An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 134


The stage of religious evolution to which the beliefs of the Chinooks belong is 'zootheism,' where no line of demarcation exists between man and beast, and all phenomena are explained in the mythic history of zoomorphic personages who can hardly be described as gods. The original totemic nature of these beings it would be difficult to gainsay, but they occupy a position between the totem and the god proper—a rank which has been the lot of many evolving deities.

Allied with these beliefs we find shamanistic medico-religious practices invoking assistance for the sick.

Their mythological figures fall into four classes: (1) supernatural beings of a zoomorphic type, with many of the attributes of deity; (2) guardian spirits; (3) evil spirits; (4) culture-heroes.

The first class includes the Coyote, Blue Jay, Robin, Skunk, and Panther, etc. As has been said, there is little doubt that such beings were originally totems of various Chinookan clans, although these clans are without special tribal names, being simply designated as 'those dwelling at such and such a place.' They may, however, have lost their tribal names—a common[Pg 301] occurrence when tribes become sedentary—while retaining their totemistic concepts.

Italapas, the Coyote, is one of the Chinook gods of the first class, and may be regarded as the head of the pantheon. Nearly equal to him in importance is Blue Jay, who figures in nearly every myth of Chinook origin; but whereas Italapas the Coyote assisted Ikanam, the Creator, in the making of men, and taught them various arts, Blue Jay's mission is obviously dissension; and he well typifies the bird from which he takes his name, and probably his totem derivation. He figures as a mischievous tale-bearer, braggart, and cunning schemer, and resembles Loki of Scandinavian mythology.

His origin is touched upon in a myth of the journey of the Thunderer through the country of the Supernatural People, where, with Blue Jay's help, the Thunderer and his son-in-law obtain possession of the bows and targets of the inhabitants. They engage in a shooting-match and win at first by using their own targets, but when the Supernatural People suspect craft, they agree to the substitution of shining Supernatural targets for their own, and lose; and, as they had staked their own persons in the match, they fall into the power of the Supernatural beings, who wreak vengeance upon Blue Jay by metamorphosing him into the bird whose name he bears. "Blue Jay shall be your name and you shall sing 'Watsetsetset-setse,' and it shall be a bad omen."

There is a trilogy of myths concerning Blue Jay and his sister Ioi. Ioi begs him to take a wife to share her labour, and Blue Jay takes the corpse of a chief's daughter from her grave and carries her to the land of the Supernatural People, who restore her to life. The chief, her father, discovers the circumstance, and demands Blue Jay's hair in payment for his daughter, but Blue Jay changes himself into his bird shape and flies away—an incident which suggests his frequent adoption of human as well as bird form. When he flees, his wife expires again. The ghosts then buy Ioi, Blue Jay's sister, for a wife, and Blue Jay goes in search of her. Arriving in the country of the ghosts, he finds his sister surrounded by heaps of bones, to[Pg 302] which she alludes as her relations by marriage. The ghosts take human shape occasionally, but upon being spoken to by Blue Jay become mere heaps of bones again. He takes a mischievous delight in reducing them to this condition, and in tormenting them in every possible manner, especially by mixing the various heaps of bones, so that, upon materializing, the ghosts find themselves with the wrong heads, legs, and arms, In fact the whole myth is obviously one which recounts the 'Harrying of Hell,' so common in savage and barbarian myth, and probably invented to reassure the savage as to the terrors of the next world, and to instruct him in the best methods of foiling its evil inhabitants. We find the same atmosphere in the myth of the descent into Xibalba of Hun-Apu and Xbalanque in the Popol Vuh of the Kiche of Guatemala, hero-gods who outwit and ridicule the lords of Hell.