Fairy Tales that Celebrate the Natural Order
By Madronna Holden
This essay appeared in Parabola Magazine 33:4 (Winter 2008).
All rights reserved by Parabola and Madronna Holden.
Reciprocity governed almost every aspect of traditional Hopi life, from ceremonies in which they offered the sun appropriate gifts, and it sent the rain clouds to sustain their crops; to daily activities in which women’s work was a gift to men and men’s work, a gift to women. Accordingly, shortly after the U.S. government annexed Hopi lands they sent a gift package to Washington D.C. that included items with potent spiritual symbolism: honeyed cornmeal, tobacco and prayer sticks. In turn, they expected the president to provide protection for their lives and lands. The president missed the point. [i] Indeed, the idea that reciprocity might ground equitable diplomacy with any native people was an alien one to the government currently pushing its borders to the Pacific Ocean.
But what the U.S. government missed, folktales from Siberia to South Africa elaborated, expressing a model of natural reciprocity that impelled generosity, compassion and humility. Such reciprocity made all subject to the consequences of their actions, regardless of their race, culture, or class. At the same time that the Hopi bundle was traveling to Washington, the tale in which High John tricked Massa into imprisoning himself in a sack, turning the tables on master and slave in fine reciprocal fashion, was circulating in slave communities. What goes around comes around, such tales assured their audience—and no one escapes this ultimate justice. As Lower Chehalis (Washington State) elder Henry Cultee put it, “The eyes of the earth see what is in our hearts”—no matter how we might try to hide that from other people. And what nature’s eyes see of us inescapably apportions our lives.
Though the eyes of the earth see such things clearly, humans still have some lessons to learn in this regard. If we seek justice, for instance, we must take care not to feed the beast that consumes it— the mistake Prince Ivan makes in a Russian folktale. The beast may appear weak and harmless, as does Koschei when Ivan first meets him. That is how totalitarian regimes and abusive relationships look at the beginning, while they are in their seductive stage—before we understand them. But one senses from the first there is something wrong here. For one thing, Ivan finds this creature in a dungeon—in obscure depths where it is impossible to see clearly. For another, Ivan’s wife the queen, who has some experience with this monster, specifically warned him not to open the door to it. And then there is the fellow’s name: Koschei the Deathless. All nature bends to the reciprocal interplay of living and dying, but this creature sets itself beyond all that—if only Ivan will give it a drink of water. Of course, once it has one drink, it wants another. And another. And yet another. Until finally it becomes strong enough to carry off all nurturance and love from the land, in the person of the queen who warned Ivan about this.
And how will Ivan bring her back after Koschei has emptied the world of safety and succor? Only compassion can stir the heart of the world back to its just balance. Fortunately, Ivan has such compassion. In spite of his hunger, he responds to the plea of the lion not to kill its cub for food, the bird not to touch its chicks, and the bee not to rob its people of honey. “Who knows”, each of them say as Ivan leaves their families intact, “You may have need of us someday”. What goes around comes around, and Ivan will have need of them very shortly, when he faces the fearsome Baba Yaga. No one passes her ground alive without passing her tests—impossible tests but for the help of the lions, the chicks, and the bees. They also help Ivan procure a horse from Grandmother Yaga that is stronger than Koschei’s, on which he and the good queen escape that monster and reinstate just rule in their land.
In a Chuckchi (Siberian) story, the moment for discernment comes when an orphan submits to his adoptive father, knowing full well the latter intends to kill him. In this situation, a son might well think himself unworthy of life. But this son knows better. With the skill learned from a seagull, of “flying on a spear”, he intercepts and breaks the arrows his father shoots at him. Referred to in his story simply as “the orphan”, this young man lacks even a name to give him belonging and protection in human society. But he belongs to natural society by way of being born to life: and he has nature’s protection, echoing a persistent theme in folktales. Life does not abandon its children. Wild justice administers exceptional spiritual gifts to balance the oppression of the poor, the weak, the outcast, the slave, or the orphan. In the Chuckchi story, a reindeer teaches the orphan to run, even as the seagull teaches him to protect himself.
After he flees the village of murderous elders, the orphan gets caught in a fierce battle between two warring clans: the one into which he was born and the other into which he was adopted. But he climbs a tree to sit in a raven’s nest above the fray. From there he reminds the fighters, “Those who live by the spear will die by the spear”. He proceeds to break their spears the same way he broke his father’s arrows—all but one, which he buries in the earth. That spear remains as the final arbitrator of human action. This is how, the tale concludes, the Chuckchi clans “became friends”.[ii] Indeed, this is how all people might become friends—by means of their shared membership in a community governed by reciprocity. Importantly, this reciprocity makes the vengeance exacted in an “eye for an eye” a self-defeating gesture. Just as one who lives by the spear can expect to die by it, one who demands vengeance can only expect vengeance in return. Folktales suggest an alternative: the compassion Ivan expresses in the Russian tale. Acting with compassion, we gather allies rather than multiplying enemies.
