symbolically "reborn."  When one leaves the house one is reborn.  Notice the house partitions opening roughly corresponds to a vagina.

    The totem poles and compound imagery of the partition and facade represent the history of the clan.  Each image represents the lineage of the clan that uses the house.  Each of the animals is associated with a family or grouping.

    Context: Houses such as the one above were communal dwellings.  The screen at left was used to divide the chief's living area from the rest of the community.  Houses were also used as ceremonial centers in which special festivals such as the Potlatch and Hamatsa ceremonies were held.  The Potlatch was an elaborate feasting and gathering that lasted for several days.  Gifts were exchanged and dances were performed.  The most powerful individuals were the ones who gave the feast and in some ways the festival was an elaborate way in which the participants battled in an economic fashion.  See Stokstad for a detailed account of the Hamatsa festival.

    Tsonokwa Feast Dish 
    8 meters long, carved wood,
    NW Coast
    Salish or Kwakiutl

    Anthropomorphic Bowl
    1900 CE
    NW Coast

    Grease dish in form of a boat 
    with animal head, 
    circa 1900
    wood, opercula, trade beads, and abalone
    24 1/4 x 9 (61.6 x 22.9 cm) inches

    Form: These bowls like the masks were carved of wood.  The designs are symmetrical and painted with naturally occurring pigments.  These bowls may be more brilliantly colored than those used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since modern artists use modern paints.  These bowls are either anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or a composite of the two.  The ovoid and formline are utilized in their decoration.

    The central section of each vessel, which roughly corresponds to the stomach, are used as the food serving areas. The abdomen of the Tsonokwa is the main part of the feast dish, while the face can be removed to reveal another dish. Associated with the feast dish are six small bowls, in the form of red  snappers, seals and frogs, which, when the dish is completely assembled, rest on the knees and other parts of Tsonokwaa's body.

    Iconography:  The food at feasts was often placed in a large dish carved in the form of an animal or supernatural beings that are part of the Kwakiutl mythology.  Since many of the being are cannibalistic, such as Bookwus and Tsonokwa, using the facsimiles of each beings' body as a food container may represent a "taking back" or reverse cannibalism.  In many of the Northwestern peoples myths the idea of a human spirit that inhabits animal forms may be illustrated here. 

    Context:  The larger vessels were used as part of the first part of the Potlatch ceremonies and food was ladled out of them.  The smaller bowls were used later in the feast.  These vessels were family heirlooms and because of their honorific and antiquarian status before food was served out of these dishes, the name of the bowl and the family who owned were announced.

    According to the Brittanica the potlatch was,

    ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to affirm or reaffirm social status, as uniquely institutionalized by the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast. The potlatch reached its most elaborate development among the southern Kwakiutl from 1849 to 1925. Although each group had its characteristic version, the potlatch had certain general features. Ceremonial formalities were observed in inviting guests, in speechmaking, and in the distribution of goods by the donor according to the social rank of the recipients. The size of the gatherings reflected the rank of the donor. Great feasts and generous hospitality accompanied the potlatch, and the efforts of the kin group of the host were exerted to maximize the generosity. The proceedings gave wide publicity to the social status of donor and recipients because there were many witnesses.

    A potlatch was given by an heir or successor to assert and validate his newly assumed social position. Important events such as marriages, births, deaths, and initiations into secret societies were also occasions for potlatches; but trivial events were used just as often, because the main purpose of a potlatch was not the occasion itself but the validation of claims to social rank. The potlatch was also used as a face-saving device by individuals who had suffered public embarrassment and as a means of competition between rivals in social rank.

    Potlatches were often combined with the performances of dancing societies, each having a series of ranked dances that dramatized ancestral experiences with supernatural beings. These beings were portrayed as giving gifts of ceremonial prerogatives such as songs, dances, and names, which became hereditary property.

    Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


    Photos of Dance Feast, 
    Dance Societies of the  Hamatsa
    NW Coast

    For more pictures of the Hamatsa go

    Hamatsa Emerging from the Woods (1914) 
    The figure illustrated here depicts an hamatsa (shaman) who has become possessed by supernatural madness after spending many days in the woods as part of the hamatsa initiation ceremony.

