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The Mystery Of Death

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Why men die is a problem no less mysterious to the human mind than is the coming of life. One account of the origin of death, common to a number of Plains tribes, makes it the consequence of an unfavourable chance at the beginning of the world. As the Blackfeet tell it, Old Man and Old Woman debated whether people should die. "People will never die," said Old Man. "Oh," said Old Woman, "that will never do; because, if people live always, there will be too many people in the world." "Well," said Old Man, "we do not want to die forever. We shall die for four days and then come to life again." "Oh, no," said Old Woman, "it will be better to die forever, so that we shall be sorry for each other." Unable to agree, they leave the matter to a sign: Old Man throws a buffalo chip into the water; if it sinks, men are to die. "Now, Old Woman had great power, and she caused the chip to turn into a stone, so it sank. So when we die, we die forever." . . . We must have death in order that we may pity one another! there is an elemental pathos in this simple motive, as in the not dissimilar Eskimo parable of the Old Woman who chose light and death rather than life amid darkness.

A tale of a different complexion, touched by the characteristic astrological genius of the tribe, is the Pawnee story of the origin of death. Mankind had not yet been created when Tirawa sent the giant Lightning to explore the earth. In his sack the tornado given him by Bright Star, who has command of the elements, Lightning carried the constellations which Morning Star is accustomed to drive before him; and, after making the circuit of the earth, Lightning released the stars, to encamp there in their celestial order. Here they would have remained, but a certain star, called Fool-Coyote (because he deceives the coyotes, which howl at him, thinking him to be the morning star, whom he precedes), was jealous of the power of Bright Star, and he placed upon the earth a wolf, which stole the tornado-sack of Lightning. He released the beings that were in the sack, but these, when they saw that it was the wolf, and not their master Lightning, which had freed them, slew the animal; and ever since earth has been the abode of warfare and of death.

Another Pawnee myth, with the same astrological turn, tells of the termination that is to come to all earthly life. Various portents will precede: the moon will turn red and the sun will die in the skies. The North Star is the power which is to pre-side at the end of all things, as the Bright Star of evening was the ruler when life began. The Morning Star, the messenger of heaven, which revealed the mysteries of fate to the people, said that in the beginning, at the first great council which apportioned the star folk their stations, two of the people fell ill. One of these was old, and one was young. They were placed upon stretchers, carried by stars (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor), and the two stretchers were tied to the North Star. Now the South Star, the Spirit Star, or Star of Death, comes higher and higher in the heavens, and nearer and nearer the North Star, and when the time for the end of life draws nigh, the Death Star will approach so close to the North Star that it will capture the stars that bear the stretchers and cause the death of the persons who are lying ill upon these stellar couches. The North Star will then disappear and move away and the South Star will take possession of earth and of its people. "The command for the ending of all things will be given by the North Star, and the South Star will carry out the commands. Our people were made by the stars. When the time comes for all things to end our people will turn into small stars and will fly to the South Star, where they belong." Like other Indians, the Pawnee regard the Milky Way as the path taken by the souls after death. The soul goes first to the North Star, they say, which sets them upon the north end of the celestial road, by which they proceed to the Spirit Star of the south.

Yet not all the spirits of the dead go to the stars at least, not directly. For the Indian the earth is filled with ghostly visitants, spirits of men and animals wandering through the places which life had made familiar. One of the most gruesome classes of these is formed by the Scalped Men. Men slain and scalped in battle are regarded as not truly dead; they become magic beings, dwelling in caves or haunting the wilds, for shame prevents them from returning to their own people. Their heads are bloody and their bodies mutilated, as left by their enemies, and one horribly vivid Pawnee tale tells how they address one another by names descriptive of the patches of hair still left upon their heads - "One-Hair, Forehead-Hair, Hair-Back-of-the-Head, all of you come!"