Compassion leads to spontaneous generosity toward friend and stranger alike—generosity that shows us how “all humanity is somehow together”, as Pablo Neruda observes in his essay, “Childhood and Poetry”. In it, Neruda describes the worn wooly sheep, obviously much prized, passed to him through a hole in a fence by the boy his age whose face he never saw. In return Neruda placed a treasure of his own in the hole, an adored pinecone. Inspired by this experience, the Nobel Prize winning poet has since “left… words on the door of so many people who were unknown… people in prison, or hunted, or alone. This small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained… deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.” Here Neruda experienced the mythic reciprocity that carries us beyond ourselves: “[T]he affection that comes from those whom we do not know,…who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our danger and weaknesses…is something… that widens the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.” [iii]
Even as a spontaneous gift may “unite all living things”, help lent the smallest of natural creatures may take on substantial importance in the context of reciprocity. This is the lesson in another Siberian tale, one from the Nanai people. In it, the hunter Mergen hears the voice of an ant petitioning him to free it from a trap. As in this tale, we do not know how a seemingly insignificant creature may one day save our lives. We can only act, once again, with compassion—and with the corresponding humility that shows us how the needs and feelings of others are comparable to our own. The compassionate hunter Mergen frees the trapped ant, and subsequently, a beached sturgeon and a swamp-bound deer he might easily have killed and eaten. But instead he listens to their pleas and frees them from their predicaments. In turn, these creatures later free him from a tyrant’s grasp. What goes around comes around. And under the reign of wild justice, the freedom of each of us depends on the freedom of others. The point is driven home when Mergen is offered the tyrant’s wealth and slaves. He refuses, declaring, “From this day forward there shall be no servants. Let us all be brothers and live in peace.” [iv]
In this way nature’s reciprocity creates equality among those who share her web of action and consequence. When a modern Westerner queried Nanai shaman Grandmother Mingo whether shamans might use their power to harm others, she was incredulous. She had never heard of such a thing. Rather than giving her power over others, her spiritual authority impelled her to take on their suffering, replacing their vulnerability with her own. With her spiritual generosity, Grandmother Mingo helped rebalance nature’s web where an imbalance created disease.
Grandmother Mingo also emphasized that we should feed the earth that feeds us: ritually sharing food with the spirits of place. In like fashion, Coos-Kalapuya (Oregon) elder Esther Stutzman asserted the need for reciprocal repayment for the earth’s gifts: “Always thank the earth. Thank everything, living and non-living, and sometimes pay the earth”. Her granddaughter, following this injunction, gave the earth pennies in return for items she collected from it. Stutzman elaborated her point, “If you take food or basket materials, say thank you. If you swim in the river, say thank you.” Such actions will make you a “better-spirited person”. “You feel better about yourself inside, and when you feel better about yourself, you treat others in a better way”.
When we repay the earth that is “alive” and “has a heart”, to use Stutzman’s words, we strengthen the reflexive web that embraces us all. We do this whenever we pass on a heartfelt gift without thought of recompense, whether it be a gift such as Grandmother Mingo’s healing, the pennies of Stutzman’s granddaughter, or the toy that widened Pablo Neruda’s circle of care to all living things. Sharing multiplies our gifts in the miraculous manner of the biblical loaves and fishes. And holding them back is liable to sink us—as illustrated in the Abenaki tale, “Gluskabe and the Four Wishes”, related by Joseph Bruchac in a past issue of Parabola. In that tale, four men make the treacherous journey together to Gluskabe in the hopes he will grant them their wishes. Once they present their requests, Gluskabe gives them each a pouch with instructions to open it only in the presence of their people. Three of the men cannot wait. Nature’s reciprocity ordains that a man who wishes to be very tall becomes a tree after he opens his pouch in a forest, and a man who wants to live forever becomes a stone after he opens his pouch in a boulder-strewn ravine. Notably, this reciprocity is justice without recrimination: the story tells us we may still find the spirit of the one who reaches for the sky in a tree, and the spirit of the one who would live forever in a stone. But the third man, whose wish is for material goods, drowns under their weight when he opens his pouch while canoeing down the river. And in his case, there seems to be no natural community to commemorate his strivings. The situation of the fourth man is distinctly different from the others. He waits to open his pouch until he returns to the circle of his people, sharing his wish with them that they will never go hungry. From that day forward the forests and the meadows yield their abundance to his people.[v]
This tale illustrates the belief that nature shares with those who share with others. Among peoples who enact this aspect of natural reciprocity, the first kill taken by a hunter, fish caught by a fisherman or root dug by a root gatherer is not eaten by the one who procures it, but is passed on to others instead. “The gift must always move”, Lewis Hyde observed in his discussion of this theme in European folktales. Traditional Polynesian and Melanesian islanders put this understanding into practice in their trading circles by giving away gifts. One who received such a gift in turn passed on another to someone else. Banking on the effects of reciprocity, they had faith a return would come to each of them in its own way and time. And so it did. This system effectively circulated trade goods between island communities hundreds of miles distant from one other.
