Zuni Cosmology

Michael A Rizzotti

This short essay allows us to display the splendor of Zuni mythology. In many respects, the Zuni represent a beautiful example of the aboriginal cultures that thrived in North America. It allows us to disclose the Zuni’s conception of the world which was inaugurated long before the so-called civilized world made its imprint on the whole continent.

The metaphorical aspect of Zuni language is at the core of its cosmology. In their rituals and their everyday life the Zuni use numerous metaphors to depict how “everything” is related to the “same thing”. Language is a dynamic principle of the whole Zuni spirituality.

Finally, among the many native cultures of North America the Zuni still live by the word of a compelling cosmology. Their self-enclosed cosmos is a typical example of what Emile Durkheim calls sociocentrism.1 The composition and arrangement of their collective order is typical of many other native cultures. But what is particular to Zuni mythology is some analogies it shares with the creation myths of Genesis. While the Bible describes the creation of the world in terms of time; namely, seven days, the Zuni relate the creation of the world in terms of space; namely, seven orientations. In Genesis the seventh day is sacred. For the Zuni the seventh space is also sacred. The etymology of the Hebrew word to swear, for instance, literally means to seventh oneself.2 In Zuni mythology the seventh space is referred to as the sacred Center: it is described as the Middle Place, and the Middle Time. Similarly, in the Bible the tree that lies in the midst of the garden is a metaphor for the divinity Asherah. In Zuni Mythology the center is a metaphor of Earth Mother.


Zuni is the name of a people. It is also the name of their small Pueblo ─village─ located on the Indian Reservation in the McKinley county of New Mexico.3 Zuni is situated thirty miles south of Gallup, and about the same distance west of the Continental Divide.

The Zuni Pueblo are noted for their skills in making silver and turquoise jewelry. They are also famous for the ceremonial dance of the Shalako.4

The Pueblo lies in a small valley of the Zuni River which takes its source from the Little Colorado. It is one of the oldest farming communities in the United States. They are the descendants of the people of the Seven Cities of Cibola. They were given that name by a Spanish expedition led by the Franciscan Friar Marcos de Niza in 1539. His embellished accounts of the Seven Cities of Gold lured another expedition led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado the next year. The first expedition of the Spaniards apparently mistook the golden reflection of the mica, the material that the Pueblo used to cover their windows, for the precious metal.

The Spaniards didn’t find any gold, but nevertheless they tried to impose their rule until 1680. At that time a Pueblo revolt tentatively liberated them from the colonial rule. Since, they have earned a reputation for being a fiercely independent people, deeply religious, loyal to their traditions and proud to speak their language. This is one reason why the Zuni survived through the centuries despite the attempts made by the missionaries to convert them.5 Of the seven cities that the Spaniards discovered in the sixteenth century, only Zuni remains today. The village, as seen today, bears the marks of acculturation and modernization.

Zuni cosmology is closely akin to its environment. Their whole culture reflects the beauty of nature that is all around them. Like many other native people of the continent, the symbolic representations of their fauna and flora are omnipresent in all their art and rituals. What makes Zuni cosmology particularly noteworthy though, is their semantic description of space. The movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars, altogether with changes in the winter and summer solstices, have inspired a dynamic conception of the world.

The beauty of the surrounding landscape is overwhelmingly present in all of their artistic endeavors. Not surprisingly, Zuni cosmology reveals that the beautiful is dynamic.6 This dynamism is also revealed in their lore and in every other aspect of their collective life. Everything in their social arrangement reflects the aesthetic and kinetic aspect of nature. Zuni cultural life is in effect a metaphor of the dynamic in nature, and everything is symbolically arranged in its image. Their art, their elaborate rituals, their dances and their pantomimes, everything is a mimetic expression of their perception of the cosmos as one and the same thing.

Zuni society is based on a system of symbolic classifications described by Frank Hamilton Cushing as mytho-sociologic.7 Zuni mythology and cosmology are so closely intertwined with their social and religious order that they are in effect the same thing.

Social life was originally divided into regions according to a four-cornered world.8 The number and orientations of these spaces reflect the basic composition of their cosmological perception of the world. All the members of the Zuni Pueblo belong to one or the other of these respective regions. The divisions involved all of the Seven Cities of Cibola. These areas are systematically parted into clans, which are split into totems depicted as animals. These totems are then separated into parts or attributes of the animal. Each member of the Pueblo belongs to a clan, and each member of the clan assumes the name of the part or attribute of the totem. Through this intricate classification, which they believe is made according to the mirror image of nature, each Zuni participates in the cosmological and social life of the Pueblo.

Zuni society is matrilineal and matrilocal. The mother’s household is the basic social unit. The children have to marry outside their parents’ clans and when they marry they live in the household of the bride’s mother. This pattern was the traditional norm in the past.9

What impressed the Spaniards during their first expedition to the Seven Cities was the architecture of the villages: the multi-story dwellings were harmoniously built one on top of the other. The only access was an opening on the roof accessible through a ladder that leaned against the outside wall.

