The Raven, the Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest
This post may be read on its own, or as a continuation of “Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest.” Please click on thumbnails for full-sized images.
Raven is the great culture hero of the Pacific Northwest, a trickster who figures prominently in myths ranging down the coast from the Arctic Circle to Vancouver.
Raven is a complex figure, but in this analysis I’d like to focus on his role as the exemplar of shamanism, the dominant religious culture found throughout the region. By examining Raven’s shamanic character, we can ground the Pacific Northwest in a circumpolar cultural horizon of great antiquity, with roots that reach back more than 35,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic.
Here is the story of how Raven came into the world, according to the Tsimshian people of British Columbia:
Once upon a time, when the world was still covered in darkness, a chief and his wife dwelt in the town of Kungalas with their only child, a boy whom they both adored.
When the boy had grown large, he fell very sick, and soon died. His parents mourned with bitter tears for their beloved boy, and invited all of the people to come and see his body where it was laid out. The chief ordered his son’s intestines be removed and burned, kept vigil with the body for many days.
One morning, before dawn, the chief’s wife went to the body and found a youth, bright as fire, lying where the corpse had been. She called to her husband “Our beloved child has come back to life!”
The shining youth said “Yes, it is I,” and explained that heaven had grown weary of the wailing of the mourners, and sent him back down to live again.
The parents were overjoyed by this miracle, but it soon became apparent that the shining boy was not like the son they had known. Day after day, he refused to eat, giving his food to two household slaves, who were together known as Mouth-At-Both-Ends.
One day, the chief found the corpse of his son stowed in the back of the room where he had been laid out, and realized the shining boy was not his son. But he loved the shining boy and would not give him up.
Now, the boy had been watching the household slaves eat ravenously, and asked why they felt such hunger, and if they enjoyed eating. Surely they did! they replied, and told the boy that hunger had entered them when they tasted the scabs from their own shin bones.
The boy decided that he, too, would taste the scabs of their shins, and when he put a tiny piece of flesh from Mouth-At-Both-Ends into his mouth, he became ravenous and began to eat. He ate and ate, day after day, until all the food of the village had been eaten.
The chief knew he must send the boy away, or he would eat everything. He told him to fly over the sea, and gave him all kinds of berries to take, saying that the boy should scatter them about so that they would grow everywhere and he should have food.
So the boy took up his Raven mantel and flew away from Kungalas and entered the lands we know. (1)
The basic features of the story are easy to interpret – the shining boy comes from outside the normal order of things. In order to fully enter the material world, he must partake of the flesh of Mouth-At-Both-Ends, the pair who collectively embody eating and elimination and, as such, embody the cycle of carnality.
Other features of this story may strike the reader as bizarre, such as the boy’s sudden sickness, the removal and the burning of his intestines, and the substitution of the shining boy for the corpse.
To explain those images, we have to dig into ancient strata.
These symbols commonly occur in the initiation imagery of shamanism, which refers to a number of related visionary practices undertaken by a solitary adept. The shaman uses a variety of techniques to enter into trance states, during which he may travel into the sky, under the earth or into the sea, often assisted by animal guides. He uses his abilities to heal the sick, control weather, attack his foes, find lost objects, and so forth.
Shamanism comes from ancient traditions of Siberia, such as we find among the Yakut and Tungus peoples, and its basic symbols are extremely old. Indeed, the earliest-known cave paintings, dating to the Aurignacian period beginning some 35,000 years ago, have been interpreted by leading experts as shamanic in character (2).
Cave paintings usually depict animal, especially images of the hunt. Cave lions pursue aurochs and horses, while bears, rhinos, and cave lions stalk the shadows.
In paleolithic cave art, we find a number of animal images strongly associated with shamanism to this day, including the bear and the owl. In the post Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest, we saw that the owl crest is claimed by Tlingit shamans alone.
This painting from the cave of Lascaux, approximately 17,000 years old, is frequently interpreted as depicting a shamanic trance. We see a disemboweled bison transfixed by a spear, and a man lying prostrate, perhaps in a trance, with an erect phallus. He has the face of a bird or is wearing a bird mask, such as the natives of the Pacific Northwest still wear in their sacred dances (see picture below). A bird sits on the top of a pole nearby, perhaps reminding us of countless bird-topped totem poles.
