The Wisdom of Great Eagle: The Lesson of the Stubborn Elm

Presented here is a retelling of a Cherokee folktale called “The Lesson of the Elm Tree.”  It was told by a boy named James Ariga who was part Cherokee in 1947 at the Ten Mile River Scout Reservation and included in the, Treasury of American Indian Tales, by Theodore Whitson Ressler.

The Lesson of the Elm Tree

There was once a young boy of about eleven years of age named White Eagle who lived with his mother and father.  They were of the Cherokee people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains on the shores of a large lake.  In those days there was much talk of war and there were frequent skirmishes between his people and the different people who lived outside Cherokee territory.  His father’s name was Great Eagle and was a great and fearless warrior.  He was much respected and honored among his people not just for his bravery in battle but for his wisdom and nobility of spirit.

The Cherokees usually did not need to go far afield to catch game but there came a time there was little to be had close to home.  Therefore, Great Eagle led a hunting party north beyond Cherokee territory into the lands of the northern people.  He knew there would be fighting if the northerners discovered them but luckily they were quickly successful in the hunt and headed home without encountering any problems.  However, before they left the northern lands they came across a young boy wandering in the wilds alone who was clearly lost and famished. 

Great Eagle gave him food and contemplated what he should do with him.  He thought about his own son who was of similar age and did not like to think of him lost and alone in the wilderness.  

Therefore, he decided he could not leave the young boy alone to starve and there were many dangerous animals in these parts.  Thinking he would be a good companion and playmate for his own son he decided he would adopt him if the boy consented.  

After gently explaining to the boy his plan he asked if he would like to become part of his family and go home with him.  The boy agreed and told Great Eagle that his name was Little Frog.

The Cherokees lived in a fortified village patrolled with armed guards.  His father had told him about the fierce warriors of the Cherokee people and when Little Frog saw this he became very frightened.  On seeing the boy’s fear Great Eagle put his arm gently around his shoulder and spoke reassuringly to him.  Leading him to his lodge he introduced him to his wife who was to be his mother and then to his son, White Eagle, who would be his brother and playmate.

White Eagle was mighty pleased to have Little Frog, a boy of his own age, as his brother, companion and playmate.   Little Frog was also pleased and realized how lucky he had been when Great Eagle had found him. That night with the return of the hunting part bearing much game there was a great celebration with much singing, dancing and merrymaking.

The next morning, Great Eagle roused the boys from sleep as dawn was breaking.  He told them they were going to practice their skills with the bow and arrow and learn how to find game. He gave them both breakfast and both a bow and a quiver of arrows to match their stature and led them into the forest in search of game.  

Little Frog was feeling much happier and more secure.  His own father, mother and brother had been killed when hostile neighbors had attacked their village by surprise. Now, he was beginning to think of Great Eagle as his father and White Eagle as his brother and he liked it.  

As Great Eagle led them stealthily through the forest the two boys copied everything he did.  They heard the birds singing and then the snap of a twig as some animal stood on it.  Great Eagle crouched low and raised his hand for them to stop and they crouched low beside him.  Motioning them to stay he crept forward cautiously and quietly to investigate but soon returned to tell them that whatever snapped the twig was no longer there.

After traveling on through the forest Great Eagle decided it was time for rest and refreshment.  As they sat together on the trunk of a dead tree that lay across the forest floor he shared out food.

Little Frog asked White Eagle if he often went out into the forest with his father.  White Eagle replied, “Yes, my father is teaching me how to hunt and be a great warrior like him.”

Little frog was very impressed and once again realized how lucky he was that Great Eagle had adopted him.  Keeping up the conversation, White Eagle asked, “Are you missing your people and home village?  Do you miss your family?”

Little Frog replied, “No, after my family was killed I had no one to look after me.  No one in the village would help me and I had to work hard and beg for food.  One of the village braves took over my family wigwam and I was forced to sleep outside alone without shelter.  I miss my family but not my village.”

This made White Eagle realize just how lucky he was having a great warrior for a father, a mother to take care of him and give him food, shelter and love.  Now he had a brother and playmate as well and thought himself doubly lucky.

After a drink of cool water from a nearby spring Great Eagle led the boys onward signalling to them to be more stealthy.  The two boys followed, mimicking him carefully as they moved quietly forward.   Coming to a river they saw a beaver had built a dam and made its home there. 

