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Death And The Ghost World

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The source of death, no less than the origin of life, is a riddle which the mind of man early endeavours to solve; and in the New World, as sometimes in the Old, the event is made to turn upon a primal choice. In the New-World tales, however, it is not the creature's disobedience, but deliberate selection by one of the primal beings that establishes the law. The typical story is of a conflict of design: the Author of Life intends to create men undying, but another being, who is Coyote far more often than any other, jealous of the new race, wishes mortality into the world, and his wish prevails. In very many versions, neither rational nor ethical principle is concerned in the choice; it is a result of chance; but on the West Coast not a few examples of the legend involve both reason and morals. As it is told, one of the First People loses a child; its resurrection is contemplated; but Coyote interferes, saying, "Let it re-main dead; the world will be over-peopled; there will be no food; nor will men prize life, rejoicing at the coming of children and mourning the dead." "So be it," they respond, for Coyote's argument seems good. But human desires are not satisfied by reason alone, as is shown in the grimly ironical conclusion: Coyote's real motive is not the good of the living; selfishness and jealousy prompt his specious plea; now his own son dies, and he begs that the child be restored to life; but "Nay, nay," is the response, "the law is established."

The most beautiful myth of this type that has been recorded is Curtin's "Sedit and the Two Brothers Hus," of the Wintun. Sedit is Coyote; the brothers Hus are buzzards. Olelbis, about to create men, sends the brothers to earth to build a ladder of stone from it to heaven; half way up are to be set a pool for drink and a place for rest; at the summit shall be two springs, one for drinking and the other for bathing — internal and external purification — for these are to be that very Fountain of Youth whose rumour brought Ponce de Lιon from Spain to Florida. When a man or a woman grows old, says Olelbis, let him or her climb to Olelpanti, bathe and drink, and youth will be restored. But as the brothers build, Coyote, the tempter, comes, saying, "I am wise; let us reason"; and he pictures contemptuously the destiny which Olelbis would bestow: "Sup-pose an old woman and an old man go up, go alone, one after the other, and come back alone, young. They will be alone as before, and will grow old a second time, and go up again and come back young, but they will be alone, just the same as at first. They will have nothing on earth whereat to rejoice. They will never have any friends, any children; they will never have any pleasure in the world; they will never have anything to do but to go up this road old and come back down young again." "Joy at birth and grief for the dead is better," says Coyote, "for these mean love." The brothers Hus are convinced, and destroy their work, though not until the younger one says to Coyote: "You, too, shall die; you, too, shall lie in the ground never to rise, never to go about with an otter-skin band on your head and a beautiful quiver at your back!" And when Coyote sees that it is so, he stands muttering: "What am I to do now? I am sorry. Why did I talk so much? Hus asked me if I wanted to die. He said that all on earth here will have to die now. That is what Hus said. I don't know what to do. What can I do?" Desperate, he makes him-self wings of sunflowers — the blossoms that are said always to follow the sun — and tries to fly upward; but the leaves wither, and he falls back to earth, and is dashed to death. "It is his own deed," says Olelbis; "he is killed by his own words; hereafter all his people will fall and die."

Such is the origin of death; but death is, after all, not the end of a man; it only marks his departure to another world than this earth. The body of a man may be burned or buried, but his life is a thing indestructible; it has journeyed on to another land. The West-Coast peoples find the abode of the dead in various places. Sometimes it is in the world above, and many are the myths detailing ascents to, and descents from, the sky; sometimes it is in the underworld; oftenest, it is in the west, beyond the waters where the sun is followed by night. Not always, however, are mortals content to let their loved ones depart, and over and again occurs the story of the quest for the dead, at times almost in the form of Orpheus and Eurydice. Thus the Yokut tell of a husband grieving beside his wife's grave, until, one night, her spirit rises and stands beside him. He follows her to the bridge that arches the river separating the land of the living from the realm of them that have passed away, and there wins consent from the guardians of the dead for her return to earth, but he is forbidden to sleep on the return journey; nevertheless, slumber overtakes him on the third night, and he wakes in the morning to find that he lies beside a log. The Modoc story of Kumush and his daughter and of the creation of men from the bones of the dead is surely akin to this, uniting life and death in one unbroken chain. This conception is brought out even more clearly in a second version of the Yokut tale, wherein the man who has visited the isle of the dead tells how, as it fills, the souls are crowded forth to become birds and fish.

That the home of those who have gone hence should lie beyond the setting sun is a part of that elemental poetry by which man sees his life imaged and painted on the whole field of heaven and earth: the disk of morning is the symbol of birth, noon is the fullness of existence, and evening's decline is the sign of death. But dawn follows after the darkness with a new birth, for which the dead that be departed do but wait — where better than in those Fortunate Isles which all men whose homes have bordered on the western sea have dreamed to lie beyond its gleaming horizons ?



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