Another figure strongly associated with shamanism in paleolithic cave art is the bear. We find hand prints stamped on cave walls that have were slashed by cave bear claws, symbolically linking the shaman with the bear (3). The earliest human altars may have been cave bear skulls that were carefully set on rock pedestals deep inside the great caves.
We will return to the bear soon, but for now, to continue with our Tsimshian story of the Raven, the relevant point is that it contains unmistakable symbols of shamanic initiation.
In his definitive study of shamanism, Mircea Eliade has documented numerous accounts of the career of the shaman, drawn from cultures throughout the world (4). In all cases, the decisive event in the shaman’s development is the sudden call to his vocation, marked by abduction or ordeal.
In a typical case, the future shaman lives a normal life until the onset of adolescence, when he falls into a fever coma or vanishes from the village for months, having been abducted by superhuman shamanic masters. In Nepal, for example, young men are occasionally spirited away by the Yeti, properly called Ban Jhākri, and forced to toil miserably for years in payment for the magic songs they will need to practice their art (5).
Eliade quotes this account of a Yurak-Samoyed shaman, who experienced an initiatory vision after falling gravely ill. His vision culminated in this experience:
Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entering an opening, and came upon a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a cauldron “as big as half the earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything in the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. (6)
Note the significance of the number three here, which reminds us of Jonah’s sojourn in the whale, or Christ’s period of entombment. The number most likely derives from the three days during which the moon is dark, until it is reborn into the light.
An Australian Binbinga shaman named Kurkutji met the old god Mundadji in his initiatory experience:
Mudadji cut him open, right down the middle line, took out all of his insides and exchanged them for those of himself, which he placed in the body of Kurkutji. At the same time he put a number of sacred stones in his body. (7)
The initiatory vision of shamanism across a great geographical region includes this common feature of being ritually dismembered or eviscerated, and then purified, often with a theme of substitution, as in the case of Kurkutji, whose innards were replaced.
This is just what we see in the myth of the raven, who appears as a substitute for the son who fell ill and died “once he had grown large,” i.e., at adolescence, and whose innards were excised and burned.
Eliade identifies shamanic motifs in cultures throughout the Americas, from the Bering Straight to Tierra del Fuego (8). The shamanism of the Pacific Northwest is largely organized around the mythology of the raven. As a carrion eater, Raven mediates between the living and the dead. As a bird, Raven mediates between the heavens and the earth, and embodies the shaman’s magical flight.
I cannot help but marvel at the close relationship we can uncover between our Tsimshian myth and the vision of a Bibinga shaman in Australia! That suggests a common ancestor mythology of enormous antiquity. The roots of this belief system were laid down before humans traveled over the Bering Strait, and before Australia was colonized.
During the twentieth century, a version of the shamanic bear cult was observed among the Ainu people of northern Japan. The Ainu were observed to periodically capture bear cubs and bring them back to their villages, where they were suckled by a human wet nurse and treated as beloved companions. When the bears became large enough to be dangerous, the villagers threw a feast for the animal, who was then ritually killed at the end of a going away celebration. The bear was expected to travel to the land of the gods, and to report that it has been treated well by the village. (9)
Let’s compare that ritual with a popular Tlingit myth concerning the hero Kats and his bear-wife.
One day Kats went bear hunting, which is a very dangerous thing to do. Now, he was going after a particularly large and ferocious bear, and he found himself forced into the bear’s den, where he came across the bear’s wife.
Kats and the female bear exchanged looks, and she fell in love with the hero. She took Kats under her protection, hiding him under the earthen floor of her den until her husband went away.
In some manner that the story doesn’t specify, the female bear eventually took leave of her bear husband and married Kats instead, and together they had three cubs.
One day, Kats began to pine for his old life, and he asked his bear-wife if she will let him visit his village. She was reluctant to let him go, for she feared that he would not return.
At last, she acceded to his wishes, but warned him not to speak a single word to his human wife. Kats agreed.
He traveled along the waters back to his old village, and there he saw his people on the shore, and sure enough, he found his human wife from his previous life. He calls to her, “Run to the village, and tell everyone that I’m trapped in the Land of Bears!”
