Monday, February 25, 2008
Warao Myth 1: The Owner of the Sun
The Warao of Delta Amacuro State have made their homes in the hundreds of distributaries called caños that make up the Orinoco delta and adapted to life in a watery world that changes with the rise and fall of the tides.
Their palafito houses rise up from the river mud on stilts and their name, Warao, means "boat people". Most travel and nearly all trade is done in the curiara canoes that the Warao hollow from a single giant tree trunk and it is said that Warao babies learn to paddle before they learn to walk.
There are over 36,000 Warao in Delta Amacuro, Monagas and Sucre states, according to the 2001 census, and they speak an independent language that was once thought to be linked to Yanomami.
They have a complex tradition of myths, healing rituals and music that survives to this day and Warao women are noted for their excellent weaving skills and the baskets and hammocks they weave from moriche palm fibres.
This myth, which relates how Ya, the Sun, and Guaniku, the Moon, came to light up the sky, is taken from Maria Manuela de Cora's book "Kuai-Mare: Mitos Aborigenes de Venezuela" (1957, Editorial Oceanida).
Long ago, at the beginning of everything, the sun did not light up the rivers or warm the conuco gardens, because a man who lived in the land up above, towards the East, had locked up Ya, the Sun, in a large bag and did not let him rise up over the clouds.
A Warao who lived in one of the branches of the Orinoco discovered the way in which Ya was hidden and decided to send his oldest daughter to the east to see if she could make the man release the sun.
The girl had to walk for a long time through the jungle and had a hard job clearing a path through the forest and crossing the steep riverbanks before she finally arrived at the distant place where the owner of the Sun lived.
When she arrived in front of him she said: "My father wants you to release the Sun from the hiding place you're keeping him in and to put him on the sea above (the sky) so he can shine his light on everybody.
The owner of the Sun pretended not to understand the girl's words, he looked at her warmly and finding her pretty wanted to take her for his wife.
She did not want to give in to his desires but the man rudely forced her to accept him and then sent her away, taking no notice of her father's request.
When the girl got home to the village she told her father everything that had happened and how the owner of the Sun had laughed at his request.
The father, undeterred by this, decided to send his second daughter, to see if she would have more luck than her sister.
The Warao's second daughter also had to cross the jungle and walk a long way, although she took less time than her sister to arrive at the house of the owner of the Sun, who she asked to release Ya and let him pass freely through the clouds.
But the man also ignored the girl's request and made her his wife like the other one, because she was also pretty and had awoken his desire.
Afterwards, he said: "Off you go now to the land below and don't come back and bother me."
Instead of obeying these cruel words as her sister had done, she relied angrily: "How dare you speak to me like that? Are you not going to release the Sun?"
And while she spoke to him, she looked around anxiously to see if she could discover the place where Ya was hidden, until she spied a strange and very large bag tied to the wooden posts of the wall and stared at it intently, suspecting that this was it.
Seeing that the girl was looking at the bag, the man said quickly: "careful! Don't even think about touching that!"
By the tone of his voice the Warao girl knew for sure that the Sun was hidden there and ignoring the man's threats she leapt towards the bag in a single bound and ripped it open with a swipe of her hand.
The bright face of Ya, the Sun, appeared immediately, orange and dazzling, and began to diffuse its heat and the light of its rays over the clouds of the sea above and over the hills and woods of the Earth. Its light reached to the very bottom of the rivers and the realm of the spirits who live beneath the water.
Seeing that his secret had been discovered and he could not contain the power of Ya again, the man pushed it towards the East and hung the ripped bag in the West, which was lit up by the rays of the Sun and became the Moon.
The girl ran home to her hut to tell her father how she had managed to free the Sun from its hiding place.
The Warao was very happy and did nothing more than contemplate the beauty of Ya, shining from the sea above. But when less than half a joyakaba (tide) had passed the Sun disappeared behind the hills, leaving the rivers lit only by the reflection of Guaniku, the moon.
The Warao said to his daughter: "Go again to the East and wait for the Sun to start his trip over the clouds. Just as he is starting out, carefully tie a tortoise behind him, so he travels more slowly.
The girl did what her father had told her and managed to hook Guaku, the tortoise, to the Sun's tail, stopping Ya from racing too much with its slow pace and so making sure the Earth was illuminated for the period of joyakaba and joajua (the tides).
Since then it has done just this every day and it only hides away at night, disappearing little by little over the waters of the rivers to sleep and refresh itself by drinking, because if it didn't it would die of the heat given off by its rays.
Meanwhile, Guaniku follows Ya's path, reflecting the light of the Sun from the West.
Translated by Russell Maddicks