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The Morning Star

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



After the Sun the most important of the celestial divinities among the Plains tribes is the Morning Star (Venus). The Pawnee priest, Tahirussawichi, describes him thus:

"The Morning Star is one of the lesser powers. Life and strength and fruitfulness are with the Morning Star. We are reverent toward it. Our fathers performed sacred ceremonies in its honor. The Morning Star is like a man; he is painted red all over; that is the color of life. He is clad in leggings and a robe is wrapped about him. On his head is a soft downy eagle's feather, painted red. This feather represents the soft, light cloud that is high in the heavens, and the red is the touch of a ray of the coming sun. The soft, downy feather is the symbol of breath and life."

This is the star for which the Pawnee watch, as the herald of the sun, in the great ritual chant to the solar god. "The star comes from a great distance, too far away for us to see the place where it starts. At first we can hardly see it; we lose sight of it, it is so far off; then we see it again, for it is coming steadily toward us all the time. We watch it approach; it comes nearer and nearer; its light grows brighter and brighter." A hymn is sung to the star. "As we sing, the Morning Star comes still nearer and now we see him standing there in the heavens, a strong man shining brighter and brighter. The soft plume in his hair moves with the breath of the new day, and the ray of the sun touches it with color. As he stands there so bright, he is bringing us strength and new life. As we look upon him he grows less bright, he is receding, going back to his dwelling place whence he came. We watch him vanishing, passing out of our sight. He has left with us the gift of life which Tirawa-atius sent him to bestow."

Formerly the Skidi Pawnee were accustomed to sacrifice a captive virgin to the Morning Star, her body being used magically to fertilize the fields of maize. A similar association of ideas, though on the plane of mythic poetry rather than on that of barbarous rite, seems to underlie the Blackfoot legend of Poļa, " Scarface," the Star Boy.

Long ago, according to this story, a maiden, Feather Woman, was sleeping in the grass beside her tipi. The Morning Star loved her, and she became with child. Thenceforth she suffered the disdain and ridicule of her tribesfolk, until one day, as she went to the river for water, she met a young man who proclaimed himself her husband, the Morning Star. "She saw in his hair a yellow plume, and in his hand a juniper branch with a spider web hanging from one end. He was tall and straight and his hair was long and shining. His beautiful clothes were of soft-tanned skins, and from them came a fragrance of pine and sweet grass." Morning Star placed the feather in her hair and, giving her the juniper branch, directed her to shut her eyes; she held the upper strand of the spider's web in her hand and placed her foot on the lower, and in a moment she was transported to the sky. Morning Star led her to the lodge of his parents, the Sun and the Moon; and there she gave birth to a son, Star Boy (the planet Jupiter). The Moon, her mother-in-law, gave her a root digger, saying, "This should be used only by pure women. You can dig all kinds of roots with it, but I warn you not to dig up the large turnip growing near the home of Spider Man." Curiosity eventually got the better of caution; Feather Woman, with the aid of two cranes, uprooted the forbidden turnip, and found that it covered a window in the sky looking down to the earth she had left; at sight of the camp of her tribesfolk she became sad with home-sickness, and the Sun, her husband's father, decreed that she must be banished from the sky, and be re-turned to earth. Morning Star led her to the home of Spider Man, whose web had drawn her to the sky, and, with a "medicine-bonnet" upon her head, and her babe, Star Boy, in her arms, she was lowered in an elk's skin to earth. Here, pining for her husband and the lost sky-land, Feather Woman soon died, having first told her story to her tribesfolk. Her son, Star Boy, grew up in poverty, and, because of a scar upon his face, was named Poļa, "Scarface." When he became a young man, he loved a chieftain's daughter; but she re-fused him because of his scar. Since a medicine-woman told him that this could be removed only by the Sun-God himself, Poļa set out for the lodge of the solar deity, travelling westward to the Pacific. For three days and three nights he lay on the shore fasting and praying; on the fourth day he beheld a bright trail leading across the water, and following it he came to the lodge of the Sun. In the sky-world Poļa killed seven huge birds that had threatened the life of Morning Star, and, as a reward, the Sun not only removed the scar from Poļa's face, but also taught him the ritual of the Sun-Dance and gave him raven feathers to wear as a sign that he came from the Sun, besides a lover's flute and a song which would win the heart of the maid whom he loved. The Sun then sent him back to earth — by way of the short path, Wolf Trail (the Milky Way) — telling him to instruct the Black-feet in the ritual of the dance. Afterward Poļa returned to the sky with the maiden of his choice.

"Morning Star," said the narrator of this myth, "was given to us as a sign to herald the coming of the Sun. . . . The `Star that stands still' (North Star) is different from other stars, because it never moves. All the other stars walk round it. It is a hole in the sky, the same hole through which So-at-sa-ki (Feather Woman) was first drawn up to the sky and then let down again to earth. It is the hole through which she gazed upon earth, after digging up the forbidden turnip. Its light is the radiance from the home of the Sun God shining through. The half circle of stars to the east (Northern Crown) is the lodge of the Spider Man, and the five bright stars just beyond (in the constellation of Hercules) are his five fingers, with which he spun the web, upon which Soatsaki was let down from the sky."

Corona Borealis is an important constellation in the mythic lore of nearly all the tribes of the Plains. According to the Pawnee, it is a circle of chiefs who are the guardians of the mystic sign of Tirawaatius, and the Pawnee society of Raritesharu (chiefs in charge of the rites given by Tirawa) paint their faces with the blue lines representing the arc of heaven and the path of descent, and wear upon their heads the featherdown symbol of celestial life. "The members of this society do not dance and sing; they talk quietly and try to be like the stars."

Ursa Major and the Pleiades are other constellations conspicuous in Indian myth. The Assiniboin regard the seven stars of Ursa Major as seven youths who were driven by poverty to transform themselves, and who rose to heaven by means of a spider's web. For the Blackfeet also these stars are seven brothers who have been pursued into the heavens by a huge bear (an interesting reversal of the Eskimo story). The Mandan believed this constellation to be an ermine; some of the Sioux held it to be a bier, followed by mourners. The Pleiades, in Blackfoot legend, are the "lost children," driven by poverty to take refuge in the sky.

Everywhere stars were associated with the dead. The Mandan considered them to be deceased men: when a child is born, a star descends to earth in human form; at death, it appears once more in the heavens as a star." A meteor was frequently regarded as a forerunner of death; and the Milky Way, as with the eastern tribes, is the path by which souls ascend into heaven.



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