The North American Indian was a religious creature not unlike those of primitive cultures throughout the world. For early man, the world was comprised of a sea of spirits inhabitating all sorts of animate objects, and these forces needed to be placated. So the Native American observed a typical form of animism in which he tried to appease the spirits that he regularly came in contact with. As prolific hunters this normally meant saying a word of thanks to the deer that he had just slain for food and begging its pardon lest next time around he might not be so successful in his hunt. Such ideas have even carried over into modern language with the idiom “knock on wood” which undoubtedly was a primitive attempt to placate a spirit that dwelt in a tree before cutting it down or rendering some harm to it.
Animism stretched further than the scope of what we would call animate objects like people, animals, and plant life but extended even to inanimate things like rocks, wind, and water. For this reason the Indians were in the habit of procuring good luck charms or fetishes. These might take the form of an amulet or stone that was believed to contain an incarcerated spirit that could be compelled to bestow favor on the owner. Such beliefs were very strong particularly in ancient Egypt many centuries ago.
Like all primitive peoples, the North American Indian was a polytheist believing that many gods were behind the forces of nature that affected his life on a daily basis. But not unlike other civilizations, he also believed that there were overarching deities at the head of the pantheon, perhaps what could be called the mother and father of the gods. In this respect, the sky was generally regarded as the All-Father while the earth was revered as the Mother of all, a similar idea to the Greeks who envisioned Uranus and Gaia in the same roles. Naturally planetary deities had an important place in the Native American’s collection of gods as well and foremost among them were the Sun and Moon who were likewise construed as father and mother. In their mythologies, Venus, the bright morning star was frequently hailed as their divine son serving together as a prototypical Trinity analogous to the Hindu Trimurti or the Egyptian trio of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Ultimately whether through revelation or through reason, the American Indian understood one powerful spirit as controlling everything and simply referred to it as the Great Spirit which has been celebrated throughout his mythology. And this Being is equivalent to what in modern parlance is rendered God.
The spirits of the Indian’s world were not entirely forces to be placated and reckoned with; some were understood to be looking after his best interests, and in this regard there was a firm belief in guardian spirits watching over both individuals and tribes. These helpers were always thought to be present in the background guiding the soul and giving advice through various inspirations, signs, or dreams and are undoubtedly the equivalent of the guardian angel of Christianity which sees these beings accomplishing a similar role.
Because the Indian was particularly tied to nature as a primitive person, this kind of guardian spirit would often take the form of an animal. Each tribe had a patron creature which was acknowledged as the protector of that group, a belief which is known as Totemism from which belief system the famous “Totem Pole” of the Northwestern Indians derives. To those who lived off the land, the animals had certain skills and abilities that were either envied or respected by men, like a beast’s strength or speed. Such coveted characteristics were revered and venerated by the Native American so much so that the animal or rather the spirit that manifested in animal form was worshipped. Each tribe identified so strongly with a particular creature that a general belief emerged that the people of the clan had actually descended from the animal. Throughout Indian folklore, various animals figure prominently and are often presented as anthropomorphized creatures changing form from man to beast and back again. In this respect it should be said that the American Indian did not venerate an irrational creature but an intelligent spirit behind the symbol of the animal.
In particular, the worship of birds was ubiquitous among the American Indians. Like the Egyptians, they saw them as messengers to the heavenly realms and esteemed them highly because they had an ability far beyond their terrestrial limitations. Some tribes believed that the spirits of the deceased entered into birds. Eagles were venerated the most but the owl was also highly esteemed as a symbol of wisdom. This seems to be a symbolic parallel to what has come down to us from Greek mythology in which Athena, the goddess of wisdom was portrayed holding an owl.
Also highly revered and regarded as a symbol of wisdom was the snake, and this creature has had this cross-cultural significance almost on a universal basis. Perhaps like for the Egyptians, the image of a snake eating its tail served as a representation of the outline of the orb of the sun and so it was identified as a deity of sorts. Its quick movements and seemingly intelligent actions along with the power to kill associated the creature with magical power not unlike in Asia. We should recall that Jesus told his disciples to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” which was a reflection of the sentiments of many of the ancient cultures at the time. For our ancestors, the snake was a creature more to be revered than hated. And this was primarily because the serpent was associated with poison and by association cures and antidotes for a variety of health problems. The wisdom of the serpent was in that it had the secret to what was harmful and what was helpful to primitive man, and for this it was revered for its knowledge. One of the Iroquois’ legendary chiefs wore a garment of serpents that had a magical significance. This tribe of Indians was also known to tell a tale about the snake’s ability to create life and to heal bodily diseases which seems to be in keeping with its universal symbolism.
For most all people groups around the world, a belief in spirit beings also implies a spirit world and the belief that somehow a person will survive death in some way, and this was no less true of the North American Indians. The care of the dead was not less significant among the Native Americans than in other civilizations with the belief that they may need some help transitioning to the unseen world. From prehistoric times, the dead have been buried with objects that they may need in the afterlife, whether food, tools, or other belongings and this was certainly the case with the Red Man. What is particularly interesting about their tradition in this matter was the practice of breaking those objects before burying them with the deceased. There was a belief that those things also had to be “killed” in order to be of use to the dead. While their reasoning for this my sound primitive, it betrays a knowledge of the spirit world that only adept psychics are familiar with. Man-made objects have an astral form or body associated with them, and only when those items are destroyed is the link between the astral and physical severed. For example, only when an old dilapidated house finally collapses into a pile of rubble will its ethereal form appear in the spirit world.
The bodies of the dead were disposed of in many different ways and traditional burial in the earth was among them. But perhaps unique to the Indians was the practice of burial on scaffolds which seems to have been with the intention of preventing the bodies from being unearthed by scavengers. The Chinooks of the Pacific Northwest actually buried their dead in canoes raised from the ground on poles, and this practice undoubtedly pointed to a common mythological conception about the soul’s journey after death.
Much is in common between the mythologies of the Indian and those of peoples around the world in this regard for they all seem to identify the barrier to the underworld as some sort of river. For the Greeks it was the River Styx and for the Chinese it was the Pearl River. Though not identifying it by name, the Norse spoke of a rapid stream that had to be forded before the dead would enter into Hel. Among the American Indians, one tribe envisioned the deceased crossing a bridge made by a fallen tree that was guarded by a fierce dog which bears a striking resemblance to Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Greeks who guarded the entrance to Hades. Another clan imagined the bridge was itself formed from a huge snake, while another tribe believed the dead needed to be ferried over a great water in a canoe.
