Saturday, April 18, 2015

Michabo, the Great Hare, the principal deity of the Algonquins

Michabo, the Great Hare, the principal deity of the Algonquins


We discover one of the first class in Michabo, the Great Hare, the principal deity of the Algonquins. In the accounts of the older travellers we find him described as the ruler of the winds, the inventor of picture-writing, and even the creator and preserver of the world. Taking a grain of sand from the bed of the ocean, he made from it an island which he launched in the primeval waters. This island speedily grew to a great size; indeed, so extensive did it become that a young wolf which managed to find a footing on it and attempted to cross it died of old age before he completed his journey. A great 'medicine' society, called Meda, was supposed to have been founded by Michabo. Many were his inventions. Observing the spider spread its web, he devised the art of knitting nets to catch fish. He furnished the hunter with many signs and charms for use in the chase. In the autumn, ere he takes his winter sleep, he fills his great pipe and smokes, and the smoke which arises is seen in the clouds which fill the air with the haze of the Indian summer.

Some uncertainty prevailed among the various Algonquian tribes as to where Michabo resided, some of them believing that he dwelt on an island in Lake Superior, others on an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean, and still others in the firmament, but the prevalent idea seems to have been that his home was in the east, where the sun rises on the shores of the great river Ocean that surrounds the dry land.
That a being possessing such qualities should be conceived of as taking the name and form of a timid animal like the hare is indeed curious, and there is little doubt that the original root from which the name Michabo has been formed does not signify 'hare.' In fact, the root wab, which is the initial syllable of the Algonquian word for 'hare,' means also 'white,' and from it are derived the words for 'east,' 'dawn,' 'light,' and 'day.' Their names proceeding from the same root, the idea of the hare and the dawn became confused, and the more tangible object became the symbol of the god. Michabo was therefore the spirit of light, and, as the dawn, the bringer of winds. As lord of light he is also wielder of the lightning. He is in constant strife, nevertheless, with his father the West Wind, and in this combat we can see the diurnal struggle between east and west, light and darkness, common to so many mythologies.
Modern Indian tales concerning Michabo make him a mere tricksy spirit, a malicious buffoon, but in these we can see his character in process of deterioration under the stress of modern conditions impinging upon Indian life. It is in the tales of the old travellers and missionaries that we find him in his true colours as a great culture-hero, Lord of the Day and bringer of light and civilization.