New Acropolis Articles

The hero myth as a model of inner growth and development

by Alex Warren

Racing the Great Bear (a legend from the Iroquois people)

Ne onendji. Hear my story, which happened long ago. For many generations, the five nations of the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse1, had been at war with one another. No one could say how the wars began, but each time a man of one nation was killed, his relatives sought revenge in the blood feud, and so the fighting continued. Then the Creator took pity on his people and sent a messenger of peace. The Peacemaker traveled from nation to nation, convincing the people of the Five Nations -- the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca -- that it was wrong for brothers to kill one another. It was not easy, but finally the nations agreed, and the Great Peace began. Most welcomed that peace, though there were some beings with bad hearts who wished to see the return of war.

One day, not long after the Great Peace had been established, some young men in a Seneca village decided they would pay a visit to the Onondaga people.

"It is safe now to walk the trail between our nations," the young men said. "We will return after the sun has risen and set seven times."

Then they set out. They walked toward the east until they were lost from sight in the hills. But many more than seven days passed, and those young men never returned. Now another group of young men left, wanting to find out where their friends had gone. They, too, did not return.

The people grew worried. Parties were sent out to look for the vanished young men, but no sign was found. And the searchers who went too far into the hills did not return, either.

The old chief of the village thought long and hard. He asked the clan mothers, those wise women whose job it was to choose the chiefs and give them good advice, what should be done.

"We must find someone brave enough to face whatever danger is out there," the clan mothers said.

So the old chief called the whole village to a council meeting. He held up a white strand of wampum beads2 made from quahog clamshells as he spoke.

"Hear me," he said. "I am of two minds about what has happened to our people. It may be that the Onondaga have broken the peace and captured them. It may be there is something with an evil mind that wishes to destroy this new peace and so has killed our people. Now someone must go and find out. Who is brave enough? Who will come and take this wampum from my hand?"

Many men were gathered in that council. Some were known to speak of themselves as brave warriors. Still, though they muttered to one another, no man stepped forward to take the strand of wampum. The old chief began to walk about the circle, holding the wampum in front of each man in turn. But each man only lowered his eyes to the ground. No man lifted his hand to take the wampum.

Just outside the circle stood a boy who had not yet become a man. His parents were dead, and he lived with his grandmother in her old lodge at the edge of the village. His clothing was always torn and his face dirty because his grandmother was too old to care for him as a mother would. The other young men made fun of him, and as a joke they called him Swift Runner -- even though no one had ever seen him run and it was thought that he was weak and lazy. All he ever seemed to do was play with his little dog or sit by the fire and listen when the old people were talking.

"Our chief has forgotten our greatest warrior," one of the young men said to another, tilting his head toward Swift Runner.

"Nyoh," the other young man said, laughing. "Yes. Why does he not offer the wampum to Swift Runner?"

The chief looked around the circle of men, and the laughing stopped. He walked out of the circle to the place where the small boy in torn clothes stood. He held out the wampum and Swift Runner took it without hesitating.

"I accept this," Swift Runner said. "It is right that I be the one to face the danger. In the eyes of the people I am worthless, so if I do not return, it will not matter. I will leave when the sun rises tomorrow."

When Swift Runner arrived home at his grandmother's lodge, the old woman was waiting for him.

"Grandson," she said, "I know what you have done. The people of this village no longer remember, but your father was a great warrior. Our family is a family that has power."

Then she reached up into the rafters and took down a heavy bow. It was blackened with smoke and seemed so thick that no man could bend it.

"If you can string this bow, Grandson," the old woman said, "you are ready to face whatever waits for you on the trail."

Swift Runner took the bow. It was as thick as a man's wrist, but he bent it with ease and strung it.

"Wah-hah!" said his grandmother. "You are the one I knew you would grow up to be. Now you must sleep. At dawn we will make you ready for your journey."

It was not easy for Swift Runner to sleep, but when he woke the next morning, he felt strong and clear-headed. His grandmother was sitting by the fire with a cap in her hand.

"This was your grandfather's cap," she said. "I have sewed four hummingbird feathers on it. It will make your feet more swift."

Swift Runner took the cap and placed it on his head.

"His grandmother held up four pairs of moccasins. "Carry these tied to your waist. When one pair wears out, throw them aside and put on the next pair."

Swift Runner took the moccasins and tied them to his belt.

