Monday’s Myth

In times past a poor Indian was living with his wife and children in a beautiful part of the country. He was not only poor, but inexpert in procuring food for his family, and his children were all too young to give him assistance. Although poor, he was a man of a kind and contented disposition. He was always thankful to the Great spirit for everything he received. The same disposition was inherited by his eldest son, who had now arrived at the proper age to undertake the ceremony of Ke-ig-nish-im-o-win, or fast, to see what kind of spirit would be his guide and guardian through life.

Wunzh, for this was his name, had been an obedient boy from his infancy, and was of a pensive, thoughtful, and mild disposition, so that he was beloved by the whole family. As soon as the first indications of spring appeared, they built him the customary little lodge, at a retired spot some distance from their own, where he would not be disturbed during this solemn rite. In the meantime he prepared himself, and immediately went into it and commenced his fast.

The first few days he amused himself in the morning by walking in the woods and over the mountains, examining early plants and flowers, and in this way prepared himself to enjoy his sleep, and, at the same time, stored his mind with pleasant ideas for his dreams. While he rambled through the woods, he felt a strong desire to know how the plants, herbs, and berries grew, without any aid from man, and why it was that some species were good to eat, and others possessed medicinal or poisonous juices. He recalled these thoughts to mind after he became to languid to walk about, and had confined himself strictly to the lodge; he wished he could dream of something that would prove a benefit to his father and family, and to all others. “True!” he thought, “the Great Spirit made all things, and it is to him that we owe our lives. But could he not make it easier for us to get our food, than by hunting animals and taking fish? I must try to find this out in my visions.”

On the third day he became weak and faint, and kept his bed. He fancied, while thus lying, that he saw a handsome young man coming down from the sky and advancing toward him. He was richly and gaily dressed, having on a great many garments of green and yellow colors, but differing in their deeper or lighter shades. He had a plume of waving feathers on his head, and all his motions were graceful.

“I am sent to you, my friend,” said the celestial visitor, “by that Great Spirit who made all things in the sky and on earth. He has seen and knows your motives in fasting. He sees that it is from a kind and benevolent wish to do good to your people, and to procure a benefit for them, and that you do not seek for strength in war or the praise of warriors. I am sent to instruct you, and show you how you can do you kindred good.”

He then told the young man to arise and prepare to wrestle with him, as it was only by this means that he could hope to succeed in his wishes. Wunzh knew he was weak from fasting but he felt his courage rising in his heart and immediately got up, determined to die rather than fail. He commenced the trial, and, after a protracted effort, was almost exhausted, when the beautiful stranger said, “My friend, it is enough for once; I will come again to try you”; and smiling on him, he ascended in the air in the same direction from which he came.

The next day the celestial visitor reappeared at the same hour and renewed the trial. Wunzh felt that his strength was even less than the day before, but the courage of his mind seemed to increase in proportion, as his body became weaker. Seeing this, the stranger again spoke to him, in the same words he had used before, adding, “Tomorrow will be your last trial. Be strong, my friend, for this is the only way you can overcome me and obtain the boon you seek.”

On the third day he again appeared at the same time and renewed the struggle. The poor youth was very faint in body but grew stronger in mind at every contest, and was determined to prevail or perish in the attempt. he exerted his utmost powers, and after the contest had been continued the usual time, the stranger ceased his efforts and declared himself conquered. For the first time he entered the lodge, and sitting down beside the young, he began to deliver his instructions to him, telling him in what manner he should proceed to take advantage of the victory.

“You have won your desires of the Great Spirit,” said the stranger. “You have wrestled manfully. Tomorrow will be the seventh day of your fasting. Your father will give you food to strengthen you, and as it is the last day of the trial, you will prevail. I know this, and now tell you what you must do to benefit your family and your tribe. Tomorrow,” he repeated, “I shall meet you and wrestle with you for the last time; and, as soon as you have prevailed against me, you will strip off my garments and throw me down, clean the earth of roots and weeds, make it soft, and bury me in the spot. When you have done this, leave my body in the earth, and do not disturb it, but come occasionally to visit the place, to see whether I have come to life, and be careful never to let the grass or weeds grow on my grave. Once a month cover me with fresh earth. If you follow my instructions, you will accomplish your object of doing good to your fellow creatures by teaching them the knowledge I know teach you.” He then shook him by the hand and disappeared.

