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Raven the Trickster

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A Northwest Coast Native Myth

"Raven was not thought of as a god. He was thought of as the transformer, the trickster. He was the being that changed things--sometimes quite by accident, sometimes on purpose."
 --- Christian White, Haida artist

In northern Northwest Coast mythology, Raven is the powerful figure who transforms the world. Stories tell how Raven created the land, released the people from a cockle shell and brought them fire. Raven stole the light and brought it out to light up the world. Yet Raven is a trickster---often selfish, hungry and mischievous. He changes the world only by cleverly deceiving others in his never-ending quest for food.

In Northwest Coast art, ravens signify the many adventures of Raven in the early days of the world. Those who know the stories cannot help being reminded of the trickster whenever they see a raven.

Myths explain the natural world, describe the origin of a clan or tell how the clan acquired rights to perform a particular ceremony. This excerpt is from a Raven story published by Haida artist Bill Reid in 1984.

How Raven Brought Light to the World

"At that time the whole world was dark. Inky, pitchy, all-consuming dark, blacker than a thousand stormy winter midnights, blacker than anything anywhere has been since."

"The reason for all this blackness has to do with the old man in the house by the river, who had a box which contained a box which contained a box which contained an infinite number of boxes each nestled in a box slightly larger than itself until finally there was a box so small all it could contain was all the light in the universe."

In the story, the old man hides the light because he's afraid to see whether or not his daughter is ugly. In a ploy to steal the light, Raven shrinks himself to become a hemlock needle in a basket of drinking water so that the daughter swallows him. Soon Raven is reborn from her as a raven/human child. The old man accepts him as a grandson, and soon Raven begins begging that he open the boxes, one after another, each time pleading and crying until the old man yields.

When the old man finally opens the box containing the light, Raven grabs it and flies out of the house---causing light to spread throughout the world and revealing that the old man's daughter is as beautiful as the fronds of a hemlock tree.

As Raven flies away, Eagle sees him and tries to steal the light, causing Raven to drop some of it, which becomes the Moon and the stars.

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