    Context:  The photos at left were taken by an ethnologist/anthropologist named Edward Curtis.  Curtis studied and documented many Native American cultures of  North America and documented their way of life including their rituals and dances.  Many of the photographs have a "staged" appearance and the interaction of Curtis with his subjects should not be overlooked.  In fact, the photos may in some ways be romanticized according to a European or "white" taste.
    "The hamatsa is an important dance of the T'seka. The dance reenacts the taming of the ancestor of the main dancer following an encounter with a mythical being known as Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe', the "First-to-Eat-Men-at-the-North-End-of-the-World." This encounter made the ancestor wild and uncontrolled, like the spirit being. Masks such as those shown here depict several mythical beings that are central to the narrative being performed. The main dancer appears wild at the beginning of the dance and is gradually tamed through the dance, song, and ritual of the hamatsa tradition.

    There are four main parts of the hamatsa dance cycle, and the type of ceremonial clothing worn signifies the meaning of each section of the ceremony. Before the dance, the dancer is initiated and is filled with the energy and power of the spirit Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe'. During the first part of the dance, he appears dressed only in hemlock branches, which signify that he is still very wild and possessed by the spirit. He dances in a wild manner, squatting on the ground and dancing upright only at times. In the second part of the dance, called the Cedar Bark Dance, he exchanges the hemlock branches for red-dyed shredded cedar bark. The hamatsa dances less wildly during this phase of the dance. Suddenly something mentioned in the song excites the wild spirit in him, and he runs from the performance area and disappears behind a curtain. From behind the curtain, the sounds of snapping wooden beaks are heard, and the third part of the ceremony, called Hamsamala or "wearing the cannibal masks," commences. Four monster birds appear, representing the man-eating bird associates of Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe'. These performers dance energetically around the dance space, jumping, squatting, and sitting on the floor in accordance with a ritualized pattern. Their cries, stylized dance movements, and eventual exit into the spirit world symbolize part of the process of the taming of the hamatsa initiate. After the bird masks have departed from the big house, the final set of songs is led by the hamatsa dancer. He performs a tame dance wearing a carved headdress representing one of the mythical creatures in his family history and other regalia appropriate to his family and status. Members of his family, who are also initiated, join him in this dance."
    This text was originally found here but the link is no longer valid:

    Gwaxwiwe' Hamsiwe'
    Raven Man-eater Forehead mask
    Kwakwaka'wakw, Kwagu'l band
    Mungo Martin, ca. 1940 
    Red cedar, red cedar bark, enamel

    Bookwus Mask c 1990's
    NW Coast

    below: detail of Curtis's photo showing Bookwus mask at the Hamatsa festival


    Tsonokwa Transformation Mask
    Simon James (Kwakwaka'wakw) Hand carved and painted
    red cedar 15" X 9" X 8 1/2"

    Form:  Masks were carved of wood and painted with naturally occurring pigments.  The mask at left may be more brilliantly colored than those used during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since modern mask makers use modern paints.  Some of the masks are complete costumes because they have hanging fibers or hair that conceal the individual wearing them.  Notice how the masks are stylized and use elements of the ovoid and form line that Stokstad refers to.  Many of the masks, such as the Raven Mask and Tsonokwa are referred to as "transformation" masks because they contain movable parts and actually can be animated and transformed during their use.

    Iconography:  Masks are integral to Kwakiutl ceremony because they allow the wearer to symbolically become the character.  In this way, the wearer is transformed as they "dance" the mask.  All of the masks tend to represent characteristics of the supernatural figure by relating each being to an animal that has that characteristic.  For example, the raven is a carrion bird who is somewhat ferocious and a trickster.  Bookwus and Tsonokwa are the wild humans of the woods and may symbolize humans struggle against our uncivilized scary or carnal animal side.

    Context:  Masks were used in the Hamatsa ceremonies but some were also used by shaman as fetishes.  A fetish is a physical object that helps one to focus their physical and spiritual energies.  In most  cases, masks serve as a fetish that transforms the wearer into another being.  Because the masks and ceremonies were interactive the wearer, who was transformed into the supernatural creature would "attack" their audience.  The audiences often carried props of their own and would simulate bleeding and faint as they were attacked.  The individual stories for each creature are also important.

    Bookwus, the Wildman of the Woods, is a non human character that lives on the edge of the forest near the ocean shore. He lurks at the mouths of creeks where he entices the souls of drowned humans, persuading them with ghost food to come and live with him. He lives in an invisible house in the woods where he communicated with the dead and brought them back to life during the winter dance season.

