the meanings are abstract

Chumash Sky and Earth Deities and Cosmological Rock Art


Chumash cosmology depicted on high mountain cave pictographs, they perceived the stars as powerful, competitive sky beings that affected human life and the balance of the universe.


Chumash Cosmology Painted on Rock

Though the Chumash culture persists in disparate corners of the south-central coast of California, the words of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1925 still ring true: “There is no group in California that once held the importance of the Chumash concerning which we know so little.” Most scholars, however, have surmised the remarkable pictographs found in remote caves, hidden crevasses, and massive rock formations from the Channel Islands to the Santa Barbara and Ventura backcountry, may have been associated with the ritual use of the sacred plant Datura, which can induce spirit-helper “‘atishwinic” dreams and visions. They might have been painted by healers and seers, members of the selective school Near Mt. Pinos called ‘Antap, charged with conserving Chumash culture while the missions down on the coast dismantled it. Of course, such speculation is really beside the point.

“And those who die – how do they come to be born again?” asked one of the old men assembled. The wise man who was their leader answered, “They follow the sun.”

With the help of oral narratives collected from Chumash informants between 1912 and 1928, the cosmology of the Chumash has come alive. Myths illustrate the (middle) world humans live in, and their interface with worlds above and below. We are told of the spirit’s journey to the land of the dead, Shimilaqsha, on an island out to sea. The Sky People (Sun, Golden Eagle named Sl’ow, Morning Star and Sky Coyote) rule the light and the Nunashush, or creatures from the other world, fly, run and crawl when night falls.

It is less important to understand the specific representation of what the paintings depict. We can only marvel at their existence in remote canyons populated by mountain lions and bobcat, the soaring few condor and the many cawing raven there watching. Hours or days of travel, drinking from creeks, picking sage and tasting lemonade-berries, to find them in their grandeur, often worn by wind, singed by wildfire, molded by bacteria and dust, scratched and painted over by heedless fools, and one locked away with a fence.

STORY: Self Healing with Chumash Native Plant Medicine

Cave paintings with the sun
This is meant as a cosmological concept image.

Reincarnation – A Chumash Narrative

Silverio Qonoyo of Santa Inez, whose ancestors were all from Santa Rosa Island, once told Fernando Librado Kinsepawit the following story. The old men who understood such things once gathered to discuss he who watches over us: Sun. Sun sees everything.

“And those who die – how do they come to be born again?” asked one of that assembly. The wise man who was their leader answered, “They follow the sun. Every day they enter the portal of the sun. All over the world they die when the time comes for them to do so. He who dies will resurrect with the same feelings in his heart, but different in one respect — color.”

There was a sand dollar in that place that was lying mouth down, and the old man showed it to his companions and said, “Look at this, here in the middle.” (Between the tip of the middle petal of the flower and the rim.) “The sun rises from the east and goes to the west, and all the spirits follow him. They leave their bodies. The sun reaches the door and enters, and the souls enter too. When it is time for the sun to fulfill his duty he emerges, for he lights the abysses with his eye, and all who are in the dusk resurrect.”

From Thomas Blackburn: December’s Child, A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives, Collected by J.P. Harrington, University of California Press, 1975.

Crystals in the Sky – Rock Art as Astronomical Storytelling

A book review of Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay’s Crystals in the Sky, An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art, Ballena Press, 1978, by E. Hadingham in the Journal of the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy supplement stated:

The Chumash were skillful observers of the night sky who developed myths to explain the conjunctions and relative motions of the celestial bodies. The study reveals the major drive of astronomer-priests was not scientific understanding of the sky, but prediction and justification of Earth events. Celestial objects were cast in the role of powerful, competitive sky beings. Their struggles in the heavens reflected conflicts and insecurities the priests themselves experienced. The behavior of the sky beings was believed to affect the outcome of human affairs, and, indeed, the balance of the entire universe. These deities were frequently indifferent to man; for example Mars was identified as an aloof and sometimes threatening being, invested with awesome supernatural power.

As the dangerous giant condor Hol-hol, Mars and its retrograde motion probably inspired the Chumash belief that the bird-deity could travel quickly across the Upper World and seek out missing persons or objects. The Chumash also characterized the twin aspects of Venus (Evening and Morning Star) as separate beings with opposed benevolent and malevolent characteristics. Such details vividly convey the difference between our own habits of systematically classifying astronomical events.

Santa Barbara, Painted Cave, Chumash Indians, rock art, California
Chumash keepers of the knowledge are thought to have made these paintings to influence supernatural beings and forces to intervene in human affairs. We can only guess what these mysterious symbols meant to their creators, but they may represent mythic figures, natural phenomena, or abstract concepts. Photo By Jack Eidt.

Following is an idealized 1976-oriented vision of the Chumash people of the coast and mountains of South-Central California. Forgive stereotypic depictions and simplistic search for meaning, as they had the highest intention of the era…

Rock Paintings of the Chumash Indians

The Cave Paintings of the Chumash Indians – Film by Steve Penny circa 1976 about the Chumash rock art found in the greater Santa Barbara area.

Old Woman Momoy (Datura wrightii)

Momoy was an old woman who lived no one knows where. She said to her grandson, “You are a good hunter. Now I’m going to give you a medicine so you may be braver and more courageous and manlier,” she said.

Momoy took a bowl and added water, then washed her hands in it. She gave it to her grandson to drink. He drank the water and became dizzy. “I’m sleepy, grandmother!” he said. “Go to bed and take careful note of what you dream,” she said. The boy went to bed and slept for three days, and when he awoke the old woman asked him what he dreamed. He told her he hadn’t dreamed anything. “Well, grandson, I’m going to wash my hands again,” she said. “Grandmother, wash better so I can sleep longer,” he replied. But she answered, “I’m only going to wash up to my elbows.” “Grandmother, why don’t you take a bath so that I can drink the water and sleep for ten days?” he asked. And the old woman answered, “No, if I took a bath, you’d turn into a devil or die; just up to my elbows is enough.”

