Native American Legends
The Youth and his Eagle
A Zuni Legend
In forgotten times, in the days of our ancients, at the Middle
Place, or what is now Shíwina (Zuñi), there lived
a youth who was well grown, or perfect in manhood.
He had a pet Eagle which he kept in a cage down on the roof of
the first terrace of the house of his family. He loved this Eagle
so dearly that he could not endure to be separated from it; not
only this, but he spent nearly all his time in caring for and fondling
his pet. Morning, noon, and evening, yea, and even between those
times, you would see him going down to the eagle-cage with meat
and other kinds of delicate food. Day after day there you would
find him sitting beside the Eagle, petting it and making affectionate
speeches, to all of which treatment the bird responded with a most
satisfied air, and seemed equally fond of his owner.
Whenever a storm came the youth would hasten out of the house,
as though the safety of the crops depended upon it, to protect the
Eagle. So, winter and summer, no other care occupied his attention.
Corn-field and melon-garden was this bird to this youth; so much
so that his brothers, elder and younger, and his male relatives
generally, looked down upon him as negligent of all manly duties,
and wasteful of their substance, which he helped not to earn in
his excessive care of the bird.
Naturally, therefore, they looked with aversion upon the Eagle;
and one evening, after a hard day's work, after oft-repeated remonstrances
with the youth for not joining in their labors, they returned home
tired and out of humor, and, climbing the ladder of the lower terrace,
passed the great cage on their way into the upper house. They stopped
a moment before entering, and one of the eldest of the party exclaimed:
"We have remonstrated in vain with the younger brother; we
have represented his duties to him in every possible light, yet
without effect. What remains to be done? What plans can we devise
to alienate him from this miserable Eagle?"
"Why not kill the wretched bird?" asked one of them.
"That, I should say, would be the most simple means of curing
him of his infatuation."
"That is an excellent plan," exclaimed all of the brothers
as they went on into the house; "we must adopt it."
The Eagle, apparently so unconscious, heard all this, and pondered
over it. Presently came the youth with meat and other delicate food
for his beloved bird, and, opening the wicket of the gate, placed
it within and bade the Eagle eat. But the bird looked at him and
at the food with no apparent interest, and, lowering its head on
its breast, sat moody and silent.
"Are you ill, my beloved Eagle?" asked the youth, "or
why is it that you do not eat?"
"I do not care to eat," said the Eagle, speaking for
the first time. "I am oppressed with much anxiety."
"Do eat, my beloved Eagle," said the youth. "Why
should you be sad? Have I neglected you?"
"No, indeed, you have not," said the Eagle. For this
reason I love you as you love me; for this reason I prize and cherish
you as you cherish me; and yet it is for this very reason that I
am sad. Look you! Your brothers and relatives have often remonstrated
with you for your neglect of their fields and your care for me.
They have often been angered with you for not bearing your part
in the duties of the household. Therefore it is that they look with
reproach upon you and with aversion upon me, so much so that they
have at last determined to destroy me in order to do away with your
affection for me and to withdraw your attention. For this reason
I am sad,--not that they can harm me, for I need but spread my wings
when the wicket is opened, and what can they do? But I would not
part from you, for I love you. I would not that you should part
with me, for you love me. Therefore am I sad, for I must go tomorrow
to my home in the skies," said the Eagle, again relapsing into
"Oh, my beloved bird! my own dear Eagle, how could I live
without you? How could I remain behind when you went forward, below
when you went upward?" exclaimed the youth, already beginning
to weep. "No! Go, go, if it need be, alas! but let me go with
you," said the youth.
"My friend! my poor, poor youth!" said the Eagle, "you
cannot go with me. You have not wings to fly, nor have you knowledge
to guide your course through the high skies into other worlds that
you know not of."
"Let me go with you," cried the youth, falling on his
knees by the side of the cage. "I will comfort you, I will
care for you, even as I have done here; but live without you I cannot!"
