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Kwatyat, Fish Oil, and Baba Yaga

August 19, 2015

I was rereading the Nuu-chah-nulth section of Indian Myths & Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America today, in advanced prep for a scene I’ll be written in a session or two. There are a couple stories that stuck out to me, not for the spirits and creatures, but for their kinship with the European stories I’m more familiar with. (I’ve talked about this before.) In one of them, a young woman, on being abducted by a spirit of the forest, marks her path with dentalia shells and scraps of her cape, much like Hansel and Gretel. Later, she tells her brothers to go away because the spirit will kill them, and the spirit returns each time, saying, “I scent humans.” I’m reminded of Jack and the Beanstalk there, along with the “sneak in at night and stab his heart” advice that’s eventually passed on.

There’s another story, in which Kwatyat*, a trickster with the power of transformation, kills Wolf for stealing his fish every day. When Wolf’s relatives come looking for them, he says he’s too ill to have done anything like that, and then:

When the Wolves had left, he made himself a comb and filled a fish-bladder with oil. Several days later, other Wolves came to him to enquire [sic] after their chief. Again they found him by the fire and he answered them, too, that he had been ill for a long time and unable to get up. After some time the Wolves came to him again and said, “Our friends that our chief has been killed on this stretch of coast of yours.” Then Kwatyat replied, “I’ll try to find out.” He made the Wolves, who by now had arrived in large numbers, form a circle. He his the comb and the bladder of fish oil under his arms and began to dance in the centre of the circle, singing meanwhile… [He confesses in song to the murder.] Then he made a great bound and jumped out of the circle. The Wolves pursued him. So he stuck the comb into the ground behind himself and called out, “Become a mountain.” And this is what happened. When the Wolves had bypassed the mountain and caught up to him again, he poured out some oil behind himself and transformed it into a lake. He made mountains and lakes behind himself four times like this and escaped safely.

This motif of throwing objects behind oneself to escape pursuit also shows up in Baba Yaga** and other European and West Asian stories (just keep scrolling down). All the fleeing Europeans seem to be innocents, so I find it interesting that the motif is given to Kwatyat who’s escaping deserved justice. I’m not surprised, though—the Pacific Northwest stories consistently “remix” the elements I know from European ones. It’s kind of cool, really.

* Boas, the author of Indian Myths, wrote Kwo’tiath which his editors record as the IPA version of Kwatyalt, so that’s what I’m going with. I can’t find any record of him in a quick Google search, though, so if you actually know the figure I mean and how to spell his name, please let me know!

** There’s another Baba Yaga/Wicked Witch figure in the Tsonoqua, but I’ll tell her story another time.

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