Although invisible to the visitor, these villages were divided into several orientations. These partitions have an important significance to the inhabitants since they position each member in relation to the whole community. Each quarter is placed according to a spatial direction. They reflect the four fundamental orientations of the sunrise and sunset of the summer and winter solstices: namely, the north-east to the north-west, and, the south-east to the south-west. In addition, two other orientations complete the foursome order of the world: the zenith -the above- and the nadir -the below. The whole cosmic reality is finally rounded out by the seventh point described as the Middle. The Center, for the Zuni, acts as a synthetic metaphor for all the orientations.

This classification is meant to reflect the dynamic movement of the planets in harmony with the Zuni’s whole cosmological perception of life. This kinetic movement of the planets inspired the concept of directionality. The four orientations represent the daily movement of the sun in concert with its seasonal change on its axis during the winter and summer solstices. In addition, the zenith and the nadir become a six-fold directionality, and, finally, with the seventh point at its center, the whole arrangement inspires a dynamic multi-dimensional quality of space.10

The beautiful and the dangerous

Zuni mythology does not escape the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. These two principles are categorized as the beautiful and the dangerous.11 Their interaction reflects an aesthetic and dynamic vision of nature, and numerous metaphors are used to portray the balance of nature:

the sacred  vs  the profane
the beautiful  vs  the dangerous
the dynamic  vs  the dull
the colorful  vs  the dark
the clear  vs  the indistinct
the multi  vs  the plain

The duality is also expressed in terms of time and space:

morning  vs  evening
summer  vs  winter
above  vs  below

Furthermore, according to Zuni beliefs, there are two types of beings:

the cooked   vs  the raw

The cooked ─or ripe─ are called the daylight beings because they live on cooked food and live under the special protection of the Sun Father. The second group of beings rely on the raw food as well as the cooked food prepared by the daylight people. The daylight people are also split into:

the valuable  vs  the poor

Women are valuable by virtue of their gender, whereas men have no value until they are initiated into the religious Kachina Society. To the Zuni, poor literally means without religion.12

The Water Skate

The number four is a key number in Zuni mythology. It is central to the origin and foundation of Zuni. According to their creation myths, the first people traveled through the darkness of the four underworlds before they reached the surface of our present world. At that time, they were blinded by the light of the sun. They spent four time periods ─four days or four years, depending on the version─ searching for the Center. The Center Place was finally found when the Water Skate, with the magical powers given to him by the Sun Father, stretched out its four legs, one on each of the four directions of the sunrise and sunset of both the summer and winter solstices. The place where he rested his heart and navel marked the Center Place. This point also identifies the heart and navel of Earth Mother.13 The Cente revealed by the Water Skate is the site on which the Zuni village is built.

The numerical sequence of number four becomes, with the extension of the zenith and the nadir, number six. The number six, with the addition of the Middle, finally adds up to the sacred number seven. The arrangement completes the spherical balance and dynamic directionality.

All six orientations are centered around the Middle place where Zuni is built. Yet under the center of the village itself is another center. In the fourth underground, in the house of the chief priest, below the altar, lies a heart-shaped rock, which is described as the heart of the world. Its arteries reach out toward the same four directions as did the Water Skate when he stretched his four legs to find the Center.

The significance of the center remains in effect equivocal. More specifically, polyonymous, since the Center has many different names. It is, simultaneously, the middle, the center, the heart, the navel of the Water Skate, and the center of Zuni and the world. The middle is all these things because, as the Zuni say, they are all the same thing.14 This way of thinking is quite characteristic of the Zuni. The words describe different things, yet they are all ─related to─ the same thing.

At the beginning of the world there were both the spatial center and the temporal center: the Middle Place and the Middle Time. They may appear as two different concepts, but to the Zuni they are the same thing. Accordingly, the Zuni name for the village is ‘itiwana, which means Center but also winter solstice. The first is the Center in space, while the second is the Center in time. Therefore, all the symbols that relate to their cosmological world are a succession, a repetition, and a substitution of metaphors into a whole dynamic asymmetry that reveals ─or relates─ that everything is the same thing.15

This polyonymous aspect of Zuni symbolism is best depicted by the dynamic relation between the beautiful and the dangerous. The beautiful is described as having a multi quality as opposed to the plain and indistinct aspect of the dangerous. The beautiful is multilayered, multicolored, multitextured, multisensory, and multilingual.

Although the tautology of Zuni language may appear redundant at first, a closer look reveals that the repetition suggests the idea of relatedness. It is not the expressions by themselves that are meaningful, but rather the connection between them in relation to the whole cosmological outlook.

