Pawnee Earth Lodge

The traditional dwelling of the Pawnee, often referred to as an earth lodge, symbolized the cosmos in many ways: in the materials used, the techniques of construction, in its orientation, and in the spatial configuration of activities taking place there. The lodges of one of the four Pawnee bands, the Skidi Pawnee, have been studied in particular detail. They faced eastwards, with altars in the west. Their four main supporting posts represented the World Quarter Stars, each placed in the appropriate intercardinal direction, thus reflecting the four quarters of the world and symbolizing the connection between the earth and the sky. At the top of the lodge, directly over the hearth, was a smoke-hole, which was said to reflect the shape of the Council of Chiefs, a group of stars corresponding to our constellation Corona Borealis. In short, the earth lodge was a model of the world—a microcosm—in which people, in carrying out their daily lives within their homes, also lived at one with, and within, the cosmos as a whole.

The lodge also functioned as a place for observing the heavens. The first rays of the morning sun, passing in through the entrance, imparted life-giving strength and power. During the day, and depending upon the season of the year, sunlight slanted down through the roof hole and passed around the lodge, touching objects and people, bringing light and warmth. It is also recorded that Skidi priests used the smoke hole to observe stars passing overhead, in order to schedule ceremonies. In this sense, the lodge had a pragmatic function for calendrical observations: it truly was an observatory.

This juxtaposition of the practical and the symbolic may come as a surprise. It also has implications for some of the questions that have been asked in the past about the significance and meaning of prehistoric remains, and about whether astronomical alignments at prehistoric monuments in Britain represented science or symbolism. Earth lodges clearly combined elements of both.

See also:

Science or Symbolism?

Pawnee Cosmology.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F., ed. Archaeoastronomy in the New World, 183-194. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Chamberlain, Von Del. When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America. Los Altos, CA, and College Park, MD: Ballena Press/Center for Archaeoastronomy, 1982.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 269-301. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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