The Chinooks believed that the dead would drink from a large hole in the ground after death and pass to a spirit world where they would partake of the food and drink of the underworld. Once this occurred, the belief was that return to earth was irreversible, much like the idea of severing the astral cord which connects the physical and ethereal forms. (See Ecclesiastes 12:6-7.) In their myths they suggest that before the dead ingest the food and drink of the underworld they may still come back and be revived.
In accord with the experiences of people groups throughout the world, the Native Americans also maintained the belief that the loved ones of the soon to be departed would come and assist the dying to the other side. The Iroquois recount a fable in which a plague had hit a village and a woman lay close to death. The story tells that she was so close to crossing over to the spirit world that her dead friends were beckoning her to join them.
The realm to which the great majority of the dead passed upon death is understood by the North American Indian to be a shadowy version of earth in which the normal activities of life continue in most respects. It is commonly referred to as the “Country of Ghosts” and is very much analogous to the Asphodel Meadows of Greek Mythology or the underworld of the Norse or Hebrew peoples. The Indians of the Great Plains gave it a popular euphemism calling it “The Happy Hunting Grounds.”
A number of Native American stories describe this world as considerably brighter than that of earth with light that is blinding to the mortal eye which is much in keeping with the testimony of modern psychics who report on conditions in the astral plane. A story is told by the Algonquians of a young brave whose wife died on the day set for their wedding. Heartbroken he set off to find her in the spirit world after he was directed on such a path by some sages. He came to a threshold where he noticed that the sky was much brighter and bluer and the country more beautiful than what he was used to. He came across an old man who told him he could pass to the other side but he would have to leave his body behind (astral travelling.) The young man did so feeling much lighter and entered a canoe where he paddled to the “Island of the Blessed” where he met his wife. After being consoled by her presence, he was told he needed to return back to earth again, and reentering his body he dwelt among his people as a great chief until the day of his death.
While the majority of the dead were believed to pass to the ghost country, there was yet another realm to which the dead could repair if they were found worthy. Some myths refer to it as “The Land of the Supernatural People” which was the abode of a spiritual race of higher caliber than mankind, and we can probably compare it to the realm of the angels and the saints in Western thought. It has also been described by some tribes as “The Land of the Sun”, a place of eternal bliss to which those famous in war were admitted. This seems analogous to the Scandinavian Valhalla where those who died in war were apportioned a place with the god Odin. Likewise the Greeks destined those military heroes who died in battle a residence in the blissful Elysian Fields.
As to the permanence of life in the underworld, it is not completely clear what the Indian expected, but we do have some testimony suggesting that the soul’s tenure in the spirit world may be transitory. A Moravian missionary who lived among one of the tribes reported, “They conceive that when the soul has been awhile with God, it can, if it chooses return to earth and be born again.” Whether widespread or not, some concept of the transmigration of souls seems to have been among the Native Americans.
Striking parallels to the folklore of other civilizations is also evident in the Creation myths of the Red Man. In the Algonquian myth we have wind brooding over some primeval ocean in the form of a bird. Anyone familiar with the first chapter of Genesis would recognize the similarity to the Holy Spirit moving upon the face of the waters at the dawn of creation. The bird of course is a spiritual symbol for the Indians, but it is important to note that a bird has also been one of the perennial signs of the Holy Spirit, particularly a dove as it is described in the gospels.
The Algonquians have a tale that also has strong likenesses to flood myths around the world and in particular the biblical version. The story speaks about the main god of this tribe, Michabo who was out hunting one day when he lost his dogs in a great lake. The god entered the lake to rescue them when it overflowed and covered the whole earth. With the world destroyed, Michabo set about recreating it and initially dispatched a raven to find a clump of earth so that he could remake the solid land, but the bird returned to him with nothing. Then he dispatched an otter which also returned empty handed. Finally a muskrat was sent out which was successful in bringing back a piece of earth. The sequence of three attempts is of course also seen in the narrative of Noah and both stories are identical in naming a raven as the first messenger.
Like the Algonquians, the Muskhogean Indians who lived in the American Southeast also describe a primordial water which was present at the dawn of creation and similarly features two birds flying back and forth over it which are identified as pigeons or doves in their tradition. In time, a single blade of grass appeared and then the solid earth followed. Then we are told the deity took clay and from it formed the first men, an idea that is held by a number of tribes not to mention the legends of Mesopotamia. Naturally the primitive observation that everything returns to the soil after death would lead early man to recognize that he also came from the soil.
The California Indians have a cosmology which bears a resemblance to that of the Greeks and Scandinavians. It seems like in many of these tales there is a belief that there was originally nothing, much like the Big Bang Theory. For the Norse, in the beginning there was just a “yawning void,” but then when the realm of cold and the realm of heat collided, a giant was produced who in turn brought forth a pantheon of gods and men. The Greeks envisioned the union of heaven (Uranus) and earth (Gaea) as the means by which the Titans were created, and by extension both gods and men. This Pacific tribe of Indians believed that in the begining there were two siblings, a brother and a sister who represented heaven and earth respectively and from their union came initially earth and sand. Then followed rocks and stones, and next came vegetation in the form of trees and grass. After this came animals, and finally man himself. Again, those familiar with the first chapter of Genesis will recognize a similar progression, in fact a sequence that is predicted by evolution from simpler to more complex life forms.
On the subject of giants, the mythologies of the Native Americans weave these supernatural beings into their narratives not unlike those of their Western counterparts. The Iroquois seem to present them the most, and what is interesting is that that giants are cast as malevolent entities as they are in the Norse legends. That so many cultures seem to depict a tension between supernatural beings, often the gods versus the anti-gods seems to be an ancient knowledge of the conflict between good and evil in higher realms. The Iroquois believed in a benificent deity named Hi’nun who they believe destroyed the Stone Giants and other monsters that infested the early world. He has been hailed as the protector of mankind from unfriendly forces, much like in the role of the guardian angels who protect their charges day and night from evil.
While there are deities cast as the benefactors of humanity, there are also no shortage of larger than life heroes in Native American mythology. In many respects we can view them as Christ figures who deliver the people from enemies who are preying on them and assisting the downtrodden and needy. The Iroquois celebrate one they call Kutoyis (“drop of blood”) who appeared miraculously in a boiling kettle after a hungry hunter placed his blood stained arrow in the pot. The old hunter was being taken advantage of by his cruel son-in-law who kept all the game for himself and left him with nothing except the blood on his arrowhead. Kutoyis seemingly appeared to vindicate the victim and ultimately slew the evil son-in-law so that the old man and his wife should have plenty to eat. Much like a Native American Samson, he is portrayed as killing a bear who was perpetually stealing buffalo meat from a starving village. In another anecdote, he is depicted as wrestling with a wicked woman (a witch) who had held a village under her power. Though fortified by the power of evil, she could not overcome the good Kutoyis who threw her in the match ending in her death.
