One of the Twin Gods of War [Ahayuta]

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Native American: Zuni

Created by Sun Father to protect the first Zuni from their enemies and help them make their home in the Middle Place, the twin gods of war are central figures in Zuni mythology and religion. Their umbilical cord symbolizes the axis mundi, the center or navel of the world, and their lightning powers of destruction continue to serve the Zuni and all peoples. Each year they are accorded special honor at the winter solstice ceremonies, at the end of which their effigies are carried to a shrine at the top of Thunder Mountain. As the effigies deteriorate, their powers slowly ebb

Artist: Unknown Carving: pine wood (pinus ponderosa), with olivella shells, feathers, and earth pigments Height: 30 in. (76.2 cm.) Circa 1875-1900 CE Site: USA: New Mexico Location: Germany: Berlin (West), Museum f?kerkunde

The figure is one of a pair representing the Ahayuta, the War Twins. The bullet-shaped figure is made up of a slender, limbless, reddish-brown body and a sharply carved, abstractly rendered face. The long nose seems to be an extension of a white cap or helmet. Two sets of five fingers are incised directly upon the body. A separate ribbed and serrated carved cylinder has been inserted laterally into the center of the figure. The face is painted bilaterally in blue and green; feathers have been attached to the nose and neck. Around the neck is a string of olivella shells. The helmetlike top is surmounted by a carved wooden lightning-arrow. The bottom of the figure is flat and its back is smooth-carved, with only minor detailing.

Cultural Commentary

These figures are among the most highly revered and powerful elements in Zuni religion. They possess enormous powers, and they can be deadly and devastating or beneficent and kindly. Because they are held in great awe, they are never impersonated as are, for example, the intermediary spirits called kachinas. Images of the war gods are created anew each year, for use in two major ceremonies: the initiation of new members into the society of priests, an event that is held every four years and that celebrates both the martial and religious aspects of Zuni life; and the annual winter-solstice rituals. Since it is believed that these awesome powers affect not only the Zuni but everyone who comes into contact with them, the Zuni are uneasy when they see the Ahayuta on display in museums or collectors' homes.

The origin of the War Twins is bound up with the origins of the Zuni, who regard the pair as part of the creation story, and several accounts of their birth and adventures are retold during the solstice rites: With the beginning of the world, the Zuni people moved from place to place, seeking a home. When they finally came to the area that would become their permanent dwelling place, they had to face many hostile forces. To aid and protect them, Sun Father created the War Twins and endowed them with special destructive powers. Through their help, the Zuni overcame their enemies and made a home, called Hepatina ("the middle place"). There they live today, protected still by the war gods, whose great powers aid all peoples everywhere.

Winter solstice observances, various forms of which are celebrated in every Pueblo tribe, mark the yearly cycle. It is a time for world renewal, the restructuring of life forces, dedication to religious belief, and reaffirmation of faith. Newly built homes are blessed by the Shalako, and masked kachinas appear in the villages to hear the prayers of the people, entertain them with dancing, and then carry their messages and requests back to the Above Ones. As much a joyous as a solemn time, the solstice also calls for feasting and open-house hospitality. During the solstice ceremonies, elaborately carved and painted altars are constructed and set up in the men's lodges to serve as the focus for the rituals. Images of the War Twins are placed on the altar, where they may observe the ceremonies, and are fed ritually with sacred corn. At the close of the rites they are carried off to the shrine dedicated to them on the top of neighboring Towayaalane, or Thunder Mountain. There they are allowed to deteriorate.

The elegant and unusual form of this class of sculpture has made Ahayuta pieces one of the favorite subjects of enthusiasts of tribal art. The figure shown here clearly had an impact on Paul Klee, whose Mask of Fear (1932) seems to have been painted after he visited the Museum f?kerkunde in Berlin. Klee's figure even has the feather in the nostril.

Archetypal Commentary

The Ahayuta figures represent a merging of two important symbol systems: that of twins and that of the war god. The very earliest artifacts, deriving from Paleolithic cultures, reveal already the symbolism of doubleness, which lies behind the meaning of twins as well as other kinds of doubles. Prehistoric artists used images of doubles to indicate potency or abundance. In the art of prehistoric Europe, this is evident in the frequent use of double images of caterpillars, crescents, eggs, seeds, spirals, snakes, phalli, and even goddesses. The same effect is achieved also by doubling the lines on a figurine. Neolithic images of the goddesses are marked often with two dashes over the hips, between the breasts, or on the pubic triangle. Double-headed gods and goddesses as well as twins may well express in a similar fashion the intensification of power or bounty.

In the symbolism of the War Twins, we have a doubling of the vitality available for protection of the cosmic order. Unlike the creator god and the so-called fertility deities, the war god is not preoccupied with the origins of life or with the matrix that nourishes life, that is, the cosmos. Instead, the warrior god has access to special powers of aggression that enable him to keep giants, demons, and evil spirits at bay. The realm of this protective deity is very often the atmosphere (as opposed to the sky or the earth), where he will govern the lightning, the thunder, and even the rain. The Ahayuta also have a special connection with the earth, expressed by their protruding navels and their shrine on top of Thunder Mountain. Both mountain and navel are symbols of a center to the cosmos; in modern psychological language, one might say that the protective forces that guard the integrity of the ego are supported by the center of the personality, that is, the Self.

Of special interest is the connection between the Zuni war gods and the winter solstice. Here, as in numerous other cultures, the winter solstice moment when the sun is reborn, that is, when days begin to grow longer - celebrated as a new year. It is a dangerous time: the old year has grown feeble, depleted of energy. In order for the new creation to take place and for the new order to be filled with energy, a return to the precosmic state of chaos is required. It is in the undifferentiated realm of potentiality that new life emerges as a possibility. The Zuni myth suggests that the protective forces must likewise be renewed at this time.


Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni readstuff. New York, 1920.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1958.

Lincoln, Bruce, and C. Scott Littleton. "War and Warriors." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 15. New York, 1987.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Societies, and Ceremonies. Washington, D.C., 1904.