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Fire And Light

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



In the beginning the First World was without light or heat; blackness and cold were everywhere, or if there were light and warmth, they were distant and inaccessible: "the world was dark and there was no fire; the only light was the Morning, and it was so far away in the high mountains of the east that the people could not see it; they lived in total darkness" with this suggestive image of valley life begins a Miwok tale of the theft of Morning. Sometimes it is Morning or Day-light that is stolen, sometimes it is the Sun, oftenest it is Fire; but the essential plot of the story seldom varies: on the con-fines of the world there is a lodge in which the Light or the Fire is guarded by jealous watchmen, from whom their treasure must be taken by craft; generally, the theft is discovered and a pursuit is started, but relays of animals succeed in bearing off a fragment of the treasure.

Coyote is the usual plotter and hero of myths of fire and light.

In a dramatic Kato story he dreams of the sun in the east. With three mice for companions he sets out, coming at last to the lodge where two old women have the sun bound to the floor. When they sleep, the mice gnaw the bands that hold the sun, and Coyote seizes it, pursued by the awakened women, whom he changes into stone. From the stolen sun he fashions all the heavenly bodies: "Moon, sun, fly into the sky. Stars become many in it. In the morning you shall come up. You shall go around the world. In the east you shall rise again in the morning. You shall furnish light." Not always, however, is the venture so successful; in the Miwok tale the stealing of the sun results in the transformation of the First People into animals, and the like metamorphosis follows on the theft of fire as narrated by the Modoc. Sometimes the fire-origin story is literal and simple, as in the Wishosk legend of the dog who kindled the first flame by rubbing two sticks; sometimes it is dramatic and grim, as in the duel of magicians, which the Coos tradition narrates, in which one is eaten by maggots till he is nothing but bones, before he finally succeeds in so terrifying his opponent that the latter flees, and his wealth of fire and water a unique combination is taken. Again, there are poetic versions the Shasta story which makes Pain and his children the guardians of fire; or the Miwok tale of the Robin who got his red breast from nestling his stolen flame, to keep it alive; or that of the Mouse who charmed the fireowners with music and hid a coal in his flute.

The Maidu, naturally enough, make Thunder and his Daughters (who must be the lightnings) the guardians of fire. They tell, in a hero story, how the elder of two brothers is lured away by, and pursues, a daughter of Thunder. He shoots an arrow ahead of her, and secures it from her pack-basket (the storm-cloud) without harm. He makes his way through a briar field by the aid of a flint which cuts a path for him. Protected by moccasins of red-hot stone, he follows her through a field of rattlesnakes, and when he finds her he cuts off the serpent teeth which surround her vagina (a variant of one of the most wide-spread of North American myth-incidents). On his moccasins he crosses a frozen lake, and with the assistance of a feather the universal symbol of life he fords a deep river and passes the Valley-of-Death-by-Old-Age.8 Arrived at the house of Thunder, he avoids poisoned food, breaks a pitch-log for firewood, escapes a water monster that nearly drowns him, and slays a grizzly bear which pursues him, when on a deer-hunt, by shooting it in the left hind foot, its only vulnerable spot. These labours performed, the North American Hercules takes the daughter of Thunder to wife, and returns to his home.

This is one of the many hero tales in which the West-Coast mythology is rich. The red-hot moccasins suggest the personification of volcanic forces, so that the whole myth may well be the story of a volcano, wedded to its lightnings, cleaving lake and river and valley, and overcoming the mighty of earth. A similar origin may be that of the Miwok giant Kelok, hurling his red-hot rocks and setting the world ablaze surely a volcanic Titan.

Another type of hero is the child of the Sun. The Maidu story of the exploits of the Conquerors, born at one birth to Cloud Man and a virgin, is strikingly like the South-Western tales of the divine twins, sons of the Sun; and a somewhat similar legend is narrated by the Yuki. The kind of hero more distinctive of the West Coast, however, is "Dug-fromthe-Ground." In the Hupa recension a virgin, forbidden by her grandmother to uproot two stocks (the mandrake superstition), disobeys, and digs up a child. He grows to manhood, visits the sky-world, and finally journeys to the house of the sun in the east, where he passes laborious tests, and in the game of hockey overcomes the immortals, including Earthquake and Thunder. Tulchuherris is the Wintun name for this hero; he is dug up by an old woman, and when he emerges a noise like thunder is heard in the distant east, the home of the sun.

Curtin regards Tulchuherris as the lightning, born of the fog which issues from the earth after sunrise.

In another story, one of the most popular of Californian tales, the Grizzly Bear and the Doe were kindred and friends, living together and feeding in the same pasture. One day while afield the Bear killed the Doe, but her two Fawns discovered the deed, and beguiling the murderess into letting them have her cub for a playmate, they suffocated it in a sweat-house. Pursued by the Bear, they were conveyed to heaven by a huge rock growing upward beneath them; and there they found their mother. The story has many forms, but the Fawns are always associated with fire. Sometimes they trap the mother bear, but usually they kill her by hurling down red-hot rocks. They themselves become thunders, and it is instructive that the Doe, after drinking the waters of the sky-world, dies and descends to earth clearly she is the rain-cloud and her Fawns are the thunders. The legend of the heaven-growing rock, lifting twins to the skies, occurs more than once in California, most appropriate surely when applied to the great El Capitan of the Yosemite.

It is perhaps too easy to read naturalistic interpretations into primitive myth. In many instances the meaning is unmistakably expressed and seems never to be lost, as in the Promethean theft of fire; but in others and the hero of Herculean labours is a fair example it is by no means certain that long and varied borrowing has not obscured the original intention. Volcanic fire, lightning, and sunlight itself seem to be the figures suggesting the adventures; but it may well be that for the aboriginal narrators these meanings have long since vanished.



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