Adaptation of Christianity and Paganism

There were some basic differences between paganism and Early Christianity.  For example, the relationship between pagan gods and humans was somewhat distant.  While Christians generally viewed their relationship with their God as permanent and very involved, the relationship between pagan gods and humans was somewhat distant.  Pagan gods were applied to for help through “payment for ritual, with hymns, incense, and the like,” and if it was believed that they had they done what was asked of them, a suitable token of gratitude was offered, such as the temple built to Apollo by Augustus to commemorate victory over Antony and Cleopatra (MacMullen, 116; Veyne, 6).  In contrast, Christians were taught to view their God as someone personally interested in them, who expected all their energy to be expended in His service (Veyne, 22).

However, despite differences in paganism and Christianity, some pagan rituals, characters, and mythology survived even after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.  Pagan characters continued to appear in the arts and literature, some traditions and ceremonies that had their roots in Paganism survived under the guise of Christian observances (Seznec, 30; Hutton, 285).  Most striking, perhaps, was the transition which some pagan deities appear to have made into Christian saints.  The personalities of these Saints appear similar to their characters as deities, with some minor alterations, and some ways of honoring the deities survived into the conversion to Christianity (Green, 50, 51).

Paganism and Christianity in the Roman Empire, Egypt, Isis

Though there was some initial attempt to eliminate references to pagan deities within Christianity, they continued to appear in art and literature (Seznec, 94).  Pagan imagery was frequently featured alongside Biblical imagery.  Some sought to include aspects of pagan mythology within Christianity by choosing to interpret pagan deities as humans who had so distinguished themselves due to various acts or accomplishments that they had been deified after their deaths.  Church decorations showing pagan motifs alternating with Biblical figures were not uncommon, such as those in the façade of the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo where “bas-reliefs represent events from the Old Testament and from mythology, the punishment of Adam and the labors of Hercules” in close proximity (Seznec, 30).

Another way that pagan imagery made its way onto church decorations was as allegories for aspects of faith or desirable or undesirable personality traits among Christians (Seznec, 94).  Ancient Roman gods and myths were used to “symbolize some vice of virtue or to embody a moral truth (Seznec, 101).”  So, eventually it appeared that “Plato accords with Moses, and Socrates ‘confirms’ Christ, so Homer’s voice is that of a prophet.  And the Magi of Persia and Egypt, who in their turn masked sacred maxims under a cloak of Fable, are linked to the sages of Israel (Seznec, 98).”  Pagan characters also weathered the transition by becoming parables.  Those who wished to continue using them pointed out that parable was the means by which Christ had taught much of the time while on Earth, so they believed that they were justified in taking morals from ancient pagan myth (Seznec, 87, 88).

At times, pagan ways of denoting certain characteristics were adopted into Christian iconography.  Some of the general imagery that has come to be closely associated with Christ appears to have been of pre-Christian origin.  Images that depict Christ without a beard (though as a Jew he would certainly have had one) and with long flowing hair that sets him apart from others in the same composition may be references to ancient pagan gods, such as Apollo and Dionysus (Mathews, 123-127).  Apollo’s “abundance of hair” was seen as symbolizing “’fresh and undiminished beauty’” and images of Dionysus also depict him as beardless and with long flowing

hair (Mathews, 127).

Pagan methods of venerating particular deities were adopted into Christianity.  The practice of using religious icons for private devotional purposes appears to have grown “out of a strong tradition of pagan panel paintings of the ancient gods” which appears to have continued on some scale through the sixth century (Mathews, 179, 187). Use of panels depicting ancient Roman pagan gods appears to have been widespread, and seems to have replaced an earlier custom of images of deceased ancestors on panels (Mathews, 179, 180).  There are similarities in the way in which ancient pagan gods and Christian saints are shown in panel paintings as well.  Gods featured in panels were shown half- or full-length, “holding symbols of their divine power” as many saints later were shown (Mathews, 180).  Donors who had commissioned pagan panel paintings also frequently appeared in the paintings, and were usually depicted smaller than the gods, much as would happen later with Christian icons and their donors.  In addition, other features of pagan panels, such as the frontal gaze, “the halo, the throne, the Zeus-type face – the military or equestrian garb” and the inscriptions sometimes found on pagan icons also show a strong similarity with many Christian icons (Mathews, 190).  Like Christian saints, pagan deities were depicted enthroned, such as the panel images of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing Harpocrates, which shows considerable similarity to early panel painting of the Madonna and Child (Mathews, 182, 183).

