Carved Zuni Fetishes an Introduction

Carved Zuni Fetishes

For the past two centuries across the American southwest, in silent ruins and cave shelters, archaeologists have unearthed 1000 year old carved Zuni fetishes: duck-like birds of chalk turquoise, a frog of polished jet, birds of hematite, aragonite and tiny, turquoise tadpoles to name a few. Many of these items have holes drilled in them, possibly for cords to suspend about the neck. What did these objects signify and how were they used? For answers to these questions one must look to the modern day Zuni, the Native American tribe most noted for their fine, carved Zuni fetishes.

Zuni oral history tells the story of man's ascent from the “four cave-wombs of the world.” Man was assisted in his journey by the Two Children of the Sun. Upon man's emergence in the present world the Twins dried the wet land with rainbow and lightning. Then they killed the wild beasts which were devouring men, by turning them into stone. These animals are called Ahlashiwe – the Stone Ancients.

The Twins said, “That ye may not be evil unto man, but that ye may be a great good unto them, have we changed you into rock everlasting. By the magic breath of prey, by the heart that shall endure for ever within you, shall ye be made to serve instead of to devour mankind.” Frank Cushing

The first revered fetishes were these Stone Ancients, natural concretions which resembled animals. Since the rocks were believed to be imbued with the animal's heart essence and magical powers, they were highly prized by those who found them. The fetishes were viewed as mediators between man, animal and the supernatural, and provided benefit not only to the fetish owner, but to the entire tribe. The relationship between the fetish and the people was symbiotic. If the tribal people supported the fetish through food offerings, ritual blessings and prayer, the fetish would aid them in their desire for food, rain, health and well being.

Fetishes were always kept in a sacred place, honored and fed cornmeal and ground turquoise. During the hunt, a hunter wore his prey fetish in a buckskin bag over his heart. He inhaled deeply from the nostrils of the fetish, believing he was inhaling the fetish's powers to weaken and subdue prey. At the moment of the hunted animal's death, the hunter breathed in its last breath, then exhaled it back into the nostrils of the carved Zuni fetish. In this way fetish and fetish owner experienced reciprocity and mutual support.

Over time natural concretions came to be enhanced, until eventually, most fetishes were carved by hand. In those early days there were three basic groups of fetishes: those for the hunt, for increase and for rain. The hunt fetishes included mountain lion, coyote, wolf, eagle, bobcat and mole. Those for increase were sheep, cattle, horses and goats. These were, and still are, carried by the Navajo for protection and fertility of their herds and flocks. The all important rain fetishes included frog, tadpole, dragonfly and duck.

In the modern world of carved Zuni fetishes there are many more animals to appreciate and admire, carved from materials such as turquoise, black jet, coral, Picasso marble, serpentine and jasper. These fetishes are not considered sacred in a cultural sense, but to those who purchase them, they may have inner meaning and can aid one in health, safety and good luck. When carried in one's pocket or placed upon an altar, the bear can embolden, an eagle assist in finding higher truths, the badger support healing and the mountain lion provide courage.

Whether one lived and prayed for rain 1000 years ago in a parched desert land, wearing a turquoise tadpole next to his heart, or whether one walks today in contemporary society, stone will always hold magic, spirit and power.

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