The Accursed Lake

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from Charles Fletcher Lummis, Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1910), pp. 109-116; a book of stories of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, or Tigua Indians of Texas. I have edited the story for length and clarity.

Long ago there was still a village east of the Eagle-Feather Mountains, where there lived a Hunter. One day, while out hunting, he followed the trail of an antelope until the trail ended in a large lake.

Just then, a fish thrust its head from the water and said, “Friend Hunter, you are on dangerous ground!” and off it went swimming.

Before the Hunter could recover from his surprise, a Lake-Man came up out of the water and said, “How is it that you are here, where no human ever came?”

The Hunter told his story, and the Lake-Man invited him to come in to his house. They entered the house by a trap-door in the roof, and climbed down a ladder. Inside, there were doors to the east, north, west, and south, as well as the door in the roof. Soon the Lake-Man learned that the Hunter had a wife and son at home.

“Why not come live with me?” the Lake-Man said. “I am no hunter, but I have plenty of other food. We could live very well here together.” And he showed the Hunter the four other huge rooms, all filled with corn and dried squash and the like.

“I will come with my wife and son in four days,” said the Hunter, “if the leader of my village will let me.”

So the Hunter went home, and his wife thought very well of the offer. The leader of his village did not want him to go, for he was the best hunter in all the pueblo, but at last gave permission.

So the Hunter and his wife and little boy came to the lake with all their property. The Lake-Man welcomed them, and they settled in. The Hunter went out hunting and brought back great quantities of game, and his wife took charge of the household, as was their custom.

Some time passed very pleasantly. But at last the Lake-Man, who had an evil heart, pushed the Hunter into the East Room, locked the door and left him there to starve. The room was full of the bones of people whom he had tricked in the same way.

The boy was now old enough to hunt small game, and he brought home many rabbits. But the evil-hearted Lake-Man wanted to get him out of the way, too. One morning when the boy was about to start hunting, he heard his mother groaning as if about to die.

“Your mother is in terrible pain,” said the evil Lake-Man, “and the only thing that will cure her is sacred ice from the Lake of the Sun in the east.”

The boy said he would go get the ice, and started off toward the sunrise.

He walked over the brown plains until at last he came to the house of Old-Woman-Mole. She was there all alone, for her husband had gone to hunt. They lived in an old broken-down hut, and she was huddled trying to keep warm by a dying fire. But when the boy knocked, she rose and welcomed him kindly and gave him all there was in the house to eat: a tiny bowl of soup with a patched-up snowbird in it. The boy was very hungry, and picking up the snowbird bit a big piece out of it.

“Oh, my child!” cried the old woman. “You have ruined me! My husband trapped that bird these many years ago, but could never get another, and that is all we have had to eat ever since. So we never bit it, but cooked it over and over and drank the broth. And now not even that is left.” And she wept bitterly.

“Nay, Grandmother, do not worry,” said the boy, for he saw many snowbirds alighting nearby. Using his long hair, he made sanres and soon caught many snowbirds. Then the Old-Woman-Mole was full of joy. After the boy told her his errand, she said:

“I shall help you. When you come into the house of the True People, they will offer you a seat, but you must not take it. They will try you with smoking the weer, but I will help you.”

With that, the boy started away to the east. At last, he came so near to Sun Lake that medicine men and guards of the True People saw him coming, and went in to tell the True People.

“Let him be brought in,” said the True People; and the guards brought the boy in through a magnificent building, until he stood in the presence of the True People in a vast room: white-colored gods of the East, blue gods of the North, yellow gods of the West, red gods of the South, and rainbow-colored gods of Up, Down, and Center. Beyond them were the sacred animals: the buffalo, the bear, the eagle, the badger, the mountain lion, the rattlesnake, and all the others that are powerful in medicine.

The True People offered the boy a white robe to sit on; but he declined respectfully, saying that he had been taught, when in the presence of his elders, to sit on nothing save what he brought, and he sat upon his blanket and moccasins. Then he told them that he had come for the sacred ice, to save his mother’s life.

The True People gave him a sacred weer, that is, a hollow reed filled with the magical plant pee-en-hleh, from the smoke of which the rain clouds come. The boy took in the unpleasant smoke, but the Old-Woman-Mole dug a hole up to his toes, and the smoke went down through his feet into the hole so that no smoke escaped into the room of the True People.

The boy and the True People. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” So they put him into the room of the East with the bear and the mountain lion, but he came out again unhurt. They put him into the room of the North, with the eagle and the hawk; into the room of the West, with the snakes; into the room of the South, with the Apaches and other human enemies of his people. He came forth from each room unhurt.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” They had a great pile of logs built up, set the boy on the top of the pile and lighted it. But in the morning, the boy sat there unharmed, saying, “I am cold and would like more fire.”

So the guards brought him inside, and the True People said: “You have proved yourself worthy of us, and now you shall have what you seek.”

They gave him the sacred ice, and he hurried home, stopping only to thank the Old-Woman-Mole.

When the evil Lake-Man saw the boy, he was very angry, for he had never expected him to return with the sacred ice. He pretended he was glad to see the boy, but said he must go to the gods of the South to get sacred ice there.

The boy walked south across the brown plains until he came to a drying lake. There, dying in the mud, was a little fish. Picking it up, the boy put it in his gourd canteen of water. After awhile he came to a good lake, and the fish in his gourd said, “Friend Boy, let me swim while you eat your lunch, for I love the water.”

So he put the fish in the lake; and when he was ready to go on, the fish came to him, and he put it back in his gourd. At three lakes he let the fish swim while he ate; and each time the fish came back to him.

