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1.21.2012

Rainbow Crow (1989)

Retold by Nancy Van Laan

Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

Dragonfly Books

I know I've heard this one before, but maybe I'm just thinking of the story of the Phoenix. Bird travels to the sun and becomes charred in the process. Doesn't that sound familiar to you, too? This incarnation is Lenape, and the author, Nancy Van Laan, first heard it herself while at a corn-planting ceremony - a good place to hear stories - from a Lenape Elder, from whom it had been handed down "from father to son, for countless generations."

Long, long ago, before the Two-Legged walked the Earth it begins, in a Garden of Eden-esque splendor, animals lounging about in sunny contentment, not a care in the sky, and crows were not black at all, but contained all of the colors of the rainbow. But then, one day, the Earth grew cold, and "tiny crystals, glittering like diamonds, drifted down from the sky, covering Earth with a sparkling softness." Snow, in other - less poetic - words.

Except this is a snow which would make Noah and his Ark feel at home, for as it falls, it slowly buries all of the inhabitants of the earth. One by one, they all vanish beneath the heavy falling white stuff. The rabbit is just two ears poking out, a tip of a tail over here, and on and on, over the course of several pages, until finally, the surviving animals elect Rainbow Crow to journey to the Great Sky Spirit and ask it to kindly knock it off. Or, as the Rainbow Crow puts it:

O Great Spirit in the Sky,
You rule the Earth from way up high.
You make the creatures, large and small,
You are the ruler of us all.
You make the trees and flowers grow,
You cause the wind and clouds to blow,
You make the rain, you make the snow,
You make the cold on Earth below.
O Great Spirit in the Sky,
For you, I sing this lullaby.

I like the Great Spirit's polytheistic answer: "I cannot stop the snow, for snow has a spirit of its own."

I wonder if this is the first time Rainbow Crow and the other animals realize the cosmology of the world they live. Did they know that there are spirits to whom the Great Spirit is not lord? Regardless of the theological implications, Rainbow Crow returns to Earth with a burning fire in its beak - a gift from the Great Spirit to combat the snow. In the process, he takes on the form he had today.

"Soon the Two-Legged will appear on Earth. He will take the Fire and be master of all of you," pronounces the Great Spirit. In this context, Rainbow Crow seems a direct allegory for the Greek god Prometheus. Although Prometheus stole the fire to give it to the humans, Rainbow Crow was given it freely. As the story ends, crow flies through the sky, "proud that he was now Black Crow, with shining feathers full of tiny rainbows."

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