Sunrise Magazine Online

An American Indian Legend Retold

Feathered Prometheus

By Hazel Minot

"Titan must be given fire," the Great Spirit said, "or he will be no better than the beasts. He must have physical fire to keep him warm, to cook his food with, to scare off those who prowl. He must have the fire of spirit to light the darkness of his mind: so shall he one day find his way among the stars, and come to know that he is brother to the gods."

A mighty roar sounded through the mountains and over the plains. "Who dares to say man shall be better than the beasts?"

"Who says that he shall not?" And the Great Spirit was heard upon the plains and beyond the most distant mountains.

"I say so! I, the bear, and with my paw will I hold man down and crush your puny fire, be it that of spirit or kindled from the hearth-fire of your wigwam!" Again that terrible roar, and the small creatures of the forest trembled.

The Great Spirit made no answer. Quietly, from his hearth-fire, he took a glowing coal and placed it in a cup of flint. Unseen, he made his way among men, but nowhere could he find the one he sought.

"They are not ready!" He shook his head sadly, remembering the threat of the bear. "The time is almost come, but not yet. Who will guard the sacred fire till man shall claim it?"

The beasts could not help: they feared the bear; besides, they too were jealous of man. The smaller creatures were timid, and yet . . . There came a flutter of wings, a gentle whirring, and a gray-brown bird lighted on the cup of flint.

"Will you be the friend of man, little brother?" the Great Spirit asked. And the bird circled upward and again settled upon the cup protectingly. "It shall be your trust, feathered one. Fan the coal with your wings to keep it glowing, but never let its light show beyond the cup, lest the bear put an end to you and it."

"Great Spirit" — the words were a whisper — "the bear rages now on the other side of the mountain. Place the cup deep within his cave. He will never look for it there, and I shall keep the light hidden beneath my wings."

So, for two days and two nights and on to the middle of a third, the gray-brown bird kept vigil. The bear roamed the mountain and the valley below searching for sign of the sacred fire. Each night he came back to the cave, but only to its entrance: he dared not go farther within lest something escape his notice without.

On the third day a man climbed to the cave. Young, vigorous, with an instinct for wood and mountain ways, he had surprised the bear descending to the valley. Despite all his cunning, the beast was trapped: a huge rock served to stun him, and with strands of the wild grape he was left bound and helpless.

Arrived at the cave, the man had looked about him as though expecting to see someone or something. Finding nothing at the entrance he went into the cave, but its darkness appalled him. Raising his arms in supplication he prayed: "Great Spirit! I have come where my feet and my heart have led me, but all is darkness. Give, O my Father, of thy light!"

There was a faint chirping, a flutter of wings, and the man turned toward the sound. Gently he raised the gray-brown bird, so weary from its vigil, and saw the sacred fire. With his breath he fanned it into brighter glow, and felt its warmth upon his body, its light within his mind.

Thus did the robin preserve the sacred fire for mankind; and to this day its breast is red in token of the faith it kept.

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The keepers of the sacred Light did not safely cross so many ages but to find themselves wrecked on the rocks of modern scepticism. Our pilots are too experienced sailors to allow us to fear any such disaster. — K. H.