Star upon the Road of Life:

Light of Stars and of a Navajo Indian Shaman

Karl W. Luckert


This is a revised version of the essay published by Ernst Benz and Karl W. Luckert -- "The Road of Life: Report of a Visit by a Navajo Seer" -- in Ethnomedizin II, 3/4 (1973). Arbeitsgemeinschaft Ethnomedizin, Hamburg. Only the portion originally written by Luckert has been edited and included here.

When on the evening of March 23, 1972, Mr. “H,” a traditional Navajo shaman, diagnostician, and seer… lit a fire in his ceremonial hogan, the central building of his homestead, he did nothing unusual from what he had been doing regularly for many decades. His grandfather had been doing it long before him. Mr. H is a Navajo Indian diviner and a medicine man.

Centuries ago, when the Navajo Indians were still hunters, their shamans divined the whereabouts of game animals; they also divined which animals or gods might have cast vengeful spells and caused certain people to become ill. After they had diagnosed an illness, the archaic shamans arranged for a reconciliation of their patients with the offended Holy-people (gods) whom they had discovered to be the cause. In contrast to the early shamans, a contemporary Navajo diviner no longer serves a society of hunters and gatherers. His fellow shepherds call upon him, to retrieve lost or stolen livestock and other goods, to find lost children, and to locate water sources in arid lands. He is also consulted to determine whether one's wife might have become guilty of adultery. For some time now the primary effort of Navajo diviners has been directed to the diagnosis of human illnesses.

The diviner's ability to see hidden things is considered a gift of the gods or Holy-people. Presently it has been bestowed on only a few Navajo people. Beyond possessing the initial "gift" or aptitude, these people achieve clairvoyance by one of several methods. Kluckhohn and Leighton list stargazing, chewing a narcotic plant, hand-trembling, and listening.[1] While hand-trembling is perhaps the most common method used today in Navajoland, stargazing is still being practiced. The apparently rare traditional method of chewing the Datura plant has found an echo in the widespread Peyote cult. Some spiritual leaders of that cult divine the causes of certain conditions and situations with the help of their chosen divine plant-person, Peyote. Intense listening to the Wind-people and to other divine messengers appears to have been abandoned as some Navajo diviners have complained about the interfering noises from automobiles and airplanes. The "star-gazing" method of Mr. H involves reading his diagnosis from quartz crystals in his hogan, under a starry sky. The answers come to him in a mild state of trance, induced by introductory prayer chants. In addition, he orients himself and his patients along a "Road of Life" within the abstract miniature world of his dry-painting.[2]

Traditionally, in Navajo culture, the agent of an illness has been discovered as having been some offended god or Holy-person. Accordingly, the diviner prescribed the proper remedy -- a specific reconciliation ceremony in honor of that particular divine person. But if the illness was caused by ghosts or by witches, reconciliation with them was out of the question. These evil nuisances had to be confronted and driven away. In these situations, different types of ceremonies, rites of exorcism, were required. Then in competition with, and in adaptation to, the Pueblo world of thought -- especially since the cultural integration after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Navajo curing ceremonials have become ever more complex. The healing efforts of southern Athapascan shamans became involved in the elaborately ritualized cosmos of Pueblo Indian civilization; they had to conform to its broader norms of rationality. The demand on the Navajo shaman with regard to his learning has increased immensely in the course of this development. Kluckhohn and Leighton estimate that a Navajo medicine man "who knows only a One Night chant, must learn at least as much as a man who sets out to memorize the whole of a Wagnerian opera: orchestral score, every vocal part, all the details of the settings, stage business, and each requirement of costume."[3] Then, there are on record some two dozen different Navajo curing ceremonials which all require, or at one time required, different ceremonies of either two, three, or five nights duration. Many ceremonials could even be done in a nine-night form.[4]

This high degree of ritualization among Navajo healers resulted in a trend toward specialization. While most ceremonial performances got into the hands of specialized practitioners, of so-called "singers" or "medicine men," the shamanic gift of divination survived among a smaller number of diagnosticians and healers. Mr. H appears to be a rare example in that he has succeeded to combine his role as an archaic visionary with the practice of some elaborate healing ceremonials. In addition, he even has managed to include in his practice a few products that can be obtained without prescription from Anglo-American pharmacies.

One thing was unique, however, on that spring evening in March 1972. The seer's first patient that night was a historian of religions from the University of Marburg, by the name of Ernst Benz. In accordance with Navajo custom, a friend has brought him to the seer, and the friend was a younger historian of religions. The patient's predicament was legitimate enough. He was suffering from a nervous-muscular ailment in the larynx that stemmed from an automobile accident. The long travels on Navajo Reservation roads had amplified the symptoms. The request we had for the diagnostician was in accord with ordinary Navajo procedure; it was implicit in a simple description of the symptoms. Without questioning Mr. H began to divine the cause of the patient's pain and then to inform about the proper treatment… as these could be perceived and deduced from within his traditional Navajo world-view.