The similarities in appearance that many early Christian artworks bear to pagan imagery may have been the result of nostalgia toward pagan beliefs.  After all, images “come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories (Mathews, 11).”  However, those similarities appear to have also been the result of convenience at times.  It seems that “when he was required to introduce a new Christian subject, the pre-existing supply of images at the sculptor’s disposal restricted his flexibility.  The Christian subject had to be bent somewhat to fit what the artist was familiar with and this bending in turn suggested new ways of interpreting the new subject.”  This was the case in some sarcophagi in which the image of Jonah resting angrily under a vine took its initial shape from images of Endymion happily sleeping through eternity.  Therefore, Jonah took on a more peaceful, contented look than would have been expected from scripture, and frequently appeared nude as well, in the classical Roman style (Mathews, 30-33).

Pagan religious edifices were sometimes transformed into churches, likely both for convenience and to establish Christianity’s claim on formerly pagan locations (Hutton, 285, 288).  Some churches were built on sites of ancient temples or shrines, and previously venerated local deities were put into service by the Christian church.  At times, undeniably pagan artwork was kept and re-interpreted as Christian.  The “Black Madonnas of Italy and Sicily occupy churches upon the sites of notable temples to Ceres and Cybele, goddesses of fertility” and their coloring is likely associated with the ancient goddesses’ supposed roles in the “growth and the harvesting of crops (Hutton, 285).”  It is believed that these Madonnas may have been based on similar images that were made as the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis spread throughout Europe (Celenko, 44).

Isis was one of the “oldest and most powerful deities” of ancient Egypt

(Celenko, 43).  She was considered the goddess of motherhood and queen of the dead (Hyde, 51).  Isis was seen as “’mother of sorrows’ and mother of the god Horus as well as “the bountiful,”  “giver of life,” and a source of protection for her worshippers (Hyde, 54; Lewis, 86; Celenko, 32).  Isis was strongly “associated with the queen-mother and was the prototype of every mother, royal.”  She was believed to have created the first mummy (Osiris), and thus had strong connections with Egyptian beliefs about the immortality of the soul (Celenko, 43).  Part of Isis’ identification as being a life source was connected with the Nile.  Every year when the Nile flooded, a ceremony involving the worship of Isis was carried out.  Isis was believed to cause the Nile to rise for the benefit of Egypt.  The most important day of this observance was later to become a Christian feast day, and St. Michael came to be credited with the Nile’s actions (Lewis, 95).  Her worship became widespread, eventually extending to virtually all of the territory controlled by Rome (Hyde, 52).  She became a popular subject of art and literature (Bowman, 170).  Paganism, including the worship of Isis, “survived with some vigour among the hellenised Egyptians into the fifth and even sixth centuries (Bowman, 198).”

A prayer to Isis credited her with caring for the whole world and having “a great affection to the adversities of the miserable as a loving mother,” which helps to explain the connection later made between Isis and the Virgin Mary (Hyde, 54). Because of her role as royal mother, connection with an afterlife, and image as a protective figure, Isis became “identified with the Virgin Mary, especially in her aspect as mother of Horus (Celenko, 44).”  In fact, many statues of Isis and her son Horus were found at the ruins of her temples, which were later mistakenly thought to be Virgin Mary and Child images by early Christians, “and little wonder since it is still difficult to differentiate between the two types (Hyde, 54).”  Isis was strongly associated with Mother-and-child images in Egypt.  Isis was also featured in panel paintings that were presumably used as private domestic altars (Mathews, 180, 181).

