The Bavenda


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In the mind of the American native there exists almost always a clear distinction between two classes of tales. One group relates incidents which happened at a time when the world had not yet assumed its present form, and when mankind was not yet in possession of all the customs and arts that belong to our period. The other group contains tales of our modern period. In other words, tales of the first group are considered as myths; those of the other, as history. The tales of the former group are not by any means explanatory in character throughout. They treat mostly of the achievements of animals and of heroes. From our modern point of view, it might be doubtful sometimes whether such a tale should be considered as mythical, or historical, since, on account of the Indian’s belief in the powers of animals, many of the historical tales consist of a series of incidents that might as well have happened in the mythological period; such as the appearance of animals that become supernatural helpers and perform marvelous exploits, or of those that initiate a person into a new ritual. It can be shown that historical tales may in the course of time become mythical tales by being transferred into the mythical period, and that historical tales may originate which parallel in the character and sequence of their incidents mythical tales. Nevertheless the psychological distinction between the two classes of tales is perfectly clear in the mind of the Indian. It is related, in a way, to the ancient concepts of the different ages as described by Hesiod. . . . The Indian [for example] who disappears and is taken to the village of the Buffaloes is, in the mind of the Indian, the hero of a historical tale, although the Buffalo men are at the same time mythical personages. . . .

It is a common trait of most American-origin myths that they deal with the transition from a mythological period to the modern age, brought about by a number of disconnected incidents, sometimes centering preeminently around the acts of one particular figure, sometimes by incidents distributed over a mass of tales that have not even the actions of one being as their connecting link. On the whole, the mythical world, earth, water, fire, sun and moon, summer and winter, animals and plants, are assumed as existing, although they may not possess their present forms, and although they may have been kept in some part of the world inaccessible to the human race. We are dealing, therefore, essentially with tales of expeditions in which, through cunning or force, the phenomena of nature are obtained for the use of all living beings; and with tales of transformation in which animals, land and water, obtain their present forms. We do not find in North America the genealogical sequence of worlds, one generated by another, that is so characteristic of Polynesia. The idea of creation, in the sense of a projection into objective existence of a world that preexisted in the mind of a creator, is also almost entirely foreign to the American race. The thought that our world had a previous existence only as an idea in the mind of a superior being, and became objective reality by a will, is not the form in which the Indian conceives his mythology. There was no unorganized chaos preceding the origin of the world. Everything has always been in existence in objective form somewhere. This is even true of ceremonials and inventions, which were obtained by instruction given by beings of another world. There is, however, one notable exception to this general rule, for many Californian tribes possess origin tales which are expressions of the will of a powerful being who by his thoughts established the present order. . . .

The statement here made needs some further restriction, inasmuch as we have quite a number of tales explaining the origin of animals and of mankind as the results of activities of superior beings. Thus we have stories which tell how men or food animals were fashioned by the Creator out of wood, stone, clay, or grass; that they were given life, and thus became the beings that we see now. It is important to note that in these cases it is not a mere action of a creative will, but always the transformation of a material object, which forms the essential feature of the tale. Furthermore, I believe it can be shown that many of these tales do not refer to a general creation of the whole species, but that they rather supply a local or temporary want. For instance, the Creator carves salmon out of wood, but they are not fit to serve his purpose. This does not imply that no salmon were in existence before that time, for we hear later on in the same cycle that the real salmon were obtained by a party that captured the fish in the mythical salmon country. The Creator, therefore, had to make artificially an object resembling the real salmon that existed somewhere else, but his unsuccessful attempt resulted in the origin of a new species. In another way this point may be brought out in the story of the origin of death, which appears as part of the Raven cycle of the North Pacific coast. Here Raven tries to create man first from stone, then from leaves. Since his attempts to give life to stones were unsuccessful, and man originated from leaves, man dies like leaves. The men thus created were, however, not the only ones in existence. Raven tried to create them only in order to obtain helpers in a particular kind of work in which he was engaged. Nevertheless the generalized explanation of death is attached to this story.

