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When the Waters Come Full Circle

Moonlight Rain Naja Necklace

The morning is young, and already the mercury is passing eighty, the moon an inverted white crescent high in a turquoise sky. The smoke from the wildfire in Bonita Canyon has settled around the horizon, but for the moment, it has not advanced overhead. That will change; by early afternoon, sky and air alike will be gray and heavy.

At the end of a week devoted, in this space, to the spirit of the Great Snake, the Horned Serpent who holds the powers of the waters and the ability to bestow them as gifts, it’s fitting that from his likeness we should seek relief from the dry and dusty and oppressively smoky heat. As I noted yesterday, our prayers were perhaps heard, at least a bit: The water came, filling the pond to the point that this morning, it has overflowed its lower banks.

Rain, however, remains out of reach.

Still, our long-range forecast has altered a bit from yesterday: What prescribed no chance at all of rain for the next ten days now shows a minuscule possibility beginning tomorrow, a more likely chance next weekend. It may be that our prayers are being answered in a longer-term way.

I had originally planned on highlighting today’s featured work tomorrow, but from the moment I awakened this morning, it nagged at me insistently. I have long since learned to listen to such voices, and so acceded to the Water Serpent’s wish that more of his stories be retold on this day, instead. I wrote about the work, and the serpent, when I introduced this piece two months ago:

In some indigenous cultures, it is only in the moonlight when the Water Serpent shows himself.

In this part of our world, he is a giver of life and bringer of rain, one who carries the gift and power of the water in his scales and the curving crescent of his body. At this time of year, it is on those nights that he brings the rain that his gift holds the greatest impact: the moonlight rain, when the earth slumbers and water and soil come together in a silent dance of renewal.

With his latest work, completed only this afternoon, Wings honors both spirits — the Water Serpent who brings the rain, and Grandmother Moon, who brings the light. And he does so in a way that pays tribute to another people with whom we share the land of this broader region, those for whom a curving arc has long been a hallmark of spirit and art: the people of Dinetah, to the west, whose world-class silverwork has long incorporated the crescent-like symbol known as the naja.

Mythology abounds with regard to the naja. It is one of those concepts that appears in indigenous cultures in many parts of the world, and under remarkably relatable names, too. But in the Native art market, most of what appears in public is just that: myth. Most people in the trade will tell you that the word is pronounced NAH-hah, and I know several Navajo artisans who pronounce it similarly (probably, as is so often the case, because it’s simply easier to go with the colonial flow than it is to try to explain their error to modern colonizing forces). Most people in the Native art market (non-Native, of course) will also tell you that naja is the Spanish word for crescent.

Neither is true.

But to show the word’s full arc of meaning, we need to step back and broaden our view a bit further, a bit more globally.

We’ll take these in reverse order, dispensing first with the false etymology. The Spanish word for “crescent” is literally, in fact, creciente. If it refers specifically to the crescent moon, it’s la medialuna (i.e., “the half-moon”). In Spanish, the associated word luneta also refers to a crescent, particularly in the form of a window. Now, there is indeed a Spanish word naja, but it is more of a colloquial term, and one that means something very different: It’s used to refer to movement in the context of increasing speed, such as with a bell’s clapper (or sudden flight). Which leads me to wonder whether, in fact, the confusion arose in white misunderstandings of the Spanish usage of the word . . . perhaps used to refer to the speed of a snake’s undulating form of locomotion?

Because, you see, there is an older source of the word naja, translated with this spelling: It’s an ancient Sanskrit term that means “snake” or “serpent.” Today, it is a word used as the label for the genus cobra, a category of snake found in the Asian and African parts of the world where Sanskrit is either an indigenous or long-since-adopted language.

But the Diné people, of course, do not speak Sanskrit, nor does their language derive from a common root.

It does not, except in the way that language alters through colonial occupation, derive from Spanish, either.

But it does contain a word, one written in the modern English alphabet roughly as názhah, which is generally translated as referring to something curved, curving around upon itself, or with curving ends.

Just like the naja pendant.

And so, a variant word in the Diné language has come, literally, to mean “pendant,” as a general stand-in for the more specific type of silverwork jewelry. And the pronunciation of názhah is just how it appears: a zh sound that resembles a French “j,” rather than the English “h” sound of the Spanish “j.”

And while the naja never comes quite full circle, the associated symbologies bring us around to a more local meaning, one that inspired Wings’s work.

This work is also one in the colors of this day: turquoise skies, white clouds, silvery adularescent waters, smoky gray haze moving inexorably forward to encircle the rest like a blanket. From its description in the Necklaces Gallery here on the site:

Moonlight Rain Naja Ncklace Closeup

Moonlight Rain Necklace

Wings’s newest work is a piece of layered complexity, in terms both material and metaphorical. With a nod to our indigenous cousins to the west, the Diné silversmiths and their famed naja necklaces, he honors the water that is life in the desert and the being that is light in the darkness in the form of the Water Serpent and Grandmother Moon. The pendant assumes the general shape of the famed Navajo curve by way of solid sterling silver triangle wire, hand-shaped and -hammered and -stamped on both angled sides with a chased pattern of crescent moons, scales upon the body of the Water Serpent. At either end, the wire is flattened, widened to hold a matching pair of raindrops in the form of round Sleeping Beauty Skystones. The curved pendant, slightly past a crescent but not quite a hoop, is accented by its own but of moondust, a rainbow moonstone cabochon set just off center, and hangs suspended from a bezel-set oval cabochon of old Number Eight turquoise, pale sky blue with lit with a delicate matrix of gold-colored light. The bezel is soldered to a wide solid bail set with its own chased pattern of round orbs, edged on either side by a flowing water pattern. The pendant is strung on a strand of old heishi-style beads, segments of bright blue Arizona turquoise alternated with length of white shell. Together, it combines the colors of water and light into the greatest gift of life in spring, the moonlight rain. The pendant, including bail, hangs 2.25″ long by 1-5/8″ across at the widest point; the larger cabochon is 5/8″ across by 3/8″ high; the smaller stones are each 3/16″ across; and the beads hang 20.5″ in overall length (dimensions approximate). Close-up view of pendant shown below.

Sterling silver; Number Eight turquoise; Sleeping Beauty turquoise; rainbow moonstone; white shell
$1,025 + shipping, handling, and insurance

As I also said when I first introduced this work:

But, as always, Wings created a work that respects the relatives who hold connections to similar symbolism, even as it embodies meaning from his own culture and life. And here, especially in the spring, it is the medicine of the crescent moon and the water serpent, the gift of life and light in the moonlight rain.

On this day, we need the water serpent’s gifts. They may be slower in coming than we would like, but they will be here eventually. For now, our task is to adapt — and to remain grateful for the water he has already brought.  These are hard days to be sure, but what is endless about them is not their difficulty. They are like the crescent moon that watches over the world, bearing witness to the moment when the waters come full circle.

~ Aji





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