27 January, 2006

The Story

There are many tales of Raven and his exploits among the people of the Pacific Northwest. Growing up in Alaska, I had the privilege of hearing several Raven tales as a young girl; they were so beautiful, funny and entertaining that they have become some of my favorite legends. My favorite story is called "Raven Steals the Light," or sometimes "How Raven Lit the World." Here is the tale as I remember it.

How Raven Lit the World

The world was dark. Dark like the pitch from an old cedar tree. Raven could hardly see to land on a branch, much less spot his favorite crawly treats on the ground. He was annoyed because the People of the land couldn't see him to call his name or tell him jokes. And the People suffered in the darkness, because as everyone knows Lady Cold comes with her Brother Darkness. The People huddled in their cedar lodges, wishing someone would do something to help them. Not that Raven cared much for the People, but he didn't like being cold either. So there you have it.

Now, darkness wasn't the only problem of the People. While they huddled under their button blankets for warmth (almost forgetting what it feels like to be warm), they recalled legends of a time when streams of silver salmon ran in front of every cedar lodge, when animals of all shapes and sizes wandered freely over the land. But this time was only legend, and for many generations there had been no streams of silver salmon and no animals of any shape or size. Only Raven and his friends Eagle and Bear, who were equally hungry and sick of the cold and dark.

One day, the three friends were commiserating about the dark, cold, hungry state they were in. "Do you think there will ever be light again, like the People say in their stories? You know, legend has basis in fact, so there must have been light and warmth, long ago." Bear was slow and deliberating, which made her friends think she was stupid. But she was strong and fiercely loyal, and occasionally said something that made Raven think she was not so stupid after all. "Perhaps," said Raven, "but where did the light go? How would we find it again?" Eagle, from the top of the tallest pine tree, said, "I thought I saw the light once. It was coming from the smokehole of the Grandfather's cedar lodge. We should go look." Eagle, you see, has the sharpest eyes of all, and was the most irritated by the darkness. Not even Eagle can see well when Brother Darkness comes to call.

So the friends set off up the mountain to the cedar lodge of Grandfather, which was situated at the very top of the mountain. The lodge was very, very old, made of the largest cedar beams anyone had ever seen. Raven knocked smartly on the lintel. "Grandfather! Are you there? We are come to call on you, O venerated Elder!" but no answer came from inside the great cedar lodge, so Eagle began to use his sharp eyes to peer a way in. Alas, there was none. The only opening was the smokehole, and by some magic only smoke could pass through - not even Raven could get in. "Well," said Eagle, "that is that, as they say. I am going back to the tallest pine to think this over." "I shall return to my cave, and think as well," growled Bear. "I will stay here and see what may be seen," replied Raven. "Good journey to you both."

Raven sat on a pine branch for a day and a night, trying to think up a way to get into the cedar lodge. On the morning of the second day, he heard the bubble and burble of water. It was such a surprising sound that he hopped right down off of his pine branch and went to investigate. There, coming from underneath the door of the great cedar lodge, was a bright stream of water, no larger than Raven's wingspan. And kneeling by the streamlet was a beautiful girl, washing clothes. A seed of an idea came to Raven, so he waited until the girl took up a a cup and dipped some water from the stream. Quick as a spider, Raven transformed himself into a hemlock needle and jumped into the cup, just in time for the girl to drink him down. Once in her belly, Raven transformed himself again and became a baby, settled himself down to grow and wait for his time to be born.

Nine Months Later
Raven was born in the usual way to the beautiful girl in the dark and cold of the perpetual night, and he was without a doubt the oddest looking baby either the girl or her father had ever seen: a head of black hair the texture of down, a sharp beaky nose and yellow eyes. But like grandfathers have since the beginning of time, and shall until the fish turn to stars in the sky, the Grandfather thought this first grandson the most marvelous child eer born to woman. His pride swelled up and filled the cedar house until he had to turn it into smoke to allow it through the smokehole.

