The Raven Steals the Light

Raven and the First Men
Sculpture by Bill Read

The Raven Steals the Light, by Bill Read and Robert Bringhurst, is a wonderful retelling of some of the classic myths of the Haida peoples from the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific Northwest.

Robert Bringhurst explains the location of the Haida in his introduction to the book:

Haida Gwaii, the islands of the People, lie equidistant from Luxor, Machu Picchu, Ninevah and Timbuktu. On the white man’s maps, where every islet and scrap of land, uninhabited or otherwise, lies now in the shadow of somebody’s national flag, and is named for preference after a monarch or a politician, Haida Gwaii are shown as the westernmost extremity of Canada, and they are named not for the Haida, who have always lived there, nor for the Raven, who somewhat inadvertently put them there, but for a woman who never saw them. Her name was Sophie Charlotte von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but the British called her simply Queen Charlotte, for she was the wife of the Mad King of England, George III.
So the Raven, who often likes to call a rose a skunk cabbage, just to see what trouble he can cause, has tricked us again, Haidas and outsiders alike, with this one. He has us trained now to point to Haida Gwaii and say “Queen Charlotte Islands.”These stories were told there well before Queen Charlotte’s time.

Haida culture is fascinating and these stories are short and fun to read. Raven, the trickster, is the central character in this mythology, and in the first story he’s the one responsible for releasing the sun from a small box and for making the stars and the moon.

Before there was anything, before the great flood had covered the earth and receded, before the animals walked the earth or the trees covered the land or the birds flew between the trees, even before the fish and the whales and seals swam in the sea, an old man lived in a house on the bank of a river with his only child, a daughter. Whether she was as beautiful as hemlock fronds against the spring sky at sunrise or as ugly as a sea slug doesn’t really matter very much to this story, which takes place mainly in the dark…

Bill Reid was the author of a number of other books, but he was also a wonderful artist. The sculpture of Raven and the First Men is one of his finest works. It’s on display at the beautiful Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, BC, and I’ll never get over the awe I felt when my husband and I first saw it. Bill Reid’s beautiful sketches are at the beginning of each story in this book. According to the back cover of this book, Robert Bringhurst is “a poet, cultural historian and scholar of Native American literature.” He, too, has published other books of stories and poetry. The collaboration of these two artists made this book a lovely thing indeed, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in mythology, folktales, or art!

Indian Hut, Queen Charlotte Islands
by Emily Carr

Click here to listen to Bill Reid narrating one of the stories from this book!
Click here to listen to Robert Bringhurst reading from Nine Visits to the Mythworld, a book of Haida poetry he translated.

This was my second book read for Carl V’s Once Upon a Time III challenge.

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8 thoughts on “The Raven Steals the Light

  1. Nymeth

    Wow, this sounds absolutely fascinating! I learned a little bit about the myths and traditions of the Haida people when I read Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (which I highly recommend), but I’d love to learn more. Thanks for the fabulous review, Robin.

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  2. Kailana

    This sounds really interesting! Emily Carr was a nice touch. It reminded me I need to read the books I have by her… ha ha! I like her artwork, too, though. 🙂

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  3. Gavin

    Fabulous! I weep every time I visit the UBC Anthropology Museum, in fact I will be going there with a group of 4th and 5th year students in April. Walking around that sculpture is like a meditation for me. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

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  4. Bookfool

    That sounds wonderful. I don’t know much about the Haida, but I’ve read a little about them. I love learning about different cultures and traditions.

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  5. Robin

    Nymeth, I know you’d love these stories! I’ve never heard of Monkey Beach, but I’m going to see if my library has it. I know I’d like it!

    Kailana, I couldn’t resist putting in another Emily Carr! I also need to read her books that sit on my shelf.

    J.Danger, me, too! I love mythology and folklore. And this little book is great. Short and fun.

    Gavin, it would be amazing to take a group of children there and be able to witness their reactions. It’s such a wonderful piece of art.

    Bookfool, you’d really enjoy this little book then. It’s so interesting to learn about their culture through these stories. It’s a fast read.

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  6. Val

    Ravens are fascinating aren’t they and they make such musical sounds..
    I watched one playing, bouncing and swing on tree branches this morning whilst I was waiting at the bus stop..

    btw..quirky coincidence for me.. if you look at the Island above the red box “Prince of Wales Island” I was married there a while ago!

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  7. Robin

    Val, I’m fascinated with ravens, and I know there are a couple of really good books about them that I need to look for. Prince of Wales Island? It sounds like a lovely place for a wedding a while ago. Congratulations!

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