Sunday, February 15, 2015

What's a naja, and where does it come from?

Every now and then, I fall into these mini-obsessions -- something that strikes me as interesting, and there I go, Googling down a rabbit hole, trying to appease my curiosity. Whole afternoons can go by this way.

missiondelrey.com
That's what happened when I spotted this necklace a few weeks back on Mission Del Rey's website and fell in love with it. (If you click through, you'll see it's listed as out of stock. That's because they only had one, and I bought it. Sorry.) It's Navajo made, and it interested me because I've seen the design featured as a pendant on other Navajo-made pieces that are commonly called squash blossom necklaces.

Wikimedia Commons | silverborders.com
Over to the right is an example of a squash blossom necklace -- and not a very elaborate one, at that. The ones you usually see are encrusted with hunks of turquoise. I've looked at the them for years but have never bought one -- partly because I'm not really into big, gaudy necklaces, and partly because I didn't understand the symbolism.

Sure, Native Americans make these necklaces for the tourist trade. But I've been leery about symbols on jewelry ever since I was a kid. The summer I was on vacation with my parents in South Dakota, I spotted a beaded necklace with an "Indian" motif in a gift shop. I think there was a tipi on the medallion, and it had beaded fringe hanging from it -- very '60s. For all I know, it was probably made in China. But I thought it was groovy (keep in mind the era here), and I pestered my mother into buying it for me. She also bought me two ice cream cones that day. What the heck, right? We were on vacation. Yeah, well, I was wearing that brand-new necklace when the toothache hit me that night. Call me superstitious, or just young and silly, but I associated that necklace with bad luck ever afterward. I finally threw it out.

So I want to know what stuff means before I decide to wear it. And as I said, I never knew the symbolism behind the squash blossom necklace. So before I plunked down my money for the Navajo piece that had caught my eye, I dove down the Google rabbit hole to find out what I was getting into.

I had always thought "squash blossom" referred to the pendant part of a squash blossom necklace, but it doesn't. The squash blossoms are the vaguely trumpet-shaped beads on the chain. The pendant is called a naja -- pronounced NAH-hah, with a Spanish "j". And it doesn't mean anything. The design came to the New World with the conquistadores. Those guys may have gotten it from the Moors, who used to put an inverted crescent on their horse's bridles to ward against the ol' evil eye. (I guess it didn't work too well; Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain in 1492.)

But the naja even predates the Moors. I fell into another Google rabbit hole this evening, and ended up on a Czech website that sells reproduction items for historical re-enactors. I was looking through their stock of Slavic designs when I saw this. It's a reproduction of a 9th-century pendant found in Nitra, Slovakia.

And going back even further, the inverted crescent was a symbol of the Phoenician fertility goddess Astarte.

 In any case, by the time the Southwestern tribes got hold of it, it was just an appealing motif. So I felt safe on that score. But what do the etched designs on my naja mean? As near as I can tell, the spirals represent lightning, and the sawtoothed design on the arms symbolizes mountains. Rain is always welcome in the dry Southwest, so I'm viewing it as a good omen. And I've already worn the necklace several times without disaster striking.

Knock on wood.

***
These moments of historically superstitious blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
Post a Comment