Raven, now a boy in the Elder's family, set about exploring his new surroundings, trying to find the source of the light Eagle had seen so long ago. He inspected everything the the lodge to no avail. Then one day while his Grandfather was sleeping, he came upon a pile of large bentwood boxes covered by a oilcloth. A glow emerged from under the cloth, so baby Raven pointed and squawked and finally the Grandfather uncovered the boxes. Baby Raven squawked and pointed some more, so Grandfather put the smallest box in Raven's hands. When Raven put his ear to the box, he could hear rushing water and leaping salmon; this must be Grandfather's secret place for the streams of silver salmon. Raven played carefully with the box for three days, wailing if the Grandfather took it away from him even for a moment. Alas, Raven could not open the box, no matter how he tried. On the fourth day, the Grandfather's daughter took the box from Raven and carried it to the open door of the Great Cedar Lodge. The daughter carefully cracked open the box just enough to let out the tiniest trickle of water - just enough to wash clothes in. Raven cocked his head and watched with one golden eye. Then, quick as a hummingbird, he ripped the top off of the box and in a roar so loud it shook the Great Cedar Lodge like an autumn leaf came all the streams and rivers that Grandfather had hoarded up so long ago.

The People rejoiced. The Animals rejoiced. Raven, now suspicious of the other boxes, began listening. In one box, he heard the cries of every animal he could imagine. In another, he heard nothing but felt a great heat. Raven again tried to open the boxes, but they were sealed by magic and he could not get his beak or claws into them. He tried knocking them against one another, hitting them with convenient rocks, and even tried to hurl them outside to no avail.Several weeks went by, and Raven became upset and sad. It was a new feeling, as Raven is usually the most cheerful and clever of the Animals, and he didn't like it one little bit. Brother Eagle sensed this (for it was his particular talent to spot emotions as well as prey), and came to visit Raven one afternoon, dragging a freshly-caught salmon in his claws. Raven's beady gold eyes lit up. "Eagle!" he cried, "Bring that salmon over here! I have an idea." Raven dragged the box of animal sounds over to the open doorway - his mother was washing clothes in the now-moved stream - and had Eagle lay the stinking salmon on top. The sounds in the box stopped suddenly, as a mountain cat stops when he scents prey. Then, the box began to shudder and shake. The wood creaked, then bulged, and then exploded into mere splinters as the bears and cats and skunks and other meat-eating animals fought over the mere scent of the salmon they had been denied for so long. Raven squawked in relief to see the black cloud of his brothers and sisters rise into the sky, and Eagle flapped off to join his cousins in the tallest trees, pausing only to call over his shoulder "Now bring back the light!"

Months went by. Raven's adopted Grandfather was so angry, his teeth marks adorned the walls and posts of the Great Cedar lodge from foundation to smokehole. He chewed through the front door and Raven's mother had to carve a new one. He chewed through the magic wards on the smokehole and spat them into the river, where they became the seals that guard the harbors and the porpoises that guard the uumiak. One day, the fish stores in the lodge were gone. The last piece of dried meat was eaten, and Grandfather could no longer crack open a bentwood box to grab a fresh animal to feed his family. He decided to go hunting and fishing, as he used to do. Raven saw his chance. Quick as a fox, he hurled the last box into the flames of the cooking fire and watched it as it began to smolder. The box began so smoke and swell in the fire, which began to absorb into the wood of the box itself. A whistle came from the cooking pit, and the glow from the box filled the whole of the Great Cedar Lodge. Raven covered his eyes in the presence of such light and cowered before the brilliance of the Celestial Bodies. With a crack that split the roof and threw Raven to the ground, the Sun, Moon and Stars exploded through the smokehole and back into the sky.

When he could move again, Raven opened his eyes. The fire was gone, he could see nothing. But slowly, oh so slowly, he saw the outline of the door through the hazy light of the smokehole. He stumbled outside, into a daylight the world hadn't seen for generations. And waiting to greet him was every living creature he could imagine, headed by Bear and Eagle. A representative of The People stepped forward. "Brother Raven," he said," we, The People, wish to thank you for bringing us back the light, water and food we so desperately missed. In thanks, we wish to name ourselves after you, to take your likeness as our crest, and your qualities as our own. We are now Haida, the People of the Raven." Another representative of The People stepped forward. "Brother Eagle," she cried,"Oh you of the sharpest eye and claw! We of The People also venerate Raven, but it was you who brought the Salmon that freed the animals. For your help to Raven, I wish to call myself and my descendants after you. I am now Tlingit, Woman of the Eagle."

And that is how Raven Lit the World.