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The Navajo Mountain Way Myth as a Metaphor for Past-Life Experience – Kathleen Jenks (Is.6)

by Kathleen Jenks, M.A.

The Mountain Chant is a Navajo ceremony collected and translated in 1883-1884 by Washington Matthews, an army doctor stationed at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. The origin of the myth itself is unclear, but the resulting ceremony, based upon the requirement for specific items of ceremonial paraphernalia, can be dated at least as far back as the 1700’s. The ceremony can be celebrated only in the winter when rattlesnakes and bears are hibernating; it is sung to treat mental disturbances or uneasiness, which are considered “bear sickness,” and also fainting spells, as well as kidney and stomach problems attributed to a variety of mountain animals such as bears, snakes, weasels, and porcupines.

The myth begins in the densely forested mountains of what is now northeastern Arizona and focuses on a young hero. The hero’s elderly father teaches him and his brother a sacred hunting ritual. The power aroused by this ritual attracts deer to the boys so that they, their parents, and two sisters have enough to eat. The father tells his sons that they may hunt to the east, west, and north, but he forbids them to hunt to the south,  the realm of the feminine. All goes well until one morning when the young hero decides to disobey his father, disrupt the harmonious pattern of success, and hunt to the forbidden south.

He is captured by a roaming band of Ute Indians and treated with casual brutality as they head northeast through the San Juan River area. When the Ute reach their own lands, their new slave is coerced into teaching them his hunting “magic;” when the techniques meet with spectacular success, the tribe has no further use for him. They decide to execute him by whipping him to death.

Two Navajo deities intervene: the ancient Earth-Mother, whose southern domain the boy first transgressed; and Talking God, one of the four primordial Grandfathers whose name comes from the Navajos’ recognition of his delight in teaching and communicating with them.

Everything in this myth is fairly standard: an initiated hero is disobedient, humiliated, condemned, given divine aid, and allowed to escape. In this case, the boy heads south, backtracking along the identical route where he had been tied up, starved, mocked, and ridiculed. Why would he go where the Ute would obviously begin their search once his absence was discovered? Though at first his plan of action might seem disastrous, on further thought it can be perceived as exactly right—and a perfect paradigm for past-life exploration: we must backtrack to the very places of our entrapment if we are ever to “escape.” This return is initially only a cognitive step: we do it because we cannot think of another way to go; we can only hope that the cathartic aspect[1] will appear once we have taken that first step. Catharsis unfolds in Mountain Way in a manner which is uniquely relevant for regression therapy: this has to do with what occurs in the boy’s relationship to place, “matter,” and the sacred: as a captive, there was one relationship; as an escapee, an entirely new configuration emerges out of the same basic components, a configuration which was always there, but not yet activated, a configuration capable of realigning energy-patterns, restoring a disrupted harmony, and initiating that mature balance which the Navajo call hozho [2].

To explore this further, let us turn to several incidents which befall the boy. The first occurs some hours after his escape. He hears angry Ute horsemen pursuing him, drawing nearer and nearer; the boy is frightened because he sees no place to hide.

Talking God suddenly appears. “Your enemies are coming for you,” he says, “but yonder small holes on the opposite side of the canyon are the doors of my dwelling, where you may hide.” (Matthews: 398) The god blows a strong breath and a white rainbow forms and spans the canyon; when he blows a second time, the rainbow hardens and the two cross easily to the far side. There Talking God points to a tiny hole in the cliff: “This is the door of my lodge; enter!” (Ibid: 399) The desperate boy tries to do so, but even his head will not fit into the hole. The sounds of Ute bowmen are now so close that he knows he will soon be shot. Finally, chuckling affectionately, Talking God takes pity on the human and blows on the little hole. Before the young man’s astonished eyes, the hole widens, allowing the two to slip through, then closes behind them. They pass through a series of three caverns and finally stop in the fourth. Here the boy rests.

At nightfall, Talking God gives him two gifts: an elk skin robe and a new pair of moccasins to protect his feet [3]. Leaving the cave, the boy heads south—toward home. He walks rapidly all night, hoping he has eluded pursuit, but at dawn he again hears the thundering hooves of Ute horses. As before, the terrified youth receives divine aid, this time from a black mountain sheep that breathes an opening into a narrow rocky cleft and then leads the boy down into four rainbow-filled caverns where he again rests safely.

This same pattern is repeated as the young man backtracks along his route of captivity. In each of these “stuck places” he is now forced to find a dimension of the sacred which was invisible to him when he was a captive. In other words, he must find his way into the inherent inner spaciousness in the very rocks, or “matter” of his world, past and present. Whenever this seems most hopeless, Talking God, Wind God, or an animal helper suddenly appears and blows upon the rock, creating the “crack between the worlds,” or the opening into a deeper, unsuspected dimension. For Navajos, these animal helpers are Holy Ones, regardless of their form. Another way of saying this is that any insect, bird, animal, plant, or rock has an inner-form, or essence, which is divine and which, to the eye of a visionary, may be seen within the outer trappings of matter. These inner-forms have great power and, under certain ritually (or therapeutically) patterned circumstances, they will befriend humans. As therapists, we might interpret these forms on many levels: as Jungian shadow-archetypes; repressed potentials; powerful, healthy, earth-centered emotions; and so forth.

