The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range

Hunting Culture Cosmology

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Hunting Culture Cosmology, Animal Ceremonialism, and the Numic

The dominant religious figure or “immortal” of many hunting peoples is known as “the master or mistress of the game animals” (Harrod, 2000:47-60; Hultkrantz, 1961, 1987b; Lee and Daly, 1999; Miller, 1983:69). The idea is that every culturally important animal has its own supernatural ruler. That guardian protects the animal and offers or withholds them from the hunters. This deity is an enigmatic animal spirit often larger than ordinary creatures. The animal master ensured success in the hunt.

Information on the animal master is represented among the Numic in Ute and Southern Paiute beliefs. Both groups believed that a being, living high in the mountains, was able to transform into a bird (Raven) and controlled all animals (including bears, mountain sheep, elk, and deer). This “high” god was also associated with lower divinities that provided men with game (Harris, 1940:56; Hultkrantz, 1986; Steward, 1941:230).

Numic mythology makes reference to a number of instances where game animals were reborn after their bones were properly treated and their supernatural power harnessed for increase of animals. Older Numic animal ceremonialism had been largely lost and replaced or reinterpreted to suit the dominant religious pattern of the shamanistic vision complex (Hultkrantz, 1987a:63, 1987b). The Plains ritual of the Sun Dance is not of Shoshone origin but became the central ritual for some Numic groups. That ritual features a bison head on a pole representing game animals and all types of food and nourishment. The Sun Dance ceremony originally was a ritual that safeguarded the progress of the coming year by recapitulating and dramatically presenting the creation story.

A recurrent Numic myth mentions the release of game animals by Coyote. Coyote opens the pen or cave where Wolf has kept the wild animals and they run away to his dismay. In some variations it was a deity with both bird and human qualities, Crow and his people, who had the animals secluded, and it was Weasel that let them go. The deed, in some variants, is specifically of benefit to the Numic. In other variants it is Coyote that reshapes the animals and adds mouths, ears, and eyes (Lowie, 1924:62-64; Steward, 1936:372-373; Thompson, 1929:292-293). Coso drawings often (n = 700+ elements) depict pattern-bodied animal-people (Figure 2). These images are sometimes interpreted as shamans in costume. Yet it is also plausible that these highly decorated images represent central supernatural figures from Coso religious lore (cf. Francis and Loendorf, 2002:120-122; contra Keyser and Whitley, 2006). Francis and Loendorf have argued that somewhat similar interior-lined body form glyphs in the Dinwoody area of the Sheep-eaters of Wyoming and Montana are equivalent to key mythological figures in Numic cosmology. Specifically their interior design is thought to have referents to the skeletal system and the concepts of death and ancestor worship. As such a “Lord of the Dead” immortal could have been the being represented in the Dinwoody area and perhaps in some cases in the Cosos. Alternatively the Coso figures could symbolize the Animal Master.

The claw-like bird feet, talons, typical of nearly half the Coso figures (n = 200+) are consistent with the Animal Master analog (Figure 2). These avian figures often carry hunting equipment- an atlatl in one hand and dart foreshafts in the other (cf. Grant et al., 1968:37, middle figures). Other similar Coso figures have darts or arrow points projecting from their heads or shoulders (Garfinkel and Pringle, 2004, Figure 4). This association of hunting paraphernalia would further support the Animal Master referent. Talons are consistent with a “sky god,” who soars into and inhabits the Upper World (cf. Francis and Loendorf, 2002:121, Figure 6.36). Birds are bipedal singers, often messengers from the spirit world, and songs are linked with power (Laird, 1980). Birds are also a metaphor for power (a central Numic religious concept known as puha) and supernatural birds conferred great power. Certain birds (the Eagle) were particularly important sources for success in hunting (Miller, 1983:73). The Coso animal-people figures are rendered in hundreds of different yet grossly similar forms (Maddock, n.d.). This variability was initially problematic. Yet these personifications may have been intentionally rendered in an indeterminate form. Laird (1980:82) indicates that such deities “shimmer” between forms, possessing an iridescent quality “morphing” about, subject to their own whims.


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