Beyond the third lake began a great forest which stretched clear across the world, and was so dense with thorns and brush that no human being could pass through. The tiny fish changed itself into a great Fish-Animal with hard, strong skin, and bidding the boy mount upon its back, it went plowing through the forest, breaking down big trees like stubble, and bringing him through to the other side without a scratch.

“Now, Friend Boy,” said the Fish-Animal, “you saved my life, and I will help you. When you come to the house of the True People of the South, they will try you as they did in the East. When you have proved yourself, the leader of the True People will bring you his three daughters, from whom to choose you a wife. The two eldest are very beautiful, and the youngest is not; but choose the youngest, for she is good and the beauty of the older sisters does not reach to their hearts.”

The boy thanked the fish and went on. At last he came to the house of the True People of the South. They tried him just as the True People of the East had done. Once again he passed the tests, and they gave him the sacred ice. Then the leader of the True People brought his three daughters, and said, “You are now old enough to have a wife, and I see that you are someone who cares for those around him. Therefore, choose one of my daughters to marry.”

The boy remembered the words of his fish friend, and said, “I choose your youngest daughter.”

The leader of the True People was pleased, and the boy and the youngest daughter were married. They started home, carrying the sacred ice and many presents. With the help of the Fish-Animal, they got through the forest, and walked on.

The evil Lake-Man being struck by lightning. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

At last they came in sight of the big lake, and over it were great clouds, with the forked lightning leaping forth. They could see the evil Lake-Man sitting at the top of his ladder, watching to see if the boy would return, and as they watched the lightning of the True People struck him dead.

So the boy and the youngest daughter found the boy’s mother, and the three of them left the house of the evil Lake-Man. They left all the belongings of the evil Lake-Man behind, and when they got to the shore of the lake, the boy stood and prayed to the True People that the lake might be accurst forever. From that day its waters turned salt, and no living thing has drunk therefrom.

Drawing of a Tigua figure (copyright 2019 Dan Harper). After a vase made circa 2010 by Albert Alvidrez, member of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo / Tigua Indian Reservation.

The Red-Cedar Sculpture of the Woman Who Had Died

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a Tlingit myth recorded in Wrangell, Alaska.

A young man and a young woman on the Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the Haida People, married. The young man was a chief, and the couple were very happy together. But soon after they were married, the young woman fell ill. Her husband sent around everywhere for the very best shamans, to try to cure her of her illness. He heard about a very fine shaman from another village on the island, and sent a canoe there to bring that shaman. But that shaman could do nothing. The young chief heard about another fine shaman at another village on another island, and again sent a canoe; but neither could that shaman cure the young woman. The young man sent for several fine shamans, but none of them could help his wife, and after she had been sick for a very long time she died.

The young chief felt very badly after his wife had died. He went from village to village to find the best wood-carvers in order to have them carve a sculpture of his wife. But though he asked several fine carvers, no one could make a sculpture that looked like his wife.

All this time there was a wood-carver in his own village who could carve much better than all the others. This man met the young chief one day and said, “You are going from village to village to have wood carved like your wife’s face, and you can not find anyone to do it, can you? I have seen your wife a great deal walking along with you. I have never studied her face with the idea that you might want some one to carve it, but I am going to try if you will allow me.”

The young chief agreed to try. The wood-carver found a very fine piece of red-cedar and began working upon it. When he had finished, the wood-carver had dressed the sculpture just as he used to see the young woman dressed. Then he went to the young chief and said, “Now you can come along and look.”

The young chief came to the wood-carver’s workshop, and when he got inside, he saw his dead wife sitting there just as she used to look. This made him very happy, and he said he would like to take this sculpture home. “What do I owe you for making this?” he asked the wood-carver.

The wood-carver had felt sorry to see how the young chief was mourning for his wife, so he said, “Do as you please about it. It is because I felt badly for you that I made that. So don’t pay me too much for it.”

But the young chief paid the wood-carver very well, both in slaves and in goods.

The young chief dressed this sculpture in his wife’s clothes and her marten-skin robe. When he finished, he felt that his wife had come back to him. He treated the sculpture just like her. One day, while he sat very close to the sculpture, mourning for his dead wife, he felt the sculpture move. He thought that the movement was only his imagination. Yet he knew his wife had been as fond of him as he was of her, and so each day as he ate his meals he sat close to the sculpture, thinking perhaps some time it would in fact come to life.

After a while the whole village learned the young chief had this sculpture of his wife. One by one, they all came to see it. It was so life-like that many people could not believe that it was not the woman herself until they had examined it closely and saw it was only made of wood.

One day, after the chief had had it for a long, long time, he sat down next to the sculpture, and saw that the body was just like the body of a human being. Now he was sure the sculpture was alive, and he began to treat it just as if it were his wife. Yet though he was sure the sculpture was alive, it could not move or speak.

Then one day the sculpture gave forth a sound like cracking wood. The man was sure something was wrong; perhaps the sculpture was ill. He had some people come and move it away from the place where it had been sitting, and when they had moved the sculpture they found a small red-cedar tree growing there on top of the flooring. The man left the young red-cedar tree to grow there, until it grew to be very large. (For many years afterwards, when people on the Queen Charlotte Islands went looking for red-cedars, if they found a good one they would say, “This looks like the baby of the chief’s wife.” And it is because of the young chief’s wife that red-cedars on the Queen Charlotte islands provide the very best wood for carving.)

