Ravens are found in the mythology of many cultures throughout the world: Greek, Hindu, Celtic, and Norse to name a few. But, The Raven that we’ll be looking at today, however, is a character found predominantly amongst the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and in parts of Siberia. The character of Raven is similar, in many ways, to the character of Coyote who we discussed in episode 4 of the podcast. Like Coyote, there is no singular Raven character that is identical amongst all of the tribes, but rather each tribe had or has its own unique relationship and set of stories concerning the Raven character. There are, however, in many cases, areas of overlap and stories with shared elements that give rise to the widely espoused notion of Raven as both a creator and trickster figure, and perhaps most importantly as an agent of transformation.
Before we delve into the episode, I would like to briefly touch upon a few aspects surrounding the practice of storytelling and of some of these stories that is particularly distinctive in many Northwest Native American tribes. First, it is important to note that certain stories were historically, and in some cases still are, considered the personal private property of the tribe from which they originated, or even of a specific storyteller, and they really aren’t meant to be told out of that context. For this episode I’ve tried to select stories that are fairly well known and, when possible, versions that have been published or dictated for translation by Native storytellers from tribes of the stories’ origin.
Secondly, I want to emphasize the importance of, and artistry involved, with traditional storytelling amongst the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Because the stories I’ve selected are fairly widely known, they’ve circulated through various translations, and just by being put into English and removed from their context- and, of course, because I am not an authentic Native storyteller- much of the deeper artistry and poetry and cadence of what is really a very complex and beautiful art form will not come through. Really, what we’re looking at today, and what my intention is with this episode, is a very broad sense of the transformative nature of Raven and to get a little exposure to his role- or roles- in a few different cultures and myths.
That being said, today we’re going to begin to get a feel for the dynamic character of Raven and I’ll provide a little bit of background on the cultures where we find him, and we’ll look at a few stories from different places, beginning in Siberia.
Raven is a popular character in the mythology and folklore of the Chuckchee people of northeastern Siberia. In Prehistoric times, the Chuckchee were nomadic hunter-gatherers, subsiding primarily off of reindeer and marine mammals, such as walruses. They practiced an animist religion with many similarities to Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, suggesting a long history of cultural exchange across the Bering Strait. The Chuckchee lived very traditionally until the 1920’s, when the Soviet Union prohibited their religious practices and began to intervene with their economic activities- namely, reindeer herding and marine mammal hunting, which also included the trade of walrus ivory.
Something that is quite distinctive about Chuckchee mythology is that it is very… um… scatalogical. That is to say, they aren’t shy about the subject of poop and other bodily functions, and these are often seen in a generative context. And the Chuckchee story of how Raven created the world is no exception.
The story begins with Raven and his wife, who live together. Raven is described as the first being. He is self-created. They live in a small space with no people- and no other living creatures at all, for that matter. No reindeer, no walrus, no seal, nothing. Except them. Raven’s wife complains that it feels dull being all alone, just the two of them in this empty place. She suggests that Raven create the Earth, but Raven says he can’t. “Sure you can!” says his wife.
“I assure, I cannot,” says Raven.
His wife sighs and says that if he can’t create the Earth then she will at least try to create something- a companion.” She tells him that she will go to sleep and try to create. Raven is skeptical, but he watches over her while she sleeps. His wife, in the beginning, was also a Raven, but as she slept her husband watched as her body began to transform. First, her feet began to turn into human toes. Raven looks down at his own feet, and sees they are the same as before.
His wife’s body turns white and loses its feathers as she morphs into a human being. Raven tries to change his own body and pulls at his feathers, but it is to no avail. He is still a Raven. Pretty soon his wife’s belly gets huge and Raven freaks out a little and looks away. When he looks again, his wife has given birth to male twins. The children laugh and point at Raven, asking, “What is that?”
“That’s father!” explains their mother.
The children laugh more, mocking Raven’s feathers. Their mother scolds them and explains that children should not laugh or speak, they should only listen and obey. After that, they stop laughing and obey.
Raven tells his wife that since she has created men, he will at least make an attempt to create the earth. He flies off, sort of dramatically, explaining that if he doesn’t return she can assume that he has drowned. First Raven goes to consult the divine beings of Sunset, Evening, Dawn, and Mid-Day to ask for advice. He asked Sunset first – no advice, then Evening- no advice- Dawn and Mid-Day- nothing. Finally, he came to a place where the sky and ground met, and he found a tent that appeared to be full of men making a lot of noise. Raven was frightened, but he crept up to the tent and peeked through a hole. He saw a bunch of naked backs. Terrified, he jumped away and stood there trembling.