"Ah, my youth," said the Eagle, "I would that you
could go with me, but the end would not be well. You know not how
little you love me that you wish to do this thing. Think for a moment!
The foods that my people eat are not the foods of your people; they
are not ripened by fire for our consumption, but whatever we capture
abroad on our measureless hunts we devour as it is, asking no fire
to render it palatable or wholesome. You could not exist thus."
"My Eagle! my Eagle!" cried the youth. "If I were
to remain behind when you went forward, or below when you went upward,
food would be as nothing to me; and were it not better that I should
eat raw food, or no food, than that I should stay here, excessively
and sadly thinking of you, and thus never eat at all, even of the
food of my own people? No, let me go with you!"
"Once more I implore you, my youth," said the Eagle,
"not to go with me, for to your own undoing and to my sadness
will such a journey be undertaken."
"Let me go, let me go! Only let me go!" implored the
"It is said," replied the Eagle calmly. "Even as
you wish, so be it. Now go unto your own home for the last time;
gather large quantities of sustaining food, as for a long journey.
Place this food in strong pouches, and make them all into a package
which you can sling upon your shoulder or back. Then come to me
tomorrow morning, after the people have begun to descend to their
The youth bade good-night to his Eagle and went into the house.
He took of parched flour a great quantity, of dried and pulverized
wafer-bread a large bag, and of other foods, such as hunters carry
and on which they sustain themselves long, he took a good supply,
and made them all into a firm package. Then, with high hopes and
much thought of the morrow, he laid himself to rest. He slept late
into the morning, and it was not until his brothers had departed
for their fields of corn that he arose; and, eating a hasty breakfast,
slung the package of foods over his shoulders and descended to the
cage of the Eagle. The great bird was waiting for him. With a smile
in its eyes it came forth when he opened the wicket, and, settling
down on the ground, spread out its wings and bade the youth mount.
"Sit on my back, for it is strong, oh youth! Grasp the base
of my wings, and rest your feet above my thighs, that you may not
fall off. Are you ready? Ah, well. And have you all needful things
in the way of food? Good. Let us start on our journey."
Saying this, the Eagle rose slowly, circling wider and wider as
it went up, and higher and higher, until it had risen far above
the town, going slowly. Presently it said: "My youth, I will
sing a farewell song to your people for you and for me, that they
may know of our final departure." Then, as with great sweeps
of its wings it circled round and round, going higher and higher,
it sang this song:
Pa shish lakwa-a-a--
Pa shish lakwa-a-a--
As the song floated down from on high, "Save us! By our eyes!"
exclaimed the people. "The Eagle and the youth! They are escaping;
they are leaving us!"
And so the word went from mouth to mouth, and from ear to ear,
until the whole town was gazing at the Eagle and the youth, and
the song died away in the distance, and the Eagle became smaller
and smaller, winding its way upward until it was a mere speck, and
finally vanished in the very zenith.
The people shook their heads and resumed their work, but the Eagle
and the youth went on until at last they came to the great opening
in the zenith of the sky. In passing upward by its endless cliffs
they carne out on the other side into the sky-world; and still upward
soared the Eagle, until it alighted with its beloved burden on the
summit of the Mountain of Turquoises, so blue that the light shining
on it paints the sky blue.
"Huhua!" said the Eagle, with the weariness that comes
at the end of a long journey. "We have reached our journey's
end for a time. Let us rest ourselves on this mountain height of
my beloved world."
The youth descended and sat by the Eagle's side, and the Eagle,
raising its wings until the tips touched above, lowered its head,
and catching hold of its crown, shook it from side to side, and
then drew upon it, and then gradually the eagle-coat parted, and
while the youth looked and wondered in love and joy, a beautiful
maiden was uncovered before him, in garments of dazzling whiteness,
softness, and beauty. No more beautiful maiden could be conceived
than this one,--bright of face, clear and clean, with eyes so dark
and large and deep, and yet sharp, that it was bewildering to look
into them. Such eyes have never been seen in this world.
