Monday, May 31, 2010


One common theme in the rock art of the American southwest is the symbol of one or more concentric circles, often around a central dot. This symbol of concentric circles has been recognized as a representation of the sun throughout Ancestral Puebloan rock art of the American Southwest.

The pueblo culture is, and has been, constructed around an agricultural tradition based on maize, beans, and squash. The people depended upon their faith and knowledge of the natural cycles of their environment to provide for their families. Many of the petroglyphs and pictographs created by the Anasazi understandably illustrate a concern with the weather, portraying symbols such as clouds and rain. One of the most common weather symbols is the sun, portrayed as one of the variations of the concentric circles theme. As a symbol for the sun, these concentric circles model a specific atmospheric condition, the haloed sun.

Concentric circle sun symbol,
Sego Canyon, Utah.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1980.

Concentric circle sun symbols,
Signal Hill, Tucson, AZ.
Photo: Jack & Esther Faris, 1990.

As the sun moves north of the equator in the Northern Hemisphere summer, the land mass is rapidly warmed. This leads to the development of a low-pressure cell over the arid North American Southwest. Winds follow a pressure gradient from high to low and flow counterclockwise about a low in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing a monsoon flow of moist air from the Gulf of California over Arizona and New Mexico by mid-July, accompanied by afternoon showers and thunderstorms. As the moist air heats up over the desert, it rises and begins to cool with increased altitude. This rising air can reach an altitude of as high as 15 km, forming the thin, sheet like high altitude cloud cover called cirrostratus that often covers the entire sky so thinly that the sun and moon can be clearly seen through them. Ice crystals in the cirrostratus can refract the light passing through them producing a circle around the sun or moon known as a halo. The most common halo is the 22º halo, a ring of light around the sun or moon at a radius of 22º, about the distance from the end of the thumb to the little finger on the outstretched arm. These conditions are also often a precursor to oncoming precipitation within a few hours to a day.

Sun with halo, May 19, 2010. Photo: Peter Faris, 2010.

Sun with halo, May 19, 2010. Photo: Peter Faris, 2010.

The solar halo illustrated was photographed at my home on the morning of May 19, 2010, and rain began to fall approximately four hours later.

Tawa, Sun kachina.

As a precursor of precipitation a circle around the sun would be of great import to a people dependent upon rain for a successful harvest. Such a case might be expected to apply in the American Southwest where agricultural societies were aware of their almost total dependence upon precipitation for the success of their crops. This possibility is reinforced by the design of the case mask worn by the Sun Kachina (Hopi Tawa Kachina) which is quite clearly circular and is surrounded by a border of black-tipped feathers. In this mask the white body of the feather and the ring of their black tips represent the concentric circles around the face of the sun. Thus the haloed sun, which may have originally inspired the concentric circle symbols in Ancestral Puebloan rock art, can still be seen in the Sun kachina mask worn by Puebloan kachina dancers and remains a living factor in their beliefs.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


There is a marvelous panel of Fremont figures located on Gore Ranch, in Glade Park on the Uncompaghre plateau of Mesa County, Colorado. The three stylized figures have been pecked very carefully in great detail up the cliff.

Gore Ranch, Glade Park, Uncompahgre Plateau,
Mesa County, CO. Photo: Peter Faris, 1980.

The lowest figure is blatantly a warrior with a knife in his left hand next to a spiral-decorated shield. He is wearing a Fremont style headdress and in his right hand he holds what appears to be a crane-headed dance staff with feathers down its shaft and a fringed bag connected just under the head. By his right foot a coiled snake reflects the spiral on his shield on the other side. His feet each have five toes carefully delineated, and he has a garment resembling a kilt around his waist.

The uppermost of the three figures holds a knife in his right hand and another crane-headed staff in his left. He was also pecked carefully with the distinctive Fremont headdress (or hairdo), clothing, and his bare feet also have the toes carefully delineated.

The middle figure also wears a headdress and has been carefully pecked to show individual fingers on his hands. He has a zig-zag or wavy line (lightning?) on his left side that connects to him at about waist high. The most interesting thing about this figure is that he again has a carefully delineated right foot – and no left foot. His left leg terminates at what would be about the ankle with no sign that there was ever a foot there. He seems to have been purposely made that way. The fascinating question is, of course, why? Why does he have only one foot?