Next his grandmother picked up a small pouch. "In this pouch is cornmeal mixed with maple sugar," she said. "It is the only food you will need as you travel. It will give you strength when you eat it each evening."

Swift Runner took the pouch and hung it from his belt by the moccasins.

"The last thing I must give you," said the old woman, "is this advice. Pay close attention to your little dog. You have treated him well and so he is your great friend. He is small, but his eyes and nose are keen. Keep him always in front of you. He will warn you of danger before it can strike you."

Then Swift Runner set out on his journey. His little dog stayed ahead of him, sniffing the air and sniffing the ground. By the time the sun was in the middle of the sky, they were far from the village. The trail passed through deep woods, and it seemed to the boy as if something was following them among the trees. But he could see nothing in the thick brush.

The trail curved toward the left, and the boy felt even more the presence of something watching. Suddenly his little dog ran into the brush at the side of the trail, barking loudly. There were the sounds of tree limbs breaking and heavy feet running. Then out of the forest came a Nyagwahe, a monster bear. Its great teeth were as long as a man's arm. It was twice as tall as a moose. Close at its heels was Swift Runner's little dog.

"I see you," Swift Runner shouted. "I am after you. You cannot escape me."

Swift Runner had learned those words by listening to the stories the old people told. They were the very words a monster bear speaks when it attacks, words that terrify anyone who hears them. On hearing those words, the great bear turned and fled from the boy.

"You cannot escape me," Swift Runner shouted again. Then he ran after the bear.

The Nyagwahe turned toward the east, with Swift Runner and his dog close behind. It left the trail and plowed through the thick forest, breaking down great trees and leaving a path of destruction like that of a whirlwind. It ran up the tallest hills and down through the swamps, but the boy and the dog stayed at its heels. They ran past a great cave in the rocks. All around the cave were the bones of people the bear had caught and eaten.

"My relatives," Swift Runner called as he passed the cave, "I will not forget you. I am after the one who killed you. He will not escape me."

Throughout the day, the boy and his dog chased the great bear, growing closer bit by bit. At last, as the sun began to set, Swift Runner stopped at the head of a small valley and called his small dog to him.

"We will rest here for the night," the boy said. He took off his first pair of moccasins, whose soles were worn away to nothing. He threw them aside and put on a new pair. Swift Runner made a fire and sat beside it with his dog. Then he took out the pouch of cornmeal and maple sugar, sharing his food with his dog.

"Nothing will harm us," Swift Runner said. "Nothing can come close to our fire." He lay down and slept.

In the middle of the night, he was awakened by the growling of his dog. He sat up with his back to the fire and looked into the darkness. There, just outside the circle of light made by the flames, stood a dark figure that looked like a tall man. Its eyes glowed green.

"I am Nyagwahe," said the figure. "This is my human shape. Why do you pursue me?"

"You cannot escape me," Swift Runner said. "I chase you because you killed my people. I will not stop until I catch you and kill you.”

The figure faded back into the darkness.

"You cannot escape me," Swift Runner said again. Then he patted his small dog and went to sleep.

As soon as the first light of the new day appeared, Swift Runner rose. He and his small dog took the trail. It was easy to follow the monster’s path, for trees were uprooted and the earth torn by its great paws. They ran all through the morning. When the sun was in the middle of the sky, they reached the head of another valley. At the other end they saw the great bear running toward the east. Swift Runner pulled off his second pair of moccasins, whose soles were worn away to nothing. He put on his third pair and began to run again.

All through that day, they kept the Nyagwahe in sight, drawing closer bit by bit. When the sun began to set, Swift Runner stopped to make camp. He took off the third pair of moccasins, whose soles were worn away to nothing, and put on the last pair.

“Tomorrow,” he said to his small dog, “we will catch the monster and kill it.” He reached for his pouch of cornmeal and maple sugar, ut when he opened it, he found it filled with worms. The magic of the Nyagwahe had done this. Swift Runner poured out the pouch and said in a loud voice, “You have spoiled our food, but it will not stop me. I am on your trail. You cannot escape me.”

That night, once again, he was awakened by the growling of his dog. A dark figure stood just outside the circle of light. It looked smaller than the night before, and glow of its eyes was weak.

“I am Nyagwahe,” the dark figure said.

“Why do you pursue me?”

“You cannot escape me,” Swift Runner said.

“I am on your trail. You killed my people. You threatened the Great Peace. I will not rest until I catch you.”

