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Soyaluna (Soyal, Soyala, Sol-ya-lang-eu)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Religious (Hopi)
Date of Observation: December 22
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Plumed Snake, Sun Shield
Related Holidays: Hopi Snake Dance, Winter Solstice, Wuwuchim


Soyaluna is part of the tradition of the Hopi Indians, one of the Native American tribes of North America. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

Soyaluna is related to sun worship, which was common among early peoples. In North America, the Hopi Indians observed the sun rising and setting at different points on the horizon. They also noticed that it reached its most vertical position in the sky in summer and that, when it rose lower in the sky, the weather was cold and the earth was barren. In midsummer, when they imagined the sun close to the earth, the Hopis performed their Snake Dance (see HOPI SNAKE DANCE), asking the snake to bring their request for rain to the gods of the underworld. But when the sun started to withdraw, their attention shifted to preventing it from forsaking them altogether. At the time of the WINTER SOLSTICE in December, they believed that the Sun God had traveled as far from the earth as he ever did. It required the most powerful humans-in this case, the warriors-to persuade the Sun God to turn around and come back to the pueblo. The purpose of the Soyaluna ceremony, which is still held among the Hopi today, is to prevent the disappearance of the sun at the time of year when the days are at their shortest.

Preparations for the ceremony begin with cutting pieces of cotton string and tying feathers and pinyon needles to the end. These are exchanged among friends and relatives during the day, and are sometimes tied in the recipient's hair. When the person who made the feathered string presents it to a friend, he says, "May all the Kachinas grant you your wishes tomorrow"-the Kachinas being the spirits of the Hopi ancestors. Then the giver holds his or her gift vertically and moves it back and forth horizontally. At night, everyone takes a willow branch and attaches all the strings that he or she has received to it. The sticks are carried to the kiva or ceremonial meeting room and placed in the rafters, making the room look like a bower of feathers and pinyon needles.

The main celebration takes place in the kiva. The chief of the resident Hopi society wears a headdress decorated with symbols of rain clouds and carries a shield on which the sun appears. Representatives of other societies carry shields on which a star, an antelope, or other symbolic objects have been drawn. Someone carries an effigy of Palulukonuh, the PLUMED SNAKE , carved from the woody stalk of the agave plant.

The shield bearers enter the kiva and take turns stamping on the sipapu, a shallow hole covered by a board, which is the symbolic entrance to the underworld. Then they arrange themselves into two separate groups-one on the north and one on the south side of the room-and start singing, while the bearer of the SUN SHIELD rushes to one side and then to the other. He is driven back by the shield bearers on both sides, whose movements symbolize the attack of hostile powers on the sun. It is not uncommon for one or more of the participants in this mock struggle to faint from the heat and exhaustion.

On the west wall of the kiva, there is an altar consisting of a stack of corn, two or more ears of which have been contributed by each family in the pueblo, surrounded by stalks and husks. There is also a large gourd with an opening in it, from which the head of the Plumed Snake effigy protrudes. Manipulated by someone behind the altar, the snake's head rises slowly to the center of the opening and makes a roaring noise. The shield bearers throw meal to the effigy and in response to each offering, the snake roars again. During the ceremony the Hopi priest sprinkles sand on the floor of the kiva. When the Sun God's footprints appear in the sand, everyone knows that he has been persuaded to return.

One of the most sacred ceremonies held by the Hopi, Soyaluna means "PrayerOffering Ceremony." It is a time for saying prayers for the New Year and for wishing each other prosperity and health. Soyaluna


Plumed Snake

The effigy of the Plumed (or Plumed-Head) Snake that appears in the kiva during the Soyaluna ceremony is painted black, with a tongue-like appendage protruding from its mouth. The snake symbolizes the evil influences that are driving the sun away. The assembled chiefs make their offerings of prayer and meal to the Plumed Snake to persuade him not to "swallow" the sun, as he does when there is an eclipse.

Sun Shield

The Hopis have their own explanation for why the days grow shorter in winter and longer in summer. They envision the sun as being driven away by hostile forces and then, after a considerable struggle, persuaded to return. Without the Soyaluna ceremony, the sun might never return, bringing the warmer weather that is needed for growing corn and other food. The bearer of the Sun Shield, therefore, represents the Hopi Sun God, whose favors are crucial to the tribe's survival.


Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Tusayan Katcinas and Hopi Altars. Albuquerque: Avanyu Pub., 1990. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Soyaluna (Hopi Soyal Ceremony)

December 22
The Hopi Indians traditionally believed that at the time of the Winter Solstice, the sun had traveled as far from the earth as he ever did. Only the most powerful humans could persuade the sun to turn around and come back to the pueblo. The purpose of Soyaluna, which is still held among the Hopi who live on the mesas of Arizona, is to prevent the disappearance of the sun at the time of year when the days are at their shortest.
The main ceremony takes place in the kiva, a large, circular underground room that can only be entered by climbing down a ladder through a hole in the ceiling. Hopi priests prepare the kiva by scattering cornmeal around the floor. On the west wall of the kiva, a stack of corn serves as an altar, surrounded by stalks and husks. Each family has given some corn to make the altar. At the solstice, everyone assembles in the kiva for rituals designed to bring the sun back for another agricultural year.
Hopi Cultural Center
P.O. Box 67
Second Mesa, AZ 86043
928-734-2401; fax: 928-734-6651
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1058
EncyNatAmerRel-2001, p. 280
EndurHarv-1995, p. 111
RelHolCal-2004, p. 253
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.