52:13 The Raven and the First Man
This week I’m going to look at a masterpiece of contemporary Haida art, the yellow cedar monumental sculpture The Raven and the First Man, created by Bill Reid and housed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver.
This is one of the most beautiful works of art that I’ve ever seen, a mythological image of stunning complexity and richness rendered with breathtaking technical perfection. It depicts the Haida myth of the Trickster figure Raven bringing forth the first Haida people out of a giant clam and into the world.
I have written several times before of the wonderful mythology and art of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including pieces on totem poles, raven and bear shamanism, and Kawikiutl secret dance societies. One could spend many lifetimes wandering wide-eyed through the living dream evoked by these splendid systems of imagery and the imagination, and it is daunting to approach a piece of this richness and complexity. But I will try to share some thoughts.
The Raven plays a seminal role in the Pacific Northwest as one of the key crests used in the social economy of numerous groups in the region. He is also a key figure in the local mythology, where he is a classic example of the Trickster, a charming figure who stumbles by appetite and accident into pivotal moments of evolution, driving forth the play of the cosmos by his wit and energy.
What an endlessly rich, endlessly complex archetype we have in the Trickster. This beloved folklore motif is found the world over, from Bugs Bunny to the Norse God Loki, from Inari’s foxes in Japan to Agu Tompa and Drukpa Kuley in Tibet.
Master of inversions and sudden escapes; uniting opposites and serving as an endless wellspring of creation; agent of fragmentation, intensification and release; constant companion, foil, and inspiration to humanity. Holy fool, coyote, raven, alchemical Mercury; master of the medieval carnival, wolf of the Lupercalia, Tantric master, creator, destroyer; the Trickster encompasses all.
Carl Jung notes in “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” that he “is a forerunner of the saviour, and like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”
The Trickster lives and acts outside the conventional ordered realm of society and the cosmos, which is a field of incredible fertility. He functions as a midwife who brings the energies of the unconscious into the field of awareness. In the symbolic language of myth, he is frequently a cosmological creator or a culture hero who gifts humanity with the arts of civilization, such as agriculture and writing.
Insofar as he disrupts the established order, he can be perceived as a threat. Jung’s essay, for example, chronicles a long list of known instances in which the medieval church in Europe tried unsuccessfully to suppress the many extremely popular carnivals and liturgical parodies that echoed the operation of the Trickster, and which were the occasion of a temporary suspension or inversion of the ordinary social hierarchy, allowing the forbidden and repressed energies of belief out into the light of day for a prescribed period of time. These events function as a kind of psychic safety valve that allows the social order to function without exploding from the tensions of its own manifest contradictions.
If we consider, for example, the daemonic features exhibited by Yahweh in the Old Testament, we shall find in them not a few reminders of the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and his self-imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a saviour and his simultaneous humanization. It is just this transformation of the meaningless into the meaningful that reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the ‘saint.’ In the early Middle Ages, this led to some strange ecclesiastical customs based on memories of the ancient saturnalia. Mostly they were celebrated on the days immediately following the birth of Christ – that is, in the New Year – with singing and dancing. The dances were originally harmless tripudia of the priests, lower clergy, children, and subdeacons and took place in the church. An episcopus puerorum (children’s bishop) was elected on Innocents’ Day and dressed in pontifical robes. Amid uproarious rejoicings he paid an official visit to the palace of the archbishop and bestowed the episcopal blessings from one of the windows. The same thing happened at the tripudium hypodiaconorum, and at the dances for the other priestly grades. By the end of the twelfth century, the subdeacons’ dance had degenerated into a real festum stultorum (fool’s feast). A report from the year 1198 says that at the Feast of the Circumcision in Notre Dame, Paris, ‘so many abominations and shameful deeds’ were committed that the holy place was desecrated ‘not only by smutty jokes, but even by the shedding of blood.’ In vain did Pope Innocent III inveigh against the ‘jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery,’ and the ‘shameless frenzy of their play-acting.’….
These ruptures, along with many other lesser-known customs and episodes, wholly contradict the stereotype of religiosity of the European medieval period as a staid, solemn, fearful affair of mere dogmatism and witch-burning. Particularly during the High Middle Ages, the religious imagination reached a pinnacle of license and creative power in Europe, until the full weight of the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France largely put an end to to the whole show.
Take the Goliard Poets: these clerics savagely lampooned the solemnity of the church at every turn in performance events reminiscent of Dadaist happenings. At St. Remy, for example, the Goliards went to the mass in procession, each trailing a herring on a string. From “The Confessions of Golias,” translated by George Whicher:
Let the wise man place his seat
On the rock firm founded.
