Pawnee mythology

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Symbol representing the goddess Atira in the Pawnee Hako ceremony, 1912

Pawnee mythology is the body of oral history, cosmology, and myths of the Pawnee people concerning their gods and heroes. The Pawnee are a federally recognized tribe of Native Americans, originally located on the Great Plains along tributaries of the Missouri and Platte Rivers in Nebraska and Kansas and now are currently in Oklahoma. They traditionally speak Pawnee, a Caddoan language.

Deities and spirit animals[edit]

Atius Tirawa, which means "Father Above" in the Pawnee language (often translated, inaccurately, as "Great Spirit"),[1] was the Creator god. He was believed to have taught the Pawnee people tattooing, fire-building, hunting, agriculture, speech and clothing, religious rituals (including the use of tobacco and sacred bundles), and sacrifices. He was associated with most natural phenomena, including stars and planets, wind, lightning, rain, and thunder. The wife of Tirawa was Atira, goddess of the Earth. Atira was associated with corn.[2]

The solar and lunar deities were Shakuru and Pah, respectively. Four major stars were said to represent gods and were part of the Creation myth, in which the first human being was a girl. The male Morning Star and the female Evening Star mated to create her.

Tirawa conferred miraculous powers on certain animals. These spirit animals, the nahurac, would act as Tirawa's messengers and servants, and could intercede with him on behalf of the Pawnee. The nahurac had five dwellings or lodges:[3]

Celestial observation[edit]

The Pawnee seasonal rituals were tied to the observation of the stars and planets. Their earthwork lodges were built at the same time as observatories and as "microcosm" (scale-model of the universe). Each lodge "was at the same time the universe and also the womb of a woman, and the household activities represented her reproductive powers."[6] The lodge also represented the universe in a more practical way. The physical construction of the house required setting up four posts to represent the four cardinal directions, “aligned almost exactly with the north-south, east-west axis.[7] A Pawnee observatory-lodge also required an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. The lodge's axis would be oriented east-west in such a way that the sunrise of vernal equinox would cast light on the altar. The dimensions of the lodge's smoke hola and door would be designed to allow observation of the sky, e. g. with the smoke-hole aligned to enable observation of the Pleiades.[8]

According to one Skidi band Pawnee man at the beginning of the twentieth century, “The Skidi were organized by the stars; these powers above made them into families and villages, and taught them how to live and how to perform their ceremonies. The shrines of the four leading villages were given by the four leading stars and represent those stars which guide and rule the people.”[9]

Regular ceremonies were performed before major events, such as semi-annual buffalo hunts, as well as before many other important activities of the year, such as sowing seeds in the spring and harvesting in the fall. The most important ceremony of the Pawnee culture, the Spring Awakening ceremony, was meant to awaken the earth and ready it for planting. It can be tied directly to celestial observation, held at the time when the priest first tracked "two small twinkling stars known as the Swimming Ducks in the northeastern horizon near the Milky Way."[10]

Morning Star ceremony[edit]

Staged photograph of the ceremony, published in 1922 on behalf of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

The Morning Star ceremony was a ritual human sacrifice of a young girl, performed only by the Skidi band of the Pawnee. It was connected to the Pawnee creation narrative, in which the mating of the male Morning Star with the female Evening Star created the first human being, a girl. The Skidi Pawnee practiced the Morning Star ritual regularly through the 1810s. The Missouri Gazette reported a sacrifice in 1818. US Indian agents sought to convince chiefs to suppress the ritual, and major leaders, such as Knife Chief, worked to change the practices objected to by the increasing number of American settlers on the Plains. The custom came to the wider attention of the public in the Eastern United States in 1820 due to reports of a young Pawnee warrior, Man Chief, who risked his life to rescue a Sioux girl from the sacrificial scaffold in defiance of the Pawnee priesthood.[11] The last known sacrifice was of Haxti, a 14-year-old Oglala Lakota girl on April 22, 1838.[12]

The ceremony was performed in spring, in years when "Mars was morning star", but usually not as an actual human sacrifice, but merely as a symbolic ceremony. An actual human sacrifice would be performed only when a man of the village dreamed that the Morning Star had come to him and told him to perform the proper ceremony. He would then consult with the keeper of the Morning Star bundle, receiving from him a warrior costume. The man, aided by volunteers, then had to carry out an attack on an enemy village and capture a girl of suitable age.[13]