Christianity and the Celtic Pagans, Brighid

There were some similarities between Celtic paganism and early Christianity which aided in the transition of religions.  Celtic paganism placed a strong emphasis on community responsibility, public ceremonies, service to the state and communal pride which” were fairly easily assimilated into the newer Christian religion (Hutton, 258).  Various aspects of Christianity would have appealed to Celtic pagans, such as “a rite of initiation, dependence upon a savior figure and assurance of personal salvation characteristic of the mystery religions.”  Like paganism, “it gave victory in battle and its holy men and women were reputed to work miracles.  It included a cult of the bones of its martyrs which continued the reverence paid to pieces of consecrated human skeleton, and the sense of their magical power (Hutton, 288).”

Celtic gods, much like Roman ones, could be applied to for help in their specific areas of interest, and could then be rewarded if they were thought to have acted positively.  Among ancient Celtic pagans “curses,” or metal tablets, were used to ask the gods for help, either to have benefits conferred on the supplicant, or to exact a punishment on someone else.  Curses would also specify what payment the god was to receive in exchange for doing as he or she was asked.  The tablets were frequently rolled up and deposited in water sources, which had spiritual connections to them (Green, 74) Water was seen as both a positive and negative force in the Celtic pagan world, and was associated by multiple deities.  It appears that votive offerings were frequently made at water sources (Myths, 51).

Several Celtic gods were triple deities, and many Celtic myths “contain references to ‘three’ as a magical or sacred number (Myths, 41).”The number three was “by far the most symbolic number” in Celtic paganism (Green, 163).  It is thought such frequent use of the number three may be a way to emphasize increased power or to symbolize totality (Green, 215; Mac Cana, 43).  Deities who were depicted in triplicate were usually concerned with the well-being of humans (Green, 216).  One of the main Celtic pagan gods, Brighid, was one of the triple deities (Green, 214).

Among Irish Catholic saints, St. Brigit is second in popularity only to St. Patrick (Mac Cana, 34).   Brigit, or Brighid, etc. was originally “almost certainly a goddess” who was also associated with healing, crafts, poetry, learning, divination, and aiding women in childbirth (Hutton, 153, 285; Green, 50, 96).  The goddess Brighid was also connected to fertility, as she continued to be as St. Brigit (though the focus was on fertility of the land and animals in St. Brigit’s case).   Brighid “appears to have undergone a smooth transition” from pagan deity to Christian saint and to have retained many aspects of her previous goddess state (Green, 50; Mac Cana, 34).  St. Brigit was even given the same feast day that the goddess Brighid was honored, which is also the date of the Celtic Spring festival, February first (Green, 50, 51).

It is difficult to be certain exactly which pagan deity became St. Brigit, since there are numerous Celtic deities with similar versions of her name (Hutton, 153).  It seems most likely that St. Brighid was a composite figure made up of several mother-goddesses and of her own various incarnations (Hutton, 153, 154).  St. Brigit retained some of the mythical aspects of her goddess persona.  For example, her childhood had supernatural overtones; she was believed to have been fed the milk of a white cow with red ears.  White animals with red ears that appear in Celtic mythology are connected with the supernatural (Mac Cana, 34).  After the general conversion to Christianity, water continued to be perceived as having connections with holiness.  Saint Brigit is strongly associated with water, as were numerous other saints (Myths, 51, 53).  Offerings are still made to St. Brigit at a well associated with her legend (Myths, 51, 53; Green, 51).  In addition, several rivers are named for her (Mac Cana, 34).  It seems that “no clear distinction can be made between the goddess and the saint.”  A monastery dedicated to St. Brigit appears to have been located on the site of a former pagan sanctuary

(Mac Cana, 34).

St. Brigit is not the only example of the continuity of parts of Celtic paganism into Christianity.  References to pagan beliefs about fire can be detected in the “Christian midsummer festival which marked the birth of St. John the Baptist [and which] derived directly from earlier ceremonies” that centered on fire as a creative, regenerative force (Myths, 46).  This festival, much like the previous “fire ceremonies” was meant to help ensure a good wine harvest for the coming year (Myths, 46, 47).  In addition, other saints besides St. Brigit are thought to have derived from pagan myths or deities, such as St. Gobnet, whose British early medieval shrine was found to have been built over a massive industrial site “consisting of at least 137 forges,” is likely tied to the ancient pagan smith god Goibhniu (Hutton, 285).

