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SUN LORE OF ALL AGES
A Collection of Myths and Legends
By WILLIAM TYLER OLCOTT
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Solar Creation Myths
IN the literature of celestial mythology, the legends that relate to the creation of the chief luminaries occupy no small part. It was natural that primitive man should at an early date speculate on the great problem of the creation of the visible universe, and especially in regard to the source whence sprang the Sun and the Moon.
This great question, of such vital interest to all nations since the dawn of history, presents a problem that is still unsolved even in this enlightened age, for, although the nebula hypothesis is fairly well established, there are astronomers of note to-day who do not altogether accept it.
The myths that relate to the creation of the sun generally regard that orb as manufactured and placed in motion by a primitive race, or by the God of Light, rather than as existing before the birth of the world. In other legends, the Sun was freed from a cave by a champion, or sprang into life as the sacrifice of the life of a god or hero.
These traditions doubtless arose from the fundamental belief that the Sun and the Moon were personified beings, and that at one time in the world's history man lived in a state of darkness or dim obscurity. The necessity for light would suggest the invention of it, and hence a variety of ingenious methods for procuring it found their way into the mythology of the ancient nations.
Of all the solar creation myths that have come down to us, those of the North American Indians are by far the most interesting because of the ingenuity of the legends, and their great variety. We would expect to find the same myth relating to the creation of the sun predominating, as regards its chief features, among most of the Indian tribes. On the contrary, the majority of the tribes had their own individual traditions as to how the sun came into existence. They agree, however, for the most part, in ascribing to the world a state of darkness or semi-darkness before the sun was manufactured, or found, and placed in the sky.
The great tribes of the North-west coast believe that the Raven, who was their supreme deity, found the sun one day quite accidentally, and, realising its value to man, placed it in the heavens where it has been ever since.
According to the Yuma Indian tradition, their great god Tuchaipa created the world and then the moon. Perceiving that its light was insufficient for man's needs, he made a larger and a brighter orb, the sun, which provided the requisite amount of light.
The Kootenays believed that the sun was created by the coyote, or chicken hawk, out of a ball of grease, but the Cherokee myth that related to the creation of the sun was more elaborate, and seems to imply that the Deluge myth was known to them.
"When the earth was dry and the animals came down, it was still dark, so they got the sun and set it in a track to go every day across the island from east to west just overhead. It was too hot this way, and the Red Crawfish had his shell scorched a bright red so that his meat was spoiled, and the Cherokee do not eat it. The conjurers then put the sun another handbreadth higher in the air, but it was still too hot. They raised it another time, and another until it was seven hand-breadths high, and just under the sky arch, then it was right and they left it so. Every day the sun goes along under this arch and returns at night on the upper side to the starting place."
This myth reveals a belief, common to many of the Indian tribes, that originally the sun was much nearer to the earth than now, and his scorching heat greatly oppressed mankind. Strangely enough, although it can be nothing but a coincidence, the nebular hypothesis of modern science predicates that the solar system resulted from the gradual contraction of a nebula. This implies that the planet earth and the sun were once in comparatively close proximity.
Among the Yokut Indians, there was a tradition that at one time the world was composed of rock, and there was no such thing as fire and light. The coyote, who of all the animals was chief in importance, told the wolf to go up into the mountains till he came to a great lake, where he would see a fire which he must seize and bring back. The wolf did as he was ordered, but it was not easy to take the fire, and so he obtained only a small part of it, which he brought back. Out of this the coyote made the moon, and then the sun, and put them in the sky where they have been to this day.
The significant feature of this myth is the fact, that, contrary to the general notion, the moon's creation antedated that of the sun. The explanation of this seeming incongruity appears in the legend of the Yuma Indians given above. The moon, although created first, did not give sufficient light, hence it was necessary to manufacture a source of light of greater power and luminosity.
The legends of the Mission Indians of California reveal an altogether different view of the situation. In the myths cited above, the sun was manufactured to add to man's comfort. In the following legend the Earth-Mother had kept the sun in hiding, waiting for mankind to grow old enough to appreciate it; so, when the time came, she produced the sun and there was light.
In order that the Sun might light the world, the people of the earth decided that it must go from east to west, so they all lifted up their arms to the sky three times and cried out each time, "Cha, Cha, Cha!" and immediately the Sun rose from among them and went up to his appointed place in the sky.
One of the Mewan Indian sun myths reveals a novel tale to. account for the presence of the sun. These Indians regarded the earth as an abode of darkness in primitive times, but far away in the east there was a light which emanated from the Sun-Woman.
