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The World And Its Rulers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The usual primitive conception of the world's form prevails in the North-West. It is flat and round below and surmounted above by a solid firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl. As the people of this region are Coast-Dwellers, Earth is regarded as an island or group of islands floating in the cosmic waters. The Haida have a curious belief that the sky-vault rises and falls at regular intervals, so that the clouds at times strike against the mountains, making a noise which the Indians say they can hear. The world above the firmament is inhabited, and one Haida myth (which closely resembles the Pueblo cosmogony) tells of Raven, escaping from the rising flood in the earth below, boring his way through the firmament and discovering five successive storeys in the world above; a five-row town is the more characteristically North-West conception, given in another version. The Bella Coola believe that there are five worlds, one above the other, two being heaven-worlds, two underworlds, and our Earth the mid-world — an arrangement which is of significance in their theology. Belief in an underworld, and especially in undersea towns and countries, is universal in this region; while the northern tribes all regard the Earth itself as anchored in its mobile foundation by a kind of Atlas, an earth-sustaining Titan. According to the Haida, Sacred-One-Standing-and-Moving, as he is called, is the Earth-Supporter; he himself rests upon a copper box, which, presumably, is conceived as a boat; from his breast rises the Pillar of the Heavens, extending to the sky; his movements are the cause of earthquakes. The Bella Coola, following a myth which is clearly of a South-Coast type, also believe in the Earth-Titan, who is not, however, beneath the world, but sits in the distant east holding a stone bar to which the earth island is fastened by stone ropes; when he shifts his hold, earthquakes occur. The Tsimshian and Tlingit deem the Earth-Sustainer to be a woman. The earth, they say, rests upon a pillar in charge of this Titaness, Old-Woman-Underneath;' and when the Raven tries to drive her from the pillar, earthquake follows.

The sun, moon, stars, and clouds are regarded as material things,—sometimes as mechanically connected with the firmament; sometimes as the dwellings of celestial creatures; some-times, as in the South-West, as masks of these beings." The winds are personified according to their prevailing directions, but there is little trace in the North-West of the four-square conception of the world, amounting to a cult of the Quarters. As might be expected among seafarers, tide-myths are common. Among the southern tribes animal heroes control the movement of the sea, as in the Kwakiutl story of the Mink who stole the tail of the Wolf that owned the tides, and caused them to ebb or flow by raising or lowering it. In the north a different conception prevails: the Haida regard the command of the tide as the possession of an Old Man of the Sea, from whom the ebb and flow were won by the craft of the Raven, who wished to satisfy his gluttony on the life of the tide-flats; the same story is found among the Tlingit, who, however, also believe the tide to issue from and recede into a hole at the north end of the world, an idea which is similar to the Bella Coola notion of an undersea man who twice a day swallows and gives forth the waters.

The universe so conceived is peopled by an uncountable number of spirits or powers, whom the Tlingit call Yek. According to one of Swanton's informants, everything has one principal and several subordinate spirits, "and this idea seems to be reflected in shamans' masks, each of which represents one main spirit and usually contains effigies of several subsidiary spirits as well." There is a spirit on every trail, a spirit in every fire, the world is full of listening ears and gazing eyes — the eyes so conspicuous in the decorative emblems of the North-West. Earth is full and the sea is full of the Keres loosed by Pandora, says Hesiod, and an anonymous Greek poet tells how the air is so dense with them that there is no chink or crevice between them; for the idea is universal to mankind.

Among these spirits appear, up and down the Coast, almost every type of being known to mythology. There are the one-eyed Cyclops, the acephalous giant with eyes in his breast; the bodiless but living heads and talking skulls, sea-serpents, mermen, Circes, the siren-like singers of Haida lore, anthropophagi of many types, Harpy-like birds, giants, dwarfs, treasure-wardens, witches, transformers, werefolk, ghosts, and a multitude of genii locorum, to say nothing of magically endowed animals, birds, and fishes. The Haida even have a double nomenclature for the animal kinds; as "Gina teiga" they are creatures of their several sorts, and the proper prey of the hunter; as "Sgana quedas" they are werefolk or man-beings, capable of assisting the human race with their magic might. The Haida make another interesting distinction between the world-powers, classifying them, as their own tribes are divided, into Ravens and Eagles; and they also arrange the ruling potencies in a sort of hierarchy, sky, sea, and land having each its superior and subordinate powers.