Christianity was adopted in various places in various ways.  Frequently, aspects of a region’s previous religion would re-emerge as Christian practices.  Though there were major differences between paganism and Christianity, there were similarities as well, which allowed the transition of various pagan observances and iconography into Christian art (Veyne, 6, 22; Hutton, 288).  Certain pagan deities either influenced or were re-cast as saints, with similar traits and areas of influence (Green, 50, 51).

Irrespective of any differences however, some pagan rituals, characters, and mythology survived even after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.  Pagan characters continued to appear in the arts and literature, some traditions and ceremonies that had their roots in Paganism survived under the guise of Christian observances (Seznec, 30; Hutton, 285).  Most striking, perhaps, was the transition which some pagan deities appear to have made into Christian saints.  The personalities of these Saints appear similar to their characters as deities, with some minor alterations, and some ways of honoring the deities survived into the conversion to Christianity (Green, 50, 51).  That certain features of paganism made the transition into Christianity is perhaps a large part of the reason that it was acceptable to many pagans. Christian converts who wished to maintain a connection with their ancestral religions made “adaptations as were really necessary and kept what they could (MacMullen, 117).”

Works Cited

Bowman, Alan K. Egypt after the Pharaohs 332 BC-AD 642: From Alexander to the Arab Conquest. [Berkeley]: University of California, 1986. Print.

Celenko, Theodore. Egypt in Africa. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1996. Print.

Green, Miranda Jane. Celtic Myths. Austin (Tex.): University of Texas, 1993. Print.

Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992. Print.

Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Hyde, Thomas. Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire. New York: Octagon, 1970. Print.

Lewis, Naphtali. Life in Egypt under Roman Rule. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983. Print.

Lucas, A. T. Treasures of Ireland, Irish Pagan & Early Christian Art. New York: Viking, 1973. Print.

Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick, 1985. Print.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire: (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.

Mathews, Thomas F. The Clash of Gods a Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art ; Rev. A. Expanded Ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 1999. Print.

Seznec, Jean. The Survival of the Pagan Gods; the Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art. [New York]: Pantheon, 1961. Print.

Veyne, Paul. When Our World Became Christian, 312-394. Cambridge: Polity, 2010. Print.

Paper Discussing the Works of Native American Artists Maria Martinez and Nampeyo

Maria Martinez and Nampeyo were two Native American artists who found a way to innovate in their artwork while still maintaining a connection to their artistic traditions.  Both women drew from ancient Native American pottery designs and compositions in their own work (Class notes).  Through their work, both women combined elements of ancient pottery with their own styles to suit the demands of modern non-native consumers (Penney 102, 103).


Maria Martinez was born in 1881, at a time when her community had recently undergone a flu epidemic and was in need of new economic stimulus.  Outside interest in Native American pottery encouraged native artists to draw from the past in their work.  She, along with her husband, helped her community by sharing her knowledge and fame with others (Class notes).  The steps she took to do this would likely seem unethical to an outsider.  However, from her own perspective, Martinez’ actions were not improper.  She was simply acting in accordance with what was most important within her Pueblo community.  The pieces that she and her husband made are still very highly prized today (Berlo 55, 59).


Maria Martinez had the opportunity to study ancient pieces of pottery that her husband Julian helped to excavate from a dig site.  These pieces were used as the inspiration for the pottery that Martinez and her husband created together.  Their work was collaborative – she was responsible for shaping and burnishing the pottery, while her husband Julian added designs.  These pottery decorations were based on the ancient designs that Maria and Julian Martinez had had the opportunity to study, as well as the pottery that he had been able to view during his time working at the Museum of New Mexico.  Maria and Julian Martinez’ pottery frequently featured such designs as horned serpents, feathers, and other traditional motifs (Class notes; Berlo 59; Figure 80, Penney).  Traditionally, pottery-making was considered almost exclusively a women’s occupation.  That men began to collaborate with their wives in the production of pottery was likely the consequence of the high demand for native pieces (Berlo 57).


