InterAmerica: Blackbirds and Light (a tale of two cultures)

P1130839 This object is located in Bogotá’s Gold Museum, home to a national collection of artifacts and memory-pieces that tell the story of the country’s pre-Columbian past. Unlike Peru or Mexico, Colombia’s indigenous heritage did not play out in magnificent constructions or sprawling, ancient cities. The civilizations that lived here were smaller, less centralized, leaving records that are much harder to disseminate. That’s why gold is so important here — it provides a glimpse into cultures that have largely disappeared, whether through genocide or societal integration. And the pieces are not just about adornment. Many tell stories of daily life, mythology and the place of humans in the cosmos.  They are finely crafted, the work of master metallurgists, and are by-and-large astonishing.

When I walked past this piece in the Gold Museum, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, next to it, was a caption that read: “According to ancient myths, a number of black birds, ancient shamans, brought light to the earth in their beaks at the beginning of time and gave the first clans their land.” The protruding pieces of gold are obviously the beaks, the dangling ones the sun, a literal representation of a myth about the creation of the world. While many cultures have unique conceptions about how the world came to be, the specificity of black birds and light amazed me. You see, where I come from, we have almost the same myth. It originates with the Haida people of the Northwest coast, and is taught to children of all cultural backgrounds in schools and cultural organizations across British Columbia. It’s called Raven Steals the Light, a tale of another black bird who illuminated a very dark, early world.

It’s perhaps less ironic than it seems that Colombia and British Columbia share almost the same name. They are different in so many ways, and yet thousands of kilometres apart, they share a similar root. It’s not even an influence that comes from globalization or internet culture. This is a similarity that goes back tens of thousands of years in time. One that, whether accidental or not, tell us something about the unity of our indigenous cultures, and what we have or haven’t inherited in our general, modern populations. How could it be that both cultures would choose black birds to bring light to the world? Is it a coincidence, or were the indigenous cultures of the Americas more fluid than we could have ever believed, influencing each other through trade networks that stretched far and wide? Or was this story a memory brought south when the first peoples migrated into this continent tens of thousands of years ago, a relic of a long forgotten place?

light The Colombian myth: Before there was anything else in the world, when darkness filled everything as an eternal night, there was only one being, and it had no form or face. Inside it there was a light, called Chiminigagua. One day, Chiminigagua’s giant belly was injured and a beam of light appeared through the wound. From this first light arose life. Then Chiminigagua created large black birds and released them to shed their breath on the mountain tops. From their mouths came mild breaths of light and transparent air, which caused the earth to be finally seen, clear and bright.

The Haida myth: Before there was anything else in the world, an old man lived in a house on the bank of a river with his only child, a daughter. The whole world was dark, and so he did not know whether she was as beautiful as hemlock fronds against the spring sky at sunrise or as ugly as a sea slug. The old man was responsible for the darkness. In his house, he had a box which contained many boxes each nestled into a box slightly larger than itself, until finally there was a very tiny box that contained all the light in the universe. The Raven also lived at that time (because he had always existed and always would) and was unhappy with the state of the world. He couldn’t see anything, it was hard to hunt, and he was always blundering around and bumping into things. One day he stumbled upon the house of the old man. He heard a small voice saying “In the smallest of my boxes is all the light in the world, and it is all mine and I’ll never give any of it to anyone, not even my daughter, because, who knows, she may be as homely as a sea slug, and neither she nor I would like to know that.” At that moment, the Raven decided to steal the light for himself, though he couldn’t find a way to get into the house. Then he came upon a solution: he changed himself into a single hemlock needle, dropped into the river and floated down just in time to be caught in the basket which the girl was dipping in the water. When she took a deep drink from the basket and swallowed the needle, the Raven slithered down into her belly. There, he transformed himself once more, this time into a very small human being, and went to sleep for a long while. And as he slept he grew. Months later, the Raven emerged triumphantly inside the house in the shape of a human boychild, albeit a strange-looking one. Thankfully, because it was dark, no one could see how strangely he looked: with a long, beaklike nose, a few feathers here and there, and the shining eyes of a Raven.

The Raven child slowly gained the affection of the old man, and pleaded for the big box as a gift. That box, said the Raven child, was the one thing he needed to make him completely happy. The old man finally relented, and gave him the box. Little by little, tantrum after tantrum, the Raven received box and after box, until he was finally allowed to hold the light for just a moment. The old man lifted the light, in the form of a beautiful, incandescent ball, from the final box and tossed it to his grandson. In that exact moment,  the Raven transformed back into his original form, snapped up the light in his jaws, and flew through the smokehole of the house into the huge darkness of the world.

The world was all at once transformed. Mountains and valleys appeared, starkly silhouetted, and the river sparkled with broken reflections. Everywhere life began to stir. Far away, another great winged shape launched itself into the air, an Eagle who could see for the first time and spotted the Raven as his target. The Raven flew on, rejoicing in his wonderful new possession, admiring the effect it had on the world below, revelling in the experience of being able to see where he was going, instead of flying blind and hoping for the best. He was enjoying himself so much that he never saw the Eagle until the Eagle was almost upon him. In a panic he swerved to escape the frightening, outstretched claws, and in doing so, dropped a good half of the light he was carrying. It fell to the rocky ground below and there broke into pieces — one large piece and too many small ones to count. They bounced back into the sky and remain there even today as the moon and the stars that glorify the night. The Eagle pursued the Raven beyond the rim of the world, and there, exhausted by the long chase, the Raven finally let go of his last piece of light. It floated gently on the clouds and started up over the mountains lying to the east. Its first rays caught the smokehole of the house by the river, where the old man sat weeping bitterly over the loss of his precious light and the treachery of his grandchild. But as the light reached in, he looked up and for the first time saw his daughter, who had been quietly sitting during all this time, completely bewildered by the rush of events. The old man saw that she was as beautiful as the fronds of a hemlock against a spring sky at sunrise, and he began to feel a little better.

What can we see in common between these two tales? Both contain light, hidden inside something. Both contain black birds, who carry the light in their beaks. Both feature mountains as the first things exposed by the light. Both cause the world, as we know it, to finally appear.

This version of “Raven Steals the Light” has been adapted from the Bill Reid book of the same name.

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2 Comments

  1. Bonjour Hellen,

    From the database of Yuri Berezekin, I sort a cartography of the diffusion area of Amerindian myths about “raven.” . You can see the result on my page http://ethnomycology.eu/2016/07/29/369/. This chart can perhaps illustrate the “InterAmerica” project.

    (Feel free to use it on your site)

    Personally, I need help for getting some piece of information.

    1 ) about the “Colombian myth,” where it comes from exactly, and so on …
    2 ) I need to know if “pottery” is involved in Haida mythology.

    Maybe yourself or some friends of yours committed to Haida mythology can help.

    Regards
    Jean-luce Morlie

    Reply

    1. Hi Morlie, unfortunately I don’t know too much more information beyond what was written. I found out about the Colombian myth at the Gold Museum in Bogota. I’m not aware of pottery being involved in Haida mythology, but you might try contacting someone at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, or perhaps someone in the Haida Nation itself! Good luck with your research.

      Reply

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