Little Brother Snares the Sun

retold by Richard L. Dieterle


This was passed off as a Hočąk myth and attributed to someone named "Red Bird." It is in fact taken from the Anishinaabe myths in Schoolcraft's collection.


When Earthmaker made man, he was the weakest and most defenseless of all his creations. In the beginning man was not the hunter, but the hunted: animals ate humans and hunted them down so successfully that before long there were but two survivors of the human race left, a girl and her younger brother. The boy was very unusual: although he was old enough to walk and talk, he was no bigger than a newborn baby, so his sister had to take care of him and do all the work. One day in winter, she gave him her bow and arrows and told him to shoot a snowbird [inset] when it came looking for grubs in an old dead tree nearby. Three times he shot at snowbirds, and three times he missed; but on the fourth try he finally hit one. In ten days he shot ten snowbirds and since he had saved their skins, he asked his sister to make a snowbird coat for him. It was a beautiful feathered coat and he was very grateful to his sister for having made it.

One day he asked his sister, "Are we the only humans left alive?" "There may be others somewhere," she replied, "but I have never seen a trace of them. Even if there are other survivors, we could not go looking for them, since we would be killed and eaten by the man-eating dormouse or some other dangerous animal." In those ancient times dormice were as big as a lodge, and ate humans whenever they could find one. However, Little Brother was undeterred: he put on his snowbird coat and went out looking for other human beings. After walking a long time he became tired, and lay down to sleep in a little patch where the sun had melted away the snow. However, while he slept, the sun had come out from behind the clouds, and its rays caused the snowbird coat to shrink so much that when Little Brother awoke, he had to tear himself out of it. That the sun had ruined his coat made Little Brother furious and he began to think of revenge. He felt so bad that he slept for a full ten days on his right side, and then turned over and slept for another ten days on his left side. All this time he fasted. Then he arose and said to his sister, "I shall need a strong rope to make a snare for the sun." She came back with an ordinary rope. "This will never be strong enough," he said, "we will have to find something that even a great spirit like the sun could not break." She then made a snare from deer sinew, but he rejected this as well. Then she made a rope out of her own braided hair, but this was also not equal to the task. Finally, she said, "I shall have to make a snare from secret things." Little Brother ran the secret things that his sister gave him through his mouth and twisted the moist strands into a rope like no other that had ever been seen. Then he went off in the middle of the night with his mysterious rope to snare the sun. He found the place where the path of the sun begins and set his snare right at the entrance. When the sun tried to rise, it was caught fast in the trap and for the whole day there was no sunlight, only darkness.

The chief animal spirits were alarmed and called a council. The most ferocious animal, the one with the biggest and sharpest teeth, was called upon to liberate the sun from its trap. This was Dormouse. "Indeed," said Dormouse, "it will be very difficult, for Little Brother's trap is strong; but I will not give up until it is done." So she went to the trap and began gnawing on the rope. The sun's heat was enormous, made all the worse by his anger at being trapped, but Dormouse kept gnawing. Finally, the sun burst free of its bonds, but by then Dormouse's fur had been singed brown, and she had shrunk down to a size no bigger than a human hand. Thus would be dormice ever after. The sun's light had made her half blind, so she was given the name Kugebinga, "Blind Woman." Although Kugebinga freed the sun, yet Little Brother, who had overcome this great spirit, was the holier. Little Brother decreed, "Since the animals have abused the humans and have eaten them, henceforth the humans will have power over all the animals and hunt them for food." Ever after the humans have been the hunters and the animals the hunted. [1]


