Zuni Fetishes: History, Spirituality, and Meanings
In the Northwest portion of New Mexico a people called the Shiwi created detailed animal carvings that became known as Zuni Fetishes.
These beautiful bits of Zuni art are far more than nick-knacks, however. They represent a part of a relatively untouched culture with strong spiritual beliefs.
By definition a Fetish is any object that people believe houses a powerful spirit, or in itself has some type of mystical, magical influence.
A Fetish carver looks to a stone or crystal seeking the animal spirit that lives inside. The Zuni tribesman or woman would then carve that animal giving it a kind of life and power for those that carried them.
Once blessed, the Fetish can endow the owner with its traditional traits and characteristics ranging from healing and fertility to transforming perspectives. Some of the most carved stones and crystals used for this purpose include turquoise and onyx.
Zuni Fetishes Origins & History
Zuni mythology tells us that Fetishes were with humans from the very moment we became conscious beings who crawled out from lower realms into the bright light of day.
The sun had Warrior twins who were able to make the swampland firm, but could not keep the beasts of the land from eating humans. As a result, they created bows and arrows crafted from rainbows and lightning and shot the animals.
Each of these creatures became a rock with an animal’s spirit tucked inside. The stones now lay waiting for rediscovery with all their potential blessings.
In Zuni religion there are six sacred directions each of which has a specific color and animal association both prey beasts and guardians.
Below: The earth. Its color is black and the symbolic animal is the mole
West: Color – blue and its animal spirits are the Bear or Coyote (Predator)
South: Color – red and its animal spirits are the Badger or Bobcat (Predator)
East: Color – white and its animal spirit is the Wolf
North: Color – yellow and it animal spirit is the Mountain Lion
Above: All-colors and its animal spirit is the beloved Eagle
So what does all this have to do with Zuni Fetishes?
The animals appear in Fetish form and are considered even more powerful if their color is correct based on this association. Additionally each creature of the Four Cardinal Directions can mediate with the elements and spirits on behalf of an individual or tribe.
This grand circle of cardinal directions characterizes the connection that Zuni’s saw between humankind, the Creator and all of creation.
Art vs. Faith in Zuni Fetishes
As Native American art became more popular Zuni Fetishes moved into the marketplace. These are not “active” Fetishes in the strict sense of the world in that they are not blessed. However there is still a strong sense of tradition attached to the creation process.
In fact, until the late 20th century the fetishes rarely, if ever, bore a maker’s mark. For one thing most carvers have distinctive styles that have been handed down over generations – that style is as unique as a fingerprint.
Secondarily, many worried that adding even a small mark would scratch or crack the sacred crystal and thereby harm its latent metaphysical properties. Beyond pragmatic considerations the Zuni also consider such arts as tribal property that serves the good of the whole.
Zuni Fetishes in Modern Society
Zuni artisans continue to carve the Fetishes but use many other materials that are now readily available for their work. While some carvers design realistic pieces to appease collectors, many prefer the simple approach that honors the Spirit of the stone.
The prevailing belief is the less one modifies the original crystal or stone, the greater the magic upon completion.
Whichever you prefer, take care. There are numerous knock offs that do not come from Zuni artists. Find a rock and crystal purveyor you know you can trust.
Zuni Fetish Care and Feeding
Fetish creation is part of the Zuni faith intended to help humankind reconnect with higher powers including those we might call spirit, totem and power animals.
The Fetish becomes a mediator between the owner and the spirit world.
All that effort makes for hungry fetishes, but what do you feed them?
Tradition tells us to carry your Fetish in a pouch of cornmeal or powdered turquoise and periodically give it access to water. Think of this as a relationship. Treat your Fetish well, with respect, and it responds in kind.
Zuni Fetish Factoids
- History tells us that Zuni Fetishes first appeared around 650 CE.
- In the 1800s the power of Zuni Fetishes was researched extensively by Frank H. Cushing, an emissary from the U.S. Government.
- The space shuttle Endeavor took Zuni Fetishes into space as a form of protection in 1994.
- As of 2014 there were an estimated 300-600 known Zuni carvers.
- Zuni beliefs say that the Fetish chooses the owner, not vise-versa.