Navajo Symbolism and Sand Painting rites

ALL ceremonies are for healing, either of fears or of bodily ailments, and each is a communal affair paid for by the patient’s relatives. A medicine man is consulted as to what ceremony is required and often uses divination to decide the matter. When this and the location are settled, and also whether a complete ritual or a short one should be used, the hogan is selected or built and medicine articles are collected, such as herbs, rocks to crush into colored sands, fuel, and persons to help the ritual. It begins by the lighting of the fire in the hogan, and for four days in a complete ritual the patient and participants take a sweat bath and emetic to cleanse themselves, and ceremonial offerings are made for the Powers to be invoked. In the evening while prayers are sung, a rite of the untying of knots in woolen cords which are pressed to the patient’s body and limbs, may typify the loosening of tensions in the patient.

Navajo Symbolism

Navajo Symbolism

1. Straight bar from E. to W. is rainbow (female) and N. to S. zig-zag bar is lightning (male). 2. Oblong symbols of houses of various powers in Hail Chant. 3. The path of life is shown as a cornstalk crossing a white field. The lower two figures are the Ethkaynahashi, the transmitters of life, and the upper figures are Dontso, the messenger fly.  4. Cross symbolizing fire.  5. Border representing variety of trails connected by black land below the horizon.  6. Central dwelling place and homeland.  7. Place of emergence.

There are several forms of these rites, such as passing the patient through a line of hoops placed outside the hogan on four consecutive days while prayers are said. As he passes through, a covering is progressively removed, which typifies a process of recreating him into health again.

The sand painting rite begins after the purification and is made to embody the powers to be invoked. The painting is made under the medicine man’s direction and is produced by each painter holding a particular colored sand in his hand and pouring it in a delicate stream between thumb and first finger.

When complete, the painting is blessed with pollen and prayer, and the patient sits on it and is treated by the assistant, who first presses the figures of the painting himself, then presses them to the body of the patient. The patient also drinks a decoration of the painting and afterwords inhales incense. In a complete ceremony there are usually four days of sand painting rites; each day after the treatment of the patient the painting is destroyed. Some-times the body of the patient is painted with the great symbols, which ends the rite of healing.


  1. […] this blog also shows the kinds of ceremonies that there traditionally are, and where they came from. As I read through this, I definitely could find connections to the creation stories. One particular connection that I find interesting is that all of the ritualistic symbols and physical things used are also in the creation stories, where they are first understood as sacred. […]

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