Archaeological Resources Pomo Cosmology
The Supernatural Frontier in Pomo Cosmology
E. Breck Parkman,
Senior State Archaeologist
paper comes from the California
State Parks Web Site. It examines Pomoan cosmology,
the supernatural landscape, and the special portals through
which individuals accessed the other world. Of special importance
are the boundaries, which delineated the cultural and supernatural
realms, thus creating a supernatural frontier in Pomoan
cosmology. As will be seen, the frontier manifested itself
cognitively in a number of areas, including rock, water,
elevation, menstruation, and death.
Like most California Indians,
the Pomo perceived a tripartite division of their world.
There were Upper and Lower Worlds filled with supernatural
power, and a Middle World in which people lived. Structurally,
the Pomo's Middle World landscape was comprised of communal
lands, which I refer to as community, and wild lands, which
I refer to as wilderness. By community, I mean those lands,
which were immediately adjacent to a village, in other words,
the village "fringe," the village itself, and
the primary roads which linked the different villages. Therefore,
community represents those lands, which were considered
to be under the direct control of people and their cultural
laws. On the other hand, wilderness refers to those lands
which the Pomo did not consider to be under their direct
control, but rather subject to natural and/or supernatural
Pomo thought of the village as being the "Inside,"
and the wilderness as being the "Outside." The
literal meaning for "Inside" was "inside
the house," while the word for "house" usually
connoted "village" as well. Thus, the Inside was
another way of saying inside the community, or of the culture.
On the other hand, the Outside generally denoted the wilderness,
the wild areas to which one went for hunting and gathering
wild foods. Thus, within Pomoan cosmology, there existed
a dualism, which contrasted the concepts of culture and
nature, domestic and wild, and community and wilderness.
In the village, power was of
a communal nature, and it required elaborate rituals, which
combined the energies of numerous individuals to import
supernatural intervention from the Outside. In the wilderness,
however, personal power could be had alone, by way of supernatural
Although power resided outside
culture, the supernatural frontier extended out of the wilderness
and into one's community. The supernatural realm interfaced
with the Pomo community in two main areas: menstruation
mystery and power of menstruation suggested to the Pomo
a contact point with the supernatural realm. Supernatural
power dwelled within or periodically visited the adult women
of a community. Menstrual power was seemingly viewed as
"pure" power, and thus difficult to control. The
Pomo restricted women during their menses so as to prevent
injury to both the affected women and those around them.
offered another contact point with the supernatural. Upon
death, the ghost of the deceased prepared for the journey
to the land of the dead. During that time, the ghost lingered
around the corpse. Those coming in contact with the corpse
risked exposure to the raw power of the supernatural. The
Pomo developed elaborate controls to protect themselves
from the dangers associated with mourning and the disposal
of the dead. Mourners and undertakers alike restricted their
activities and diets for days or even months following a
loved one's death. Hunting and the eating of meat were especially
prohibited during this period.
Although a form of communal or corporate power dwelled within
the village, real power resided in the wilds. The wilderness
abounded in power. It was manifested in the rocks, springs,
animals, and trees. Power was sought after by some individuals,
and it occasionally came to those who did not seek it.
Outside, an individual in search of power found an appropriate
portal through which to access the supernatural world. These
portals were geographic features, such as rock crevices,
caves, springs, pools, and mountain tops. Rocks appear to
have served as the primary frontier separating the actual
and supernatural worlds. Passage through rock was an important
aspect of shamanism throughout western North America.
A Pomo ritual which may have included movement through rock
involved the ethnographically-documented petroglyph boulders
known as "baby rocks." The spirits of future children
dwelled in these rocks, and were born to parents who followed
the proper ritual. The wilderness was full of power capable
of affecting human fertility, and certain springs, trees,
gopher mounds, rocks, mud, and snakes could cause pregnancy.
In addition, a female effigy made of clay, and called "Earth
Woman," was given to sterile women to insure conception.
Apparently, the powers affecting fertility resided beneath
the surface of Mother Earth.
A childless woman fasted for
four days before visiting the baby rock alone. The fact
that she went alone, and after fasting, thus assuring sensory
deprivation, suggests that she may have sought an altered
state of consciousness at the petroglyph boulder. If the
spirits of the unborn children resided in the rock, the
carving of petroglyphs on it may have allowed one entrance
into the rock for the purpose of negotiation.
Cupules and grooves are examples
of elemental forms, and in many cases, incidental petroglyphs,
and thus suggest an association with rituals focused on
altered states of consciousness. In other words, the production
of cupules and grooves may have been the incidental result
of rituals involving rhythmic pounding and/or grooving actions
on rock. Archaeological site C-411, located on Ward Creek
in Kashaya territory, is an example of a site perhaps used
in such fashion. This site consists of a boulder bearing
parallel linear arrangements of cupules and grooves. Numerous
pitted boulders occur throughout Pomo territory. Many of
these boulders suggest use by shamans and others intent
on finding power.
Shamans also may have produced many of the curvilinear and
rectilinear petroglyphs found in Pomo territory. Indeed,
concentric circles, grids, and star designs, which are all
examples of basic phosphene patterns, may represent the
entoptic or "behind the eye" phenomena of altered
states of consciousness.
A neuropsychological model
developed by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson offers
a methodological tool for testing the posited relationship
between shamanism and rock art. The model defines seven
recurring entoptic forms, and seven principles by which
the entoptics are perceived in an altered state of consciousness.
Pomo sites are especially suited to discussions of entoptic
associations. MEN- 2200, known as the Keystone site, is
an isolated schist boulder literally covered with petroglyphs,
many of which resemble entoptic forms. MEN-793, known as
the Feliz Creek site, is another schist boulder characterized
by entoptic forms, especially concentric circles. Recently,
I used the neuropsychological model to illustrate MEN-793's
association with shamanism.