Great Eagle motioned them to wait while he scouted around for the beaver.  He soon returned saying he could not see the beaver but it was time to make their way back home.  Along the way they would keep an eye open for turkeys and rabbits.  Both boys were disappointed they had not had a chance to try out their new bows and arrows but both trusted and obeyed Great Eagle unfailingly.

Coming to the edge of the forest, Great Eagle suddenly motioned for them to stop and pointed up along the trail where a cotton-tailed rabbit was sitting.  Seeing the rabbit White Eagle quickly raised his bow and fired off an arrow.  The aim was good and hit the rabbit.  

He was very pleased and excited and danced and sang, shouting at the top of his voice that he would take it for his mother to cook. His father calmed his son and looked at Little Frog and walked over to the rabbit.  He saw two arrows had hit it making it impossible to say whose had actually done the deed realizing Little Frog had fired simultaneously with his son.  Both boys began to claim the rabbit and began arguing over it.

Great Eagle found himself in a quandary.  He was always fair in his decisions and judgements and did not want it to look like he was taking sides especially as his own son was involved.  Therefore, after a pause for thought he said, 

“We can all  agree that both arrows were equally responsible as were those who fired them.”  

It is plain to see that you are both like stubborn elm trees and are both far better shots with a bow and arrow than I had realized!”

Saying no more Great Eagle picked up the rabbit and led them homewards.  Both boys followed on both happy with the decision he had made. That night in bed Little Frog turned over to face White Eagle and whispered, “What did he mean by saying we were like stubborn elms?”

White Eagle whispered back, “In the morning I will show you, but for now go to sleep.”

The next morning after breakfast Little Frog was still eager to know what Great Eagle had meant by calling them stubborn elms.  As he had promised the night before White Eagle led him out into the forest.  Every now and then he broke a branch from a tree and told Little Frog to copy what he did.  After breaking several branches from different trees they came to a young elm and White Eagle grasped a branch and tried to break it but he could not.  All he could do was bend it. Little Frog tried to help his friend but despite their combined strength they could not break it only bend it.

They had not noticed that Great Eagle had followed them and now he came up behind them and put his hand on their shoulders making them jump saying, 

“Now you can see for yourselves the reason I said you were like stubborn elms.  On your way you broke many trees.   In doing so you have observed how many trees can be broken and forced down.  Only the stubborn elm resists and can only be broken when several warriors lay their hands to it.

It is exactly the same with two proud boys who both believe they are in the right and place their equal strength against each.  Neither will give way just as the stubborn elm will not give way.

If I had applied my strength to the argument in favor of one or the other the loser may have bent to the earth and broken.  

When you believe yourself to be absolutely and with all honesty right, you can stand straight and tall as the stubborn elm tree.  

When you do things you do not truly believe in you leave the path of truth and wisdom and your enemies can break and defeat you.  Therefore, always remember the stubborn elm!”

© 26/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 26th, 2020 zteve t evans

Lycanthropy: Werewolves and the Law of Reciprocity

Gary Kramer / Public domain

Lycanthropy

There are many examples in folklore around the world that feature werewolves and lycanthropy where there is a transformation from human to wolf or vice versa. Sometimes a human may transform completely into a wolf or a wolf may transform into a human as is the case in this story.  In other examples a beastly hybrid of the two species – half-human – half wolf is the result. Sometimes the human shows some degree of shame or guilt over what they are and what they become. In the story below a werewolf in his human form expresses a frank admission to being both evil and fierce offering no excuses and showing no shame or guilt. He and his family, accept what they are without question and show no desire to be fully human. Quite simply they are what they are.  

The Law of Reciprocity

Despite their admission there is a very human law that appears to be of great importance to them and that is the Law of Reciprocity.  They never forget a kindness done to them. Part of that law says that when someone receives kindness from another they repay that person with an equal or better act of kindness in return. It can also mean that when someone hurts another the injured party in return repays that person with an equal amount of harm.  Another term may be “an eye, for an eye.”

Presented below is a retelling of a story titled “A Wolf Story, from Ancient legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland,” by Lady Wilde.  It is set in Ireland in a time when wolves roamed the wilds of that island and reveals a surprising side to werewolves not often seen while revealing a hidden gem of wisdom.

A Wolf Story

This story begins way back in Ireland many years before before the last wolf was killed in about 1786 and begins with a farmer named Connor.  One day as Connor was walking home through a lonely glen he heard a sniveling, whimpering sound, like some creature in great pain.  Looking around him he spied hiding in a thick bush a young wolf cub who appeared to be in great distress. He approached carefully and quietly not wishing to frighten it and not wanting to risk a confrontation with any parent wolf that might be at hand.