The captured girl would be handed to the chief of the Morning Star, and be kept in isolation from the rest of the camp. Returning to the village, the people treated the girl with respect, but they kept her isolated from the rest of the camp. If it was spring and time for the sacrifice, she was ritually cleansed. What was a five-day ceremony was begun around her. The Morning Star priest would sing songs and the girl was symbolically transformed from human form to be among the celestial bodies. Here the girl became the ritual representation of the Evening Star. On the final day of the ceremony, a procession of men, boys and even male infants accompanied the girl outside the village to where the men had raised a scaffold. They had used sacred woods and skins, and the scaffold represented "Evening Star’s garden in the west, the source of all animal and plant life."[14]

The priests removed her clothing and she was left alone on the scaffold at the moment of the rising of the Morning Star (Mars). Two men coming from the east would touch her lightly with flaming brands in the arm pits and the groin. Four other men would touch her with war clubs. Then the man who had captured her would run forward with the bow from the Skull bundle and shoot her through the heart, while simultaneously another man would strike her over the head with the war club from the Morning Star bundle. The dead girl's chest would then be cut open by the priest with a flint knife while her captor caught her blood on dried meat. Finally, all male members of the tribe would press forward and shoot arrows into the dead body. They then would circle the scaffold four times and disperse.[15]

By having all the men in the village shoot arrows into her body, the village men, embodiments of Morning Star, were symbolically mating with her. Her blood would drip down from the scaffolding and onto the ground which had been made to represent the Evening Star’s garden of all plant and animal life. They took her body and lay the girl face down on the prairie, where her blood would enter the earth and fertilize the ground. The spirit of the Evening Star was released and the men ensured the success of the crops, all life on the Plains, and the perpetuation of the Universe.


  1. ^ "Legendary Native American Figures: Tirawa (Atius Tirawa)". Retrieved November 16, 2014.  External link in |website= (help)
  2. ^ "Atira". The Dinner Party. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 11 October 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c Grinnell, George Bird (1893). Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk Tales. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
  4. ^ Jensen, Richard E. (1973). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form: Pahuk".
  5. ^ "The History of Waconda". Glen Elder, Kansas. Retrieved 2010-09-16.
  6. ^ Weltfish, The Lost Universe: Pawnee Life and Culture, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965; reprint 1977, p 64
  7. ^ Patricia J. O'Brien, "Prehistoric evidence of Pawnee Cosmology", American Anthropologist (New Series) Vol. 88, No. 4 (Dec 1986), pp 939–946
  8. ^ 'Weltfish, p. 942
  9. ^ Alice C. Fletcher, "Star Cult among the Pawnee: A Preliminary Report", American Anthropologist (New Series) Vol 4, No 4 (Oct 1902), pp. 730–736
  10. ^ "The position of the stars was an important guide to the time when this ceremony should be held. The earth-lodge served as an astronomical observatory and as the priests sat inside at the west, they could observe the stars in certain positions through the smokehole and through the long east-oriented entranceway. They also kept careful watch of the horizon right after sunset and just before dawn to note the order and position of the stars." Weltfish, p. 79
  11. ^ Weltfish, p. 9
  12. ^ Hyde, George. The Pawnee Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974. ISBN 0-8061-2094-0 pp. 19–359
  13. ^ "The sacrifice was performed only in years when Mars was morning star and usually originated in a dream in which the Morning Star appeared to some man and directed him to capture a suitable victim. The dreamer went to the keeper of the Morning Star bundle and received from him the warrior's costume kept in it. He then set out, accompanied by volunteers, and made a night attack upon an enemy village. As soon as a girl of suitable age was captured the attack ceased and the party returned. The girl was dedicated to the Morning Star at the moment of her capture and was given into the care of the leader of the party who, on its return, turned her over to the chief of the Morning Star." Ralph Linton, "The origin of the Pawnee Morning Star Sacrifice", American Anthropologist.(New Series) Vol 28, No 3 (July 1926), pp 457–466
  14. ^ Linton, 1926, p. 458
  15. ^ "The procession was timed so that she would be left alone on the scaffold at the moment the morning star rose. When the morning star appeared, two men came from the east with flaming brands and touched her lightly in the arm pits and groins. Four other men then touched her with war clubs. The man who had captured her then ran forward with the bow from the Skull bundle and a sacred arrow and shot her through the heart while another man struck her on the head with the war club from the Morning Star bundle. The officiating priest then opened her breast with a flint knife and smeared his face with the blood while her captor caught the falling blood on dried meat. All the male members of the tribe then pressed forward and shot arrows into the body. They then circled the scaffold four times and dispersed." Linton, 1926, p 459. "To fulfill the creation of life, the men of the village would take on the role of the Morning Star, which is why two men would come from the east with flaming brands, representing the sun. The men acted out the violence which had allowed the Morning Star to mate with the Evening Star (by breaking her vaginal teeth) in their creation story, with a "meteor stone." Weltfish, 1965, p 82