One of the naked dudes comes out and says he thought he heard something from outside. Raven emerges. The naked man is thrilled and very friendly. “How wonderful,” he says, “who are you?”
Raven explains that he is the self-created one, and that now is going to become a creator. He asks the man where he came from, and the man explains that he and the other men in the tent were created from the dust of the friction between the sky meeting the earth. He says that they are the seeds of the first people on earth, and that they are going to multiply, but there is no earth for them to live on. He asks Raven if someone could create an Earth for them to live on. “I’ll try,” says Raven, and he and the man fly off together.
As they fly, Raven poops. A lot. And as his excrement falls into the water, it grows quickly and becomes land. Every piece of poop turns into land. After having quite the movement, Raven says, “Well, is that enough?” The man says, “Not yet.” He explains that the land is too even. There are no mountains, and also there is no fresh water. Raven resumes his efforts, this time urinating. Where one drop fell, it became a lake. Where a steady stream fell, it became a river. After that, he started pooping again- this time it was a lot firmer- and where the big pieces fell grew mountains, and small pieces grew hills.
Raven asks his companion if this is good enough, and the man says that now there is too much water. He explains that the water will increase and one day submerge the whole land, even the mountains.
Determined, Raven flies on, straining to push out a bit more land to increase the height of the mountains. After considerable effort, he is successful and his human companion is satisfied with land to water ratio. “But,” says the man, “what will we eat?”
Raven flies off again, and manages to find some trees of various kinds. He takes his hatchet and chops bits off each of the different trees and throws them into the water. The pine chips turned into walrus, oak became seals, stone-pine chips became polar bears, black birch became whales, and chips from other trees became all other living beings in the sea and on the land. “Now you have food!” Said Raven.
At that point the men separated and went off. They hunted game, built houses, and started to live their human lives. But, at this point there were only men and no women, and so they could not multiply. A tiny spider woman descended from the sky on a thread of spider silk and introduced herself to Raven. “Why are you here?” asked Raven. The spider-woman explained that she was here to create women. Raven tells her that she is too small, and the spider-woman is like “watch this”- and boom she becomes pregnant and gives birth to four daughters who grew up almost instantly into women.
The man who had accompanied Raven on his journey came by and was confused by the women. He liked what he saw, however, and took one of them home as his wife.
Raven went to visit them the next day and peeped through a hole in their tent. He saw that the man and the woman were sleeping on separate ends of the tent. This was not good. How could they multiply?
Raven called to the man to come outside and wait while he, himself, went into the tend. He pecked the woman’s arm with his beak, waking her up. Raven pushed her legs apart and had sex with her. Then, the man came in and was like, “Uh, what is going on in here.” The woman says it is a good thing and she wants to do it again, and she shows the man what to do. And, after that, humankind multiplied.
Raven is a dynamic character. He plays a lot of different roles. He is both a creator and a trickster, and in a lot of stories he’s also very self-centered. Often, however, Raven’s self-serving nature backfires, or brings about unintended consequences, as is this case in this next story.
This is the story of how raven got his black, curled-up feet. There are many variants of this story, but the overall premise and sort of important moral lesson remain generally the same. We’ll be looking at a Quileute version of this story, which is about Raven- who is called By-yuhk in the Quileute language- and bear, who is called Ah-kil. (Note: names written phonetically)
One day, Raven- By-yuhk, went to visit his old friend Ah-kil, the bear. Ah-kil wanted to prepare a nice, big feast for By-yuhk, which was a custom for receiving guests, and he told his wife to get a big dish ready. Ah-kil gathered up a bunch of dried fish to prepare for By-yuhk. I should mention here that By-yuhk’s insatiable appetite is a prominent motif in many Raven tales, and more than once his love for food proves to be somewhat of an Achilles heel for him… So, By-yuhk watched intently as Ah-kil began beating the dried fish to soften them up. Next, Ah-kil went outside for a moment and returned with three sticks. He sharpened two of the sticks and drove them into the ground and suspended a long straight stick between them, creating a spit above the fire. Then, Ah-kil sat down on a box and put his feet up on the stick. He started to roast his feet over the fire. By-yuhk was surprised by, and excited. Ah-kil was going to make oil for dipping the fish.
Ah-kil asked his wife, “Is the oil coming out yet?”
His wife replied, “Oh yes! The pan is already half full!”