But to return to the red-cedar sculpture of the young woman: The sculpture continued to grow more and more like a human being day after day. People from villages far and near heard the story, and came in canoes to look at the sculpture, and at the young red-cedar tree growing there, at which they were very much astonished. The sculpture moved around about as much as a tree trunk might move in the wind, which is to say not much at all, and the sculpture was never able to talk. Yet the woman’s husband had dreams in which she spoke to him, and even if the sculpture could not talk, it was through these dreams the husband knew his wife was talking to him.

Source: Tlingit Myths and Texts, John R. Swanton, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 39, U.S. Government, 1909, pp. 181-182

Detail, Centennial Pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska

The above is an edited public domain photograph of the Centennial Pole, dedicated in 2011 at the Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, showing the woman carved at the bottom of the pole. “The bottom figure…is a fascinating female portrait by Donnie Varnell, a Haida carver from…Ketchikan (Alaska). Flanked by male and female salmon, she represents Mother Earth.” (Mike Dunham, “Sitka’s Centennial Pole a showpiece of modern totemry,” Anchorage Daily News, June 6, 2014.) Since the story above is a Tlingit tale of the Haida Gwaii, the homeland of the Haida people, it seemed appropriate to use a Haida sculpture to illustrate the story.

The Raja’s Son

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious children. I adapted this story from story 49b A raja’s daughter turned into a boy in “The B40 Janam-Sakhi: An English translation with introduction and commentary of the India Office Gurmukhi Manuscript Panj. B40, a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733 by Daya Ram Abrol,” ed. W. H. McLeod (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev Univeristy, n.d. [1979]), pp. 206-208. In the translation of the original story, the raja comes across as deluding himself that his child is, in fact, a girl, not a boy. But since nowhere does the raja’s child express any discomfort with identifying as male, though he is biologically female, I chose to interpret the raja’s child as transgendered. In the story, I avoid the term “transgendered” as anachronistic, but assumed that the raja’s child did in fact identify as a man; this is consistent with an assumption that there have been what we Westerners would call transgendered eprsons across cultures and throughout time. There are also stories from the Western religious traditions that present transgendered persons (e.g., queer theologians who argue that Jesus had non-binary gender, etc.), but I chose to retell this story simply because it tells about a child growing up into an adult. Note that the excerpt from the Guru Granth Sahib combines translations from Bhai Manmohan Singh, Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, and The Sikh Encyclopedia. Now here’s the story:

There once was a raja, a Hindu king, who married a woman who was a Sikh. When she became the rani, or queen, this woman stayed in touch with the Sikhs who lived in the kingdom, and who had their dharamsala, or place of worship, just below the palace where the raja and rani lived. The Sikhs were well known for their beautiful hymns and their beautiful singing, and the raja came to enjoy listening to the hymns that were sung during kirtan, that is, during the Sikh worship service.

One day, the rani said to the raja, “Do you not wish that we had a child?”

“Oh yes,” said the raja. “I would love for us to have a child. I wish we could have a little boy.” For in the raja’s kingdom, it had always been men who had ruled the kingdom, and the raja hoped for a song that would rule his kingdom after him.

The rani said, “Let us go down to the dharamsala, and ask the sangat for a child.” The sangat was the gathered community of Sikhs, and it was thought that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Skih religion, was present in the sangat, even though he had died long ago.

The raja agreed to do this. A large congregation of Sikhs had gathered for Ekadasi, a Hindu lunar celebration. Even though Sikhs did not celebrate Hindu holidays, the Guru Arjan had said:
On Ekadasi, see God by your side,
Control your desires, and listen to God’s praise,
Let heart be content, and be kind to all beings.

The raja and rani presented their wish for a son as a hymn was being sung. “Speaking to the congregation, the raja and rani said: “You come together for Guru Nanak, and so whatever wish is asked of you will be granted. We ask that the Guru would give us a son.”

Those who were in the sangat said, “Trust in the Guru, he will grant you a son.”

Not long thereafter, the raja’s wife told the raja that she was pregnant. “Guru Nanak was right,” they said to each other, “and soon we will have a son.” When the baby was born, the baby’s body looked like a girl’s body, but the raja and his wife were confident that Guru Nanak had correctly foreseen that their child would be a son.

The raja and his wife gave the baby a name that was usually given to a boy, and then waited to see what would happen. And when their baby grew enough to begin to walk and talk and run around, it became clear that the child knew he was a boy. So what Guru Nanak had said did indeed come true: the raja and his wife had a son.

The boy grew quickly, and became a fine young man. Although he had a young woman’s body, nobody in the raja’s palace thought much about it, and the young man did everything that all the other young men did. Then one day, his father called him to the throne room.

“My son,” said the raja, “it is time you married. I would like you to marry –” and he named the daughter of a neighboring raja.

The young man thought he liked this daughter of the neighboring raja, and he also thought that she liked him, so he did not disagree with his father’s idea. But he asked, “Why is it that you want me to get married now, father?”

“I have received a marriage proposal from the young woman’s father,” said the raja. “And besides, I would like to see you married, and I would like you to have children, so that my grandchildren will continue to rule this kingdom.”

The young man looked thoughtful. “Of course I would like to have children,” he said, “but as you know, even though I’m a man, remember that I do have a woman’s body….”

His father waved this away. “Do not worry,” said the raja. “I trust in the Guru. He said that your mother and I would have a child, and we did. He said that your mother and I would have a boy, and we did.”

So the marriage proposal was accepted. The raja instructed his Hindu pandit to carry out the ceremonies to prepare for the marriage. But there were those who whispered, “The young man has a woman’s body. If he marries a woman, how can the two of them have children? The old raja will bring disgrace on us all.” But the old raja didn’t listen to these whispers; he trusted in Guru Nanak, and he knew that his son was indeed a man.