Many examples of entoptic-like
rock art elements occur in close association with crevices
and unusual rock features. There is some suggestion that
a shaman entered the supernatural world by way of the crevices
and other such features while undergoing an altered state
of consciousness, and that the petroglyphs found there signify
the experience or mark the entrance as such. I will describe
two examples of such phenomena
LAK-30 is located on Slater Island at the southeastern corner
of Clear Lake, in Anderson Marsh State Historic Park. The
approximately 30-acre island represents one of several loci
of the ethnographic village of Koi. When viewed from the
south, Slater Island looks like a lush green mound rising
from the marsh. A dark ridge of rock cuts across the island,
rising to a height of about 7 meters. Near the center of
the ridge is an area appearing red from a distance. The
color is derived from lichen growing on the rocks. A dark
area immediately below the red is the entrance into a deep
crevice. A closer inspection of this location reveals several
pitted boulders adjacent to the crevice, and thirteen parallel
red lines painted on an exposed vertical face above and
slightly to one side of the crevice.
LAK-424 is located near the southern shore of Clear Lake,
in Clear Lake State Park. The archaeological site consists
of a multi-component seasonal occupation site located immediately
below a rocky cliff face. On the cliff, approximately 10
meters above the valley floor, there are several small rockshelters
and numerous crevices. Carved petroglyphs are found on the
interior wall of a small shelter, and a red concentric circle
pictograph is located on an exposed vertical face adjacent
to a crevice.
Water was another aspect of the supernatural frontier. Most
Pomo rock art sites occur adjacent to or near water sources.
There is a strong suggestion that some of the occurrences
are associated with fishing rituals. Often, the petroglyph
boulders are located within streams at narrow points, as
true at MEN-1942, or near deep holes as at MEN-1800 on the
Russian River. On the Sonoma Coast in Kashaya territory,
a number of pitted boulders occur at the immediate edge
of the coastal terrace overlooking the ocean.
Water served as a portal to
the supernatural world. Shamans ritually bathed in ponds
and pools in order to supplement or maintain their powers,
while the immersion of powerful objects, such as the charmstones
of a recently deceased shaman, helped control the objects'
dangerous powers. Connection with the supernatural also
is indicated by the Pomo belief in Bagil, the supernatural
water monster who inhabited springs and punished taboo violators,
especially women in violation of menstrual restrictions.
Elevation was a third aspect
of the supernatural frontier. Traditionally, most cultures
have had a fascination with mountaintops and elevated points.
For many, god is closer at hand in high places. The Pomo
ethnographic record indicates that ritual training usually
occurred in the "hills" away from the villages.
Mountains were perceived as holy and powerful places, such
as in the case of Mount Konocti, from whose slopes angelica
and other medicinal plants were gathered. Some of the Pomo
petroglyph sites occur in elevated locations, such as a
pitted boulder at SON-1514 in Kashaya territory. In several
Pomo ceremonies, ritual participants, including those swinging
bullroarers to attract the spirits of the supernatural realm,
positioned themselves atop the roundhouse, which appears
to have symbolized the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds.
There is some suggestion that the roof of the roundhouse
served as a ritual mountaintop during these ceremonies.
Additional references to elevation and its connection with
the supernatural are found throughout the ethnographic record,
including Pomo creation stories, and references to birds
and the use of their feathers, and whistles fashioned from
their bones, in numerous ceremonies. Birds, especially the
condor and eagle, were perceived as liminal creatures capable
of connecting the Middle and Upper Worlds, while creatures
such as the serpent, and perhaps the lizard, connected the
Middle and Lower Worlds.
Menstruation was a fourth aspect
of the supernatural frontier. Through their ability to give
birth, women were in constant contact with the supernatural
realm. Anthropologists Edwin and Shirley Ardener have termed
this inherently female contact zone the "wild."
During menstruation, and after giving birth, a woman's contact
with the supernatural was so intense that she was greatly
restricted in her activities and behavior. This was done
to protect both the woman and her community. During the
period of restriction, the woman's power was potent enough
to kill someone by inadvertently looking at them.
Finally, death served to demarcate
the supernatural realm as well. Perhaps no activities were
as common nor as potentially destructive as those which
surrounded death and the ritual disposal of the deceased.
The dead went to live in the land of the dead, which was
itself a part of the supernatural world. Upon death, and
for a period of time afterwards, the ghost of the deceased
lingered about the corpse, and visited the favorite haunts
of its lifetime. Contact with ghosts thus exposed living
members of the community to the supernatural. The Pomo imposed
rigorous restrictions on all those affected by death. The
family of the deceased and those who assisted in disposing
of the corpse, were especially restricted. In essence, however,
the entire community was restricted in one way or another.
conclusion, the ethnographic record indicates that the Pomo
recognized a number of areas where the cultural and supernatural
worlds coalesced. Through the use of structural models developed
by Edwin and Shirley Ardener and Claude Levi-Strauss, and
a neuropsychological model developed by David Lewis-Williams
and Thomas Dowson, it is possible to identify the portals
through which the Pomo accessed the other world. By going
into rock or water, or by climbing higher in elevation,
one intentionally accessed the supernatural. The supernatural
was also accessed naturally by means of menstruation and
death. Whereas intentional access was typically a private
affair of personal consequence, natural access was often
a community affair requiring community regulations. Either
way, the Pomo lived their lives surrounded by a supernatural
world from which they regularly sought protection, intervention,
This Document Copyright © 2008 E. Breck Parkman &
The State of California