Hither, thither I must beat
By my follies hounded.
With the flowing stream I fleet,
So my doom is sounded;
‘Neath the arch of heaven my feet
Nowhere yet have grounded.
Like a hapless ship I fare
Left without a sailor,
Like a bird on ways of air,
Some poor lost cloud-scaler;
Not a jot for chains I care,
Nor for key nor jailer.
Sinful flesh is frail, I swear.
Mine’s the same – but frailer!
The Trickster, then, is driven by the energies and appetites of the body, unchained from the ordinary perspective. It is worth considering in this light that nearly every one of Shakespeare’s comedies involves characters going outside of the walls of the city and creating an alternative society with its own rules. There seems to be something deep in the human social constitution that finds such endeavors profoundly restorative.
That Raven also functions outside the ordinary bounds of society is made perfectly clear by the myths of his birth, which show us that he is a shamanic figure – for more details, see my post The Raven, The Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest. The shaman is a powerful, magical, and ambivalent figure. The shaman in Tlingit society, like the characters of Shakespeare’s comedies, lived outside of the village. His was also the only profession that could be directly paid for their services. Every other type of labor was compensated within the general circulation of goods within the symbolically-organized potlatch economy.
You can appreciate, now, the danger of undertaking to write about the Trickster- in order to take compass of his range and richness, you must wander far afield. But let me circle back now to our marvelous sculpture and its mythological context. I’m drawing from several sources in this discussion, but I’ll highlight The Raven and the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, which goes briefly through an entire Haida myth cycle involving Raven.
Raven’s story begins with a key myth that is quite popular in the region called the Theft of the Light. The world exists in a state of universal, undifferentiated darkness, and Raven liberates the light from its imprisonment in a magic box and scatters it to the heavens in a Promethean theft. In the accompanying image, you can see Raven with the moon in his beak wearing the sun around his neck, sitting atop the magic box in which the light was hoarded by a powerful old man.
The regular Mesocosm reader may recognize a few motifs that we’ve seen several times before, such as the cosmological theme of bringing light to a primordial darkness, a dual symbol that evokes both the creation of the world and the dawning of awareness. Cosmological myths often recapitulate the ordering function of consciousness, which gives structure and coherence to the blooming, buzzing confusion. As I previously wrote:
Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.
We can recognize the primeval darkness as the same which preceded the “Let there be light,” of Genesis, a common symbol of the unconscious. Another common symbol of the unconscious the world over is the sea or the flood, which is a parallel image of an undifferentiated medium. So it does not surprise us to find that the story of the Raven on which Reid’s sculpture is based begins by setting the stage in this way:
The Great Flood which had covered the earth for so long had at last receded, and even the thin strip of sand now called Rose Spit, stretching north from Naikun village, lay dry.
Our story begins at the meeting point of the conscious and the unconscious mind, where Raven feels quite at home, being a bridger of the two worlds. Note that like many Trickster animals, the raven is a scavenger and a carrion eater, and thereby analogously bridges the realms of life and death.
Bored Raven hopped along the beach looking for something to do when he heard the squeak of unfamiliar animals:
At first he saw nothing, but as he scanned the beach again, a white flash caught his eye, and when he landed he found at his feet, half-buried in the sand, a gigantic clamshell. When he looked more closely still, he saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror of his enormous shadow.
Well, here was something to break the monotony of his day. But nothing was going to happen as long as the tiny things stayed in the shell, and they certainly weren’t coming out in their present terrified state. So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue that got him into and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.
In the infancy of the world, Raven served as a midwife to help the first Haida come forth out of the dark watery womb and into the light of consciousness that he himself scattered about the skies. It is important to note the significance of Raven’s speech in bringing the Haida forth into consciousness – as we noted above, speech is often a direct symbol of cosmological ordering, and is associated with acts of creation in many cosmogonies.
The contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most mythologically vital forms of expression I’ve found in the world today. Bill Reid is a master, and I’ve also been quite impressed by the work of Robert Davidson, whose art can be seen in the wonderful book The Abstract Edge.
If you’re interested in Haida mythology, in addition to The Raven and the Light, the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst is also a powerful and striking study and set of translations.
If you’re interested in the Trickster figure, the Jung essay I have quoted is collected in the volume The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The interested reader will also find an engrossing survey of the motif in Lewis Hyde’s delightful Trickster Makes This World.