Photo Credit: Larry Vienneau
The Raven in Native American Mythology
Native American culture is embedded with extensive tales and legends. Every aspect of life, death, and existence has its own story to explain why things are the way they are. Often, different Native American tribes had very similar beliefs, but most tribes have their own unique variations in the details of these legends. The raven is a very important figure in most Native American cultures. It is seen as the creator of light and as a trickster figure. As the maker of light, the raven symbolizes the ultimate creator of all things of that which existed before the beginning. As a trickster figure, the raven is seen as a catalyst of mischief and mayhem.
Although credited as the “creator” of life, one story of Raven depicts a greedy and mischievous figure who mostly works for selfish reasons while at the same time teaching lessons about life. The Native American tribes recognized that Raven was the key which opened many of life’s treasures to them and for this they were grateful. They also realized that Raven did not do this for the good of man or anything else but only for himself. So although Native Americans are thankful for what Raven has given to them, they realize that Raven is not to be trusted and that he is more selfish than generous (Burke).
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Because of the numerous tribes that believed in the raven, there were numerous variations of beliefs surrounding the story of the raven. The following is a summary of the creation myth of the Tlingit tribe from the North Pacific coast region:
The name of Raven is Kit-ka’ositiyi-qa-yit (“Son of Kit-ka’ositiyiqa). Raven was instructed from birth by his father in every subject so that the raven could make a world; after trying many different ways, the raven was finally successful. The raven started out by creating light. Raven had heard that there was a very rich man living atop a hill who had light but did not let it out for the world to see. Raven tried many ways to get into the house so that he could obtain the light and finally devised a plan that would work. Raven transformed himself into a speck of dirt and placed himself in a glass of water from which the man’s daughter was drinking. The girl drank the speck of dirt and in this way became pregnant.
Some time later a child was born and this child was possessed by Raven. When Raven had the strength to crawl around the house he found the shelf where the man had his treasures on display. Raven cried intensely for the objects on the shelf and eventually the man pulled down his bag of stars and allowed the child to play with it. Raven rolled the stars around on the ground for awhile and then, when he was given the opportunity, allowed them to go up the smoke hole where they scattered into the sky in the arrangement which you now see them in today.
The next day the boy cried for more of the things on the shelf and was given a bag which contained the moon. Raven played with the moon and in the same fashion as the stars he let the moon up the smoke hole and it went into the sky for all to see. On the third day the boy cried very intensely for the final object on the shelf and the man, knowing what would happen, but unable to refuse his grandson, gave him the box that contained the sun. As soon as Raven had this he flew up the smoke hole with the box having stolen all the man’s valuables. Raven did not yet release the sun.
Raven shortly thereafter was told of a well with a never-ending supply of water. Raven went to the place where the well was and learned that the man who owned the well kept it covered and never left its side. He even built his house around the well and slept by it so that no one else could drink from it. Once again Raven began to scheme a plan to get this water.
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Raven disguised himself as the man’s brother-in-law and went to the man telling him they he would stay the night with him. Both went to sleep and in the early morning Raven woke up and went away from the well. When Raven returned he brought with him dog dung and put it on the sleeping man’s buttocks. Raven awoke the man and showed the man the accident he had had in the night. The man embarrassed and in need to clean up, ran out of the house to clean up.
By the time the man came back, Raven had drunk up nearly all the water. Raven flew out the smoke hole away from the man but got stuck. The man commenced with making a fire under Raven to make smoke and this smoke turned the raven the color we are accustomed to seeing it today (before that, Raven was pure white). Raven finally escaped and flew out over the land spitting water here and there creating the great rivers of the world. Whenever small drops of water leaked from his beak they created the small creeks.
When Raven happened upon a village where any beings lived, he was asked if he came from the house where the sun was kept. Raven pulled out the box and opened it just enough to let a bit of light out as he was proud of his accomplishment. The people were thrown back by this bright light and then began to fight with Raven to get the box. Raven was unnerved by this so he opened the box all the way and the sun shot up into the sky. The beings of this village were then transformed into the animals whose skin they were wearing and ran off into the forest and into the oceans. In this manner the sun was brought into the world and the forests and oceans were populated with game.
Raven is credited for many other gifts and curses to man but the “creation” of the stars, moon, rivers, and sun are the most essential and universally believed myths amongst North American Indians (Hooker).
This version of the creation myth is one of many ways that the story has been told. All Native American stories have been passed down for generations orally, none of the stories have been written until the last 100 years (or so). Because of this, there are many similar versions of the story. For example, one other popular version told in the Northwest Coast region states that the daughter of the keeper of the sun and moon was impregnated by Raven, not because he turned himself into a speck of dust and fell in her water, but because he turned himself into, “…a spruce needle and floated into her basket of water. When she drank from it, he impregnated her with himself” (McNeil). Here the same basic concept and the overall effect is the same, but the meaning is slightly different.
