Many Worlds

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

The Layered Universe

Bear Bracelet
Jesse Brillon (Haida)

"Hunted by Asdiwal, the bear starts to climb up a vertical ladder. Asdiwal follows it up to the heavens, which he sees as a vast prairie, covered with grass and all kinds of flowers."
—from the Tsimshian Myth of Asdiwal

For Native peoples of both the Northwest Coast and the Southwest, the world we live in is just one of many worlds. As depicted in myths and visual arts, the universe contains additional worlds above and below the human world. Supernatural spirits may move between these layers and intervene in human affairs. Certain powerful humans, such as shamans or medicine men, can also travel to other worlds and contact these spirits.

Nearly all Northwest Coast and Southwest peoples have some sort of underworld—often a watery realm in which all oceans, lakes, and rivers are connected underground. But the number of worlds or layers in the universe varies greatly from one culture to another. The Zuni universe, for example, has four upper worlds and four underworlds, all stacked in layers with our Earth world in the middle.

From Sea to Sky

Northwest Coast cultures divide the universe into a Sky World; a middle, Mortal World, where humans live; and an Undersea World. These bracelets show mythic animal ancestors associated with these three layers: the sculpin of the Undersea World, the bear of the Mortal World; and the thunderbird of the Sky World. Spirits like these can move from one realm to another, and sometimes change form as they do so.

"Universe Within the Bear" Pendant
Jesse Monongya (Navajo)

Symbols of Three Realms

In Southwestern views of the universe, each realm is symbolized by a powerful master spirit. The icon of the underworld is a feathered water serpent so powerful that moving its tail causes earthquakes and floods. The largest land animal is the bear, a symbol of power in the middle realm. In the sky, the eagle is the figure of power, and is linked to the Sun.

These beings can sometimes move between realms. Feathered serpents, for instance, may rise from their homes in the ocean into the sky. On land, their flowing movements evoke water. In the sky, their water symbolism takes a new form—the zigzag shape of lightning that shoots down to Earth, bringing the life-giving rain in its wake.