"Come with me, my youth--you who have loved me so well,"
said she, approaching him and reaching out her hand. "Let us
wander for a while on this mountain side and seek the home of my
They descended the mountain and wound round its foot until, looking
up in the clear light of the sky-world, they beheld a city such
as no man has ever seen. Lofty were its walls,--smooth, gleaming,
clean, and white; no ladders, no smoke, no filth in any part whatsoever.
"Yonder is the home of my people," said the maiden, and
resuming her eagle- dress she took the youth on her back again,
and, circling upward, hovered for a moment over this home of the
Eagles, then, through one of the wide entrances which were in the
roof, slowly descended. No ladders were there, inside or outside;
no need of them with a people winged like the Eagles, for a people
they were, like ourselves--more a people, indeed, than we, for in
one guise or the other they might appear at will.
No sooner had the Eagle-maiden and the youth entered this great
building than those who were assembled there greeted them with welcome
assurances of joy at their coming. "Sit ye down and rest,"
The youth looked around. The great room into which they had descended
was high and broad and long, and lighted from many windows in its
roof and upon its walls, which were beautifully white and clean
and finished, as no walls in this world are, with many devices pleasing
to the eye. Starting out from these walls were many hooks or pegs,
suspended from which were the dresses of the Eagles who lived there,
the forms of which we know.
"Yea, sit ye down and rest and be happy," said an old
man. Wonderfully fine he was as he arose and approached the couple
and said, spreading abroad his wings: "Be ye always one to
the other wife and husband. Shall it be so?"
And they both, smiling, said "Yes." And so the youth
married the Eagle- maiden.
After a few days of rest they found him an eagle-coat, fine as
the finest, with broad, strong wings, and beautiful plumage, and
they taught him how to conform himself to it and it to himself.
And as Eagles would teach a young Eagle here in this world of ours,
so they taught the youth gradually to fly.
At first they would bid him poise himself in his eagle-form on
the floor of their great room, and, laying all over it soft things,
bid him open his wings and leap into the air. Anxious to learn,
he would spread his great wings and with a powerful effort send
himself high up toward the ceiling; but untaught to sustain himself
there, would fall with many a flap and tumble to the floor. Again
and again this was tried, but after a while he learned to sustain
and guide himself almost wholly round the room without once touching
anything; and his wife in her eagle-form would fly around him, watching
and helping, and whenever his flight wavered would fan a strong
wind up against his wings with her own that he might not falter,
until he had at last learned wholly to support himself in the air.
Then she bade him one day come out with her to the roof of the
house, and from there they sailed away, away, and away over the
great valleys and plains below, ever keeping to the northward and
eastward; and whenever he faltered in his flight she bore his wings
up with her own wings, teaching him how, this way and that, until,
when they returned to the roof, those who watched them said: "Now,
indeed, is he learned in the ways of our people. How good it is
that this is so!" And they were very happy, the youth and the
Eagle-maiden and their people.
One day the maiden took the youth out again into the surrounding
country, and as they flew along she said to him: "You may wonder
that we never fly toward the southward. Oh, my youth, my husband!
never go yonder, for over that low range of mountains is a fearful
world, where no mortal can venture. If you love me, oh, if you truly
love me, never venture yonder!" And he listened to her advice
and promised that he would not go there. Then they went home.
One day there was a grand hunt, and he was invited to join in it.
Over the wide world flew this band of Eagle hunters to far-away
plains. Whatsoever they would hunt, behold! below them somewhere
or other might the game be seen, were it rabbit, mountain sheep,
antelope, or deer, and each according to his wish captured the kind
of game he would, the youth bringing home with the rest his quarry.
Of all the game they captured he could eat none, for in that great
house of the Eagles, so beautiful, so perfect, no fire ever burned,
no cooking was ever done.