    (Story of Tsonokwa, Dzonokwa) quoted from

    Tsonokwa, Tsonokwa the Giantess, The Wild Women Of The Woods, Wealth Giver, she is called many names by the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia. Her story is one of the most interesting among the stories of the Northwest Coast.

    Tsonokwa is easily recognized by her distinctive appearance. The lips are always pursed in a pouty expression formed by her characteristic cry of "uh uh". Her bushy unkempt hair and half closed eyes in deep sockets portrays her drowsiness. Predominantly black, the cheeks and foreheads often have concave depressions giving her a skull-like appearance. She has large pendulous breasts that sometimes hang all the way to the ground and she walks with a shuffle, her back hunched over and carrying a basket over her shoulder. 

    Stories concerning Tsonokwa are plentiful. She is endowed with various attributes and abilities. Often she is portrayed as a narcoleptic creature that stumbles around the fire in the wrong direction only to fall in a heap, asleep on the ground. Others help her to a seat where she promptly falls asleep again. When wakened she does not take part in the ritual dances, but moves in the wrong directions, at odds with the other dancers. Soon she is taken away by attendants. 

    In some stories Tsonokwa is like a sorceress in possession of great knowledge. She could change her shape and size and possessed a basin that flowed with water that could revive the dead and make the ugly beautiful. As Geekumhl, the keeper of great wealth, she appears in male form at potlatches where she oversees the giving away of a chief's possessions.

    One story tells of a girl that lived in a coastal village on the edge of a great forest. She was small, the runt of the litter so to speak, and she was often teased by the other children. She knew that they shouldn't play in the forest. The elders had told them to beware of the giant women that lived deep in the woods. But children are curious creatures and soon they were further into the forest than they should have been. 

    From behind a rock, the Wildwomen appeared. Her bushy hair obscured her face and fur covered her body. She moved with a sudden burst of energy scooping the children into the basket she carried over her shoulder. Then she turned and began walking in the direction of her cave.

    At first the children struggled in the basket, but there was nothing that they could do. The lid of the basket was strong. There was no way out except for a small hole in the bottom where the basket was frayed. The children tried to get through the hole but it was to small. Finally they let the runt try and she easily slipped through the hole and fell to the ground. It was up to the smallest child to save her friends. She ran as fast as she could back to the village where she told the elders what had happened.

    The people from the village followed the Tsonokwa up into the mountains to her cave where she was preparing a fire to cook the captive children. The people began to sing a song that quickly put the already tired creature to sleep. She stumbled, knocking over the basket, and fell into the fire where she burned to death. Because Tsonokwa was a flesh eater, the embers that rose from the fire became mosquitoes. 

    After this the children never questioned the elders and never wandered too far into the forest.


    Bookwus Mask c 1990's
    NW Coast

    below: detail of Curtis's photo 
    showing Bookwus mask at the 
    Hamatsa festival

    James Silva
    Professor Mencher
    Art – 103A
    November 7, 2002
    Shamanism and the Bookwus Mask

    For those whose interest in a culture’s art is related primarily to its religious significance, the Kwakiutl culture of the Northwest provides an extraordinary example of how an aboriginal culture’s art, beyond its obvious role as an expression of its mythos, plays a vital role in actual religious rites or ceremonies.The Kwakiutl is one of the few remaining cultures in which the mostly misunderstood religious practice of shamanism is still practiced.This can be seen in indigenous artwork such as theBookwus Mask (NW Coast, Kwakiutl, c. 1990’s) which we will formally and contextually examine – especially in the context of the overall potlach/Hamatsa experience with which it is part – to show how the surviving image of Bookwus is somewhat distorted.Then by using cross-cultural comparisons to analyze it iconographically, it should become quite obvious that the Bookwus Mask represents a creature that is ecstatic in origin and is indicative of a highly advanced and entrenched shamanic discipline within that culture. 

