Category Archives: Religion miscellany

Guteel

In a Tlingit myth, Guteel was a being who lived on human blood. He was larger than humans, and semi-divine, so in English translations of the myth he is referred to as a “giant” or a “monster.” I found a few different versions of the myth — as you’d expect with an oral tradition — but the central plot remains much the same: Guteel is killing too many humans, so the humans figure out a way to kill him. As they destroy him, he prophesies that they will never kill him completely. The humans burn his body, but the ashes turn into mosquitoes which suck blood from humans, thus rendering Guteel’s prophecy true.

At Sitka National Historical Park, there is a Mosquito Legend Pole carved before 1900, which once belonged to Hattie Wallace of the Kaigani Haida village of Sukkwan. Even though it was in a Haida village, the pole shows the Tlingit Mosquito Legend. The traditional Watchman figure is missing from the top of this pole; so now Guteel sits at the top, a giant with a beak that looks like a mosquito proboscis.

We probably would not include monsters or giants like Guteel in the category of deities. Yet a being like Guteel is in some sense a lesser deity: he is immortal, he is powerful, he is part of the order of existence. Not all deities are benevolent.

More information:

Info about the replica Mosquito Legend Pole at Sitka National Historical Park

Versions of the Tlingit Mosquito Legend: a brief versionversion with photos of old totem poles

Tlingit myths and Texts

Local religious data

I love poring over data on U.S. religions, and a motherlode of such data can be found on the Web site of The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).

Tonight, I’ve been looking over religion data for Santa Clara County, the county which includes the UU Church of Palo Alto, as found in the County Membership Report.

ARDA’s Web page shows that 43.6% of the county population are religious adherents, essentially unchanged from 43.3% of the county’s population in 2000. The count includes 1,005,614 people as unaffiliated; 447,369 as Roman Catholic; 148,599 as Evangelical Protestant; 125,165 as Other (this includes Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, UUs, etc.); and 44,623 as Mainline Protestant. 927 people are counted as members of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

These counts are based on self-reporting by 236 religious bodies, and any interpretation should take that into account. Obvious problems: religious bodies may have different reporting procedures; some of us (like me) are regular attendees but are not official members of a congregation, so are not counted; counts may include people who are not really adherents; etc.

The basic data sets come from the Assoc. of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, whose Web site is also of interest.

My main interest in the ARDA Web page is how it helps show the incredible religious diversity of Santa Clara County. Admittedly, they miss some smaller religious groups, particularly adherents of Orisa Devotion, and several New Religious Movements; but these are groups that may deliberately hide from, or give incorrect information to, researchers. Even with the obvious gaps (Cao Dai, Scientology, Santeria), their list of religious groups shows impressive diversity: a bewildering variety of Christians; Baha’is; Buddhists; Hindus; Jains; Jews; a few New Religious Movements; Sikhs; and Unitarian Universalists.

Definitely a fascinating Web site for exploring data on religion in a given geographical region.

The squirrel with the “slippery mouth”

A story from the religious tradition of Orisa devotion:

Once upon a time, there were two squirrels who decided to build a nest at the side of a road.

One of the squirrels, the male squirrel, decided to visit the babalawo for ifa divination. The divination warned the squirrel: “Beware of the slippery mouth, the mouth that cannot keep secrets. There is a trap that never fails to catch its victim, and that trap is the mouth that cannot keep secrets. The person who talks too much, it is his talking that kills him. And the person who talks to everyone he meets, it is his mouth that kills him. Beware of the slippery mouth!”

So it was that the Ifa divination warned the squirrel, “Do not tell everything you know to everyone you meet.” But the squirrel did not heed this good advice.

Soon thereafter, the female squirrel gave birth to two little babies. The male squirrel was very happy, so happy that he forgot what the Ifa divination told him, and he had to tell everyone about these two new babies.

He went out on the road beside which they had built their nest, and said, “The female squirrel had two lovely babies. Now our nest if full of children. All you travellers going past on the road, you must come and see our children!”

