Raven and the Whale

an Inuit (Eskimo) story, Retold by Laura Simms. In the very beginning of time, the Inuit people say, Raven made the world. Raven was both a god and a bird with a man inside. After Raven created everything, he decided to remain on the earth. He loved the people and the animals and he was curious about them all. Even though he had made the world, he did not know everything there was to know.

Raven liked to paddle his kayak out into the sea. One day he saw a large whale.

He said, “I wonder what it looks like inside the belly of a whale.”

Raven waited until the whale yawned. When its mouth was wide open, he rowed right in. He tied his kayak to one of the whale’s teeth and started walking deeper inside the whale’s body. The mouth of the whale closed behind him and it grew dark. Raven heard a sound like a drum or distant thunder. He walked until he came to the belly of the whale. The white bones of the whale’s ribs rose up around him like ivory pillars.

In the center of the whale’s belly, Raven saw a beautiful girl dancing. She had strings attached to her feet and hands stretching to the heart of the whale. Raven thought, “She is so beautiful. I would like to take her out of this whale and marry her.”

So he said to her, “I am Raven. I made the world. Will you come with me into the world and be my wife?”

The maiden replied, “Raven, I cannot leave the whale. I am the heart and the soul of the whale. But if you want to stay here and keep me company, that would make me happy.”

Raven threw back his beak, revealing his human face. He tossed back his wings and sat with his hands on his knees. He watched the girl as she danced.

When she danced quickly the whale soared through the water. When she danced slowly the whale floated calmly. Soon, the girl danced so slowly that she stopped moving and her eyes closed. Raven felt a cool wind from the world blow through the spout of the whale. He thought again of taking the girl with him into the world. He felt human desire. And, he forgot what she said.

Raven pulled his beak back down over his face and covered his arms with his wings. He grabbed the girl. He heard the strings snap as he flew with her out of the whale up into the sky.

As he flew, Raven heard the whale thrashing below in the ocean. He watched the whale’s body as it was tossed by the waves onto the shore. The whale was dead and the girl in his arms grew smaller and smaller and disappeared.

Raven realized that everything that is alive has a heart and a soul and everything in the world is born and dies. He was overcome with great sorrow. He was so sad that he landed on the sand beside the body of the whale. For weeks he cried and cried. Then Raven began to dance. He danced for weeks. Then Raven began to sing. He sang for weeks and weeks until his heart was soothed. Then he flew back up into the sky.

He promised the humans and the animals that he would always return to this world as long as we cared for one another and understood that everything in this world lives and dies, and everyone human and animal has a heart and a soul. Raven’s tears were the first tears. His dance and his song of grief and healing were the first song and the first dance.

© 2001 Laura Simms reprinted from STORIES THAT NOURISH THE HEARTS OF OUR CHILDREN, Holland-Knight Publication; the Raven stories exist throughout Alaska and the Northwest Coast. This is my retelling combining several sources. A trustworthy telling which influenced my writing is RAVEN: CREATOR OF THE WORLD, legends retold by Ronald Melzack, Little, Brown, and Co, Boston 1970. He supported my telling of these stories in 1975. His acknowledgement page lists a rich source of other texts.

Raven’s First Dance

My friend May is dying. She is 91 years old and unable to walk. She has been my second mother and artist mentor for many years. I met her when I was twenty. She taught me to eat health foods and walk two miles a day. She sat down next to me in 1973 on a bus as I was traveling upstate for the first in-school storytelling residency I had ever done. I was part of a multi-ethnic arts team sponsored by the Rockefeller Fund called ALL THE ARTS FOR ALL THE CHILDREN. I was tired and skinny, barely taking care of myself. The five-hour ride to Cooperstown was going to be a much-needed nap. I was relieved when a grey-haired, apple-pie-looking white woman sat down beside me. She would not be interested in me, I imagined because I did something so unconventional, and I would not have to talk.