Maria and Julian Martinez’ work became so highly prized that she eventually began to teach others within her community how to create their own black-on-black pottery (see figure 80, Penney).  She also sometimes added finishing touches to their work.  Her wish to aid others within her village went beyond this, however, and Martinez began signing other artists’ work to increase the prices they could fetch.  Among her people, artists’ signatures did not have the same importance that they would have to outsiders; they would have simply appeared to be “a mechanism by which other artists could share the high prices brought by Maria’s overriding fame.”  By signing other’s pottery, Martinez was sharing her prosperity.  She lived in a community that highly valued the group’s welfare, and her actions were in keeping with that value (Berlo 59; Class notes).


Another artist, Nampeyo, also took advantage of the opportunity to study ancient pottery retrieved from excavations.  She used the compositions and designs she saw as inspiration for her own work.  Her earlier work replicated ancient designs closely.  However, Nampeyo eventually developed a unique style, Sikyatki-revival (Class notes, Penney 102).


The style that the Hopi-Tewa Nampeyo developed retained its popularity for the first two decades of the 20th century (Figure 79, Penney).  Her work became very popular with non-natives, and many other Hopi artists began to work in the same style (Penney 102).


As Maria Martinez would do later on, Nampeyo collaborated with her husband in her work.  This was done most likely to accommodate the demands that the popularity of her work placed on her (Berlo 57).  She retained the responsibility of shaping the pottery (which was considered a more important element of a piece than the decoration) even after she lost her sight (Class notes; Berlo 57).


Both Nampeyo and Maria Martinez developed their own styles of pottery.  They both adapted themselves to what non-native consumers wanted, which was pottery based upon ancient pieces that also suited non-native tastes (Class notes).  Both artists broke away from the norm in collaborating with their husbands on this traditionally female occupation (Penney 103).  Both also proved that Native American arts were not unchanging.  They successfully bridged the gap between past and present in their work and developed their own styles.  Their works inspired many other artists, helped to share their culture with outsiders, and became the means of helping their communities financially (Penney 102, 103; Berlo 55).






















Works Cited

Berlo, Janet C., and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.


Jordon, Keith. Native North American Art. California, Fresno. 2013. Lecture.


Penney, David W. North American Indian Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004. Print.

The Importance of Basketry in California Indian Society

Individuals, nations, and cultures can be better understood through the objects they possess, whether they are the items they use on a daily basis or the elaborate pieces reserved for special occasions.  This is certainly true in the case of California Native Americans and their basketry.  Baskets were used for nearly all aspects of California Indian’s lives, from infancy to death and burial (Heizer 7).  A great deal of care went into every aspect of basketry, and the study of this art form helps us to better understand the people who made them (Shanks 1).

The history of basket-making in California is closely related to the history of California Indians.  More Native Americans lived in California “than in any other state in America” (Shanks 4).  At one time, there were over 100 different tribes and subgroups of Native Californians (Heizer 2; Rawls and Bean 16).  Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that such a wide variety of baskets were made in California.  Some of the California tribes that produced baskets included Western Mono, Yokuts, Pomo, Paiute, Maidu, Achumawi, Cahuilla, Atsugewi, Chemehuevi, Chumash, Karuk, Shoshone, Kawaiisu, Kumeyaay, Tubatulabal, Washoe, and Yurok (Dalrymple 1).

Manufacture of California Baskets

California Indians varied widely in appearance, dress, and primary sources of sustenance, and the baskets they designed came in a huge variety of sizes and styles and were used in “all aspects of people’s lives.”  The design for baskets varied from group to group in regard to the way in which they were woven, the materials used, their design and shapes and their purposes (Bibby 1).  Baskets were used for cooking, gathering, carrying, storing, winnowing, sifting, trapping and fishing (Heizer 7; Shanks 1).

Most of the more elaborate and intricate California baskets were created by women, though some men did become expert weavers.  Generally, however, with the exception of gathering materials for baskets and the male/female collaboration involved in the creation of Jump Dance baskets, the baskets made by men were usually “rugged, utilitarian baskets” or cradles (Shanks 1; Dalrymple 9).  Woven baskets were very strong, and were designed to “withstand significant weight, heat, moisture, and stress” (Bibby 5).

Peeled willow bark was generally the preferred material for basket-making, in addition to grass and ferns (Dalrymple 1).  Historians have been able to definitely indicate the use of nearly 80 different kinds of plants used for their “stems, leaves, stalks, and roots” in basketry.  The specific types of plants used and their placement within the baskets themselves frequently varied form tribe to tribe (Heizer 132).

