A Navajo sandpainting in South London


On a recent visit to South London I visited the Horniman Museum and was excited to find a Navajo sand-painting in the main foyer.  I have a longstanding interest in the culture, art, history and language of the Dine (the Navajo) so I was particularity thrilled to discover this large example of their art.  I own a few very small sand-paintings of my own, but they are partial representations of only a few figures.  This was an authentic, full scale example of the form. The particular design at the Horniman is called Whirling log and was made at the museum by Navajo singer Fred Stevens in 1966.  This design was deliberately left incomplete so that it has no religious power or significance.

In 2004, after ten years in storage, the painting underwent extensive conservation and was restored to prominent display.  It is made from powdered sandstone, root and charcoal and is nearly six feet square, so it is a very impressive and striking.  It is an excellent example of Navajo iconography and of their complex religious and ceremonial ideas and practices.  The paintings represent elements from the creation myths of the people and are employed by healers to help restore hozho- that is, good balance, harmony and order.

Sand-paintings are iikaah- ‘places where the gods come and go.’  Once the healer (hataali) has diagnosed the cause of the patient’s malady, the aim is to summon supernatural forces to help restore hozho.  The Navajo universe is composed of good and evil elements, of aspects that are under control and those that are not.  The purpose of hozho is to bridge the gap between the two and to re-establish an equilibrium.

The root of much illness is seen as  psychological and the healing chants, which involve, as well as the sand-paintings, long recitations over two, five or even nine nights and various other ritual practices, are aimed at enabling the sufferer to ‘walk in beauty’ again. The patient will sit on the sand-painting facing east and the Holy People summoned by the images in the particular painting being used will arrive to view the representations of themselves. In so doing they infuse the picture with their healing power.  This is then transferred manually to the sick person, who temporarily is united with the supernatural.


As the images are used in traditional religious ceremonies, the displayed picture is not actually complete: this means that it is suitable to be used for permanent display.  Usually the pictures are destroyed as soon as they have been used in a healing ceremony.  Normally it would have been swept away at the end of the ceremony and dumped to the north of the patient’s home, blocking the return of the evil in the future.

The whirling log (tsil’ol-ni) story occurs in two of the Navajo’s healing chants (Night way and Feather way).  The hero of the story, Self teacher, sets out on a long journey after he falls out with his family over gambling losses.  At first the gods try to dissuade him from going, but once they see that he is determined, they help him hollow out a log to float downstream along the river.  He sets off with his pet turkey and has various adventures on the way, such as being captured by the Water Monster and carried to the home of the Water People.  Self teacher is only released after one of the gods threatens to burn down Water Monster’s house. All the same, during his captivity Self teacher acquires ceremonial knowledge, such as how to cure the illnesses caused by the Water People.  When he finally arrives at the lake that is his destination, the gods help the hero ashore by catching and holding his spinning log.

The final surprise comes when Self teacher is reunited with his pet turkey, which shakes its wings, releasing the seeds put there by the gods. Self teacher then plants a field of crops that quickly ripen for harvest. He returns home to share the knowledge of farming that he has gained and the cures that he has learned from Frog.

Whirling log represents a lake in the centre with logs floating to the shore, pointing north, south, east and west (the sacred directions in Navajo cosmography). Male and female deities (yei) stand on the logs holding evergreen branches and with ribbons hanging from their elbows.  Radiating are the four sacred plants (white corn, yellow pumpkin, grey bean, and black tobacco) brought as gifts.  Around the logs stand the four gods who assist the hero- Talking god, Hastye-o-gahn and two Biighaa’ask’idii  (with the hump shaped deerskin bag on his back and the weasel medicine bag in his hand).  All these deities are male and so are depicted with round heads; they wear mountain sheep horns on their heads.  They are enclosed and protected by a female deity, Rainbow girl.  The picture is open to the east, from which direction it is hard for evil to enter according to Navajo belief.

Here is an excerpt from the Navajo Night chant:

“House made of dawn.
House made of evening light.
House made of the dark cloud.
House made of male rain.
House made of dark mist.
House made of female rain.
House made of pollen.
House made of grasshoppers.

Dark cloud is at the door.
The trail out of it is dark cloud.
The zigzag lightning stands high upon it.
An offering I make.
Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me.
This very day take out your spell for me.

Happily I recover.
Happily my interior becomes cool.
Happily I go forth.
My interior feeling cool, may I walk.
No longer sore, may I walk.
Impervious to pain, may I walk.
With lively feelings may I walk.
As it used to be long ago, may I walk.

Happily may I walk.
Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant showers, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant plants, may I walk.
Happily on a trail of pollen, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.
In beauty it is finished.”

The Horniman museum also has a display of world musical instruments, showing in particular how the classical instruments of the West evolved.  Although I learned the flute at school and play the guitar, this room was a bit dull for me: it is just racks of oboes and bassoons, really.  There’s also a display of stuffed animals, which passes a few entertaining moments.  The ethnographic gallery was shut’ til next year sadly.  We visited on a Saturday- the place was overrun with small children, as it probably always is.  I’ll visit again in 2018 on a weekday, I think (!).  There’s a park outside which, as the site is at the crest of the Dulwich Hills, has stunning views north and west over central London. The fantastic panorama alone might justify the visit.

I have been interested in linguistics and the Native American languages in particular for several decades.  For fuller details and links see my website.

Lastly I must mention that this trip began in Peckham with a visit to Persepolis cafe, the very excellent Iranian restaurant and shop run by cookery writer Sally Butcher.  It’s highly recommended as a place to eat; if you like the cuisine, have a look at her books Persepolis and Veggiestan (amongst others).


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