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Prophets And Wonder Workers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the legendary lore of all Indian tribes the part played by wonder-workers in the affairs of men is the predominating theme. Sometimes these are demiurgic beings, exercising and evincing their might in the process of creation. Sometimes they are magical animals, endowed with shape-shifting powers. Sometimes they are human heroes who acquire wonderful potencies through some special initiation granted them by the Nature-Powers, and so become great prophets, or medicine-men. Frequently such human heroes are of obscure origin in a very familiar type of story, a poor or an orphan boy who passes from a place despised into one of prominence and benefaction.

In these legends various motives are manifest — a feeling for history and the truth of nature, love of the marvellous, and moral allegory. G. A. Dorsey divides Pawnee myths into four great classes: (1) Tales of the heavenly beings, regarded as true, and having religious significance. (2) Tales of Ready-to-Give the culture hero, especially pertaining to the guardian deity of the people in the matter of food-quests. (3) Stories of wonder-deeds on earth, the majority of them being concerned with the acquisition of "medicine"-powers by some individual. (4) Coyote tales, not regarded as true, but commonly pointing a moral. The coyote, among the Pawnee, usually appears as a low trickster, not as a magical transformer, as in his more truly mythic embodiments; and apparently he is with them a degraded mythological being, perhaps belonging to an older stratum of belief than their present astronomical theology, perhaps borrowed from other tribal mythologies. There is reason to believe, says Dorsey, that when the Pawnee were still residents of Nebraska the word coyote was rarely employed in these stories, and that the Wolf was the hero of the Trickster tales, this Wolf being the truly mythological being who was sent by the Wolf Star to steal the tornado-sack of Lightning, and so to introduce death upon earth. If the Wolf be indeed a kind of mythic embodiment of the tornado, which yearly deals death on some portion of the Great Plains, the Omaha description of "the male gray wolf, whose cry, uttered without effort, verily made the earth to tremble," will be at once full of significance; and it will inevitably call to mind the Icelandic dog, Garm, baying at world-destroying Ragnarok, and the wolf, Fenrir, loosed to war upon the gods of heaven.

Stories of the Trickster and Transformer are universal in North America. In the eastern portion of the continent the Algonquian Great Hare (and his degenerate doublet, "Brer Rabbit") is the conspicuous personage, though he sometimes appears in human form, as in Glooscap and his kindred. On the Great Plains, and westward to the Pacific, the Coyote is the most common embodiment of this character. Sometimes he appears as a true demiurge, sometimes as the typical example for a well-shot moral or as the butt of satire and ridicule. Occasionally, the Trickster and the Coyote appear as doubles, as in some Arapaho stories of Nihancan, vying with Coyote in contests of trickery; the Assiniboin Tricksters, Inktonmi and Sitconski, have similar encounters with the Coyote or the Rabbit, and they are made heroes of tales which elsewhere have the animals themselves as central figures. Nihancan, Inktonmi, Sitconski, and the Athapascan trickster, Estas, all appear as heroes of cosmogonic events, though they are apparently in no sense deities, but only mythic personages of the Age of Giants and Titans, when animal-beings were earth's rulers. "Old Man" of the Blackfeet and "Old Man Coyote" of the Crow tribe play the same rôle; so that everywhere among the Plains tribes we seem to see a process of progressive anthro-pomorphitation of a primitive Wolf god, who was the demiurgic hero. Whether such a being was ever worshipped, as are the heavenly gods in the cult of Sun and Stars, is a matter of doubt.

Among other animals the buffalo, and among birds the eagle, held places of first importance; but all known creatures were regarded as having potencies worthy of veneration and desirable of acquisition. The Pawnee spoke of the animal-powers as Nahurak, whom they thought to be organized in lodges. Of these lodges, Pahuk on the Platte River was regarded as the most important. According to a story of which there are several variants, a chief slew his son — in one version as a sacrifice to Tirawa, in other forms of the legend because he was jealous of the son's medicine-powers — and cast the body into the Platte. The corpse was observed by the King-fisher, who informed the animals at Pahuk. When the body floated down to their hillside lodge, the animals took it, carried it in by the vine-hidden entrance, and sent to the animals of Nakiskat, the animal lodge to the west, to inquire whether life should be restored to the body of the slain youth. The animals of Nakiskat referred the matter to the animals of Tsuraspako, still westward on the Platte, and these sent him on to Kitsawitsak, southward in Kansas; there he was bidden to go to Pahua and thence again to Pahuk, all the lodges agreeing that the verdict should be left to the ruling Nahurak of Pahuk. The latter decided to restore life to the body and to send the youth back to his tribe instructed in the animal mysteries. There he became a great teacher and doctor, and taught the people to give offerings to the Nahurak of Pahuk, which was thenceforth a place of great sanctity.

A sojourn in the interior of a hill or a mountain which is the lodge of Nature-Powers who instruct the comer in medicinal mysteries is a frequent episode, especially in stories ac-counting for the origin of a certain cult or rite. The Cheyenne legend of the introduction of the Sun-Dance is a tale of this character. In a time of famine a young medicine-man went into the wilderness with a woman, the wife of a chief, journeying until they came to a forest-clad mountain, beyond which lay a sea of waters. The mountain opened, and they entered; and Roaring Thunder, who talked to them from the top of the mountain-peak, instructed them in the ritual of the dance. "From henceforth, by following my teachings, you and your children shall be blessed abundantly," he said; "follow my instructions accurately, and then, when you go forth from this mountain, all of the heavenly bodies will move. The Roaring Thunder will awaken them, the sun, moon, stars, and the rain will bring forth fruits of all kinds, all the animals will come forth behind you from this mountain, and they will follow you home. Take this horned cap to wear when you perform the ceremony that I have given you, and you will control the buffalo and all other animals. Put the cap on as you go forth from here and the earth will bless you." Followed by herds of buffalo, which lay down as they camped and marched as they marched, they returned to their people, where the ritual was performed; while the horned head-dress was preserved as a sacred object and handed down in the tribe. In the Sun-Dance ceremonial the altar is made of a buffalo skull, and it is often by dragging buffalo skulls, attached by thongs to the muscles of the back, that vows are fulfilled and penance is performed. It is not difficult to see that the buffalo, as the great food animal of the Plains, is here the important personage, the gift of the heavenly powers; and it would be interesting to theorize on some similar origin for the bucrania which adorned the places of sacrifice of classical peoples.

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