Feature Articles – Canyons of the Gods
Both Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico) and Canyon de Chelly (Arizona) are not only wonders of the natural world, but the Native Americans selected them as sacred sites, where contact with the divine was possible. But the deities’ presence is actually visible in the rocks themselves!
by Philip Coppens
Situated at an altitude of 6000 feet, Bandelier National Monument is a wonderful canyon with a permanent stream that has evidence of human occupation dating back 10,000 years. It comes in the form of pit dwellings, which were built underground and which have been found along the Rio Grande, just south of Bandelier. But the true beauty of Bandelier are the cliff dwellings, kivas and the village that sits at the bottom of the canyon and which forms the heart of the national monument, though this complex is far more recent, dating only as far back as the 13th century.
The people who created this settlement were known as the Anasazi, though they are currently referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo people. The word Anasazi has a Navajo origin and translates as “ancient enemies”, a now politically incorrect term, though there is far more intrigue attached to it than the “correct” term. It is often believed that the Anasazi disappeared, but in truth they merely migrated; their descendents today live in the nearby pueblos, like Tsankawi and San Ildefonso, and therefore their new name does more correctly describe who they were: the ancestor of the pueblo people. The people who built here, built with stone and that stone was the pink rock of the canyon wall which is tuff, volcanic ash that was compacted over time, the result of two violent eruptions of the Jemez volcano, located fourteen miles northwest, more than one million years ago. Archaeologists will tell you that it was not the cliff faces that brought the Anasazi here, but that it was the river: Frijoles Creek is a permanent stream, one of the few such rivers in this region, though in times of extreme drought the water still does not reach the Rio Grande.
The water not only provided for drinking and cooking material, but also attracted wildlife and allowed for plants to flourish… and to be planted; the Ancestral Pueblo people practiced agriculture, especially corn. By 1200 AD, this was in evidence on the Pajarito Plateau above and in the canyon itself. Small fields were planted with corn, beans and squash. The seeds were often planted deep into the soil, where more moisture could be found. The plants were also grouped to provide shade and support. Dams and like were created to regulate the water flow to the fields.
Apart from a village, there is also Alcove House, formerly known as Ceremonial Cave. This large cave rests about 140 feet above the canyon floor and has a reconstructed kiva. Ten miles from the village is the so-called shrine of the Stone Lions, located on the mesa top. The shrine is labelled after two life-size crouching mountain lion effigies that have been carved and which are located inside a stone ring. A second pair of such carved lions is said to exist even further afield. The two pairs of stone lions are unique in the Southwest and underlines that even though Bandelier might not be as famous as some of the other sites, it was definitely very important to our ancestors. The village of Tyonyi inside the canyon is the main focus of Bandelier, though it is but one of several villages located within the National Monument. Tree-ring dating suggests the village was inhabited 600 years ago. Dense settlement in the canyon dates back to ca. 1250 AD. The village itself was constructed about a century later. Between 1325 and 1440, the population in the canyon climbed from 200 to 550 people. In its glory day, this village contained about four hundred rooms and housed approximately one hundred people.
According to the Keres, the people to the south, Tyyonyi means the place of meeting, or treaty. It is known that the settlement had links with the people of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, as is in evidence in the type of building techniques used here. But contact with neighbouring people went much further afield, as far as Mexico, as this area of New Mexico had much desired turquoise. Evidence of trade with Mexico also comes in the form of shells, parrots – some of them depicted in the petroglyphs etched onto the cliff walls – and copper bells. The first structure one encounters as one enters the village is the Big Kiva, which was not only for ceremonial use, but also for educational and decision making. Continuing on the path, the main part of the village was constructed along the central plaza which contained four kivas. Access to the village was through a single ground-level opening. The village’s layout would have been largely circular, with one or two storey buildings, the walls made from bricks and plastered with mud, the central plaza tucked inside of it.
Tyonyi rests in the shadow of an impressive series of loose-standing stones, which rise in front of the cliff wall. Behind these stone columns are cave rooms are known as cavates, a name coined by the early archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, who worked in this canyon. Most cavates had stone rooms built in front of them. The lower walls of the cavates were usually plastered and painted, while the ceilings were blackened by smoke. Smoking the ceilings actually hardened the tuff and made it less crumbly.
