Navajo Star Ceilings

Certain stars and constellations that were of particular cultural significance can be recognized in Navajo sandpaintings, rock art, and certain portable artifacts such as gourd rattles used in sacred ceremonies. Small crosses representing stars are also found painted on the ceilings of rock shelters and on horizontal, downward-facing surfaces of rock overhangs. Over seventy-five examples are known, concentrated mainly in the Canyon de Chelly area of Arizona. They contain anything from a single star to more than two hundred, sometimes mixed with other elements such as stylized birds or dragonflies.

According to Navajo myth, Black God, who put the stars in the sky, only had the chance to place a few carefully before the rest were flung across the sky haphazardly. As a result, only a few bright stars and constellations are important to the Navajo; the rest are regarded as random. Some of these constellations are depicted on certain Navajo artifacts, but the important thing was to identify them rather than to represent their shape literally (as we would see it). Thus where Dilyehe (the Pleiades) are represented on masks of Black God, the seven dots do not reflect the actual form of the constellation in the sky.

Pueblo rock art at Comanche Gap petroglyph field, Lamy, New Mexico, featuring representations of stars. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

Star ceilings, it seems, do not even depict actual stars. Though there are inviting scatters of stars on many ceilings, attempts to identify particular constellations are unconvincing. A number of ceilings have the stars arranged in regular rows; others are as much as twenty meters (sixty-five feet) above the ground, totally out of reach. The stars were likely placed there by using bows to fire "arrows" carrying paint-covered stamps—a process that could not have resulted in great precision.

What were star ceilings for? In Navajo thought, stars are regarded as beneficent supernatural beings (Holy People) who can restore well-being in times of misfortune. A likely answer, then, is that the stars had a restorative or protective role. Perhaps the act of painting of a ceiling created a place— a shrine—where the healing power of the stars could be harnessed through the performance of the appropriate rites. Another suggestion is that they created a supernatural presence within a dangerous place to protect people nearby against disasters such as rock-falls. These and other possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

In short, it seems that stars on Navajo star ceilings were symbols conveying the stars' protective power rather than literal depictions of stars. This example cautions against jumping to "literalist" conclusions, especially where we do not have access to the cultural evidence that could counter them.

See also:

Navajo Cosmology; Pawnee Star Chart.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F., ed. World Archaeoastronomy, 331-340. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Chamberlain, Von Del. "Navajo Constellations in Literature, Art, Artifact and a New Mexico Rock Art Site." Archaeoastronomy (Center for Archaeoastronomy) 6 (1983), 48-58.

Chamberlain, Von Del, John Carlson, and Jane Young, eds. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, 80-98. Bognor Regis, UK: Ocarina Books, and College Park, MD: Center for Archaeoastronomy, 2005.

Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. Earth Is My Mother, Sky Is My Father: Space, Time and Astronomy in Navajo Sandpainting, 120-122. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, 227-241. Loughborough, UK: Group D Publications, 1993.

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