Legends are stories that are exaggerated for effect. They may be told for entertainment purposes or to provide insight into our lives. Sometimes they do both.
One of my favorite legends, which comes from Northwest Native American tribes, shows how deception works. It goes like this:
Grandfather spoke to the children gathered around him one quiet summer’s evening on the riverbank where the wood fire was flickering away. The songbirds had put their music to rest for the night.
“Okay, one more story before you go to bed. What would you like to hear?”
“The one about the raven and the fish!” they shouted together.
Grandfather smiled and began.
“Well, one afternoon Raven came upon a group of old men who were fishing, as they had for decades, in this very river. Raven hid behind a bush and watched them for days without being seen. Then, one morning, he approached the fishermen with curiosity. ‘What are you using for bait?’ inquired Raven.
‘Can you show me how you put the fat on the hook?
The fishermen were happy to show off their skill and readily taught him how to bait a hook correctly.
The next day when the old men went fishing, Raven hid behind a rock and waited. Once the bait was cast, Raven dove into the water and swam faster than any fish ever could. Knowing how the bait was put on the hook, he was able to quickly steal it and return to his place behind the rock before the fisherman knew what had happened. Raven had himself a great feast.
This went on for several days, but Raven tried his trick once too often. One morning when the fisherman felt a slight tug on his line, he was ready, yanked hard and pulled Raven’s beak off. The fisherman reeled in the beak and all the men looked at it, agreeing that it must be an evil spirit.
They quit fishing and went home to examine what they had found. Raven, in great pain, followed them, desperate to get his beak back. When he arrived at the fishermen’s house, he turned himself into a man and went inside. He sat with the fishermen as they passed the beak around. Raven waited patiently for his turn to hold the beak. When it came to him, he put it on his face, turned back into Raven and immediately flew out the smoke hole in the ceiling.
That night, Raven had his beak again and a full belly, but was it worth all the pain he had suffered?
“Okay kids, time to call it a night,” announced Grandfather. The kids, laughing with glee, jumped up, hugged their grandfather, and went to their beds, where they slept well.
Why do I like this story? First, it’s fun. Second, it’s complexly layered, involving three different deceivers:
- Fat tells the fish it is their meal, but it isn’t.
- The old men use fat to deceive the fish into thinking they will be fed. But it is the fish who will be feeding the fishermen.
- With feigned interest in their baiting technique, Raven deceives the fishermen into showing him how to bait a hook and, therefore, how to remove the bate. He uses this knowledge against the fishermen. Raven later deceives the fishermen by looking like a man. This allows him to get his beak back. The trickster Raven was lucky this time. Next time? Perhaps not.
Deception promotes a belief, idea, or concept that is not true. Sometimes deceivers are not aware they are deceiving. Other times they deceive knowingly for personal gain or advantage.
Deception can involve distraction, camouflage, and/or concealment and can do harm to others.
Therefore, it is important for us to know about deception. In the age of rampant disinformation on social media, it behooves us all to examine carefully what we read, write, say, and communicate to others.
Sometimes senior citizens are more trusting and therefore more vulnerable to deception. I myself have been a victim. I was once deceived by a phone caller to whom I revealed personal information. This resulted in my needing to change credit cards, passwords, and bank information to protect myself from this swindler.
Like the fish and the fishermen, I thought I was above deception. I was wrong. In fact, everyone is vulnerable to expert deceivers who defraud others. Collectively, we all suffer from deception when it makes us feel unsafe in our homes and communities.
Deception divides us and takes the trust, joy, and kindness out of relationships. This is painful because most senior citizens want to “age gracefully” and live with truth and integrity. I don’t want to feel angry at being “duped” and insecure about my ability to tell the difference between truth and falsehoods.
The story of Raven illustrates another important point: deception also harms the deceiver. Raven suffered both physical and emotional pain from his deception. Humorist Will Rogers got it right when he said, “I would rather be the one who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the one who sold it.”
In the end, nothing positive comes from deception. Except maybe a good story!
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.