The story in which this occurs is of a man who had lost wife and son, and in his bereavement was wandering over the prairies in quest of death. He was met by the Scalped Men of his tribe, and these, taking pity upon him, implored Tirawa to return the dead to the land of the living. The request was granted with certain restrictions dead and living were to encamp for four days, side by side, without speaking to one another; the bereaved father might speak to his son, but might not touch him. The tribesfolk assembled in camp; they beheld a huge dust approaching; the spirits of their departed friends passed before them. But when the father saw his son among the dead, he seized hold of him and hugged him, and in his heart he said, "I will not let you go!" The people shrieked; the dead disappeared; and death has continued upon earth.

Not less deeply pathetic is another Pawnee tale on the Orpheus and Eurydice theme. A young man joined a war-party in order to win ponies as a bridal fee for the girl of his desire. When her lover no longer appeared, the maiden, not knowing that he had gone to war, sickened and died. On the return of the war-party, it was noised through the village that the young brave had captured more ponies than any of the other men; and when he arrived at his father's lodge, his mother told him the tribal gossip, but failed to mention the girl's death. He went to the spring where the maidens go for water, the meeting-place of Indian lovers, but his sweetheart was not among them. The next day his mother remarked that a girl of the tribe had died during his absence, and then he knew that it was his love who was dead. When he learned this, he called for meat and a new pair of moccasins, and went forth in search of the girl's grave, for the people, following the buffalo, had moved from the place in which she had died. He came to the spot where the grave was and remained beside it for several days, weeping. Then he went on to the empty village, where the people had been when the girl died, for he saw smoke rising from one of the earth lodges. He peeped in, and there he saw his beloved, together with the buffalo robes and other objects which had been buried with her. As he stood gazing, the maiden said, "You have been standing there a long time. Come into the lodge, but do not come near me. Sit down near the entrance." Night after night he was allowed to return, each time coming a little nearer to the girl, but never being permitted to touch her. Finally, she told him that, if he would do in all things as she said, he might be allowed to keep her. After this, invisible dancers filled the lodge, each night becoming more visible, until at last he saw himself surrounded by a group of spirits of the girl's relatives. The leader said to him, "Young man, when you first started from the village where your people are you began to cry. We knew what you were crying about. You were poor in spirit because this girl had died. All of us agreed that we would send the girl back. You can see her now, but she is not real. You must be careful and not make her angry or you will lose her. You have been a brave man to stay with the girl when we came in, but this is the way we are. You can not see us, but some time we can turn into people and you can see us, though we are not real. We are spirits. There is one thing you must do before the girl can stay with you. We have smoked." The feat that remained to be accomplished was that, when her mortal relatives should return and approach her grave with meat-offerings, he must be able to seize and hold her in their presence. Four trials would be granted him; if he failed in each essay, she would vanish forever. Thrice he was thrown, and the girl escaped; the fourth time, with the aid of her uncles, he succeeded in holding her, and she became his wife. Only her mother seemed to be suspicious of her; the old woman took her hoe, went out to her daughter's grave, and dug till she found the bones; but when she returned, the girl said to her: "Mother, I know what you have done. You do not believe that I am your daughter; but, mother, I am your daughter. My body lies up there, but I am here with you. I am not real, and if you people do not always treat me properly, I will suddenly disappear."

The spirit bride gave birth to a son in due time, but the child was never allowed to touch the ground, and the mother never made moccasins for her husband. He had become a man of renown and he wished to take another wife. The spirit wife warned him not to do so, but he persisted. Eventually a quarrel came, due to the jealousy of the new wife, and the man struck his spirit wife. She said: "Do not strike me any more, for you know what I told you. For one thing I am glad, and that is I have a child. If I had remained in the Spirit Land I should never have been allowed to have a child. The child is mine. You do not love my child. I love my child. When I am gone I shall take my child with me." The mother disappeared in a whirlwind, and the next morning the child was found dead. The man, too, died of grief and remorse, but the people buried him apart from the ghost wife's grave.



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