The California Indians have a legend that bears a striking resemblance to the story of Christ himself. They tell of a goddess who though not possessing a body of her own (like the Holy Spirit) gave birth to a real man on earth (like Jesus.) He was said to be able to make men, drawing them up out of the earth and functioned as their hero and teacher. Though we are not told why, the people decided to kill this god who lived among them and they put a crown of thorns around his head. Lying dead somewhere he is said to remain beautiful and without corruption (Psalm 16:10,) and blood constantly drips from his wounds.
The theme of the Christ figure also appears in Algonquian legend in the story of Glooskap and his brother Malsum. They were twin brothers and polar opposites representing good and evil respectively and were consequently always at odds with each other. The tension between the two seems to mirror that of the Zoroastrian tradition in which equally powerful good and evil gods were in conflict. Interestingly, Malsum is depicted as a wolf, and this seems to parallel the Norse giant Fenrir who was also a wolf. The mischievous behavior of Malsum is similar to that of the Scandinavian giant Loki who was also the father of Fenrir and constant antagonist of the gods. Though both Glooskap and Malsum were deities, they nonetheless had a point of vulnerability about them. Glooskap could be killed by being brushed by an owl’s feather while Malsum would die if touched by a fern-root. Of course the mythologies of other Western peoples envisioned similar weaknesses in their gods, and we note the Greek Achilles who was vulnerable in his heel and the Norse Balder who would perish if brushed by a sprig of mistletoe. The latter who was the Scandinavian god of love and light was killed by an arrow that Loki had fashioned out of mistletoe.
Glooskap is hailed by the Algonquians as the creator of the world and the maker of man and other supernatural beings like fairies and dwarves and it is intriguing that the American Indians imagined such fanciful creatures just like the Old Europeans did. (Undoubtedly the belief stems from ancient psychic knowledge, particularly on the part of children who could peer into the astral plane of existence.) Glooskap is a type of Savior or Messianic figure who brings enlightenment and wisdom to earth. Living among men, he is the cultivator of civilization and the champion of the arts and of agriculture. Importantly, he is also the exterminator of evil forces in the world and the protector of man. It is said that while he lived in the world, there was a Golden Age where the animals spoke one language and were at peace with each other, something akin to the idyllic scene in the Garden of Eden. But when he left the world, the animals could no longer understand each other and hostility arose, similar to the scenario of the confounding of languages at the biblical Tower of Babel. He is expected to return one day and revive the Golden Age much like Jesus will for the Christian or for that matter the next incarnation of the Deity for Hindus and Buddhists.
But Glooskap’s return will not be without fanfare. Like the legends of other peoples around the world, it is anticipated to signal the final battle between the forces of good and evil. Right now, Glooskap is said to be living in seclusion fashioning a horde of arrows for the war when his army of good spirits will engage in battle with evil. Glooskap will join in the fray with his brother Malsum at the end of the age and good will triumph. Then the good will go to live in Glooskap’s beautiful abode. The Algonquian scenario is not unlike the final Zoroastrian showdown between the two opposing deities and it is very reminiscent of the Norse final battle of Ragnarok when the gods will fight the giants and usher in the new era of peace and love. For the Scandinavians, the Christ figure Balder will return to rule over worthy mortals who will then live forever in a shining hall thatched with gold in the dwellings of the Gods.
Clearly the North American Indian had developed an eschatology and general theology over the course of many centuries, and like any civilization that knowledge was entrusted to a priesthood or clerical class who guarded the teachings of the people. It is remarkable that the priesthood as found within certain North American tribes was set apart from the laity just as in the the Western Christian churches. They dressed differently than the common man much like in the liturgical traditions of the West with richly ornamented vestments. To further distinguish themselves and instill a sense of awe in the layman, the priesthood would also speak a different language which is reminiscent of the liturgical Latin used in the Roman Church. They would also walk a particular way and behave in a solemn manner chanting or singing songs as they went along.
These religious leaders certainly functioned as priests in the traditional sense of the word, acting as a sort of intermediary between the physical and spiritual worlds, but they also served as prophets or spokesmen for the unseen world. Perhaps of most practical importance to the people was their role as medicine men or shamans fulfilling the role of tribal physician. For the animist Indian, his understanding of disease was in large part attributable to the displeasure of spirits that the sick had somehow offended. (If a hunter failed to propitiate the spirit of a deer he just killed, it was thought that he might be afflicted with a disease.) The job of the medicine man was to try to discern exactly how to remedy that.
As accomplished psychics, these shamans could readily put themselves into a trance and enter the spirit world or what we might call the astral plane. There they would often divine the fate of the infirmed following his trail (perhaps as he slept on earth) or would seek advice from the supernatural beings that he found there. It is said that following the trails of those who went to the seashore required great skill, and there was a belief that the sea was the highway to the supernatural regions which seems to tie in with the idea of a river forming the boundary to the other world.
Plant based medicine was a significant part of the indigenous American’s arsenal to combat disease as well, and the Iroquois tell a quaint story of how it came to be. The tale speaks of how originally the animals were friends of man, but overcrowding created strife between them. The animals conspired in different ways to hurt man, but the plants who were man’s friends agreed to serve as remedies for the harm they would put upon him.
The Seneca Indians had a recipe for medicine which they hold to be divinely revealed and is comprised of corn, squash, and water. Interestingly, the formula required that the water had to be taken from a running stream close to its source which parallel’s the first century Christian Didache’s instruction to baptize in running water. It is almost a universal idea that flowing water is a living substance, infused with energy that can effect something magical.
The Senecas also had a ceremony associated with this medicine which involved burning tobacco to the gods. Tobacco was not merely a recreational substance to smoke but had a religious significance as a sacrifice with strong spiritual overtones. It would be used as an offering to the Creator or to another person, place, or being. A gift of traditional tobacco was a sign of respect and would be offered when asking for help, guidance, or protection. In this way, the burning of tobacco could be understood as a petition for divine help. In many teachings, the smoke from burned tobacco had the purpose of carrying thoughts and prayers to the spirit world or to the Creator much like in the Judeo-Christian tradition the burning of incense is interpreted as the rising up of petitions to heaven.
Smoking was the hallmark of any ceremony and the chief would exhale to the four corners of the earth as the four cardinal directions had strong significance to the Indians. The practice of smoking was a North American tradition with a sacred origin, and it was believed to have been conferred by the Great Spirit himself. In fact, the quarry where Indians collected clay to make their pipes was holy ground and there was no warfare allowed in that place. It was a sanctuary of sorts which all the tribes recognized.
As a modality of healing, traditional tobacco certainly was used by the American Indians for centuries as a medicine with cultural and spiritual importance. Tobacco was believed to have broad medicinal properties, not just on a physical level but on an emotional and spiritual level as well. It also was understood to promote the solidarity of the community.
