Death Valley in Eastern California is a strange, forbidden, and mysterious place of myths and legends of the First People. One legend from the Native American Paiute people of the region tells of the Ghost Land – the realm of the dead – ruled over by Shin-au-av (1), and accessed through caves and tunnels under the desert valley. This tells how a Paiute chief grieved so much by the death of his wife could not face living without her. The more he dwelt upon the memory of his dead wife, the more determined he became to join her. Finally, after much thought, he decided he would travel in his earthly body to the Ghost Land (2) to find her.
The Journey to the Ghost Land
After spiritually preparing himself, he followed the trail of his ancestors through miles of underground tunnels and passages for days. It was a perilous long, lonely, and harrowing journey through the depths and bowels of the earth. These dark places were inhabited by strange vicious beasts, evil spirits, and demons, and he had to fight off their attacks. Nevertheless, he was determined to reach the realm of Shin-au-av to reunite with his dear wife and overcome all the perils he faced. After many weary, fear-filled days, he finally came to the end of the tunnel and stepped into the most glorious light.
As his eyes grew used to the light, he found himself on a high ledge looking down the throat of an abyss. On the far side of the chasm was a beautiful land of soft sunshine and lush green meadows. From the ledge where he stood, a narrow rock bridge arched over a dark, bottomless void and was the only way he could find to reach the other side and the beautiful land beyond. He realized he either had to go back or brave the bridge crossing. The chief was bold and determined to reach the realm of Shin-au-av and find his wife, so he carefully crossed over the bridge to the other side.
As he stepped off the bridge, he was welcomed by a beautiful maiden who introduced herself as the daughter of Shin-au-av. She escorted him to a small valley that was very much like a giant natural amphitheater and told him to be seated.
The Dance of the Dead
Sitting as she directed, he looked before him and saw thousands upon thousands of dead people all dancing in a great circle before him. He saw that they all seemed fit, well, and incredibly happy. This gave him great comfort thinking his wife would be happy too. But, watching intently as they all danced in the circle before him, he felt despondent and said, “How will I ever find my wife among so many?”
The daughter of Shin-au-av promised him he would find her but told him he must be patient. She went away and returned with food and drink to make his watch more bearable. After eating with him, she told him she had to go, but before leaving, she told him,
“Your wife is one of the dancers and will dance in the circle with the others. As soon as you see her, run into the circle, take hold of her, and carry her out as quickly as you can. After that, you and she must return to the world above. Go back over the bridge and through the tunnels the way you came. Whatever you do, neither of you must look back – I repeat – do not look back!”
He watched the dance for seven days and saw many people dancing in the circle; thousands passed before him. A number of these he recognized who had been his family or friends, while others he saw had been his enemies dancing in the circle together. But, to his frustration, his wife did not appear in the dance, and he began to despair.
At last, she appeared, and he quickly jumped up and ran forward, embracing her and pulling her out of the circle. The two joyously ran hand in hand across the valley to the rock bridge that spanned the void. Approaching the bridge, they slowed down to cross carefully and safely. The chief nervously glanced over his shoulder to see if they were being followed. When he looked to the fore again, he was shocked to see his wife vanish before his eyes and found himself alone.
Stunned by his foolishness and not knowing what else to do, he made his way back over the rock bridge and through the dark tunnels the way he had come. Finally, after many dangerous adventures, he found his way home and told his people of the Dance of the Dead and the wonder of the realm of Shin-au-av and the dark terrors of the tunnels he had endured in his dark, lonely journey. Despite his escape, he yearned for the day he would return to join the Dance of the Dead and reunite with his beloved wife in the Ghost Land of Shin-au-av.
© 11/10/2022 zteve t evans
(1) Shin-au-av in connection with this legend sometimes comes across as the name of a mythical underground land of the dead, or lost city, or kingdom. In this work I am interpreting Shin-au-va to be the ruler of the land of dead, which was nameded epynomynously after him, but also known as the Ghost Land or other names. There is also a cultural hero, spirit or god named Shin-au-va and sometime two siblings known as the Shin-au-va brothers appear in several legends. The elder of these is named Tabuts or similar and considerd a wolf, while the younger is Shinangway and considered a wolf. Shi-au-va is sometines associated with a spirit or hero called Na-gun-to-wip which is also sometime the name of a fabled place. (This all needs more research).
(2) It is worth noting the Paiutes are also strongly connected to the Ghost Dance religion and wonder if this legend also has associationssomewhere along the line. (This needs more research)
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright October 11th, 2022 zteve t evans
- The Mysterious Lost Underground City of Death Valley (mysteriousuniverse.org)
- The Hidden City of Death Valley – Legends of America
- Death Valley – Wikipedia
- Paiute – Wikipedia
- The Paiute Tribe of Utah by Gary Tom and Ronald Holt – Issuu
- The Paiutes: History (utahindians.org)
- File:Thomas Moran – Shin-Au-Av-Tu-Weap (God Land), CaÌ±on of the Colorado. Utah Ter. – 1930.12.42 – Smithsonian American Art Museum.jpg – Wikimedia Commons