Saturday, August 11, 2012


The period around ca. AD 1300 was a time of upheaval in the Rio Grande valley area with the migration of Anasazi in from the four-corners area to the northwest, which was being abandoned due to drought.  Such periods of social change are often periods of intellectual change as well as people strive to adapt their beliefs and understandings to the new conditions.

In late summer AD 1301 there was a spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in the skies. Other spectacular comet appearances that were recorded from about that time in European or Chinese records, or both, date from AD 1264, AD 1299, and AD 1337, but the AD 1301 appearance of Halley's Comet may have been the most spectacular. Descriptions indicate that its tail was impressively long, it is estimated to have subtended an angle of as much as 70º across the sky.

Hopi Nangasohu Kachina, Star or Chasing-Planet Kachina.
From Hopi Kachinas, Barton Wright, 1977, Northland Press,
Flagstaff. Four-pointed star painted on front of case mask,
and feathered ruff headdress representing eagle tail.

The Hopi Nangasohu Kachina, the Chasing Star or Meteor Kachina of Oraibi is pictured wearing a case mask with a big star across the front and a ruff of eagle feathers across the top.   This combines two related sky concepts into one: the star of the night sky and the eagle, beast god of the above. Both of these themes can be identified in rock art of the Anasazi and their merging can be followed in rock art of the upper Rio Grande. The Hopi word nanga means "to pursue" and sohu means "star." A beautiful figure, Na-ngasohu appears in the Bean Dance Procession and carries a bell in his right hand.  He wears a large eagle plume fan behind his head.

Galisteo, NM. Star Petroglyph with facial features, Eagle tail, and 
eagle's taloned legs added. This represents a fusion of the star theme
with the sky theme of the Eagle. Photo: Peter Faris, 1988.

The cruciform or four-pointed star is found throughout North America and innumerable examples are illustrated in rock art. These examples range from the simplest pair of crossed lines to more ornate examples, some with single or even double outlines. The variation developed by the Anasazi of the Rio Grande area portrays each arm of the star as a triangle with their bases coming together in the center as do the arms of our traditional five-pointed star. This center was often portrayed with a circle inside it which, in turn, was frequently converted to a simple face by the addition of marks representing two eyes and a mouth.

The added facial features imply personification, the star is not just a light in the sky - it is now a being. It would seem only natural to identify the star as a sky spirit and perhaps various star portrayals were considered by their creators to portray various spirits or deities from their pantheon.

With the important position that the eagle held among these sky-related beings it would only seem natural to find examples of stars combined with the characteristics of eagles.  Examples show the star with facial features and legs ending in eagle talons. Further examples add the eagle's tail and this is illustrated in petroglyphs from West Mesa at Albuquerque, NM, as well as from the Galisteo Basin. These final examples demonstrate that the integration of the Star theme with the Eagle is complete.

Star personage, Galisteo, NM. Photo: Peter Faris, Sept. 1988.

These images from the Albuquerque area are dated from the Pueblo IV period, ca. AD 1300 - 1540, and those from the Galisteo Basin are assigned to the post-ca. AD 1300 period. The fusion of the Star and Eagle concepts developed an image in which the star was portrayed with the tail of an eagle projecting upward, perhaps to illustrate the eagle in a stoop or a dive. This is virtually identical with the Hopi Nangasohu Kachina identified as the Chasing Star or Meteor Kachina and described above. Indeed the combination of the concepts of the stooping eagle and a star would very strongly suggest the appearance of a comet with its tail of light.

Galisteo, NM. Star-Kachina petroglyph.
Note Eagle tail headdress and star head.
Photo: Peter Faris

This suggests that the record preserved in the rock art of the Galisteo Basin and the upper Rio Grande area in New Mexico records the spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in AD 1301, as well as its evolution into a specific sacred being among the kachinas of the Ancestral Puebloan pantheon, and its subsequent influence on their culture.

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