Ceremonies and religious festivals dotted the Indian calendar no less than the many feast days of the saints in medieval Europe. Generally they were centered around agriculture as they were for ancient civilizations whose livelihood revolved around a successful grain harvest. One in particular involved rigorous fasting for three days at the end of which the priest would create a new fire which would be spread throughout the community initiating a time of feasting. It is easy to see in this a parallel to the Christian season of Lent leading up to the Easter celebration in which fasting and personal sacrifice form an integral part of the preparation for that feast. But what is strikingly similar between the American Indian and Christian festivals is the “new fire” element. At the Easter Vigil in the Christian Church, any candles that are burning are extinguished and the church is left in darkness. Then the priest lights a brand new fire which is disseminated and fills the church with a new flame. It is a reflection of the ancient religious idea of the dying of the old and the birth of the new which transcends people groups. Worthy of note as well is that at the end of the Native American festival, four logs are arranged in the shape of a cross pointing in the cardinal directions and then are set ablaze as an offering to the four winds.
Dancing formed a part of many of these ceremonies and each served as a prayer of sorts, an enactment of what was desired like what constituted the Buffalo Dance. We can see in these plays of sorts a grasp of sympathetic magic whereby acting out the sought after scenario draws energy to force it into reality. Like other ancient civilizations, the North American Indians recognized that creating an image of or mimicking a sought after condition tended to produce the desired result. It is a well known psychic phenomenom in which the mental energies are focused to bring something longed for into reality, and the story of Jacob’s speckled sheep in the Book of Genesis is a Judeo-Christian example of this concept. The Pawnee Indians have such an illustration of sympathetic magic in their legends, and one such tale describes a child who was born and resembled a bear in many ways. He used to pretend he was a bear and behave like the creature. The story goes on to explain the reason for this which was because his father had had contact with a bear cub which he affectionately picked up and cradled in his arms. The father told his pregnant wife about the encounter which in turn affected the child she was carrying. The story comments further saying, “There is an Indian superstition that a woman, before a child is born, must not look fixedly at or think much about any animal, or the infant will resemble it.”
Most every culture has its equivalent coming of age ceremony, and the Native Americans were no exception. Within the Jewish tradition this has generally been regarded as the “Bar Mitzvah” ceremony at the age of 13, and within the Christian tradition it is the Confirmation service about the same age. But among more ancient and primitive peoples, what is reckoned the transition to adulthood with its spiritual development was often a more trying passage than the versions we have now in the modern world. For the Red Man, the metamorphosis centered around the ascetic “Vision Quest” which was enjoined on the child around the age of puberty. The young boy or girl would enter a fast and maintain a vigil in hopes of receiving a revelation of their future career or mission in life.
Its main purpose was to seek the advice of a guardian spirit and it generally marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. Religious leaders prepared the postulant before going out to an isolated place to pray and fast. Ideally during this time, the initiate would have a dream or vision in which a spirit-being appeared. And often this was in the form of an anthropomorphized animal. Upon returning home, religious specialists would help the seeker interpret what he experienced. Not only youth, but all Indians seeking counsel from the spirit world would embark on some form of a vision quest.
The story of how maize was given to the Indians is woven around the spiritual blossoming of a boy at the time of his vision quest. He had entered into the prescribed fast seeking the Great Spirit with a strong desire to help his fellow man and know what was his mission in life. A spirit appeared to him with whom he wrestled day after day in which process he became stronger and stronger. The tale parallels that of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In the end of the biblical narrative, Jacob demanded God’s blessing and in the Indian tale it is similar. The young boy was ultimately told to kill his opponent and bury him in the earth, a request nothing short of the sacrifice of Isaac and mirrored the biblical grain of wheat falling into the earth. What might seem loathsome was done in an act of faith like what was expected of Abraham. The killing of the boy’s opponent signifies ultimately the boy’s own dying to self facilitated by the vision quest. As a result of this single seed being planted in the earth, a harvest of corn was reaped, a concept paralleling Jesus’ words: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Of all the people groups on the earth, the North American Indians had perhaps the richest and vastest collection of folklore and stories passed down from generation to generation over the campfire. Every tribe had its treasury of myths, many of which did not fail to convey a deeper meaning than the superficial storyline itself. Just as we can find some allegory in the story of the boy’s vision quest, we can follow a metaphorical theme in a large number of Indian fables. The quality and depth of such stories unquestionably rivals that of their counterparts around the Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia yet with their own unique symbolism specific to life in the North American continent.
We begin a survey of Indian folklore focusing initially on a class of myths that we could perhaps label as the “Journey into the Subconscious.” A tale of personal transformation is told by the Iroquois in the story of a grandmother and her young grandson who live together in a hut. The grandmother often spoke of how when the boy grew up he would go out into the world, but she warned him never to go westward. When the boy pressed her, she reluctantly told him that there was a malevolent being there who sought to do them harm and it would mean death for both of them. In allegory, the female is always presented as the negative aspect of one’s being and in this case is an old force trying to hold the soul back from self-realization which in most cases is because of fear of what that would entail. Despite the old woman’s protests, the boy secretly went westward at his first opportunity and stops at a lake. In allegory, water is a perennial symbol of the mind and in this case the deep quiet lake specifically refers to the subconscious or unconscious mind which has heretofore been a mystery to the adventurous boy. At the lake he heard a menacing voice speak to him threatening to break his grandmother’s hut to pieces with a hurricane, but the boy was bold and undeterred snidely countered the voice with an expectation of getting an abundance of firewood should the voice wreck such havoc. As he retraced his steps home, the hurricane did indeed arise and his grandmother scolded him for his foolishness, but the boy told her to not fear. Using his skill in magic, he turned the hut into a rock which became impregnable to the falling trees. When the storm had passed there was indeed a great deal of down trees and plenty of firewood for their use. What this communicates to us is that probing the subconscious is a terrifying journey but a necessary one if spiritual transformation is to occur, for not only are all of man’s darkest and ugliest secrets in that place but also is his true identity and purpose for existence. It may be downright scary going “20000 leagues under the sea” but it ultimately brings no harm which is illustrated by the detail of how the hut remained unscathed. In fact, the exploration of the dark waters brings a boon symbolized by the firewood. This would represent the hidden skills and talents which we possess but have been formerly unaware of. The magic that the boy exercises can be equated with psychic or spiritual powers that the soul develops along this journey and become arrows in his quiver against the “Evil One.”
