Love Stories from the Land of Many Lakes, part 15: Wenabozho and the Storytellers' Mirror
Updated: Oct 14
Namebine-giizis/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Suckerfishing Moon/Budding Moon), May 19, 2020
Aaniin! Biindigen miinawaa nindaadizooke wigamigong; enji-zaagi'iding miinawaa gikendaasong. Ninga-aadizooke noongom giizhigad! (Hi! Welcome back in my Storytelling Lodge where there is love and learning. Let's tell a sacred story today!)
Today's story is the fifteenth part in a series named "Love Stories From the Land of Many Lakes."
It's a collection of love stories provided with jewelry images and illustrations of artwork by myself as well as by kindred artists. The stories are based on aadizookaanan (traditional stories) of our People, the Ojibwe Anishinaabeg of Gaa-zaaga'eganikaag, the land of many lakes - the Great Lakes area of North America. These narratives are of a sacred, healing nature and told within a romantic context, their allegorical themes often provided with a personal touch.
Today's story is woven around a digital painting that I made years ago and that, as I now realize in retrospect, changed my life. I would be honored if you would take the time to look at it and to listen to its story. Enjoy!
~~ The sacred tale of Wenabozho and the Storytellers' Mirror; the beginning of a remarkable love story and art collaboration ~~
This painting, which I made in a time span of two moons, was completed in 2012, on the third day of the Maple Syrup Moon. This day, April 3th, marks the beginning of a friendship and cooperation between two kindred artists, one a jeweler and a graphic artist and the other a painter and a poet and both storytellers at heart, each in their own right. Countless beautiful tales have been spun around the mystery of the Storytellers' Mirror ever since. The collaboration ended on the third day of the Great Spirit Moon of 2019 and now the love has gone - but still the story goes on...
The painting depicting two children, a girl and a boy, flanked by two storytellers, is a traditional teaching diagram that is inspired on the visual imagery of the ancients, as well as on the (relatively) modern teachings of the Medicine Wheel. I created the diagram like one would tell an aadizookaan, an allegorical tale containing multiple layers of meaning.
The image represents the act of storytelling viewed from a double perspective, or rather from two (mirrored) perspectives: that of aadizookewinini (the human storyteller, the person to the left) and that of aadizookaan WENABOZHO (the supernatural protagonist of the story, the person to the right). Grandfather Anishinaabe telling the story and Grandfather Wenabozho himself are both accomplished storytellers in their own right.
Yet, when Grandfather Anishinaabe and Grandfather Wenabozho combine forces, they create a magic energy that bounces off one another to spin a truly amazing tale!
The tale of this painted diagram - and the layers of meaning it carries - is an aanike-gikinoo'amaadiwin (teaching) told in the tradition of the sacred pictographs the Anishinaabe ancestors left us, scattered over numerous cliff walls and hiding in remote caves near the coastlines of the Great Lakes; like the ancient spirit drawings, and like a Medicine Wheel, the painting is a mirror, or reflection of things that are inside every single one of us. This mirror concept reveals how there are many aspects to us and that in each aspect of us there are even more aspects to discover. As my one-time partner Simone McLeod put it eloquently: “The Storytellers painting you did, the very imagery…is shown in the old rock images that lurk inside us somewhere.”
"The visions, dreams, and adventures of the Great Storyteller Hero Wenabozho fill the minds of children sitting spellbound as they listen to Grandfather's stories..."
The storytelling figure to the right represents Wenabozho, half man half manidoo, who is also known by a variety of other names and spellings, including Wenaboozhoo, Wiinabozho, Nanabozho, Manabozho, Nanabush, and Wiisagejaak.
Wenabozho is considered to be the source and embodiment of the lives of all sentient things, such as humans, animals, and plants. Every living thing on, beneath, and above the earth he gifted with a spirit and a soul, and to each he taught – through his magic powers or through his parabolic stories - the necessary tricks needed to outsmart and outwit their enemies. Not only did he impart to the Anishinaabeg the best remedies for treating illnesses, he, being an expert shape shifter himself, taught the animals how to disguise themselves so that they could survive.
Thus the Anishinaabeg, although he often presents himself as a trickster and a mischievous fantasist, regard Wenabozho first and foremost as a manidoo possessing great wisdom in the prolonging of life.
If you look closely at the persons in the painting you will notice that I used X-RAY IMAGERY to fill in the contour lines with designs and patterns of animals and images of aadizookaanag (animal spirits and spirit guardians).