And after many days the food which the youth brought with him was
diminished so that his wife took him out to a high mountain one
day, and said: "As I have told you before, the region beyond
those low mountains is fearful and deadly; but yonder in the east
are other kinds of people than those whom you should dread. Not
far away is the home of the Pelicans and Storks, who, as you know,
eat food that has been cooked, even as your people do. When you
grow hungry, my husband, go to them, and as they are your grandparents
they will feed you and give you of their abundance of food, that
you may bring it here, and thus we shall do well and be happy."
The youth assented, and, guided part of the way by his faithful,
loving wife, he went to the home of the Storks. No sooner had he
appeared than they greeted him with loud assurances of welcome and
pleasure at his coming, and bade him eat. And they set before him
bean-bread, bean-stews, beans which were baked, as it were, and
mushes of beans with meat intermixed, which seemed as well cooked
as the foods of our own people here on this mortal Earth. And the
youth ate part of them, and with many thanks returned to his home
among the Eagles. And thus, as his wife had said before, it was
all well, and they continued to live there happily.
Between the villages of the Eagles and the Storks the youth lived;
so that by- and-by the Storks became almost as fond of him as were
the Eagles, addressing him as their beloved grandchild. And in consequence
of this fondness, his old grandfather and grandmother among the
Storks especially called his attention to the fearful region lying
beyond the range of mountains to the south, and they implored him,
as his wife had done, not to go thither. "For the love of us,
do not go there, oh, grandchild!" said they one day, when he
was about to leave.
He seemed to agree with them, and spread his wings and flew away.
But when he had gone a long distance, he turned southward, with
this exclamation: "Why should I not see what this is? Who can
harm me, floating on these strong wings of mine? Who can harm an
Eagle in the sky?" So he flew over the edge of the mountains,
and behold! rising up on the plains beyond them was a great city,
fine and perfect, with walls of stone built as are the towns of
our dead ancients. And the smoke was wreathing forth from its chimneys,
and in the hazy distance it seemed teeming with life at the moment
when the youth saw it, which was at evening time.
The inhabitants of that city saw him and sent messages forth to
the town of the Eagles that they would make a grand festival and
dance, and invited the Eagles to come with their friends to witness
this dance. And when the youth returned to the home of his Eagle
people, behold! already had this message been delivered there, and
his wife in sorrow was awaiting him at the doorway.
"Alas! alas! my youth! my husband!" said she. "And
so, regarding more your own curiosity than the love of your wife,
you have been into that fearful country, and as might have been
expected, you were observed. We are now invited to visit the city
you saw and to witness a dance of the inhabitants thereof, which
invitation we cannot refuse, and you must go with us. It remains
to be seen, oh my youth, whom I trusted, if your love for me be
so great that you may stand the test of this which you have brought
upon yourself, by heedlessness of my advice and that of your grandparents,
the Storks. Oh, my husband, I despair of you, and thus despairing,
I implore you to heed me once more, and all may be well with you
even yet. Go with us tonight to the city you saw, the most fearful
of all cities, for it is the city of the damned, and wonderful things
you will see; but do not laugh or even smile once. I will sit by
your side and look at you. Oh, think of me as I do of you, and thus
thinking you will not smile. If you truly love me, and would remain
with me always, and be happy as I would be happy, do this one thing
The youth promised over and over, and when night came he went with
the Eagle people to that city. A beautiful place it was, large and
fine, with high walls of stone and many a little window out of which
the red firelight was shining. The smoke was going up from its chimneys,
the sparks winding up through it, and, with beacon fires burning
on the roofs, it was a happy, bustling scene that met the gaze of
the youth as he approached the town. There were sounds and cries
of life everywhere. Lights shone and merriment echoed from every
street and room, and they were ushered into a great dance hall,
or kiwitsin, where the audience was already assembled.