The people wanted light very much, and appealed to Coyote-Man to procure it for them. Two men were sent to induce the Sun-Woman to return with them, but she refused the invitation. A large number of men were then sent to bring her back, even if they had to resort to force. They succeeded in binding the Sun-Woman, and brought her back with them to their land, where she ever after afforded people the light that is so necessary for their well-being. It was said that her entire body was covered with the beautiful iridescent shells of the abalone, and the light which shone from these was difficult to gaze upon.
According to a Wyandot Indian myth, the Little Turtle created the Sun by order of a great council of animals, and he made the Moon to be the Sun's wife. He also created the fixed stars, but the stars which "run about the sky" are supposed to be the children of the Sun and Moon.
The following Yuma legend indicates that the moon was considered by their ancestors as of greater importance than the sun: "Kwikumat said, 'I will make the moon first.' He faced the east, and placing spittle on the forefinger of his right hand rubbed it like paint on the eastern sky until he made a round shiny place. 'I call it the moon,' said Kwikumat. Now another god, whom Kwikumat created, rubbed his fingers till they shone, and drawing the sky down to himself he painted a great face upon it rubbing it till it shone brightly. This he called the sun."
There is a tradition among the Pomo Indians of California, that, in very early times, the sun did not move daily across the heavens as it does now, but only rose a short distance above the eastern horizon each morning, and then sank back again. This arrangement did not suit people very well, and Coyote-Man determined to better conditions, so he started eastward to see what the trouble was with the sun.
He took with him some food, a magic sleep-producing tuft of feathers, and four mice. On the fourth day he arrived at the home of the sun people, who received him cordially, and a great dance was arranged in the dance house. In the midst of this building the sun was suspended from the rafters by ropes of grape-vines.
Coyote-Man liberated the mice, and told them to gnaw at the grape-vine ropes that held the sun. Meanwhile, he danced with the sun people, and, by the aid of the sleep-producing feathers, he succeeded in stupefying all the dancers. The mice by this time had freed the sun, which Coyote-Man seized and carried off with him. On his home-coming, the sun was laid on the ground, and the people discussed what should be done with it, but Coyote-Man decided that it should be hung up in the middle of the sky. This difficult task was delegated to the birds, but they all failed until it came the crows' turn. They were successful in hanging up the sun, and it has remained in its proper place ever since.
The Apache myth agrees with most of the Indian myths as regards the darkness that traditionally reigned over the world, and the peoples' desire for light, but their notion of the creation of the sun itself differs materially from the other Indian myths.
The myth relates that, originally, the only light in the world was that which emanated from the large eagle feathers that people carried about with them. This was such an unsatisfactory means of illuminating the world, that a council of the tribe was called for the purpose of devising a better system of lighting. It was suggested that they manufacture a sun, so they set about it. A great disk was made, and painted a bright yellow, and this was placed in the sky. The legend does not relate how this was accomplished. This first attempt at sun-making was not altogether successful, as the disk was too small. However, they permitted it to make one circuit of the heavens before it was taken down and enlarged. Four times it was taken down, and increased in size, before it was as large as the earth and gave sufficient light. Encouraged by their success at sun-making, the people made a moon, and hung it up in the sky. It appears that this light company's business, and its success, aroused the ire of a wizard and a witch who lived in the underworld. They regarded the manufacture of the sun and moon as presumptuous acts on the part of man, and attempted to destroy the luminaries; but the sun and moon fled from the underworld, leaving it in perpetual darkness, and found a safe abiding place in the heavens, where they have ever remained unmolested.
The Navajo Indian legend of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars is decidedly novel, and reveals the wide range of the imagination of primitive man in his conception of the creation of the celestial bodies.
The early Navajo, it appears, in common with many other Indian tribes, met in council to consider a means of introducing more light into the world; for, in early times, the people lived in semi-darkness, the obscurity resembling that of twilight.
The wise men concluded that they must have a sun, and moon, and a variety of stars placed above the earth, and the first work that was done to bring this about was the creation of the heavens in which to place the luminaries. The old men of the tribe made the sun in a house constructed for this special purpose, but the creation of the moon and stars they left to other tribes.
The work of creating the sun was soon accomplished, and the problem then presented itself of raising it up to the heavens and fixing it there. Two dumb fluters, who had gained considerable prominence in the tribe, were selected to bear the sun and moon (for they had also constructed a moon), Atlas-like, on their respective shoulders. These were great burdens to impose on them, for the orbs were exceedingly ponderous. Therefore, the fluters staggered at first under the great weight that bore them down, and the one bearing the sun came near burning up the earth before he raised it sufficiently high; but the old men of the tribe lit their pipes and puffed smoke vigorously at the sun, and this caused it to retire to a greater distance in the heavens.
Four successive times they had to do this to prevent the burning up of the world, for the earth has increased greatly in size since ancient times; and, consequently, the sun had to be projected higher in the heavens, so that its great heat would not set the world on fire.
