Myths & Legends


Ojibwe: The Undying Head

Then Iamo told them that, since they had all died and been restored to life again, they were no longer mortals but spirits, and he assigned to each of them a station in the invisible world. Only Mudjikewis’ place was, however, named. He was to direct the west wind. The brothers were commanded, as they had it in their power, to do good to the inhabitants of the earth, and to give all things with a liberal hand.

The undying head fable had other forms, found on this site.
— Orly

In a remote part of the north lived a man and his only sister who had never seen human being. Seldom, if ever, had the man any cause to go from home, for if he wanted food he had only to go a little distance from the lodge, and there place his arrows with their barbs in the ground. He would then return to the lodge and tell his sister where the arrows had been placed, when she would go in search of them, and never fail to find each struck through the heart of a deer. These she dragged to the lodge and dressed for food. Thus she lived until she attained womanhood. One day her brother, who was named Iamo, said to her—

“Sister, the time is near when you will be ill. Listen to my advice, for if you do not it will probably be the cause of my death. Take the implements with which we kindle our fires, go some distance from our lodge and build a separate fire. When you are in want of food I will tell you where to find it. You must cook for yourself and I for myself. When you are ill do not attempt to come near the lodge or bring to it any of the utensils you use. Be sure to always have fastened to your belt whatever you will need in your sickness, for you do not know when the time of your indisposition will come. As for myself, I must do the best I can.” His sister promised to obey him in all he said.

Shortly after her brother had cause to go from home. His sister was alone in the lodge combing her hair, and she had just untied and laid aside the belt to which the implements were fastened when suddenly she felt unwell. She ran out of the lodge, but in her haste forgot the belt. Afraid to return she stood some time thinking, and finally she determined to return to the lodge and get it, for she said to herself—

“My brother is not at home, and I will stay but a moment to catch hold of it.”

She went back, and, running in, suddenly seized the belt, and was coming out, when her brother met her. He knew what had happened.

“Did I not tell you,” said he, “to take care? Now you have killed me.”

His sister would have gone away, but he spoke to her again.

“What can you do now? What I feared has happened. Go in, and stay where you have always lived. You have killed me.”

He then laid aside his hunting dress and accoutrements, and soon after both his feet began to inflame and turn black, so that he could not move. He directed his sister where to place his arrows, so that she might always have food. The inflammation continued to increase, and had now reached his first rib.

“Sister,” said he, “my end is near. You must do as I tell you. You see my medicine-sack and my war-club tied to it. It contains all my medicines, my war-plumes, and my paints of all colours. As soon as the inflammation reaches my chest, you will take my war-club, and with the sharp point of it cut off my head. When it is free from my body, take it, place its neck in the sack, which you must open at one end. Then hang it up in its former place. Do not forget my bow and arrows. One of the last you will take to procure food. Tie the others to my sack, and then hang it up so that I can look towards the door. Now and then I will speak to you, but not often.”

His sister again promised to obey.

In a little time his chest became affected.

“Now,” cried he, “take the club and strike off my head.”

His sister was afraid, but he told her to muster up courage.

“Strike,” said he, with a smile upon his face.

Calling up all her courage, his sister struck and cut off the head.

“Now,” said the head, “place me where I told you.”

Fearful, she obeyed it in all its commands.

Retaining its animation, it looked round the lodge as usual, and it would command its sister to go to such places where it thought she could best procure the flesh of the different animals she needed. One day the head said—

“The time is not distant when I shall be freed from this situation, but I shall have to undergo many sore evils. So the Superior Manito decrees, and I must bear all patiently.”

