Religious Symbolism among the Cheyenne

[Hungarian-style transliteration used by the author : /sz/ for /s^/]

cosmology : the macrocosm (world)




"Hestanov, the universe, is divided by the earth’s surface into

Heamahestanov, the world above, and

A`tonoom, the underworld."


"Otatavoom, the Blue Sky-Space ... includes ... two ... Es^ehe" :

"one of which is born daily in the east" the spirit "Atovsz (sun)";

"one which is born monthly in the west" Ta-es^ehe ‘night-es^ehe’ the spirit "Ameo`nito" [moon].


"The Milky Way, Seamo, is

the road taken by the souls of Cheyennes on their way to the land of the dead, Naevoom.

The souls of those who die by their own hand, or who were exceptionally evil during life, must travel down a particular branch of Seamo ... This branching of Seamo can be observed near the constellation Cygnus." {it may be a "Coal Sack"}


"The Pleiades, Manohotoxceo (the bunch of stars), are prominent" in myth [BChC, pp. 220-31; SM, pp. 153-64 : whereof the heroine’s name /Ma-hoe-skota/ may mean ‘Praegnant Earth’ rather than ‘Possible Sack’ (fn. 2)]. "They are also mentioned in tribal ceremonies as are ... "scratching stars" (meteors)".


"the Nearer Sky-Space, Setovoom, ... includes everything between Otatavoom and the level surface of the earth. Especially included with Setovoom are ... : clouds, ... tornadoes, birds (vekseo includes dragonflies but not hummingbirds ...) ...


Magpies [Pica pica hudsonia], because of the blue-green iridescence {cf. the blue/green iridescence of feathers of peafowl, the bird of Skanda} of their black markings, and because they live near to man, are considered to be special messengers of Maheo, the high god, and to range beyond Setovoom into the Blue Sky-Space."


"lower-ranking spirits are not autonomous and are not sharply delineated from their superiors. They are, in fact, the actual manifestations and oblique expressions of the spirits to whom they are inferior." {this is likewise a principle of Astika/Sanatana Dharma}


"The most powerful and most general spirit in the universe, the one who encompasses all other spirits, is Maheo {cf. [Creek god] HAIOwa}, the "All-Father." He is also called Maxemaheo (great all-father), Ma:manstomanehe (all creator) or Maxema`tasooma, "Great Spirit," ... over all other spirits (Ma`tasoomao)."


names of the cardinal directions

hesen ‘east’

sovon ‘south

onx-sovon west

notam ‘north’

151-2 & 154-5

spirits of the cardinal directions


its spirit

its color

entities sacred to it

p. 151 east



red-headed woodpeckers; red willows; red stones (especially catlinite for pipebowls); human phallus

p. 152 west



nightmares; interiors of caves

p. 154 north


p. 155 white

p. 154 Hoimaha (‘Frost’)

p. 154 south


p. 155 green

p. 155, fn. 9 lichens;

p. 156 hailstones


"the moon is considered to be the antagonist of Onxsovota and all that he represents."


"The most notable creature of the night is the mista {cf. [Norse anti-god] MISTcalf; [Peruvian mt.] MISTi}, a word which includes both "spooks" and owls ... Some mista have the heads of dogs ... While a mista is considered to be from the land of the dead, Naevoom, it is definitely not the soul of a dead person. {cf. Kemetian & Bodish animal-headed gods controlling the world of the dead by participating in judgement of souls, etc.} Such souls are referred to as seoto and ...


take the form of ... animated mummies or articulated skeletons, Seozeheq."


"the spirit of Thunder, Nonoma, is said to be a seasonal migrant between North and South. Migratory birds, especially the Sandhill Crane and certain ducks, are sacred to Nonoma." [despite Grinnell, there is no Cheyenne Thunderbird : "the Bird-Father, Maheonevecess, ... has nothing at all to do with thunder. ... The so-called "Thunderbird’s Nest " in the Sun Dance is more properly the All-Bird’s Nest, or the Bird-Father’s Nest." (fn. 13)]



p. 157 "Tornadoes ... struggle with the monsters who live in the deep water."

pp. 157-8 "In Cheyenne, the same word is used for tornadoes as for [p. 158] dragonflies (vovetass – a tornado, a dragonfly, usually translated "whirlwind’). ... By midsummer, dragonflies can be seen to form funnel-shaped swarms as they hunt over the plains. ... Some Cheyenne say that tornadoes themselves are composed, at least in part, of dragonflies".