There are also marked differences not only in the manner in which origins are accounted for, but also in the extent to which these elements enter into tales. While in a large collection of Eskimo stories only from thirty-five to fifty phenomena are explained, the number is infinitely greater on the Western Plateaus. In the essay quoted before, Waterman states that ninety-eight Eskimo tales contain thirty-four explanations, while in a hundred and eighty-seven Plateau tales, two hundred and twenty-five explanations are found. This quite agrees with the impression that we receive by the perusal of tales. In some cases almost every tale is an origin tale, in others these are few and far between. . . .

Marked differences occur also in the selection of the phenomena that are explained. Among the southern Caddoan tribes the explanation of stars preponderates. Among the Plateau tribes the largest number of tales refer to characteristics of animals. Among the Blackfoot and Kwakiutl the mass of tales relate to ceremonials. Among the Southern tribes a great number are cosmogonic tales.

Related to this is also the more or less systematic grouping of the tales in larger cycles. It is but natural that in all those cases in which traits of animals form the subject of explanatory tales, the tales must be anecdotal in character and disconnected, even if one person should form the center of the cycle. It is only when the origin tales are brought together in such a way that the mythological concepts develop into a systematic whole, that the origin stories assume the form of a more complex cosmogony. This point may be illustrated by the long record of the origin legend of Alaska collected by Swanton,1 in which obviously a thoughtful informant has tried to assemble the whole mass of explanatory tales in the form of a connected myth. Critical study shows not only the entire lack of cohesion of the parts, but also the arbitrary character of the arrangement, which is contradicted by all other versions from the same region. Unifying elements are completely missing, since there is no elaboration of a cosmogonic concept that forms the background of the tale.

The same is no less true of the Kwakiutl, among whom the disconnected character of the origin tales is perhaps even more pronounced, since they refer in different ways to various aspects of the world; the origin of animals being treated in one way, the rise of social differences of the people in another way, and the supernatural basis of their religious ceremonials in still another manner. The contrast in form brought about by the systematization of mythical concepts may be seen clearly in the case of the Bellacoola, who have developed more definite notions of the organization of the world, and among whom, for this reason, the single stories, while still disconnected, are referred clearly to a background of systematized mythical concepts. The contrast between the disconnected origin tales and the elaborate cycles is most striking when we compare the disjointed tales of the Northwest with the long connected origin myths of the East as we find them among the Iroquois and Algonkin, and even more when we place them side by side with the complex myths from the Southwest.

On the whole, these features are characteristic of definite geographical areas. On the Western Plateaus it is almost entirely the grouping of the tales around one single hero that makes them into a loosely connected cycle. So far as we can discover, the single adventures are disconnected, and only exceptionally a definite sequence of incidents occurs. The same is largely true of the origin tales of the East and of the Upper Mississippi region, excepting their complicated introductory parts. In other districts—as on the Pacific coast between Vancouver Island and central California—a somewhat more definite order is introduced by the localization of the tales. A transformer travels over the country and performs a series of actions, which are told in a definite order as his journeyings take him from place to place. Thus we have a definite order, but no inner connection between the incidents. Quite distinct in type are the origin tales in which the people themselves are brought to their present home by long-continued migration. It is characteristic of the northern part of the continent that there is no migration legend to speak of, that the people consider themselves as autochthonous. In the Southwest and in Mexico, on the other hand, particular stress is laid upon the emergence of the tribe from a lower world and upon its migrations, with which are connected many of the origin stories. This type, which in its whole setting is quite distinct from that of the North, occurs wherever southern influences can be traced, as among the Arikara, a Caddoan tribe that migrated from the south northward to the Missouri River.