That afternoon, when we first met the seer, he was quite confident about his abilities. People are coming to him from far away. Here was a patient from Germany, and only yesterday, or within the last few days, a man had come to him for help all the way from Alaska. The ailment of the latter had been "a pin-sized hole in his heart," the seer explained. The man from Alaska was referred by Mr. H to a regular hospital to have it fixed. As for us, we obtained an appointment for sunset-time that day -- the time when stars can be seen in the sky. A fee for the diagnosis was agreed upon in advance.

The sun disk dipped behind the reddened horizon. The first stars had appeared on the now dark-blue sky. A lantern illuminated the interior of the spacious hogan where the seer began his preparations for the diagnosis. From a converted oil drum a fire roared into the stove-pipe upward through the roof. With help from his youngest son the seer constructed a dry-painting. For that purpose, to the east, between the seer and his patient, a heap of brown sand was leveled about one meter in diameter (see Figure 1).

Unto the smooth surface, from between their fingers, the old man and his youngest son trickled colorful sands and thereby produced designs of amazing uniformity and precision (see Figure 2). The round plot before us represented the patient's world -- also the world of his friend who meanwhile had come to be regarded as a co-patient. Eight rainbows and four mountains define this microcosm. In the east was the large oval hillock which represented Darkness Mountain; it was covered with powdered charcoal. The Milky Way extended lengthwise across this oval, and above the mountain's eastern slope the Big Dipper and other constellations were made to appear by the application of white limestone dust. Sunset Mountain was compiled at the southern end of the world. It was covered with gray-blue sand. In the west was placed the ochre-colored Evening Twilight Mountain; and at the northern limit appeared Morning Twilight Mountain in white.

The system of colors used in this nocturnal divination rite is somewhat different from the customary Navajo preference. Ordinarily, white is associated with east and black with north. The present reversal of these directional colors is nevertheless easily explained on hand of the seer's primary symbol, the Road of Life. A straight white stripe was spread to extend from the yellow Evening Twilight Mountain in the west to Darkness Mountain in the east. The patient's life began in evening twilight; it ends when, finally in his dark hour of death he ascends Darkness Mountain to live among the bright stars. Now the seer's insistence, earlier, on performing the ceremony at a time when the starry sky arches above the roof of his hogan, receives additional meaning. After the fashion of shepherds, our diagnostician orients himself in accordance with the duality of darkness and the light of stars. By joining his destiny with the ever present serenity of stars, the seer has found meaning and hope for himself and for many of his troubled patients.

Situated along the Road of Life, the First Quartz Crystal was to capture and reveal the cause that earlier had made the patient ill. The spotted stone pillar, further down the road, served as a "control," namely, to confirm the indications of the First Quartz Crystal. Somewhere between this Stone Pillar and the Second Quartz Crystal the patient happened to be presently situated. Thus, from the patient's perspective, the crystal at the foot of Darkness Mountain could be studied to obtain some predictions about his future that still lies further down the Road.

The star that is superimposed at the center of the patient's world is especially worthy of note. This five-pointed star does not fit the Navajo/Pueblo four-directional world. The diagnostician explicitly identified this feature as the Star of Bethlehem: "Three shepherds saw it, at Christmas. At Christmas Christ came. Later he died. We the Navajo people are shepherds also. We live under the star. This is how it all belongs together." When asked about whether his grandfather told him this, the man admitted that he had come to recognize this by himself. "So it is. I just know that it is so."

It is rather interesting to see how the Navajo/Pueblo surface world, into which according to their mythological traditions the human race has emerged from Mother Earth through a central hole -- the hole that is depicted at the center of many traditional dry-paintings -- has now through a glimpse of the Star of Bethlehem become oriented toward heaven. In direct opposition to traditional Navajo eschatological beliefs that are oriented northward, the human destiny now is understood as moving in the direction of sunrise and as going upward and living among the stars. Here, indeed, appears a natural homespun point of contact, if not a transition, between the Navajo religious awareness and the encroaching Christian religion.

An important question remains to be answered regarding this Star of Bethlehem. Has the Navajo seer introduced this feature into his microcosm especially for the sake of a patient whom he might have presumed to be a Christian? The temptation for this explanation lies near. But, upon a closer reflection it seems certain that the two dry-painters, old Mr. H and his youngest son, have put together the design in a way where each has added smoothly and quickly his accustomed portion. It was obvious from their manner of performance that a Star of Bethlehem had been in their dry-painting many times before. After all, the ceremony for which these artifacts were made and sanctified is known as the Stargazing Way.