It will be noted that the language of the myths, as translated, has been followed closely. This was in order to bring out more fully their quaint imagery. The Indian was ever a poet, and a study of the tribal legends reveals many charming bits that would lose their beauty of expression were they transposed into the diction of our more prosaic tongue.
In the Ute Indian myth which follows, it appears that the sun had to be conquered and subjected to man's will, before it would perform its daily task in an orderly and regular way.
It is related that the Hare-God was once sitting by his camp-fire in the woods waiting the wayward Sun-God's return. Weary with watching, he fell asleep, and while he slumbered the Sun-God came, and, so near did he approach, that his great heat scorched the shoulders of the Hare-God. Realising that he had thus incurred the wrath of the Hare-God, the Sun-God fled to his cave in the underworld.
The Hare-God awoke in a rage, and started in pursuit of the Sun-God. After many adventures, he came to the brink of the world, and lay in wait for the object of his vengeance. When the Sun-God finally came out of his cave, the Hare-God shot an arrow at him, but the sun's heat burned it up before it reached its mark. However, the Hare-God had in his quiver a magic arrow which always hit the mark. This he launched from his bow, and the shaft struck the Sun-God full in the face, so that the sun was shattered into a thousand fragments. These fell to the earth and caused a great conflagration.
It was now the turn of the Hare-God to be dismayed at the results of his actions, and he fled before the destruction he had wrought. As he ran, the burning earth consumed all his members save his head, which went rolling over the face of the earth. Finally, it, too, became so hot that the eyes of the god burst, and out gushed a flood of tears which extinguished the fire.
But the Sun-God had been conquered, and awaited sentence. A great council was called, and, after much discussion, the Sun-God was condemned to pursue a definite path across the sky each day, and the days, nights, and seasons were arranged in an orderly fashion.
The following Cherokee Indian myth reveals the Sun as the arbiter of man's fate: "A number of people were engaged to construct a sun, which was the first planet made. Originally it was intended that man should live forever, but the sun, when he came to survey the situation, decided that, inasmuch as the earth was insufficient to support man, it would be better to have him succumb to death, and so it was decreed."
In Creation Myths of Primitive America, by Jeremiah Curtin, there is a particularly interesting solar myth. It is, therefore, given in much detail, as it is considered one of the most remarkable of the solar legends. As a pure product of the imagination, it ranks with the best examples of Egyptian and Grecian mythology.
The myth relates the efforts of a wicked and blood-thirsty old man named Sas, to kill his son-in-law, Tulchuherris. After many ineffectual attempts to accomplish his fell purpose, he proposed a pine-bending contest, for he felt sure that, by getting his son-in-law to climb to the top of a lofty tree, he could bend it low, and, by letting go of it, suddenly hurl the object of his enmity into the sky and thus destroy him.
Tulchuherris had, however, a wise protector hidden in his hair, in the guise of a little sprite named Winishuyat, who warned him of his peril, and enabled him to turn the tables on his wicked father-in-law.
In the words of the myth: "He [Tulchuherris] rose in the night, turned toward Sas, and said: 'Whu, whu, whu, I want you Sas to sleep soundly.' Then he reached his right hand toward the west, toward his great-grandmother's, and a stick came into it. He carved and painted the stick beautifully, red and black, and made a fire-drill. Then he reached his left hand toward the east, and wood for a mokos [arrow straightener] came into it. He made the mokos, and asked the fox dog for a fox-skin. The fox gave it. Of this he made a head-band, and painted it red. All these things he put into his quiver. 'We are ready,' said Tulchuherris. 'Now, Daylight, I wish you to come right away.' Daylight came. Sas rose, and soon after they started for the tree. 'My son-in-law, I will go first,' said Sas, and he climbed the tree. 'Go higher,' said Tulchuherris, 'I will not give a great pull, go up higher.' He went high and Tulchuherris did not give a great pull so that Sas came down safely. Tulchuherris now climbed the tree, almost to the top. Sas looked at him, saw that he was near the top, and then drew the great pine almost to the earth, standing with his back to the top of the tree. Tulchuherris sprang off from the tree behind Sas, and ran away into the field. The tree sprang into the sky with a roar. 'You are killed now, my son-in-law,' said Sas, 'you will not trouble me hereafter.' He talked on to himself and was glad. 'What were you saying, father-in-law?' asked Tulchuherris, coming up from behind. Sas turned, 'Oh! my son-in-law, I was afraid that I had hurt you. I was sorry.' 'Now, my brother,' said Winishuyat, 'Sas will kill you unless you kill him. At midday he will kill you surely unless you succeed in killing him. Are you not as strong as Sas?'
Excerpted from SUN LORE OF ALL AGES by WILLIAM TYLER OLCOTT. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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