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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

The Song of Hiawatha

XIV. Picture-Writing

IN those days said Hiawatha,

“Lo! how all things fade and perish!

From the memory of the old men

Pass away the great traditions,

The achievements of the warriors,

The adventures of the hunters,

All the wisdom of the Medas,

All the craft of the Wabenos,

All the marvellous dreams and visions

Of the Jossakeeds, the Prophets!

“Great men die and are forgotten,

Wise men speak; their words of wisdom

Perish in the ears that hear them,

Do not reach the generations

That, as yet unborn, are waiting

In the great, mysterious darkness

Of the speechless days that shall be!

“On the grave-posts of our fathers

Are no signs, no figures painted;

Who are in those graves we know not,

Only know they are our fathers.

Of what kith they are and kindred,

From what old, ancestral Totem,

Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,

They descended, this we know not,

Only know they are our fathers.

“Face to face we speak together,

But we cannot speak when absent,

Cannot send our voices from us

To the friends that dwell afar off;

Cannot send a secret message,

But the bearer learns our secret,

May pervert it, may betray it,

May reveal it unto others.”

Thus said Hiawatha, walking

In the solitary forest,

Pondering, musing in the forest,

On the welfare of his people.

From his pouch he took his colors,

Took his paints of different colors,

On the smooth bark of a birch-tree

Painted many shapes and figures,

Wonderful and mystic figures,

And each figure had a meaning,

Each some word or thought suggested.

Gitche Manito the Mighty,

He, the Master of Life, was painted

As an egg, with points projecting

To the four winds of the heavens.

Everywhere is the Great Spirit,

Was the meaning of this symbol.

Mitche Manito the Mighty,

He the dreadful Spirit of Evil,

As a serpent was depicted,

As Kenabeek, the great serpent.

Very crafty, very cunning,

Is the creeping Spirit of Evil,

Was the meaning of this symbol.

Life and Death he drew as circles,

Life was white, but Death was darkened;

Sun and moon and stars he painted,

Man and beast, and fish and reptile,

Forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers.

For the earth he drew a straight line,

For the sky a bow above it;

White the space between for daytime,

Filled with little stars for night-time;

On the left a point for sunrise,

On the right a point for sunset,

On the top a point for noontide,

And for rain and cloudy weather

Waving lines descending from it.

Footprints pointing towards a wigwam

Were a sign of invitation,

Were a sign of guests assembling;

Bloody hands with palms uplifted

Were a symbol of destruction,

Were a hostile sign and symbol.

All these things did Hiawatha

Show unto his wondering people,

And interpreted their meaning,

And he said: “Behold, your grave-posts

Have no mark, no sign, nor symbol,

Go and paint them all with figures;

Each one with its household symbol,

With its own ancestral Totem;

So that those who follow after

May distinguish them and know them.”

And they painted on the grave-posts

On the graves yet unforgotten,

Each his own ancestral Totem,

Each the symbol of his household;

Figures of the Bear and Reindeer,

Of the Turtle, Crane, and Beaver,

Each inverted as a token

That the owner was departed,

That the chief who bore the symbol

Lay beneath in dust and ashes.

And the Jossakeeds, the Prophets,

The Wabenos, the Magicians,

And the Medicine-men, the Medas,

Painted upon bark and deer-skin

Figures for the songs they chanted,

For each song a separate symbol,

Figures mystical and awful,

Figures strange and brightly colored;

And each figure had its meaning,

Each some magic song suggested.

The Great Spirit, the Creator,

Flashing light through all the heaven;

The Great Serpent, the Kenabeek,

With his bloody crest erected,

Creeping, looking into heaven;

In the sky the sun, that listens,

And the moon eclipsed and dying;

Owl and eagle, crane and hen-hawk,

And the cormorant, bird of magic;

Headless men, that walk the heavens,

Bodies lying pierced with arrows,

Bloody hands of death uplifted,

Flags on graves, and great war-captains

Grasping both the earth and heaven!

Such as these the shapes they painted

On the birch-bark and the deer-skin;

Songs of war and songs of hunting,

Songs of medicine and of magic,

All were written in these figures,

For each figure had its meaning,

Each its separate song recorded.

Nor forgotten was the Love-Song,

The most subtle of all medicines,

The most potent spell of magic,

Dangerous more than war or hunting!

Thus the Love-Song was recorded,

Symbol and interpretation.

First a human figure standing,

Painted in the brightest scarlet;

’T is the lover, the musician,

And the meaning is, “My painting

Makes me powerful over others”

Then the figure seated, singing,

Playing on a drum of magic,

And the interpretation, “Listen!

’T is my voice you hear, my singing!”

Then the same red figure seated

In the shelter of a wigwam,

And the meaning of the symbol,

“I will come and sit beside you

In the mystery of my passion!”

Then two figures, man and woman,

Standing hand in hand together

With their hands so clasped together

That they seemed in one united,

And the words thus represented

Are, “I see your heart within you,

And your cheeks are red with blushes!”

Next the maiden on an island,

In the centre of an island;

And the song this shape suggested

Was, “Though you were at a distance,

Were upon some far-off island,

Such the spell I cast upon you,

Such the magic power of passion,

I could straightway draw you to me!”

Then the figure of the maiden

Sleeping, and the lover near her,

Whispering to her in her slumbers,

Saying, “Though you were far from me

In the land of Sleep and Silence,

Still the voice of love would reach you!”

And the last of all the figures

Was a heart within a circle,

Drawn within a magic circle;

And the image had this meaning:

“Naked lies your heart before me,

To your naked heart I whisper!”

Thus it was that Hiawatha,

In his wisdom, taught the people

All the mysteries of painting,

All the art of Picture-Writing,

On the smooth bark of the birch-tree,

On the white skin of the reindeer,

On the grave-posts of the village.