She took the bowl and washed and the boy drank it. “Grandmother, I’m sleepy,” he said. “Go to bed and pay attention to what you dream,” she replied. He slept for six days and when he awoke, he said, “Ah, grandmother, I’ve slept a long time, but I didn’t dream anything. Now what should I do?” “Keep on hunting,” she said. “You are a good hunter, grandson.”

The boy went out with his bow into the hills, and he came across a sleeping animal. He returned and told Momoy what he had found, and she said, “Oh, grandson, be very careful with that animal. It is called a bear and it is very fierce. You couldn’t kill him. That animal is very powerful and must be respected.” “Well, I’m going to get him,” the boy said.

From Thomas Blackburn: December’s Child, A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives, Collected by J.P. Harrington, University of California Press 1975.

Updated 9 January 2024

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  3. mike ritter

    Does Chumash tradition include any myth or narratives regarding the mountain lion?

    • Jack Eidt

      Thanks for your comment.

      Mountain Lions, among other animals, were considered “Pets of the Sun,” in Chumash cosmology


      Regardless of whether or not the universe ever had a beginning, the Chumash perceived a world that was five-tiered with three main divisions. The human world was in the middle of the three primary parts, and was called Itiashup, with Mount Piños Iwihinmu as its center. Humans themselves likely originated from this place.

      Below Itiashup was C’oyinashup, the lower world, which was the realm of powerful and dangerous monsters called the nunashush.

      The world above Itiashup was filled with wonderful and immensely powerful, though potentially dangerous, “sky people” including Sun, his daughters, Moon, Morning Star, and Shnilemun Sky Coyote, among many others. This upper world, called Mishupashup, was itself a model of the whole world, with two worlds above it.

      Sun’s name in the Chumash sacred language was Kakunupmawa, meaning “the radiance of the child of the winter solstice.” The dawn light of each new day is Kakunupmawa’s breath expressed as a sigh. Bears, rattlesnakes, deer, mountain lions and ravens were the “pets of Sun.”

      The Sky People were probably the inventors of masuqtskumu, the Chumash calendar, spanning twelve months in one year. Mishupashup, supported in the sky upon the wings of the giant golden eagle Slo’w, was also home to other powerful beings who could be seen as “planets, and significant stars and constellations.” Above this world was Alapayashup, and above that, Alapay. Alapay was a mysterious place where the solitary and nondescript Xoy resided alone, leaving his world only to attend celebrations in Mishupashup.

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  5. Great stuff. I came to look at the rock art. I also am looking into learning any (so called) Myths. I Hate the word myth, as do any Native of any culture I have spoke with. The stories and legends go back in many case thousands of years with no changes. I don’t believe in dark matter or dark energy. Our visible universe is 99.9 % plasma. The so called void of space is now known to contain plasma in dark mode. I 1st got started on my present journey after watching a nova video on dark energy, and knew it was bs and I could prove it wrong. Observations and lab experiments tell us more than math that keeps needing knew explaintions and thing like dark energy and dark matter to explain the flaws in the initial wrong math. The call plasma gas clouds? It is shete ignorance of fact that plasma is a great electrical conducter.
    As I started to try find way to prove DE was wrong. I stumbled onto plasma and electric universe proponents and groups. The best is wal Thornhill, Dave Talbolt, Don Scott, and a many other PHD and Emeritus in astrophysics, physics, copsritive mythology, geology, cosmology, Thunderbolts on youtube known as the electric universe EU model and Dr. Anthony Peratt from Los Alamos Nuclear lab leader of plasma universe model.
    They both are much more real than modern consensus cosmology today which ignores electricity in space.
    The art work contained some of the Chumash cosmology i.e. what they saw in the sky. Imagine lightning bolting from Mars, Venus, and Sun at various times in history. The end of last ice age was amazing fast lightning bolts 1,000 + today’s. Melting ice sheets, rock turning to glass vitrification, fulgermites one the Indians in SW US say the sky people made it is called ship rock. Hundreds of feet high.
    You know of the squatter man? It looks like chumash the legs bend up from knee, this is a plasma Instability that is carved in rock in over 300 countrys. Often you will see donuts or dots each side of waiste. The more north or south people where it looked a little different. Also the ladder looking things that is another plasma effect found in arc mode. Lightning is Plasma in arc mode. Saint elms fire is Plasma in glow mode.
    The gypsum weed I was asked to cook for a friend when I was 18. I wouldn’t touch it but many of my friends did. They didn’t draw stick men or ladders, but their stories are a trip, one guy left society the guy I cooked it for. He lived in Laguna beach mountains for 1 year than northern California wilderness for next 5 or more. He came back to society but he is a little different as a result of using gypsum weed. It can kill or make you go blind esp the seeds.
    So when anthropologists class it was phsycodelics that made them paint stick men I say ignorance must be bliss, but I don’t want to be a part of it. The Chumash flood myth shows they have been here since end of last ice age not since 700 ad?
    These archeologists must be idiots. Sad part is they think of the very people they study are the idiots, children, and drug addicts.
    Perhaps it helps make them feel more intelligent. To me it shows thier ignorance.
    If a native group of people tell you they have lived there 15,000 years +. They likely did.
    I am glad at least some of the stuff at this site includes the natives narrative and stories.
    Trust them.
    Some are stories best called lessons. Others are the best way they could explain what they saw.
    I am sure if it happened today killing 90% or more people and stock men in the sky people would start praying to whatever God they worship today.
    Only a few of us Today (fonally) know what plasma actually is.

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