California baskets are usually made by either the twining or coiling methods.  Twining is the oldest method of California-making by several thousand years (Shanks 4, 5).  There were no fewer than six different twining techniques known to have been used.  Twining and coiling methods were frequently used together, though coiling was generally the preferred method (Bibby 3).

The materials for basket production were carefully nurtured, harvested, and prepared.  Basket makers in each region of California had their own “special places where they nurtured and gathered shoots, rushes, roots or grasses” (Shanks 3).  Basket makers practiced the burning of ground cover, transplanted various plant and animal species from one location to another, and pruned and weeded their crops in order to have the best possible materials available (Rawls and Bean 12).  Plants used for basket making were carefully watched, and stored until they were ready for use (Silva and Cain 9).  The process of preparing plants for use was (and is) very involved, and could take up to a year while making sure to wait for the “optimal” time for “cutting, splitting, and stripping” materials before storing them for use (Dalrymple 13).  The importance of selecting and cultivating the best materials available reflected the central role that baskets played in California Indian culture.

Significance and Use of Baskets in California Indian Society

The oral traditional of many tribes “attribute the original knowledge of basketry” to supernatural sources, thus illustrating the important “role of basketry in the lives of people” and the way in which they relate to their surroundings (Bibby 2, 3).  The importance of baskets to California Indians is evident in the care taken to obtain the very best materials for basketry that each region possessed.  This care and attention meant that the baskets produced became reflections of the regions from which they came.

In addition to being reflections of the specific areas, baskets are symbols of continuity and change.  California Natives have been making baskets for thousands of years.  Archeologists have found that the oldest baskets known to date are often very similar to some of those made today (Shanks 4).  However, while California basketry has maintained its connection with the past, weavers have been unafraid to make adaptations over the centuries as the “result of influences and innovations that [took] place” over time, including “cultural contacts, migrations and exchanges of ideas.”  Thus, the study of California baskets offers insight into California Native American history and “cultural change” through time (Shanks 5).

The wide variety of shapes, styles, and uses of California Indian baskets are indicative of the multitude of purposes they served (with the Pomo Indians having the widest variety of types of baskets).  Baskets could be simple, or adorned with beads, feathers, or shells (Heizer 38; Bibby 73, 77).   They could be large or small.  They could be dyed, or have their designs created through the use of different plants or treatment of those plants (Heizer 136).

Baskets were used for harvesting, storing, and cooking food.  The type of food that baskets came into contact with depended on the region and included salmon in the north, seed crops and game in the south, and acorns in Central California (Heizer 2).  Baskets that were made to cook food or hold water were extremely closely woven, sometimes so much so that they did not require sealants to make them watertight (Rawls and Bean 13).

Basketry was considered so far superior to pottery in California that, though pottery was made at one time, it was discontinued in favor of basketry (Shanks 6).  Baskets were generally preferred over pottery because they were sturdier and lighter than pottery.  Pottery was thus considered “inferior to baskets for gathering, carrying, winnowing, fishing, trapping and other uses” (Shanks 5).  The use of pottery was limited to a few tribes in Southern California that were influenced by “southwestern Indian culture” (Heizer 114; Rawls and Bean 13).  One of the only known uses for ceramics among most California Indians involved the use of baked clay pieces as occasional substitutes for the hot stones used to cook food in baskets (Heizer 146).

The process of preparing and cooking acorns is an example of the important function of baskets in California Indian culture.  Acorns were pounded and then winnowed in shallow baskets (Rawls and Bean 13).  The heated water that was poured over ground acorns in order to leach out tannic acid and render them edible was poured from water-tight baskets (Heizer 93). The ground acorns were then cooked in baskets and eaten in mush or bread form.  Even the stones that were used to boil water inside baskets were held in other, smaller “rinse baskets” when not actually in service (Rawls and Bean 12, 13).  Altogether, up to eight different baskets might be used in the gathering, preparing, cooking, consumption, and storing of acorns (Bibby 1).

