Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (Jan. 2005)
Illustration by Arik Roper
“Here and Now” column by Daniel Pinchbeck
“The Fifth World and the Hopi Apocalypse”
Last summer, I visited the Hopi on their tribal lands in Arizona. The Hopi are thought to be the original inhabitants of the North American continent–this is what their own legends tell us, and archaeologists agree. My initial interest in the Hopi came from reading about their oral prophecies and their “Emergence Myth.” According to the Hopi, we are currently living in the Fourth World, on the verge of transitioning, or emerging, into the Fifth World. In each of the three previous worlds, humanity eventually went berserk, tearing apart the fabric of the world through destructive practices, wars, and ruinous technologies. As the end of one world approaches a small tunnel or inter-dimensional passage —the sipapu—appears, leading the Hopi and other decent people into the next phase, or incarnation, of the Earth.
Of course, most modern people would consider this story to be an interesting folktale or fantasy with no particular relevance to our current lives. Even five years ago, I probably would have agreed with them. However, my personal experiences with indigenous cultures and shamanism convinced me, in the interim, that there is more to traditional wisdom than our modern mindset can easily accept. The Hopi themselves say that almost all of the signs have been fulfilled that precede our transition to the Fifth World. These include a “gourd of ashes falling from the sky,” destroying a city, enacted in the atomic blasts obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a spider web across the Earth, which they associate with our power grid and telephone lines. According to Frank Waters, who compiled accounts from 30 Hopi elders in his Book of the Hopi (1963), the current Fourth World will end in a war that will be “a spiritual conflict” fought with material means, leading to the destruction of the United States through radiation. Those who survive this conflict will institute a new united world without racial or ideological divisions “under one power, that of the Creator.”
The 12,000 Hopi live in a dry and dramatic landscape strewn with enormous boulders, resembling the surface of an alien planet. Their towns are clustered on three mesas—high, flat cliffs overlooking vast swathes of desert. Traditionally, the Hopi are subsistence farmers; they work with ancient strains of corn and beans that are, almost miraculously, able to grow in that arid environment. For obvious reasons, water is sacred to their culture—many of their rituals are aimed at bringing rain. Each spring, each well, is precious to the Hopi. While I was visiting Hopiland I attended a raindance in the town of Walpi, on First Mesa. Perhaps 50 men of the town—wearing masks and costumes and feathered headdresses —participated in the dance, which was held in the town’s center. The dancers are dressed as katsinas, the spiritual beings that are thought to control elemental forces. The ceremony is a form of possession trance—the goal is to summon the katsinas to temporarily inhabit the bodies of the dancers. The Hopi believe that their culture can only prosper if they maintain direct contact with the supernatural powers that manifest directly through the natural world.
In his book Rethinking Hopi Anthropology, the Cambridge anthropologist Peter Whitely recalls, with an almost embarrassed reluctance, that during his time with the Hopi in the 1980s, he witnessed repeated demonstrations of their precognitive abilities and their ability to influence natural forces through ritual. He was transfixed by his first visit to a Snake Dance in 1980: “This was no commodified spectacle of the exotic … its profound religiosity was tangible, sensible. Within half an hour of the dance (which lasts about 45 minutes), a soft rain began to fall from a sky that had been burningly cloudless throughout the day.” When he went to see one of his informants, Harry Kewanimptewa, a septuagenarian member of the Spider clan, he would often find that the elder would answer the questions he had intended to ask before he could vocalize them: “I have no desire to fetishize or exoticize here, but this was something about him and some other, particularly older, Hopis that I have experienced repeatedly and am unable to explain rationally.”
I can sympathize with Whiteley’s plight. Since I started exploring shamanism almost a decade ago, I have found myself living in two worlds simultaneously—the world of Western rationalist discourse with its empirical and materialist emphasis, and the shamanic realm of magical correspondences, supernatural forces, dream messages, and synchronicities. The shamanic realm is one in which human consciousness is not an epiphenomenon or dualistic byproduct of a purely physical evolution, but an inseparable aspect of the world, intertwined with reality at every level. It seems that quantum physics has attained a perspective that is similar to the shamanic view, acknowledging a direct relation between the observer and observed.
I went to the Hopi as part of my research for the book I am writing on prophecies, studying the Mayan and Toltec obsession with the year 2012, the Apocalypse described in the Biblical Book of Revelation, the Hopi foretellings, and various modern Western philosophers and visionaries whose ideas offer a context or system for understanding these predictions. Before I visited the Hopi or even read much about them, I had a few powerful dream experiences that seemed to indicate, to me, the importance of my imminent encounter with this ancient tribe. After seeing the film Naqoyqatsi (“Life as War”)—the last in the trilogy of films beginning with Koyaanisqatsi (“Life out of Balance”), by Godfrey Reggio, appropriating Hopi concepts with no input from the tribe—I had a dream of fiery demons at computer workstations, and awoke with the sense of a visceral supernatural presence flying through my house. The night before I left for the Southwest, I had an even more specific and frightening nightmare. In this dream, I was killed and dismembered by a disgusting-looking demon—who was simultaneously, in typical dream dislogic, the famous conceptual artist Bruce Naumann. In the dream, I returned to Naumann’s studio or the demon’s home and said, “Great—now that you have killed me, I control you.” I went to a bookcase and picked up a huge leather-bound volume titled “Grimoire” (a Medieval catalogue of imaginary beasts and supernatural creatures) and melted it down over a fire. As I did this, I heard incredibly loud Native American chanting and maniacal laughter. I awoke, once again, with the sense of a powerful presence, a kind of unhinged or wild diabolical force, looming overhead and then soaring away.