"Because ... associated ... with Onxsovota, ... blue dragonflies ... are emblematic of protection against death."


"Cheyennes distinguish between [as figured on p. 147, Fig. 3]

the earth’s Surface-Dome, Votostoom, and

the Deep-Earth, Nsthoaman.

The air which is in immediate contact with the surface (Taoxtavoom, the atmosphere) is also distinguished from the Nearer Sky-Space, Setovoom. The atmosphere, Taotavoom, is defined as the region where dust rises, ... and where insects fly."


Votostoom & Nsthoaman

"the area beneath the root systems of plains grasses is considered to be the Deep Earth. This is exposed by removal of sod during one part of the Sun Dance. One reason why cottonwood trees are sacred is because their roots extend through Votostoom into

Nsthoaman. Exposed cliff faces ... are considered to be part of the Deep Earth rather than of the Surface-Dome."


horizontal divisions of Votostoon

"Noavoom is ... where useful plants and animals ... are usually found.

Notostoom is ... where humans live.

Matavoom is the forested portion".


"Traditionally, the Deep Earth has been addressed directly as Esceheman, "our grandmother." This address was especially used when smoking to

the four directional spirits, to

Maheo at the zenith and then to

Esceheman at the nadir (Totaa`tono)."



"a badger skin ... served as the wrapping for the Sacred Arrows. {likewise, badger-skin as wrapper for sacred things according to the Talmud (B)}

Badgers are also used for augury". [(fn. 17) vide :- ChI, vol. 2, pp. 26-7]



"Buffaloes live in great caves under the surface and they present themselves to be killed whenever Maheo wants ...

Maheo intends that buffaloes should be used ... and to signify this he makes both ... yellow at birth. ... humans have a natal coating of vernix. This is equated to the yellow post-partum hair of buffalo calves, shed in the first year."


"Corn has a particular association with prairie dogs, since

both appear from out of the tops of bare hillocks. ...

The teeth of prairie dogs are equated to kernels of corn because of their yellow color."


"Within the Deep Earth there are many caves of various sorts, ranging from

p. 164 Animal dens (heszevox) to the habitations of mysterious people called Hoevotto.

[p. 164] Supernatural episodes ... [p. 165] frequently occur in large sacred caverns, Maheonox."



"There are ... monstrous forms of bats (Mosiskanezenona, the bat monster) {cf. Kic^e` bat-god, in Popol Vuh},

buffaloes (Havevsz, the buffalo monster), and

elk. [fn. 20 elk-monster in cap. 7 of SM] In addition,

there is Ax-xea, a giant caterpillar with a carnivore’s head who lives in springs ... {cf. Hawai>ian caterpillar-god}

There is also Maxemista, the forest giant, who walks on two feet and leaves giant bird-like tracks in the forest." {cf. the giant bird-tracks engraved at Pimba in North Australia (GBTP)}

BChC = Grinnell : By Cheyenne Campfires. 1926.

SM = Randolph : Sweet Medicine. 1937.

B =

ChI = Grinnell : The Cheyenne Indians.


the microcosm (body)




"Xamaemavoxooz, the natural body ..., is normally inhabited by four Hema`tasooma, or Soul-forces ...

Two of these Soul-forces {= [Chinese] hun & z^on-xin} are mostly helpful to health and proper conduct, but

The pairs are antagonistic to each other and sometimes struggle physically within the body."

two {= [Chinese] po & qin-min (CDSH, p. 101, fn. 111)} are mostly harmful.


"Each Soul-force is capable of leaving the body independently, especially during sleep, but the Soul-forces might also leave ... two or three at a time.


At death, the Soul-forces amalgamate".