In a certain part of the country was a village inhabited by a numerous and warlike band of Indians. In this village was a family of ten young men, brothers. In the spring of the year the youngest of these blackened his face and fasted. His dreams were propitious, and having ended his fast, he sent secretly for his brothers at night, so that the people in the village should not be aware of their meeting. He told them how favourable his dreams had been, and that he had called them together to ask them if they would accompany him in a war excursion. They all answered they would. The third son, noted for his oddities, swinging his war-club when his brother had ceased speaking, jumped up: “Yes,” said he, “I will go, and this will be the way I will treat those we go to fight with.” With those words he struck the post in the centre of the lodge, and gave a yell. The other brothers spoke to him, saying—

“Gently, gently, Mudjikewis, when you are in other people’s lodges.” So he sat down. Then, in turn, they took the drum, sang their songs, and closed the meeting with a feast. The youngest told them not to whisper their intention to their wives, but to prepare secretly for their journey. They all promised obedience, and Mudjikewis was the first to do so.

The time for departure drew near. The youngest gave the word for them to assemble on a certain night, when they would commence their journey. Mudjikewis was loud in his demands for his moccasins, and his wife several times demanded the reason of his impatience.

“Besides,” said she, “you have a good pair on.”

“Quick, quick,” replied Mudjikewis; “since you must know, we are going on a war excursion.”

Thus he revealed the secret.

That night they met and started. The snow was on the ground, and they travelled all night lest others should follow them. When it was daylight, the leader took snow, made a ball of it, and tossing it up in the air, said—

“It was in this way I saw snow fall in my dream, so that we could not be tracked.”

Immediately snow began to fall in large flakes, so that the leader commanded the brothers to keep close together for fear of losing one another. Close as they walked together it was with difficulty they could see one another. The snow continued falling all that day and the next night, so that it was impossible for any one to follow their track.

They walked for several days, and Mudjikewis was always in the rear. One day, running suddenly forward, he gave the Saw-saw-quan (war-cry), and struck a tree with his war-club, breaking the tree in pieces as if it had been struck by lightning.

“Brothers,” said he, “this is the way I will serve those we are going to fight.”

The leader answered—

“Slowly, slowly, Mudjikewis. The one I lead you to is not to be thought of so lightly.”

Again Mudjikewis fell back and thought to himself—

“What, what! Who can this be he is leading us to?”

He felt fearful, and was silent. Day after day they travelled on till they came to an extensive plain, on the borders of which human bones were bleaching in the sun. The leader said—

“These are the bones of those who have gone before us. None has ever yet returned to tell the sad tale of their fate.”

Again Mudjikewis became restless, and, running forward, gave the accustomed yell. Advancing to a large rock which stood above the ground he struck it, and it fell to pieces.

“See, brothers,” said he, “thus will I treat those we are going to fight.”

“Be quiet,” said the leader. “He to whom I am leading you is not to be compared to that rock.”

Mudjikewis fell back quite thoughtful, saying to himself—

“I wonder who this can be that he is going to attack;” and he was afraid.

They continued to see the remains of former warriors who had been to the place to which they were now going, and had retreated thus far back again. At last they came to a piece of rising ground, from which they plainly saw on a distant mountain an enormous bear. The distance between them was very great, but the size of the animal caused it to be seen very clearly.

“There,” said the leader; “it is to him I am leading you. Here our troubles will only commence, for he is a mishemokwa” (a she-bear, or a male-bear as ferocious as a she-bear) “and a manito. It is he who has what we prize so dearly, to obtain which the warriors whose bones we saw sacrificed their lives. You must not be fearful. Be manly; we shall find him asleep.”

The warriors advanced boldly till they came near to the bear, when they stopped to look at it more closely. It was asleep, and there was a belt around its neck.

“This,” said the leader, touching the belt, “is what we must get. It contains what we want.”

The eldest brother then tried to slip the belt over the bear’s head, the animal appearing to be fast asleep, and not at all disturbed by his efforts. He could not, however, remove the belt, nor was any of the brothers more successful till the one next to the youngest tried in his turn. He slipped the belt nearly over the beast’s head, but could not get it quite off. Then the youngest laid his hands on it, and with a pull succeeded. Placing the belt on the eldest brother’s back, he said—

“Now we must run,” and they started off at their best pace. When one became tired with the weight of the belt another carried it. Thus they ran till they had passed the bones of all the warriors, and when they were some distance beyond, looking back, they saw the monster slowly rising. For some time it stood still, not missing the belt. Then they heard a tremendous howl, like distant thunder, slowly filling the sky. At last they heard the bear cry—

“Who can it be that has dared to steal my belt? Earth is not so large but I can find them,” and it descended the hill in pursuit. With every jump of the bear the earth shook as if it were convulsed. Very soon it approached the party. They, however, kept the belt, exchanging it from one to another, and encouraging each other. The bear, however, gained on them fast.