On the next day, the youth was determined to go back to the lake signaling that he was ready to dive deeper into the unconscious mind. Upon arriving there, the same voice threatened to send a hailstorm on his grandmother’s hut, but he again gave a cheeky response unfazed by the warning. He retraced his steps back home, and as he neared it a fierce hailstorm broke out. Running inside, he was again scolded by his grandmother for his foolishness, but he exercised his magical powers again turning the hut into a hollow rock. When it was over, the ground was littered with icy spears that quickly melted in the warmth of the day, perhaps a sign that wrestling with the unconscious can be a dreadful thing but in the end what we thought might harm us quickly fades away and proves to have been all bark and no bite.
Drawn again to the lake, he set out again despite his grandmother’s warnings and upon coming there finally spotted the source of the voice, a huge head in the middle of the lake with a face on every side. Like the all-seeing eye, this relates to us the comprehensive nature of these forces deep within us which know us inside and out and from which nothing is hidden. The boy had carefully followed the sound of the voice this time to make this discovery of his “enemy” which is to say the one who practices inner reflection and quiet meditation will lay bare the root of his troubles. And this time the youth was emboldened by his prior successes and threatened the voice rather than the other way around. He informed the voice that he would dry up the lake or metaphorically that he would familiarize himself with the deepest recesses of the unconscious mind and figuratively dredge the very bottom of the self. And this he accomplished by taking a charm, a stone that he had tied around his neck (another indication of the increase of psychic/spiritual power) and casting it into the lake where it caused the water to boil away. The next day, the hero returned to the lake and found it completely dried up with nothing left except a large green frog which he quickly dispatched. Thereafter his grandmother lived in peace and quiet free from her tormentor.
The final detail of the story and for that matter the story in general bears an uncanny resemblance to a an old Grimm fairy tale. The enchanting fable begins with the beautiful daughter of a king who lived near a dark forest. On hot days she would go into the wood and sit near a cool spring where she would toss a golden ball into the air playing catch with it. On one such occasion she failed to catch the toy, and it fell into the spring which we are told was very deep, so deep that the bottom could not be seen. Then the young maiden broke into tears and was inconsolable in her weeping which grew louder and louder.
Having only been introduced to these initial elements in the story, we are keyed into the idea that the imagery of the dark forest and the bottomless spring are symbols of the girl’s unconscious mind. The golden ball, her play toy evokes something more serious than meets the eye, something of great value (gold) and eternal in scope (round ball.) The child’s uncontrollable sobbing would be easily recognizable to any psychotherapist who understands the catharsis that accompanies entering deep within the self.
While the princess is sobbing, the fantastic parts of the fable begin. A hideously ugly and fat frog emerged from the spring to inquire why the girl was weeping so loudly. Like in the Indian myth, this amphibian seems to serve as the representation of all that is repulsive in diving into the deep waters of the subconscious mind. The frog offered to retrieve the child’s ball if she would grant him a request. The girl gladly rejoined that she would give him any of her possessions in exchange for her coveted toy to which the frog made an uncomfortable response. He told her that he didn’t want anything she owned but wanted her to be his companion and playmate, to share her plate and cup and sleep in her bed. Essentially the frog was demanding unbridled intimacy which is to say that the soul must confront all that is revolting to it, mysteries of its existence shrouded in fear, pain, and sorrow. The princess flippantly agreed to the terms perhaps without thinking it through, for she just wanted her ball back. Dutifully the frog dove into the spring and fetched it for her, and no sooner did she take it in hand then she made off for the castle again forgetting about the little creature who had just come to her aid.
The climax of the fairy tale occurs on the next day when the girl hears a thumping at her door only to open it and see the frog whom she had surely forgotten about so quickly. She might have been flippant in her agreement the prior day, but the little water creature was not and came to collect on his end of the deal. Following her into the room, he sat down at her table, ate from her plate and drank from her cup, and even went to lie in her bed with her. But this was too much for the little girl and having a temper tantrum, she picked up the frog and hurled him against the wall. When he fell he was no longer a frog but a handsome prince with kind eyes. Then the two were married and driven in a splendid coach to the kingdom of the young man where they became king and queen. Of course this unexpected transformation of the loathesome amphibian is the twist in this fable. On the surface it’s as if a metaphorphosis has occurred, but that is only how it is communicated in the allegory. The reality is that the one who has undertaken the inner journey of the soul has changed and not anything on the outside. What was previously hateful to the self has become understood in truth as something beautiful. What was construed as disgusting never really was that way but was only perceived as such before the interior voyage worked great changes in the soul.
Both the tale of the princess and the spring and the story of the Indian boy and the lake share a similar climax when the ugly frog is dispatched. It is the sign that the interior journey has been completed. For the boy it meant living free of menacing forces symbolizing the deep peace that comes to the soul when it has finally come to know itself and its purpose. For the girl it meant finding the happiness of marriage, a common ending to many fairy tales signifying divine union or divine life, the prize of finally overcoming the self.
The Iroquois also have another story which in many respects mirrors that of the boy and his grandmother but has its own nuances. In many ways, it is part of the class of myths that have been popularized by 20th century mythologist Joseph Campbell known as the “Hero’s Journey.” He recognized a cross-cultural pattern of tales that all symbolized a process of personal transformation that involved three stages. The first was the departure from one’s home after some call to adventure. The second stage was known as initiation and entailed the great trials that the individual would endure on the journey. Finally the last phase was identified as the return home again no longer the same person that had ventured out at an earlier time.
Many myths can fall under this classification including popular ones like the Odyssey from Greek lore. The hero Ulysses set out from his home in Ithaca to fight the Trojan War but endured a sequence of severe trials on his way home again. A storm drove his ship off course and delayed him for 20 years before coming back where he had started from. And in this long period he had to deal with sea monsters and giants and shipwreck miraculously surviving all challenges before setting foot again on his native shore. A more contemporary story in this genre might be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings which unexpectedly drafted a humble hobbit from a sleepy town to embark on a long journey to save the world from the forces of evil. For a few long years he braved the hardships of the rugged country through which he traversed as well as the attacks of orcs and goblins trying to do him in. At last achieving the unlikely goal of defeating the forces of evil with which he was tasked, he returned home again to his quiet niche in some out of the way corner of the world a different person than who left years before.
The Indian fable falls broadly into this type of myth and begins this time with a boy and the uncle with whom he lived. In contrast to the grandmother who warned the boy not to travel westward, the uncle told the boy not to go eastward. But the curiosity of the child got the better of him and he went anyway and stopped when he came to a lake. Perhaps we should see in this detail again a reference to subconscious forces that will be at play. No sooner did the boy sit himself on the shores of the lake than a man accosted him and challenged him to some contests which the boy won. The man then suggested that they sail out to the island at the middle of the lake to see the beautiful birds there. Upon getting to the island, the man stole the boy’s clothes and took off again in his swan-powered canoe leaving the boy cold and miserable and alone in the middle of the lake. Through a sequence of unexpected events, the boy had found himself thrust into an ordeal. The nakedness represents the feeling of vulnerability that the boy has in embarking on the new terrain of the journey. The birds which are interpreted as spiritual symbols because of their ability to fly and soar into the heavens suggest that some spiritual work is now at play within the boy.
