Navajo symbology of numbers
Of the even numbers in Navajo symbols, 4 or one of its multiples is employed most frequently in laying down patterns which are expected to meet the approval of the gods.


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Navajo religious symbol

Some students of ethnology believe that 4 is the number which symbolizes this present earth and everything we find here.

A fundamental quality of any Navajo religious symbol is the plural character of every spiritual power or elemental force. The hero, who killed the evil monsters, had three brothers with separate abilities and life histories; but Klah remarked, "They are really all one person."

The Fire God is sometimes pictured as four personages standing side by side or coming from the four directions.

The Sky is often divided into four segments with a definite symbol for each. The number of divisions granted to each great power depends on the type of ceremony and the size of the sand painting, and can be two, four, five, eight, or sixteen.

Every sand painting emphasizes the cardinal points, the four corners of the earth where stand the four sacred mountains, four parts of the day, and four seasons in the year.

There are four or eight sacred plants , four water monsters, four thunderers, and four, eight, or twelve prayer sticks erected around the border of the painting after its completion.

It would take several chapters to list all of the places where four is of ceremonial importance.

Human existence has been divided into four stages, and everyone is expected to have four ceremonies held for them before they die.

One fact brought to my attention by a medicine man when he wished to emphasize the importance of "4" was nature's use of that number and its multiples. Corn is a sacred plant in Navajo lore and ceremony, and he showed me a "perfect ear" which had twelve rows of kernels along the cob and four equally perfect kernels at the tip.

Navajo Symbols

The number next in importance is "2". One of the most interesting elements in their religion is the duality which is found in almost every part of creation, usually one an active and the other a passive form, not in opposition to each other but complementing each other's powers, such as herain and sherain, crooked lightning and arrows which are dangerous; or straight lightning and arrows which are guarding Sky Father and Earth Mother.

East and south directions are beneficent, the east being the masculine in character and south the feminine. The west and north are less beneficent, the north being masculine, west feminine.
The southern and western colors of blue and yellow are considered feminine showing characteristics of warmth, growth and fertility.

Navajo symbols - four or eight sacred plants

The north and east colors of black and white are considered masculine and are more abstract, consisting of the white or the spirit life, and the darkness of dormant life. In this as in other forms of the symbology, the active and passive forces are united to form the perfect symbol.

This is accented in the tales of the warrior twins who are supposed to be dual personalities; one went forth to accomplish dangerous feats while the other remained at home to guard the spiritual power of his brother.

Another myth tells of two monster birds who nested on the peak of Shiprock and brought small children as food for the two fledglings in the nest.

The sun and the moon are twin powers in the sky and, although both are considered masculine in gender, the sun plays the dominant role, while the moon, although of equal importance, is less aggressive. Father Sky and Mother Earth are twin creations and, when placed in the same sand painting, are always shown as being the same size and the same shape, but bearing different colors, designs, and potentials.

There are two guards placed before the door when a ceremonial lodge is symbolized in sand, and two guardians at the east of many sand paintings. There are two "talking kehtahns" and two "spirit givers." Estsanahtlehay, the Earth Woman, and Yolthkaiestsan, the White Shell Woman who represents water.
These are a few of the instances which emphasize the importance of the number "2" in Navajo ceremony and sand painting.

More difficult to evaluate is "1" as a symbolic numeral. Many lone figures which may be used for complete sand paintings are still associated with companions or with groups of similar symbols. The bluefaced sun is often used in a minor ceremony, but the whitefaced moon is considered its companion. Mother Earth may be used as the design for a healing or blessing ceremony, but Father Sky is needed to complete the symbology, as one does not exist without the other.

There is one great coiled serpent which represents the latent powers of the underworld, but because of his twelve coils and his twelve house markings, he becomes a sum of four. There is one large whirling wind symbol that has no companion which is edged with fortyeight knives which promise death to all who venture near; and there is one evil black star which foretells illness and misfortune to all who chance into its influence. There is also a monster serpent who "swallows his victim alive" or so surrounds him with evil that misfortune follows his every act.

A very unusual ceremony is sometimes held for a person who has been bitten by a snake or is thought to be the victim of snake magic. The sand painting for this ceremony depicts a large blue serpent about six feet long and three feet wide. The patient, liberally sprinkled with blue sand, lies on this huge symbol while the prayer chant and the rites take place. Then the medicine man actually drags the victim away from the monster and the painting is destroyed.