It has been regurgitated over and over again that the yoni symbol in Southwestern rock art is a “female fertility symbol”, but what does that mean?
“The Great Mother was mythically tied to the time of creation, the birth of the world in which she played a central role. Because of this association, the shaman could use female glyphs to direct the power of creation or could appeal to the specific powers of female deities.” Stone Magic of the Ancients by Cunkle and Jaquemain
The prehistoric Kumeyaay carved large yoni petroglyphs in boulders all over the Anza-Borrego Desert. Among explanations for these have been puberty ritual sites, representations of female fertility, even sites where infertile couples would visit to undergo a fertility ceremony. Honestly, the impulse to categorize all of these petroglyphs with such explanations really irritates me because they sound so pedestrian. After seeing many of these enormous petroglyphs, their prevalence in this small region, and as many as twelve in one square mile habitation area, it is almost impossible to conclude that they were all so practical. I think it is pretty clear that at least some were spiritual totems that symbolized much grander concepts than the mundane tribulations of individual tribe members. I get the feeling that the yoni petroglyph was a universal Kumeyaay protection symbols that asked blessing of each important habitation site or crossing, but it could have been used for more specific ceremonial purposes as well.
One thing that gave me an “Aha” moment about this kind of petroglyph was learning about a similar petroglyph not far away at Perris Lake, California. It depicts both a yoni and a phallus and, most interesting of all, has a water collection mortero at the top of the boulder above the petroglyph. When it rains or water is poured into the mortero, the water runs down the petroglyph and interacts with the carving. The water symbolically showers the image with fertility. I thought, of course! That’s what also happens to yoni petroglyphs in Anza Borrego! They are huge and exposed to the sky. They both pray to the sky and interact with what comes from the sky. It makes so much sense! When looking at them with that in mind it is obvious that most of them are carved in such a way as to actually collect a certain amount of water which would, of course, spill out of and around the carving creating a pretty dramatic effect.
Sure, some of these petroglyphs may have had spiritual ceremonial purposes related to more mundane human matters. Perhaps sometimes a yoni petroglyph did appear on fertility caves or at ceremonial fertility areas. There is one at Piedras Grandes that seems almost certain to have been used to mark a ceremonial fertility cave. Atop an enormous flat boulder is the yoni petroglyph.
Beneath that petroglyph is a rock shelter with a small mortar hole at its entrance.
This cave has a number of interesting attributes. It has a triangular opening in the ceiling that at midday projects a triangular shaft of light that pierces a circular black depression on the underneath side of the yoni boulder. The depression could either be stained with smoke or painted, I couldn’t tell for sure. Could the symbolism be more obvious? Next to the black circular depression is obvious smoke stains from fire.
Clearly fires were built in this cave and you can see how the smoke billowed up and over the large flat yoni boulder. I think it would be interesting to see visual the effect that smoke has when looking at it from above. The smoke would definitely add a magical finesse to the yoni on top of the boulder. If there was ever a case to be made for a location to have been used as a fertility cave of some kind, this is it. I imagine an infertile couple (or fertile couple trying to conceive for that matter) would be sent into the prepared cave in a ceremony presided over by a shaman who encants prayers atop the yoni boulder enveloped in incense and fire smoke. Likewise the cave could have been used for adolescent girls, women during menstruation… perhaps all of the above.
I want to talk a little more about the more philosophical aspect of the yoni petroglyph in Anza Borrego and the Kumeyaay. These petroglyphs were made upon natural cracks in boulders. These cracks had often been created and rounded by water erosion. The Kumeyaay would accentuate the suggestion of the yoni at that crack by chiseling away more rock. Sometimes they would only enhance the crack to make a more pronounced straight line on a round or egg shaped boulder boulder.
Sometimes they would actually sculpt the lips and opening of the vagina quite suggestively, especially when you consider that during rain water would gather in and pour from the opening.
Often, especially at Piedras Grandes, they would also accentuate radiating cracks to represent the sun. It is these sun yonis that I think are especially interesting. It is said that the Piedras Grandes habitation site is one of the oldest in the Anza Borrego area, dating back about 6,000 years. It is thought to have many features that show it was a celestial observatory. In another post I’ll share some of the things I saw there in that regard. The sun yonis seem to marry the ideas of creation involving sun, earth and rain. Its a wonderful idea that points to the beauty of the Kumeyaay cosmology and how they oriented themselves under nature.
The Kumeyaay were snowbirds. They would enjoy a temperate summer in the mountains, not even bothering to construct shelter. They used the forest for shelter and worked and slept out in the open. Cover and shelter defined the very environment of the forested mountain home. When winter came the Kumeyaay would move down to the desert that was nothing if not entirely open to the sky. The sun dominated the environment by day and the stars by night. Caves and grass huts were used for shade and shelter from rain and wind. The desert was a big sky world that, when life was good, showered the people with sun and rain. With sun and rain, greenery would flouish. Game would be abundant amongst the greenery. The environment and the people would live and thrive in this fertile landscape. Life would burst forth with vigor. People would be happy and healthy. New babies would be born. There was plenty of industry and stress levels would be low. Free time would be filled with laughter and play.
Imagine the contrast. Drought. The sun and water would be out of balance. Crops would fail. The daily walk to the watering hole becomes longer and greater pains must be taken to cache or dig to find it. Animals migrate out of the area. Competition for resources amongst village groups intensifies and perhaps there is war. Free time is filled with worry, prayer and ritual beseeching the sky for better fortune.
Both of these scenarios probably played out at various times over the 6,000 years that the Kumeyaay lived on desert. Surely, during the good times, traditional stories reminded people of the lean times, cautioning them to maintain a vigilant awareness that nothing is permanent. I believe that the yoni carved in stone by the Kumeyaay were solemn totems, conveying to the spirits that they were aware of the fragility of the balance the desert must strike to sustain their very survival. I believe that it was their way of both honoring the sky with gratitude for its gifts as well as beseeching it to continue to favor them with much “fertility”.
There were a few phalluses at Piedras Grandes too:
Also, please refer to my post about the universal symbol of creation, the vesica pices /yoni/vagina as it appears in native american petroglyphs and pictographs. The symbol of the vesica pices is a mathematical principle that is so intrinsic to all of creation that humans can’t help but represent it in their art. More about that here Vesica Pices in Rock Art and here Kumeyaay In the Sky.