Hopi Calendar and Worldview


The Hopi people of Arizona remained almost undisturbed by European influences until about 1870. A number of traditional Hopi villages were situated on the very edges of mesa tops overlooking the surrounding barren plains, and Walpi, located particularly precariously on the top of a narrow mesa with precipitous cliffs on three sides, has remained relatively unspoiled. The inhabitants of Walpi are known to have observed an elaborate ceremonial calendar. The entire year was punctuated with ceremonies whose purpose was to “assure vital equilibrium, both social and individual, and conciliate the supernatural powers in order to obtain rain, good harvests, good health, and peace” (Ortiz 1979, p. 564). Some were carried out in public and some in private. Some were of considerable duration: a celebration lasting nine days occurred at the time of winter solstice. The calendar was regulated by carefully tracking the horizon rising position of the sun against various distant landmarks from different observing positions in and around the village.

The Hopi calendar, as practiced at Walpi and other traditional villages, provides a fine example of a seasonal calendar regulated by horizon sun observations. First recorded by the ethnographer Alexander Stephen in the 1890s, it has attracted a good deal of attention because it achieved an accuracy that many commentators found remarkable, generally keeping within two or three days of the “true” solar year. As a result, it has sometimes been portrayed as a classic example of the use of horizon sun observations to regulate crop planting and other subsistence activities, and so it is. Yet this only represents one aspect of the whole picture. The elaborate ceremonials (“ritual performances”) that accompanied the various seasonal subsistence tasks were a vital part of an annual round of activities that—although we might try to break them up into those that were more “sacred” and those that were more “secular” or pragmatic in character—represented to the Hopi an integrated way of harmonizing human actions with cycles of events in the natural world. The calendar and all its associated ceremonies, in other words, had a key role in reaffirming the natural (cosmic) order.

This cosmic order also had spatial characteristics. These are reflected in the way people perceived the horizon and the whole landscape around them, and attributed meaning to different places. Working with the Hopi in the 1970s, historian Stephen McCluskey found out that the points on the horizon behind which the sun rises and sets at the solstices are themselves sacred places. Some of them are visited at the appropriate times of the year, when decorated prayer sticks and other offerings to the sun are placed on shrines. The place of midwinter sunrise in the southeast is the house of the sun, out of which the sun is said to come eating from a red stone bowl. The place of midsummer sunset in the northwest is the house of Huzruing wuhti, “hard being woman,” who is associated with hard substances such as shells, corals, and turquoise. The sun stands directly above her house before descending into it through a hatchway in the roof.

Observations of the sun rising and setting at the solstices themselves are actually superfluous to the ceremonial calendar, since the sun’s day-to-day movement at these times is minuscule and there are no suitable foresights that would aid precision. The solstitial directions are important for a different reason: they mark the four principal directions that are sacred in the Hopi worldview, fundamental axes that divide the world into four parts centered upon a particular village. These directions are not conceived as geometrical abstractions but as empirical realities with a variety of symbolic associations. They result in a conceptual quartering of the world, or quadripartite cosmology, a type of worldview that is found, in different variants, among other indigenous American groups such as the Navajo and Pawnee.

Each of the mesa-top villages, then, had an associated “sacred geography” in which particular places in the landscape had specific meanings, many were sacred, and the village itself stood at the center of things. This view of the world was derived through experience and constantly reinforced in myth and practice. It contrasts absolutely with the Western view of land as a resource to be exploited.

The Hopi calendar did (and does) not simply regulate crop-planting activities but constantly reaffirms the structure and correct functioning of the Hopi cosmos.

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