Wolf Cub

Seeing it was the cub was in considerable distress for a moment he was caught in two minds.  His first thought was that he could kill it and claim the reward the authorities gave on the production of a dead wolf.  His second thought was that here was a creature in distress who needed his assistance and without which it would surely die a slow, cruel, death.  Either way he could claim the reward. As a farmer he had at times had livestock taken by wolves and had little cause to find sympathy over the death of a wolf cub.  

Nevertheless,  he was an inherently kind man who objected to seeing the suffering of any creature.  A third thought then came to him that he should help it. Carefully examining the stricken creature found a large thorn in its side which he gently removed.  The small cub lay still in much distress and Connor thought that it would probably die anyway. Nevertheless, he resolved to help it all he could to live and put aside thoughts of reward. Therefore, before he left he got the stricken cub a drink of water and placed it in a safe place hoping a parent would find it. After offering s short prayers for its recovery he went on his way thinking no more of it.

Missing Cows

Time passed and he forgot the incident completely. One day many years later Connor was checking the well being of his livestock and was aghast to discover two of his finest cows were missing.  He looked all around his farmyard and searched his fields but no sign of them could he find anywhere on his property. Therefore he began a search of the surrounding countryside. He traveled on foot and in his hand he carried a stout blackthorn staff. This was to aid his walking and also for security for one never knew who or what was abroad in those days.

Having not the slightest idea which way his cows might have gone he walked around and around his property in ever widening circles asking everyone he came across if they had seen them.  He traveled many miles in this way and reached a considerable distance from his farm but no sight or sign did he see or hear any word of where his cows might be.

The Desolate Heath

All day long he walked and as evening began to fall he began to feel hungry and tired.  He had traveled along way from his farm and inhabited parts and realized he was alone in the wilds of a desolated and dark heath.  Looking all around at the dreary darkening landscape at first he could see no sign of any human presence other than a dilapidated, ancient shelter. At first he thought it to be thee den of some outlaw or vagabond or maybe some wild beast.

As he looked weighing up what do in the fast failing light he saw a small chink of light escaping from a crack in the boarding of the shelter. Thinking that there must be some human inhabitants present he took heart and approaching the shelter gently tapped on the door.   The door creaked open to reveal a tall, slender man with grey hair and dark glittering eyes. To Connor’ s surprise before he could say a word the old man spoke saying, “Ah! So you have found us at last.  Please come in, we have been awaiting you!”

Ushering the bemused farmer through the door and into the dwelling the old man gestured inside to an old  woman sitting by the fireside. She was thin and grey and had long,sharp teeth and her eyes eyes glittered lit by the flames of the fire. She gazed upon him and said, “Yes indeed you are welcome, we have been waiting for you to get here and now you are here and it is supper time.  Please won’t you join us for a bite to eat.”

A Family of Wolves

Connor was no coward but he was wary of the two and although bewildered he looked both up and down appraising them.  They were both old and weary looking but he was young and vigorous and still had his blackthorn staff. He reasoned he could quickly overcome them should he need and he was very, very hungry and outside the heath was steeped in pitch black darkness.  He knew he could never find his way back in the dark so he sat down at a table to join them, watching as the old woman stirred a bubbling pot hanging over the fire. Although she appeared to be giving all her attention to the pot he got the strange feeling that all the time she was watching him with her strange glittering eyes.

After a little while their came a knock at the door and the old man got up and opened it.  To the surprise of Connor in trotted a young, sleek, black wolf. Ignoring the visitor the black wolf trotted across the floor and disappeared into an adjoining room.  Shortly out of the adjoining room their came a handsome young man. He sat opposite Connor and looked hard and deep at him with glittering, penetrating eyes.

“Welcome, we have been awaiting your arrival,” he said at last. However, before the bemused farmer could answer there was another knock at the door.  Again the old man opened it and in trotted another handsome wolf that disappeared into the adjoining room.  Shortly, there emerged from this same room another handsome youth who sitting next to the first studied Connor intently with his glittering, grey eyes, but said not another word.

Connor’s Story

“These are our sons, ” said the old man gesturing towards the young men, “Now you must tell us what brings you here and what you want.  Few people ever come this way and we do not like strangers or to be spied upon.  Speak now and hold nothing back!”