Before long the day of the wedding arrived. The young man got on his horse and, accompanied by a large party of well-wishers, rode to the neighboring raja where the wedding would take place. Suddenly a golden deer appeared in front of the party, and the raja’s son boldly spurred his horse and gave chase to this magnificent animal.

The golden deer ran from the raja’s son, leading him away from the others, until at last the deer jumped into a garden. The raja’s son followed, but when was inside the garden he found, not the golden deer that he had expected, but the Exalted One, Guru Nanak himself.

The raja’s son bowed down before the Exalted One. The Guru said to him, “My child, the Guru will fulfill your wish.”

The rest of the party had been following the raja’s son, and just then they arrived in the garden. Upon seeing Guru Nanak, the raja walked around him, then prostrated himself and laid at the feet of the Guru. “I am truly blessed, to see you, Baba Nanak!” said the raja. “You granted my wish to have a son. No human mouth can praise you enough, for you are beyond all praise!”

“Go in peace,” said Guru Nanak. “I will be with you wherever you go. Wherever you sing my hymns or offer praise to me, there you shall find me.”

The raja and all those in the wedding party became Sikhs from this moment. They continued on their journey, all chanting, “Guru, Guru!” The raja’s son was duly married to the daughter of the neighboring raja, and all was well.

Planting a Pear Tree

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a story about selfishness, and it also gives an insight into the supposed magical powers of Daoist priests. Source: Pu Songling, trans. Herbert A. Giles, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (London: Thomas De La Rue & Co., 1880).

One day in the marketplace, a man from the countryside was selling pears he had grown. These pears were unusually sweet with a fine flavor, and so the countryman asked a high price for them.

A Daoist priest, dressed in a ragged old blue cloak, stopped at the barrow in which the countryman had displayed these lovely pears.

A Daoist priest. (Adapted from a public domain image from The Dragon, Image, and Demon by Hampden C. DuBose, New York: Armstrong & Son, 1887)

“May I have one of your pears?” he said.

The countryman said to him, “Get away from my barrow, so that paying customers may buy my pears.” For the countryman knew that the priest expected him to give him one for nothing. But when the priest did not move, the countryman began to curse and swear at him.

The priest said, “You have several hundred pears on your barrow. I ask for a single pear, the loss of which you would not feel. Why then, sir, do you get angry?”

Several people who were standing around told the countryman to give the priest a pear that was bruised, or which had some sort of blemish, a pear that he could not sell anyway. If he would only do that, then the priest would go away. But the countryman was stubborn, and he refused to give the Daoist priest anything at all.

The beadle of the town, who was charged with keeping the peace and maintaining order, came over to see what was going on. This beadle saw that things were getting out of hand, so he purchased a pear from the countryman, and presented it to the Daoist priest.

The priest bowed low to the beadle, thanking him for the pear. Then the priest turned to the crowd who had gathered round, and said, “Those of us who are Daoist priests have left our homes and given up all wealth. So when we see selfish behavior, it is hard for us to understand it. Now as it happens, I have some pears with a very fine flavor, and unselfishly I would like to share them with you.”

Someone in the crowd called out, “But if you have pears of your own, why didn’t you just eat one of them? Why did you have to have one of the countryman’s pears?”

“Because,” said the priest, “I wanted one of these seeds to grow my pears from.” So saying, he ate up the pear that the beadle had given him. When he had finished eating, he took one of the seeds, unstrapped a pick from his back, and bent down to make a hole in the ground, four inches deep, with the pick. Then he dropped the seed into this hole, and filled it in with earth. Turning back to the crowd, he said, “Could someone bring me a little hot water, please, with which to water the seed?”

One among the crowd who loved a joke went into a neighboring shop and fetched him back some boiling water.

The priest poured the boiling water over the place where he had made the hole. Everyone watched closely, for though it seemed like a joke, Daoist priests were supposed to have knowledge of alchemy and magic and the mystical arts.

Suddenly the people in the crowd saw green sprouts shooting up out of the ground, growing gradually larger and larger until they became a tree. This pear tree — for it was, indeed, a pear tree — quickly grew in the spot, and sprouted green leaves, and then put forth white flowers. Bees were heard buzzing among the flowers, then the petals dropped, and before long the tiny hard green fruits had grown and ripened into fine, large, sweet-smelling pears which hung heavy on every branch.

The priest picked these fine pears and handed them around to everyone in the crowd. When at last everyone had a pear, and all the pears had been picked from the tree, the priest turned and with his pick he hacked away at the tree until, after a long time, he cut it down. Picking up the tree and throwing it over his shoulder, leaves and all, he walked quietly away.

Now this whole time, the countryman had been standing in the crowd, straining his neck to see what was going on, and forgetting all about his own business. When the priest walked away, he turned back to his barrow and discovered that every one of his pears was now gone. He then knew that the pears that old fellow had been giving away were really his own pears. And when the countryman looked more closely at his barrow, he saw that one of its handles was missing, for it had been newly cut off.

Boiling with anger, the countryman set off after the Daoist priest. But as he turned the corner where the priest had disappeared, there was the lost wheel-barrow handle lying next to a wall. It was, in fact, the very pear tree that the priest had cut down.

But there were no traces of the priest — much to the amusement of the crowd in the market-place, who watched the countryman’s rage as they finished eating their sweet, juicy pears.