These islanders understood another key point about the workings of natural reciprocity: it is something beyond human accounting. This is another way in which the simplistic “tit for tat” or “eye for an eye” differs from the mythic model of natural reciprocity. Proper humility tells us the world is larger than our comprehension of it, and mystery intervenes between what we telegraph to the world as our desire and what we get back as a result. As in the Abenaki tale, we may get exactly what we wish for—though not at all what we expected. But however it does so, natural reciprocity consistently makes individual aggrandizement a self-defeating stance. There is a tale whose variations are told throughout the world, in which the protagonist finds a millstone or bird or tablecloth or musical instrument that materializes every wish of its owner. This is a good thing as long as its owner is moderate and harbors no plans to enrich himself at the cost of others. But let a greedy man get his hands on such a thing and he seals his fate in the same way as does the man who drowns under the weight of his possessions in the Abenaki tale. Abundance proves lethal to one who cannot utter the magic word enough.
This is another way Prince Ivan might have identified the dangerous character of Koschei: by his insatiability. A simple cup of water did not suffice him. Nor did even a single bucketful. We see a similar theme elaborated in the Scandinavian tale of the magic fish who bequeaths a lovely cottage, a large house, a castle, and finally an entire kingdom to a woman who requests each of these in turn. But then she wants to be queen of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The magic fish, like nature’s own abundance, allows her to draw more and more from it in the short term, but when her desires continue to escalate and she makes no return on what she receives, the fish simply swims away. She is left with the broken-down hut she began with and her own empty hands.
In a world of reciprocal balance, we cannot have it all. In attempting this, we will only drain the well that reciprocity otherwise primes. Indeed, in the context of nature’s reciprocal interplay of life and death, we each have our limited time on this earth. And we who consume others may expect to be consumed in our turn. Baba Mhlanga, contemporary Shona (Zimbabwean) elder puts this point directly: “When a wild animal kills someone, we accept it and tell ourselves…I am also healthy because I ate another animal.”[vi] An Apache elder expressed the grace with which we might accept this, stating she would be thankful at her death for the opportunity to repay the gift so many other lives had given to sustain hers.
Indeed, wild justice does not abandon us at the point of our deaths. Natural reciprocity works on our legacy in the same way it works on our lives. Whenever we give something out to the world—whether it be an action, a thought, or an object—a bit of ourselves goes with it. And if we give of ourselves with generosity and genuineness we seed a living thing, symbolized by the “life tree”, or kilembe, the protagonist leaves behind in an African tale. Partaking of nature’s nurturance, this tree roots in the earth and grows tall, standing in the light on his behalf when he falls into darkness and despair. Clyde Ford speculates that this tale, known to many slaves, may have given them a way to set their oppression in a larger redemptive context. In a powerful moment in the story, the hero’s life tree is recognized and watered by another—reviving the suffering one in spite of the physical distance between them. In discussing this idea, Ford treats the multi-generational passage of African-Americans from slavery through racism to justice.[vii] As in this case, a great injustice may take more than one lifetime to remedy. But telling the stories of those gone before is a way both of watering their life trees and harvesting their fruit. By contrast, those who oppress others leave behind only a brittle twisted thing no one can eat from—and surely no one will stop to water.
There is certain justice in the way life works upon and then returns to us what we give to it. We cannot know how the results of our actions will come back to us—or to those who follow us onto the vast canvas of life and time. We only know that natural reciprocity makes such a return inevitable.
And under the watch of wild justice, life is generous with those who are generous with it.
[i] Peter M. Whiteley, “Ties That Bind: Hopi gift culture and its first encounter with the United States”, Natural History, November 2004.
[ii] Ibid, pp. 50-54.
[iii] Robert Bly, ed., Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 12-13.
[iv] James Riordan, collector and translator, The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon, Siberian Folktales (New York: Interlink Books, 1991), p. 101.
[v] Parabola 10:4. .
[vi] Chenjerai Hove and Ilija Troganow, Guardians of the Soil, (Munich, Germany: Baobab Books, 1996), p. 25.
[vii] Clyde W. Ford, The Hero with an African Face (New York: Bantam, 1999), pp. 41-43.