In the dawn-light, I am weaving a basket to hold the stories. In the sunlight, In the twilight, In the starlight, In the moonlight, In the dark, I am weaving a basket to hold the stories. With my hands I am weaving. With my voice I am weaving. With my heart I am weaving. - Here, now - I am weaving a basket to hold all the stories. [MCK]
I can imagine the Old Ones sitting around a fire, telling stories. The fire in their hearth must have been a welcome and precious guest in the cold, in the dark. They tended it, fed it, watched it move & breath, carefully tended coals overnight to prevent its dying. They told stories of adventures & dreams. And of course they told stories about Fire itself.
Fire was sacred. Fire was how the god or gods revealed themselves. It was the medium through which they received sacrifices. It was a means by which they showed their divine anger. Because of its inherent power, Fire was – in the stories of a great many cultures — jealously guarded by a divine being. Most often, it took a Trickster (Prometheus in Greece, Maui in Polynesia, Coyote in the Great Plains of Turtle Island, Raven in the Pacific Northwest, Nanabozho in the Eastern Woodlands on Turtle Island, etc.) to trick the ones who hoarded the fire, to steal it, and to bring it to the People.
In the southeastern part of what is now called the United States, tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw had a variety of stories about the theft of Fire that featured a different kind of thief. There have been many retellings, oral and written.
I would love to tell it to you aloud, to bring it to life. Today, though my telling is reduced to writing, I am glad to share at least the bones of the story — with gratitude always to the first tellers and to those whose voices have kept this story alive:
In the dark times, in the cold times, the People shivered. They all suffered — the winged ones & the legged ones, those that slithered on their bellies and those that swam in the waters. They suffered so greatly that a great council was called, and all the People came. Someone spoke: “I have heard that the Great One has hidden Fire away in a tree stump on an island to the east. Who will go to steal some Fire for us that we may live?”
Immediately a great clamor arose from the crowd of People who had gathered, many boasting that they were the ones who could succeed. Finally Buzzard’s voice rang out above the others. He spread his wings and said: “I can fly far, I can soar high, I can cross to the island and steal some Fire.”
“How will you carry it?” asked a voice from the edge of the crowd. “Oh,” replied Buzzard, displaying the great plume of feathers that grew on his head, “I can easily hide it in my beautiful crown of feathers.”
And off he flew with a rapid flapping of wings. Buzzard quickly reached the island, and quickly plucked on glowing ember from the fire. But as he flew proudly away with the coal nestled in his feathery crown, he began to cry “Ow! Ow!” and he shook the bright ember out of his flaming crown. Down, down fell the bright ember, and the gray ashes of his proud crown followed the fire into the water — lost. Buzzard returned to the council, hanging his bare burnt head in shame.
Next came the possum proudly waving his bushy tail high in the air. “My fur is stronger than mere feathers,” he bragged. “I will swim to the island and bring back some Fire.”
And so Possum swam quickly, and so he hid a warm coal in his bushy tail, and so he set out to cross back to his People. But the ember was hot, and hotter, and “Ow! Ow!” he cried and plunged his tail into the cool waters. The Fire was gone, and so was the fur on his tail. And possum, trying to hide his bare pink tail from sight, slunk back to the Council and shook his head.
There was silence. Now, no one wanted to risk the trip. Finally, a tiny voice spoke up — so small, so quiet that it could barely be heard. “I will go,” said Grandmother Water Spider. “I will bring back some Fire.”
Everyone began to mutter…”You’re too small… You’re too old… You’re only a woman….”
But, distracted by neither the negative clamor nor the shaking of heads, Grandmother Water Spider quietly spun a basket, placed it on her back, and began taking her dainty strides across the surface of the water. It took her a long time. As she approached the island, she heard a great hullabaloo. Voices cried, “Someone has dared to violate the island. Look, someone has been poking at the Fire; someone has stolen an ember or two!” The guardians of the Fire had just noticed the tracks of Buzzard & Possum and were rushing around, brandishing weapons, looking for the intruders. But Grandmother Spider didn’t hesitate to come ashore. She was so tiny that no one even noticed her. Calmly she picked up an ember, calmly she put it in her basket, calmly she clamped the lid tight shut to hide the glow, and calmly she set out for home.
When she arrived, the People were overjoyed to see the ember and immediately kindled a blaze that leapt to the sky. They celebrated loudly with singing and dancing and feasting and drumming. And Grandmother Spider walked quietly away from the hubbub and calmly returned to her work of spinning and weaving.
Ah, Grandmother Spider may not be a Trickster but, like Trickster, she goes her own way. (And as Sharon Blackie has pointed out in another context, an Old Crone does contain a lot of Trickster energy.)
Anyway, as an old woman and as a weaver, I found that this version of the coming of Fire immediately spoke to me and lodged itself in my heart.
In general, I am not a fiery person. Except in the case of ecological, political, and social injustice, I am more likely to smolder than flame. But even so, I am alive – so the fire is there.
About 15 years ago, the carefully banked coals within me flared unexpectedly into a poem:
FIRE Having been deemed clumsy and banned at three from ballet class, she never danced another step. Wallflower, unable even to waltz-- until at seventy, she took up flamenco. The first time she stamped her feet and clapped her hands, it set the smoke detector howling. The second, it set off every fire alarm on the street. The neighbors shook their heads. The fire chief complained. The judge took one look at her arched back, high chin, imperious eyes and forbade dancing after 5 p.m. on weekdays. That very day, she found a cabin in the forest and, gathering up cats and castanets, flounced out of town. It still happens, now and then, that a passing motorist from elsewhere calls 911 to report a column of smoke at the cottage near the crossroads. The volunteer firemen are required by law to respond but they all know what to expect. Arriving on scene, they nod their heads and radio dispatch: “It’s OK. The usual. A controlled burn.”
No, I didn’t learn how to dance the flamenco [alas] but, in letting the words flow through me, I felt my fire grow stronger. The story fed the flames.
And then last year, this weaving. In my fiber work, I tend to use the colors of earth and sea, but suddenly I needed Red. I didn’t know why or where it would go, but as I entered into conversation with colors & textures, I felt the fire flickering through my fingers, and I came alive. The work kindled the flame:
Ember Dreaming Flame – Weaving, spinning, crochet, knitting, stitching; Wool, silk, mixed fibers.
EMBER DREAMING FLAME — detail
May the Fire that moves through our voices, our hands, our hearts, and our lives be always in service of Life….
“Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness … the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin