A Haida Cure for Hubris

April 3, 2017 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales, Psychology

Haida Canoe, Alert Bay, The American Museum Journal, Volume X, 1910.

Haida Canoe, Alert Bay, The American Museum Journal, Volume X, 1910.

Here’s a proverb from the Haida, an indigenous people of the northwest coast of North America: “Tlgaay higha ttlabju’waaga.”  In English it translates to: “The world is as sharp as a knife.” A folktale was passed down along with this saying to illuminate further:

“A man once said to his careless son: The world is as sharp as a knife. If you don’t watch out, you’ll fall right off. His son replied that the earth was wide and flat; no one could fall off. And as he kicked at the ground to show how solid and reliable it was, he ran a splinter into his foot and died soon after.” Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife

From the moment I heard this story I loved it, the suddenness of it, like a flick of a knife, the ending so curt it leaves the mind reeling. The meaning, the moral, is not tied up nicely, but left to sink into you, slowly, if your mind doesn’t seek to reject it instantly as “just a story.”

Seven Ravens, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909.

Seven Ravens, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Arthur Rackham, illustrator. London: Constable & Company Ltd, 1909.

When the Grimm brothers first published the folktales they’d compiled from people scattered throughout northern Europe, they’d left them mostly unaltered. The original book printing was akin to the original telling, straight from the mouth of someone steeped in the culture that birthed the story. And so the tales were dark and twisty, and silly, and filthy, rattled off the brain and not at all the polished versions we know today.  With each later edition, the Grimms altered these stories further, cleaning them up until they became the sanitized purveyors of victorian morality, do’s and don’t’s for children everywhere, and hardly connected at all with the original, more tangled, folktales.

I don’t want to make this same mistake with this Haida story, to explain it away, to attach my own outsider meaning to the tale as if it was fact, when it’s only interpretation. But again and again I’ve remembered this proverb in times of confusion and sorrow, when things weren’t as I assumed they’d be, and I’ve found its message to be so true, so strangely healing, as only a story can be. So, I humbly offer a brief glimpse into the story as seen through my eyes:

Of hubris, beware! The world is wild and filled with the its own will and ways, and there are oh so many sharp edges to fall off of when we blind ourselves…

From a set of original drawings by John Austen for a published volume of Shakespeare's Hamlet, 1922. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, illustration by John Austen, 1922. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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