Though there is a moment of despair, all is not lost for supernatural aid comes along to help the boy. Like fairy godmothers of European lore or the angel who helped the biblical Hagar in the desert, the spiritual guide assisting the one on the journey is a standard element of the story. In this case, the help comes from a skeleton lying on the ground whom the boy stumbles upon. Speaking to the boy, he offered to help him but first made a peculiar request. The bony frame asked him to first fetch his pipe and tobacco which the child dutifully lit and placed in the skeleton’s mouth. This detail of the story cannot be overstated when we consider the sacred function of tobacco in the Indian culture. It was used for healing regimens as well as in religious rituals and ceremonies ubiquitously. Often it was burned in sacrifice to the Creator and was viewed as a conduit of prayers wafting them into the spirit world. In this respect it is very relevant to the story line indicating the activation of the spiritual energies within the boy that put him in contact with higher beings and/or God himself. The skeleton can rightly be viewed as the otherworldly guide of the young man, but may better symbolize the boy himself in an unawakened state which is the case with those who are at the beginning of the spiritual journey. Because there is no consciousness of ethereal realities, it is like the soul is dead to what is transcendent even though it is very much alive to the natural world. The voice coming from the skeleton is consequently the interior voice within man that is his link to God but which he must learn to recognize as did the prophet Elijah who perceived God in the still small whisper.
Here at the beginning of the adventure, the boy heard this voice speaking to him giving him instructions for his own survival. The skeleton warned him that a man with dogs was coming to hunt him that night and advised him to make tracks all over the island so that he could not be followed. In disgust the hunter left after an unsuccessful search leaving the boy trembling back where the skeleton lay. Then the bony frame told the boy the one who had abandoned him on the island was coming back to cannibalize him and told him to hide in the sand. As soon as the man stepped on shore, the boy quickly got into his canoe and made his get-away as instructed by the voice. The boy began to sing which seemed to goad the swans to power the canoe away. When the man called to him from the shore he refused to turn around to look at him which was also in keeping with what he was told. More than just incidental details, these lines from the story communicate to us some important ideas for those who are embarking on this odyssey. All religions seem to value the power of chanting or singing as a spiritual tool, for musical vibrations incline us toward higher things. In the words of St. Augustine, “He who sings, prays twice.” Regarding the boy not turning around to look back at the man, we can think of references to other traditions including the biblical story of Lot’s wife who looked back at Sodom and turned to a pillar of salt or to Greek mythology which told of those turning to stone who beheld the face of the Gorgon Medusa. The words of Jesus seem most appropriate here with his warning, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
The swans brought the canoe to a cave in a high rock where the boy found his clothes as well as food to eat. There was a fire going to keep warm, and after satisfying his hunger he went off to sleep enjoying a respite from his ordeals. When morning came, he returned to the island and found his tormentor dead. Returning to the skeleton, he was given another difficult task to perform. The boy was informed that his sister was carried away by a violent man, and he was charged with rescuing her from the tyrant. And this he had to accomplish by journeying further eastward (in the forbidden direction.) The mission may be more metaphorical than meets the eye if we consider the sister as a symbol of the boy’s soul which is always identified as feminine in allegory. In this respect, the assignment of rescuing his sister is really the chore of saving himself from the negative forces that have held him a prisoner prior to spiritual awakening.
The narrative details a struggle between the boy and the sister’s captor but ends in the ultimate escape of brother and sister who return to the island to greet the skeleton. Once more the voice gave an instruction commanding the young Indian to take his sister back to his uncle’s home where he had started from. This represents the return home again which Campbell has celebrated in his commentaries. But before settling back into the quiet of the uncle’s lodge, the boy was told he needed to come to the island one last time to speak to the many bones scattered there commanding them to arise and come to life again. And this of course is the sign that the inner transformation of the hero is complete. The message of the gospels is one of death and of new life, the death of the old natural man and the birth of the new spiritual man. The resurrection of the skeletons is the symbol of his own graduation from a lower state of consciousness to a higher one. Interestingly, it was not just the one skeleton featured throughout the story that is in scope but a number of them scattered around the island. This may be an allusion to a belief in reincarnation in which for many lifetimes the memories of past existences are stored away deep in the subconscious (on the island in the middle of the lake.) It is the soul united with the totality of its past history which marks the accession to sainthood, and the resolution of the story features the brother and sister (spirit and soul) living happily with all of these resurrected people in a new lodge that he had built.
As mentioned earlier, a belief in the transmigration of souls could well fit within the Native American’s theological framework and a certain story of the Iroquois lends itself to that idea. It is the story of 10 brothers, 9 of whom went out to hunt in succession but never came home again. Finally the last (and youngest) brother and their uncle went out in search of them. Hunting in this context can imply more generically searching for something of importance. It may be the personal quest for meaning which the soul thirsts for life after life. But more broadly the hunt symbolizes the gathering of experience which is the fundamental purpose of life. In the context of this myth, the 9 siblings represent successive incarnations of the same individual. Starting with the oldest, each brother went out of the house and didn’t come back again (died) until there was only the youngest brother left in the home with their uncle who symbolizes the soul’s angelic guardian and shepherd of the soul over its many lifetimes. The youngest brother therefore represents the most recent incarnation of the person.
As the uncle and the young boy wandered through the forest in search of the lost brothers, they stopped in their tracks when they heard groans under their feet and dug up a man who was buried alive and unconscious which seems to symbolize the amnesia that everyone has of their prior incarnations. The man whom they dug up then solicited his malevolent brother Great Head to help in the search of the lost brothers. This being would fix his eyes on any living creature and say, “I see you; I will kill you.” When Great Head’s brother found him he had his eyes fixed on an owl (wisdom) and managed to lure Great Head to the lodge of the boy and his uncle who fed him his ordinary fare, large blocks of maple wood. The wood in this case may signify the garnering of life experience utilizing similar imagery to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the biblical story. The experience that one collects in life is ultimately for the purpose of learning the difference between good and evil which is only really achieved when one has finally mastered human life. The maple with its sugary sap might indicate the sweetness of the wisdom that comes with that growing knowledge.
