I promised Mary Beth that I'd post this myth, one that I used to tell to children. I read it first in James Mooney's 19th report, "Myths of the Cherokee", made to the Bureau of American Ethnology around the turn of the last century. When I took singing lessons from Walker Calhoun, my way of thinking about the story underwent some subtle changes.
The convenience of writing, that it can be read at any time, is its exact shortcoming as a medium for recounting myths. A myth is told for a reason, to a particular audience, and the skillful teller tailors each cadence to that end. A myth must proceed by mutual agreement to work its particular magic ~ which is to explain things by telling how they came to be this way. Balkers, who would explain their particular brand of second-hand information, tediously and rather tenuously as fact, are just rocks in the unending stream of wonder; the story goes round them and gradually, but inevitably, wears them away.
Their days are numbered, but the days of myth are not.
I do wish that a direct transliteration, Cherokee to English, of Mooney's collections would be published. The Cherokee language is so unlike English, articulating a world so different from any world that English can describe, that by the time a story is translated, written down by an "ethnologist" who could not help but condescend on his culture's behalf, what you have left is a very pale imitation. Still, we're lucky to have the tales at all, considering the the long trials of the Cherokee people. How wonderful it would be if their language, or any tribal language in the United States, was a part of our general education. Our world would be deeper and richer for it - but I digress...
Before embarking on the story, a minimum of the cosmos in which it takes place must be described. It's not beyond possibility that all of my gentle readers know how the world was created and what the various portions are called, but I trust you'll pardon me for setting the stage. Speaking of portions, missionary translators who made a Cherokee version of the bible, translated the word "God" with the name of the sun - Une lanuhi - which means "the apportioner", or measurer of days - mistakenly thinking that the sun was in charge of portioning everything. Even the idea of being "in charge" is a mistake! In ordinary conversation, both the sun and moon were known as "Nunta".
The Sun, male in so many mythologies, is female in the Cherokee cosmos. William Bartram, one of the first English explorers to spend time in Cherokee country, called them "... a nest of apostate hornets ruled by women". Sounds like my family.
The Cherokee portion of the country, at one time, was enormous, including all of Kentucky except the purchase, most of Tennessee, and portions of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Below that land was the Underworld, below even the water in caves; above, and just beyond comprehension, was the rock crystal vault of the sky, like an invisible turned over bowl. On the other side of that was Galunlati - "the high place" and it is there that the Sun resides, traveling each day across the half orb of the crystaline vault.
The Sun's daughter had a house at the halfway apex, directly overhead, and the Sun used to stop there every day at noon for dinner, as we call it here in the country. One day the conversation, between the Sun, her brother the Moon, and her daughter, came round to the people living far below. "I can't stand to look at them!" said the Sun, "the way they screw their faces up when the look back at you. I hate to say it, but my grandchildren are ugly - grin squint grin squint." The Moon, who was paler, and romantic, said, "I like my younger brothers; I think they're very handsome."
This ticked the Sun off royally and made her jealous. She immediately began planning how to kill every single person. Every day, as she neared her daughter's house, she would work up her most sultry rays and beam them down directly until there was a great fever and hundreds bit the dust; everyone lost someone, and they feared that soon no one would be left. In desperation they went to consult the Yunwi Tsunsdi ~ the Little People ~ who said that obviously the only way to save themselves was to kill the Sun.
The Little People made medicine and changed two men to snakesl the Puff Adder and the Copperhead, and sent them to wait at the door of the daughter of the Sun's house, and bite the old Sun when she came the next day. They went together and hid by the door, set to bite, until the Sun came, but when the Puff Adder was about to strike, the bright and sultry rays blinded him and he could only roll over on his back and spit out yellow slime, as he does to this very day. The Sun called him nasty and went on in. The Copperhead crawled off without doing anything. So much for plan A.
For plan B, the Yunwi Tsunsdi changed two more men into snakes, the great Uktena and the Rattlesnake, and sent them to wait and bite. They made the Uktena VERY large, with horns on his head, and everyone thought that he'd be sure to do the deed, but the Rattlesnake was so quick and eager that he got ahead and coiled up right by the door. When the Sun's daughter opened the door to peer out and see if her mother was coming, the Rattlesnake got rattled and sprang up and bit her instead and she fell dead right on the threshold. He forgot to wait for the Sun and went back to the earth, and the Uktena was so put out with the whole affair that he went back too. Once back amongst the people his temper kept getting worse, until if he even looked at you your whole family would drop dead instantly. It was decided that it would be best for the Uktena to go live in Galunlati too, or the Underworld, someplace not close.
When the Sun found her daughter dead, she went in the house and grieved. The people no longer died of heat, but now it was dark all the time, because the Sun would not come out. The people consulted the Yunwi Tsunsdi again, and were told that if they wanted the Sun to reappear, they would have to retrieve her daughter from Tsusgina, the Ghost Country, in Usunhi yi, the Darkening Land, in the west.
They chose seven men to go and equiped each one with a little sourwood rod as long as your hand. The Yunwi Tsunsdi told them they must take a box with them and when they arrived at Tsusgina they would find all the ghosts at a dance. They must stand outside the circle and when the daughter of the Sun came round they were to strike her with the 7 rods whereupon she would fall to the ground. Then they must put her in the box and return her to her mother, being very sure NEVER to open the box, not even a crack, until they were home again.
This they did, and the other ghosts never even seemed to notice what happened.
They took up the box and started homeward, toward the east. In a little while the girl came to life again, and begged to be let out of the box. This they ignored. Soon she called again, and said she was hungry, but they gave her no answer. After awhile she spoke again, this time pleading for water, as she was dying of thirst. This was very hard to listen to, but they steeled themselves, said nothing and continued on the trail. When they were very near home, she called again, in a faint voice, and begged them to raise the lid just a little, because she was smothering. Then they were afraid that she really was dying again, so they lifted the lid the tiniest bit to give her air, but when they did there was a fluttering sound inside the box - something flew suddenly past them into a thicket and they heard a redbird cry "kwish! kwish! kwish!. They shut down the lid and went on to the settlements, but when they got there and opened the box it was empty.
So we know that the redbird is the daughter of the Sun. If the men had kept the box closed, as the Yunwi Tsunsdi told them to, they might have brought her safely home, setting a precedent for bringing other friends back as well. As it is now, that is not possible. As Cebah says, "When you die you're dead as hell."
The Sun was glad when the expedition to return her daughter started, but now that it failed she set in crying "My daughter! My daughter!" and such a flood of tears that it looked like everyone would drown. Good grief! The people held another council and decided to send their best looking young men and women to amuse the Sun and turn her temper. They danced their most gorgeous and fetching dances, sang their best songs, but for a long time the Sun kept her face covered and paid them no mind. At last, the drummer suddenly changed the tempo - she lifted up her face, and was so pleased with the sight that she forgot her grief and smiled.