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At the end of this long account it remains difficult to establish precisely what symbolic significance was attributed by the American Indians to coral. This is because more often than not the symbolism of personal objects or materials associated with rituals was not revealed to outsiders. Thus it is difficult for scholars and researchers, ethnologists or cultural anthropologists to establish recondite meanings or document symbolic values pertaining to the various ethnic groups, since these may well have been known only to the shamans or traditional healers. There are accounts such as that of Friar Berard Haile, who wrote in 1946, “there is no trace in Navajo legends of yolici, “red pearls”, as coral is called, because red is generally taboo in their ceremonies”66 . The Navajo shaman Hosteen Klah also maintained that coral does not have any ceremonial significance and is used purely as an ornament67 . Other commentators, however, state that it is a symbol affording protection from bad medicine, envy and jealousy.

We have come to the conclusion that the coral which appears repeatedly in the jewels worn for the most important ceremonies and the ritual dances associated with fertility and harmony between the various ethnic groups is in fact highly prized by the Native Americans, and not just those in the Southwest. Like all the elements coming from water, it is considered a sacred life-giving symbol by the natives living in the semi-arid Southwest, who depend on water for their very survival. This concept still persists among many of the tribes in the region, as we can see in the symbolism associated with water as the source of life: rain, clouds, thunder, frogs, dragon-flies and seashells, all of which are frequently reproduced in the paraphernalia featuring in the traditional rituals.

In the Navajo cosmogony the four subterranean worlds are governed by four precious materials: turquoise, white shell, red stone (yolici) and abalone (known as “sea-ear”, a gastropod mollusc which is a source of the finest mother of pearl). The concept that each direction in the cosmos is associated with a certain colour is common to all the Pueblo populations. The Zunis associate north with yellow, west with blue, south with red and east with white, the zenith with all colours and the nadir with black. Moreover some of the Zuni ceremonial objects feature coral, while some fetishes (figs. D60511, D60512, D60513), katsina and yei are decorated with coral and turquoise (figs. D70042, D70056).

Corallium Rubrum has invariably seduced all the people who have come into contact with this emblematic material over the centuries. As we have seen in the previous itineraries of “The Spread of Coral”, coral has acquired meaningful and symbolic implications in many and disparate cultural contexts, strengthened by the totality of the folk beliefs and the religious ideologies of each country and society. Like any other phenomena concerning the influence of tradition, each product or material belongs to a specific cultural system, is adopted for its own special significance and brings with it potential values that are perceived even by people outside the original culture. So it is with coral, the treasure of our Mediterranean culture, art and economy: having been brought by the Spaniards to the New World, it transferred its potential value and force to the Native Americans. This seductive power stimulated, and continues to stimulate, the use of coral in American jewelry as a material with a strong cultural added value. As Hamilton A. Tyler wrote, when pieces of shell, coral, turquoise and corn pollen are added to ground grain, “all the essentials of life are brought together”68.


68Hamilton A. Tyler, L'alce sacro : i miti della natura degli indiani pueblo, Rusconi, Milano,1990, p. 57

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