“Hear me,” said Nyagwahe. “I see your power is greater than mine. Do not kill me. When you catch me, take my great teeth. They are my power, and you can use them for healing. Spare my life, and I will go far to the north and never again bother the People of the Longhouse.”

“You cannot escape me,” Swift Runner said. “I am on your trail.”

The dark figure faded back into the darkness, and Swift Runner sat for a long time, looking into the night.

At the first light of day, the boy and his dog took the trail. They had not gone far when they saw the Nyagwahe ahead of them. Its sides puffed in and out as it ran. The trail was beside a great lake with many alder trees close to the water. As the great bear ran past, the leaves were torn from the trees. Fast as the bear went, the boy and his dog came closer, bit by bit. At last, when the sun was in the middle of the sky, the giant bear could run no longer. It fell heavily to the earth, panting so hard that it stirred up clouds of dust.

Swift Runner unslung his grandfather's bow and notched an arrow to the sinewy string.

"Shoot for my heart," said the Nyagwahe. "Aim well. If you cannot kill me with one arrow, I will take your life."

"No," Swift Runner said. "I have listened to the stories of my elders. Your only weak spot is the sole of your foot. Hold up your foot and I will kill you."

The great bear shook with fear. "You have defeated me," it pleaded. "Spare my life and I will leave forever."

"You must give me your great teeth," Swift Runner said. "Then you must leave and never bother the People of the Longhouse again."

"I shall do as you say," said the Nyagwahe. "Take my great teeth."

Swift Runner lowered his bow. He stepped forward and pulled out the great bear's teeth. It rose to its feet and walked to the north, growing smaller as it went. It went over the hill and was gone.

Carrying the teeth of the Nyagwahe over his shoulder, Swift Runner turned back to the west, his dog at his side. He walked for three moons before he reached the place where the bones of his people were piled in front of the monster's empty cave. He collected those bones and walked around them four times. "Now," he said, "I must do something to make my people wake up." He went to a big hickory tree and began to push it over so that it would fall on the pile of bones.

"My people," he shouted, "get up quickly or this tree will land on you."

The bones of the people who had been killed all came together and jumped up, alive again and covered with flesh. They were filled with joy and gathered around Swift Runner.

"Great one," they said, "who are you?"

"I am Swift Runner," he said.

"How can that be?" one of the men said. "Swift Runner is a skinny little boy. You are a tall, strong man."

Swift Runner looked at himself and saw that it was so. He was taller than the tallest man, and his little dog was bigger than a wolf.

"I am Swift Runner," he said. "I was that boy and I am the man you see before you."

Then Swift Runner led his people back to the village. He carried with him the teeth of the Nyagwahe, and those who saw what he carried rejoiced. The trails were safe again, and the Great Peace would not be broken. Swift Runner went to his grandmother's lodge and embraced her.

"Grandson," she said, "you are now the man I knew you would grow up to be. Remember to use your power to help the people."

So it was that Swift Runner ran with the great bear and won the race. Throughout his long life, he used the teeth of the Nyagwahe to heal the sick, and he worked always to keep the Great Peace.

Da neho. I am finished.

Commentary

“Racing the Great Bear” is a hero myth that clearly and enchantingly portrays an aspect of human growth and evolution. In it, the protagonist has to overcome fears, doubts and weaknesses to surpass an apparently insurmountable test and transform into the “tall, strong man” who uses his “power to help the people.” In order to do this he must use special knowledge that he has learned from the elders, he must use special gifts bequeathed unto him, and he must persevere despite obstacles and fatigue until he achieves his goal.

Like the viewer of an ancient Greek mystery play, a person listening to a hero myth like “Racing the Great Bear” witnesses a beautiful and entertaining tale of the protagonist’s struggles, strengths, weaknesses, victories and defeats. These qualities, however, exist not only in the protagonist, but also in the observer. They are reflections of the observer’s own virtues and defects. The more conscious the observer is of these, the more powerful the story or play.

The characters in “Racing the Great Bear” can be seen as members of the tribe who each play a unique role in the transformational process, or, viewing the entire myth as an allegory for the inner psycho-spiritual development that the disciple undergoes, they can be interpreted as aspects of the individual undergoing the process. This technique has been used countless times. One example is The Bhagavad Gita, the story of the great war between the Pandavas and the Kuravas, where these two opposing sides represent the virtues and defects at work within the aspirant to wisdom.