By-and-by the sounds of the coming dance were heard, and all was
expectation. The fires blazed up and the lights shone all round
the room, making it as bright as day. In came the dancers, maidens
mostly, beautiful, and clad in the richest of ancient garments;
their eyes were bright, their hair black and soft, their faces gleaming
with merriment and pleasure. And they came joking down the ladders
into the room before the place where the youth sat, and as they
danced down the middle of the floor they cried out in shrill, yet
not unpleasant voices, as they jostled each other, playing grotesque
pranks and assuming the most laughter-stirring attitudes:
"Hapa! hapa! is! is! is!" ("Dead! dead this! this!
this!")--pointing at one another, and repeating this baleful
expression, although so beautiful, and full of life and joy and
Now, the youth looked at them all through this long dance, and
though he thought it strange that they should exclaim thus one to
another, so lively and pretty and jolly they were, he was nevertheless
filled with amusement at their strange antics and wordless jokes.
Still he never smiled.
Then they filed in again and there were more dancers, merrier than
before, and among them were two or three girls of surpassing beauty
even in that throng of lovely women, and one of them looked in a
coquettish manner constantly toward the youth, directing all her
smiles and merriment to him as she pointed round to her companions,
exclaiming: "Hapa! hapa! is! is! is!"
The youth grew forgetful of everything else as he leaned forward,
absorbed in watching this girl with her bright eyes and merry smiles.
When, finally, in a more amusing manner than before, she jostled
some merry dancer, he laughed outright and the girl ran forward
toward him, with two others following, and reaching out, grasped
his hands and dragged him into the dance. The Eagle-maiden lifted
her wings and with a cry of woe flew away with her people. But ah,
ah! the youth minded nothing, he was so wild with merriment, like
the beautiful maidens by his side, and up and down the great lighted
hall he danced with them, joining in their uncouth postures and
their exclamations, of which he did not yet under stand the true
meaning--"Hapa! hapa! is! is! is!"
By-and-by the fire began to burn low, and the maidens said to him:
"Come and pass the night with us all here. Why go back to your
home? Are we not merry companions? Ha! ha! ha! ha! "Hapa! hapa!
is! is! is!" They began to laugh and jostle one another again.
Thus they led the youth, not unwillingly on his part, away into
a far-off room, large and fine like the others, and there on soft
blankets he lay himself down, and these maidens gathered round him,
one pillowing his head on her arm, another smiling down into his
face, another sitting by his side, and soon he fell asleep. All
became silent, and the youth slept on.
In the morning, when broad daylight had come, the youth opened
his eyes and started. It seemed as though there were more light
than there should be in the house. He looked up, and the room which
had been so fine and finished the night before was tottering over
his head; the winds shrieked through great crevices in the walls;
the windows were broken and wide open; sand sifted through on the
wind and eddied down into the old, barren room. The rafters, dried
and warped with age, were bending and breaking, and pieces of the
roof fell now and then when the wind blew more strongly. He raised
himself, and clammy bones fell from around him; and when he cast
his eyes about him, there on the floor were strewn bones and skulls.
Here and there a face half buried in the sand, with eyes sunken
and dried and patches of skin clinging to it, seemed to glare at
him. Fingers and feet, as of mummies, were strewn about, and it
was as if the youth had entered a great cemetery, where the remains
of the dead of all ages were littered about. He lifted himself still
farther, and where the head of one maiden had lain or the arms of
another had entwined with his, bones were clinging to him. One by
one he picked them off stealthily and laid them down, until at last
he freed himself, and, rising, cautiously stepped between the bones
which were lying around, making no noise until he came to the broken-down
doorway of the place.
There, as he passed out, his foot tripped against a splinter of
bone which was embedded in the debris of the ruin, and as a sliver
sings in the wind, so this sang out. The youth, startled and terrorized,
sprang forth and ran for his life in the direction of the home of
the Storks. Shrieking, howling, and singing like a slivered stick
in the wind, like creaking boughs in the forest, with groans and
howls and whistlings that seemed to freeze the youth as he ran,
these bones and fragments of the dead arose and, like a flock of
vampires, pursued him noisily.
