The best of the American Indian myths are works of art, blending form and content into an organic whole in which the great themes of human experience are interwoven much as they are in a memorable short story or novella.  But if the underlying themes are similar, the metaphorical and narrative conventions are vastly different; and it is this aesthetic gap that critic John Bierhorst intends to bridge in this companion volume to his well-known anthology In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and ...
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Red Swan

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The best of the American Indian myths are works of art, blending form and content into an organic whole in which the great themes of human experience are interwoven much as they are in a memorable short story or novella.  But if the underlying themes are similar, the metaphorical and narrative conventions are vastly different; and it is this aesthetic gap that critic John Bierhorst intends to bridge in this companion volume to his well-known anthology In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations.Over forty cultures, including the Eskimo, the Iroquois, the Navajo, the Maya, and the Bororo, are here represented by sixty-four carefully selected myths and tales.  Yet The Red Swan will be valued not so much for its scope or its quantity as for the superb quality of the stories themselves.  Among the classic narratives included are "The Fight of the Quetzalcoatl" (Aztec), "The Rival Chiefs" (Kwakiutl), "The Hungry Old Woman" (Anambe), "Two Friends" (Greenland Eskimo), and "The Red Swan" (Chippewa).A number of the translations, the work of such ethnographers as Franz Boas, James Teit, and George Bird Grinnell, have been left untouched; others have been expertly revised; and some of the selections--all of which deserve to be much better known--appear in English for the first time.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466803053
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/1/1976
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 386
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

John Bierhorst is a distinguished editor and translator of American Indian literature whose previous books include Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables. He lives in West Shokan, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

