Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Box of Daylight

Raven had been kicked out of his father's house up in heaven because he ate all the food. His father sent him through the hole in the sky to go down to earth, with some supplies such as salmon roe, berries, and a raven skin so he could fly.

The world is all dark, and Raven is sick of that. So flying along he finds the hole in the sky that leads back to the heavens. There, he takes off his raven skin and finds a spring outside the house of the chief of heaven. He transforms himself into a pine needle and floats on the water. The chief's daughter comes out to get water from the spring, and she inadvertently drinks the needle. Soon she gives birth to a baby boy, who is Raven. This made the daughter and chief very happy.

The boy grows and begins to cry, "Hama, hama!" He wouldn't stop crying, but nobody knew what he wanted. One of the wise men figures that the baby wants the box of daylight, called ma. The boy stops crying and plays with the ma, rolling it around the house. The chief soon forgets about this--until the boy runs away with it. He was pursued, but made it to the hole in the sky, put on his raven skin, and returned to the earth.

It was still dark. Raven flew up the Nass River. He finds some people, called Frogs, fishing with bag nets, and asks them to throw him one of the things they've caught. The people refuse four requests, so Raven threatens to break the ma. The people still refuse, naming Raven Txa'msem--the liar--, so Raven breaks the ma, bringing daylight to the world. This caused the north wind to blow, driving the Frogs down river where they stick to a rock and become stone.

This is a popular story in the Pacific Northwest. Here I've summarized a Tsimshian version (which can be read here in full I'm really not doing it justice), but the Tlingit version is perhaps more well known. There's a nice video with a dramatized retelling of the Tlingit version:

In many versions, the baby unleashes first the stars, then the moon, then finally the sun to light the world. In these versions, Raven starts out white. But when he is fleeing the house after releasing the light, he gets stuck in the smoke hole at the top and soot from the fire turns him black. The Tlingit version retold in Erdoes and Ortiz's American Indian Trickster Stories starts like this...

Raven was there first. He had been told to make the world by his father, but we do not know who his father was or how he looked. There was no light at that long-ago time, a time of beginning. Raven knew that far away in the North was a house in which someone kept light just for himself. Raven schemed, thinking of how best to steal the light to illuminate the world.

There's a pretty great picture book version by Maria Williams and  Felix Vigil.

Here's a couple of videos on vimeo that delve into the story (based on the video above), with one of its tellers named Walter Porter, part 1 and part 3. (part 2 is the story, which on vimeo is of better quality than the one embedded here) He gets into the variation (such as what kind of pine needle Raven becomes (spruce, hemlock, cedar, even a speck of dirt). He also talks about how the chief's daughter can't conceive a child, and is distraught. Part 2 is essential to understanding the story.

Important to the story, interestingly, is Raven's cry. He cries to get the sun, and he cries whenever he does something significant.

Believe it or not, there's also a rock song that retells this story. Also, this. I was surprised to see how many different versions there are on youtube.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? For one thing, the numerous versions all work on their own, telling the story in ways that make sense but differ in aspects such as Raven's motive for stealing (sometimes curiosity, sometimes he wants to be able to hunt with light, sometimes he wants people to be able to see how beautiful he is). For another, lots of people love this story. You can get jewelry based on it. This story has and still does inspire wonderful art, too. I love it because it can be a creation story if you want it to be, or it can be just an odd little story. And for whatever reason, the transformation into a pine needle is satisfying.

by Tommy Joseph

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