The greatest of these potencies is a true divinity, who is named Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens,' and who, in a prayer recorded by Swanton, is thus addressed: "Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens, let there be peace upon me; let not my heart be sorry." He is not, however, a deity of popular story, although a legend is told of his incarnation. Born of a cockle-shell which a maiden dug from the beach, he became a mighty getter of food; a picturesque passage tells how he sat "blue, broad and high over the sea"; and at his final departure for heaven, he said, "When the sky looks like my face as my father painted it there will be no wind; in me (i. e., in my days) people will get their food." It is Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens who determines those that are to die, although Wigit, another celestial deity, who is the same as the Raven, is the one who apportions the length of life of the new-born child, according as he draws a long or a short stick from the faggot which he keeps for this purpose. The Tsimshian have a conception of the sky-god similar to that of the Haida, their name for him being Laxha.

The idea of a Fate in the sky-world, deciding the life of men, is common to the northern tribes. Tahit, the Tlingit divinity of this type, has already been mentioned; and the same god (Taxet, "the House Above") is recognized by the Haida, though here he is the one who receives the souls of those slain by violence, rather than the determiner of death. The Bella Coola have an elaborate system of Fates. When Senx creates the new-born child, an assistant deity gives it its individual features, while a birth goddess rocks it in a pre-natal cradle; and this is true also of animals whose skins and flesh are foreordained for the food and clothing of man. Death, according to the Bella Coola, is predestined by the deities who rule over the winter solstice (the season of the great ceremonies) : two divinities stand at the ends of a plank, balanced like a seesaw, while the souls of men and animals are collected about them; and as the plank rises or falls, the time of the passing of the souls is decided.

It is among the Bella Coola that the hierarchic arrangement of the world-powers has reached, apparently, the most systematic and conscious form on the North Pacific. As stated above, this tribe separates the universe into five worlds or storeys, two above and two below the earth. In the upper heaven re-sides Qamaits, who is also called "Our Woman" and "Afraid of-Nothing." The house of this goddess is in the east of the treeless and wind-swept prairie which forms her domain, and behind her home is the salt-water pond in which she bathes and which forms the abode of the Sisiutl. In the beginning of the world she is said to have waged war against the mountains, who made the world uninhabitable, and to have conquered them and reduced them in height. Qamaits is regarded as a great warrior, but she is not addressed in prayer, and her rare visits to earth cause sickness and death. In the centre of the lower heaven stands the mansion of the gods, called the House of Myths. Senx, the Sun, is master of this house, "the Sacred One" and "Our Father" are his epithets; and it is to him that the Bella Coola pray and make offerings. Almost equal in rank to Senx is Alkuntam, who, with the sun, presided over the creation of man. Alkuntam's mother is described as a Cannibal, who inserts her long snout into the ears of men and sucks out their brains. She seems to be a personification of the mosquito, for in a myth frequent throughout the North-West these insects spring from the ashes to which the Cannibal is reduced in the effort to destroy her. Various inferior gods, including the Fates and the ten deities presiding over the great ceremonies, dwell in the House of Myths; at the rear of it are two rooms, in the first of which lives the Cannibal, organizer of the Cannibal Society, and in the second another ecstasy-giving god : these two are the sons of Senx and Alkuntam. Intercessors and Messengers, Sun Guardians and Sky Guardians (whose business it is to feed the sky continually with firewood), the Flower Goddess, and the Cedar-Bark Goddess are other personages of the Bella Coola pantheon. Four brothers, dwellers in the House of Myths, gave man the arts, teaching him carving and painting, the making of canoes, boxes, and houses, fishing, and hunting. They are continually engaged in carving and painting, and seem to be analogous to the Master Carpenter, who often appears in Haida myths. Earth, in Bella Coola lore, is the home of a multitude of spirits — chiefly Animal Elders — and in the ocean are similar beings, though there seems to be no power corresponding to the Haida Neptune, The-Greatest-One-in-the-Sea. The two underworlds have their own raison d'ętre, the upper one belonging to revenant spirits, who are at liberty to return to heaven, whence they may be reborn on earth; and the lower being the abode of those who die a second death, from which there is no release.



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