The Red Swan
The Dream Father"The Idol Called Kiwasa."Secotan. Drawn by John White in 1585-6, engraved by Theodore De Bry circa 1590 (Picture Collection, New York Public Library)Indian mythology deals with the problem of ultimate origins by treating the Creation as a process of growing awareness or as a deliberate act of the imagination.The earth is supposed to have issued from the thoughts of a first Father, who gives his ideas substance by saying them out loud or by singing them.THE BEGINNING LIFE OF THE HUMMINGBIRDMBAYÁ 
Our First Father, the absolute, grew from within the original darkness.The sacred soles of his feet and his small round standing-place, these he created as he grew from within the original darkness.The reflection of his sacred thoughts, his all-hearing, the sacred palm of his hand with its staff of authority, the sacred palms of his branched hands tipped with flowers, these were created by Ñamanduí as he grew from within the original darkness.Upon his sacred high head with its headdress of feathers were flowers like drops of dew. Among the flowers of the sacred headdress hovered the first bird, the Hummingbird.As he grew, creating his sacred body, our First Father lived in the primal winds. Before he had thought of his future earth-dwelling, before he had thought of his future sky--his future world as it came to be in the beginning--Humming--bird came and refreshed his mouth. It was Hummingbird who nourished Ñamanduí with the fruits of paradise.As he was growing, before he had created his future paradise, he himself, Our Ñamandu Father, the First Being, did not see darkness, though the sun did not yet exist. He was lit by the reflection of his own inner self. The thoughts within his sacred being, these were his sun.The true Ñamandu Father, the First Being, lived in the primal winds. He brought the screech owl to rest and made darkness. He made the cradle of darkness.As he grew, the true Ñamandu Father, the First Being, created his future paradise. He created the earth. But at first he lived in the primal winds. The primal wind in which our Father lived returns with the yearly return of the primal time-space, with the yearly recurrence of the time-space that was. As soon as the season that was has ended, the trumpet-vine tree bears flowers. The winds move on to the following time-space. New winds and a new space in time come into being. Comes the resurrection of space and time.SOLITUDE WALKERYUKI 
The name of the Yuki Creator, Taikó-mol, means, literally, "Solitude Walker." The implement he uses is the lilkae, or "stone crook," four of which he arranges to form a cross, or, more precisely, a swastika. 
There was only water, and over it a fog. On the water was foam. The foam moved round and round continually, and from it came a voice. After a time there issued from the foam a person in human form. He had wing feathers of the eagle on his head. This was Taikó-mol. He floated on the water and sang. He stood on the foam, which still revolved. There was no light. He walked on the water as if it were land. He made a rope and laid it from north to south, and he walked along it, revolving his hands one about the other; and behind him the earth was heaped up along the rope. But the water overwhelmed it. Again he did this, and again the water prevailed. Four times this was done.Taikó-mol was constantly talking to himself: "I think we had better do it this way. I think we had better try it that way." So now he talked to himself, and he made a new plan. He made four lílkae, and planted one in the north and the others in the south, west, and east. Then he stretched them out until they were continuous lines crossing the world in the center. He spoke a word, and the earth appeared. Then he went along the edge and lined it with whale hide, so that the ocean could not wash away the earth. He shook the earth to see if it was solid, and he still makes this test, causing earthquakes.The earth was flat and barren, without vegetation and rivers. And still there was no light. In the ocean were fish and other creatures, but on the earth was nothing. Yet Taikó-mol had the feathers of various birds. He laid buzzard feathers and eagle feathers on the ground, and they became mountains. With lightning he split the mountains, and streams issued forth. He made all the birds and beasts, which in those times were persons. Afterward he changed them into their present forms and created real human beings.He built a house, and in it he laid sticks of mountain mahogany. Those with knobs on the ends were to be men, the smooth ones women, the small ones children. He said, "In the morning there will be much noise in this house. There will be laughing and talking." And in the morning the house was full of people, all laughing and talking. The earth was populated, and Taikó-mol went forth from the north all around the earth to give the tribes different languages. When all his work was done, he went up into the sky.WAS IT NOT AN ILLUSION?UITOTO 
Was it not an illusion?The Father touched an illusory image. He touched a mystery. Nothing was there. The Father, Who-Has-an-Illusion, seized it and, dreaming, began to think.Had he no staff? Then with a dream-thread he held the illusion. Breathing, he held it, the void, the illusion, and felt for its earth. There was nothing to feel: "I shall gather the void." He felt, but there was nothing.Now the Father thought the word. "Earth." He felt of the void, the illusion, and took it into his hands. The Father then gathered the void with dream-thread and pressed it together with gum. With the dream-gum iseike he held it fast.He seized the illusion, the illusory earth, and he trampled and trampled it, seizing it, flattening it. Then as he seized it and held it, he stood himself on it, on this that he'd dreamed, on this that he'd flattened.As he held the illusion, he salivated, salivated, and salivated, and the water flowed from his mouth. Upon this, the illusion, this, as he held it, he settled the sky roof. This, the illusion, he seized, entirely, and peeled off the blue sky, the white sky.Now in the underworld, thinking and thinking, the maker of myths permitted this story to come into being. This is the story we brought with us when we emerged.HOW COYOTE MADE THE WORLDPIT RIVER 
This humble myth is presented by anthropologist Jaime de Angulo as a dialogue between himself and his informant,whose words he translates in a bluntly colloquial style. Yet the underlying concepts are subtle. Note that the Creator is regarded as two separate persons, Silver Fox and Coyote, an idea de Angulo pretends to find surprising. The concept of a dual Creator, however, is both typical and widespread. One possibility is that the mythmaker perceives the spirit of the world to be split in half, half wise and half foolish, or, looked at from a slightly different angle, half good and half evil. 
"Listen, Bill, tell me ... do the Indians think, really think, that Coyote made the world? I mean, do they really think so? Do you really think so?""Why, of course I do ... Why not? ... Anyway ... that's what the old people always said ... only they don't all tell the same story. Here is one way I heard it: It seems like there was nothing everywhere but a kind of fog. Fog and water mixed, they say, no land anywhere, and this here Silver Fox ...""You mean Coyote?""No, no, I mean Silver Fox. Coyote comes later. You'll see, but right now. somewhere in the fog, they say, Silver Fox was wandering and feeling lonely. Tsikuellaaduwi maandza tsik-ualaasa. He was feeling lonely, the Silver Fox. I wish I would meet someone, he said to himself, the Silver Fox did. He was walking along in the fog. He met Coyote. 'I thought I was going to meet someone,' he said. The Coyote looked at him, but he didn't say anything. 'Where are you traveling?' says Fox. 'But where are YOU traveling? Why do you travel like that?' 'Because I am worried.' 'I also am wandering,' said the Coyote; 'I also am worrying and traveling.' 'I thought I would meet someone, I thought I would meet someone. Let's you and I travel together. It's better for two people to betraveling together, that's what they always say ...'""Wait a minute, Bill ... Who said that?""The Fox said that. I don't know who he meant when he said that's what they always say. It's funny, isn't it? How could he talk about other people since there had never been anybody before? I don't know ... I wonder about that sometimes, myself. I have asked some of the old people and they say: That's what I have been wondering myself, but that's the way we have always heard it told. And then you hear the Paiutes tell it different! And our own people down the river, they also tell it a little bit different from us. Doc, maybe the whole thing just never happened ... And maybe it did happen but everybody tells it different. People often do that, you know ...""Well, go on with the story. You said that Fox had met Coyote ...""Oh, yah ... Well, this Coyote he says, 'What are we going to do now?' 'What do you think?' says Fox. 'I don't know,' says Coyote. 'Well then,' says Fox, 'I'll tell you: LET'S MAKE THE WORLD.' 'And how are we going to do that?' 'WE WILL SING,' says the Fox."So, there they were singing up there in the sky. They were singing and stomping and dancing around each other in a circle. Then the Fox he thought in his mind, CLUMP OF SOD, come! ! That's the way he made it come: by thinking. Pretty soon he had it in his hands. And he was singing all the while he had it in his hands. They were both singing and stomping. All of a sudden the Fox threw that clump of sod, that tsapettia, he threw it down into the clouds. 'Don't look down!' he said to the Coyote. 'Keep on singing! Shut your eyes, and keep them shut until I tell you.' So they kept on singing and stomping around each other in a circle for quitea while. Then the Fox said to the Coyote, 'Now, look down there. What do you see?' 'I see something ... I see something ... but I don't know what it is.' 'All right. Shut your eyes again!' Now they started singing and stomping again, and the Fox thought and wished: Stretch! Stretch! 'Now look down again. What do you see?' 'Oh! It's getting bigger!' 'Shut your eyes again and don't look down!' And they went on singing and stomping up there in the sky. 'Now look down again!' 'Oooh! Now it's big enough!' said the Coyote."That's the way they made the world, Doc. Then they both jumped down on it and they stretched it some more. Then they made mountains and valleys; they made trees and rocks and everything. It took them a long time to do all that!""Didn't they make people, too?""No. Not people. Not Indians. The Indians came much later, after the world was spoiled by a crazy woman, Loon. But that's a long story ... I'll tell you someday."Copyright © 1976 by John Bierhorst All rights reserved
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