We may also recognize local characteristics in the details of the methods by which the present order of things is established. In the Plateau area, among the Eskimo, and in part at least in eastern North America, something happens that accidentally determines the future. When Grizzly-Bear, in a tussle, scratches Chipmunk’s back, this gives rise to his stripes. H an animal jumps out of a canoe and breaks off his tail on the gunwale, this is the reason why it has a short tail. Since an animal wears down the hair of its bushy tail, it has a hairless tail now. Because the frog leaped on the moon’s face, it stays there. In this area incidents in which transformations are the result of an intentional activity are quite rare, although the idea is not quite absent. In the East the concept of intentional transformation appears particularly in the tales treating of the origin of the earth and of ceremonies; on the Plateau it appears from time to time either in the form of councils held by the animals in order to decide how the world is to be arranged, or in contests between two antagonistic animals which desire different conditions. Thus we find in the Plateaus the story of Chipmunk and Bear,1 to which I referred before, essentially a contest which is to determine whether it shall always be day or always night; and in the Coyote cycle a contest which is to decide whether man shall be immortal.

On this basis a number of types of origins may be distinguished—first, origins due to accidental, unintentional occurrences; second, the formation of the present order according to the decisions of a council of animals; third, development due to the actions of two antagonistic beings, the one benevolent and wishing to make everything easy for man, the other one counteracting these intentions and creating the difficulties and hardships of life; as a fourth type we may distinguish the culture-hero tales, the narratives of the migration of men or deities who wander about and set things right. At the present time it is hardly possible to group the origin stories quite definitely from these points of view. In the extreme north the disorganized tale seems to prevail. On the plateaus of the northern United States and in part of the plains, the animal council plays an important role. California seems to be the principal home of the antagonistic formula, although this idea is also prominent among some Eastern tribes; and culture-hero tales appear locally on the North Pacific coast, but more prominently in the South.

We shall next turn to a consideration of the trickster tales. In a sense these have been referred to in the previous group, because many of the trickster tales are at the same time origin tales. If, for instance, Coyote tricks the birds by letting them dance near the fire, and their red eyes are accounted for in this way, we have here an origin story and a trickster tale. At present we are not concerned in this feature, but rather in the consideration of the question whether certain features can be found that are characteristic of the whole cycle as developed in various regions. First of all, it seems of interest to note the degree to which the whole group of tales is developed. It is absent among the Eskimo, moderately developed in California, probably not very prominent in the aboriginal myths of the Southwest, but most prolific on the northwest coast, the Northern Plateaus, and in the East. Whether it is a marked feature of the Athapascan area cannot be decided at present. Some of the heroes of the trickster cycle have been noted before. Raven, Mink, Bluejay, on the northwest coast; Coyote on the Plateaus; Old Man among the Blackfoot; Ishtiniki among the Ponca; Inktumni among the Assiniboin; Manabosho, Wishahka, and Glooscap among various Algonkin tribes, are some of the prominent figures. Although a complete list of all the trickster incidents has not been made, it is fairly clear that a certain number are found practically wherever a trickster cycle occurs. I have already stated that one group of these tales is confined to the western Plateaus, another one to the northern half of the continent. At present it is more important to note, that, besides these widely distributed elements, there seem to be in each area a number of local tales that have no such wide distribution. The characteristics of the tales appear most clearly when the whole mass of trickster tales in each region is studied. A comparison of the Raven, Mink, and Bluejay cycles is instructive. The background of the Raven stories is everywhere the greedy hunger of Raven. Almost all of the Raven tales treat of Raven’s endeavors to get plenty of food without effort; and the adventures relate to this attempt to cheat people out of their provisions and to the punishment doled out to him by those who have suffered from his tricks. Quite different in type are the Mink stories. Here we find throughout an erotic background. Mink tries to get possession of girls and of the wives of his friends, and his tricks have almost exclusively this one object. Occasionally only a trick based on his fondness for sea eggs is introduced. The Bluejay adventures may be characterized in still another way. Generally it is his ambition to outdo his betters in games, on the hunt, or in war, that brings him into trouble or induces him to win by trickery. He has neither a pronounced erotic nor a notably greedy character. The tricks of the Plateau cycle are not so easy to characterize, because the deeds of Coyote partake of all the characteristics just mentioned. Coyote attempts to get food, and his erotic adventures are fairly numerous; but on the whole these two groups are considerably outnumbered by tricks in which he tries to outdo his rivals.