Some human beings were passing by, and heard the male squirrel say this. So they stepped into the bushes, where they found the squirrels’ nest. They looked into the nest, found the two young squirrels, and took them. When the human beings got home, they put the squirrels children on top of some pounded yam, and the two baby squirrels disappeared down their throats with the soup.

Source: Wande Abimbola, Ifa Divination Poetry

Non-traditional holiday traditions

This afternoon, after the Sunday services, we had a panel discussion about non-traditional traditions for Unitarian Universalist families celebrating the holidays. As I listened to the other panelists tell about their family holiday traditions, it became clear that your ethnic background has a big influence on how you celebrate holidays. With that in mind, here is my contribution to the panel discussion:

I grew up a New England Yankee, and a Unitarian Universalist. My Uncle Dick claimed that my mother’s family were Unitarians since Unitarianism began in North America, though Uncle Dick was notoriously unreliable on such things. My father’s side was Pennsylvania Dutch, and they were definitely Christian, members of the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB), a German language Methodist group. When my father announced that he was going to marry a Unitarian, that sent his mother into a dither. She was the daughter of a EUB minister, and her husband, my father’s father, served as an EUB minister for two years before he became a newspaperman. So my grandmother was in a dither, and she went to her minister with the news that her eldest son was going to marry a Unitarian. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Harper,” he said, “the Unitarians are weak on doctrine, but they are good people.” This reveals the most important thing about Unitarian Universalists and traditions: we are good people who don’t pay much attention to doctrine.

When I was a child, my family’s traditions were mostly dictated by my New England mother. Dad didn’t stand much of a chance, since we lived quite close to my mother’s twin sister, and my mother’s mother, and they were the ones who came over for holidays; whereas Dad’s family lived way down in New York City and southeastern Pennsylvania, and didn’t drive up for holidays. So many of our family traditions derived from New England Yankee culture.

Thanksgiving provides a good example of how we did family traditions. As New England Yankees, we knew we were descended from the Puritans, which we confused with the Pilgrims, so we felt a direct connection with the Thanksgiving story. As it turns out, there wasn’t much of a connection; our ancestors were indeed religious dissidents, they just didn’t happen to be Pilgrims. The important point is that we thought we were connected to the Pilgrims. Because of this supposed Pilgrim influence, I think we took it for granted that we could do what we wanted with Thanksgiving; nothing was sacred, except what we decided was sacred.

Or maybe that was the Unitarian Universalist influence. We didn’t always say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, and I don’t remember God being mentioned very often. When I was quite young, my Unitarian mother made sure I knew that public prayer was not very nice, and that Jesus himself had told his followers that if they went out and prayed on the street corners, they were hypocrites. By the same token, Mom also taught me that Unitarians don’t have to bow their heads when they pray; in fact, bowing one’s head might be making too much of a public demonstration of one’s supposed piety. We might hold hands while saying grace, but we didn’t have to bow our heads, and the few graces I remember were short and to the point.

Then my eldest cousin started attending youth group meetings at her Unitarian Universalist church, and she brought back a grace from her youth group. She had us hold hands, then she said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, God!” So God was mentioned at least once at our Unitarian Universalist Thanksgiving dinner. And humor was allowed and even encouraged. Another time, one of the cousins suggested we go around the table and each say something we were thankful for. This non-traditional grace stuck for a few years, then disappeared. Our family traditions continually changed and evolved.

As we and our cousins got older, several of us experimented with vegetarianism. My mother and her twin sister did the cooking, and I’m sure they rolled their eyes at the fervor with which some of us expressed our vegetarian convictions. I can’t remember any special vegetarian dishes; what got cooked was what got cooked, and you ate it or you didn’t. Besides, we vegetarians knew that if we asked for a vegetarian dish, we might well be told to cook it ourselves; this was more Unitarian influence, straight from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance.” Another result of the Unitarian influence was that we were committed to social justice, and since we had all read France Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet, there was more than one lecture from the vegetarians on the ethics of eating meat: it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef! This was another result of our combined New England Yankee and Unitarian heritages: there was always plenty of guilt to go around.