Spider steals Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from Central Africa. I like this story because of the differences between Nzambi Mpungu and the Christian Jehovah, and the different reasons Spider and Prometheus have for stealing the heavenly fire. The character of Spider is probably related to Anansi the Spider of West Africa myth, and probably to other African tricksters such as Tortoise of Yoruba myth. This story is adapted from Richard Edward Dennett, Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort (French Congo), London: Folk-lore Society, 1898, pp. 74-76 and 131-135.

First you must understand who Nzambi Mpungu is. He is the father of all things, and lives a happy life above the sky, where he has a many wives and beautiful children. He spends very little time thinking about us people here on earth, and since he is a good being there is no use in offering him worship or sacrifices. True, there are lesser gods and goddesses who can hurt us people here on earth, and to them we might offer worship and sacrefice, but Nzambi Mpungu will not mind, for he is not in the least jealous.

Now you may question whether Nzambi Mpungu actually exists. But there is a man still living, near the town of Loango, who says that one day, when it was thundering and lightning and raining very heavily, and when all the people in his village, being afraid, had hidden themselves in their houses, he alone was walking about. Suddenly, and at the moment of an extraordinarily vivid flash of lightning, after a very loud peal of thunder, he was seized and carried through space until he reached the roof of heaven, when it opened and allowed him to pass through to where Nzambi Mpungu lives. There the man met Nzambi Mpungu, who cooked some food for him, and then showed the man his great plantations and rivers full of fish. Then Nzambu Mpungu left the man, telling him to help himself whenever he felt hungry. The man stayed there two or three weeks, and never had he had so much good food to eat. At last Nzambi Mpungu came to him again, and asked the man whether he would like to remain there always, or whether he would like to return to the earth. The man said that he missed his friends, and would like to return to them, and Nzambi Mpungu sent him back to his family. So you see, Nzambi Mpungu does indeed live above the sky.

Nzambi, on the other hand, is Mother Earth. Some say she is Nzambi Mpungu’s first child. She is the great princess, a mighty ruler who governs all on earth. She has the spirit of rain, lightning, and thunder for her own use. She is a stern judge, and a fearsome ruler.

Now we can begin the story of how Spider almost married Nzambi’s daughter.

For Nzambi had a most delightful daughter whom anyone would have wanted to marry. But Nzambi swore that no earthly being should marry her daughter, unless they could bring her the heavenly fire from Nzambi Mpungu, who kept it somewhere in the heavens above the blue roof of sky.

The people all wondered who could ever bring the heavenly fire down to earth.

Then Spider said, “I will bring the heavenly fire to earth, but I will need help.”

“We will gladly help you,” said all the people, “if you will reward us for our help.”

So Spider climbed up to the blue roof of heaven, and dropped down again to the earth, leaving a strong silken thread firmly hanging from the roof to the earth below. Then he called to Tortoise, Woodpecker, Rat, and Sandfly, and bade them climb up the thread to the blue roof of sky.

When they got there, Woodpecker pecked a hole through the roof, and through this hole they all entered into the realm of Nzambi Mpungu, who, as it happens, was very badly dressed. Nzambi Mpungu received them courteously, and asked them what they wanted up there.

“O Nzambi Mpungu of the heavens above, great father of all the world,” they said, “we have come to fetch some of your heavenly fire, to bring it down to Nzambi who rules upon earth.”

“Wait here then,” said Nzambi Mpungu, “while I go to my people and tell them of the message you bring.” But Sandfly followed Nzambi Mpungu without being seen, and heard all that was said. While Sandfly was gone, the others talked among themselves, wondering if it were possible that someone who went around so badly dressed could be so powerful.

At last Nzambi Mpungu returned to them. “My friend,” he said to Spider, “how can I know that you have really come from the ruler of the earth, and that you are not impostors?”

“Nay,” said Spider and all the others, “put us to some test so we may prove our sincerity to you.”

“I will,” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Go down to this Earth of yours, and bring me a bundle of bamboos, so I can make myself a shed.”

Tortoise climbed all the way down to Earth, leaving the others where they were, and soon returned with the bamboo.

Nzambi Mpungu then said to Rat, “Get beneath this bundle of bamboo, and I will set fire to it. If you escape I shall surely know that Nzambi sent you.”

Rat did as he was told, and hid under the bundle of bamboo. Nzambi Mpungu set fire to the bamboo, and lo! when it was entirely consumed, Rat came from amidst the ashes completely unharmed.

“Ah!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “You are indeed sent from Nzambi on Earth. I will go and consult my people again.”

Spider, Rat, Woodpecker, and Tortoise sent Sandfly after him once again, bidding him to keep well out of sight, to hear all that was said, and if possible to find out where the lightning was kept. Sandfly soon returned and told them all that he had heard and seen.

When Nzambi Mpungu came back a little later, he said, “Yes, I will give you the heavenly fire you ask for. But only if you can tell me where it is kept.”

Spider said, “Give me then, O Nzambi Mpungu, one of the five cases that you keep in the hen-house.”

“Truly, you have answered me correctly, O Spider!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Take this case, and give it to your Nzambi.”

Tortoise carried the heavy case containing the heavenly fire down to the earth. When they got to Nzambi’s house, Spider presented the fire from heaven to her. True to her word, Nzambi agreed to let Spider marry her delightful daughter.

But Woodpecker grumbled, saying, “Surely your daughter is mine, for I was the one who pecked the hole through the roof, without which the others never could have entered the kingdom of the Nzambi Mpungu.”

“No, she is mine,” said Rat. “For I risked my life among the burning bamboo.”

