The Hopi Star Kachina

by Gary A. David
Copyright © 2004 by Gary A. David

Ascending at dawn from the subterranean shadows of the kiva, the kachinas stream into the sunlit plaza of the oldest village in North America. In single file procession they step as one entity to the steady pulse of a single cottonwood drum. An oblong loop of spirit dancers soon forms inside the negative space created by clusters of low, masonry dwellings: a sacred circle within the square, one great kachina wheel turning in perfect synchronization to the rhythms of the seasons around the communal heart of Oraibi. Unlike Plains Indians’ sun dance songs which seem to aggressively pierce the firmament like rays of sunlight, these Hopi songs project a more moderate and reserved character, due in part to being muffled by the extraordinary masks, which sometimes even resonate with a soft buzzing. More essentially, however, this sedentary native group’s attention is primarily focused downward to the earth, urging the forces of fertility to rise. From daybreak to nightfall with only short intervals of rest, the singers’ intoned prayers are pressed into the ground by a series of unremitting dance steps, thereby assisting the tellurian cycle of horticultural growth in an extremely harsh land. At last the sun slips beyond the western rim of the horizon and is gone, making its diurnal descent to the Underworld.

In the simplest sense kachinas (also spelled katsinam) are intercessory spirits that can take on the form of any manifold physical object, phenomenon, or creature in the world. Distinct from the Hopi pantheon, they are not worshipped per se, though certain deities, such as Masau’u, god of death and the Underworld, can alternately appear as kachinas. The familiar kachina "dolls" (tihu) are merely representations of the actual spirit beings, carved for the sake of the children, and in modern times to sell to tourists.

The most prominent feature of Sohu, or Star Kachina, is the three vertical four-pointed stars arranged horizontally in a row across the top of his head. These bring to mind the most important constellation in Hopi cosmology, Orion, in particular his belt. These stars are interspersed between four vertical eagle feathers. This kachina has dark straight hair, goggle eyes, and diamond-shaped teeth. On his right cheek is painted an equilateral cross (star), on his left a crescent moon. He wears a fringed buckskin shirt and a kilt made of radiating turkey feathers, both of which are peculiar attire for a kachina. As Barton Wright succinctly notes, “He does not resemble the usual Hopi Kachina.” The 19th century archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes says that Sohu has stars painted on his forearms and legs. He holds yucca whips in both hands and a fox skin trails behind him.

The Hopi word sohu (or soohu) simply means “star,” but in their belief system stars are conceptualized as supernatural entities, with those of Orion being ceremonially paramount. In the Egyptian Pyramid Texts (some of the world’s oldest funerary literature) the similar word Sahu refers to “the star gods in the constellation Orion.”

In addition, we find an important verification for the sky-ground dualism of the Orion Correlation Theory in both the Egyptian homophone sahu, which means “property,” and its cognate sah-t, which refers to “landed property,” “estate,” “site of a temple,” “homestead,” or “environs.” Because the term sahu simultaneously refers to both stars and ground, this conceptual mirroring aligns the two realms, i.e., “...on earth as it is in heaven.” These and other language correlations corroborate if not a Hopi migration from the Old World, then at least a pre-Columbian contact with Middle Eastern or North African mariners, perhaps Phoenician or Libyan.

an excerpt from The Orion Zone: Ancient Star Cities of the American Southwest
Copyright © 2004 by Gary A. David. All rights reserved
Any use of text or photos without the author's prior consent is expressly forbidden.

Contact: e-mail islandhills@cybertrails.com