A Stolen Sun
They were called the poles that held up the sky. To many in modern times they represent religious beliefs or perhaps identification. Totem poles were much more than the first name badges, however. They were a type of family tree. They represented what a family believed in and who, to a stranger, might offer hospitality. It was easy to identify which families shared similar totems or beliefs and what those beliefs were. Common to the indigenous people of the northwestern part of North America, totem poles often traced the lineage these “First Families” felt they had with animal ancestors.
A common representation found on totem poles is that of the raven. There are many myths that feature the raven and in British Columbia, the mythology begins with the world covered in darkness.\ and the Kungalas tribe. The chief of this tribe and his wife had a son they loved very much but unfortunately their son died. Every morning the chief and his wife, accompanied by the entire tribe would grieve by the son’s corpse. One morning a young man who seemed to glow was found sitting where the corpse had been. The chief’s wife was convinced her son had come back to life and when asked by the chief if he was their son, the young boy answered affirmatively.
The tribe was overjoyed at the return of the chief’s son but the boy would not eat. Finally a slave called Mouth-at-Each-End offered the boy a piece of whale meat. The boy ate it and then began eating everything else in sight. The son, in an effort to save his tribe from starvation, decided to send his reborn son away. He gave the boy a raven blanket as well as berries and fish eggs to scatter on the land so that he himself would never be hungry.
The legend tells that the young man put on his raven blanket, which was nothing more than a complete skin from a human-sized raven, and flew up to what the Kungalas called the sky world, a world much different from theirs, a world of light. He waited by a fresh water stream until the daughter of Chief-of-the-Skies happened along. The boy changed himself into a leaf and when the girl partook of the water, she swallowed the leaf. Soon thereafter a young baby was born to the girl. The baby was the darkling of the Sky People but he would never stop crying. They finally deduced he wanted to play with the ball in which daylight was kept.
The lad played with his ball of light for several years but one day put it on his shoulder and ran to the hole in the sky where the ball had once been. Putting on the raven suit, he flew the ball of light back to earth. He found the Kungalas by the Nass River eating what the natives called olachen or candle-fish. He asked them to throw him a fish but they refused. He then told them he wanted to make a trade – the ball of light for the fish. The clan refused and began shouting insults at him. The boy in anger cut the ball open, throwing light upon all the ends of the earth.
The myth addresses a common concept of ravens being trickster spirits and, as any farmer can tell you, there might be some truth to that. What I find most interesting is that the type of fish the people were eating at the end when the boy returns to earth is so specifically identified. The candle fish has many names such as olachen, eulachon, hooligan, oolichan, or ooligan. Found along the Pacific coast of the northwest coasts of both the United States of America and Canada. The name eulachon is a Chinook tribal name but some of the other names come from English and Irish names.
The candle fish during spawning season packs on an extra fifteen percent of body weight and if caught, was sometimes dried and then used as a candle. It is a very greasy fish and they were often processed for their oil. The oil was then traded and the trade routes were often called grease trails. The fish eats smaller fish along the ocean floor and is an integral part of the aquatic food chain of the region as well as being a staple of the tribes in the area.
The boy wanted to trade one small beam of light for the sun he had stolen from the Sky People. Would he have made the trade? We will never know. He was considered a trickster so perhaps not. By refusing the simply give up a fish which gave them both artificial light and sustenance, the Kungalas gained sunlight. Many might say they made the better trade.
We should not forget the name-calling aspect of this story, though. None of the tribe’s people seem to have tried explaining their refusal. Instead they laughed at such a suggestion. All too often in today’s world we are very quick to judge and yes, some engage in name-calling. When we offer an option perhaps not thought of by the masses, we are considered to be instantly wrong. When someone doesn’t go along with the proposed scheme, they are called stupid or a spoil=sport.
Not every scheme is a winner and there are certainly enough unscrupulous people out there that it makes good sense to be leery. Good communication is also vital whether we are agreeing or refusing. Can grief return a loved one to life? Science would tell us no but maybe we need to look at how we are defining “life”. The chief’s son, if he had not died, would have become the leader and it was the duty of every leader to lead the tribe into a better future than before and to provide for the living. Certainly having the sun in their lives helped…until it got too hot as in yesterday’s story.
Most of us have lost a beloved family member. We have a variety of ways to keep that person’s memory alive. Some make scrapbooks while others dedicate memorials or establish scholarship funds. The simplest thing is to live a life that would have made that loved one proud. When we lose a loved one it seems as if the sun of our own personal lives has gone dark. Finding our own way back into the light can be difficult.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day for Americans and, while many will celebrate with friends and family, some will be alone, left to grieve as the tribe did in loss of a loved one. I fervently hope that if you are one of those who will be sitting in the dark, that you find a glimmer of light. Volunteer at a homeless shelter or assist at a soup kitchen. Being alone is not a crime nor is it shameful. Being alive, though, should be celebrated and we all have things for which to give thanks. And even if you are staying home tomorrow, give thanks that you have a home. You will get to have your celebratory holiday meal in your comfortable clothes or maybe even in your pajamas!
The raven has had something of a misnomer for hundreds of years. A member of the Corvus genus, ravens, along with crows which are a close cousin, are actually some of the most intelligent birds on earth and ravens live an amazing thirty years. In the colonial period of the U.S.A. ravens and crows were an integral part of both agriculture and urbanization.
The light is not just about being bright in the company of others but walking in goodness and peace. If you are reading this, you are a blessing to me. We may not all seem to give light to others like the candle fish could, but you sustain me and are a bright light to me. Daily I give thanks for you. It is one of my prayers that you are blessed and walk in peace.