This method of depicting the internal forces, not the subject of the painting itself, as the main focal points, is one of the essential features of a contemporary spiritual art that makes use of X-rage imagery.
This art form, which is often called NATIVE WOODLAND, or MEDICINE ART, is derived from mazinaajimowin, the ancient Anishinaabe tradition of spirit writing, where sacred images were painted on, and sometimes inscribed in, rocks and birch bark by the ancestors.
The intention of X-ray imagery is to transport the audience into the sacred spirit world revealing the true nature of things, where the soul, or essence, is more important than the body containing these things.
"The precise meaning of the painting, which can be seen in the context of a monumental love that once existed between two artists – which flared high but within one decade exstinguished as it was smothered by the poisoned soil of deeply rooted and unresolved traumas – will not be imparted in the context of this blog – at least, not completely."
The images of the children and the figures that I placed inside the bodies of both children and storytellers are rich with symbolism and carry different layers of meaning. However, the precise meaning, which can be seen in the context of a monumental love that once existed between two artists - which flared high but within one decade exstinguished as it was smothered by the poisoned soil of deeply rooted and unresolved traumas - will not be imparted in the context of this blog – at least, not all of them and not completely.
The knowledgeable elders who told sacred stories or knew how to read the rock paintings and carvings did not explain everything either; they revealed just enough to make people realize it is better not to want to take shortcuts to wisdom and knowledge. The idea behind this is that one has to live up to the old teachings before one is able to fully carry the wisdom the stories and the rocks contain. In order to understand the core of the teaching the diagram wants to impart, however, it is essential to know that the X-ray figures I placed inside the bodies represent (some of) the protagonists and antagonists of the tales being told: beings like thunderbirds, an underwater spirit, a sturgeon, snakes, a marten, a badger, a raven, water fowl, medicine-bearing plants and flowers, and a birch- bark covered wiigiwaam (wigwam) that are one way or another related to Wiinabozho stories.
The hare that is connected by a “spirit power line” to the X-ray figure depicted inside Wiinabozho refers to his supposed association with hare and rabbits and emphasizes his capacity of a contrary holding up a mirror to mankind; that the power line is connected to the yellow Thunderbird figure indicates that the stories told are filled with great magic. Each story featuring Wiinabozho as the protagonist is always a source of power to the children listening to it; each story has the potential to empower, and teach them valuable life lessons as well… But also images of sacred objects and symbols, like a Mide Miigis seashell, which is used in the ceremonies of the Midewiwin, and a bear paw - which is related to Mide ceremonies and with the dream world -, recount stories within a story. These Mide symbols and the pipe the grandfather storyteller is holding indicate that he is a ceremonial teacher, a member of the Midewiwin. The symbols, therefore, are depictions of great spiritual power.
The smoke from the pipe and the smoke from the mouths of both the Mide grandfather and Wiinabozho are also indicative of great power; like a sacred breath the strings of smoke coming out of the storyteller’s mouths blend at the top of the painting, conjoining into a circle within two larger circles representing GICHI-MANIDOO, the Universal Omnipresence of Mystery.
The divided circle (unity symbol) in the center of the smaller circle reflects the duality that exists in nature and in human nature. Blue is for the sky, red is for the earth; together they form the universe.
Therefore, the symbol reflects the notion that each living being consists of two separate individuals, or parts, that exist and work together in relation to one another. One part (which is colored blue) inspires, strengthens, and directs the other part (which is colored red) – and vice versa. Similarly, one half can be regarded as a story or a storyteller aspiring to complement the other story or storyteller – which of course is represented by the other half – and vice versa.
Thus, in a way, looking at the storytellers' painting is like looking in a mirror that, like a circular Medicine Wheel, teaches us about the world and about human nature. If we look deep enough it will enable us to open up to self-reflection and self-discovery – and, perhaps, even to emotional and spiritual nurturance.
In the end, if we take these lessons to heart, it will pave the path to what has always been at the center of our traditional teachings, called mino-bimaadiziwin by our ancestors: living an upright, long, and prosperous life.
Mii sa ekoozid. Miigwech gibizindaw noongom mii dash gidibaajimotoon wa’aw aanike-gikinoo'amaadiwin. And that is the end of the story. Thank you for listening to me today, for allowing me to relate to you this sacred teaching. Giga-waabamin wayiiba, I hope to see you again soon.