Yehl, The Raven with Fallen Bill

Long before Frog-Woman had crossed Bering Sea into America and Bear Mother had brought her supernatural offspring into the villages of the Northwest Coast, the world continued in chaos, without light and almost without life, except in the realm of spirits. The Innuit or Eskimo and other prehistoric men, it is true, made their appearance early on the flat face of the earth, but they were to be wiped out almost to the last by a universal cataclysm–the Flood.

According to a tradition recorded by the missionary Petitot (10) among the Eskimos of the Mackenzie River delta “…..In the spring of the year a storm once blew over the face of the earth. It flattened the lodges of the people along the Artic sea-coast. Taking flight, the Innuit crowded into their skin boats and, for greater safety, tied them together with sinew. Soon the water rose out of the sea, surged forth all over the earth, and covered its ruins everywhere from sunrise to sunset.

“Dumb with terror, the Innuit drifted helplessly for a long time, as the earth sank farther and farther below the waters. A mighty gale swept the waves over the timbered hills, and the uprooted trees began to float around like dead giants. The people broke into lament after the sea had swallowed everything in sight, even the highest mountains.

“Night came over the waters, and with it bitter cold. Huddled close together in their skin boats, the people shivered and wept. Frost-bitten and famished, they slowly succumbed to death. Many of them fell into the dark sea.

“By daybreak the wind had fallen; the sea had calmed down. The heat had returned. Soon it grew so intense that the garments of the people dried up, and the waters fell to a lower level. As the heat of the sun increased, it fell like a sheet of flame upon the survivors exposed in their skin boats. Many were the people who perished on the steaming waters of the Flood.

“Now there was a sorcerer, whose name was Son-of-the-Owl. He whipped the sea with his bow and cried out: ‘Enough, enough! We have suffered enough!” And casting his earnings into the deep, he repeated, ‘Enough! We have suffered enough!’ The waters simmered down under the blows of his whip. They ran off the mountains and the hillsides, into the rivers and down into the sea. And the sea was as we know it.”

It was then that Yehl, the supernatural Raven of Siberian and North-western mythology, began to fly over the desolate wastes. He became a transformer rather than a creator, for in his primeval wanderings through chaos and darkness he chanced upon pre-existing things–animals and a few ghost-like people. His powers were not coupled with absolute wisdom and integrity. He at times lapsed into the role of a jester or a cheat, covering himself with shame and ridicule.

“In the beginning he was like a god,” according to a Haida tale recorded at Masset. He called forth things out of nothing, and many of them came to be. Once upon a time he spied Rhausrhana, the old halibut fisherman of the sea-coast. Rhausrhana was sitting by himself in a dug-out canoe, dreamily tending his line in deep waters. The Raven, bent upon playing a trick, wondered what would happen if he dived into the sea and stripped the halibut hook of its devil-fish (octopus) bait at the end of the long kelp line. He draped his wings around his body, dived to the bottom, and pulled at the hook. The fisherman gave a jerk so sudden that it broke the Raven’s bill and pulled it off, leaving the bird at the bottom, stunned and disfigured.

“What is this?” asked the fisherman in the canoe, feeling the hollow bill with his hands and making fun of it. Unable to tell, he had his daughter place it at the end of a stick on the roof of the lodge to be reclaimed by its owner.

Sitting in his canoe under a Mongolian-like conical hat of woven spruce roots, the fisherman is the subject of a unique dish carving by Charles Edenshaw, which goes back to about 1904 (in the Collison Collection at Prince Rupert, in 1939). The fisherman in one hand holds up a crutch paddle and, on the other, rests his chin pensively. The carver no doubt had in mind the first surprised motion of the halibut fisherman after the tricky Raven had pulled at the devil-fish bait to annoy him. His realistic illustration of the story, small as it is, is one of his finest pieces for its unusual composition and quality. Strangely enough, his absorbed Haida thinker reminds one somehow of Rodin’s large bronze masterpiece, its contemporary, erected in front the Pantheon in Paris. The meaning of Edenshaw’s figure is emphasized by the flat stylized engraving covering the dish: it represents the Raven spread out at the bottom of the bay under the canoe.

When the Raven, drenched to the skin, emerged from the muddy waters, he stealthily looked about in the lodge of the fisherman for his bill. Shame-faced, human-like, but with the wings and tail feathers of a bird, he raised his hand to his mouth and thrust his fingers inside. No sooner had he spied his bill at the end of the stick than he leaped for it and tried to put it back where it belonged; instead it dangled from his chin as he took to flight from the scene of his disgrace. Illustrated mostly in argillite poles, this episode also appears in small detached carvings, for instance in the decoration of tobacco pipes and in a high-relief pole. The Raven is shown stealing a halibut from a fisherman’s hook in a “heraldic column” collected for the Jesup Expedition in 1897 and preserved at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. The Raven with his bill dangling under his chin is also shown on a small wooden pole, beautifully carved, in the Volkerskunde Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Credit: Haida Myths by Marius Barbeau

Categories: Haida Culture

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