    Before progressing to the analysis of the Bookwus Mask, it would make sense to first clear up any misconceptions about what a shaman is and what encompasses shamanic tradition.Many people, including some of those in various fields who have reason to study aspects of aboriginal cultures, don’t really understand the concept or role of shamanism in indigenous cultures, often thinking of them as simply the culture’s priest class.Though shamans do sometimes serve this role; strictly speaking, for a religious or spiritual act to be defined as shamanic it must feature, according to authority MirceaEliade in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, “…ascent to heaven, descent to the underworld to bring back the patient’s soul or to escort the dead, evocation and incarnation of the ‘spirits’ in order to undertake the ecstatic journey, ‘mastery over fire,’ and so on.”As you can see, this is quite different from the duties that would fall under the category of a typical priest class, which tend to be dedicated to a specific god or pantheon of deities and whose role includes many bureaucratic duties along with the familiar functions like conducting both religious (i.e. sacrifices) and cultural (i.e. weddings) ceremonies, teaching the traditions, religion and history of the people, and temple or religious site maintenance.With this in mind, we will now formally examine the Bookwus Mask

    The Bookwus Mask is a mask that is carved out of wood, brightly painted and adorned to take on the appearance of Bookwus who, in Kwakiutl myth, was the wild man of the woods.The craftsmanship of the mask is exceptional - as it would have to be since it is meant to be worn over the face during a live performance.Both the carvings and coloration are very precise.As with much of the artwork of the Northwest, the mask is highly stylizedand features symmetrical, geometric designs (above the brows and on the upper cheekbones).There are also aspects of a composite or compound (blending of animal and human forms) displayed, notably the beak-like nose and small, round, bird-like eyes.The jaw is subtractively carved to be narrow and, with both upper and lower teeth exposed, the jaw region resembles that of a human skeleton.When all these artistic techniques are combined, the overall appearance of the mask achieves the desired effect – it is wild and monstrous.