He ran and ran, and the great cloud of the dead were coming nearer
and nearer and pressing round him, when he beheld one of his grandparents,
a Badger, near its hole. The Badger, followed by others, was fast
approaching him, having heard this fearful clamor, and cried out:
"Our grandson! Let's save him!" So they ran forward and,
catching him up, cast him down into one of their holes.
Then, turning toward the uncanny crowd and bristling up, with sudden
emotion and mighty effort they cast off that odor by which, as you
know, they may defile the very winds. Thlitchiii! it met the crowd
of ghosts. Thliwooo! the whole host of them turned with wails and
howls and gnashings of teeth back toward the City of the Dead, whence
they had come. And the Badgers ran into the hole where lay the youth,
lifted him up, and scolded him most vigorously for his folly.
Then they said: "Sit up, you fool, for you are not yet saved!
Hurry!" said they, one to another. "Heat water!"
And, the water being heated, nauseating herbs and other medicines
were mingled with it, and the youth was directed to drink of that.
He drank, not once, but four times. Ukch, usa!--and after he had
been thus treated the old Badgers asked him if he felt relieved
or well, and the youth said he was very well compared with what
he had been.
Then they stood him up in their midst and said to him: "You
fool and faithless lout, why did you go and become enamored of Death,
however beautiful? It is only a wonder that with all our skill and
power we have saved you thus far. It will be a still greater wonder,
O foolish one, if she who loved you still loves you enough after
this faithlessness to save the life which you have forfeited. Who
would dance and take joy in Death?
Go now to the home of your grandparents, the Storks, and there
live. Your plumage gone, your love given up, what remains? You can
neither descend to your own people below without wings, nor can
you live with the people of the Eagles without love. Go, therefore,
to your grandparents!"
And the youth got up and dragged himself away to the home of the
Storks; but when he arrived there they looked at him with downcast
faces and reproached him over and over, saying: "There is small
possibility of your regaining what you have forfeited,--the love
and affection of your wife."
"But I will go to her and plead with her," said the youth.
"How should I know what I was doing?"
"We told you not to do it, and you heeded not our telling."
So the youth lagged away to the home of the Eagles, where, outside
that great house with high walls, he lingered, moping and moaning.
The Eagles came and went, or they gathered and talked on the housetop,
but no word of greeting did they offer him; and his wife, at last,
with a shiver of disgust, appeared above him and said: "Go
back! go back to your grandparents. Their love you may not have
forfeited; mine you have. Go back! for we never can receive you
again amongst us. Oh, folly and faithlessness, in you they have
So the youth sadly returned to the home of the Storks. There he
lingered, returning ever and anon to the home of the Eagles; but
it was as though he were not there, until at last the elder Eagles,
during one of his absences, implored the Eagle-maid to take the
youth back to his own home.
"Would you ask me, his wife, who loved him, now to touch him
who has been polluted by being enamored of Death?" asked she.
But they implored, and she acquiesced. So, when the youth appeared
again at the home of the Eagles, she had found an old, old Eagle
dress, many of the feathers in it broken; ragged and disreputable
it was, and the wing-feathers were so thin that the wind whistled
through them. Descending with this, she bade him put it on, and
when he had done so, she said: "Come with me now, according
to the knowledge in which we have instructed you."
And they flew away to the summit of that blue mountain, and, after
resting there, they began to descend into the sky which we see,
and from that downward and downward in very narrow circles.
Whenever the youth, with his worn-out wings, faltered, the wife
bore him up, until, growing weary in a moment of remembrance of
his faithlessness, she caught in her talons the Eagle dress which
sustained him and drew it off, bade him farewell forever, and sailed
away out of sight in the sky. And the youth, with one gasp and.
shriek, tumbled over and over and over, fell into the very center
of the town in which he had lived when he loved his Eagle, and utterly
Thus it was in the times of the ancients; and for this reason by
no means whatsoever may a mortal man, by any alliances under the
sun, avoid Death. But if one would live as long as possible, one
should never, in any manner whatsoever, remembering this youth's
experience, become enamored of Death.
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