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Cataclysms

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The notion of cataclysmic destructions of the world by flood or fire, often with a concomitant falling of the sky, is frequent in West-Coast myth. Indeed, many of the creation-stories seem to be, in fact, traditions of the reforming of the earth after the great annihilation, although in some myths both the creation and the re-creation are described. One of the most interesting is the genesis-legend of the Kato, an Athapascan tribe closely associated with the Pomo, who are of Kulanapan stock.

The story begins with the making of a new sky, to replace the old one, which is soon to fall. "The sandstone rock which formed the sky was old, they say. It thundered in the east; it thundered in the south; it thundered in the west; it thundered in the north. `The rock is old, we will fix it,' he said. There were two, Nagaitcho and Thunder. `We will stretch it above far to the east,' one of them said. They stretched it. They walked on the sky." So the tale begins. Nagaitcho, the Great Traveller, and Thunder then proceed to construct an outer cosmos of the usual Californian type: a heaven supported by pillars, with openings at each of the cardinal points for winds and clouds and mist, and with winter and summer trails for the sun's course. They created a man and a woman, presumably to become the progenitors of the next world-generation. Then upon the earth that was they caused rain to fall: "Every day it rained, every night it rained. All the people slept. The sky fell. The land was not. For a very great distance there was no land. The waters of the oceans came together. Animals of all kinds drowned. Where the water went there were no trees. There was no land. Water came, they say. The waters completely joined everywhere. There was no land or mountains or rocks, but only water. Trees and grass were not. There were no fish, or land animals, or birds. Human beings and animals alike had been washed away. The wind did not then blow through the portals of the world, nor was there snow, nor frost, nor rain. It did not thunder nor did it lighten. Since there were no trees to be struck, it did not thunder. There were neither clouds nor fog, nor was there a sun. It was very dark. Then it was that this earth with its great, long horns got up and walked down this way from the north. As it walked along through the deep places the water rose to its shoulders. When it came up into shallower places, it looked up. There is a ridge in the north upon which the waves break. When it came to the middle of the world, in the east under the rising of the sun, it looked up again. There where it looked up will be a large land near to the coast. Far away to the south it continued looking up. It walked under the ground. Having come from the north it traveled far south and lay down. Nagaitcho, standing on earth's head, had been carried to the south. Where earth lay down Nagaitcho placed its head as it should be and spread gray clay between its eyes and on each horn. Upon the clay he placed a layer of reeds and then another layer of clay. In this he placed upright blue grass, brush, and trees. `I have finished,' he said. `Let there be mountain peaks here on its head. Let the waves of the sea break against them.

The Wintun creation-myth, narrated by Curtin, possesses a plot of the same type. Just as he perceives that the end of the First World and of the First People is approaching, Olelbis, He-Who-Sits-Above, builds his paradisic sweat-house in the sky-world to become a refuge for such as may attain to it. The cataclysm is caused by the theft of Flint from the Swift, who, for revenge, induces Shooting Star, Fire Drill, and the latter's wife, Buckeye Bush, to set the world afire. "Olelbis looked down into the burning world. He could see nothing but waves of flame; rocks were burning, the ground was burning, everything was burning. Great rolls and piles of smoke were rising; fire flew up toward the sky in flames, in great sparks and brands. Those sparks are sky eyes, and all the stars that we now see in the sky came from that time when the first world was burned. The sparks stuck fast in the sky, and have remained there ever since. Quartz rocks and fire in the rocks are from that time; there was no fire in the rocks before the world fire. . . . During the fire they could see nothing of the world below but flames and smoke." Olelbis did not like this; and on the advice of two old women, his Grand-mothers, as he called them, he sent the Eagle and the Humming-Bird to prop up the sky in the north, and to summon thence Kahit, the Wind, and Mem Loimis, the Waters, who lived beyond the first sky.' "The great fire was blazing, roaring all over the earth, burning rocks, earth, trees, people, burning everything. Mem Loimis started, and with her Kahit. Water rushed in through the open place made by Lutchi when he raised the sky. It rushed in like a crowd of rivers, covered the earth, and put out the fire as it rolled on toward the south. There was so much water outside that could not come through that it rose to the top of the sky and rushed on toward Olelpanti.... Mem Loimis went forward, and water rose mountains high. Following closely after Mem Loimis came Kahit. He had a whistle in his mouth; as he moved forward he blew it with all his might, and made a terrible noise. The whistle was his own; he had had it always. He came flying and blowing; he looked like an enormous bat with wings spread. As he flew south toward the other side of the sky, his two cheek feathers grew straight out, became immensely long, waved up and down, grew till they could touch the sky on both sides." Finally the fire was quenched, and at the request of Olelbis, Kahit drove Mem Loimis, the Waters, back to her underworld home, while beneath Olelpanti there was now nothing but naked rocks, with a single pool left by the receding waters. The myth goes on to tell of the refashioning and refurnishing of the world by Olelbis, assisted by such of the survivors of the cataclysm of fire and flood as had managed to escape to Olelpanti. A net is spread over the sky, and through it soil, brought from beyond the confines of the sky-capped world, is sifted down to cover the boulders. Olelbis marks out the rivers, and water is drawn to fill them from the single lakelet that remains. Fire, now sadly needed in the world, is stolen from the lodge of Fire Drill and Buckeye Bush the parents of flame without their discovering the loss (an unusual turn in the tale of the theft of fire). The earth is fertilized by Old Man Acorn and by seed dropping down from the flower lodge of Olelbis in the skies. Many animals spring into being from the feathers and bits of the body of Wokwuk, a large and beautiful bird, with very red eyes; while numerous others are the result of the transformations wrought by Olelbis, who now metamorphoses the survivors of the first world into the animals and objects whose nature they had in reality always possessed. A particularly charming episode tells of the snaring of the clouds. These had sprung into being when the waters of the flood struck the fires of the conflagration, and they were seeking ever to escape back to the north, whence Kahit and Mem Loimis had come. Three of them, a black, a white, and a red one, are captured; the skin of the red cloud is kept by the hunters, who often hang it up in the west, though sometimes in the east; the black and the white skins are given to the Grandmothers of Olelbis. "Now," said the two old women, "we have this white skin and this black one. When we hang the white skin outside this house, white clouds will go from it, will go away down south, where its people began to live, and then they will come from the south and travel north to bring rain. When they come back, we will hang out the black skin, and from it a great many black rain clouds will go out, and from these clouds heavy rain will fall on all the world below." The Pacific Coast is a land of two seasons, the wet and the dry, and these twin periods could scarcely be more beautifully symbolized.



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