Witch (Navajo)

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There are a number of traditions and beliefs in Navajo culture relating to practices which are referred to as "witchcraft" in English. In the Navajo language, they are each referred to distinctly, and are regarded as separate, albeit related, phenomena.

The practices lumped together in the category 'witchcraft' are very similar, at least in their externals, to the rituals practiced on the 'good side' of Navajo tradition, the ceremonials or 'sings'. The difference, however, is that while the good sings are to heal or bring luck, the bad ones are intended to hurt and curse. Similarly, all kinds of witches are associated with transgression of taboos and societal standards, especially those relating to family and the dead.

Types of witches[edit]

Witchery Way: ’áńt’įįzhį[edit]

This is the most common type of witchcraft, centering on the Witchery or Corpse-poison Way—’áńt’įįzhį. The Witchery Way is recorded in the Emergence Story as having been invented by First Man and First Woman, so it goes back to the dawn of the human race. Practitioners of Witchery Way are called ’ánt’įįhnii, "witch people".

’Ánt’įįhnii usually learn their art from a parent or grandparent, but sometimes from a spouse. Most witches are male; it is sometimes thought that the only women who become witches are old and childless. The initiation into the Witchery Way involves murdering a close relative, especially a sibling; other crimes associated with it are necrophilia, grave-robbing, and incest. Being suspected of any of these is tantamount to also being a witch, and suspected witches are automatically suspected of the other crimes, as well.

The method of Witchery Way centers around powdered corpses, known as áńt’į "corpse poison," (literally, Witchery or Harming). The best sources for ’áńt’į are the corpses of children, especially twins; the best body parts for it are the finger bones and the bones of the back of the skull. ’Áńt’į is said to look like the corn pollen used in blessing ceremonials. However, it is used to curse, not to bless.

The effect of the ’áńt’į is a curse-disease, usually indicated by an immediate reaction to administration of the poison, like fainting, swelling and blackening of the tongue, or lockjaw. They might then go into convulsions and die. Sometimes, however, the victims simply wastes away as from a normal disease. Because it is actually caused by a witch, medicine or the usual disease ceremonials will not be effective.

These witches are also associated with dark ceremonials of their own, where they plan and perform their spells and initiations. The witches gather in a cave or other secluded spot, called the ’áńt’įbáhoołan, usually going in animal form (see below). Once there, they resume their human form, naked except for masks, jewelry, and paint like that used in normal ceremonies. They sit in a circle, surrounded by their supply of corpse-flesh and severed heads, and perform their ceremonies, essentially a corrupted form of a good sing (rather like the European idea of the Black Mass). As at a regular ceremonial, they sing and create sand-paintings, except that witches' paintings use ash, not sand. Other activities at the "witches' sing" include necrophilia and cannibalism.

Skinwalkers: yee naaldlooshii[edit]

’Ánt’įįhnii are the witches who become the famous Navajo shape-shifters, the Skinwalkers. They use the animal forms they can assume to travel surreptitiously to the ’áńt’įbáhoołan, and to deliver their ’áńt’į in secret. Frequently, the words yee naaldlooshii and ’ánt’įįhnii are used interchangeably.

Sympathetic magic: ’iińzhįįd[edit]

Usually considered a sub-branch of Witchery Way, ’iińzhįįd (literally, "evil-wishing magic") is not based on the corpse-poison, but on the power of names, body material like fingernails, and possessions to affect their owners; it is a practice that revolves around sympathetic magic and curses. Some practitioners are said to have a "power", like sun, lightning, snakes, etc., that helps; besides humans, some animals, especially dogs, are said to use ’iińzhįįd, as are whirlwinds. Though people are the most typical targets, animals, crops, automobiles, and other property are sometimes cursed, as well.