    When viewed contextually, this is completely understandable.After all, the mask is worn by a performer playing the role of Bookwus during a Hamatsa ceremony at a Kwakiutl potlatch gathering.As stated earlier, Bookwus is generally considered to be a mythical “wild man” creature of Kwakiutl folklore who resided in the forest, but who in reality probably had his origins in the ecstatic visions of the Hamatsa, or Kwakiutl shamans, which we will discuss shortly in detail.To play the part of Bookwus during the Hamatsa ceremony, it was obviously important that the mask be as wild and monstrous as possible while still maintaining an appearance that would be fascinating to the audience.TheHamatsa ceremony itself, according to Stokstad’sArt History, was a performance that portrayed the initiatory experiences of an initiate into the shamanic, or Hamatsa, order of the Kwakiutl people.This performance involved many characters, all wearing masks similar in style to the Bookwus Mask, dancing about and interacting with the audience.One of these creatures, Baxwbakwalanukwsiwe,possesses the Hamatsa initiate at the beginning of the performance, and others such as the “snapping birds” are portrayed as trying to rip the initiate apart ( ceremony ends with the initiate, triumphant over his adversaries, wearing a headdress representing the mythical creatures of his family (totem creatures).Taken as a whole, the ceremony more than likely was originally the dramatization of a long since forgotten Hamatsa’s ecstatic visions seen while in the trance or out of body state, and passed down as an oral tradition.This conclusion is based on the fact that all the characters in the performance are readily comparable to known shamanic archetypes.Unfortunately, the true meaning of some of these beings in Kwakiutl myth has become blurred over time.This misconception is understandable, though, considering oral traditions naturally change over generations.Coupled with the fact that the potlatch was outlawed by Canada’s Indian Act of 1885 (Cole, Natural History, Oct. 91), it was only natural that in modern Kwakiutl culture, where Christianity had made inroads and the young were losing interest in traditional rituals (Jonaitis and Macnair, Natural History, Oct. 91), certain aspects of their shamanic traditions would be obscured and distorted.
    To further explore the theory that Bookwus’s origins were ecstatic in origin, we must view Bookwus from an iconographical perspective, comparing him to other known shamanic examples from other cultures to more clearly show what he truly represents.To do so will also require us to iconographically evaluate some of the other characters in theHamatsa ceremony, again using cross-cultural comparisons.As briefly mentioned earlier, the mask is supposed to resemble the mythical wild man of the woods, Bookwus.He communicates with the dead and is known to collect the souls of the drowned by offering them food.According to Kwakiutl mythology, he brings these dead back to life for the winter dance season ( this regard he survives in the folklore as a troll-like figure, which as an icon is fairly simple and self explanatory.But if you analyze Bookwus from a shamanic standpoint, using cross-cultural comparisons to gain perspective, a totally different iconogaphic representation of Bookwus becomes apparent.The “wild” attributes that are stressed in regards to the Bookwus of Kwakiutl folklore is in actuality quite similar to the typical “wild man” figure of shamanic tradition.The “wild man” of shamanic tradition usually represents either a shaman or someone, usually a youth, who is experiencing the calling to become a shaman.According to Eliade’sRites and Symbols of Initiation , “In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude,…loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings.”Later, again according to Eliade, such a youth would, “return to the village, filthy, bloodstained, his clothes torn and his hair disordered, and…he begins to babble incoherent words.”Based on this Siberian example, and taking into consideration that many scholars believe the Native American people migrated from Asia and Siberia, it is reasonable to assume that Bookwus is symbolic of a shaman – though one obviously different from that of the initiate.The fact that his appearance is quite different than that of the initiate in the Hamatsa ceremony and he is seen as a “creature” character leads us to the possibility that Bookwus is not simply a shaman, but perhaps an icon of a deceased shaman who is helping the initiate in his encounters with the “snapping birds” and the other hostile creatures of the Other World.In shamanic tradition it is common, according to Rites and Symbols of Initiation, for the initiate to experience “…a period in hell, during which the future shaman is taught by the souls of dead shamans…”This theory becomes even more likely when one considers the other characters and details from the Hamatsa ceremony.The “snapping birds” and their attempt to kill the Hamatsa initiate are again reminiscent of examples from Siberian shamanic tradition.
    Among the Yakut of Siberia (Rites and Symbols of Initiation), the initiate, in an ecstatic state (while in a trance or out of body state) is taken to hell where he is dismembered.It is only by going through this that the future shaman will receive the power of healing.The initiate is then recovered in flesh and blood and departs to further explore the Other World, where he meets other semi-divine personages in either human or animal form who teach him other shamanic secrets.This sounds very much like what the Hamatsa ceremony is trying to dramatize.Furthermore, the headdress the Hamatsa initiate wears at the end of the performance is also tied intoshamanic tradition and represents shape-shifting.Many shamanic disciplines include aspects of shape-shifting into the specific totem animal of the shaman.For instance, according to Nigel Pennick’s Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, in Norse culture the Berserkers (Bear-shirts) andUlfhethnar (Wolf-coats) are both considered indicative of a shamanic martial order which has survived to us in the form of mythological shape-shifting warrior bands.Many other Norse sagas also present a shaman-like character performing “shape-shifting,” most notably the Saga of King Hrolf-Kraki, in which the character Bjorn (Bear), while in a trance state, sends a bear to attack the enemy.The bear disappears when Bjorn is interrupted and awoken during the battle.With this in mind, it is reasonable to theorize that the physical manifestation of a shaman’s fetch (totem animal) would be a composite “wild man” considering that the Hamatsa initiate is described as a wild man as well.This further points to Bookwus being the semi-divine being referenced by Eliade who helps the young initiate to learn the Shamanic secrets.Clearly there are many examples linking the Bookwus iconography with that of the shaman.
    When considered from a shamanic perspective, The Bookwus Mask’s role takes on an entirely different meaning than what is generally promoted, as does the iconographic portrayal of Bookwus.To view Bookwus as a troll-like creature of folklore seems rather simplistic, especially when compared to the rest of the characters of the Hamatsa ceremony with which he appears.After reading this essay it should be clear that his role was originally of more importance to the ceremony, but that as the techniques of shamanism have deteriorated over time, so too has the understanding of Bookwus.That he originated in a shaman’s ecstatic vision, like the other characters in the Hamatsa ceremony, should be obvious.Unfortunately, due to the progression of time, government oppression, and the changing cultural and religious customs of the Kwakiutl people, it is not.Luckily, there are still Kwakiutl who attempt to preserve their heritage and even some who still practice the Hamatsa tradition.Because of these people, the Hamatsa ceremony has survived to be analyzed and interpreted by a wide variety of perspectives – in this case a religious/ shamanic one – and new interpretations, such as Bookwus as the spirit of a deceased shaman, can be considered.

    Works Cited

    Byock, Jesse (translation and introduction), The Saga of King Hrolf-Kraki.Penguin Classics. 1999.

    Cole, D.“Underground Potlach.”Natural History, Oct. 1991, Vol. 100, Issue 10, pg. 50.Journal of American Museum of Natural History.