The identification of trickster and transformer is a feature which deserves special notice. I have called attention to the fact—borne out by most of the mythologies in which trickster and culture hero appear as one person—that the benefactions bestowed by the culture hero are not given in an altruistic spirit, but that they are means by which he supplies his own needs.1 Even in his heroic achievements he remains a trickster bent upon the satisfaction of his own desires. This feature may be observed distinctly in the Raven cycle of the northwest coast. He liberates the sun, not because he pities mankind, but because he desires it; and the first use he tries to make of it is to compel fishermen to give him part of their catch. He gets the fresh water because he is thirsty, and unwillingly spills it all over the world while he is making his escape. He liberates the fish because he is hungry, and gets the tides in order to be able to gather shellfish. Similar observations may be made in other mythological personages that embody the qualities of trickster and culture hero. Wherever the desire to benefit mankind is a more marked trait of the cycle, there are generally two distinct persons—one the trickster, the other the culture hero. Thus the culture hero of the Pacific coast gives man his arts, and is called "the one who sets things right." He is not a trickster, but all his actions have a distinct bearing upon the establishment of the modern order. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of these culture-hero tales is their lack of detail. Many are bare statements of the fact that something was different from the way it is now. The hero performs some very simple act, and ordains that these conditions shall be changed. It is only when the culture-hero concept rises to greater heights, as it does in the South, that these tales acquire greater complexity. . . .

We shall now turn to the third group of tales, those dealing with human society. These can only in part be characterized in the manner adopted heretofore. Some of their local color is due to the peculiar distribution of incidents which has been discussed before. On the whole, however, it is rather the plot as a whole that is characteristic. This may be exemplified by the incident of the faithless wife, which occurs all over the continent. The special form of the plot of the woman who has an animal or supernatural being or some object for a lover, whose actions are discovered by her husband, who disguises himself in her garments and who deceives and kills the paramour and later on his wife, is most characteristic of the northern area, reaching from northeastern Siberia and the Eskimo district southward to the Mississippi basin.

Individualization of form may also be illustrated by the widely distributed incident of the deserted child who rescues his people when they are in distress. The special form of the plot—in which the child makes his parents and uncles ashamed, is deserted, and then helped by animals that send him larger and larger game until many houses are filled with provisions, and in which the people offer him their daughters as wives—is characteristic only of the North Pacific coast. On the Plains the deserted boy escapes by the help of his protector, and becomes a powerful hunter. The analysis of the plots has not been carried through in such detail as to allow us to do more than point out the existence of characteristic types in definite areas.1

2Swanton, J.R.n/an/an/an/a, "Types of Haida and Tlingit Myths," Amer. Anth., N.S., 7: 94–103.

3 Waterman, T. T., "The Explanatory Element in the Folk-tales of the North American Indians," Jour. Amer. Folk-lore, 27: 1–41.

1 Swanton, J. R., "Tlingit Myths and Texts," Bur. Amer. Ethnol. Bull., 39: 80 ff.

1 [Teit records this incident as follows: "The Black Bear and the Chipmunk once contended against each other, the former for darkness, the latter for light. The Bear cried, "Lipa, Lipa, Lipa!" and the Chipmunk, "Ma’a, ma’a, ma’a!" The Bear, finding that the Chipmunk was his equal in the possession of magic powers, finally became enraged, and would have killed his adversary; but the Chipmunk was too quick for him, and ran into his hole just as the Bear made a dash for him. The Bear scratched the Chipmunk when going into his hole. This is the origin of the present stripes on the chipmunk’s back. If the Bear had managed to kill the Chipmunk, we should have had eternal darkness instead of day and night, as we have at present." Teit, J., "Thompson River Indian Traditions," Amer. Folk-lore Soc., Mem., 6: 61.]

1 [Cf. Boas, F., Introduction to Teit, op. cit.]

1 Boas, F., "Mythology and Folk-tales of the North American Indians," Jour. Amer. Folk-lore, 27: 377–396.


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Chicago: "The Bavenda," The Bavenda in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2022,

MLA: . "The Bavenda." The Bavenda, Vol. 7, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 23 May. 2022.

Harvard: , 'The Bavenda' in The Bavenda. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2022, from