She said immediately, “What do you do?” I said freely, “I am a storyteller.” So began a conversation that has gone on for years. May was a well-respected painter and weaver who chose to teach art to children. She traveled the world collecting artifacts and stories. She was better than a rest. After the residency, I went to her house in Oneonta, New York and spent five weeks with her, which is ultimately how I came to start the Oneonta Storytelling Center with an America the Beautiful Grant, and become healthy.

The first story that she heard me tell was the tale of RAVEN AND THE WHALE. I told it for young children in a Catholic school. She loved the story and had me tell it later that day to an 87 year old woman, the wife of the past president of Hartwick College, who was dying. I had never told a story to someone who was dying. I was terrified. May insisted. “She will gain peace from hearing it.” I did as she instructed. At the end of the story, the old woman took my hand and wished me good luck. May made me tell the story at every dinner party we went to. “People have to hear about death if they want to live,” she said.

Many years later, when I was doing a week-long storytelling residency in a Montessori school in New York, I was told that there was a little girl whose father had died the night before. I felt reluctant to tell the Raven story as planned, but thought of May and her dying friend. I told it. The child asked for it again. The kids were willing. I told it twice. The child returned to school every day for the next five days. Each night I found another tale about the origin of death and told it. Finally, on day five, the last day, when we made Raven Wings with paintings and shared a potluck feast together, the little girl explained to me, “I loved the story of Raven. I came to school every day just to hear a story. Every night I retold it to myself and put my father in the story. Thank you.” I learned a lot and gained a lot of courage from that little girl.

Once, in Beth Israel Hospital, I sat with a woman who was in a great deal of pain. I just sat with her. It didn’t seem appropriate to tell a story. Just being present was enough. Then her sister arrived, panicked, weeping, unable to sit quietly with her sister. When the doctor came by, I took her for a walk. I calmed her down by telling her about my storytelling. I told her the story of Raven, informally, which I had originally planned to tell in her sister’s room, but hadn’t. She cried, and then talked about her fear of death and fear of not knowing what to say to her sister. We walked back to her sister’s bed. As she sat down with her sister, I left for another room, leaving the two together.

What was it about that story that brought all these different people comfort? When I wonder about what makes a story powerful, I look first at the obvious aspects of the story, what happens in the content or words of the story, and then at the inner meanings that arise as a listener becomes engaged. During a telling, a listener becomes everything and everyone in a story, through a process of interactivity lived out during the unfolding event. This story takes us through a process of mourning and release from grief, which includes acknowledging death, sorrow, and an experience of mystery. By expressing sorrow, Raven is released from his grasping after his fulfillment of desire, into a deeper understanding that is living and joyful because it is real. Each time I have told this story, I have had to search within myself for those feelings. To know the part of me that is layered with thoughts and curiosity, grasping and forgetfulness, sorrow and joy, and the humbling recognition of the reality of death.

I have gone to see May recently. Now, it is she who is pale and thin. She couldn’t get up to greet me. Still smiling, she called out, “Do everything now, Laura. Don’t wait until you get old because it might be too late. Do it now, do you hear me?” We talked about Loren Eisley. “I have a reader come in every day for an hour. I love what Loren Eisley has to say. Great to read about nature and magic. ” I asked her, “Do you want me to read to you?” “No!” she yelled adamantly, “Tell me a story.”

I told May the story that she had loved and made me tell at every dinner party so many years ago. “I am not afraid to die,” she said to me when I finished. “I want you to know that. I am not afraid to die. And I don’t want you coming here to stay with me while I am dying. I would like to die alone.” I agreed. “What are you thinking?” she asked. I answered, “I am proud of you May. You just do the best you can in each new situation.” She was pleased with my answer. “Don’t stop telling the story of Raven,” she said as I walked out the door. She called, “No need to say goodbye.” We smiled at one another. I called out, “I hope I see you again.” “Maybe,” she said and lifted her arms as I had lifted mine to show me the dance that Raven danced beside the whale.
© 2001 Laura Simms

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