    EliadeMircea.Rites and Symbols of Initiation.New York: Harper and Row, 1958

    EliadeMircea.Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.Bollingen Series LXXVI, Princeton University Press, Paperback edition, 1972

    Jonaitis, A.; Macnair, P.“Masks of the Ancestors.”Natural History, Oct. 1991, Vol. 100, Issue 10, pg. 42.Journal of American Museum of Natural History.

    Pennick, Nigel.Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition.New Leaf Distributors, 2nd Edition, 1994

    Stokstad, Marilyn.Art History.New Jersey: Prentice Hall.2nd Edition. 1995


    Chilkat blanket, 
    mountain goat wool, cedar bark and sinew thread
    51 x 64 (129.5 x 162.6 cm) inches
    19th Century CE
    NW Coast
    Form:  It consists of composites of different faces.  It is a stylized blanket, made of bark and wool.  It is mainly symmetrical and features animals or animal parts.  The ovoid and form lines are used extensively on it.

    Iconography:  The blanket in a sense would come to life when put upon a person.  When draped across a back the main figure would stick out almost becoming three dimensional.  So in a way this blanket also is an icon of gods and ancestors.

    Context:  Blankets like this on were used in the dance rituals.  The men of this culture created the designs for these blankets and the women would then weave them, it could take up to six months to complete.  Looms were not used.  Instead fibers were hung from a rod (referred to as the warp threads) and the fibers were then twisted and woven into them to create the design.  Like the Navajo's textiles these blankets were probably not created until after sheep's wool was imported into the Northwest. 

    Internet Site of Interest:   ELEMENTS OF NORTHWEST COAST ART Based on the work of Bill Holm.


     According to the Brittanica,
    narrowly, the robes, or blankets, woven by the Chilkat, northernmost of the Pacific Coast Indians of North America. The Chilkat comprise a family within the Tlingit language group and make their home on the Alaskan coast between Cape Fox and Yakutat Bay. More generally, the term "Chilkat weaving" applies to any garment woven by these Indians. Although the Chilkat are not the only Indians who make this type of robe, they are the ones who have woven the majority of robes in the period since the original contact with European cultures and have created the finest quality and design.

    The Chilkat robe, when laid out flat, is approximately rectangular in shape, except for its long bottom side, which is V-shaped; fringe decorates the bottom and sides. Twine made from cedar bark forms the warp (vertical threads), and mountain goat or mountain sheep wool forms the weft (horizontal interlacing threads), a weave probably borrowed from the Tsimshian Indians. The colours--usually white, yellow, black, and blue or green--come from natural dyes.

    The designs on the earliest Chilkat robes were painted, but for the last two centuries they have been woven into the fabric by women of the tribes, following designs painted on boards by the men. As in many Indian tribes, only men are permitted to create designs depicting living creatures, while women may develop abstract geometric patterns. But the seemingly abstract designs with which these robes are decorated are actually highly conventionalized depictions of real animals or spirits symbolically associated with the tribe to which the owner of the robe belongs. As in almost all of their art, the Indians of the Northwest Coast attempt to portray a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface by presenting all of the different perspectives of the object. For example, progressing from left to right on a Chilkat robe would be a panel depicting the left profile of a whale, then a panel containing a head-on view, and finally a panel showing the right profile. Above this tripartite representation there might be an X-ray depiction of the inside of the whale. The artist clearly indicates which animal he has woven into the robe by using certain key features, such as a long snout for a wolf or a short snout for a bear.

    According to the "Alaskan" website. (This text was originally found here but the link is no longer valid.)
    “The Chilkat story of its origin says that long ago there lived on the Skeena River, in British Columbia, a Tsimshian woman, a widow, of the village of Kitkatla, and her only daughter, Hi-you-was-clar (rain mother). It had been a season of extreme want. The deep snows of winter still covered the lowlands, and the spirit of hunger stalked abroad as a famished wolf. Day after day the girl sat, half dazed from want of food, staring vacantly at the intricately carved and painted picture that covered the rear interior partition of the house; for, although poor, they were of high caste, and their surroundings spoke of past greatness. The picture finally took possession of her, and, setting up a rude frame, she forgot her suffering, and lost herself in the work of weaving an apron of like design. Later her hand was sought by the son of the chief and, in the exchange of presents, her handiwork was given to the father-in-law, who honored the occasion by a great feast, at which he wore the apron, and sacrificed many slaves in token of his appreciation of the gift. . . "

     (The Chilkat Blanket by George Emmons)

     The art of Chilkat Blanket weaving originated with the Tsimshian people (near Wrangell) but later spread to the Tlingits through trade and marriage. The Chilkat Tlingits (near Haines) who developed their own design style became the best and most copious weavers. These blankets, requiring a year of hard work to make, were highly sought by northwest coast Indian nobility long before the first explorers came to this region.