These stories have didactic motives. In addition to being entertaining, they also educate and inspire. They educate in a pleasant way, making the observer contemplate that, like the protagonist, he or she too may have great inner potential. And they inspire by awakening an internal heroic aspiration that may have lain dormant, just as Swift Runner’s special gifts lay unrecognized for so long. These stories use a transcendental form of communication that is universal in spite of the language that is employed.

“Hear my story which happened long ago…” “Racing the Great Bear” begins with a traditional opening, a way to let the reader or listener know that a sacred story is about to begin. This opening and the corresponding close is common in many oral traditions of old. It is an indication of beginning and then of end. It delineates the telling of a very special story. In a way it is a signal to the soul that something interesting is coming. Just as a thirsty traveler would quickly notice a sign indicating a source of water, a soul in search of wisdom perks up when it perceives a source of the “water” it longs for.

The introduction is brief but quickly provides a panorama of the setting in which the story will take place. There is a mixture of history and the sacred. The Creator intervenes in human affairs by sending the Peacemaker. These two characters are only mentioned briefly here at the beginning. Who is this Peacemaker who is capable of convincing the Five Nations to stop warring and to coexist in peace? Attributed with divine origin, this “messenger of peace” must have been special indeed. History occasionally reveals a notable person who is capable of changing the course of history, usually by their wisdom, love of humanity and generosity.

People who are accustomed to modern conceptions of history may assume they are reading a story for children when they see history mixed in with elements that stretch the bounds of what we normally consider reality, but the purpose of the story we are now reading is different than the purpose of a modern history book. A modern reader might assume that our modern history is better, because it “attempts to be objective.” But, we should ask, objective from whose perspective? It is well known that in ancient Asia, Africa and almost every other culture that was not descended intellectually from Ancient Greece, with regard to history much less emphasis was placed on dates and events and much more emphasis on lessons learned. The intention of “Racing the Great Bear” is pedagogical: it is a story of archetypical adventure that leads to great spiritual growth.

The story begins. People who venture too far out of the village are not returning, and something must be done about it. The clan mothers suggest that someone who is brave enough to face the danger must be found. The men of the village cower in the face of such a duty, and paradoxically, only a certain, scrawny, unimportant boy accepts the challenge.

But there is something special about this boy. When he returns home to his grandmother’s lodge, she knows what he has done and is waiting to reveal something to him: His father, long dead, was a great warrior. The scrawny boy that the others in the tribe regard as lazy and insignificant is the son of a hero. “Our family is a family of power,” the grandmother tells him.

This theme is found in countless hero myths: an unlikely person is called on to do impossible feats. Immediately when they accept the challenge and defy “probability,” a divine ancestry is revealed. Theseus lifts a great rock to reveal a sword and sandals his father hid there for him to find so many years later. The hero twins in the Popul Vuh, the Quich? Mayan book of creation, must pass test after test, proving their lineage, their worthiness, their bravery, etc. Might these be lessons that apply to us all? Sometimes we may feel weak and unable to overcome our shortcomings. Nevertheless we have tremendous, untapped potential. In facing and accepting the challenge we find that what we had previously deemed an imitation was self-imposed and less of an obstacle than we had imagined.

Swift Runner does not have to face the challenge alone. He has been listening to the stories of the elders and has learned from them, and his grandmother provides him with important tools. So while he goes out with only his little dog to face the monster bear, he carries with him the timeless wisdom he has been taught and the invaluable elements which his grandmother and others have supplied him with.

Grandmother presents Swift Runner with his first test: she takes down his father’s bow which has been hidden all these years and gives it to him to string. He does so with ease, proving his pedigree and gaining a weapon to use on the trail. The bow is a symbol of the inner qualities we possess, even if, like the bow, they might lie unused for many years, awaiting the moment when we decide to act on our potential. This part of the story is similar to the part in The Popol Vuh, where the hero twins recover their father’s ball game equipment from under the rafters of the house.

Grandmother also gives him grandfather’s cap, onto which she has sewn four hummingbird feathers. Hats were often used by ancient cultures and civilizations to signify a transformation. In Ancient Egypt, the pharaoh’s hats are ritually placed on his head by the goddesses of the north and the south, thereby conferring power and authority. In many ancient civilizations headdresses are used to show that the priest is imbued with the virtues of a god. The Jewish yarmulke reminds the wearer of the presence of God above.