Christmas for our Unitarian Universalist family was interesting, if somewhat confusing to a young child. When I was young, our Christmases had little mention of God; Jesus was referred to as Jesus, which made some of the familiar Christmas carols sound odd; and I was a little unclear on the Christmas story. We always went to our Unitarian Universalist church for the Christmas eve candlelight service, a service with great music, lots of carol singing, an opportunity to light candles, and a brief sermon which always seemed to focus on social justice rather than a re-telling of the Christmas story.

Back at home, we followed the long-standing New England tradition of lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve, just before you go to bed. Mom said, “A bayberry candle, Burned to the socket, Brings health to the house, And money to the pocket.” One year I asked what this had to do with Christmas. My mother gave a confusing answer to the effect that the candle helped light the way for Jesus and his family on their way to the inn. I’m not sure if she made that story up on the spot, or if that was something her Unitarian mother had once told her. Yet another principle of Unitarian Universalist holidays is that you get to make things up on the spot.

Christmas got more interesting as we children got older. One year I studied the Frankfurt School of Marxism at college, and realized that much of Christmas is a product of consumer capitalism. This Marxist analysis annoyed my family less than you might expect; as Unitarian Universalists, we were used to questioning everything; my sisters and cousins all challenged some aspect of just about every holiday or tradition we had. I guess we were lucky that we were all Unitarian Universalists; I think it must be very annoying for non-Unitarian Universalists when they have to put up with our incessant critiques and challenges. Although for me, such challenges are half the fun of holidays and traditions.

One last thing I should mention: The combination of Unitarian Universalist values and New England Yankee culture has made me very doubtful about all holidays. Those old Puritans thought the only holiday should be Sunday, the weekly day of rest. To celebrate anything else was to be idolatrous; idolatry consists of placing an undue importance on something which is not all that important. As I get older, I am surprised at how strong that feeling is in me. My partner and I do not exchange gifts on Christmas, and the main way we celebrate is we go out for Chinese food. Thanksgiving is a good excuse to have a meal with family. The important part of holidays for me is to maintain connections with family and friends, and to keep alive cultural traditions; engaging in a supernatural or metaphysical interpretation of holidays is placing an undue importance on something that is not important.

To sum up, then, here’s what I know about Unitarian Universalist holiday traditions:
1. we are weak on doctrine, and as a corollary we can make things up on the spot;
2. we are influenced by regional cultures;
3. we challenge everything and are critical of everything;
4. a sense of humor is required.

Diné bahané, part five

7. The Fifth World

First Man was not satisfied with the Fourth World. It was a small barren land; and the great water had soaked the earth and made the sowing of seeds impossible. He planted the big Female Reed and it grew up to the vaulted roof of this Fourth World. First Man sent the newcomer, the badger, up inside the reed, but before he reached the upper world water began to drip, so he returned and said that he was frightened.

At this time there came another strange being. First Man asked him where he had been formed, and he told him that he had come from the Earth itself. This was the locust. He said that it was now his turn to do something, and he offered to climb up the reed.

The locust made a headband of a little reed, and on his forehead he crossed two arrows. These arrows were dressed with yellow tail feathers. With this sacred headdress and the help of all the Holy Beings the locust climbed up to the Fifth World. He dug his way through the reed as he digs in the earth now. He then pushed through mud until he came to water. When he emerged he saw a black water bird, the Grebe, swimming toward him. The Grebe had arrows crossed on the back of his head and big eyes.

The bird said: “What are you doing here? This is not your country.” And continuing, he told the locust that unless he could make magic he would not allow him to remain. Continue reading

Diné bahané, part four

5. The Flood, and Journey to the Fourth World

The people moved to different parts of the land. Some time passed; then First Woman became troubled by the monotony of life. She made a plan. She went to Atse’hashke, the Coyote called First Angry, and giving him the rainbow she said: “I have suffered greatly in the past. I have suffered from want of meat and corn and clothing. Many of my maidens have died. I have suffered many things. Take the rainbow and go to the place where the rivers cross. Bring me the two pretty children of Tqo holt sodi, the Water Buffalo, a boy and a girl.