     Traditionally, only the wealthy could make or own a Chilkat Blanket. Both men and women played a role in the creation of the blankets and both considered it a great privilege to wear one. The men designed the pattern and made the pattern board and loom. They provided goat hides for wool. The women gathered cedar bark, prepared the yarn and wove the blanket.

     The patterns were a highly stylized form or art often representing clan symbols and natural forms in an abstract geometric pattern. Animals were portrayed as if sliced down the center and laid out flat. The small circles are ball and socket joints. Eyes were often used as space fillers. The men designed the pattern and painted the abstract figures on a wooden "pattern board." As the blanket was bilateral, only half the pattern was painted in life-size dimensions. The blanket pattern could be interpreted in a variety of ways, however only the man who designed the blanket knew the true legend.

     The woman would loosen the wool from the goat hide by wetting and rolling the hide then pushing the wool off with her thumb and fingers. She carded the wool by sitting with outstretched legs and the wool piled to one side. She drew the wool in the proper amount and fed it to her other hand. The wool was rolled between her palm and thigh to make a loose thread then rolled again to tighten. Two strands were rolled together to form the wool.  A strip of cedar bark was rolled with the strands to make the warp yarn.

     Traditional dyes for the wool yarn were yellow, derived from a lichen called wolf moss; dark brown, produced by boiling wool in urine and hemlock bark; and a greenish-blue made by boiling wool in copper and urine. By the 1890's, commercial dyes and yarns were often used. The warp was never dyed.

     The blanket was woven on a "warp weighted" or "single bar" loom, a simple loom consisting of two standing poles and a cross bar. The warp threads, suspended from a strip of moosehide, were hung from the cross bar. The long ends of the thread were tied into bundles, sometimes weighted with stones, to give tension to the working portion of the yam. The weaver usually sat or kneeled in front of the loom while weaving. The blankets were woven entirely with the fingers. No other device was used. The fingerweaving was called twining. Two or more wefts were twisted around a single warp of yam. When the blanket was completed, the fringe was filled out by adding lengths of warp yam and braided borders were added.

     The Chilkat dance apron was the earliest product of the loom. Also made were ceremonial blankets, tunics, leggings and small pouches and purses. The blankets were used as ceremonial robes worn on special occasions such as a potlatch where they might be presented to honored guests; in dancing; surrounding a body while it lay in state; or occasionally hung on the outside of a gravehouse as a token of esteem.

     The Chilkat Blanket held a key position in the Tlingit economy. It was widely known and highly valued even during the days of its maximum production. In trade, it was rivaled only by caribou hides and copper until guns were brought into the country. In the mid 1800's, their value was about $30 - a large sum at that time. The blanket was a prized possession of anyone wealthy enough to own one.

     During this century, the art of making the blanket has been in danger of dying out. In 1907, George Emmons reported 15 remaining weavers. Taught by her mother in the late 1890's, Master Weaver Jennie Thlunaut of Klukwan was the last of the traditional weavers. She made over 33 blankets and 6 tunics during her 96 year lifespan. In 1984, she conducted a two week workshop in Haines to pass on the art of blanket weaving. There are only a handful of serious blanket weavers today.

    An essay about the meaning of the Chilkat Blanket.

