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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Nature's Myths

Air Date: Week of December 22, 2000

Host Steve Curwood shares two of his favorite stories fom “The World’s Great Nature Myths” by Gary Ferguson.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Before we meet our guests, I thought I'd share a couple of my favorite stories out of Gary Ferguson's book The World's Great Nature Myths, published by Falcon Press. In the warmer parts of the world, of course, there is no winter, and in the tropics no shortest day. People there tend to celebrate the return of the light every day. While these cultures may not consider hibernation, they certainly do enjoy its short form, a good night's sleep. So let's start now with a tale from central India. Sleep, it seems, comes from flowers.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Did you know that when people first came to live in the world, they didn't know the simple pleasure of sleep? They worked, and then they worked some more, even on dark nights when there was no moon to light their toils. This greatly disturbed the guiding spirit, Nanga Baiga, who was wise enough to know that everything in heaven and on earth needed rest. But how to give slumber to humans? Finally, one morning in early October, Nanga Baiga decided to sprinkle a secret potion on the blooms of the aconite flowers. Whenever the wind blew, it carried the potion across the countryside and into the eyes of people, causing them to fall into a deep, untroubled sleep. The only problem was that the aconite flowers couldn't hold all that much of the mixture. In a month it was gone, and the people were right back to their restless ways. The solution, Nanga Baiga decided, was to make sleep come from a different flower every month.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And so it is today. Each month has a special flower that puts people to sleep. My favorite is the mango in April. Thus, it's thanks to Nanga Baiga and of course all these beautiful flowers that the people find rest in all seasons.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: But what if we didn't even have night at all? Indeed, that is where this folk tale from Brazil begins. It's called "The Coming of Night."

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: At the beginning of the world there was no such thing as night. The face of the sun was always full on the land, never rising and never setting, cloaking stars and moon alike. It was in these days that the lovely daughter of the Great Sea Serpent happened to fall in love with a human. In time they married. The daughter bid farewell to her ocean home and went to live with her husband under the bright sun. Though she was very much in love, living under the bright light of day was overwhelming to a being used to the shadow of the sea. Soon she grew withdrawn, despondent.

"There's something in my father's kingdom we call night," she told her worried husband. "It's a soothing darkness, a fabric woven out of heavy shadows, under which you can rest your eyes. Where you can sleep without burden. If only I could have a little night."

On hearing this, the husband summoned three of his most trustworthy servants. "I have urgent business for you," he told them. "You must travel to the kingdom of the Great Sea Serpent and tell him that his daughter is in dire need of darkness. Tell him that she may die here if she can't gain a slice of night." And off they ran to the sea.

On hearing this troubling news, the Great Sea Serpent hurried off into the shadows to fill a bag with night, sealed it tight, and then gave it to the servants. "Remember one thing," he told the three men. "Whatever you do, don't open this bag until you reach my daughter." This sounds like a simple enough task. True, the bag was heavy, but these were strong men, used to carrying such weight on their heads for miles at a time.

But there were strange sounds coming from that bag full of night. The piercing cries of night birds and the drone of insects. A chorus of hoots and howls unlike anything they'd ever heard. And soon, curiosity overcame them.

So they laid the bag on the ground and broke the serpent's wax seal. In a wink, all the birds and bugs and beasts spilled out, wrapped in a huge cloud of night.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Back in the village, Sea Serpent's daughter sat under a royal palm tree, waiting for the servants' return. Shortly after the bag was opened, she happened to raise her tired eyes and see the mist of night gathering on the horizon. With a happy sigh she laid down under the palm and fell into a blissful sleep.

She woke in that time between darkness and dawn, healthy, filled with joy, a princess again. As she walked, she spoke to those things that would become key players in the hours between dusk and morning. She told the rooster it would be his job to keep watch and call out at the approach of day. Likewise she spoke to the star we know as Morning Star, giving it her blessing to rule the sky just before dawn. So many birds she commanded to sing the finest songs in those magic hours.

It's thanks to night spilling out at the hands of those servants that in Brazil, darkness rolls quickly over the earth. It's because of them that the creatures of the night break into a loud chorus at the first sign of the setting sun.

 

 

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