“Brothers,” said the leader, “have none of you, when fasting, ever dreamed of some friendly spirit who would aid you as a guardian?”

A dead silence followed.

“Well,” continued he, “once when I was fasting I dreamed of being in danger of instant death, when I saw a small lodge, with smoke curling up from its top. An old man lived in it, and I dreamed that he helped me, and may my dream be verified soon.”

Having said this, he ran forward and gave a yell and howl. They came upon a piece of rising ground, and, behold! a lodge with smoke curling from its top appeared before them. This gave them all new strength, and they ran forward and entered the lodge. In it they found an old man, to whom the leader said—

“Nemesho (my grandfather), help us. We ask your protection, for the great bear would kill us.”

“Sit down and eat, my grandchildren,” said the old man. “Who is a great manito? There is none but me; but let me look;” and he opened the door of the lodge, and saw at a little distance the enraged bear coming on with slow but great leaps. The old man closed the door.

“Yes,” said he; “he is indeed a great manito. My grandchildren, you will be the cause of my losing my life. You asked my protection, and I granted it; so now, come what may, I will protect you. When the bear arrives at the door you must run out at the other end of the lodge.”

Putting his hand to the side of the lodge where he sat, he took down a bag, and, opening it, took out of it two small black dogs, which he placed before him.

“These are the ones I use when I fight,” said he, and he commenced patting with both hands the sides of one of the dogs, which at once commenced to swell out until it filled the lodge, and it had great strong teeth. When the dog had attained its full size it growled, and, springing out at the door, met the bear, which, in another leap, would have reached the lodge. A terrible combat ensued. The sky rang with the howls of the monsters. In a little while the second dog took the field. At the commencement of the battle the brothers, acting on the advice of the old man, escaped through the opposite side of the lodge. They had not proceeded far in their flight before they heard the death-cry of one of the dogs, and soon after that of the other.

“Well,” said the leader, “the old man will soon share their fate, so run, run! the bear will soon be after us.”

The brothers started with fresh vigour, for the old man had refreshed them with food; but the bear very soon came in sight again, and was evidently fast gaining upon them. Again the leader asked the warriors if they knew of any way in which to save themselves. All were silent. Running forward with a yell and a howl, the leader said—

“I dreamed once that, being in great trouble, an old man, who was a manito, helped me. We shall soon see his lodge.”

Taking courage, the brothers still went on, and, after going a short distance, they saw a lodge. Entering it, they found an old man, whose protection they claimed, saying that a manito was pursuing them.

“Eat,” said the old man, putting meat before them. “Who is a manito? There is no manito but me. There is none whom I fear.”

Then he felt the earth tremble as the bear approached, and, opening the door of the lodge, he saw it coming. The old man shut the door slowly, and said—

“Yes, my grandchildren, you have brought trouble upon me.”

Taking his medicine sack, he took out some small war-clubs of black stone, and told the young men to run through the other side of the lodge. As he handled the clubs they became an enormous size, and the old man stepped out as the bear reached the door. He struck the beast with one of his clubs, which broke in pieces, and the bear stumbled. The old man struck it again with the other club, and that also broke, but the bear fell insensible. Each blow the old man struck sounded like a clap of thunder, and the howls of the bear ran along the skies.

The brothers had gone some distance before they looked back. They then saw that the bear was recovering from the blows. First it moved its paws, and then they saw it rise to its feet. The old man shared the fate of the first, for the warriors heard his cries as he was torn in pieces. Again the monster was in pursuit, and fast overtaking them. Not yet discouraged, the young men kept on their way, but the bear was so close to them that the leader once more applied to his brothers, but they could do nothing.

