After the Lughnasagh ritual we had decided to have a mini Eistedfodd and I was wracking my brains about what I could for my ‘turn’ when I suddenly remembered this Native American legend that I’d read about whilst I was in the States last week.
When we were in New York I visited the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum is based around a collection of artifacts gathered together by an enthusiast in the early 20th Century and is a bit eclectic and disjointed. There was however a fantastic contemporary exhibition by the Native American artist Preston Singletary, who reproduces the traditional Tlingit designs of his ancestors in glassware.
The Tlingit are a tribe who live on the North West Pacific coast of America and Canada – there are several tribes who live close together and share a lot of their culture. If you think of totem poles you will get an immediate visual idea of their style of art work. One part of the exhibition that immediately resonated with me was the story of How Raven Stole the Sun.
Of course unlike our own sacred stories which have long since been romanticized and sidelined into myth I am very conscious that these are still living tales and so my intention in this retelling was to be both entertaining and respectful. The original story is quite simple and I have padded it out with a few of my own embellishments. When I got to the bit where Raven flew I clapped my hands, both to echo his flapping wings and also to evoke the shamanic aspect of the ‘journeying’ part of the story.
In Tlingit culture the Raven is a benefactor of mankind, but is also a trickster figure.
So, especially for Jo, here is the story of:
How Raven Stole The Sun
A long time ago, when mice ran after cats, and Raven, Raven was as white as sunlight on the first winter snow. Our world was in utter darkness. It was cold, and it was so dark that you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. It was so dark that mankind stumbled around in the pitch black bumping into each other and tripping over things.
Raven heard a rumour that an Old Man in a far off country had all the Light of the Universe hidden away, and Raven feeling sorry for Mankind, who found it so difficult to hunt and fish in the cold and dark, decided to journey there and fetch it back. He flew over the forests, over the lakes, over the mountains, over a great river, until he came to the hut of the Old Man, who lived with his daughter on the shore.
Sitting in a high tree, Raven saw in the dim light of the hut’s fire, three carved cedar boxes, inlaid with mother of pearl and bound in copper, hung high on the wall. The Old Man guarded the boxes night and day, and it seemed impossible to open them to see what lay within. However Raven had a plan.
Each day the Old Man’s daughter went down to the river for water. She may have been very beautiful, or she could have been very plain. It was impossible to know. It was very dark after all!
That day, when she had filled her water carriers, the girl dipped her woven drinking basket into the river and as she raised it to her lips, Raven transformed himself into a tiny hemp seed which floated down into her water. The girl swallowed it and Raven was carried down into her belly where he prepared himself for a long rest.
Nine months later the girl gave birth to a baby son. Maybe the light in the hut was too dim, or maybe the girl and her father were blinded by their love for the baby, but neither seemed to remark on the baby’s pointy nose, or his dark, glittering eyes ….. or even the small patches of feathers.
The baby thrived and became the apple of the oOd Man’s eye. He was spoilt and had the best of everything. One day when he was old enough to sit up and look around, the Old Man propped him up on a bundle of furs on the floor. The glint of copper caught the baby’s eye and he turned to look at the cedar boxes. All at once he began to cry. Gah Gah! Did I mention that when he cried he almost sounded as if he was cawing? Gah! Gah!
The old man tried to comfort the child but the crying continued. Gah! Gah! For hours, Gah! Gah! And hours, Gah! Gah! The old man rocked the baby … Gah! Gah! He brought out the baby’s hide rattle… Gah! The deerskin drum …. Gah! The ivory whale…gah! Everything he tried made the crying worse, until driven to distraction by the noise and worry for the baby, he called to his daughter to take down the first cedar box for the boy to play with.
Immediately the box was put in his hands the baby was silent. He opened the lid and a cool glow diffused the room and lit up his face. He put in his hands and stirred up the contents and a thousand thousand stars swirled out of the box and filled the hut like so many fireflies. Eventually they drifted up and out of the smoke hole and into the darkness where they hung in the sky.
As the last of the light disappeared into the blackness the baby screwed up it’s face and took a huge breath…. Gah! Gah!
The old man tried to comfort the child but the crying continued. Gah! Gah! For hours, Gah! Gah! And hours, Gah! Gah! The old man rocked the baby … Gah! Gah! He brought out the baby’s hide rattle… Gah! The deerskin drum …. Gah! The ivory whale…gah! Everything he tried made the crying worse until driven to distraction by the noise and worry for the baby, he called to his daughter to take down the second cedar box for the boy to play with.
As soon as the baby felt the warm cedar wood in his hand the baby became quiet and as he slowly opened the lid he smiled and cooed. His face was lit up by the light of the moon. He took it out of the box and flung it against the side of the hut and it bounced about the walls. The baby giggled and threw the moon over and over again until it hit the rafters and bounced up out of the smoke hole and into the sky.
As the moon hurtled into space the baby screwed up its face again and took another huge breath ….. Gah! Gah!
The crying got louder and louder, the baby gave huge racking sobs. Nothing the Old Man tried to do could stop him, not rocking, not the hide rattle, not the deerskin drum, not the ivory whale. In desperation the Old Man looked at his daughter and signed that she should give the baby the final cedar box.
As soon as the baby felt the wooden box in his hands he hushed and as he opened the lid …… he transformed himself into Raven, grabbed the Sun in his beak and flew out of the smoke hole and into the sky. He flew over the great river, over the mountains, over the lakes, over the forests until he came back to our world. The soot from the smoke hole and the scorching sun in his beak had turned his beautiful white feathers coal black. He called everyone to him and said.
“Look what I have bought you, I have fetched the Sun to light up and warm your world. Now you will be able to fish and hunt and gather berries” And with that he threw the Sun up into the sky and turned darkness into sudden, shocking, Light. Half blinded and startled, Mankind was terrified. Some were so petrified they turned into stone, others were so rooted to the spot with fright they became trees and plants, some slithered, crawled, jumped, flew or swam away and became all the animals and birds and fish in the world. Still others ran to the four directions in their human form and became our Ancestors.
So that is how Raven stole the Sun, and how our brothers and sisters became the Earth, the Plants and the Animals.
© Stoatie August 2011