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“The Lost White Brother”

by Frank Waters

Frank Waters wrote both fiction and nonfiction about the Southwest. In the 1970s, he spent several years at Pumpkin Seed Point in Hopiland. He wanted to learn all he could about Hopi religion, culture, and mythology. Here he discusses the Hopi legend of Pahana, known to the tribe as the lost white brother.

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The prophesied return of Quetzalcoatl, the white and bearded redeemer of the Toltecs and Aztecs, he who was known to the Mayas as Kukulcan, and to the Hopis as Pahana, was a myth of profound significance common to all Mesoamerica.

Hotevilla on Mesa Top“Hotevilla on Mesa Top,” Wesley Bradfield (Photographer)

According to the Hopi version, their ancestors, upon their Emergence to this new Fourth World, were given four sacred tablets by the guardian spirit of the land. One of these tablets, inscribed with cryptic markings, had a piece broken off from one corner. Masaw, the guardian spirit, explained the meaning of the tablet and its strange markings.

The time would come after the people had migrated to their permanent home, he said, when they would be overcome by a strange people. They would be forced to develop their land and live according to the dictates of a new ruler or they would be treated as criminals and punished. But they were not to resist, warned Masaw. They were to wait for the person who would deliver them. This person was their lost white brother, Pahana (from pasu—salt water), who would come with the people of the rising sun from across the great salt water with the missing corner of the sacred tablet, deliver them from their persecutors, and establish a new and universal brotherhood of man.

The Hopis did not forget this prophecy when they finally concluded their migrations. Every year in Oraibi, on the last day of Soyal, a line was drawn across a six-foot-long stick kept in the custody of the Bear Clan to mark the time for the arrival of Pahana with the people of the rising sun. The Hopis knew where to meet him too.

Oraibi Pueblo, Hopi, Arizona“Oraibi Pueblo, Hopi, Arizona,” Ben Wittick (Photographer)

If he arrived on time, according to the prophecy, the Hopis were to receive him at the bottom of the trail leading up the east side of the mesa to Oraibi. If not, every five years thereafter they were to wait for him at points along the trail designated by prophecy: at Sikya’wa (Yellow Stone), Chekuwa (Pointed Rock), Nahoyungvasa (Cross Fields), and finally at Tawtoma (Where the Sunray Goes Over the Line to the Place) just below Oraibi, if he were twenty years late. Now the stick was filled with markings and the Hopis kept waiting for the predicted return of their redeemer, Pahana.

Far to the south in Mexico the return of the bearded, white god Quetzalcoatl was also anxiously awaited by the Aztecs. The myth of his arising, departure, and return was dear to every heart. Many centuries before he had appeared among the ancient Nahuatl people called Toltecs, “master artists.” He came as a great king to lay the foundations of their culture. He discovered the maize, which he gave to men; taught them to polish precious stones, to weave fabrics with cotton, to make bright-colored robes from the feathers of the quetzal; he taught the priests how to measure time from the movements of the stars, to institute ceremonies, and to fix the days for prayer and sacrifice. He was wise, good, and chaste.

Mummy Cave, Canyon del Muerto, Arizona“Mummy Cave, Canyon del Muerto, Arizona,” David Grant Noble (Photographer)

Yet the day came when evil counselors induced him to get drunk and sleep with a woman, committing carnal sin. In anguish and penitence Quetzalcoatl abandoned his kingdom and immured himself in a stone coffin for four days. Then he went to the shore of the great sea, built a huge fire, and cast himself into the flames. For eight days now he remained underground in the Land of the Dead undergoing purification.

Taking the form of a dog, he collected the bones of a man and a woman and sprinkled upon them his own blood. Thus he redeemed them in order that they could inhabit the earth. Eight days later he made his ascent, being transformed as the Lord of Dawn into the planet Venus, the Morning Star. Thereafter Venus astronomically repeated his ritual journey, first appearing in the western sky, disappearing underground for several days, then reappearing in the eastern sky to reunite with the sun.