The young man in the myth is given refuge and food by many of these Holy Ones: the already-mentioned black mountain sheep, also bushrats[4], weasels, bears (who give him the first sand painting),[5] rattlesnakes (who also, albeit with a certain reluctance, provide him with a sand painting),[6] bats, skunks, squirrels, porcupines, to name only a few. He is hidden deep in the rock in caves shimmering with jewel-light and rainbows. Here gifts are exchanged and the Navajo is taught to make prayer sticks which will make allies of even the unfriendly Holy Ones,[7] he is taught their sacred chants, their ways of healing. The Ute gallop by outside without ever suspecting that the Navajo youth is being fed and initiated into the ways of the Holy Ones. All of nature, which he once abused, is now willing to help him on this sacred journey.

After many close calls with the Ute, a hailstorm finally kills many of them and drives the remainder back to their homes. Now the focus of the young man’s journey shifts entirely from escape to an ever-widening schooling in sacred knowledge. Here, too, there are clear analogies with regression therapy, for once the immediately disturbing problems are resolved and released, a similar shift may occur as a client discovers a mother lode of transformative insights and images.

At one point, the young man goes down into a valley where a tornado overtakes him. Huge boulders and uprooted trees suddenly fill the air. Terrified, the young man cries out, “ ‘Tis I, Dsilyi Neyaani. Who are thou?” (Matthews: 404) Dsilyi Neyaani: the name means “reared-within-the-mountains,” and it is the first time he speaks it. From that moment the gods will know him by this name. It marks him as one who has been sheltered, fed, and schooled by the inner-forms of “matter,” the mountains (and their inhabitants): he is now part of them—he has gone deeply within, integrated seemingly opposite realms, and in the process his very identify has been transformed. Recognizing him now, the tornado subsides.

Soon afterwards Dsilyi Neyaani reaches a dwelling filled with butterflies, those pan-cultural symbols of metamorphosis. Here a Butterfly Goddess bathes him in a white shell, massages his face and body into a beautiful form (thereby “stabilizing” him in his new identity), causes his hair to grow abundantly down to the ground, and dresses him in fine clothing. This is another way of saying that once the Self’s truest identify has been glimpsed, a metamorphosis occurs. Not only must the essential beauty and harmony of the present life be recognized and revealed more fully, but also any earlier self who was battered or mutilated must be reshaped by the creative “Butterfly Goddess” within each client. In a different context, the Navajo, Old Man Buffalo Grass, expressed something similar when he said, “You look at me and see only an ugly old man, but within I am filled with great beauty.” (Witherspoon: 191)

Dsilyi Neyaani travels on until finally he reaches a house of cherries with a door of lightning. Here he discovers four gods who look exactly like him, are dressed the same as he, and even have the same name. He is told, “These are the gods in whose beautiful form the Butterfly Goddess has molded you. These are the gods whose name you bear.” (Matthews: 409) These four then teach him a dance.

What we have here is a clear progression from recognizing to reshaping to actualizing: first, recognizing a new identity, or pattern of harmony, which possesses the power to withstand turbulence; second, reshaping the outgrown self-image so that it matches the pattern of that now-recognized Self; and third, actualizing that completed pattern through an appropriate expressive mode. Many such modes exist; in Mountain Way it is dance. The four gods teach Dsilyi Neyaani a dance which is the culmination of the Mountain Way ritual.

Later, four tall Mountain Goddesses living in a house of plants and dew provide a sacred, fire-filled space around which the dance is performed. As important as chanting, prayer sticks and sand paintings are in building up increasingly intense fields of power, only the organic rhythm of dance can integrate the full force of those healing energies. To put this another way, the focus on dance defines and transforms the Navajos’ relationship to place, “matter,” and the sacred, thereby permitting entry into a dimension in which disorder may be, in a sense, danced back into mandalic wholeness. In past-life work too, it is important to help a client find some integrating physical expression which can be performed “mindfully,” joyfully. This might be as complex as ritual dance or, with severely repressed people, as simple as being able to bathe with a sense of pleasurable appreciation, treating the body as tenderly as the Butterfly Goddess treated that of the weary young mortal when the goddess bathed him in a white shell.

The final stop is at one of Talking God’s homes—a place made of corn pollen, a door of daylight, a ceiling supported by four white spruce trees, and rainbows shining in every direction. Here the young man is given no prayer-stick or ceremony, but he is given instead an abundance of white corn meal and pollen to eat—and four precious nights of deep, healing rest. Talking God then takes him to the top of a mountain and shows him where to find his family in the distance.

