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Chumash
Autumn Equinox

From chapter one of Chumash Autumn Equinox,
a small book by John M. Anderson

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The Flower of the Sun

"One Chumash home where a Sun Ceremony was held in the nineteenth century was adorned with a particularly interesting object. It was a whale bone, upon which an elaborate solar symbol was painted. This symbol is called the Tspe'wy Kamumpumawa meaning the Flower of the Sun.

Kitsepawit reported that the body of the body of this solar symbol was painted purple, using the juice of a cactus fruit mixed with pine pitch. And the twelve rays that extended from the Sun, with small split ends, were painted in a dark rose color. These rays represented the twelve months of the year.

The color purple apparently symbolized the rising sun, whose color is masked by the haze and moisture of the lower atmosphere in the early morning.

Following the songs, all of the audience rose as a gesture of respect, as women with suckling babies came into the room and held their children up to see the Sun Flower. They made this fourth gesture of gratitude to the sun, in expression of appreciation for their newborn children and the daily giving of life sustaining warmth by the sun, upon which future generations of animals, plants, and humans fully depend.

The Symbolism of the Whale Vertebra

Kitsepawit provided no explanation of why the Flower of the Sun was painted on a whale vertebra. A bone like a vertebra is not an easy surface on which to pain a complex image, so it is reasonable to assume that it was chosen for important symbolic purposes. The coastal Chumash wee well acquainted with whales, and surely recognized them as the largest of animals. Their boatmen routinely encountered whales in their trading and fishing expeditions. And whale bones, such as the ribs and hip bones were used in house construction and burials, each with unique spiritual connotation. It would be surprising, therefore, if they chose a whale bone to represent the largest celestial object known to man, the sun. But why a vertebra? Perhaps this particular bone was used ot symbolize the equinox theme of balance between night and day? For all members of the vertebrate family, including humans, balance themselves with their backbones. They shift their weight, i.e. maintain equilibrium, with these flexible bones which also protect their spinal cords.

Caution Over Approaching Darkness

Next on the agenda after the honoring of the Flower of the Sun were oratorical presentations by community leaders. These speeches dealt with the changes that will take place after the equinox when the balance between day and night would change. Though varied in content, all of these speeches were lined by the themes of preparation for the upcoming dangers of winter, the need for moral behavior, and the need to make preparations for the quickly approaching Harvest Festival festival, which would be a time of joy and thanksgiving. Following this thanksgiving festival, the people would enter a period of increased darkness, when the light of the sun wanes and the shadow of night grows stronger. In response, they needed to shift from their secular preoccupations of food gathering and processing into a period of relatively spiritual meditations.

Before the congregation lay the mystery of a growing shadow into which they entered cautiously. But the orators had to be careful that they did not cower their audience, and instead sought to reinforce its courage."


Sun: Beauty of the World - "The Chumash called the Sun, with its amazing light, by the ritual name Cenhes Heisup which means the Beauty of the World (Blackburn, December, 341; also see 96 where Timi uses this same phrase. (Glossary, 57).

Balance - At the Autumn and spring equinoxes, the time of day and night are equal,i.e. are in balance. In rare surviving field notes on fall equinox oratory, Kitsepawit described a sun symbol painted on a whale vertebrae. This symbol probably was associated with the concept of balance, which was central to the fall equinox" (Glossary, 48).

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This webpage written November 2000

email = amdes@earthlink.net