    Structuring Community
    Through Ritual Symbolism
    Jennifer A. Robbins

    For the Chilkat people, who inhabit the Pacific Coast of North
    America from Vancouver Island to Prince William Sound, family
    is extremely important. Such a strong familial cultural system
    gives its people a sense of cohesion and stability that is affirmed
    through ritual transformation. This transformation occurs during
    the Headdress Dance, wherein a member of the chiefly class and
    sponsor clan wraps himself in a crest animal blanket. Through this
    ceremonial event the dancer becomes invested with the extraordinary
    abilities of the crest animal, which is articulated by culturally
    recognized symbols woven into the blanket. The symbols contained
    within a Chilkat blanket depict specific crest animals, which are
    exclusive to individual clans and represent ideal traits of the clan
    members (Emmons 347). Crests are complex compositions that
    include visual imagery as well as accompanying songs, stories, and
    dances. Inherited through family lines, crests recall histories shared
    between humans, animals, and supernatural beings that reach deep
    into the mythological past. By properly displaying a crest and its
    related stories in ritual performances, families claim rights to specific
    lands and resources and convey what each chiefly family group sees
    as their rightful status as elite or chiefly (Samuel 32). Victor Turner, a
    prominent ritual theorist suggests that “rituals are storehouses of
    meaningful symbols by which information is revealed and regarded
    as authoritative, as dealing with the crucial values of the community,”
    defining those symbols that are used broadly within the ritual
    activities of the community, yet consistently retain their unique
    meaning, as “dominant” (Drums of Affliction 2; Forest of Symbols 31-
    32). An examination of the visual aspects of this Chilkat blanket illustrates
    these concepts and reveals the blanket as an effective vehicle
    for dissemination of dominant ritual symbolism.

    The Chilkat blanket is consistent with the first property of a
    dominant ritual symbol, that a single definitive symbol signifies
    many different people and their actions (Deflem 6). According to
    an interpretation by George T. Emmons, one of the first ethnographers
    to study Chilkat artistic expression, the general design of
    this blanket illustrates a diving whale, a common crest element
    (377). The crest animal in each of its various incarnations stands for
    one particular clan, one emblem of glorification. Just one widely
    understood image represents all of the individuals of the clan.

    Just as individuals make up the clan as a cohesive entity,
    individual designs are compiled to create the crest animal as
    a distinguished expression. A clan’s crest animal is identified
    through the depiction of unified distinct elements, leading us
    to the second feature of dominant symbol theory--a synthesis
    of unique elements depicted in a similar manner, the meaning
    of which is determined by culturally formed perceptions of crest
    animal association (Deflem 6). The unique style of this region
    favors the splitting and rearranging of human and animal forms,
    as well as the exaggeration of certain features such as wings, ears,
    claws, and eyes, as artists visually recreate a variety of beings to
    define the social relationships that make up crest histories. The
    affiliation with these specific animal crests helps to determine
    and empower the clan’s position in society.

    One of the aspects that make the crest symbolism of the
    Chilkat blanket so powerful and evocative is that it possesses the
    third aspect of a dominant ritual symbol, the ability to remind
    its audience of the polarities of social structure and natural
    phenomena (Deflem 6). The depiction of a killer whale or another
    predominant animal in the Chilkat repertory arouses a sensory
    response of a purely instinctual nature. At the same time, the
    association of this crest animal to a specific clan reminds the
    viewer of the social hierarchy delineated by a class system. This
    dominant symbol speaks to both the civilizing effects of culture
    and the awareness of nature that is fundamental for survival.

    The inclusion of clan symbolism on a Chilkat blanket imbues
    it with the spiritual power of the family’s crest animal. When
    this object is used in ritual performance, it transmits dominant
    symbolism, affirming cultural cohesion and social ordering. This
    idea is affirmed by Turner; “ritual involves the handling of symbols
    that constitute the smallest units of ritual activity; symbols in
    themselves are carriers of meaning” (Deflem 7). As a symbol functioning
    in a ritual sphere, the Chilkat blanket plays an integral role
    in illustrating, guiding, and asserting social structure.

    an.thro.po.mor.phic adj [LL anthropomorphus of human form, fr. Gk anthropomorphos, fr. anthrop- + -morphos -morphous] (1827) 1: described or thought of as having a human form or human attributes <~ deities> 2: ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things <~ supernaturalism> -- adv 

    fe.tish also fe.tich n [F & Pg; F fetiche, fr. Pg feitico, fr. feitico artificial, false, fr. L facticius factitious] (1613) 1 a: an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b: an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion: 

    ovoid, a slightly bent rectangle with rounded corners.

    formline, a continuous shape-defining line also referred to as a contour line.

    zoo.mor.phic adj [ISV] (1872) 1: having the form of an animal <a ~ orchid> 2: of, relating to, or being a deity conceived of in animal form or with the attributes of an animal -- zoo.morph n