“Well,” said he, “my dreams will soon be exhausted. After this I have but one more.”

He advanced, invoking his guardian spirit to aid him.

“Once,” said he, “I dreamed that, being sorely pressed, I came to a large lake, on the shore of which was a canoe, partly out of water, and having ten paddles all in readiness. Do not fear,” he cried, “we shall soon get to it.”

It happened as he had said. Coming to the lake, the warriors found the canoe with the ten paddles, and immediately took their places in it. Putting off, they paddled to the centre of the lake, when they saw the bear on the shore. Lifting itself on its hind-legs, it looked all around. Then it waded into the water until, losing its footing, it turned back, and commenced making the circuit of the lake. Meanwhile the warriors remained stationary in the centre watching the animal’s movements. It travelled round till it came to the place whence it started. Then it commenced drinking up the water, and the young men saw a strong current fast setting in towards the bear’s mouth. The leader encouraged them to paddle hard for the opposite shore. This they had nearly reached, when the current became too strong for them, and they were drawn back by it, and the stream carried them onwards to the bear.

Then the leader again spoke, telling his comrades to meet their fate bravely.

“Now is the time, Mudjikewis,” said he, “to show your prowess. Take courage, and sit in the bow of the canoe, and, when it approaches the bear’s mouth, try what effect your club will have on the beast’s head.”

Mudjikewis obeyed, and, taking his place, stood ready to give the blow, while the leader, who steered, directed the canoe to the open mouth of the monster.

Rapidly advancing, the canoe was just about to enter the bear’s mouth, when Mudjikewis struck the beast a tremendous blow on the head, and gave the saw-saw-quan. The bear’s limbs doubled under it, and it fell stunned by the blow, but before Mudjikewis could strike again the monster sent from its mouth all the water it had swallowed with such force that the canoe was immediately carried by the stream to the other side of the lake. Leaving the canoe, the brothers fled, and on they went till they were completely exhausted. Again they felt the earth shake, and, looking back, saw the monster hard after them. The young men’s spirits drooped, and they felt faint-hearted. With words and actions the leader exerted himself to cheer them, and once more he asked them if they could do nothing, or think of nothing, that might save them. All were silent as before.

“Then,” said he, “this is the last time I can apply to my guardian spirit. If we do not now succeed, our fate is decided.”

He ran forward, invoking his spirit with great earnestness, and gave the yell.

“We shall soon arrive,” said he to his brothers, “at the place where my last guardian spirit dwells. In him I place great confidence. Do not be afraid, or your limbs will be fear-bound. We shall soon reach his lodge. Run, run!”

What had in the meantime passed in the lodge of Iamo? He had remained in the same condition, his head in the sack, directing his sister where to place the arrows to procure food, and speaking at long intervals.

One day the girl saw the eyes of the head brighten as if with pleasure. At last it spoke.

“O sister!” it said, “in what a pitiful situation you have been the cause of placing me! Soon, very soon, a band of young men will arrive and apply to me for aid; but alas! how can I give what I would with so much pleasure have afforded them? Nevertheless, take two arrows, and place them where you have been in the habit of placing the others, and have meat cooked and prepared before they arrive. When you hear them coming, and calling on my name, go out and say, ‘Alas! it is long ago since an accident befell him. I was the cause of it.’ If they still come near, ask them in, and set meat before them. Follow my directions strictly. A bear will come. Go out and meet him, taking my medicine sack, bow and arrows, and my head. You must then untie the sack, and spread out before you my paints of all colours, my war eagle-feathers, my tufts of dried hair, and whatsoever else the sack contains. As the bear approaches take these articles, one by one, and say to him, ‘This is my dead brother’s paint,’ and so on with all the articles, throwing each of them as far from you as you can. The virtue contained in the things will cause him to totter. Then, to complete his destruction, you must take my head and cast it as far off as you can, crying aloud, ‘See, this is my dead brother’s head!’ He will then fall senseless. While this is taking place the young men will have eaten, and you must call them to your aid. You will, with their assistance, cut the carcass of the bear into pieces—into small pieces—and scatter them to the winds, for unless you do this he will again come to life.”

