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The World And Its Denizens

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Men's ideas of the form of the world, in the pre-scientific stage of thinking, are determined by the aspect of their natural environment: dwellers by the sea look upon the land as an island floating like a raft on cosmic waters; plains-folk believe the earth to be a circle overcanopied by the tent of heaven; mountaineers naturally regard the mountains as the pillars of the firmament supporting the sky-roof over the habitable valleys. The Thompson River Indians, of Salishan stock, dwelling amid the dense mountains that stand between the Fraser and Columbia rivers, consider the earth to be square, says Teit, the corners directed to the points of the compass. It is comparatively level toward the centre, but rises in mountain chains at the outer borders, where, too, clouds and mists ascend from the encircling lakes. The earth rises to-ward the north; hence it grows colder as one travels in this direction.

Long ago, these Indians say, earth was destitute of trees and of many kinds of vegetation; there were no salmon nor berries. The people of the time, though they had human form, were really animals, gifted with magical powers. Into the world then came certain transformers, the greatest of whom were the Coyote and the Old Man, and these were the beings who put the earth in order, giving the mountains and valleys their present aspects and transforming the wicked among the ancient world denizens into the animal shapes which are still theirs; the descendants of the good among these pristine beings are the Indians of today. Many of these creatures, too, were transformed into rocks and boulders: on a certain mountain three stone men may be seen sitting in a stone canoe; they are three human beings who escaped thither when the deluge overtook the world; Coyote alone survived this flood, for he transformed himself into a piece of wood, and floated until the waters subsided.

It was Coyote's son, created by his father from quartz, who climbed to the sky-world on a tree which he made to grow by lifting his eyelids. In that realm he found all sorts of utensils useful to man, but when he chose one, the others attacked him, so that he cursed them all thenceforth to be servants of the human race. He returned to the world of man by means of a basket which Spider lowered for him; and on earth, in a series of miracles, he distributed the food animals for the people to live upon. The place where Coyote's son came back from the sky is the centre of the, earth.

There is a world below the world of men as well as a world above. In the world below the people are Ants, very active and gay and fond of the game of lacrosse. On a certain day one of two brothers disappeared; the remaining brother searched far and wide, but could find no trace of him. Now the Ants had stolen him, and had carried him away to the under-world, where he played with them at lacrosse. But one day, as he was in the midst of a game, he began to weep, and the Ants said that some one must have struck him with a lacrosse stick. "No! Nobody struck me," he answered. "I am sorrowful because while I was playing a tear fell on my hand. It was my brother's tear from the upper world, and I know by it that he is searching for me and weeping." Then the Ants in pity sent a messenger to the upper world to tell the bereaved one that his brother was well and happy in the underworld. "How can I see my brother?" he asked. "I must not tell you," replied the Ant. "Go to the Spider, and he may tell you." But the Spider said, "I cannot let you down, as my thread is too weak. Go to the Crow." The Crow answered, "I will not tell you with my mouth, but I will tell you in a dream"; and in the vision he was told to lift the stone over the fireplace in his lodge, and there would be the entrance to the lower world. He was to close his eyes, leap downward, and, when he alighted, jump again. Four times he was to leap with closed eyes. The bereaved brother did so, and the fourth jump brought him to the lowest of the worlds, where he was happy with his brother. This myth presents analogies not only with the Navaho conception of an ant-infested series of under-worlds, but far to the south, in Central America, with the Cakchiquel legend of the two brothers who played at ball with the powers of the underworld; " and again, on a world canvas, with the myriad tales of the bereaved one, god or mortal, seeking the ghost of his beloved in gloomy Hades."

These same Indians tell a story that seems almost an echo of the Greek tale of Halcyone or of Tereus lamenting the lost Itys. A certain hunter, they say, commanded his sister never to eat venison while he was on the hunt, but she disobeyed, and he struck her. In chagrin she transformed herself into a golden plover and flew away, while he, since he really loved his sister, began to weep and bemoan his fate, until he, too, became a bird, crying disconsolately, "Na xlentcetca," "Oh, my younger sister!"

Like the southern tribes, the Salish tell of a time when the Sun was a man-slayer, nearer to earth than now. Across a bridge of fog an unlucky gambler made his way to the Sun's house, where the Sun's son concealed him from his cannibal father. "Mum, mum, mum! There must be a man here," said the Sun; but his son persuaded him that there was none, and sent the gambler back to earth, burdened with riches.

The Thunderbird is not so huge as the bird of the Plains tribes; he is in fact a small, red-plumaged creature which shoots arrows from his wing as from a bow, the rebound of the wing making the thunder, while the twinkling of his eyes is the lightning; the large black stones found in the country are the Thunder's arrows. The winds are people, dwelling north and south; some describe the wind as a man with a large head and a body thin and light, fluttering above the ground. Long ago the South-Wind People gave a daughter in marriage to the North, but their babe was thrown into the water by the bride's brother, whose southern warmth was unable to endure the little one's colder nature; and the child became ice floating down the river. Where the powerful Chinook wind blows, capable of transforming the temperature from winter to summer in a few hours, the Indians tell of a great struggle, a wrestling-match of long ago, in which five brothers of the Warm-Wind People were defeated and decapitated by the Cold-Wind Brothers; but the son of one of the Warm-Wind Brothers grew up to avenge his uncles, and defeated the Cold-Wind Brothers, allowing only one to live, and that with restricted powers. Both the stories of the north marrying the south and of the wrestling winds, or seasons are found far east among the Algonquians and Iroquois; but the allegory is too natural to necessitate any theory of borrowing any more than we might suppose the bodiless cherubs of the old Italian painters to be akin to the Salish wind-people.



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