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Spiritual Symbolism Of Native American Legends
The spiritual symbolism found in Native American legends is often deeply hidden if the reader is not aware of the purpose for the story. The role of animals in the myths played a very important part, for each one embodied certain spiritual powers and the animals were given human voices and characteristics. As in folklore of other cultures, the stories always had a lesson to be learned. The lessons were to help people understand the creative life force and the mysteries of their world. This force was known as 'The Great Mystery' which is seen and felt in every aspect of nature, animals and humans.
Each tribal culture has their own version of the creation story, using different animals to portray the Creator, with each having it's own particular power. There are also stories of the 'cultural deities' who bring the cultural ceremonies, songs and spiritual insights to the peoples, such as White Buffalo Woman who brought them the Sacred Pipe and it's seven rites to be performed in sacred ceremonies; and Changing Woman, who tells of the phases a woman goes through in life. The stories were handed down from elders of the tribes, the true storytellers, by oral telling only. There was no written story to go by,
therefore there will be found inconsistencies in the stories from generation to generation or between tribes and their respective cultures -- yet, they are timeless in their meaning and symbolism.
Regardless of which tribe the story comes from, the characters are given the same traits and personifications. They are the embodiment of the divine within each of us.
A lot of the animals in the stories are referred to as 'tricksters'. Although the trickster can be rebellious, disorderly, cunning, sneaky, witty, curious and sly, he is always, first and foremost, a survivor. The trickster will not stop short of trickery, thievery and deception to get what he wants for himself, however, the ultimate goal is usually to assist the humans by making life better for them. By doing something wrong to gain something good does not seem the proper way to go, but it could be seen as overcoming the bad to obtain the good. The balance in life contains the good and the bad. So, there is the
symbolism of positive and negative, the good and the evil, the beautiful and the ugly which is seen in all of Nature. The trickster can play any or all of these parts to reach his goal.
Coyote and Iktome (Spider Man), top the list of tricksters, but Raven is running right up there close to them as a very cunning and sly character who always manages to get what he wants out of life. Although these characters are portrayed with such devious attributes at times, after reading many of their tales you will be able to recognize the underlying wisdom and lovableness in them and may even sense the kindness in their hearts, lying underneath all that trickery.
In addition to the deities and tricksters stories, there are also explanatory myths, like how a particular tribe first got their horses as told in "Orphan Boy and the Elk Dogs". Hidden within such stories are symbolic spiritual messages, such as the boy diving into the lake. This lake is a symbol of the unconscious and the spirit world where the boy will gain knowledge. Another story, The Medicine Grizzly Bear, tells how a bear teaches the boy in the ways of healing and bestows great powers upon him. The boy goes home and does great deeds and gains respect in his tribe. The bear is a symbolic association with healing. The boy had no father and finds one in the bear. This is symbolic of an initiation in life through experience, risks and deeds where the boy becomes a man.
Stone Boy, is yet another story involving a young boy who becomes a man by restoring balance in his life and therefore symbolic of balance and harmony in nature and all creation. The boy goes out looking for his five lost uncles and finds them in five bundles (symbolic of the four directions and the center of Mother Earth). They had been killed by an old woman. The boy kills the old woman, creates a sweat lodge to restore his uncles and to bring them back home, thereby restoring the Four Directions and making things whole again.
A lot of the stories simply are ones containing morals, a lesson to be learned. Elders would sit around the fires in the evenings, telling stories to their grandchildren, stories that would help instill in them honesty, courage, fairness, understanding, kindness and love for others. One such lesson may have been that when you give something to someone, give it from your heart and not just because you want to give it away, but because you see a need for it in the person you give it to. Like in the Sioux story, "Iktome, Coyote and the Rock" the moral is "If you have something to give, give it forever."
Once you start reading Native American myths, you will be able to catch the hidden, symbolic meanings and morals and the stories will become much deeper and more meaningful for you as you begin to see a pattern. None of the stories handed down for generations of elders were just made up for fun - each story contained either a lesson to be learned, how the people gained things that made their lives better, or an explanation of how the world was created. The deep spiritual connotations in all the stories gives one a glimpse into the depth of spirituality that Native Americans have.
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