Zuni ritual life is filled with this multi aspect of meaning. This aspect of their culture is equally applied in their profane arena. The Zuni Tribal Fair, for instance, which is considered a mundane activity, is organized in the same manner. The symbolic representations of sacred places, objects, sounds and colors, repeated incessantly during the dance, become a meaningful repetition that links each symbolic part together in one cosmic being, as the same thing. The symbols are parts that are related to the whole order of things.16

To the Zuni, the sun and the moon are living beings. As such, they play a significant role as they move across the sacred space. Some of their rituals and dances duplicate the planetary movement. Every single aspect of the environment is described as a living being. Both the outer and inner spaces are fused together into the sacred ritual. Celestial objects are not seen as external but as active participants in the ceremonial. The cosmos is perceived as one whole intertwined entity. Accordingly, the whole array of symbolic representations operates in connection with the principles of continuity and similarity based on the idea of unity and balance of all life. To the Zuni, the whole world is a dynamic being with a multi facet quality.

The Zuni’s conception of time shares the polyonymous principles also. The world was created in the beginning of time, and the beginning is re-enacted, re-created, and re-lived in the ritual. Past, present, and future coexist. There is no temporal separation between the time of creation and the here and now of the ritual. It accounts for the symbolic presentness of Zuni cosmological life represented in the ‘itiwana, the Center, the here and now of time and space. The creation of the world in the past is transcended into the present and in the future by following the ways of the ancestors.


The Zuni Pueblo is a good illustration of the cosmos as a self-enclosed, self-sufficient social and cultural reality, comparable in many ways to the religious reality of Israel. In a similar fashion, the word Zuni stands for the people, the village, the language, the religion, the mythology and the social organization.


1 “It has quite often been said that man began to conceive things by relating them to himself. The above allows us to see more precisely what this anthropocentrism, which might better be called socio-centrism, consists of. The center of the first schemes of nature is not the individual; it is society. It is this that is objectified, not man…It is by virtue of the same mental disposition that so many peoples have placed the center of the world, “the navel of the earth”, in their own political or religious capital, i.e. at the place which is the center of their moral life. Similarly, but in another order of ideas, the creative force of the universe and everything in it was first conceived as a mythical ancestor, the generator of the society.” From Emile Durkheim & Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1963, 86-87.

2 See Gen. 21:31. Originally, the Sabbath was apparently related to the Babylonian day of moon cult called shabattu. See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1952, 149.

3 In Febuary 1988 the population was 8299. Data from the Zuni Area Chamber of Commerce 1989.

4 Gregory C. Crampton, The Zunis of Cibola, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1977, 56.

5 “The Zuni faith, as revealed in this sketch of more than three hundred and fifty years of Spanish intercourse, is as a drop of oil in water, surrounded and touched at every point, yet in no place penetrated or changed inwardly by the flood of alien belief that descended upon it.” Frank Hamilton Cushing, from Zuni, Selected Writings of Frank Hamilton Cushing, edited, with an introduction by Jesse Green, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1979, 181.

6 Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and the Dangerous: Zuni Ritual and Cosmology as an Aesthetic, in Conjunctions: Bi-Annual Volumes of New Writing no.6, New York, MacMillan Publishing Co., 1984.

7 Frank Hamilton Cushing, Ibid 185-193.

8 Barbara Tedlock, Zuni and Quiche dream sharing and interpreting, Dreaming, ed.by Barbara Tedlock, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 107.

9 This custom is not strictly applied anymore.

10 Jane Young, Signs From the Ancestors, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1988. For more insight about the Zuni cosmology see Ms. Young’s book.

11 Barbara Tedlock, Ibid.

12 See Barbara Tedlock, Zuni and Quiche Dream Sharing and Interpreting, in, Dreaming, ed. by Barbara Tedlock, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 108-109.

13 It is interesting to note that the Zuni word for Earth Mother -‘awitelin tsitta- has the same root as the word “four” -‘a:witen’-. Jane Young, Ibid. 99.

14 Jane Young, Ibid. 106.

15 Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and Dangerous, Ibid. 259.

16 When Zuni people pray, they ask for “more”; namely, more rain for their crops. All is related to the concern that the Sun Father continues his daily journey and that the rain falls in abundance. The sun’s light coupled with water and Earth Mother are the essence of all life. “More” is also related to the idea of “everything” associated with the desire for the accumulation of things and prosperity. The Zuni pray for more success in hunting, many children and a long life, as well as an increase in jewelry sales.

2 Responses to “Zuni Cosmology”

  1. Wow im from zuni and i didnt even know this story. Well said .

  2. Hi Kelly! Thank you for your kind comment.
    It’s sad that the Zuni have not preserved the customs, language, mythology and rituals of their ancestors.
    The Zuni should attempt to regain their past for the good of posterity.
    I would recommend you read Frank Hamilton Cushing’s “Selected Writings”. He was a pioneer American ethnologist and anthropologist. He lived several years with the Zuni and wrote about it. He respected the Zuni and loved their culture.
    Another excellent book about the Zuni is Barbara Tedlock’s “The Beautiful and the Dangerous”.
    You can also read a great Zuni myth here on this site:
    The Search for the Middle and the Hardening of the World

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