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The Raven Cycle

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The most characteristic feature of the mythology of the North-West is the cycle of legends of which the hero is the Raven the Yetl of the Northern tribes. Like Coyote in the tales of the interior, Raven is a transformer and a trickster half demiurge, half clown; and very many of the stories that are told of Coyote reappear almost unchanged with Raven as their hero; he is in fact a littoral and insular substitute for Coyote.

Nevertheless, he is given a character of his own. Like Coyote, he is greedy, selfish, and treacherous, but gluttony rather than licentiousness is his prevailing vice. He is engaged in an in-satiable food-quest: "Raven never got full," says a Tlingit teller, "because he had eaten the black spots off of his own toes. He learned about this after having inquired everywhere for some way of bringing such a state about. Then he wandered through all the world in search of things to eat." The journeys of Raven form the chief subject of most of the myths; he travels from place to place, meets animals of every description, and in contests of wit usually succeeds in destroying and eating them or in driving them off and securing their stores of food. As is the case with Coyote, he himself is occasionally overcome, but always manages to make good his escape, even (again like Coyote) returning to life after having been slain. A touch of characteristic humour is added to his portrait by the derisive "Ka, ka," with which he calls back to his opponents as he flies away frequently through the smoke-hole, to which he owes his blackness, having once been uncomfortably detained in this aperture.

Despite all their ugliness and clownishness, the acts of Raven have a kind of fatefulness attached to them, for their consequence is the establishment of the laws that govern life, alike of men and animals. A Haida epithet for Raven is He-Whose-Voice-is-Obeyed, because whatever he told to happen came to pass, one of his marked traits being that his bare word or even his unexpressed wish is a creative act. In one Haida version there is a suggestion of Genesis in the Raven's creative laconism: "Not long ago no land was to be seen. Then there was a little thing on the ocean. This was all open sea. And Raven sat upon this. He said, `Become dust.' And it became Earth." The Haida, Swanton says, make a distinction between the events in the first portion of the Raven story the truly creative acts and the mad adventures of the later anecdotes: the first division is called "the old man's story," and the chiefs will not allow the young men to laugh while it is being told, hilarity being permissible only during the latter part.

Raven is not, apparently, an object of worship, although it is said that in former times people sometimes left food on the beach for him. Rather he is numbered among those heroes of the past about whom indecorous tales may be narrated without sullying the spirit of reverence which attaches to the regnant gods. One of the most comprehensive of Raven stories a Tlingit version states that at the beginning of things there was no daylight; the world was in darkness." In this period lived Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass, who had in his house the sun, moon, stars, and daylight. With him were two aged men, Old-Man-Who-Foresees-All-Trouble-in-the-World and He-Who-Knows-Everything-that-Happens, while Old-Woman-Underneath was under the world. Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass had a sister, who was the mother of many children, but they all died young, the reason, according to the legend, being the jealousy of her brother, who did not wish her to have any male offspring. Advised by Heron, who had already been created, she circumvented his malicious intent by swallowing a red-hot stone, as a consequence of which she gave birth to Yetl, the Raven, who was as hard as rock and so tough that he could not easily be killed. Nascakiyetl (Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass) thereupon made Raven the head man over the world. Nascakiyetl appears as the true creator in this myth, however, for it is he who brought mankind into existence. He undertook to make people out of a rock and a leaf at the same time, but the rock was slow and the leaf quick; there-fore human beings came from the latter. Then the creator showed a leaf to the new race and said, "You see this leaf. You are to be like it. When it falls off the branch and rots there is nothing left of it." And so death came into the world.

A striking Tsimshian myth tells how a woman died in the throes of child-birth; how her child lived in her grave, nourished by her body; how he later ascended to heaven, by means of Woodpecker's wings, and married the Sun's daughter; and how her child by him was cast down to earth and adopted by a chieftain there, but abandoned because the gluttonous infant ate the tribe out of provisions; this child was the Raven. Usually, however, the myth begins abruptly with the wandering Raven. The world is covered with water and Raven is seeking a resting-place. From a bit of flotsam or a rocky islet upon which he alights he creates the earth. His adventures, creative in their consequences rather than in intention, follow. He steals the daylight and the sun, moon, and stars from an old man who keeps them in chests or sacks and who seems to be a kind of personification of primeval night, Raven's mode of theft being to allow himself to be swallowed by the old man's daughter, from whom he is born again. He steals water from its guardian, the Petrel, and creates the rivers and streams, and he forces the tide-keeper to release the tides. He captures fire from the sea and puts it in wood and stone for the use of man. He seizes and opens the chest containing the fish that are to inhabit the sea, also creating fish by carving their images in wood and vivifying them; or he carries off the Salmon's daughter and throws her into the water, where she be-comes the parent of the salmon kind. In addition he enters the belly of a great fish, where he kindles a fire, but his ever-present greed causes him to attack the monster's heart, thereby killing it; he wishes the carcass ashore, and is released by the people who cut up its body. In some versions the walrus is Raven's victim, the story being a special North-West form of the myth of the hero swallowed by the monster, which is found from ocean to ocean in North America. Finally, in various ways he is responsible for the flood which puts an end to the Age of Animal Beings and inaugurates that of Men. A Haida legend repeats the Tlingit tale of the jealous uncle, who is here identified with the personified Raven, Nankilstlas (He-Whose-Voice-is-Obeyed). The sister gives birth to a boy, as a result of swallowing hot stones, but the uncle plots to destroy the child, and puts on his huge hat (the rain-cloud?), from which a flood of water pours forth to cover the earth. The infant transforms himself into Yetl, the Raven, and flies heavenward, while the hat of Nankilstlas rises with the inundation; but when Yetl reaches the sky, he pushes his beak into it and, with his foot upon the hat, presses Nankilstlas back and drowns him. This tale appears in many forms in the North-West, the flood-bringing hat often belonging to the Beaver. After the deluge, the surviving beings of the first age are transformed into animals, human beings are created, with their several languages, and the present order of the world is established all as in Californian myths. One curious in-version of events, in a Kwakiutl story, tells how the ante-diluvian wolves, after the subsidence of the flood, took off their wolf-masks and became human beings.



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