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Animal Stories

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



To the most primitive stratum of myth belong those tales of the beginnings of things which have to do, not with the source of the world for the idea that man's habitat is itself a single being, with beginning and end, is neither a simple nor a very primitive concept but which recount the origins of animal traits. How Snake got his poison, why 'Possum has a large mouth, why Mole lives underground, why Cedar is red-grained these are titles representative of a multitude of stories narrating the beginnings of the distinctive peculiarities of animals and plants as the Indian's fancy conjectures them. The Gulf-State region is particularly rich in tales of this type, and it has been urged very plausibly that the prevalence of similar and identical animal stories among the Indians and negroes points to a common and probably American source for most of them.

The snakes, the bees, and the wasps got their venom, ac-cording to the Choctaw story, when a certain water-vine, which had poisoned the Indians who came to the bayou to bathe, surrendered its poison to these creatures out of commiseration for men; the opossum got his big mouth, as stated by these same Indians, from laughter occasioned by a malevolent joke which he perpetrated upon the deer; the mole lives underground, say the Cherokee, for fear of rival magicians jealous of his powers as a love-charmer; and in Yuchi story the red grain of the cedar is due to the fact that to its top is fastened the bleeding head of the wizard who tried to kill the sun.

The motives inspiring the animal stories are various. Doubtless, the mere love of story-telling, for entertainment's sake, is a fundamental stimulus; the plot is suggested by nature, and the fancy enlarges upon it, frequently with a humorous or satirical vein. But from satire to moralizing is an easy turn; the story-teller who sees human foible in the traits of animals is well on the way to become a fabulist. Many of the Indian stories are intended to point a moral, just as many of them are designed to give an answer, more or less credible, to a natural difference that stimulates curiosity. Thus we find morals and science, mingling instruction with entertainment, in this most primitive of literary forms.

Vanity is one of the motives most constantly employed. The Choctaw story of the raccoon and the opossum tells how, long ago, both of these animals possessed bushy tails, but the opossum's tail was white, whereas the raccoon's was beautifully striped. At the raccoon's advice, the opossum undertook to brown the hairs of his tail at a fire, but his lack of caution caused the hair to burn, and his tail has been smooth ever since. A similar theme, with an obvious moral, is the Cherokee fable of the buzzard's topknot: "The buzzard used to have a fine topknot, of which he was so proud that he refused to eat carrion, and while the other birds were pecking at the body of a deer or other animal which they had found he would strut around and say: `You may have it all, it is not good enough for me.' They resolved to punish him, and with the help of the buffalo carried out a plot by which the buzzard lost not his topknot alone, but nearly all the other feathers on his head. He lost his pride at the same time, so that he is willing enough now to eat carrion for a living.

Vengeance, theft, gratitude, skill, and trickery in contest are other motives which make of these tales not only explanations but lessons. The fable of the lion and the mouse has a Cherokee analogue in the story of the wolf whose eyes were plastered shut, while he slept, by a malicious raccoon; a bird, taking pity on the wolf, pecked the plaster from his eyes; and the wolf rewarded the bird by telling him where to find red paint with which he might colour the sombre feathers of his breast. This was the origin of the redbird. The story of the hare and the tortoise is recalled by the race of the crane and the humming-bird; the swift humming-bird outstripped the crane by day but slept at night; the lumbering crane, because of his powers of endurance, flying night and day, won the race. Even more suggestive of the same fable is the tale of how the terrapin beat the rabbit, who had challenged him to a race, by posting at each station on the course a member of his family, himself awaiting his antagonist at the finish.

Magic and transformation stories form still another class presenting many analogies to similar Old-World tales. The Cherokee have a story, immediately reminiscent of German folk-tales, of a girl who found a bullfrog sitting beside the spring where she went for water; the bullfrog transformed himself into a young man, whom she married, but his face always had a froggish look. In other cases transformation is for the sake of revenge, as the eagle who assumed human form after his mate had been killed, and who took vengeance upon the tribe of the hunter. Probably the moral of the broken tabu lies at the basis of this story, for this is a frequent motive in tales where men are transformed into animals or animals assume human shape. Thus, a hungry hunter is turned into a snake for eating squirrel meat, which was tabu to him; another has his death foretold by a katydid whose song he ridicules; another is lured by a doe, which comes to life after he has slain her, to the cavern of the deer, and is there himself trans-formed into a deer, returning to his own people only to die. Stories of the Rip Van Winkle type develop from this theme of the hunter lured away by animals, as in the instance of the man who spent a night with the panthers, and found, upon his return, that he had been lost a whole season; 33 while European tales of merfolk find their parallels in stories of under-water towns to which fishermen are dragged or lured by wizard fishes.



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