The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru


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When a child was born it was not regarded as a member of its gens or of the tribe but simply as a living being coming forth into the universe, whose advent must be ceremonially announced in order to assure it an accepted place among the already existing forms. This ceremonial announcement took the form of an expression of the Omaha belief in the oneness of the universe through the bond of a common life power that pervaded all things in nature animate and inanimate. . . . [The details of the first ceremony introducing the child into the world, on the fourth day after birth, are not clear owing to the death of the priests who had charge of it. The second ceremony was called "turning the child."] All children, both boys and girls, passed through this ceremony, which is a survival of that class of ceremonies belonging to the lowest, or oldest, stratum of tribal rites; it is directly related to the cosmic forces—the wind, the earth, and the fire. Through this ceremony all the children who had reached the period when they could move about unaided, could direct their own steps, were symbolically "sent into the midst of the winds"—that element essential to life and health; their feet were set upon the stone—emblem of long life upon the earth and of the wisdom derived from age; while the "flames," typical of the life-giving power, were invoked to give their aid toward insuring the capacity for a long, fruitful, and successful life within the tribe. Through this ceremony the child passed out of that stage in its life wherein it was hardly distinguished from all other living forms into its place as distinctively a human being, a member of its birth gens, and through this to a recognized place in the tribe. As it went forth its baby name was thrown away, its feet were clad in new moccasins made after the manner of the tribe, and its nikie name was proclaimed to all nature and to the assembled people.

The significance of the new moccasins put on the child will appear more clearly by the light of the following custom, still observed in families in which all the old traditions of the tribe are conserved: When moccasins are made for a little baby, a small hole is cut in the sole of one. This is done in order that "ifa messenger from the spirit world should come and say to the child, ’I have come for you,’ the child could answer, ’I cannot go on a journey—my moccasins are worn out!’" A similar custom obtains in the Oto tribe. A little hole is cut in the first pair of moccasins made for a child. When the relatives come to see the little one they examine the moccasins, and, seeing the hole, they say: "Why, he (or she) has worn out his moccasins; he has traveled over the earth!" This is an indirect prayer that the child may live long. The new (whole) moccasins put on the child at the close of the ceremony of introducing it into the tribe constitute an assurance that it is prepared for the journey of life and that the journey will be a long one. . . .

The next stage in the life of the Omaha youth was marked by the rite known by the name of nonzhinzhon. The literal meaning of the word is "to stand sleeping"; it here implies that during the rite the person stands as if oblivious of the outward world and conscious only of what transpires within himself, his own mind. This rite took place at puberty, when the mind of the child had "become white." This characterization was drawn from the passing of night into day. It should be remembered that in native symbolism night is the mother of day; so the mind of the newborn child is dark, like the night of its birth; gradually it begins to discern and remember things as objects seen in the early dawn; finally it is able to remember and observe discriminatingly; then its mind is said to be "white," as with the clear light of day. At the period when the youth is at the verge of his conscious individual life, is "old enough to know sorrow," it was considered time that through the rite nonzhinzhon he should enter into personal relations with the mysterious power that permeates and controls all nature as well as his own existence. . . .

In preparation the youth was taught the following prayer, which was to be sung during the ordeal of the fast. It was known to every youth in the tribe, no matter what his gens. This prayer must be accepted, therefore, as voicing a fundamental belief of the entire Omaha tribe. The music is in keeping with the words, being unmistakably an earnest invocation. . . .

Wakonda thethu wahpathin atonhe Wakonda thethu wahpathin atonhe

Literal translation: Wakonda, the permeating life of nature and of man, the great mysterious power; thethu, here; wahpathin, poor, needy; atonhe, he stands, and I am he—a form of expression used to indicate humility. Wakonda! here, needy, he stands, and I am he.

This prayer was called Wakonda gikon (gigikon, "to weep from loss," as that of kindred, the prefix gi indicating possession; gikon, therefore, is to weep from the want of something not possessed, from conscious insufficiency and the desire for something that could bring happiness or prosperity). This prayer and the aspect of the suppliant, standing alone in the solitary place, with clay on his head, tears falling from his eyes, and his hands lifted in supplication, were based on anthropomorphic ideas concerning Wakonda. The Omaha conceived that the appeal from one so young and untried, who showed poverty and the need of help, could not fail to move the power thus appealed to. . . .

Four days and nights the youth was to fast and pray provided he was physically able to bear so long a strain. No matter how hungry he became, he was forbidden to use the bow and arrows put into his hands by his father when he left his home for this solitary test of endurance. When he fell into a sleep or a trance, if he saw or heard anything, that thing was to become a special medium through which the youth could receive supernatural aid. Generally with the sight of the thing came an accompanying cadence. This cadence was the song or call by which the man might summon aid in his time of need. The form, animate or inanimate, which appeared to the man was drawn toward him, it was believed, by the feeling of pity. The term used to express this impelling of the form to the man was ithaethe, meaning "to have compassion on." If the youth at this time saw a buffalo, it would be said: Te ithaethe, "the buffalo had compassion on him"; if he heard the thunder: Ingthun ithaethe, "the thunder had compassion." The vision, with its sacred call or song, was the one thing that the Omaha held as his own, incapable of loss so long as life and memory lasted. It was his personal connection with the vast universe, by which he could strengthen his spirit and his physical powers. He never gave the details of his vision to anyone, nor was it even casually spoken of; it was too sacred for ordinary speech.

When going forth to fast, the youth went silently and unobserved. No one accosted him or gave him counsel or direction. He passed through his experience alone, and alone he returned to his father’s lodge. No one asked him of his absence, or even mentioned the fact that he had been away.1

1Gutmann, B.n/an/an/an/an/a, , 254.

2 Gutmann, B., Die Stammeslehren der Dschagga, 1: 541.

3 [In Mexico and Peru, apparently under priestly influence, a sacrificial consecration is reported involving ablation or circumcision, and the present circumcision of some neighboring tribes was presumably influenced from that source:

"Many tribes believed that circumcision denoted a symbolical sacrifice of sexuality, among others the Nicaraguans, and Yucatecs, the Guancuras, Hares and Dog-Ribs, and certain tribes of the Orinoco."—Spence, L.n/an/an/an/an/a, "Celibacy" in Hasting’s Spence, .

1 Fletcher, A. C., and F. la Flesche, "The Omaha Tribe," Bur. Amer. Ethnol., Ann. Rep., 27: 115–131, passim.


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Chicago: "The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru," The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: . "The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru." The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru' in The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from