During the making of the dry-painting Mr. H was willing to explain every feature of the design. But then the solemn diagnosis began. Each participant was given an Eagle-feather Bundle to hold in his left hand and a Quartz Crystal to hold in his right hand. The diagnostician sang four songs by which he called upon some of the Holy-people and pleaded with them for divine clairvoyance. The feathers and the quartz crystals in the hands of the participants helped to integrate each of them into the cosmos of the dry-painting where similar sacred objects had been placed. Like seeks like; it resonates and unites with it.

The patient and the co-patient were asked to blow the Eagle-bone Whistle which had been resting north of Evening Twilight Mountain. Four times each man blew, one whistle tone for each of the four cardinal directions -- one for the direction of each mountain.

Subsequently, the older son of the diviner scraped a quartz crystal against the Grinding Stone. The resulting quartz powder he then applied to the feet, legs, chest, neck, and head of both the patient and co-patient. The meaning is clear: Like combines with like; and in this manner the past life of the patient was reflected, like unto a radar screen, pictorially into the First Quartz Crystal along the patient's Road of Life in the dry-painting. When the quartz crystal then received the one-directional beam of a flashlight, three spherically shaped images could be seen in it. For verification, similar spherical images were detected at the surface of the stone pillar, down the road. The diagnostician suspected three steel-helmeted soldiers. Had the patient been a soldier? Yes. Had he been in combat and killed an enemy? No, he was a chaplain in the Wehrmacht during World War II, on the campaign into Russia. Well then, it might nevertheless be the case that he had come into contact with corpses. He could have touched their necks unwittingly, or stumbled over them without noticing. In return the vengeful and prematurely dispatched ghosts have been troubling this soldier's neck.

Failure at diagnosing the cause would have presented no problem had the patient been a Navajo man who was thinking straight in Navajo categories. A Navajo patient would have made every effort to think of an occasion when possibly he could have touched or had contact with the neck or remnants of a corpse. As it was, the seer knew from our introduction that his patient was a German. He could estimate his age. And thanks to war movies that Americans and Navajo people saw during World War II, Germans in Navajo language have come to be known as The Steel-helmeted Ones. In addition, ghost trouble, especially that which is caused by enemies whom one had killed in hostile action, has in the course of Navajo history frequently been diagnosed as a cause of illness. The proper treatment would have been a lengthy exorcism-oriented Ghostway ceremony that would have dispelled the evil influence of the vengeful dead. For such a lengthy ceremony the patients did not have the time. Moreover, an herb that was needed for this ceremony was still dormant and would have appeared only weeks later. So for lack of having the correct measures immediately available, the seer recommended for temporary relief some things that were easier to get -- castor oil and gray colored lozenges to reduce pain in the patient's throat.

Reading from the Second Quartz Crystal along the Road of Life, below Darkness Mountain, both the patient and his co-patient were promised by the diviner long and prosperous lives: "You will be well again. Everything will be all right. Both of you will get new cars; the younger will also get a new job. You will live very long. Both of you will get to have white hair; and finally, in old age you will ascend Darkness Mountain and live among the stars." Until those days in the future, the protective powers which for this memorable occasion had been assembled about the dry-painting will accompany the patients. To that end the colorful sands from various parts of the seer's world model were applied symbolically all over the bodies of both the patient and the co-patient.

This is what has happened in March of 1972. Meanwhile, both men have indeed bought new cars, inasmuch as such machines wear out a lot faster than human bones. The hair of the primary patient got whiter while he continued to live as an emeritus professor at the University of Marburg. He died on December 29, 1978 at the age of seventy-one. As promised, the younger co-patient got a new job, that is, a teaching position at Missouri State University from where he retired in 1999. Having become white-haired as well, he has undertaken to rewrite this field report to make it more widely available to lovers of Navajo traditions. The things that our grand-fatherly shaman Mr. H -- our Navajo Indian "Herr Onkel Doktor" -- has promised, in an attempt of encouraging his patients to accept new leases on life, have all come true.


[1] Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton, The Navaho (Garden City: Doubleday and Co.) 1962 revised edition, p. 210.

[2] The customary designation "sand-painting" is misleading in that actually nothing is "painted." Sands, powders, pollen, and corn meal are trickled upon a smooth background of ordinary sand.

[3] Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton, The Navaho, 1962 revised edition, p. 229.  Note: In light of my own work, of having recorded a full nine-night version of Coyoteway in 1974, I am inclined to evaluate this statement by Kluckhohn and Leighton as being somewhat exaggerated. In performing a Navajo healing ceremony there is some room for improvisations.

4 Leland C. Wyman, "Navajo Ceremonial System," in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 10 Southwest, Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Institution, 1983. The customary designation "sand-painting" is misleading in that actually nothing is "painted." Sands, powders, pollen, and corn meal are trickled upon a smooth background of ordinary sand.