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Bhutan

Bhutan

Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations.  The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time.  Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world.  However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections.  He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy.  The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926, wearing the Raven Crown

The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown.  It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain).  The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla.  The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight.  Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!

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Sedna Statue (from GTA Inuit Art Marketing)

Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below.  There are many versions of the tale.  Here is my favorite.

Sedna was a beautiful giantess.  Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors.  Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.

One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father.  Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife.  Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger.  As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.

When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff.  The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur.  The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood.  He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it.  Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).

In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck.  He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor.  Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.

Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland.  They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky.  Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing.  In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits.  The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.

Sedna's Bounty (Mayoreak Ashoona, 1993, lithograph)

Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits.  Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak.  Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers.  Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals.  Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses.  Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.

The Legend of Sedna (Sraiya, ca. 2010, pen and ink)

Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds.  With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there.  Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail.  Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples.  She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses.  From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them.  It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.

Playful Sedna by artist Kakulu Sagiatok

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