“Nay, O Nzambi, she is mine,” said Sandfly. “For without my help the others would never have found out where the fire was kept.”

And Tortoise complained that he was the one who had to return to Earth to fetch the bamboo, and then had to carry the heavy case down to Earth, so of course the daughter should be married to him.

After listening to them all, Nzambi said: “Nay, Spider was the one who planned how to bring me the heavenly fire, and he has indeed brought it. By rights, my daughter should be married to him. But I know you others will make her life miserable if I allow her to marry Spider. Since she cannot marry all of you, I will not allow her to marry any of you. But I will give you her value” — for the people Nzambi ruled customarily gave presents when one of their children married.

Nzambi then paid fifty bolts of cloth each to Tortoise, Rat, Woodpecker, Sandfly, and Spider.

As for the daughter, she never married, and had to wait on Nzambi for the rest of her days.

Nzambi Mpungu as imagined by an African artist of perhaps a hundred years ago. This artist was a follower of the Kongo religion. The Kongo religion is related to several religions in the Americas including Haitian Vodoun and Brazilian Candomblé. Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, original photo CC-BY-SA 3.0 Ji-Elle.

The Pool of Enchantment, or the Riddle Contest

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from the Mahabharata. Adapted from The Indian Story Book: Containing Tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Other Early Sources, by Richard Wilson (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914).

One day, near the end of their long exile in the forest, King Yudhisthira and his four brothers were searching for a mysterious deer which had stolen the wooden blocks which a Brahmin needed so he could light the sacred fire. The king and his brothers wandered deeper and deeper into the forest trying to find the deer. They grew more and more thirsty, but they were unable to find water. At last they all sat down, exhausted, beneath a tall tree.

“If we do not find water soon, we shall surely die,” said Yudhisthira He turned to his brother Nakula. “Brother,” he said, “climb the tree for us and see if you can spot water nearby.”

Nakula quickly climbed the tree, and in a few moments called down, “I see trees which only grow near running water, and there I hear the sound of cranes, birds which love the water.”

“Take your quiver,” said Yudhisthira. “Go fill it with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”

Nakula set out, and quickly found a small stream which widened into a pool of clear water with a crane standing on the far side.

A Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone). Public domain image.

Nakula knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink. Suddenly a stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Nakula was so thirsty he ignored the Voice, and drank eagerly from the cool water. In a few moments he lay dead at the edge of the pool.

The other four brothers waited patiently Nakula’s return. At last Yudhisthira said, “Where can our brother be? Go, Sahadeva, find your brother, and return with a quiver full of water.”

Sahadeva walked off through the forest. Soon he found Nakula lying dead at the edge of the pool. But he was so thirsty that he did not stop, but knelt down at the pool to drink.

The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

But Sahadeva had already drunk from the water, and lay dead at the edge of the pool.


Once again the remaining brothers waited patiently. At last Yudhisthira spoke to his brother Arjuna, the mighty archer. “Go, Arjuna,” he said, “find our brothers, and return to us with a quiver full of water.”

Arjuna slung his bow over his shoulder, and with his sword at his side walked to the pool. When he saw his brothers lying dead among the reeds, he fitted an arrow to his bow while his keen eyes pierced the darkness of the forest searching for the enemy who had killed them. Seeing neither human nor wild beast, at last he knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink.

The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Prince Arjuna looked about him. “Come out,” he cried, “and fight with me.” He shot arrows in all directions, but the Voice only laughed at him, and repeated its command.

But Arjuna ignored the Voice, knelt and drank, and soon lay dead at the edge of the pool.


Yudhisthira waited patiently, but when Arjuna did not return, the king turned to Bhima. “Go,” he said, “find our brothers, and return with them and a quiver full of water.”

Bhima silently rose, walked to the pool, and found his brothers lying dead. “What evil demon has killed my brothers,” he thought to himself, looking around. But he was so thirsty he knelt to drink.

Again the stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Bhima had not heard the Voice, and so he lay dead next to his brothers.


Yudhisthira waited for a time, then went himself to find water.

When he came to the pool, he stood for a moment looking at it. He saw clear water shining in the sunlight, lotus flowers floating in the water, and a crane stalking along the edge of the pool. And there were his four brothers lying dead at the edge of the pool.

Even though he was terribly weak and thirsty, he stopped and spoke aloud the name of each of his brothers, and told of the great deeds each had done. He spoke out loud his sorrow for the death of each one.

“This must be the work of some evil spirit,” he thought to himself. “Their bodies show no wounds, nor is there any sign of human footprints. The water is clear and fresh, and I can see no signs that they have been poisoned. But I am so thirsty, I will kneel down to drink.”

Yudhisthira and the crane (public domain image)

As King Yudhisthira knelt down, the Voice took the shape of a Baka, or crane, a gray bird with long legs and a red head. The Baka spoke to him in a stern voice, saying:

“Do not drink, O King, until you have answered my questions.”

“Who are you?” said Yudhisthira boldly. “Tell me what you want.”

“I am not a bird,” said the Baka, “but a Yaksha!” And Yudhisthira saw the vague outlines of a huge being above crane, towering above the lofty trees, glowing like an evening cloud.

“It seems I must obey, and not drink before I answer your questions,” said the king. “Ask me what you will, and I will use what wisdom I have to answer you.”

So the questioning began:


The Yaksha said: “Who makes the Sun rise? Who moves the Sun around the sky? Who makes the Sun set? What is the true nature of the Sun?”