Ah-kil was pleased. “Ahh,” he said, “good, then we’ll have plenty to eat and even some extra for By-yuhk to take home!”
Now, the reason Ah-kil was getting the oil from his feet was because bears have so much fat in their bodies. So, when he put his feet above the fire, the oil came dripping right out. When enough oil had come out, Ah-kil took his feet off of the spit and they began eating, dipping the fish in the hot oil.
After dinner, Ah-kil told By-yuhk to take some of the leftovers home for Mrs. Raven and tell her what a great host he has been. By-yuhk tells Ah-kil that he wants to return the favor, and he invites him to his place for dinner.
So, a few days later Akil travelled down the river to Raven’s house. By-yuhk gathered up what fish he had and told his wife to build a fire.
Akil started watching with a bit of a smirk, because he knew By-yuhk well and he knew that he always tried to copy what others did. Sure enough, pretty soon Raven put two sharpened sticks in the ground and put a spit above the fire. He sat down on a box and began to roast his own feet above the fire. Soon By-yuhk asked his wife, “Lots of oil coming down?”
His wife replied, sounding a bit nervous, “No… not a drop. Your feet are just getting blacker and blacker…”
By-yuhk told her to put more wood on the fire and really getting it going so that the oil would drip down.
So, she put more wood on the fire. “Still no oil,” she said, after a few moments.
By-yuhk cried out, pulling his feet out of the fire. By that time, however, his feet had already charred, curled up and begun to dry out and crack.
His wife told him that she had warned him about this. “You always try to copy what other do,” she said, “and it never works!”
And so, that is why today Raven’s feet are curled up and black.
Probably one of the most famous of the Raven Tales is the story of how Raven stole the sun. There are many versions of this story that are unique to different tribes, and even to specific storytellers. The story we’ll be looking at today comes from the Tahltan people of northern British Columbia. This story takes place at a time after the creation of the earth and of human beings, in a world with no sunlight. Raven, who in this story serves as sort of a culture hero or a figure who helps mankind, goes to a village and asks the people if they can see anything. It is super dark there because there is no daylight. The people tell Raven no, they can’t see anything. But, they say, there is one man who has daylight. He keeps it in a box in his house. The people tell him that when the man takes the lid off of the box, they can see a bright light coming from his house. Raven finds out where the Daylight Man lives and goes to his house. It turns out that, in addition to Daylight, this man was also keeping the sun, moon, and stars locked up in his house. Daylight Man has a bunch of slaves and he also has a daughter who is a young woman.
Every day she drank water from a certain bucket, and she always examined the water to make sure there was nothing in it. Slaves always brought the bucket to the young woman, and after taking stock of the situation, Raven comes up with a plan.
He turns himself into a cedar leaf and hides in the water. The girl, however, notices the leaf and removes it before drinking the water. The next day, Raven tries again, transforming himself into a super tiny cedar leaf. This time, he remains undetected and Daylight Man’s daughter drinks him down.
After a short time, the woman’s belly began to grow and it becomes clear that she is pregnant. She swears that she has been with no man, and of course everybody is very confused. Nonetheless, in 9 months she gives birth to a baby boy. Her parents agree to raise the child and accept him as their grandson, even if he has no father.
The boy grew up fast, and was able to walk and talk very quickly. Daylight Man, the boy’s grandfather, grew attached to him and loved him dearly. One day the boy cried and begged to play with the moon. Daylight Man took the moon down and gave it to him to play with. The boy played with the moon until he got tired, and then gave it back. This went on for some time, but after awhile the boy got bored with the moon and started to cry, begging to play with the sun. So, it was given to him. He played with the sun until he got tired and then gave it back. After the sun got boring, he asked for the stars.
After awhile, this became routine and the boy was allowed to play with these objects whenever he wanted. Eventually, when he felt strong enough, the boy asked to play with Daylight.
His grandfather was afraid to let him play with Daylight because it was so bright, but eventually he gave in. The boy practiced balancing the daylight in his hands to get used to carrying it.
Finally, the boy was ready to carry out the task he had been planning. He put two of the toys in each hand and balanced them. He waited for a moment when nobody was watching and flew through the roof out of the smoke hole. He threw daylight out to the north, the sun to the east, the moon to the west, and the stars to the south, saying that these things would never again be locked up in one place and now everybody could have them.
Since then, people rise with the sun, work during the daylight, and go to sleep with nightfall.
[Note: the last segment of this episode is not transcribed.]