The sister promised that all should be done as he commanded, and she had only time to prepare the meal when the voice of the leader of the band of warriors was heard calling on Iamo for aid. The girl went out and did as she had been directed. She invited the brothers in and placed meat before them, and while they were eating the bear was heard approaching. Untying the medicine sack and taking the head the girl made all ready for its approach. When it came up she did as her brother directed, and before she had cast down all the paints the bear began to totter, but, still advancing, came close to her. Then she took the head and cast it from her as far as she could, and as it rolled upon the ground the bear, tottering, fell with a tremendous noise. The girl cried for help, and the young men rushed out.

Mudjikewis, stepping up, gave a yell, and struck the bear a blow on the head. This he repeated till he had dashed out its brains. Then the others, as quickly as possible, cut the monster up into very small pieces and scattered them in all directions. As they were engaged in this they were surprised to find that wherever the flesh was thrown small black bears appeared, such as are seen at the present day, which, starting up, ran away. Thus from this monster the present race of bears derives its origin.

Having overcome their pursuer the brothers returned to the lodge, and the girl gathered together the articles she had used, and placed the head in the sack again. The head remained silent, probably from its being fatigued with its exertion in overcoming the bear.

Having spent so much time, and having traversed so vast a country in their flight, the young men gave up the idea of ever returning to their own country, and game being plentiful about the lodge, they determined to remain where they were. One day they moved off some distance from the lodge for the purpose of hunting, and left the belt with the girl. They were very successful, and amused themselves with talking and jesting. One of them said—

“We have all this sport to ourselves. Let us go and ask our sister if she will not let us bring the head to this place, for it is still alive.”

So they went and asked for the head. The girl told them to take it, and they carried it to their hunting-grounds and tried to amuse it, but only at times did they see its eyes beam with pleasure. One day, while they were busy in their encampment, they were unexpectedly attacked by unknown enemies. The fight was long and fierce. Many of the foes were slain, but there were thirty of them to each warrior. The young men fought desperately till they were all killed, and then the attacking party retreated to a high place to muster their men and count the missing and the slain. One of the men had strayed away, and happened to come to where the head was hung up. Seeing that it was alive he eyed it for some time with fear and surprise. Then he took it down, and having opened the sack he was much pleased to see the beautiful feathers, one of which he placed on his head.

It waved gracefully over him as he walked to his companions’ camp, and when he came there he threw down the head and sack and told his friends how he had found them, and how the sack was full of paints and feathers. The men all took the head and made sport of it. Many of the young men took the paint and painted themselves with it; and one of the band, taking the head by the hair, said—

“Look, you ugly thing, and see your paints on the faces of warriors.”

The feathers were so beautiful that many of the young men placed them on their heads, and they again subjected the head to all kinds of indignity. They were, however, soon punished for their insulting conduct, for all who had worn the feathers became sick and died. Then the chief commanded the men to throw all the paints and feathers away.

“As for the head,” he said, “we will keep that and take it home with us; we will there see what we can do with it. We will try to make it shut its eyes.”

Meanwhile for several days the sister had been waiting for the brothers to bring back the head; till at last, getting impatient, she went in search of them. She found them lying within short distances of one another, dead, and covered with wounds. Other bodies lay scattered around. She searched for the head and sack, but they were nowhere to be found, so she raised her voice and wept, and blackened her face. Then she walked in different directions till she came to the place whence the head had been taken, and there she found the bow and arrows, which had been left behind. She searched further, hoping to find her brother’s head, and, when she came to a piece of rising ground she found some of his paints and feathers. These she carefully put by, hanging them to the branch of a tree.

At dusk she came to the first lodge of a large village. Here she used a charm employed by Indians when they wish to meet with a kind reception, and on applying to the old man and the woman who occupied the lodge she was made welcome by them. She told them her errand, and the old man, promising to help her, told her that the head was hung up before the council fire, and that the chiefs and young men of the village kept watch over it continually. The girl said she only desired to see the head, and would be satisfied if she could only get to the door of the lodge in which it was hung, for she knew she could not take it by force.