Commentary. Little Brother seems to have a special connection to the snowbird, a bird noted for flying in front of winter weather fronts. This bird therefore serves as a sign of impending snow fall. Hunting snowbirds does not put Little Brother in opposition to them, since it is believed that such animals give themselves to the hunter. When he comes to be covered in the plumage of the snowbirds, he becomes, as it were, a kind of snowbird himself. In another story, snowbirds are coughed up from inside a Giant where they resided in proximity to the ice-laden stomach of the Man Eater (as Giants are called). Giants, as I have shown elsewhere, are symbolic of the enemy who also appear at that time of the year when the snows begin to fall, as that is the time when men traditionally go on the warpath. Therefore, the snowbird can also be symbolic of the approach of enemies out of whose icy breath they arise. The snowbirds are the harbingers of the clouds that come to cover the sun, and are therefore inimical to him. The sun is associated with fire and the melting of snow, the element of the Giants. Thus the sun is a warrior in his own right, one allied with the power central to the Hočągara (fire). The boy goes to sleep in a patch cleared of snow by the sun. The sun has shrunk the encirclement of snow at this place, and then proceeds to shrink the boy's outer form. To avenge the sun's destruction of his snowbird form, Little Brother traps the sun, making it impossible to light the world. Furthermore, it causes the predatory and gigantic man-eating mouse to shrink much as the snowbird coat had shrunk. The mouse, like the snowbird, is a creature of the boundary, here the boundary between the domestic and the wild. She goes back and forth between them without being wholly in one or the other. Like the snowbirds, she is averse to the daylight, since she depends upon stealth to obtain her food from humans. Like the snowbird, she is fast and small, but unlike them, an earthbound creature. Yet it remains true of the mouse that when darkness prevails and she does not get too close to the sun, she is predatory upon humans, not that she eats humans directly, but indirectly, by consuming the food by which humans avoid being consumed themselves. When a society teeters on the brink of starvation, and mice prey as parasites upon the meager food supply, then they cause humans to waste away, a process rather like being eaten. So the mouse can actually come very close to indirectly eating humans. She too is, when away from the powers of the sun, a Giant man-eater. Only when the mouse is revealed in the light does she become an object of the hunt herself and is likely to be killed by the victim of her parasitism. Her death is like that of an enemy warrior in that she is not eaten, only killed for the sake of self-defence.

This story is also partly a variant of Hare Burns His Buttocks. In this myth from the Hare Cycle, the snare is made of the hair of Grandmother (earth), yet the sister's hair was found unacceptable. We get a hint in the fact that the dormouse who unties it is female, despite the fact that such heroic roles are almost always reserved for male characters. This suggests that the snare was probably made of the sister's pubic hair. Menstruation, and by association, the pubic hairs of menstruating women, have the power to weaken not only male war weapons, but a man's very potency and strength. However, the trap succeeds by ingenuity alone, a power lacking in the animals, whose strength is negated by these female principles unique to humans. Therefore the trap was able to render the warlike male Sun impotent, but not the female dormouse.


Comparative Material. The snare made of secret things recalls the famous Eddic myth of Greipnir, the snare made of impossible things: "It was made of six things: of the sound of the cat, and of the beard of women, and of the roots of the rock, and of the sinews of the bear, and of the breath of the fish, and of bird's spit ..." [2]


Notes

[1] David Red Bird, "Little Brother Snares the Sun," American Indian Myths and Legends, edd. Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (New York: Pantheon Books, ca. 1984) 164-166. Taken from "The Sun Catcher: The Boy who set a Snare for the Sun," in Henry R. Schoolcraft, Schoolcraft's Indian Legends, ed. Mentor L. Williams (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956 [1991]) 256-257. This same story is told in Jacob Abbott, Aboriginal America, American History (New York; Boston: Sheldon & Company. Boston: Gould & Lincoln, 1860) 1:228-232. He adds furthermore, "This story suggests another legend in which the incident of the sun being caught in a trap occurs in a somewhat different form. The story is one which a French Catholic missionary learned from an Indian tribe upon the banks of the St. Lawrence, more than two hundred years ago. In respect to the state of intellectual development to which it is adapted, it stands very nearly on a level with the English nursery tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, which, indeed, in some respects, it closely resembles."

[2] Gylfaginning 25, 34 (Snorri Edda).