But before she can say a single word in reply, Kats’ three cubs raced out of the woods, and slashed their father with their claws, and he fell dead. (10)
There is an interesting parallel here with the Celto-Germanic motif of the hero who journeys to the magic realm of the fairy queen, returning to the ordinary world only at the cost of his life, which we recently explored in our analysis of Tannhäuser.
I will note in passing that there may be a genealogical connection here, as the pre-Christian religion of the Celts, and especially that of the Norsemen of northern Europe, exhibit shamanic characteristics. For example, the Norse All-Father Odin boasts impressive shamanic credentials, such as the nine initiatory days he hung from a tree in order to purchase the power of runes.
The Prose Edda speaks of Odin’s two raven familiars:
Two ravens sit on Odin’s shoulders, and into his ears they tell all the news they see or hear. Their names are Hugin [Thought] and Mugin [Mind, Memory]. At sunrise he sends them off to fly throughout the whole world, and they return in time for the first meal. Thus he gathers knowledge about many things that are happening, and so people call him the raven god. (11)
In the case of Kats, the bear occupies a liminal position between the human and animal worlds, and the danger here is going too far outside the human order. In this sense, the bear is a mediating symbol; as the raven mediates between heaven and earth, the bear stands halfway between human and animal.
In a similar sense, the shaman inspires both authority and fear by living outside of the natural order of things. Among the Tlingit, the shaman was paid directly for services, unlike everyone else, who participated in a complex ritual system of gift-giving and exchange. When a Tlingit shaman died, he was buried outside of the village. (12)
The bear, like the shaman, is human-like, yet not human, and is therefore uncanny.
In this light, I think of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. Like Kats, Treadwell got too close to the bears, and like Kats, he paid with his life.
Many have observed that Treadwell went too far outside of the human world, with tragic consequences. An Alaskan observes in the film:
One of the things I’ve heard about Mr. Treadwell, and you can see in a lot of his films, is that he tended to want to become a bear. Some people that I’ve spoken with would encounter him in the field, and he would act like a bear, he would “woof” at them. He would act in the same way a bear would when they were surprised.
Why he did this is only known to him. No one really knows for sure. But when you spend a lot of time with bears, especially when you’re in the field with them day after day, there’s a siren song, there’s a calling that makes you wanna come in and spend more time in the world. Because it is a simpler world.
It is a wonderful thing, but in fact it’s a harsh world. It’s a different world that bears live in than we do.
So there is that desire to get into their world, but the reality is we never can because we’re very different than they are. The line between bear and human has apparently always been respected by the native communities of Alaska.
My sense is that the story of Kats and the bear helps steer people clear of the bear world, because you simply can’t go into it.
If we view the story of Kats as a mythological image of the perils of the shamanic career, on the other hand, then we’re presented with an archaic image of great power and authority. When we see the totem pole of Kats and his bear-wife, as we can see in the photograph above of the beautiful Tlingit pole in the village of Saxman, we respond to precisely the same image that we find in the bear paintings on the wall of the Chauvet cave – the same image that has spoken to people like us for tens of thousands of years.
Next time, we’ll have more to tell about Raven as a trickster figure.
1) Adapted from Boas F and Tate HW. Tsimshian Mythology. 1910. pp 58 ff.
2) See, for example, Clottes J and Lewis-Williams D. The Shamans of Prehistory. Harry N. Abrams. 1998.
3) Campbell J. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. Penguin. 1969. pp. 339 ff.
4) Eliade M. Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press. 1964
5) Sidky H. Hunted by the Archaic Shaman; Himalayan Jhākris and the Discourse on Shamanism. Lexington Books. 2008.
6) Eliade, pg. 41
7) Eliade, pg. 49
8) Eliade, pg. 55
9) Campbell, pp. 334 ff.
10) See, for example, Boas F. Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacificschen Küste Amerikas. Verlag von A. Asher & Co. 1895. pp. 328 ff.
11) Sturlson S., trans. by Jesse Byock. The Prose Edda. Penguin Classics. 2005. pg. 47.
12) Oberg K. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. University of Washington Press. 1973. pg. 95.
All photos (C) Barnaby Thieme unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.