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The Spider Grandmother

The Spider Grandmother

This Hopi story is one of the several versions of how The Spider Grandmother, also known as the Spider Woman among the Navajo, created, or helped to create, the world. The Hopi are desert dwellers of what is today the south-western United States. The Spider Woman’s use of sound or song in prayer and for carrying messages is a key element in this myth, as is the destruction of wrong-doers.

In all the vastness of space there was nothing and this was called, in the Hopi language, Tokpela. Out of this came at last a tiny flash of consciousness that grew into Tawa, the Sun Spirit, who made the first world. He was greatly disappointed by his creation, which amounted to little more than a great cave in which nothing lived except little bugs, and so he decided to dispatch Spider Grandmother to go down among them with a message.

The Sun Spirit

She told them, “is not satisfied with things as they are. You do not know the meaning of life. I am instructed to lead you from this first world to another one. Come.”

It was a long and difficult climb to the second world and on the way countless insects changed into animals. Even in the second world, however, they did not seem to understand the meaning of life and Tawa had the Spider Grandmother go to them once more. Again she bid the animals follow her, this time upwards into a third world. Here there was more light and the land was not as frightening. On the way, a few of the animals had become people.

Spider Grandmother proceeded to teach these people how to weave and how to make clay jars. With this knowledge they could make clothes to keep themselves warm and store food and water. At last, tiny insights into the meaning of life began to occur to some of the men and women. There were others, though, called powaka, false medicine men, who twisted this instinctive learning and guided people along the wrong path.

Everywhere people spent all their time having sex with anyone and everyone, betting and taking foolish risks with their property. Hardly anybody looked after the children, who wandered around squealing, dirty and ignorant. By far the biggest outrage, however, was that it was now popularly believed that humanity owed its existence only to itself. Wearily, Spider Grandmother came to them and talked to the few people who knew enough to listen.

“Tawa, The Sun Spirit, is still unhappy with his creation. The powaka and other wizards have taught people to forget the most important things. They are destroying you all. You must escape them.”

“How?” they asked. “Where shall we go?” they cried. “Lead us and we will follow.”

“You must find the way yourselves,” she told them. After a long time lost in thought, a very old, wise man spoke up and posed this question: “Are there not the sounds of footsteps in the sky above us?”

Other people allowed that they too had heard such sounds, as if somebody was walking around up there. After conferring together the people decided to send birds to find out what things were like above. The first of these emissaries, a swallow, flew up towards Sipapuni – which means The Hole In The Sky in Hopi – but was not strong enough to pass through the opening and had to turn back. A dove was sent next and it passed through Sipapuni and came back at once to tell of what it had seen.

“There is,” it told the few believers, “a different world up there.” Next they sent a hawk, and he explored a large area above, coming back to inform them that this other world seemed to be empty of  inhabitants. Lastly, they sent the wise and loyal catbird, who flew through the hole in the sky and then far and wide in the new world until finally it saw a hut in the middle of a vast rocky desert. This stone dwelling stood beside a cultivated field where melons, squash and maize were planted, and watered by irrigation. Beside the field a man sat sleeping, his head resting on his knees. Alighting a few feet away, the catbird watched this person who soon awoke and looked up.

On his cheekbones were painted two black lines running to the bridge of his nose. Scars, dried blood and burns marked his face, and strung together around his neck he wore turquoise and bones. His eyes were deeply sunken, almost invisible but for the faint glimmer in them, shadowed by the heavy brow. This, the catbird knew at once, was Death himself.

Somehow unafraid, which surprised Death, the catbird explained its mission.

“The people below would like to come up here and live with you in this world. Is that all right with you? Is it possible?”

Masuwu, as the Hopi call Death, thought for a moment, then sighed and shrugged his shoulders.

“You see what it’s like here. But if they want to come and dwell here with me, tell them they can come.”

Following Spider Grandmother’s instructions, a chipmunk planted a sunflower seed in a village square below the hole in the sky, then the people were shown how to sing it into rapid growth, using the power of music to make it soar upwards. Whenever they stopped singing, the sunflower stopped growing, but eventually it was within reach of the Sipapuni. At this point, however, it began to sag under the weight of its large bloom and suddenly drooped halfway to the ground again.

Then the Chipmunk planted a fine young pine tree. This looked promising until, just short of its goal, the pine stopped growing, no matter how much they sang. Finally, a bamboo was planted and it too grew great and tall. This time, however, each time they stopped to draw breath, rest or change the verses of the song a strong growth appeared. By sunset the Spider Grandmother declared: “It has passed through the Sipapuni.

As the people started on the long climb the Spider Grandmother warned them against taking anything with them and insisted they leave the wizards or powaka behind. Yawpa, the mockingbird, flew about the people as they climbed, crying “Pashumayni, Pashumayni” – “Be careful, be careful.” Before long, as the bird could see, the whole bamboo was covered with struggling bodies.

At the top, as people began setting foot in the new world, Yawpa greeted them individually. She also sang out instructions, to some saying “You will be a Hopi and speak the Hopi tongue”, and to others, “You will be a Navaho and speak the Navaho tongue.” In this way she designated people for all the various tribes.

As people arrived they camped around Sipapuni. Finally, the only people still climbing up were the disbelieving powaka. This was a matter for concern.

“Stop, you people yet climbing,” shouted the chief of the village from which the bamboo had grown. “Go back. It was to get way from you and your ways and ideas that we came up here. You mustn’t follow us. We don’t want you here.”

They did not listen to him, of course, and only showed they had heard by gasping the odd insult as they scrambled breathlessly upwards. At last, the Spider Grandmother’s escapees from the world below grasped the top of the bamboo stalk, bending and stretching it, pulling together and with a great effort ripping it out of the distant ground beneath. Then they shook the bamboo mightily before letting it plummet back down to the third world they had left. As the enchanted bamboo plant shattered, thousands of misguided people tumbled to their doom on the dark surface of the land below.

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