Great Head alone had knowledge of where the 9 brothers were which seems to suggest that he signifies the mind in its fullness with all of the collected memories of prior incarnations. He told the youngest brother that the others had fallen into the hands of a witch (the Evil One) who had uttered a magic word at them and turned them to dry bones. Metaphorically, it is to say that the Tester of mankind who tempts and lures people into sin had effectively defeated the soul life after life forcing it to return to human form again and again. Great Head and the boy (the soul in its last incarnation) set out and reached the abode of the witch and upon their arrival, she uttered the magic word attepting to turn them into dry bones as well but it had no effect. This is because the soul which has gathered all of the knowledge of many lives and learned the hard lessons of life is now no longer vulnerable to the wiles of the Evil One. Consequently they killed the witch and Great Head promised that when he returned home he would come over that place in a great storm and call to the brothers to arise. Here we have water presenting itself again as a life giving force to resurrect the dead siblings. With this rejuvenating storm, all 10 brothers were reunited with much rejoicing which is ultimately what happens when all of the memories of past lives are awakened in the soul, something that happens upon crossing the threshold of sainthood.
Not only the Iroquois, but their northern neighbors the Algonquians had their own repository of myths following the classic pattern of the “Hero’s Journey.” One particular story is told which in many ways parallels something like the labors of Hercules in Greek lore. A young man disfigured by an ugly scar desired to marry the beautiful daughter of the wealthy chief but she was looking for someone without a blemish. Undeterred he travelled to the Land of the Sun to make his request. (In this particular story, a prototypical Trinity is presented with the Father Sun, Mother Moon, and Morning Star Son, like Venus of the Near East.) After a difficult journey and heroic tasks to perform he was granted healing from his scarred face and received the woman as his bride.
There are a couple variants of this tale and one is told with rich symbolism and expands greatly on this sketch. The story begins with a maiden who was enamored by the Morning Star, cherished him in her heart, and desired to marry him. And this he granted to her, whisking her away to the star country. Interestingly when she asked to first say goodbye to her mother and father, she was told no, and it seems to echo Jesus’ words about those who set their face to the plow and turn back are not worthy of the kingdom. She was warmly received by the Sun and Moon, the parents of Morning Star and lived happily there, also bearing a son. She was tasked with digging roots for food but was warned not to dig up the big turnip nearby. She was conscientious of this command until one day curiosity got the better of her and she attempted to dig it up. But then she was filled with great sorrow and longing, for dislodging the turnip uncovered a portal down to the earth country far below and she grew homesick. Morning Star recognized at once what she had done and banished her from Star Country because of her disobedience. She and her child returned to earth where she remained very unhappy and mourned for Morning Star. He eventually spoke to her from the heavens reminding her that her unhappiness was a result of her own sin which had brought sorrow on her and all her people. Soon after she died leaving her son an orphan. This first part of the story is strikingly similar to the banishment from the Garden of Eden when Eve’s curiosity also got the better of her. On one level the story recognizes that it is the innate curiosity of the soul accompanied by the power of desire that initially lures it away from its original home in Paradise, the blissful realm in the Spirit Plane. But then it comes to learn quickly that the earth that held such a fascination for it is none other than a trail of tears. For all that was pleasing to the eye and gratifying to the senses leaves a bitter sting in its wake. That a woman is cast succumbing to temptation is also a recognition that it is the emotional part of man which is susceptible to temptation and which ultimately brings sorrow when it is indulged.
Here the narrative turns to the woman’s young son, Star-Boy, a moniker that importantly identifies his origins which in fact are the origins of all human souls. We come from a great celestial home that we have forgotten when we enter earth life and need to ultimately make the journey home again. It’s a riches to rags story for all humanity which is captured in the story’s observation that the orphaned Star-Boy was living in poverty despite being the grandson of the Sun. Relatively speaking, the quality of our lives is barely a shadow of the grandeur from which we have come. At this point the tale begins to mirror the other variant of the story reckoning the boy as “Scar-face.” The boy fell in love with a beautiful girl, the daughter of a great chief of his tribe. But she refused to marry him while he was disfigured. Of course what this communicates to us is that while on the earthly sojourn we are imperfect or disfigured and we cannot achieve the prize we long for (eternal life or spiritual realization) until that scar can be erased. The boy was dismayed because he didn’t know how to get rid of this blemish but was informed by a medicine woman that the scar could be removed by the Sun himself (who also gave him that scar.) This detail of the story informs us that it is the religious leaders and clerics of the world who have the knowledge of the spiritual path and the way to God and can help us on our journey. That this shaman told Star-Boy that the Sun had also given him this scar may possibly be interpreted along the lines of the Genesis tradition in which God put a mark on Cain inferring that the “mark of the heavenlies” is on all of us, the sign of our true home and ultimate destiny.
Star-Boy having caught sight of the goal and how to get there eagerly set off to the Star-Country. He embarked on a long journey over mountains and through forests which symbolize the difficulties of the spiritual path. When he reached the ocean representing the watery chasm between the physical and spiritual planes he fasted and prayed for three days which underscores the discipline and self-denial which is necessary to get where the soul wants to go. Then a pathway opened up to the abode of the Sun which trail he took not knowing where he was going or what lay before him. (The path of faith is always obscure.) When he got to the lodge of the Sun he hid himself outside, but when the Sun got up to begin his daily journey through the sky, he recognized he was a wayfarer from earth and wanted to kill him. What this suggests to us is that entrance to the kingdom of God is barred from those who are yet imperfect. Just as the Cherubim guarded Paradise after Eve’s banishment, so is the door to heaven closed to all who are unworthy to enter. But the Moon pled to spare Star-Boy’s life. After he performed a task in which he saved the life of Morning Star, the Sun removed the scar from his face signifying that he had reached the end of his journey. Then he was taught the Sun Dance, given a magic flute and an enchanted song to sing. Immediately we are reminded of the Song of the Lamb that the 144,000 had learned and which no one else knows as told in the Book of Revelation. These final secrets that Star-Boy received are emblems of the consummation of the spiritual journey, the reward of the servant of God who has graduated from mortal life. They are also skills which he has acquired through the experience all along the journey which has made him ready for the world beyond. Star-Boy then briefly returned to earth to get his wife who returned with him to Star-Country where they lived happily ever after, the mystical marriage now consummated. In many fairy tales, marriage is a symbol of the spiritual realization of the one on the soul’s journey when he has waded through the difficulties along the way. It is the bliss of divine union like what is portrayed in the Song of Songs. The woman who alone could bring forth a child from the mystery of her womb was always seen by the ancients as the symbol of life, and in this respect the obtaining of a wife equated to the acquisition of the much coveted divine life.