The Coyote agreed to do this. He walked over the rainbow. He entered the home of the Water Buffalo and stole the two children; and these he hid in his big skin coat with the white fur lining. And when he returned he refused to take off his coat, but pulled it around himself and looked very wise.

After this happened the people saw white light in the East and in the South and West and North. One of the deer people ran to the East, and returning, said that the white light was a great sheet of water. The sparrow hawk flew to the South, the great hawk to the West, and the kingfisher to the North. They returned and said that a flood was coming. The kingfisher said that the water was greater in the North, and that it was near.

The flood was coming and the Earth was sinking. And all this happened because the Coyote had stolen the two children of the Water Buffalo, and only First Woman and the Coyote knew the truth.

When First Man learned of the coming of the water he sent word to all the people, and he told them to come to the mountain called Sis na’jin. He told them to bring with them all of the seeds of the plants used for food. All living beings were to gather on the top of Sis na’jin. First Man traveled to the six sacred mountains, and, gathering earth from them, he put it in his medicine bag.

The water rose steadily. Continue reading

Diné bahané, part three

4. The Men and Women Live Apart

Now at that time there were four chiefs: Big Snake, Mountain Lion, Otter, and Bear. And it was the custom when the black cloud rose in the morning — as there was no sun, and no true division of night and day, time was counted by the black cloud rising and the white cloud rising — for First Man to come out of his dwelling and speak to the people. After First Man had spoken, the four chiefs told them what they should do that day. They also spoke of the past and of the future.

But after the harvest, the Turquoise Boy from the East had come and visited First Woman. When First Man had returned to his home, he found his wife with this boy. First Woman told her husband that Turquoise Boy was of her flesh and not of his flesh. She said that she had used her own fire, the turquoise, and had ground her own yellow corn into meal. This was corn that she had planted and cared for herself.

When First Man found his wife with Turquoise Boy, he would not come out to speak to the people. The black cloud rose higher, but First Man would not leave his dwelling; neither would he eat or drink. No one spoke to the people for four days. All during this time First Man remained silent, and would not touch food or water. Four times the white cloud rose, and still he would not come out.

Then the four chiefs went to First Man and demanded to know why he would not speak to the people. The chiefs asked this question three times, and a fourth, before First Man would answer them.

He told them to bring him an herb which was an emetic. He made a hot brew from the herb, and drank it, and it caused him to vomit, and in this way he purified himself. First Man then asked them to send Turquoise Boy to him. Continue reading

Processional

It’s a warm day, the windows are open, and I heard some sort of chanting or singing somewhere outside. Some kind of religious chanting is what it sounded like, but I didn’t really pay any attention. It kept getting closer. I went to the front window. Several young people wearing blaze orange safety vests and carrying stop signs were standing at the crosswalks, ushering a long stream of people. The first people were singing something doleful. Then came — yes, it was a man dressed in an white ankle-length robe, with a big wooden cross on his shoulder. He was being escorted by a dozen or so angry-looking men in uniforms of short red robes and gold-colored helmets with plumes; one of these men periodically hit the man carrying the cross with a whip. It was a Good Friday procession passing right in front of our house.

At one level, I couldn’t help but see that this was just acting: the angry men were wearing Roman soldier costumes that I had purchased for Sunday school; the white robe worn by the one man was far too pristinely white and unwrinkled; the flogging was too gentle to be real. And not everyone was fully engaged: a happy toddler smiled and laughed in its stroller; a young woman seemed to be paying more attention to the sweet coffee drink she held; the priest in his Roman collar looked a little tired and distracted and I imagined that he was thinking ahead to what came next.