The King replied: “The god Brahma makes the sun rise. The gods and goddesses move the Sun around the sky. The Dharma sets the Sun. Truth is the true nature of the Sun.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is heavier than the earth? What is higher than the heavens? What is faster than the wind? What is there more of than there are blades of grass?”

The King replied: “The love of parents is both heavier than earth and higher than the heavens. A person’s thoughts are faster than the wind. There are more sorrows than there are blades of grass.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is it, that when you cast is aside, makes you lovable? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you happy? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you wealthy?”

The King replied: “When you cast aside pride, you become lovable. When you cast aside greed, you become happy. When you cast aside desire, you become wealthy.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is the most difficult enemy to conquer? What disease lasts as long as life itself? What sort of person is most noble? What sort of person is most wicked?”

The King replied: “Anger is the most difficult enemy to conquer. Greed is the disease that can last as long as life. The person who desires the well-being of all creatures is most noble. The person who has no mercy is most wicked.”


The questions went on and on, but Yudhisthira was able to answer them all, wisely and well.

At last the Yaksah stopped asking questions, and revealed its true nature: the Yaksha was none other than Yama-Dharma, the god of death, and the father of Yudhisthira.

Yama-Dharma said, “It was I who took on the shape of a deer and stole the wooden blocks so the Brahmin could not light the sacred fire.

“Now you may drink of this fair water, Yudhisthira! And you may choose which of your four brothers shall be returned to life.”

“Let Nakula live,” said Yudhisthira.

“Why not Bhima or Arjuna or Sahadeva?” said Yama-Dharma.

“My brother Nakula is the son of Madri,” said the King, “while Arjuna, Bhima, Sahadeva and I are the sons of Kunthi. If Nakula returns to life, then both my mothers, both Madri and Kunthi, will have a living child. Therefore, let Nakula live.”

Then Yama-Dharma spoke kindly as he faded away. “Truly you are called ‘The Just,” he said. “Noblest of kings and wisest of all persons, for your wisdom and your love and your sense of justice, I shall return all of your brothers to life.”


More riddles — Here are two dozen more of the riddles that Yama-Dharma asked of Yudhisthira:

1. How may a person become secure? — A person becomes secure through courage.
2. How may a person become wise? — A person gains wisdom by living with people who are wise
3. What is best for the Brahmans (those who pursue learning as their life’s work)? — Studying the Vedas, the holy books, is best for the Brahmans.
4. What is best for the Kshathriyas (those who are the warriors and defenders)? Weapons are best for the Kshathriyas.
5. What is best for farmers? — Rain is best for farmers.
6. Who does not close their eyes when sleeping? — Fish do not close their eyes when sleeping.
7. What does not move even after birth? — Eggs do not move even after birth.
8. What does not have a heart? — A stone does not have a heart.
9. What grow as it goes? — A river grows as it goes to the sea.
10. Who is the guest who is welcome to all? — Fire is the guest who is welcome to all.
11. Who travels alone? — The Sun travels alone.
12. Who is born again and again? — The Moon is born again and again.
13. What container can contain everything? — The Earth can contain everything.
14. Out of all things, what is best? — Out of all things, knowledge gained from wise people is best.
15. Out of all blessings, what is best? — Out of all blessings, good health is best.
16. Out of all pleasures, what is best? — Out of all pleasures, being contented is best.
17. Out of all just actions, which is best? — Out of all just actions, non-violence is best.
18. What must a person control in order to never be sad? — A person must control their mind in order to never be sad.
19. What will a person never be sad to leave behind? — A person will never be sad to leave behind anger.
20. What should a person leave behind to become rich? — A person should leave behind desire in order to become rich.
21. What should a person leave behind to be have a happy life? — A person should leave behind selfishness to have a happy life.
22. By what is the world covered? — The world is covered by ignorance.
23. Why doesn’t the world shine brightly? — Bad behavior keeps the world from shining brightly.
24. What is surprising? — It is surprising that we think of ourselves as stable and permanent, when every day we see beings dying.

Illustrations are from the following public domain sources (accessed through the Internet Archive):
Sarus Crane, H. E. Dresser, “A History of the Birds of Europe,” London: 1871-1881.
Yudhistira and the crane, Mahabharata, Gorakhpur, India: Geeta Press, n.d.

The Tale of the Dhak Tree

Another story for liberal religious kids, which I found as I was cleaning up my files.

One day, four of Buddha’s followers came up to him and asked how they might learn to meditate and rise above earthly things. Buddha explained to the four bhikkus how they might do so, and each of the four went off to learn a different kind of meditation. The first bhikku learned the Six Spheres of Touch. The second bhikku learned the Five Elements of Being. The third bhikku learned the Four Principal Elements. The fourth bhikku learned the Eighteen Constituents of Being. And each one of these four bhikkus learned how to meditate so well that they each achieved Enlightenment and became a holy person.

Now one day all four of these bhikkus came back to tell the Buddha what they had done, and each of them claimed that their way was the best form of mediation. At last one of them said, “Buddha, each of us has achieved Enlightenment, but we each used a different type of meditation. How could this be?”

The Buddha said, “It is like the four brothers who saw the dhak tree,” and he told them this story:

***

Once upon a time Bramadatta, the King of Benares, had four sons.

One day, the four sons sent for a charioteer and said to him, “We want to see a dhak tree [butea frondosa]. Show us one!”

“Very well, I will,” the charioteer replied. “Let me begin by showing the eldest son.”

The charioteer took the eldest to the forest in the chariot. It was springtime, and eldest son saw the dhak tree at the time when the buds had not yet begun to swell, and the tree looked dead.