In the morning the youth’s father came with some slight refreshements, saying, “My son, you have fasted long enough. If the Great Spirit will favor you, he will do it now. It is seven days since you have tasted food, and you must not sacrifice your life. The Master of Life does not require that.”

“My father,” replied the youth, “wait till the sun goes down. i have a particular reason for extending my fast to that hour.”

“Very well,” said the old man, “I shall wait till the hour arrives, and you feel inclined to eat.”

At the usual hour of the day the sky visitor returned, and the trial of strength was renewed. Although the youth had not availed himself of his father’s offer of food, he felt that new strength had been given to him, and that exertion had renewed his strength and fortified his courage. he grasped his angelic antagonist with supernatural strength, threw him down, took from his his beautiful garments and plume, and finding him dead, immediately buried him on the spot, taking all the precautions he had been told of, and being very confident, at the same time, that his friend would again come to life.

He then returned to his father’s lodge, and partook sparingly of the meal that had been prepared for him. But he never for a moment forgot the grave of his friend. He carefully visited it throught the spring, and weeded out the grass, and kept the ground in a soft and pliant state. Very soon he saw the tops of the green plumes coming through the ground; and the more careful he was to obey his inctructions in keeping the ground in order, the faster they grew. he was, however, careful to conceal the exploit from his father.

Days and weeks had passed in this way. The summer was now drawing toward a close, when one day, after a long absence in hunting, Wunzh invited his father to follow him to the quiet and lonesome spot of his former fast. The lodge had been removed, and the weeds kept from growing on the circle where it stood, but in its place stood a tall and graceful plant, with bright-colored silken hair, surmounted with nodding plumes and stately leaves, and golden clusters on each side

“It is my friend,” shouted the lad; “it is the friend of all mankind. it is Mondawmin (‘maize’). We need no longer rely on hunting alone; for, as long as this gift is cherished and taken care of, the ground itself will give us a living.” He then pulled an ear. “See, my father,” saidhe, “this is what I fasted for. The Great Spirit has listened to my voice, and sent us something new, and henceforth our people will not alone depend upon the chase or upon the waters.”

He then communicated to his father the instructions given him by the stranger. he told him that the broad husks must be torn away, as he had pulled off the garments in his wrestling; and having done this, showed him how the ear must be held before the fire till the outer skin became brown, while all the milk was retained in the grain. The whole family then united in a feast on the newly grown ears, expresssing gratitude to the Merciful Spirit who gave it. So corn came into the world, and has ever since been preserved.”

The above is “The Legend of Mondawmin, or The Origin of Indian Corn,” as recorded by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The myth belongs to the Great Lakes Ojibway and inspired Longfellows’ “Hiawatha’s Fasting”, Chapter V in The Song of Hiawatha. It has been copied as it appeared on pps 216-220 of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. (1969)

Several facets of this myth stand out. One is the clear description of great cultural change. Here we see the moment in which a hunter-gatherer society moves to being an agricultural society. The story starts with the individual fast and communion with the Great Spirit; such religious observance is indicative of hunter-gatherers rather than agriculturalists. The former is a very individuated society while the latter is always bound by strict rules of individual interaction within the group dynamic. Or, the shamans and their personal quests/powers are replaced by priests with rigidly defined roles. The Ojibway did not develop corn culture; instead, it was transferred to them through other tribes. This myth connects the Ojibway past to its future while retaining its cultural thread. It is interesting to note that the personal vision quest is the motivating factor behind the cultural changes; in other words, a logical evolution produced the new culture. The new did not wipe away the old, but rather the old gave birth to the new. It is a poignant example of how culture deals with great change.

The other interesting facet is one that is repeated across the globe and from time immemorial: life through death and resurrection. Nearly all of the planting myths follow this motif, and the death is often that of a divine being. The first planters may well have been mythologizing the life cycle of plants:  anthropomorphizing their proto-science. Since hunter-gatherers tended to believe that the spirits bequethed food to people as a sacrifice, it would come as no surprise to see this idea extended to the first forays into agriculture. One thing, however, is abundently clear: the Christian idea of death and resurrection begeting life is not Christian at all. It does not represent a break with human tradition, but rather an extension of tradition that stretches back into the mists of pre-history. It is a new twist on an old idea, which can be seen in sayings attributed to Jesus wherein he uses agricultural metaphor do describe himself and his mission.

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~ by Lex on October 27, 2008.

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