At a deeper level, this wasn’t acting at all. These people were serious enough about their religion to spend an evening re-enacting an important religious moment; perhaps they left work early to do so, certainly they were going to have a late dinner. They were serious enough to go to the trouble of purchasing costumes, organizing safety wardens, and showing up for the procession. A processional like this inhabits both the mundane and the sacred realms; and I was glad that these people brought something of the sacred to our busy street, sharing with their neighborhood a little bit of what’s important to them.

Diné bahané, part two

2. The Second World

Because of the strife in the First World, First Man, First Woman, the Great-Coyote-Who-Was-Formed-in-the-Water, and the Coyote called First Angry, followed by all the others, climbed up from the First World, the World of Darkness and Dampness, to the Second World, Ni’hodotl’ish, or the Blue World.

When they came to the Second World, they found a number of people already living there: Bluebirds, Blue Hawks, Blue Jays, Blue Herons, and all the blue-feathered beings.

The powerful Swallow People lived there also, and these people made the Second World unpleasant for those who had come from the First World. There was fighting and killing.

The First Four found an opening in the World of Blue Haze; and they climbed through this and led the people up into the Third or Yellow World.

Dine Bahane: First Angry Coyote

Above: Illustration of First Angry Coyote, drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school after seeing images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

3. Arriving in the Third World

The Bluebird was the first to reach the Third or Yellow World. After him came the First Four and all the others.

A great river crossed this land from north to south. It was the Female River.

There was another river crossing it from east to West, it was the Male River. This Male River flowed through the Female River and on; and the name of this place is Tqo alna’osdli, the Crossing of the Waters. Continue reading

Diné bahané, part one

Here’s the first installment of an abridged version of the Diné bahané, or Navajo creation story, that I put together for a small class of 5th and 6th graders a couple of years ago. This version of the Diné bahané is adapted from a public domain source edited by Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163 of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, (1956), pp. 1-13. (It’s in the public domain because it is a U.S. government document.)

When I presented the Diné bahané to the 5th and 6th graders, they were fascinated. They quickly noticed this story is very different from the two creation stories most familiar to Western culture, the creation story in the Bible where God creates the universe in seven days, or the creation story of ancient Greece in which the universe comes into being from Xaos (Chaos). They also noticed the story has a different understanding of gender roles, particularly in light of the character of Turquoise Boy, who is of ambiguous gender (who will appear in a later installment). They also noticed that this story does not assume such a strong distinction between humans and other animals, as do the Western creation stories. Reading such a different creation story helps us to reflect on the dominant stories in our own culture.

Here, then, is my abridged version of the Diné bahané:

Introduction

The Diné bahané is the traditional Navajo creation story. This long story has never been written down by the Navajos, even though it is as long as a book. Instead, there are people who have memorized the story, and who retell it to others. This version of the Navajo creation story that you’re about to read came to be as follows:

These stories were told to Sandoval, Hastin Tlo’tsi hee, by his grandmother, Esdzan Hosh kige. Her ancestor was Esdzanata’, the medicine woman who had the Calendar Stone in her keeping. Sandoval told these stories to Aileen O’Bryan at Mesa Verde in 1928, and she wrote them down. Here are the stories of the Four Worlds that had no sun, and of the Fifth, the world we live in, which some call the Changeable World.

Dine Bahane: First Man and First Woman

Above: Illustration of First Man and First Woman drawn by a child in the UUCPA Sunday school, after having seen images of Navajo rugs and sand paintings.

1. The First World

The First World, Ni’hodilqil, — which was also called Red Earth, One Speech, Floating Land, and One Tree — was black as black wool. It had four corners, and over these appeared four clouds. These four clouds contained within themselves the elements of the First World. They were in color, black, white, blue, and yellow.

The Black Cloud represented the Female Being. For as a child sleeps when being nursed, so life slept in the darkness of the Female Being. The White Cloud represented the Male Being or Substance. He was the Dawn, the Light-Which-Awakens, of the First World. Continue reading