But the charioteer told them he could not return right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the second son to see the dhak tree, but now it was entirely covered with reddish-orange flowers.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. After two or three weeks had gone by, the charioteer brought the third son to see the dhak tree, but now the flowers were gone and the tree was covered with leaves.

Again, the charioteer told them he could not return to the tree right away. The fourth son waited and waited until at last he could wait no more. The charioteer brought him to see the dhak tree when it was covered with long brown seed-pods.

When at last all the brothers had seen the dhak tree, they sat down together, and someone asked, “So what is the dhak tree like?”

The first brother answered, “It is like a bunch of dead twigs!”

And the second brother said, “No, it is reddish-orange like a big piece of meat!”

And the third brother said, “No, it has leaves like a banyan tree!”

And the fourth brother said, “No, it looks just like the acacia tree with its long seed pods!”

None of them liked the answers the other gave. So they ran to find their father.

“Father,” they asked, “tell us, what is the dhak tree like?”

“You have all seen the tree,” the king said. “You tell me what it’s like.”

And the four brothers gave the king four different answers.

“You have all seen the tree,” said the king. “But when the charioteer showed you the tree, you didn’t ask him what the tree looked like at other times of the year. This is where your mistake lies.”

And the king recited a poem:

Each one of you has gone to view the tree,
And yet you are in great perplexity.
But you forgot to ask the charioteer
What forms the dhak tree takes throughout the year.

***

Buddha then spoke to the four bhikkus. “These four brothers did not ask themselves what the tree looked like in different times of the year, and so they fell into doubt. So the four of you have fallen into doubt about what is true and right.” Then the Buddha gave another stanza for the king’s poem:

If you know truth, but with deficiency,
You’ll be unsure, like those four and their tree.

Source: Adapted from the Kimsukopama-Jataka, in The Jataka; or, Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, edited by E. B. Cowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895), book 2, no. 248.

Arjuna’s Choice

A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.

———

As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)

Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.

Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.

Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.

Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.

At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”

His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.

Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.

Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”

Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”

Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.

And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….

To Be Continued….

Source: Chapter 1, the Bhagavad Gita

Story book

Over the years on this blog, and on its predecessor, I’ve published a number of stories for liberal religious kids.

You can now locate these stories using the tag “story book”:
link to “story book” tag on this blog
link to “story book” tag on the old blog

Additional stories for liberal religious kids appear in thre curriculums I’ve written; some of these stories are revised versions of the stories found on my blog:
Greek Myths
From Long Ago
Beginnings

The Useless Tree

Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.

A certain carpenter named Zhih was traveling to the Province of Ch’i. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the Temple of the Earth God. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred yards thick at the trunk, and its trunk went up eighty feet in the air before the first branch came out.

The carpenter’s apprentice looked longingly at the tree. What a huge tree! What an enormous amount of timber could be cut out of it! Why, there would be enough timber in that one tree to make a dozen good-sized boats, or three entire houses.

Crowds stood around the tree, gazing at it in awe, but the carpenter didn’t even bother to turn his head, and kept walking. The apprentice, however, stopped to take a good look, and then had to run to catch up with his master.

“Master, ever since I have handled an adze in your service,” said the apprentice, “I have never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you did not care to stop and look at it?”

“That tree?” said the Master, “It’s not worth talking about. It’s good for nothing. If you cut down that tree and made the wood it into a boat, it would sink. If you took the wood to build a house, the house would break apart and rot. See how crooked its branches are! and see how loose and twisted is its grain! This is wood that has no use at all. Not only that, if you try to taste one of its leaves, it is so bitter that it would have taken the skin off your lips, and the odor of its fruit is enough to make you sick for an hour. It is completely useless, and because it is so useless, the tree has attained a huge size and become very old.”

The carpenter told his apprentice to dismiss the tree from his thoughts, and they continued on their way. They arrived home late at night, and both of them went straight to bed.

———

While the carpenter was asleep, the spirit of the tree came and spoke to him.

“What did you mean when you spoke to your apprentice about me?” said the spirit of the tree. “Of course I am not like the fine-grained wood that you carpenters like best. You carpenters especially like the wood from fruit trees and nut trees — cherry, pear-wood, and walnut.

“But think what happens! As soon as the fruits or nuts of these trees have ripened, you humans treat the trees badly, stripping them of their fruits or nuts. You break their branches, twist and break their twigs. And then you humans cut down the trees in their prime so you can turn them into boards and make them into furniture.

“Those trees destroy themselves by bearing fruits and nuts, and producing beautiful wood,” said the spirit of the tree. “I, on the other hand, do not care if I am beautiful. I only care about being useless.

“Years ago, before I learned how to be useless, I was in constant danger of being cut down. Think! If I had been useful, your great-grandfather, who was also a carpenter, would have cut me down. But because I learned how to be useless, I have grown to a great size and attained a great age.

“Do not criticize me, and I shan’t criticize you,” the spirit of the tree said. “After all, a good-for-nothing fellow like yourself, who will die much sooner than I will — do you have any right to talk about a good-for-nothing tree?”

———

The next morning, the carpenter told his dream to his apprentice.

The apprentice asked, “But if the goal of the tree is to be useless, how did it become sacred tree living in the Temple to the Earth God?”

“Hush!” said the master carpenter. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. And I should never have criticized the tree. The tree is a different kind of being than you and I, and we must judge it by different standards. That’s why it took refuge in the Temple — to escape the abuse of people who didn’t appreciate it.

“A spiritual person should follow the tree’s example, and learn how to be useless.”

 

Source: from Chuang-tzu 1.16, based on translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.