Hare Kills Sharp Elbows (§4 of the Hare Cycle)

retold by Richard L. Dieterle

One day Hare took one of his arrows and shot an elk in the stomach. He ordered the elk to go to the outskirts of Sharp Elbows' village and fall over dead. The elk, being very obliging, did just that, but when Hare came back later for the meat, he found nothing left but the entrails. He walked towards Sharp Elbows' village, but stopped at the lodge of a grandmother who lived on its edge. He told her, "Grandmother, I shot an elk earlier and I am at this village to find out what happened to it." "Grandson," she replied," Sharp Elbows and his band of warriors found the elk, but after each one of them tried to pull out the arrow, in the end only Sharp Elbows could extract it." "That arrow is mine," he said, "it is a terrifying thing. Perhaps you have some around here like it," and as he presented one from his quiver, the lodge lit up with lightning. "Oh Grandson," she exclaimed, "it was certainly your arrow in the elk — you can put it back. Here is some elk blood soup that you can use to warm your arrow quiver." Hare took the soup and started to pour it on his quiver, but the old woman stopped him: "I meant your ribs," she said. So he started to pull up his shirt, but again, she stopped him. Only on the fourth explanation did he understand her. Now the old woman had a grandson with her who was a chief. Even though friendship is the most devoted and serious relationship between men, Hare turned to the chief (whom he had never met before), and said, "My young friend, go and get my arrow." "Please don't send him," objected his grandmother, "he will only end up getting killed." "How can that be?" replied Hare, "it is unlawful to kill a chief, since he is not allowed to fight."

So the young chief went to Sharp Elbows' lodge and told him, "That arrow that you took out of the elk belongs to my friend, and now he wants it back." Sharp Elbows ignored him. Twice more the chief returned to ask for the arrow, and both times he was rebuffed. The fourth time he asked, Sharp Elbows told him, "Come over here and get it, then." But when the young man reached up to get it, Sharp Elbows struck him with his Elbows and ripped him open. Sharp Elbows told his attendants, "Hang him up for now. Tonight I'll eat him for dinner." When the news of the outrage came back to Hare, he borrowed a whetstone from the old woman, and set out for Sharp Elbows' place. When he arrived there, he found a lodge full of the most beautiful women, every one of them his wife. He addressed Sharp Elbows: "I sent someone to get my arrow, but I hear that you've killed him, so I am here in person to pick it up." Sharp Elbows said, "Why don't you come over and get it?" As Hare reached up for it, he slipped the whetstone into position, just as Sharp Elbows struck at him with his Elbows. But instead of ripping him open, he broke his Elbows on the stone. Sharp Elbows struck him again with the other Elbows, then both his knees in turn, with the same result. "I'll show you how to kill someone," said Hare, as he shot Sharp Elbows with an arrow that went completely through him. Then he took down his friend, and threw his body aside. "Why are you sleeping here when I sent you for my arrow?," Hare inquired. Just then his friend revived as one who awakens from a nap. Hare ordered the body of Sharp Elbows burned and all the women who were pregnant with his children along with him. The people wanted Hare to be their chief, but he refused inasmuch as their old chief was now restored. When Hare returned to his own grandmother, he told her how Sharp Elbows had succeeded in pulling out his arrow from the elk he had shot. "Yes," remarked Grandmother, "Sharp Elbows is one of the great spirits." "Well," replied Hare, "I think you must be exaggerating: I shot him clean through with an arrow and killed him." Grandmother could not suppress her outrage: "You ugly, big-eyed, long-eared varmint, you killed my brother!" But Hare replied, "You evil old woman, if that's the way you feel, then I'll shoot you like I did him!" "Grandson," she said, "it's good that you killed him since, after all, he was abusing your uncles and aunts."1