Though seed collecting and food preparation was the main purpose for most baskets, they were also used for several other facets of life.  Because of limited contact with Europeans until 1769 and the advances in ethnology, there is a substantial amount of knowledge in existence of the roles that baskets played in California Native society (Heizer 2, 3).  Baskets were very highly valued among California Indians, and were exchanged at weddings and divorces (Shanks introduction, 1, 3).  They were used as cradles and burned at funerals and at memorial services (Shanks 1; Bibby 2).  Baskets were even worn as headgear, whether simply or elaborately adorned, and were worn by members of both genders (Heizer 139; Rawls and Bean 19; Bibby 2).  Since they were used in so many important areas of life, they became “memories of joy, love, heritage, and pride” (Shanks 1).  As is apparent, few places in the world supported a greater variety of cultures” before European appearance in California and the variety of baskets they used reflects this diversity (Rawls and Bean 1).

Reception and Adaptation of Basketry

Initial European reaction to California basketry was very favorable.  Members of the de Anza expedition in 1774 was so impressed with the baskets they saw that “entire villages were sold out” of them (Rawls and Bean 41; Shanks 6).  With their ability to incorporate new ideas and objects (such as beads) into their work, it is not surprising that very early on in the history of Spanish and California Indian contact traces of Spanish influence began to appear in California Indian basketry.  Images from Spanish society were sometimes woven into baskets, and the practice of including one’s name on baskets appears to have begun (Dalrymple 43; Bibby ix, 9).

In addition to incorporating new motifs into their baskets, California Indian baskets were used in new ways, and new types of baskets were designed.  Winnowing baskets were used in gold panning during the gold rush, and later on twined baskets were used by field workers (Bibby 3).  After the California gold rush brought many more white settlers into California, basket-makers began to develop new styles in order to compensate for the influx of alternative storage materials such as metal and glass and “new forms were developed by creative individuals for trade and sale with non-Indians” (Dalrymple 1).

Basketry fell into decline in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and reached an all-time low in the 1970’s,though non-Indian dealers continued their trade in California Indian baskets and events such as the Yosemite Indian Field Days basketry competition maintained some interest in the art (Dalrymple 9; Bibby 4).  Beginning with the 1990’s, however, Basketry as an art form and connection to the past has seen a re-emergence (Dalrymple 9, 10).  California baskets are highly prized today, and are on display in museums in over twenty countries (Shanks 6).

Modern artists are carrying on the tradition of basketry and are kept busy in the production of  “burden-baskets, sifters and plates; eel traps [and their miniature replicas], and cradle baskets; close-work women’s caps, tobacco baskets with lids, trinket baskets, eating and cooking baskets, and mats – and baby rattles, medallions, earrings, and key chains” (Dalrymple 5).  Therefore, artists maintain their connections to the past while adapting to market demands.

Baskets were an integral part of California Indians’ lives.  They were involved in people’s lives from birth and continued to play a role in honoring the dead (Bibby 2).  The importance of basketry in California Indian life is illustrated by the care that went into their manufacture, as well as the myths regarding how humans learned to create them (Silva and Cain 9; Bibby 2, 3)  Basket-makers modified their techniques over time, and adapted their baskets to suit the interests of newcomers to California (Dalrymple 1, 43).  Through the study of the baskets they made, a better understanding can be had of the “daily life, cultural change, cultural values, art, history, belief, settlement patterns, migrations and the transmission of ideas” of California Indians (Shanks 1).


Works Cited

Bibby, Brian. TheFine Art of California Indian Basketry. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum in Association with Heyday, 1996. Print.

Dalrymple, Larry. Indian Basketmakers of California and the Great Basin: The Living Art and Fine Tradition. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico, 2000. Print.

Heizer, Robert F., and Albert B. Elsasser. The Natural World of the California Indians. Berkeley: University of California, 1980. Print.

Rawls, James J., and Walton Bean. California: An Interpretive History. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.

Shanks, Ralph C. Indian Baskets of Central California: Art, Culture, and History. Ed. Lisa Woo Shanks. 1st ed. Novato, CA: Costaño, 2006. Print.

Silva, Arthur M., and William C. Cain. California Indian Basketry: An Artistic Overview. Cypress: Cypress College. Fine Arts Gallery, 1976. Print.