“Come with me,” said the old man, “I will take you there.”

So they went and took their seats in the lodge near to the door. The council lodge was filled with warriors amusing themselves with games, and constantly keeping up the fire to smoke the head to dry it. As the girl entered the lodge the men saw the features of the head move, and, not knowing what to make of it, one spoke and said—

“Ha! ha! it is beginning to feel the effects of the smoke.”

The sister looked up from the seat by the door; her eyes met those of her brother, and tears began to roll down the cheeks of the head.

“Well,” said the chief, “I thought we would make you do something at last. Look! look at it shedding tears,” said he to those around him, and they all laughed and made jokes upon it. The chief, looking around, observed the strange girl, and after some time said to the old man who brought her in—

“Who have you got there? I have never seen that woman before in our village.”

“Yes,” replied the old man, “you have seen her. She is a relation of mine, and seldom goes out. She stays in my lodge, and she asked me to bring her here.”

In the centre of the lodge sat one of those young men who are always forward, and fond of boasting and displaying themselves before others.

“Why,” said he, “I have seen her often, and it is to his lodge I go almost every night to court her.”

All the others laughed and continued their games. The young man did not know he was telling a lie to the girl’s advantage, who by means of it escaped.

She returned to the old man’s lodge, and immediately set out for her own country. Coming to the spot where the bodies of her adopted brothers lay, she placed them together with their feet towards the east. Then taking an axe she had she cast it up into the air, crying out—

“Brothers, get up from under it or it will fall on you!”

This she repeated three times, and the third time all the brothers rose and stood on their feet. Mudjikewis commenced rubbing his eyes and stretching himself.

“Why,” said he, “I have overslept myself.”

“No, indeed,” said one of the others. “Do you not know we were all killed, and that it is our sister who has brought us to life?”

The brothers then took the bodies of their enemies and burned them. Soon after the girl went to a far country, they knew not where, to procure wives for them, and she returned with the women, whom she gave to the young men, beginning with the eldest. Mudjikewis stepped to and fro, uneasy lest he should not get the one he liked, but he was not disappointed, for she fell to his lot; and the two were well matched, for she was a female magician.

The young men and their wives all moved into a very large lodge, and their sister told them that one of the women must go in turns every night to try and recover the head of her brother, untying the knots by which it was hung up in the council lodge. The women all said they would go with pleasure. The eldest made the first attempt. With a rushing noise she disappeared through the air.

Towards daylight she returned. She had failed, having only succeeded in untying one of the knots. All the women save the youngest went in turn, and each one succeeded in untying only one knot each time. At length the youngest went. As soon as she arrived at the lodge she went to work. The smoke from the fire in the lodge had not ascended for ten nights. It now filled the place and drove all the men out. The girl was alone, and she carried off the head.

The brothers and Iamo’s sister heard the young woman coming high through the air, and they heard her say—

“Prepare the body of our brother.”

As soon as they heard that they went to where Iamo’s body lay, and, having got it ready, as soon as the young woman arrived with the head they placed it to the body, and Iamo was restored in all his former manliness and beauty. All rejoiced in the happy termination of their troubles, and when they had spent some time joyfully together, Iamo said—

“Now I will divide the treasure,” and taking the bear’s belt he commenced dividing what it contained amongst the brothers, beginning with the eldest. The youngest brother, however, got the most splendid part of the spoil, for the bottom of the belt held what was richest and rarest.

Then Iamo told them that, since they had all died and been restored to life again, they were no longer mortals but spirits, and he assigned to each of them a station in the invisible world. Only Mudjikewis’ place was, however, named. He was to direct the west wind. The brothers were commanded, as they had it in their power, to do good to the inhabitants of the earth, and to give all things with a liberal hand.

The spirits then, amid songs and shouts, took their flight to their respective places, while Iamo and his sister, Iamoqua, descended into the depths below.


Source:  Anonymous

Culture:  Ojibwe

Language:  Algonquin


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