Commentary. Sharp Elbows shows a strange kind of entitlement to Hare's arrow much in the way that King Arthur shows entitlement to the sword in the roch that symbolizes the sovereignty of Britain — only he is able to withdraw that symbol of that sovereignty. Hare's arrow is just such a symbol. The lightning is the celestial counterpart to fire, which is also owned by the Thunderbird Clan. Fire, too, is the symbol of sovereignty. Similarly, the Elk Clan has the function of passing fire in rituals, although they may not point the fire towards anyone. Therefore, if Sharp Elbows is an elk and a representastion of the Elk Clan, he can pull out the lightning arrow because of his right to handle the fire owned by the Thunderbird Clan. So, ex hypothesi, the arrogation of the lightning weapon by Sharp Elbows must translate into the arrogation of sovereignty by the Elk Clan. What grounds do we have for supposing such an arrogation in fact? The best reason is the allied Ioway tribe, where the Elk Clan is in fact that chief's clan. The Ioway consider themselves to be an offshoot of the Hocągara, so the existence of such a state of affairs strongly suggests that at some point the Elk Clan either was the chief clan of the Chiwere or that among the Ioway it usurped that role from some other clan. In the story of the origin of the chieftainship Elk was the original winner of the race to determine which clan would be chief, but out of modesty relinquished the claim. Also we find that in many lists, the Deer Clan is mentioned and the Elk Clan omitted, or vice-versa. This may suggest that they clans were once united in a single descent group. The Deer Clan claims a partial chieftainship, and partial ownership of the fire. They also claim that they are entitled to wear a chief's medallion. So it does seem that the Elk Clan aggresses against the Thunderbird Clan to some degree, and apparently for a long time. Thus when the Thunderbird Chief, the peace chief, demands of the Elk Clan what is his, the Elk Clan kills him. However, the chief's friend, the warrior component of the same Thunderbird Clan, has the power to master the Elk Clan, and to revive its chief (by appointing another).

The physical weaponry of Sharp Elbows is very odd, but we may be getting a hint as to its nature and symbolism in the elk chosen to initiate the incident with this particular evil spirit. The elkhorn is characterized by many such sharp "Elbows" and "knees." The elkhorn is indeed used as a weapon, and several myths mention elkhorn clubs (see 1, 2). Yet the real weapon of Sharp Elbows, if we pursue the elk hypothesis, should be the elkhorn club. The Lower Moiety had a flat warclub with a spike at its "Elbows" [inset]. In more recent times this spike was made of metal, which of course, was sharpened by a whetstone. In the old days some other spike was used, typically the elkhorn, which can also be sharpened by a whetstone. Therefore, the old warclub typically had an elkhorn spike, rather than the modern metal spike. What is the significance of the whetstone which breaks this club or "Elbows"? The whetstone is the defensive counterpart to the elkhorn and to the lightning arrow. Hare keeps it hidden so that it is a hidden stone of sorts. All birds swallow stones for their gizzards as a replacement for teeth. In the mythology of Thunderbirds, the internal or hidden stones are fired out their eyes in the form of lightning. Thus the stones are the lightning weapon like the flint arrowheads on Hare's arrow. The lightning and arrowhead both correspond to the elkhorn spike on the Lower Moiety warclub, the elkhorn itself, when complete, resembling forked lightning. It is the stone that gives lightning its cutting edge, its ability to cut tree limbs, just as it is the arrowhead that gives Hare's thunder weapon its ability to cut into flesh. Possessing the essential lithic component to lightning is what gives Hare the edge over Sharp Elbows, as his antler warclub breaks against it. It is what leads in lightning and what shapes, so it is analogous to sovereignty itself. The sharpness of the elkhorn club derives from the whetstone, without which it would be almost ineffectual. The same is true of the Thunderbird Clan: it s the fire of the Thunderbird Clan that gives the fire of the Elk Clan its source and purpose; it is its leading element, since the Elk Clan derives its fire from the Thunderbird Clan in origin. The elkhorn cannot overcome the stone that creates its power, the stone that leads the heaven-sent lightning, the source of fire on earth.