It seems that all of the Native American tribes expressed similar themes in their folklore, and there are many familiar elements in a story told by the Sioux about a son of a chief who went out on an excursion. The boy’s father told him that hard work was necessary to become qualified as a chief which is to say that a great deal of effort has to be put in to make progress on the spiritual path. In the words of the chief, sitting idly by would never make him his successor. So the son proposed a hunting expedition, and the father gave him a good set of clothes and a fine horse to venture out with. After a little time he came across a herd of elk and wounded one only slightly with his bow. This may signify that embarking on the path of transformation doesn’t bring immediate results. What we hunt for is elusive and hard to come by. After chasing the elk for awhile to no avail, the young man became very thirsty and began to search for water. When he finally came across a spring, he sang a song of thanksgiving to Wakanda (the Great Spirit) for allowing him to find it. Water of course is an important symbol in most all mythologies and in this case represents the divine life stream, the source of being that comes from God. In the bible it is often celebrated as the “springs of living water” that Jesus spoke of in the gospels. Those on the path in search of the divine begin to crave this water which sustains and nourishes the soul, but as the story will illustrate there are often obstacles that have to be overcome before we can imbibe in the refreshing stream.
When he was about to drink from the spring, a snake came along and scared him away. When he saw the snake slither away, he again approached the stream only to have it come back and drive him away again. This happened three times, but on the fourth occasion the boy did not find a snake but a beautiful woman who offered him water in a little cup that she refilled as much as he needed. Naturally the snake and the woman are one in the same and symbolize the forces of temptation that come to us frequently on the path to God. But like with other early civilizations, the serpent did not represent evil as we might associate it today but rather wisdom and knowledge. The wisdom that is in scope is that which comes through life’s experiences and which ultimately teaches in the words of Genesis, “the knowledge of good and evil” which man must acquire if he is to become “like God.”
The youth became greatly enamored by the Snake-woman, and when it was time for him to return home, she gave him a ring to take with him. She told him that if he placed the ring on a seat next to him anytime he sat down to eat and said, “Come let us eat,” she would appear and sup with him. Back at home among his people, he would secretly do this in his own lodge and no sooner would the meal be finished than she would mysteriously disappear. Longing for her he would go out among the villagers searching for her to no avail, and this pattern repeated itself several times. It is probably not insignificant that the appearances of the woman accompanied indulging in a savory meal, and this communicates to us the pleasures that we experience when we give in to temptations. Each time we give in to it, there is an immediate satisfaction but that quickly turns to a feeling of emptiness signified by the woman vanishing from the young man’s presence.
Along the journey of life, it takes us many iterations of the same pattern to finally learn that it is ultimately not satisfying to yield to temptation for it does nothing to give us a lasting sense of fulfillment. This idea seems to be captured as the story continues, for we are told that after awhile, when the chief’s son placed the ring on a mat and said “Come let us eat,” the woman failed to appear as she did before. The narrative tells us that the son decided to go out in search for the woman, so the young man told his father that he wished to go hunting again and was fitted with fine clothes and a horse. But rather than track elk, the chief’s son went straight to the spring where he had first met the woman which seems to suggest that he is metaphorically thirsty for the life giving water after his experiences with temptation. At the spring he found the trail from which the woman had come and followed it to an old dilapidated lodge. But when he arrived there, it was not the woman that he found but an old man clothed in rags sitting in the doorway.
The youth felt sorry for the old man and gave him his fine clothes in exchange for the tattered rags the old man was wearing. In this gesture of kindness we may possibly read more than a simple detail of the fable, for this swap of quality clothes for old torn garments indicates that the young man had reached a point on the spiritual path that he was willing to abandon the good things of the world (or what biblically might be referred to as “mammon”) for achieving a higher and more transcendent goal. It signifies a detachment from the things of earth which is necessary for the soul to make heaven its permanent abode and epitomizes the virtue of humility that man must acquire before making a transition to higher planes of existence. The old man who is later described as a wizard told the youth that while he thought he was doing a good deed in giving up his clothes, in fact the old man was going to do him one much better. We recognize the old man at this point in the story to be a spiritual guide leading the pilgrim on his way heavenward.
The old man told the youth the whereabouts of the Snake-woman and informed him that he must cross the Great Water (Pacific Ocean) to find her. He gave the boy some accessories for the journey including a hat, a sword, and a lame old horse. With the young man’s eyes closed on the shore of the ocean, the wizard recited a spell which translated him to the other side in an instant, and in this we may possibly infer that what transpires in the rest of the story reflects an interior process of the pilgrim rather than something external. On the other shore, the adventure continues in the familiar transformational trials of the “hero’s journey.” The chief’s son was confronted with five monsters which he he had to subdue, and he did this using his hat which turned out to be a magic hat which made him disappear when he put it on. This suggests that the person on the path of faith comes to harness psychic and/or spiritual powers to overcome his demons along the journey. After accomplishing this task, he came to a village where he found the woman had married another man. Infuriated, he took the sword the wizard had given him and slew her, her husband, and the whole village. Allegorically we can interpret this act as the triumphant soul at last overcoming its main enemy, the forces of temptation which had manipulated it for so long. Having travelled far and wide, the chief’s son returned to the wizard and was commended for doing well.
Then the narrative concludes with what is a nearly universal consummation of the hero’s journey. “The youth returned to his father, and married a very beautiful woman of his own village.” The second part of this happy ending is the familiar initiation into the mystical marriage or the soul’s union with the divine. It is the attainment of [eternal] life which is represented by the woman. But what about the reference to the father? Mythologist Joseph Campbell would recognize this final element of the story as a recurrent theme in fables across the world and has labelled it “atonement with the father.” It is the idea that early in the spiritual pilgrimage of man, he envisions God (the father figure) as an ogre or a wrathful and punitive deity. This is because he is fully controlled by his own ego and weighed down by the guilt of sin. It is only after he has been able to sublimate all of his vices that he can behold the father for who he truly is, benevolent and merciful. In the gospels, the Prodigal Son recognized his foolishness and said, “I will arise and go to my father” who embraced him with open arms. Here the Sioux fable attempts to convey the same happy conclusion.
It is unfortunate that for many centuries the Red Man was viewed as an unsophisticated savage, for his folklore clearly betrays knowledge of deep spiritual truths regarding the journey of life. With stories unique to North America, the Indian communicated in his own way answers to important questions like the origin of the soul, its purpose in life, and its final destination. With a depth and richness about them which enchants the reader, the myths and fables of North America rival those of Europe, Mesopotamia, and India and ultimate convey the same transcendent ideas. That these ideas are indeed universal and sublime is only supported by the fact that North American Indian thought developed in isolation from the rest of the world. Not only are there strong parallels in the myths of North America with other civilizations, but their general beliefs and theological ideas find their counterparts in other cultures as well. Whether it is the understanding of the afterlife, the role of guardian spirits, or the function of the priesthood, there is a cross-cultural analog which suggests to us a common thread to religion and an objective spirituality reality that exists beyond the senses.