Atheism in Diné/Navajo culture: Yeibichai initiation

In the late fall when the corn was harvested and the nights grew cool, the older people would talk about the Yeibichai.

"You had better be good," the mother would tell the children.
"The Yeibichai will come around looking for bad children. They will put them in a sack."
"Yes, the Yeibichai are coming soon," the father would say. "They put the bad children in a sack and they take them away and cook them and eat them."

The children would be frightened. They would run to fetch more firewood. They would make sure the hogan had fresh water. They would be very good.

Later that winter the Yeibichai would come. They would come at a Night Way Chant, a nine-day ceremony which is also called a Yeibichai. On the fifth night the boys and girls who were between seven and twelve years old would take part in the ceremony, instead of just watching as they had done when they were younger.

For the boys and girls who took part, this fifth night was a terrifying initiation into the ceremonial life of the People. They wanted to do it, yet they were scared. They were both fascinated and frightened.

The boys prepared by stripping to their breech cloths, the small garments they wore between their legs and tied around their waists. The older boys and girls then waited by a fire, the boys on the north side, the girls on the south side. Younger children were covered with blankets so that they could not see what was happening. One boy was led out. He stood under the dark sky, alone and almost naked. A fierce-looking god wearing a white mask came and sprinkled him with yellow cornmeal. Then another god in a black mask struck him with a bundle of reeds. The boy might cry out in terror, but he tried to keep from showing his fear. One by one the boys were led apart, beaten with reeds and guided back to the fire.

The girls were not beaten. Instead they remained seated by the fire with their clothes on. The whitemasked god sprinkled each with yellow cornmeal. The black-masked god pressed an ear of corn against the yellow spots.

When all the boys had gone through the ritual beatings, and the last girl had been touched with the corn, the great mystery was revealed. The frightening gods took off their masks. The boys and girls stared at them in shock and disbelief. These were not gods. These were men. They were neighbors and relatives.

Next the boys and girls each sprinkled pollen on the masks lying beside the fire. The men who had played the gods even placed the masks on the head of each boy and girl in turn so they each could see through the eyeholes. Thus the children learned the great secret of the Yeibichai, the secret that man must do much of the work of the gods. And now they were less frightened. But they were warned never to tell this secret to the younger children, not yet initiated.

-Walter Bateman, The Navajo of the Painted Desert (Beacon: Boston 1970) 19-21

The Yeibichai/Night Chant is a curing chantway for insanity and paralysis, performed in the cold season between first frost and first thunderstorm, while the snakes are hibernating. The ceremony lasts for nine days, and is the most frequent ceremony among the Diné.
"Boys and girls are initiated into participation in the ceremonial life of the adults on the last night of the Night Way."
- the Navajo

Home | Typologies | Judaism | Classical Greece | Christianity | Islam | Modern
Suspicion | Academia | Religious | Daoism | Indian/Hindu | Confucianism | Buddhism
Native American | African | Definitions | Literature | Metaphors | Songs

created 1jun1996, revised 20mar98     |     comments on this site? tpkunesh@atheisms.info