While traveling to Hopiland I scanned several books of Hopi anthropology and folktales and found that the being who had haunted my dreams closely matched descriptions of Maasaw, the complex creator-deity of the Hopi. According to Hopi legend, when the Hopi first emerged from the Third World to the Fourth, they met Maasaw, who gave them the rules of conduct for life on this new land and introduced them to the rudiments of their agricultural system. Maasaw brought the sun into the Fourth World; but once he had accomplished this, he left the daylight world forever to haunt the realm of night and darkness. The name Maasaw literally means “corpse demon” or “death spirit” in the Hopi language, and he is considered to be the ruler of the land of the dead. Maasaw resembles the ambiguous deities found in Hinduism and Tibetan Tantra, who have wrathful and benevolent manifestations. Since his disappearance from the earth, Maasaw often appears to the Hopi in dreams as a terrifying presence, wearing a ghoulish mask. According to some accounts, Maasaw’s deviation began long ago in the Third World, where he became arrogant and defiant. His assignment to rule over the underworld was a kind of demotion. I wondered why—as seemed to be the case—this spirit had introduced himself to me, in my dreams, even before I arrived in Hopiland.
I thought that I needed to learn more about the Hopi prophecies—and indeed, I did manage to visit an elder in that extraordinary desert landscape. Martin Gasheseoma took time off from working on his field of corn and beans, to tell me that the “purification,” as foretold, would soon come to pass, that there was no way to prevent it. “It goes like a movie now,” he said. However, even before I had found my way to this meeting, my perspective had shifted. I had realized that the essence of the prophecy—the solution to the riddle—was not in some transcendent or otherworldly event, but in the very immanent and real world around us.
The Hopi way of life is threatened with imminent extinction. In the 1960s, the Peabody Coal Company was given a concession to mine coal on their land. They were also awarded the right to use water from the aquifer under Black Mesa to slurry the coal down a pipeline, built by the Enron Corporation. This operation wastes 1.3 billion gallons of pure drinking water annually. Of course, there are other ways to transport coal, but this is the cheapest for Peabody, and the company has continually fought against and effectively delayed all efforts to change their destructive practices.
In the 1980s, it was discovered that the lawyer who negotiated the original deal for the Hopi was, at the same time, on the payroll of the Peabody Corporation—and the Hopi have received a tiny fraction of the revenue they deserve, while forfeiting control of their own destiny. According to US Government Geological Surveys, by the year 2011, the aquifer will be finished—already the Hopi are finding that the local springs on which they rely are drying up.
In the middle-class New Age culture and “New Edge” festivals such as Burning Man, much lip service is paid to Native American traditions. Perhaps millions of white people hang dreamcatchers over their beds and put kachina dolls on their shelves. Despite this sentimental interest in indigenous culture and spirituality, precious little, or nothing, is done by us—those of us with the leisure for yoga and raw food and sweat lodges, who often sanctimoniously consider ourselves to be especially “conscious” or “spiritual” beings—to help the Native Americans on this continent. The indigenous people are resettled next to toxic waste dumps, abandoned to the least arable lands, ignored when the fish in their rivers are poisoned, when their resources are robbed from them. In every way, they continue to be treated with condescension and contempt.
This is also what I intuited from Maasaw’s mocking laughter and deviant presence in my dreams: Some deep schism of the soul remains to be recognized; the wound can only be healed if we work to forge a real relationship with the indigenous world, to expiate our dominator culture’s guilt and denial through pragmatic action in this reality, as it is now. If this is the case, then the Hopi situation represents the perfect place to begin the reversal: They are probably the oldest and perhaps most well-known indigenous group in the US, zealously studied by ethnographers for over a century, while repeatedly and blatantly betrayed by the US government and private corporations.
As climate change accelerates along with the global depletion of resources, we are being forced to recognize that our current system is unsustainable, even in the short term. The Hopi situation provides a microcosm of the global crisis—a cruelly ironic situation considering the essential meaning of their culture. As Whiteley notes, “The phrase ‘Hopi environmentalism’ is practically a redundancy. So much of Hopi culture and thought, both religious and secular, revolves around an attention to balance and harmony in the forces of nature that environmental ethics are in many ways critical to the very meaning of the word ‘Hopi.’” Visiting the Hopi, it occurred to me that indigenous prophecy, in itself, arises out of a deep level of attunement to the natural world, rather than anything “spiritual” or immaterial.
According to Vernon Masayesva, of the Black Mesa Trust (www.blackmesatrust.org): “It is our water ethic that has allowed us to survive and thrive in one of the most arid areas on planet Earth. It is the knowledge and teachings of our elders that have sustained us. This water ethic that has been handed down to us by our ancestors we are eager to share with everyone who will be facing water shortages—and according to some studies, water wars—in the next few decades. When the water is gone from Black Mesa, so will be the traditional cultures that could have taught the world so much about living successfully with less.” The Hopi prophecies also tell of the return of Pahana, the elder white brother, in a real exchange of knowledge and a true communion, as the Fourth World comes to an end.
Like so many manifestations of our neurotic and alienated culture, the Koyaanasqatsi films create a mood of inescapable doom and approaching cataclysm. Personally, I reject this attitude. We still have time to save the Hopi and other indigenous groups — perhaps, by extension, ourselves—if we are willing to learn from them and fight for them, rather then appropriating their spirituality while ignoring the destruction we keep inflicting upon their world.