Comparative Material: The Arapaho Blood Clot Boy has an adventure vaguely similar to Hare's encounter with Sharp Elbows. Blood Clot Boy goes with his family to a place dangerously close to the land of a tribe of insane people. He kills a buffalo, and when two men approach looking for Blood Clot Boy, they can't find him there because he had turned himself into a blood clot. The whetstone that he had with him lies in the blood. He orders the stone to break in two, and he shoots the pieces into the back of the heads of each of the men.2

Links: Hare, Earth, The Sons of Earthmaker, Rock Spirits.

Links within the Hare Cycle: §3. Hare Kills Flint, §5. Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear.

Stories: featuring Hare as a character: The Hare Cycle, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Necessity for Death, The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, Hare Acquires His Arrows, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, Hare Kills Wildcat, The Messengers of Hare, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Hare Kills Flint, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Grandmother Packs the Bear Meat, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads, Hare Visits the Blind Men, Hare Kills a Man with a Cane, Hare Burns His Buttocks, Hare Gets Swallowed, The Hill that Devoured Men and Animals, Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Grandmother's Gifts, Hare and the Grasshoppers, The Spirit of Gambling, The Red Man, Maize Origin Myth, Hare Steals the Fish, The Animal who would Eat Men, The Gift of Shooting, Hare and the Dangerous Frog, Thunder Cloud is Blessed, The Coughing Up of the Black Hawks, The Animal Spirit Aids of the Medicine Rite, The Petition to Earthmaker; featuring Grandmother Earth as a character: Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Maize Origin Myth, Grandmother Packs the Bear Meat, Grandmother's Gifts, Owl Goes Hunting, Hare and the Grasshoppers, Hare Acquires His Arrows, The Plant Blessing of Earth, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, Hare Visits the Blind Men, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, Hare Visits the Bodiless Heads, Hare Burns His Buttocks, Hare Gets Swallowed, Hare Kills Wildcat, Hare and the Dangerous Frog, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp, Hare Recruits Game Animals for Humans, The Necessity for Death, Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Hare Steals the Fish, Hare Kills Flint, The Gift of Shooting, The Creation of the World, The Creation of Man (vv 4, 6), Hare Establishes Bear Hunting, Redhorn's Father (?); about two male friends: Wazųka, The Four Slumbers Origin Myth, The Lame Friend, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Morning Star and His Friend, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, Worúxega, The Fleetfooted Man, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Lake Wąkšikhomįgra (Mendota): the Origin of Its Name, The Spirit of Maple Bluff, Tobacco Man and Married Man, Mighty Thunder.

Themes: someone kills an elk with an arrow that fires bolts of light: Owl Goes Hunting; powerful spirit beings act somewhat dim witted: How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Thunderbird, Partridge's Older Brother, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Dipper; a man uses flint growing out of his arm to kill (or behead) someone: The Man with Two Heads, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, The Man with Two Heads; a great spirit's human friend sacrifices his life for him only to be revived later: Redhorn's Sons, The Adventures of Redhorn's Sons; handling a thunder weapon adversely affects bystanders: The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Hare Visits His Grandfather Bear, The Stone that Became a Frog; polygamy: Bladder and His Brothers (v. 2), The Spotted Grizzly Man, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, The Green Man, Wazųka, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Markings on the Moon, Redhorn's Sons, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, Hare Gets Swallowed, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister, The Spirit of Gambling; a man proves his power by moving a weapon that no one else can budge: The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara (a club), The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension (a club); powerful beings attack someone, but break their arms on the stones that he has placed on his body to protect himself: The Old Man and the Giants.


1 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 93-98. Paul Radin, The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York: Schocken Books, 1956) §7, pp. 67-70. The original Hocąk text is missing, but the English translation of Oliver LaMère is preserved in Paul Radin, "The Hare Cycle," Winnebago Notebooks, Freeman #3851 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, n.d.) Winnebago IV, #1: 22-35.

2 Runs in the Water, "Blood-Clot-Boy," in George A. Dorsey and Alfred L. Kroeber, Traditions of the Arapaho (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997 [1903]) Story 130, p. 301.