The first step in bewitching someone this way is obtaining an article of clothing or a piece of the body, like hair, fingernails, or excrement. The item is then buried with corpse flesh, in a grave, or under a tree that has been struck by lightning, and then an incantation is said or sung—frequently a benevolent prayer backwards, as in European tradition. The Béésh ńghiz or Hard Flint song is sometimes used, as is a prayer called "Praying a person down into the ground". Also used are the prayers "The Two Came to Their Father" (Hataa’ baazhná’ázhi), relating to the mythical Hero Twins, and the "It became dead!"(Ni’iisįįd), said to have been composed by First Man. Either the time between the spellcasting and the victim's death is specified in the chant, or the victim dies in four days.

Other techniques are used, too. When the target is a pregnant woman, the body of a horned toad is cut open, and the personal effect is placed inside the cavity, and then the chant is said. As in other witchcraft traditions, walking around the victim's house or stepping over him while he sleeps can inflict an ’iińzhįįd curse. Unique to the Navajo, however, an ’iikááh bee’onozhin or "Curse-sandpainting" is also used, as at the Witches' Sing. Unlike there, though, the ’iikááh bee’onozhin associated with ’iińzhįįd is created in solitude, and always to the north (the direction of evil) of a hogan.

It is possible that the Navajo custom of having two names, one a "War-Name" given by one's grandparents and rarely used except for very specific purposes, the other essentially a nickname used in day-to-day life, may have come from fear of ’iińzhįįd.

Curse objects: ’adagąsh[edit]

This kind of witchcraft involves injecting cursed objects, like beads, into people or things.

Charms, Frenzy Way: ’azhįįtee[edit]

This kind of witchcraft involves magically influencing the minds and emotions of others.


A ceremonial, or "sing" can be performed to counteract a witch. Often this is a Protection way sing, but sometimes the full Night Chant is used.[citation needed]

Spruce is used in the "Shooting, Witch, Lightning and Night Chant" ceremonies.[1] The wood of the limber pine is used to create the small bow and arrow used in the Witch and Shooting Chants.[2]

New Mexico giant hyssop is used by the Ramah Navajo to protect from witches,[3] and a cold infusion of orange agoseris is also used by the Ramah Navajo for protection against witches.[4] The Ramah Navajo use cold infusions of the root Littleleaf pussytoes,[5] and smalleaf pussytoes[5] for protection as well. Pygmyflower rockjasmine is used by the Kayenta Navajo for bewitchment and pain from witches' arrows.[6]

In non-Navajo popular culture[edit]

  • In the film The Missing starring Tommy Lee Jones, there is a character who, though an Apache, greatly resembles the Navajo idea of a witch (the Apaches, another Athabascan people, have somewhat similar traditions). He performs ’iińzhįįd with hair caught in his victim's hairbrush, although ’iińzhįįd is a noticeable difference between Navajo and Apache witch beliefs—it's not found in Apache beliefs.
  • Skinwalkers (1986) is the title of a mystery novel by Tony Hillerman. Navajo culture forms the basis of many Hillerman novels, and beliefs about ghosts and witches are frequently mentioned.

See also[edit]


  • Kluckhohn, Clyde. Navaho Witchcraft. Beacon Press, Boston, 1944. Library of Congress cat. No. 62-13533
  • Wall, Leon and William Morgan. Navajo-English Dictionary. (Hippocrene Books, New York City, 1998 ISBN 0-7818-0247-4
  • Young, Robert W. and William Morgan. Colloquial Navajo, a Dictionary. Hippocrene Books, New York City, 1998 ISBN 0-7818-0278-4


  1. ^ Elmore, Francis H. 1944 Ethnobotany of the Navajo. Sante Fe, NM. School of American Research (p. 21)
  2. ^ Elmore, Francis H. 1944 Ethnobotany of the Navajo. Sante Fe, NM. School of American Research (p. 23)
  3. ^ </ref "Agastache pallidiflora". Herb.umd.umich.edu. Retrieved 2014-03-04. 
  4. ^ "Agoseris auranitaca". Herb.umd.umich.edu. Retrieved 2014-03-04. 
  5. ^ a b Vestal, Paul A. 1952 The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology 40(4):1-94 (p. 47)
  6. ^ "Androsace septentrionalis". Herb.umd.umich.edu. Retrieved 2014-03-04.