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There are also discrepancies about the physical appearance of the raven baby between tribes of the same Northwest region: one indicates the baby to be, “immaculate in every way” (McNeil), whereas another refers to the child as, “oddly shaped in every way with deformities such that make it hard to believe that this child was of human birth.”
One example given by the Tsimshian tribe of British Columbia, shows Raven as a pure savior of man in providing light to the human world. According to their belief, Raven was sorry for the humans who were forced to stumble around in the dark, and knowing that there was light in heaven, Raven, out of the goodness of his heart, stole the light from the heavens and brought it to earth so that it could be enjoyed by everyone (The Spirit World 26).
The Tlingit legend has its roots in that Raven stole the sun and stars from a rich man. Many other Native American cultures have very similar variations of this, particularly different only in the character which performed the act, sometimes the Rabbit. But in the Slavery Tribe legend the stories do not compare at all. In this legend it is Coyote and Eagle who merely steal the boxes of moon and sun from human hunters who dwell in the woods (Erdoes 140-142).
According to Cherokee legend, the raven was also not in the least bit associated with the sun. In the Cherokee tale, the sun is Rabbit with his tail on fire and he is running around and around the world trying to put the fire out, thus creating the sun rise and sun set (Hannah).
The belief in the raven as the creator of light and as a trickster figure can be found throughout many Indian civilizations but is most prominent in Northwest America among tribes who are classified as the Northwest Coast Indians (Keepers of the Totem 21).
The raven is significant especially in of North America. In Northeast America, Raven is an important figure as the creator of light, but not so much as a trickster figure; the Coyote fulfills that distinguished position in many tribes east of the Great Plains.
The raven, as the creator of light, is given credit for the gifts of the sky (and its contents), water, and many animal populations to humankind. According to Native American legend, the raven is indeed the means by which the stars, moon, sky, and rivers were exposed to the world. Raven’s dual roll in folklore seems to be creation and mischief.
Although mischievous in nature, humans don’t take a sinister view from Raven’s actions, but find more positive ways to learn about life from Raven. For instance, one account of the creation myth indicates that, “Raven was white before he stole the sun…. His trip through the smoke hole transformed him into the black creature, as he is today. He paid a price for his audacity” (McNeil). This passage goes on to say that the moral from this story is that, “the price we pay has more to do with how we respond to a situation in life than the price itself” (McNeil).
As time has had its toll on the Native American mythology, a new perspective is being derived about the raven. Traditionally, Raven legends have only been told by elite tribesmen because only they had the time to learn the stories. Thus the stories have tended to be oriented more around the elite. However a more modern view shows that the Tlingit Tribe believes that Raven thought of the poor in the same manner which Jesus did, regarding them sympathetically (Bierhorst 25).
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“Raven is not only a powerful supernatural character, but also a trickster” (Erdoes 344). Although the Raven is credited for giving such gifts to mankind, it is still said that his heart may not have been in exactly the right place in those acts. Raven, by nature, is very greedy and constantly seeking food (Burke). As one reads through the myths of Raven it becomes apparent that Raven is performing all these acts not out of generosity, but out of vanity. It is true that he delivered the stars, sun, moon, and rivers to man, but his motivations were selfish, and his means are never pure. Raven simply contrives ways to steal other’s treasures and create a better world for himself; the fact that all of the world and mankind benefit from this is simply a by-product of Raven’s own selfish desires.
The ways in which Raven goes about obtaining these ‘gifts’ are always mischievous in nature and always cause harm or loss to others. Yet despite this, man is still thankful for the end result of Raven’s actions so long as Raven does not directly come into contact with man, for it is when Raven and man meet that man quickly changes his mind about his thankfulness to Raven. Regardless of what symbol is used, the trickster figure reflects the values of the given tribe and explains their understanding of human nature (Leeming 48). Whatever the circumstances surrounding Raven led events may be, the “trickster figure is always a character of change” (Hannah).
Some say that people project their own characteristics onto their deities. If that is so, the Native Americans were self-aware regarding creativity, generosity, cleverness, larceny and mischief. With these qualities that they recognized among themselves, they endowed the Raven.
As with many deities, the raven is regarded with respect and wariness. Being in close intercourse with the Raven would be like having “too much religion.” Appreciating the raven from afar through storytelling was safer and more functional than being in close contact with such unpredictable a character.
- Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of North America. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985.
- Burke, Nikki. Gods, Heroes, and Myths. 24 February 2004. April 15, 2004. http://www.gods-heros-myth.com/namerican/northgods.html
- Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
- Hannah, Leslie. Personal interview. 21 April 2004.
- Hooker, Richard. Raven: The Tlingit Creation. 6 June 1999. April 15, 2004. http://wsu.edu:8080/~dee/NAANTH/TLRAVEN.HTM.
- Keepers of the Totem. Time-Life Books. Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1993.
- Leeming, David, and Page, Jake. The Mythology of Native North America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
- McNeil, Larry. Fly By Night Mythology. April 15, 2004. http://boisestate.edu/art/lmcneil/
- The Spirit World. Time-Life Books. Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1992.