The Zuni people of the Southwestern United States maintain an intricate catalog of mythological stories and folktales. Among the many creatures and beings that are mentioned within the tales of the Zuni people, there is one that stands out as one of the more terrible. This entity is called Átahsaia, and he is explained as a spiritual entity or a demon, who appears as a giant. This particular demon is often mentioned in relation to cannibalism. Some texts refer to this being as an ogre rather than a demon, which may be due to the way that he appears when he manifests to interact with the world. He is described as being a great deal larger than a mortal man when he is in his physical form.
Átahsaia is called a cannibal demon, and from this title comes much of his reputation. Calling him a cannibal may, on the surface, imply that he feeds on the flesh of other demons. While this behavior would fit into the idea of social taboo among the Zuni people, it isn’t likely that a demon who kills other demons would strike fear in the hearts of young people who heard his tales. In the case of Átahsaia, when he is called a “cannibal demon,” it means that his diet is based on meat taken from humans. He has also been known to try to trick people into eating other humans, particularly their family or children that he has hunted. This sort of activity is what earned him the title of Cannibal.
One such tale of his attempts to compel people to eat each other took place when two young maidens came upon him one day. The girls were either fairly unobservant or were tricked by Átahsaia into believing that he was their grandfather. Átahsaia is known as being hideous, among the ugliest demons described in Zuni lore, but even so, he was not ugly enough for them to tell the difference between himself and their grandfather. The demon offered the girls a stew that he had made of the flesh of human children. After a bit of discussion, the girls trick the demon and get away without eating the human stew. More often, he appears in stories to try to trick people into being his dinner rather than tricking people into sharing his unpalatable meals with him.
This cannibal demon is described as extremely unsightly. Among the most distinguishing features attributed to Átahsaia is his massive size. He is said to be as huge as a great elk, his barrel of a chest covered in coarse hair almost like the quills of a porcupine. His wide face is fitted with a mouth which stretches from ear to ear and is set in with yellowed fangs that resemble old, decaying bones. His thick and muscular limbs are covered in a layer of scales like those of a snake, which are black as night but speckled with white. He is often depicted as carrying crude but intimidating weapons and wearing the skins of mountain lions or bears. When the Zuni people perform the stories of Átahsaia, they don black and white speckled masks to represent his scales.
Átahsaia is said to live in a cave somewhere, where he often comes across people who are out hunting, fishing, washing their clothes, or going for a stroll. Despite his repulsive appearance and eating habits, he is generally considered a fairly polite demon. He will often stop to talk to people and will be on his way if he is asked to leave. Unlike many demons in folklore, he is rarely outright malicious aside from his dietary needs and his hunting habits which coincide with such a diet. Many of his stories are rather lighthearted and humorous while relaying the moral of caution, mindfulness, and adherence to social rules.
In much the same way as other demons found among Native American stories, Átahsaia represents the dangers of disregarding important social structures and ethical considerations. He describes what can become of someone who eats the flesh of other people, similar to the stories and warnings presented by the tales of the Wendigo from tribes further North. The stories of this demon serve to warn children to distrust strange beings that they encounter in the wild, to question the motives of strangers, to be kind to their kin, and to never wander among caves alone.
2. Cushing, Zuñi Folk Tales, New York: Putnam, 1931
4. Parsons, “The Zuñi A’doshlě and Suukě,” American Anthropologist, July-September 1916.