The young man returns as a shaman and prophet. He teaches his people all the ceremonies and ritual skills the Holy Ones have taught him; he is happy to be home and yet at night he dreams of the Beings he met along his journey. He begins to miss their mysterious world more and more. He feels them calling him to return.

Finally, knowing that he has fully restored harmony, healing, and balance to those dimensions of his own past which he had once injured, he decides to rejoin the Holy Ones. These are his last words to his younger brother: “Farewell, younger brother! From the holy places the gods come for me. You will never see me again; but when the showers fall and the thunder peals, “There,” you will say, “is the voice of my elder brother,” and when the harvest comes, of the beautiful birds and grasshoppers you will say, “There is the ordering of my elder brother…there is the trail of his mind.” (Matthews: 417)

As he said these words he vanished. He does not leave for an otherworldly heaven or netherworld. He vanishes into the inner-space of “matter,” one with rain, thunder, corn, birds, and insects. The “trail of his mind” now winds peacefully, translucently, through all of life, sustaining the hozho—the ordered balance and harmony of this world. In an evocative passage, Erich Neumann describes the highest mystical stage:

If in every thing and every situation a numinous background can break through, leading to the mystical encounter between the ego and the nonego and thence to illumination, everything in the world becomes a symbol and a part of the numinous…It would be a fundamental error to take this for religious pantheism or panentheism, for this form of mature mysticism demands a continuous creative process within the personality…to give transparency to the foregrounds of the world, in order that the primal light of the pieroma may become visible as background and core of the world and thus become intensified in its radiation and efficacy.

(Neumann: 410)

Such a nature mystic is, like Dsilyi Neyaani, “in the world and outside it, at rest and in creative motion, attached to the numinous and also at home in himself. In him lives the creative word and also silence. He lives in multiplicity and unity.” (ibid: 412)



 Brugge, David M., and Charlotte J. Frisbie. editors, Navajo Religion and Culture: Selected Views. Santa Fe: Museum of the New Mexico Press, 1982.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: The Viking Press, 1972.

Jenks, Kathleen. Changing Woman: The Navajo Therapist Goddess” in Psychological Perspectives, Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 1986 (pp. 202-221).

Matthews, Washington. The Mountain Chant: A Navajo Ceremony. New Mexico: Rio Grande Press, 1970.

Neumann, Erich, “Mystical Man” from The Mystical Vision: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Bollingen Series, Princeton U. Press, 1968.


[1] This useful distinction in terminology is discussed in Roger Woolger’s “Aspects of Past-Life Bodywork: Understanding Subtle Energy Fields” in Journal of Regression Therapy, Vol. II. No. 1, Spring 1987.

[2] Hozho is the central idea in Navajo philosophy and is variously translated as harmony, blessing, balance, happiness, beauty, goodness. The meaning is simultaneously both moral and aesthetic and cannot be translated by a single English word. It is an ongoing, dynamic process as well as the path, or Beauty Way, one walks as it unfolds around one. It is roughly analogous to the Chinese tao, Egyptian Maat, Hindu marga and rta. A related term is hochxo: this force unravels, disorders, and throws hozho into chaos. Its meaning is the reverse of everything implied by hozho. The tension between these two produces the dynamic process. When chaos dominates, harmony can be restored only through a balanced use of prayers, songs, prayer sticks, and sand paintings: this is why the search for ritual knowledge is so essential in Navajo thought.

[3] Since gifts of ritual clothing occur so universally in myths of transformation, it is reasonable to assume that this theme reflects a strong psychic need; we might, therefore, adopt the envisioning of new garments for a sub-personality as a useful therapeutic technique.

[4] These rescue him but then offer him magic food with the intention of turning him into a bushrat like themselves. The youth politely refuses the food after Wind God whispers a warning into his ear. From a regression therapy perspective, this may be analogous to guiding a client past the dangers of succumbing to poisonous self-pity or guilt.

[5] Their own is painted on a cloud but because they fear abuses if such a paradoxically “permanent” form is entrusted to humans, the bears instruct the youth to study the design so that he can later reproduce it in colored sands, pollen, dried petals, etc.

[6] This might be seen as analogous to powerful sub-personalities from former lives who are reluctant to let go of their greed, obsessions, manipulative ploys, and the like. Interestingly, in Mountain Way, confrontational heroics with the serpents would not have helped the youth; only when Wind God tells the snakes how much the Navajo has suffered, and how exhausted and frightened he is, are they willing to help. Similarly, when an “evil” sub-personality is allowed limited access to a client’s memory banks and can really feel the pain, I have found that encouraging a belated sense of fair play greatly facilitates the sub-personality’s letting-go process.

[7] Prayer sticks, generally no more than a few inches high, are painted with ritual designs and combined with offerings such as native tobacco, honey, pollen, shells, and feathers. Cynical westerners may see such offerings as “bribes” but actually the offering of a prayer stick is not so much coercive as, rather, indicative of one’s willingness to enter into a reciprocal transformative relationship with the deities, which itself reflects the deepest and most dynamic aspect of hozho.