Some of the cavates are used for religious purposes, as is in evidence in the rock drawings found around and inside these caves which were enhanced by humans. Recurring motifs are a zigzag design as well as a depiction of the feathered serpent, known locally as Awanyu. He was the guardian of water – hence why there is this sanctuary to him in this canyon, one of the few constant sources of water in the region?
Awanyu was the local equivalent to the Mayan Quetzalcoatl. The zigzag pattern is his design and is clearly linked with water – and is similar to the Egyptian hieroglyph for water. At Bandelier, we also see how the pattern is depicted on the walls in a step pyramid-like fashion, reminiscent of the step pyramid at Chichen Itza, which not coincidentally was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The answer why the village was constructed here and nowhere else in the canyon can be found behind the two needle-like stones that rise above the village, before the cavates carved out of the cliff face. There rise two stone, needle-like structures, one in the shape of a reptilian-looking man, with next to him an elderly, seating woman. He is clearly associated with Awanyu and the question is whether his image was enhanced or whether it is completely natural. If the latter, it is self-evident why this site became sacred and why the cavates behind them were used for religious purposes. Especially when one observes that some of these cavates have holes carved out of them that play with these stones and create solar phenomena which, if ever they are catalogued, will no doubt reveal solar if not astronomical alignments.
As no work of this nature has occurred in Bandelier, we need to go elsewhere to find analogies, and for these, we do not need to travel too far. In fact, we might even find the answer as to whom the woman is seated next to Awanyu. She might be “Spider Woman.” Her story, however, is best told in Canyon de Chelly. The Grand Canyon might be the greatest, but is it the most beautiful canyon? For those who think not, a top favourite to steal that spot is the Canyon de Chelly, a canyon that was used for the closing scenes of the movie “Contact”. The Canyon de Chelly sits within Navajo territory, near the town of Chinle, which is best described as a long drive from many things, though as one approaches Chinle (from the south), the northern horizon shows the gigantically beautiful outline of Monument Valley.
The canyon is actually two canyons, Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. De Chelly is derived from the Navajo word tseyi, meaning “in the rock”. The canyon has been inhabited from 2500 BC to 1300 AD, when about one thousand people were living inside the canyon. The Navajo arrived in the late 1600s, following three centuries of intermittent Hopi presence.
The typical cliff dwelling in this canyon dates from the period 1050-1300 AD and are equally accredited to the Ancestral Puebloans. The most famous locations are the White House, the Antelope House and Mummy Cave. But what Canyon de Chelly and the Navajo Indians teach us is that the entire canyon is sacred; whether Bandelier or de Chelly, canyons are gorges into Mother Earth and were therefore seen as places where the world of the living and the spirits of the underworld could intermingle. The key feature of Canyon de Chelly is Spider Rock. The two columns rising 800 feet upwards from the canyon floor are nothing short of magical. One should ask whether the rock was used as a gnomon for marking certain solar events. For the Navajo, this is the home to Spider Woman, who taught them the art of weaving.
In one of the Hopi legends “Spider Woman”, or Kokyangwuti, has a very important role, as she was said to have created the First World. She was given power to help create the earth, especially life on earth. She was also given knowledge, wisdom and love to bless everything she created. As such, she took some earth, mixed it with saliva and moulded it into two beings, twins.
To the Native Americans, spider woman is the grandmother, the link to the past and to the future during the present. Spider medicine teaches creativity, the weaving of fate and the creation of our own reality and karma. The spider teaches to maintain balance albeit sometimes “walking a thin line.” This balance is between past and future; physical and spiritual; male and female; and in fact, in all areas of life. So Spider Woman in the Canyon de Chelly is one of two columns, but in Bandelier, it are two statues of deities, one “a seated woman” and therefore likely to be the weaving Spider Woman, who sit behind two columns. Coincidence, or evidence that what happened in one canyon, can also be observed in the other?
What we have in both sites, in these canyons that cut into “Mother Earth”, are sacred columns, linked with the creation mythology, focussing on Spider Woman and Quetzalcoatl, two chief deities of the American pantheon. Spider Woman was a goddess of the Underworld and Quetzalcoatl descended into the Underworld. Do we have in the canyon, this cut into the Underworld, a meeting of the two deities and is this the reason why around them, a sacred complex now known as Bandelier National Monument originated?