So Connor told how he had lost his two cows and how he had begun searching for them.  Although he had searched all of his farm and the area around it but found no sign. He told how he began searching beyond his farm until he had at last arrived on this dark and bleak heath and found their home and was asked to take supper and shelter the night.  He told them he was no spy and not remotely interested in their doings though he wished them all good health and well being. Beginning to feel uncomfortable he added that if they could tell him where his cows were he would be most grateful and be off to find them.

After he had spoken his hosts looked from one to the other knowingly and laughed.  Connor was appalled at their laughter and although he feared their glittering eyes he grew angry and taking up his blackthorn staff said,. “I have told you my story with honesty and without guile and you mock me!”

Never Forget a Kindness

Now although he was outnumbered his anger was hot and standing up with his staff in his hand asked them to make way and he would go for he would not stay and be mocked and would rather face the the dark, desolate heath than stay. Their laughter stopped and the eldest of the young men who had been the first stood up and said,

Nay, friend pay our laughter no need.  We are fierce and we are evil, but we never forget one who has done us a kindness. Cast your mind back years ago to the day in the glen when you found a young wolf cub pierced through his side by a sharp thorn in agony and waiting for death. 

It was you who pulled out that thorn and tended my wound and gave me good water to drink. Having done all you possibly could you said a prayer for the cub’ s recovery and went your way to either die in peace or recover as God pleased.  I was that cub and it pleased God that I should recover.”

“Yes indeed I remember it and I am glad God saw fit to heal you,” said Connor, “and I remember how you licked my hand in gratitude!”

“Indeed I did, for I was greatly in your debt and still am but for now put your fear aside, sit down, enjoy supper with us and stay tonight with us without fear.  Tomorrow you shall find your cows and more,” the young man told him.

Putting his fear aside Connor sat down with them and partook of the meal.  Indeed it was a fine supper and he ate his fill and his hosts were merry, friendly and good company.  He soon fell asleep and after enjoying a good night of rest he awoke to find himself lying comfortably on one of his own hayricks in one of his fields.

Three Strange Cows

Remembering the events of the previous night and the words of the wolf he was optimistic he would at last find his cows.  Therefore hebset off in a circle looking for them. Although he searched all his fields and his farmyard he could find no trace of them and began to feel bitterly disappointed.   As he approached the haystack he had started from he saw that there were three fine looking cows quietly grazing in the field. Although they had a strange air they were very handsome and comely but he had never owned such cows and knew of no else who ever did either.  Nevertheless, being an honest man, wielding his blackthorn staff he tried to drive them out through the gate to find their proper owner.  

The Black Wolf

However, standing in the middle of the gateway stood a handsome black wolf who prevented the cows from passing through the gate.  Each time Connor tried to drive the cows through the wolf jumped up and drove them back. At last it dawned on him that this was the wolf he had spoken to the previous night whose life he had saved long ago in the glen.  Then he realized that the strange cows were a reward for saving the life of that wolf and so closed the gate and let the cows graze peacefully in the field.  

The Three Cows

Those three cows proved to produce the best milk and cream that made the finest butter and cheese in all of the island of Ireland.  Furthermore when he bred them they produced a fine, productive and valuable breed of cattle whose descendants still graze the rich grassy meadows of Ireland to this day.  

Connor wanted to thank the wolf but although he tried to find that dark and desolate heath he never could find it. He never again met one of those wolves who had been present that night.  Every now and then a hunter, or farmer, brought the body of a slain wolf into town to claim  bounty from the authorities for its death. This would cut him to the quick for he feared that it might be the wolf he had saved or one of his family. He could never know for sure but being a good man grieved nonetheless.

Through his kindness in saving the wolf cub Connor grew rich and prospered greatly and became proof of the ancient  Irish proverb,

“Blessings are won,

By a good deed done.”

The End

An Eye for an Eye

So on this occasion kindness was rewarded with kindness and Connor benefited greatly from it. Another relevant proverb is, “One good turn deserves another,” but what about when someone does us a bad turn is the opposite then true? Do we we invoke an “an eye for an eye“? When kindness is used people naturally want to repay in kind and there is a kind of gentle competitiveness to be the kindest. This builds strong positive bonds and relationships benefiting everyone, but when we enact an “eye for an eye,” everyone ends up blind.

Be kind!

© 26/02/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 26th, 2020 zteve t evans