Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Daughter of the Sun:

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.

9 comments:

Mary Beth said...

Ah Dan, MOONEY is the Irish side of my paternal family... but that's another myth for another fireside and good bottle of wine.

You have me laughing. Thank you.

When I get home, I'll send you the local Pomo Story about Moon Tears.

Dan Dutton said...

By all accounts Mooney was a fine fellow and much liked by the Cherokee. He was certainly told more than most outsiders.

This story never fails to move me, and every time I tell it, something new pops out.

Mary Beth said...

Here, Anglicized, is the Pomo story told to the best of my ability:

Right here in Lake County, we have a semi-precious stone that is found no where else in the word. To the uninitiated eye is appears to be a thick shard of glass, such as might be broken from an old Coca-cola bottle. Yet, in the laboratory, this little shard will be found be volcanic in creation. Normally 7.5-8 on the Mohs scale, the sparkling little stones are quite capable of cutting glass. Thus they have come to be known as Lake County Diamonds. The Native Peoples of this area, the Pomo, tell a beauty tale regarding the stones and call them Moon Tears.

Moon (female) and Sun (male) are bother and sister. Many years ago they shared the sky together with little Moon often seen tagging along after her big brother Sun. But, as happens with many siblings, these two had a falling out.

Moon, in her wandering across the sky, had taken notice of young man. He was a good hunter, strong, and absolutely fearless. Moon was smitten. She soon began to spend a great deal of time simply gazing at this youth.

On soft spring nights, he would stand atop the highest hill and sing to her as she crossed the sky. He too had fallen under the enchanting spell of love.

Sun slowly came to realize that his little sister was acting strangely. She wasn’t following him about anymore. In fact, she wasn’t pestering him at all. He decided that he’d best go see what was going on.

Sun found Moon in a forgotten little corner of the sky resting her cheek rest upon on cloud and gazing lovingly down upon the Earth.

“Hmmmm what’s this,” he thought. “Who is my sister mooning over?”

Watching her from a distance, Sun was horrid to find the Moon had fallen in love with A HUMAN.

“What are doing? Have you lost your mind? Have you forgotten your duty? It is up to us to light the sky and mark the seasons! You will cease this behavior at once!”

Moon turned her back on her brother, and refused to show her face to anyone.

But after a day, Moon could not resist gazing upon her beloved. Sneaking out at night, she would peek a little more boldly each time until she gazed full face at her beloved. This would set Sun to raging again. Moon would try to focus upon her duties, she would try to part herself from her beloved, but it was hopeless, she simply couldn’t help herself.

On rare occasions when Moon had to come out in the daylight to fulfill her duties, she would sulk silently on the opposite side of the sky from her brother Sun. Sun refused to acknowledge his foolish sister. He was waiting for her to beg his forgiveness.

Finally, Sun could stand it no more. He called upon Blue Jay to disrupt the young man’s hunts with his screams. This gave Sun a measure of satisfaction, but did not sway Moon's devotion.

As summer wore on, Sun grew jealous in his rage against his sister’s lover. He dried the water from the creeks. He parched the grasses on the hill. He made the village so hot that the people could only lay in their houses and pant until the night brought them relief. This move backfired horribly. Now the young man took up hunting by Moon’s light and her affection for him grew even stronger.

Again Sun called to Blue Jay, telling him to get rid of young man forever!

To the West of the young man’s village lay the Mayacmas Mountains. Here the young went one night in search of deer. Blue Jay once more began his calls, disrupting the hunt and blowing the young mans cover. The young man began to chase Blue Jay, trying in vain to frighten him off. Higher and higher into the mountains Blue Jay lured his victim. Beneath the Mayacmas lays a body of molten lava. On the far South Western peaks, hissing geysers issue forth without warning, sulfurous gases foul the air, and Earth Quake walks. It was here that the young man met his fate in a black eruption of poisonous gases and burning ash. So strong was the eruption that the sky was not seen for days. Blue Jay's voice is still harsh from the fumes.

Moon has never recovered. She keeps her vigil month after month, waiting, certain that he will return to sing to her once more. She marks the spot he used to stand with her tears, which fall to earth as shining crystals.

Moon Tears must never be placed upon a grave or upon the body of the deceased. If you are driving at night and see the full moon sparkling upon a field filled with Moon Tears, BEWARE. Danger is approaching your vehicle from out of the Eastern sky.

Dan Dutton said...

What a great story! I notice that the time measuring qualities of the sun and moon are noted in this one too, Are the tears obsidian?

When I was working on The Faun it surprised me to find Pan described as "proselenoi" (before the moon) - the myth there has Pan's rythmn initiate measured time, the dance and pulse... before Pan, only timelessness, sans form.

It's neat to know this story - hitherto all I knew of the Pomo were their exquisite basket designs. I'm trying to remember now what tribe Ishi belonged to. (?) Do you know that tragic California indian story? It's a heartbreaker.

Mary Beth said...

I do know the story of Ishi. I have stood in San Francisco were he was "displayed" and on the bluff above the ocean where his ashes were scattered.

Hi was Yahi of the Yana People. His area was to the North East near Lassen.

Moon Tears are not obsidian (which we have also : black, striped, and nearer San Fancisco almost beer bottle brown and very transparent). Moon Tears are unique unto themselves.

When I return to Kentucky in 2010, may I trade you Moontears for a tour of Pete's Spring and the Dutton Hill Battle Site?

I was starting at you water color of the cardinal. Two thought popped into mind. First: oh this story explains the black mask! Second: we fon't have cardinals in California but then again, we don't see our own faces as we look out our eyes!

Dan Dutton said...

I think Moontears would be proper tour gild.

As to the black mask ~ I wish that I had a photo of the design for one, made during work on The
Approach of the Mystery, to post here. It belongs to a friend - maybe I can have him make a pic of it.

And there's a painting/collage of the daughter of the Sun, included in the book for Ballads of the Barefoot Mind that would fit.... sigh! I long for the Unified Field!

Cathy said...

I love both stories.

And I love this painting, Dan. I have a special affection for cardinals.

Apifera Farm said...

I miss the red cardinals which were abundant in Minnesota but none here in Oregon. The males treated the females like princesses...I often put them in paintings...

Dan, I haven't been painting much. I was going to start this week, but feel compelled to make sewing messes. I think it's ok. I have two projects in the burners, so it's good, but I got that feeling, "Oh, I SHOULD be painting."

Dan Dutton said...

I've painted cardinals several times ~ I'm thinking of one a friend has that is of a wet winter woods with a cardinal in a dogwood tree. It's a big canvas, all dark browns and grays with one teensie spot of scarlet.

The background on this one is gold! You can't see it so well with the light angled as it was when I took the pic. It has a companion ~ a bluejay!

Hey Mary B. I'll post that coincidence too!

K. you're so like me ~ even if I'm doing a thousand other things I STILL have "I'm not painting" syndrome!