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 four”

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 “Diné bahané, part three”

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 two”

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 “Diné bahané, part one”

Pronunciation

Conversation I had with our senior minister yesterday:

Senior minister: I’ve been thinking about low turnout in our evening classes. What are we going to do about adultery?

Me: Wha—? Oh! — you mean “adult RE.”

Senior minister: Um, that’s what I said. [Looks at me strangely.]

Me: [explaining that when one pronounces “adult” with a soft “a” sound and the accent on the second syllable, “adult RE” sounds like “ah-DULT-ah-ree.”] So you have to say it: “A-dult”.

Senior minister: [laughing]

Epilogue: Demeter and Triptolemus

When Persephone returned to her mother from the underworld, and Demeter grew happy once more, she came back to Eleusis.

First Demeter showed Triptolemus and others how to conduct religious rites in her honor, and she taught them her mysteries. These mysteries filled mortal humans with awe when they were initiated into the cult of Demeter. And any one who was initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis ever told about them, for deep awe of Demeter and the other gods and goddesses stopped them from speaking. Happy is the mortal among all humans on earth who has seen these mysteries; and those who are initiated into the religion may hope for better things when they finally die and go the underworld with Hades. As for those who were never initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis — once they die, they could count on having nothing good down in the darkness and gloom of the underworld.2

Then Demeter had Triptolemus bring wheat to all humankind. She went to the stable where she kept her pair of dragons, also known as the Sacred Serpents. She harnessed them to her chariot, and drove from the stable back to Triptolemus. Demeter gave him seed to scatter all over the world, telling him to sow the seed partly in land that had never been farmed before, and partly in farm fields that had been lying fallow since the beginning of the famine.

Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone

Above: Demeter, Triptolemus, and Persephone (l-r) celebrating the Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter hands Triptolemus the sheaves of wheat, while Persephone blesses them. A 19th century drawing of a marble relief from 5th C. B.C.E. Continue reading “Epilogue: Demeter and Triptolemus”

Persephone and Demeter Meet Again

The fourth and final installment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.

Rich-haired Demeter still sat apart from all the blessed gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter Persephone. She caused a most dreadful and cruel year for humankind all over the earth.

The farmers and their oxen plowed the fields in vain. Farmers sowed seeds of the white barley, but the ground would not let the seed sprout. It seemed that Demeter would destroy the whole human race with cruel famine. And without humankind, the gods and goddesses who dwell on Mount Olympus would no longer receive the gifts and sacrifices that meant so much to them.

Zeus knew he must do something. First he called for golden-winged Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to bring Demeter to Mount Olympus. Iris sped with swift feet to Eleusis, and found dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple.

“Demeter,” said Iris, “father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods. Come and do not ignore the command of Zeus, who rules over all the gods and goddesses.”

But Demeter’s heart was not moved, and she refused to go with Iris.

Then Zeus sent forth each of the gods and goddesses. They went to Demeter one after the other, offering many beautiful gifts, and godly rights and privileges.

But Demeter was still full of anger, and none of them could persuade her to go to Mount Olympus. Demeter said she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus, nor would she let food grow from the ground, until she saw her daughter again.

When all-seeing Zeus heard this, he called for Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of trickery and travelers and thieves. Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, to convince Hades with soft words to allow Persephone come up from the misty gloom of the underworld, so that her mother Demeter might see her with her own eyes.

Hermes straightaway flew down to the underworld. He found Hades in his house, seated upon a couch, and his shy wife Persephone with him. Continue reading “Persephone and Demeter Meet Again”

What Doso Did with the Baby

Some years ago, I started working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone. For part one, click here. For part two, click here.

Doso immediately began her duties as a nurse, taking care of Demophoon, the infant son of Metaneira and Celeus. With Doso as his nurse, the child grew like some immortal being. This was because during the day, when no one was watching, Doso secretly anointed him with ambrosia, one of the foods of the gods. And as she held him at her breast, she breathed sweetly on him, and that too helped him to grow like an immortal.

At night, when Metaneria and Celeus were fast asleep, Doso did something that required even more secrecy. She went to the hearth, where the fire burned all night, and placed Demophoon in the fire. Because she was a goddess, the fire did not hurt the baby. Instead, the fire worked a great wonder in the child, and he grew beyond his age, and his face looked like the face of one of the gods.

Not only that, but if a goddess can hold a mortal child in the fire night after night, eventually that child can become immortal, too. Doso loved the little boy, and hoped to hide Demophoon in the fire night after night, until he became deathless and unaging, just like her.

Demeter and Demophoon, by Willy Pogany

Demeter holding Demophoon in the fire, as imagined by artist Willy Pogany (public domain) Continue reading “What Doso Did with the Baby”

Memorial Day

Carol and I went to Wisnom’s hardware store across the street. I had to get some supplies for this Sunday’s Judean Village project in the Sunday school, and she went just because it’s an interesting place.

One of the guys who works there who knows us asked if I was finding what I was looking for. I said I was, and then asked why there were so few people in the store.

“Maybe because Easter was Sunday,” he said. “Maybe because school vacation’s this week. Maybe because Chinese Memorial Day’s tomorrow.”

“Chinese Memorial Day?” I said.

“April 5,” he said, “solar holiday, so it’s the same day every year. On Chinese Memorial Day, everyone goes to family graves. I went yesterday.” He bowed to an imaginary grave. “There will be lots of people up at Skylawn cemetery tomorrow. Flowers everywhere.”

We started talking about visiting graves, from a New England and a Chinese perspective. I wanted to hear more about Chinese Memorial Day, but Carol had to get back to work, so we cut our conversation short.

Ching Ming Festival

Click the Chinese characters above for photos of this year’s Ching Ming Festival in Skylawn cemetery.