The other two figures possess weapons and are arguably warriors commemorated on the cliff for their heroic deeds, but what about the man with one foot? Two possibilities can be imagined from the clues provided. Since he is accompanied by two warriors it is possible that he is also a warrior who lost his foot in battle and is commemorated here for his bravery (a possibility that Sally Cole suggested back in 1980). It might also be possible that the zig-zag line which connects to his waist does represent lightning and that he was the victim of a lightning strike which he survived but which cost him his foot. If that were the case he would be a person of tremendous spirit power indeed and would understandably have enough status to be portrayed with the other two heroes.

In any case, these figures must be classified has portraiture with their careful attention to individual details which anyone living in that area at that time would have recognized. They would have known who wore those headdresses and carried those crane-headed staffs, whose shield had that design and which particular warrior had lost that foot. They knew who he was and probably passed on the story of his deeds that had earned him his place on the cliff. Too bad we have forgotten.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


A Northwest Coast version of the Push-Me-Pull-You.

Sisiutl, the two-headed serpent of the
Pacific Northwest, Wood Carving.

Of all the many portrayals of animals (zoomorphs) in rock art perhaps the most fascinating are the double ended animals known lightheartedly as push-me-pull-yous. One form is this creature that is frequently seen in the art of Northwest Coast peoples is the Sisiutl, a serpent with a head at each end. Sisiutl is often portrayed in paintings and wood carving. He was sometimes believed to be a fearsome ocean creature, a two-headed sea serpent, and was considered to be a mortal enemy of thunderbird.

Klu'bist, ‘Nlaka’pamux pictographs, Stein River Valley
north of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
York, Daly, and Arnett, They Write Their Dream on the
Rock Forever: Rock Writings of the Stein River Valley
of British Columbia
, 1993, p. 156.

Klu'bist, ‘Nlaka’pamux pictograph, Stein River Valley
north of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
York, Daly, and Arnett, They Write Their Dream on the
Rock Forever: Rock Writings of the Stein River Valley
of British Columbia
, 1993, p. 115.

The Skagit people called it sulwa’us and regarded it highly as a shamanistic spirit and associated it with thunder and the rainbow. The ‘Nlaka’pamux people of the Stein River Valley north of Vancouver in British Columbia call it klu’biist and have recorded it in numerous pictographs at sites in their territory. In the first of the two illustrations this pictograph panel includes two images of klu'biist, one in the upper left, and a smaller one at bottom center. Many of the portrayals show klu’biist as a four-legged creature and native sources stated that it was a snake with a head at each end, but it could grow legs if it wanted to and then looked something like a lizard with a head at each end. Many of them believe that a sighting of klu’biist foretells a death. The ‘Nlaka’pamux people identify klu’biist as an actual creature that lives in their forests – the India Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) found throughout northwestern North America, and the northernmost member of the boa family. These 18“ brown snakes appear to have a head at both ends with a blunt rounded tail that is hard to distinguish from their real head end and looks amazingly like a length of rubber surgical tubing.

India Rubber Boa, from Ernst and Ernst, Snakes
of the United States and Canada, 2003, p. 115.

As a boy at summer camp one year in the Pacific Northwest I found an India Rubber Boa in the woods. Far from being a harbinger of death and disaster, this peaceful creature was content to be wrapped around my arm and hung on for a considerable time, probably enjoying the body warmth. Surprisingly it made no attempt to bite, or even to uncoil and drop off until I later unwrapped it from my arm and released it back in the woods.

There is a particular satisfaction in having personal connection to the source of the mythology that has led to these portrayals in rock art. Perhaps Sisiutl/Klu’biist is really my personal totem creature.


York, Annie, Richard Daly, and Chris Arnett
1993 They Write Their Dream on the Rock Forever: Rock Writings of the Stein River Valley of British Columbia, Talonbooks, Vancouver.

Ernst, Carl H., and Evelyn M. Ernst
2003 Snakes of the United States and Canada, Smithsonian Books, Washington and London.

I was just connected with a site that shows video of an India Rubber boa swallowing a mouse. It is at I suppose Parental Warning guidelines require me to warn that some viewers may find it disturbing, but it does add an element of real life to my comments above.