To the unlettered and untutored mind of man through out the world, all things are endowed with individuality and life; from which arose, no doubt, the great number of mystic conceptions, regarding the sun, moon, stars, clouds, winds and storms, as being animate bodies, possessing life as all animate creatures. The traditions of some of the North American Indian tribes are said to state, that the sun was once caught in a snare by a great hunter, and was set free by the moles, but at the loss of their eyes from its intense light, and have ever since been blind. Perhaps the primitive fathers of those tribes possessed some knowledge of Joshua’s command to the orb of day. Brinton states in his “Myths of the New World,” page 55, which the legend of the Peruvian Incas, in regard to the sun, is “He is like a tethered beast that makes a daily round under the eye of a master.” Many of the North American Indian tribes believed, in regard to the eclipse of “the sun and moon, that some animal, wolf, dog, etc., was devouring the sun, and made every effort to drive him away. Some whipped their own dogs during an eclipse because a “Big dog” was eating the sun or moon, and believed the “Big dog” might be induced to postpone his meal by the howls of their whipped curs.
The ancient Choctaws believed an eclipse was caused by a little black squirrel, which had resolved to devour the sun, and which could only be saved from the little gormandizer by frightening him away by a great noise, to which I have, more than once, been an eye witness, and to the modus operrandi adopted to give him a scare; and also testify from experience as to the virtues of the music; at least the sun came out all right; but as to the strict adherence to the accepted rules of harmony during the performance, I will write more definitely on some other page. It is also stated, that the South American Indians believed that the moon, when in an eclipse, was being devoured by dogs, and, to scare them off, the natives, made a great noise. 1 Also of the African Moors, says Grimm, “Teutonic Mythology,” Vol, 2, p. 707. When the sun eclipse was at its highest, we saw the people running about as if mad, and firing their guns at the sun, to frighten the monster that, they supposed, was wishing to devour the orb of day. The women banged copper vessels together, making such a din that it was heard miles away.”
A legend of the Mongolians states that a monster continually pursues the sun and moon, and when overtaking the one or the other an eclipse is the result. The Chinese believe, even at the present day, the sun and moon are being devoured by a great dragon during an eclipse. During the eclipse of the sun in 1887, the Chinese authorities, in accordance with the usage of the empire, commanded the Buddhist and Tauist priests to perform their incantations to rescue the sun from the jaws of a devouring monster. It was at the time of the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday, when all the officials were required to wear embroidered robes; but it is also the law that during an eclipse officials who participate in the ceremonies must wear ordinary clothing until the sun is rescued. An edict had to be obtained from the Emperor to settle it. He ordered the officials to ignore his birthday and attend to the wants of the sun. So they all wore ordinary clothes, The Chinese believed the sun and moon were being eaten during art eclipse by some animal, and endeavored to frighten it away by conjuring. The Hindoos, to this day, believe that a giant lays hold of the luminaries, and tries to swallow them. The Romans flung fire-brands into the air and blew trumpets and clanged brazen pots and pans.” During an eclipse in the 17th century the Celtics run about beating kettles and pans thinking their clamor and vexations available to the assistance of the higher orbs.” 2 So also it is said of the Northern Asiatics, and of the Finns of Europe.
The traditions of the Polynesians state that Maui and his brothers thought the sun went too fast for their convenience and determined to check him; therefore, they made strong ropes, and then went “very far to the eastward, and came to the very edge of the place out of which the sun rises.” There they placed a noose to catch the sun. “He rises up his head passes through the noose, and it takes in more and more of his body, until his fore paws pass Through; then are pulled tight the ropes. The sun screams aloud; he roars; Maui strikes him fiercely with many blows. They hold him for a long time; at last they let him go; and then weak from wounds the sun crept slowly along his course.” 3 It is said, however, that there are different versions of this legend; one, that Maui finally released the sun; another that he still has him roped, and holds him in check; and the Polynesians still believe they can see the ropes at the rising and setting of the sun, to which they point and exclaim “Behold the ropes of Maui,” while we” say, “the sun is drawing water,” both equally absurd.
The Australians, it is said, regarded the sun as a woman. “Every night she descends among the dead, who stand in double lines to greet her and let her pass. She has a lover among the dead, who has presented her with a red kangaroo skin, and in this she appears at her rising.” To us how foolish, yet how similar to our own ancestors, who regarded the dawn a red cow, and the sun her calf. 4 So also of the Vedas whose Ushas (Dawn) “opens the darkness as a cow her stall.” Hence the sacredness of the cow to the Hindoos in their worship; and also, it might be added, the red heifer among the Israelites. 5
And thus it appears that all other nations of mankind are, and have been, theorizers, even as the North American Indians; and though these theories were crude yet they found embodiment in stories handed down to posterity as traditions and legends. They were not allegories, but man in his primitive state endeavoring to find out and to explain the mysteries of nature around him; and, as learning and intelligence advanced, these absurdities passed alike into forgetfulness. So it is evident, we have little ground upon which to base our contempt for the Indians in regard to their myths, since we have also passed through the same.
- Tyler, “Culture,” Vol. 1, p. 296.
- Tyler, Op. Cit. p. 301.
- Grey’s Polynesian Mythology, p. 35-8.
- Zoological Mythology, Vol. 1, p. 50.
- Numbers 19.