"abrupt changes for the better indicate that a benevolent Soul-force has returned."


p. 166, fn. 22 "the directional forces are in fact associated with the limbs."

p. 167 "The person to be painted faces __

when his __ is painted."

"Symbols for the ... cardinal directions ... are attached to the wrists and ankles, likewise when the appropriate direction is faced."


right arm


right leg


left arm


left leg



the __

with the __ upraised

rising sun

right palm

new moon

left palm


similes for genitalia


its simile

male penis

red-willow shoots; "male" sage

female vagina

"a cave in the earth."



the __

is reckoned as __

i.e., deriving one’s __

material body






CDSH = Peter Acker : Liu Chuxuan (1147-1203) and his Commentary on the Daoist Scripture Huangdi yinfu jing. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2006.





sacred-profane vertical axis of universe, from zenith to nadir

the All-Father

Anthropomorphic Spirits








the earth


"green cedar berries, which resemble hailstones, can be used for healing."

color of cedar-tree species’s wood

its symbolism in healing : used against diseases which are diagnosed to be in the __




whites of the eyen


hand-rotations for oath-taking

by __

right hand is rotated 4 times __





caerimonial sexual intercourse




statement by woman-participant :- "I retained a very short skirt. Then we were painted. I was painted red in my face, also my body and my legs high above the knees. ... After I had thus prayed, both of us now being absolutely naked, he had sexual intercourse with me as a part of the ceremony. ... my eyes were closed.

The next morning we ... again disrobed and our clothes were given away as offerings. We were again painted all over. ... my little boy and I were then the center of attraction ... for the ceremony. ...


Now this is only one of the minor ceremonies. There are very many more. In some the women are used several nights in succession. ... This little boy with me to-day was conceived in this particular ceremony which I now relate. ... I was a pooer woman, bereft of husband and home, and ... I was repeatedly urged to undertake the ceremony ...

The Cheyennes ... have an expression they use in these ceremonies, "nameaevate," I give my wife to it (underworld), also "nameaevatovo," I give my wife to him. When the husband is dead, another man may do the giving".


further narration by same woman-participant, describing the wording of the ritual liturgy etc. :- [obscene] "Zetose-eixsonetto hereto niva nanoxzevano?

We were fully painted, we were fully unpainted. Some still uncrossed (not yet made the ceremony).

He is across. I give my wife for use to the beast of the underworld. ... He became toothed – bear toothed."


explanation of the expression /bear toothed/ :- "the priest cunningly inserts teeth of an animal (bear, wolf, etc.) in his mouth, in such a way as if they were his own teeth. He is then that animal or beast to whom the woman is offered. ... The "beast" usually was either alone with the woman in a teepee or out in the open – at night or dusk – both entirely nude. The "beast" then goes over the body of the woman with cerem.[onial] motions, then after that she is in a recumbent or supine position, he directs further motions on her face and breasts "cum pene suo" {‘with his own penis’} and then after more motions "insertat eum vase mulieris." {‘inserteth it into the vessel (receptacle = vagina) of the woman’}"

John F. Moore : A Study of Religious Symbolism among the Cheyenne Indians. PhD, NY U, 1974.

{The non-publication of this thesis-dissertation may be due to its including mention of motion of man’s penis on woman’s face and teats.}

other instances of Amerindian ritual adultery

RMR, p. 146 [Cheyenne New Life Lodge] "the chief priest, on the night of the altar dedication, must have connection with the Pledger’s wife. So it had happened in mythical times when, according to the Cheyenne belief, the ceremonial had been taught to them by a supernatural."

M&OC, p. 416 (citing Dorsey 1903, p. 176) "[Arapaho] the woman has actual sexual intercourse with the Grandfather, "the woman facing the moon". It is said that this giving away of the wife is from the Old-Man of Day to the Old-Man of Night..." (p. 176)."

RMR = Ruth Underhill : Red Man’s Religion : Beliefs and Practices of the Indians North of Mexico. U of Chicago Pr, 1965.

M&OC = Chris Knight : Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. PhD thesis, University College London, 1987.