Chumash Sky and Earth Deities and Cosmological Rock Art

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Depicted on high mountain cave pictographs, the Chumash saw the stars as powerful, competitive sky beings that affected human life and the balance of the universe.

Santa Barbara, Painted Cave, Chumash Indians, rock art, California

Shamans, or Chumash priests, are thought to have made these paintings to influence supernatural beings and forces to intervene in human affairs. We can only guess what these mysterious symbols meant to their creators, but they may represent mythic figures, natural phenomena, or abstract concepts. Photo By Jack Eidt.

Chumash Cosmology Painted on Rock

Though the Chumash culture persists in disparate corners of the south-central coast of California, the words of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1925 still ring true: “There is no group in California that once held the importance of the Chumash concerning which we know so little.” Most scholars, however, have surmised the remarkable pictographs found in remote caves, hidden crevasses, and massive rock formations from the Channel Islands to the Santa Barbara and Ventura backcountry, may have been associated with the ritual use of the sacred plant Datura, which can induce spirit-helper “‘atishwinic” dreams and visions. They might have been painted by healers and seers, members of the selective school Near Mt. Pinos called ‘Antap, charged with conserving Chumash culture while the missions down on the coast dismantled it. Of course, such speculation is really beside the point.

“And those who die – how do they come to be born again?” asked one of the old men assembled. The wise man who was their leader answered, “They follow the sun.”

With the help of oral narratives collected from Chumash informants between 1912 and 1928, the cosmology of the Chumash has come alive. Myths illustrate the (middle) world humans live in, and their interface with worlds above and below. We are told of the spirit’s journey to the land of the dead, Shimilaqsha, on an island out to sea. The Sky People (Sun, Golden Eagle named Sl’ow, Morning Star and Sky Coyote) rule the light and the Nunashush, or creatures from the other world, fly, run and crawl when night falls.

It is less important to understand what the paintings depict. We can only marvel at their existence in remote canyons populated by mountain lions and bobcat, the soaring few condor and the many cawing raven there watching. Hours or days of travel, drinking from creeks, picking sage and tasting lemonade-berries, to find them in their grandeur, often worn by wind, singed by wildfire, molded by bacteria and dust, scratched and painted over by heedless fools, and one locked away with a fence.

STORY: Self Healing with Chumash Native Plant Medicine

Reincarnation – A Chumash Narrative

Silverio Qonoyo of Santa Inez, whose ancestors were all from Santa Rosa Island, once told Fernando Librado Kinsepawit the following story. The old men who understood such things once gathered to discuss he who watches over us: Sun. Sun sees everything.

“And those who die – how do they come to be born again?” asked one of that assembly. The wise man who was their leader answered, “They follow the sun. Every day they enter the portal of the sun. All over the world they die when the time comes for them to do so. He who dies will resurrect with the same feelings in his heart, but different in one respect — color.”

There was a sand dollar in that place that was lying mouth down, and the old man showed it to his companions and said, “Look at this, here in the middle.” (Between the tip of the middle petal of the flower and the rim.) “The sun rises from the east and goes to the west, and all the spirits follow him. They leave their bodies. The sun reaches the door and enters, and the souls enter too. When it is time for the sun to fulfill his duty he emerges, for he lights the abysses with his eye, and all who are in the dusk resurrect.”

From Thomas Blackburn: December’s Child, A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives, Collected by J.P. Harrington, University of California Press, 1975.

Crystals in the Sky – Rock Art as Astronomical Storytelling

A book review of Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay’s Crystals in the Sky, An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art, Ballena Press, 1978, by E. Hadingham in the Journal of the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy supplement stated:

The Chumash were skillful observers of the night sky who developed myths to explain the conjunctions and relative motions of the celestial bodies. The study reveals the major drive of astronomer-priests was not scientific understanding of the sky, but prediction and justification of Earth events. Celestial objects were cast in the role of powerful, competitive sky beings. Their struggles in the heavens reflected conflicts and insecurities the priests themselves experienced. The behavior of the sky beings was believed to affect the outcome of human affairs, and, indeed, the balance of the entire universe. These deities were frequently indifferent to man; for example Mars was identified as an aloof and sometimes threatening being, invested with awesome supernatural power.

As the dangerous giant condor Hol-hol, Mars and its retrograde motion probably inspired the Chumash belief that the bird-deity could travel quickly across the Upper World and seek out missing persons or objects. The Chumash also characterized the twin aspects of Venus (Evening and Morning Star) as separate beings with opposed benevolent and malevolent characteristics. Such details vividly convey the difference between our own habits of systematically classifying astronomical events.

Following is an idealized 1976-oriented vision of the Chumash people of the coast and mountains of South-Central California. Forgive stereotypic depictions and simplistic search for meaning, as they had the highest intention of the era…

The Cave Paintings of the Chumash Indians – Film by Steve Penny circa 1976 about the Chumash rock art found in the greater Santa Barbara area.

Old Woman Momoy (Datura wrightii)

Momoy was an old woman who lived no one knows where. She said to her grandson, “You are a good hunter. Now I’m going to give you a medicine so you may be braver and more courageous and manlier,” she said.

Momoy took a bowl and added water, then washed her hands in it. She gave it to her grandson to drink. He drank the water and became dizzy. “I’m sleepy, grandmother!” he said. “Go to bed and take careful note of what you dream,” she said. The boy went to bed and slept for three days, and when he awoke the old woman asked him what he dreamed. He told her he hadn’t dreamed anything. “Well, grandson, I’m going to wash my hands again,” she said. “Grandmother, wash better so I can sleep longer,” he replied. But she answered, “I’m only going to wash up to my elbows.” “Grandmother, why don’t you take a bath so that I can drink the water and sleep for ten days?” he asked. And the old woman answered, “No, if I took a bath, you’d turn into a devil or die; just up to my elbows is enough.”

She took the bowl and washed and the boy drank it. “Grandmother, I’m sleepy,” he said. “Go to bed and pay attention to what you dream,” she replied. He slept for six days and when he awoke, he said, “Ah, grandmother, I’ve slept a long time, but I didn’t dream anything. Now what should I do?” “Keep on hunting,” she said. “You are a good hunter, grandson.”

The boy went out with his bow into the hills, and he came across a sleeping animal. He returned and told Momoy what he had found, and she said, “Oh, grandson, be very careful with that animal. It is called a bear and it is very fierce. You couldn’t kill him. That animal is very powerful and must be respected.” “Well, I’m going to get him,” the boy said.

From Thomas Blackburn: December’s Child, A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives, Collected by J.P. Harrington, University of California Press 1975.

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature’s all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion — Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt