And all the tribes fear him.
Somewhere in this verdant seascape, near the Queen Charlotte Strait in the late nineteenth century, a native Kwakwaka'wakw artist carved a model totem pole. With the influx of European traders had come many new complications, among them Christianity and disease, but also new pigments and an eager market for the native art, which was unlike anything seen in the rest of the world. The coastal tribes' towering totem poles, tremendous cedar logs carved with the highly stylized images of a family's crest and heritage and raised to commemorate their potlatch feasts, truly evoked the old metaphor: they captured the imagination. They still do. To meet the sudden demand for their highly unique art, enterprising native sculptors created "model" totem poles: smaller versions of their titanic originals, suitable for tourists to purchase and carry away. Our artist chose to create his model totem pole in the distinctive sculptural style of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, but with the unusual subject of a nursing mother at the top, seated on a sea monster. The other characters, in descending order, included a wolf, an octopus, and a man. In addition to traditional black, the model was painted with ultramarine and vermilion, non-local pigments available only through trade with Europeans. (2)
Authors Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass describe the history of the totem pole as "a history of colonial relations, for it emerged ... in the context of transactions between the original inhabitants of and the newcomers to the Northwest Coast." (3) This is especially true of model totem poles, which were essentially created as souvenirs. They serve as "significant documents of the intercultural encounter. Carvers understood and took advantage of the ready market for these items, which they knew would travel ... to territories remote from their own, by people who had little understanding of the subtleties of their artistic and cultural heritage." (4) As souvenirs, the models did little to educate their new owners about the deeper cultural realities of native artists, but instead became the locus of personal memories and the embodiment of assigned meanings; outsiders subjected both models and full-size totem poles to "varied judgments, interpretations, appropriations, or celebrations, and in the process imposed on the artworks meanings that their Native creators could never have imagined." (5)
A text in a new context
Many years later, the model totem pole was photographed for a book called The Box of Day light, edited by the art historian Bill Holm, who first undertook to formally analyze the unique characteristics of Northwest Coast native art. (6) The book is filled with samples of all the power and splendor of the artistic vision of the coastal tribes, with its refracted forms and ovoid shapes that seem to capture the essence of life as reflected in sea water, and of the mythical understanding that all the animals used to be people. (7)
This model totem pole in particular captured my imagination because it features a nursing mother seated on a sea monster--two images that are evocative for most, if not all the human race. For anyone who has studied the biblical accounts of creation with Dr. Duane Priebe, the words "sea monster" immediately conjure conflict mythology--the development or ordering of the world via divine battle with a sea monster. But does the sea monster of Kwakwaka'wakw mythology bear any resemblance to the sea monster of the Bible and its role in the ancient Israelite creation accounts?
The sea monster in Kwakwaka'wakw tradition
The Kwakwaka'wakw sea monster goes by several names: Tseygis, (8) Yagis, (9) Yakim. (The last name means "badness." (10)) One of the many fabulous denizens of Kwakwaka'wakw religion, art, and mythology, the sea monster makes his appearance at their winter ceremonies in the form of a mask, or may appear as a primary totem of a family, as it does in Chiefjohn Scow's "Sea Monster House," erected around 1900 to honor the family crest of the 'Namgis tribe. (11) Supernatural beings or "numaym" like the sea monster are the founding members of a given group or family; the traditions are carefully preserved, as they govern various family privileges and status. (12)
The monster's home is the undersea world, which is associated with food (fish) and riches (copper). One of his distinctive features is a wide, gaping mouth. (13) Like the Thunderbird or the Sisiyutl (a double-headed snake with a grinning human face at its center), the sea monster is eerie or "wonderful," distinct from any merely natural creature. He "obstructs rivers, endangers lakes and the sea, and swallows and upsets canoes. The sea is said to boil when he rises, and all the tribes fear him." (14)
He makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment ... Nothing on earth is his equal--a creature without fear. No one is so fierce as to dare to stir it up (Job 41:31, 33, 10).
More specific references to the sea monster are tantalizing and few, slippery as fish. The monster arises where there are reefs. (15) Sometimes it is described as having the shape of a halibut, possibly with humans standing along its edge. In connection with the world deluge story, which is common among Native Americans, it is said:
One ancestor of the 'Namgis Tribe was sent a message from the Creator in a dream that when the flood came, the great halibut-like Sea Monster 'Namxiyalagiyu "Only One" would rise from the depths of the ocean and take him to a place where he would be protected for the duration of the flood ... This creature was so big that the man appeared to be small speck on the rim of the monster. (16)
The man is given the ability to breathe underwater and is taken by the monster to a safe place under the sea until the floods finally abate. The monster then returns him to dry land. In some versions, a family is vomited up by the sea monster and revived by the Creator. (17)
But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights ... Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land (Jonah 1:17:2:10).
As a numaym, the Kwakwaka'wakw sea monster makes his most frequent appearance at their winter ceremonies, elaborate rituals that not only celebrated various family totems, but also did the important work of taming the cannibal dancer who must be restored to his humanity. The Kwakwaka'wakw's highly developed "dramatic arts cannot be separated from the potlatch," (18) feasts in which material goods were lavished upon attendees to the honor of the host. The greatest potlatches were those "to which 'all the tribes' were invited." (19)
Chaos and creation
In the Hebrew Bible, sea monsters are closely connected with the idea of creation. For example, speaking of Psalm 74 (see especially verses 12-17), Jon Levenson explains that "the context is ... one of creation, provided we do not restrict our understanding of the term to the traditional, but postbiblical, doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. " (20) In Psalm 104, that great paean to God's world, Leviathan sports in the sea. In Job, where God overwhelms the innocent sufferer by recounting the wonders and mighty aspects of the creative work, the Leviathan is a prominent figure. In the world deluge story, which is a kind of second creation, (21) God opens the fountains of the great deep (tehom) as well as the windows of heaven, letting the waters above the sky spill down onto the earth. Why, however, were there waters above the sky? In the Enuma elish, when Marduk used a fierce wind to inflate and overcome the water monster goddess Tiamat, "he split her in half to form the sky and the Earth." (22) Echoes of this worldview remained even when Tiamat had been ungodded. Indeed, she is even referenced (in a whisper) in Genesis 1 with that word tehom.
Scholar Safwat Marzouk describes this theme:
Various ancient Near Eastern Chaoskampf myths (e.g. Enuma-Elish, Baal Cycle, Re-Apophis) speak of the concept of chaos (e.g. political, natural, etc.) as an embodied entity, as a monster. Tiamat, Yamm, Mot, and Apophis, who represent chaos in Enuma Elish, Baal- Cycle, and Re-Apophis respectively, are embodied. Though on the surface chaos seems gigantic and out of control, the purpose of the combat myth is to assure the reader that this chaos is contained and will eventually be defeated. (23)
If the ancient Israelites feared the sea and associated it with chaos, the Northwest Coast Indians loved the sea, because it was their abundant source of food, society, and wealth. (24) And yet, even the sea-loving Kwakwaka'wakw might be peacefully floating about in a canoe when something monstrous explodes out of the depths with overwhelming power.
Cosmogony and liturgy
Franz Boas, a primary anthropologist of the Kwakwaka'wakw, makes it clear that the coastal tribes do not have an ex nihilo origin myth such as the Western tradition presumes:
The idea of creation, in the sense of a projection into objective existence of a world that pre-existed in the mind of a creator, is ... almost entirely foreign to the American race.... There was no unorganized chaos preceding the origin of the world. Everything has always been in existence in objective form somewhere. (25)
And yet, as one scholar argues:
...[T]he ultimate aim of pre-colonial Kwakwaka'wakw cosmology was the regeneration of the natural world... Kwakwaka'wakw ritual forms [were] aspects of a cosmogonic scheme... the Kwakwaka'wakw saw themselves as participants in a universal ecology requiring continuous maintenance. (26)
The elaborate Kwakwaka'wakw winter ceremonies were essential for maintaining--and thus creating--the world. As with the Enuma elish, and later in Israelite liturgy, chaos could be neutralized in cult. Jon Levenson explains:
[T]he creative ordering of the world has become something that humanity can not only witness and celebrate, but something in which it can also take part ... through the cult...we are enabled to cope with evil, for it is the cult that builds and maintains order, transforms chaos into creation. (27)
Such ritual mythology can reveal the essential outlook of the human condition: sin as the fearful, ravening cannibal that wants to devour rather than serve its neighbor. Monsters rising all unexpected from the depths, causing the sea to boil in a hoary swath of chaos. Annual gatherings and rituals, the community performances that are so essential to keeping our "world" going.
This human situation is not incidental. The doctrine of the Incarnation demands that we take the nature of humanity seriously, including its imaginative life. As Duane Priebe has said:
What God has done in Christ can be understood only in the context of the history of the entire world and its cultures. Conversely, he is the whole through whom our world, cultures and histories come into their truth. (28)
Just as all tribes are invited to the greatest potlatches in which wealth is reckoned in terms of what is given away and the cannibal is finally tamed, so all the world is invited to Christ's triumphant feast in which he shares his own body and blood and the glory of his resurrection.
Conclusion: Creation, context, and connections
Despite interesting textual similarities with Hebrew Bible creation themes, the sea monster of the Kwakwaka'wakw myth is not a creation motif. The sea monster is primarily a family crest, not an elemental figure of chaos. However, the parallels that do exist tell us something about the human imagination and our "competing symbolic systems," which are "human attempts to live with divinity, and to transcend the specter of death." (29)
Studying and attempting to interpret the traditions of another culture raises profound questions about method, right, colonialism, ethnocentrism versus relativism, and hermeneutics in general. The foreign intricacies of the Kwakwaka'wakw culture should remind us that those traditions, which we claim as our own, are stranger and more profoundly different, than we may assume. We can so easily take Psalm 74 or Genesis 1 at surface value, assigning objective validity (30) based on our own limited experience, and forgetting that the cultural distance is even greater.
N. Clayton Croy points out that writing rather than reading is the proper activity of someone who insists on creating her own meaning. (31) Texts are always stranger, more complex, and more urgent than they appear at first reading. The best imaginative work will dig deeply, seeking to understand. It then exegetes and combines meaning in new and compelling ways, imbuing ever more abundance into the living conversation between reader, text, and worldview. This "mutual fecundation" (32) finally indicates that the meaning of creation expands as we make more connections among sacred texts, and that the truth of Christ, which takes up the "whole of human culture," is expanding with the rest of the universe. The creation of the world is as much metaphor as material. When we have satisfied our need for security and sustenance, we move on to poetry and other expressions of meaning making. The monsters that beset us, the churning surf that rises at the edges of the unsuspected reef, come to represent the very chaos that stirs in the depths of our particular worlds.
The model totem pole that originally inspired this study featured a nursing mother as well as a sea monster. Like pregnancy, the sea monster rises out of unexpected depths in a swollen wash of salt water. The creation of the world or of a child are mysterious, fecund, rich processes that are gravid with fear and chaos, loss of control, threatened by powers at the limits of our being.
The Christian claim about salvation is that God will redeem our sins of imagination as well as action; that every meaning will ultimately contribute to the Logos. God made this possible in the incarnation by emerging into the world through the watery womb of a human woman. Jesus connects the sign of Jonah with his own passion; in later Christian tradition, the routing of Hell is pictured as Christ overcoming a monster with a gaping maw. Thus the new creation is made real. And thus Mary holding her child becomes one of the thrones of God, seated in triumph on the ancient sea monster.
(1.) Hilary Stewart, Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast (University of Washington Press, 2003).
(2.) Photo and description are from Bill Holm, The Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art (University of Washington Press, 1983), 114.
(3.) Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass, The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History (University of Washington Press, 2010), 9.
(4.) Ibid., 103.
(5.) Ibid., 9.
(6.) Not to be confused with the poet and travel writer Bill Holm who often focused on Iceland.
(7.) Dr. Jessica Joyce Christie, ed., Landscapes of Origin in the Americas: Creation Narratives Linking Ancient Places and Present Communities (University Alabama Press, 2009), 45.
(8.) Holm, The Box of Daylight, 114.
(9.) Personal correspondence with Bill Holm, May 2013.
(10.) Wayne Suttles and William Sturtevant, eds., Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 1990), 375. The article continues: "Masks portraying Iakim take many forms, as all versions of sea monsters are called by this term."
(11.) "Chief Scow's House," Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies, Simon Fraser University, http://www.sfu. ca/brc/virtual_village/Kwakwaka_wakw/ gwayasdums--gilford-island-/chief-scow-shouse.html Retrieved May 2013.
(12.) Suttles and Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, 373.
(13.) Personal correspondence with Bill Holm, May 2013.
(14.) Suttles and Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, 375.
(15.) Franz Boas, The Religion of the Kwakiutl Indians: Texts (Columbia University Press, 1930), 178. Note that the term "Kwakiutl" is no longer in widespread use. It was replaced by the term favored by the tribes: Kwakwaka'wakw.
(16.) Christie, Landscapes of Origin in the Americas, 45.
(17.) Boas, The Religion of the Kwakiutl Indians, 178.
(18.) Suttles and Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, 379.
(19.) Ibid., 372.
(20.) Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 9.
(21.) "[T] he story of Noah and his survival of the great deluge is a reiteration of primordial creation." Ibid., 73.
(22.) Ibid., 121.
(23.) Safwat Marzouk, paper presented to the Society of Biblical Literature: "The Semiotics of the Dismembered Body of the Monster in the ANE Chaoskampf Myths and Ezekiel in the Light of Foucault's Discipline and Punish," November 2012, Chicago.
(24.) Suttles and Sturtevant, Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, 364.
(25.) Franz Boas, Race, Language, and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 468.
(26.) "'It Is a Strict Law That Bids Us Dance': Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka'wakw Potlatch 1849 to 1922," Joseph Masco, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 37, No. 1. (January 1995), 44M6.
(27.) Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, 127.
(28.) Duane A. Priebe, "Mutual Fecundation: The Creative Interplay of Texts and New Contexts," in Karen L. Bloomquist, ed., and Lutheran World Federation, Transformative Theological Perspectives (Lutheran University Press, 2009), 91.
(29.) Michael Fishbane, The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics (Indiana University Press, 1992), 131.
(30.) Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," in Robert A. Segal, Theories of Myth: Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Myth (New York: Routledge, 1995), 39.
(31.) N. Clayton Croy, Prima Scriptura: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), xxv.
(32.) Priebe in Bloomquist, "Transformative Theological Perspectives," 91.
M.A., Wartburg Theological Seminary
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2014|
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