The Love of a Mother
The Cherokee tribe lived in the southeastern section of the United States, in lands now known as North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee with some in the northern part of Alabama. Many know of the Trail of Tears, a tragic event some believe to be only a myth but regrettably was all too real. The Trail of Tears speaks of a relocation process conducted by the federal government in which Cherokee and Choctaw Indians were forcibly marched from northern Alabama to Oklahoma under the watchful eye of unsympathetic and caring military personnel. The Indians were given no proper attire for the journey nor adequate food and over two-thirds perished along the way.
Long before the tribe was decimated by the deaths of those along the trail of tears, they had a mythology about death. The climate of their homeland is hot and very humid. The sun shines quite a great deal in this part of the world and, in the Cherokee story about the origin of death, the Sun deity plays a major role. Her heat became too much for the Cherokee to bear so a plan was devised to kill the Sun. Unfortunately, as plans sometime do, something went wrong and instead of killing the Sun, they killed her daughter.
The Cherokee legend tells of how as a young deity, the Sun had a lover who would visit her at night so that his face remained hidden. One night, tiring of the mystery, the Sun rubbed ashes on her lover’s face to try to identify him. The next night, as her brother the Moon rose high in the sky, the Sun saw spots on his face and realized he was her lover. The Moon was ashamed and vowed to always stay away from the Sun. The Cherokee liked the Moon and often smiled at it which angered the Sun. They only squinted at her and complained of her heat. The more angry she became, the hotter her heat on the people and so, they decided to kill her.
The plan was for two men to turn into snakes and when the Sun stopped to eat lunch at her daughter’s house, they would strike. Unfortunately, the sun shone so brightly they could not see. The adder spit at the Sun but the copperhead snake just crawled out of the house. Two more men were turned into snakes, this time being a Ukrena snake and a rattlesnake. When the door of the daughter’s house opened they struck but killed the daughter of the Sun instead of her mother.
The grief-stricken Sun loved herself away and the world became dark, losing all heat with crops dying in the field. The people needed to retrieve the Sun’s daughter from the Darkening Land where she was dancing with ghosts. The people captured the daughter and placed her in a box. They knew not to open the box but the Sun’s daughter pleaded and begged and finally, thinking she needed food and air to breathe, they relented. The box opened and the Sun’s daughter flew out, having been transformed into a redbird.
The men returned without her daughter and Sun’s grief was so over-whelming she flooded the world with her tears. Finally, a drummer began to play a rhythm that brought comfort to the Sun. First she smiled and then she laughed as light once again filled the world. The Sun still shines brightly on us all but we still cannot fully gaze upon her without shielding our eyes.
For the Cherokees, the lessons from the story are not so much about death but about living. First, life sometimes requires things that are not comfortable but they are necessary. Mankind had no real need to look at the sun and we still are unable to do so, although we do experience and reap the rewards of its presence in our lives. There is also a lesson to do what one is told, in this case not to open the box. Sometimes, though, the best intentions do not result in positive actions. When that happens, we need to turn to our faith. The Cherokee used drums to connect with the rhythms of the earth and the spirits. The drummer used his skills and instrument to help the Sun find balance, just as we should do with our beliefs.