For the pre-Columbian Americans, the hummingbird was a symbol of divine spirit, as the dove is in Christian symbolism. Grandmother tells Swift Runner that the cap will make his feet more swift. How can the cap make his feet more swift? Imagine if we were to take on attributes of the hummingbird, in other words, to identify more with our spirit. We would become faster. We would be weighted down less by our defects and would be lighter of heart, nimbler as we travel through life, and also more surefooted.

Next, Grandmother gives Swift Runner four pairs of moccasins, instructing him that when one pair wears out he must throw them aside and put on the next. Sometimes in life we hold on to things which no longer have any value and are no longer useful, forgetting that nature recycles and so should we. Attitudes and ways of thinking that may have been useful for one stage of life may become useless and even impediments with the passage of time.

Soon after setting out on the trail, Swift Runner notices something following him and his little dog. It is “a Nyagwahe, a monster bear.” Swift Runner has met his “enemy.” Although the monster bear is pursuing Swift Runner and his dog, they immediately turn the tables and go after the monster. Swift Runner uses words that he has learned from “the stories the old people told.” They are the very words that the Nyagwahe used when he attacked someone: “I see you. I am after you. You cannot escape me.”

Most important here is that Swift Runner did not let himself become frightened, neither when seeing the beasts dreadful appearance nor when seeing the destruction and death that he was capable of causing. He keeps the advantage by pursuing the pursuer. He is determined to win the battle and does not pause. In all the ancient philosophical-discipular systems, fear is a weakness or defect that should be eliminated or dealt with so a not to cause paralysis on the path.

After a long day of chasing the Nyagwahe, before he and his little dog go to sleep, he makes a fire and confidently states, “Nothing will harm us. Nothing can come close to our fire.” Later that night something mysterious occurs: a tall, dark figure with glowing green eyes appears and identifies itself as the Nyagwahe in its human shape. In the ancient Tibetan text, The Voice of the Silence, the aspirant to wisdom sees an intimidating shadow as he/she traverses the Path. He/she learns that is his/her own defects and weaknesses—his karma. The Nyagwahe represents the same thing. It is Swift Runner’s fears and weaknesses personified. Could it be that our greatest enemy is somehow inside us?

Both the Nyagwahe and Swift Runner are versed in magic. Their battle is not violent, but one of resolve. Finally when the monster can go on no longer, he uses one final trick to win. He tells the youth to aim for his heart, but Swift Runner reveals that he already knows that the only way to kill it is to shoot it in the sole of the foot. The Nyagwahe now knows it is beat. By winning the battle, Swift Runner gains magic powers, powers he uses to heal the sick and keep the Great Peace. In the story, Swift Runner brings back to life the people of his tribe that were killed by the Nyagwahe. A hero can make others remember their own strengths and potential, “bringing them back to life.”

One of the unique aspects of this tale, and others like it, is its playful nature. Although it is a matter of life and death, the authors of these stories, sages that they were, regarded the human being as fundamentally a spiritual being; so death is regarded simply as another aspect of life. What is important is how we “fight the battle” or “play the game.” Despite the severe trials that Swift Runner undergoes, he never once displays anguish or grief. Those emotions would not be useful and so he has no need for them. It’s simply a trial that he must overcome and in spite of the seriousness of the outcome, he doesn’t make a big drama out of it, focusing instead on the task at hand.

So this marvelous story makes us ask some interesting questions. What are we capable of? Are we sure that the limits we “objectively” place on ourselves are real? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? Can we use our strengths to help us overcome our weaknesses? Can we discover within ourselves hidden potentials of heroism and generosity? Dare we confidently grab the “wampum beads” and discover our true identity?


Bibliography

The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Annie Besant. 15th reprint. Wheaton, Ill.: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1985.

Blavatsky, Helena P. H.P.Blavatsky Collected Writings Volume XIV Miscellaneous. Wheaton, Ill.: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1985.

Blavatsky, Helena P. The Voice of the Silence. Pasadena, Ca.: Theosophical University Press, 1992.

Blavatsky, Helena P. Isis Unveiled. Pasadena, Ca.: Theosophical University Press, 1976.

Bruchac, Joseph. “Racing the Great Bear.” Flying with the eagle, racing the great bear: Stories from native North America. p. 15-23, BridgeWater Books: USA, 1993.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Trans.Aldington, Richard. New York: Crescent Books, 1987.

The Popol Vuh. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.