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Feeding the Fire: Rumi and Native American Myth

mevlana3In contemporary times some of the finest English translations of Rumi’s poetry have come from Americans, and Rumi was not long ago being lauded as the most widely-read poet in the USA. Although Rumi’s poetry transcends cultural boundaries, it is as if something in it seems to particularly resonate with North America. I was reminded of this reading a recent article by Shaikh Kabir Helminski, one of the foremost American translators of Rumi’s work and a teacher in the Mevlevi order founded by Rumi. His article was entitled ‘Rumi Beyond Culture’ (read it here: http://sufism.org/articles/rumi-beyond-culture) and it mentions how in his younger days he spent time with ‘authentic masters of wisdom in an American idiom’. This got me thinking: What is it in the American soul that seems to resonate with Rumi, a 13th century Muslim who lived in what is now Turkey? I came to the conclusion that it may have something to do with an expansiveness and freedom inherent to both Rumi’s spirit and the American spirit. In terms of the USA, I am not talking here about freedoms often associated with contemporary American ‘democracy’ or the consumer society that goes hand-in-hand with it, but rather a spiritual freedom that I see existing today in the fringes of modern American society, or a freedom belonging to a more authentic past when the American Dream was not so badly compromised – or even before that dream was ever born. It is an expansiveness that is still expressed in the beauty of the North American natural landscape and in the souls of its spiritual seekers.

It may seem strange for an English lover of Rumi to make this connection. Yet relatives of my ancestors have been among those who emigrated across the Atlantic in the last four centuries or so, and can’t anybody, no matter which part of the world they live in, be a pioneer into the America of the soul? Perhaps it is this pioneering spirit that attracts me to nineteenth-century American literature in particular.  It is now well known that John Adams, one of the eighteenth-century Founding Fathers, had an admiration for the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’anic message, and another, Thomas Jefferson, possessed a copy of Sale’s translation of the Qur’an which he kept next to a copy of the Old Testament in his library; and entering the nineteenth century we find unconventional American writers expressing thoughts that sometimes seem very Sufi, even if the writers themselves may not have been very (or at all) acquainted with mystical Islam.  The writers I wish to look at in light of Rumi are Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson; for it seems to me that they were often reaching after a wisdom that Rumi expressed and embodied in a complete way. Before I turn to them, however, I want to look at Native American myth, for I find that the Native American vision that predominated in North America for so many centuries before the arrival of the European settlers is in perfect accord with the vision held by Rumi and Islamic Sufism.

Feeding the Fire: Rumi and Native American Myth

There are many beautiful and profound Native American myths, but I want to look at just one. It comes from the Alabama Tribe and describes man’s first encounter with fire. The story, as retold by S.E. Schlosser, goes like this:

In the beginning of the world, it was Bear who owned Fire. It warmed Bear and his people on cold nights and gave them light when it was dark. Bear and his people carried Fire with them wherever they went.

One day, Bear and his people came to a great forest, where they found many acorns lying on the forest floor. Bear set Fire at the edge of the forest, and he and his people began eating acorns. The acorns were crunch and crisp and tasted better than any other acorns Bear and his people had ever eaten. They wandered further and further away from Fire, eating the delicious acorns and seeking out more when the acorn supply grew low.

Fire blazed up merrily for awhile, until it had burned nearly all of its wood. It started to smoke and flicker, then it dwindled down and down. Fire was alarmed. It was nearly out. “Feed me! Feed me!” Fire shouted to Bear. But Bear and his people had wandered deep into the forest, and they did not hear Fire’s cries.

At that moment, Man came walking through the forest and saw the small, flickering Fire. “Feed me! Feed me!” Fire cried in despair.

“What should I feed you?” Man asked. He had never seen Fire before.

“I eat sticks and logs and wood of all kinds,” Fire explained.

Man picked up a stick and leaned it on the North side of Fire. Fire sent its orange-blue flames flickering up the side of the stick until it started to burn. Man got a second stick and laid it on the West side of the fire. Fire, nourished by the first stick, burned brighter and stretched taller and eagerly claimed the second stick. Man picked up a third stick and laid it on the South side of Fire and laid a fourth stick on the East. By this time, Fire was leaping and dancing in delight, its hunger satisfied.

Man warmed himself by the blazing Fire, enjoying the changed colors and the hissing and snapping sound Fire made as it ate the wood. Man and Fire were very happy together, and Man fed Fire sticks whenever it got hungry.

A long time later, Bear and his people came back to the edge of the forest, looking for Fire. Fire was angry when it saw Bear. It blazed until it was white-hot and so bright that Bear had to shade his eyes with both paws. “I do not even know you!” Fire shouted at Bear. The terrible heat rolling off Fire drove Bear and his people away, so they could not take it and carry it away with them.

And now Fire belongs to Man.

[S.E.Schlosser, http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/2011/07/fire.html]

Alabama Brave

Image from ‘Journey to the West: The Alabama and Coushatta Indians’ by Sheri Marie Shuck-Hall

We might read this story as a simple warning not to take what we have for granted, or as an attempt to explain where fire came from, or why bears are afraid of it. Perhaps it is all of these things, but once we engage our symbolic minds we find that it is much more. It can help to know a little about the Alabama tribe. A brief description of their way of life can be found here: http://www.texasindians.com/albam.htm. Unlike the Plains Indians who lived a nomadic life in tee-pees, the Alabama tribe lived in wood cabins and were farmers (as well as hunters) even before the European settlers arrived.  The importance of the number four for the tribe is highlighted: ‘The four directions, the four seasons, the four phases of man, and all things appearing in multiples of four.’ We are given the following glimpse into their rituals:

Fire was an important part of their religious tradition. Each house kept a sacred fire going all the time. At the main temple there was also a fire that burned all the time. These fires were built a special way. They would place four logs in the shape of a cross around the central fire. One log would point north, one east, one south and one west. As the fire burned the ends of these logs the people would push them into the center. A home fire would have small logs and a dance ground would have big logs to last longer. Fire was believed to be a part of the sun and the sun represented the highest God.

[http://www.texasindians.com/albam.htm]

Returning to the myth, it takes on a much more profound meaning once we understand that Fire represents God or the Great Spirit. We then see that it describes to us Man’s role on Earth – to consciously remember God (i.e. feed Fire). Among God’s creatures, man is uniquely endowed to do this being fully conscious, and possessing free will and reason. Man is able to rise above his animal appetites, but Bear and his people are completely at the mercy of theirs and cannot help being distracted by the acorns. The bear is a good choice for a representative of the unreasoning animal kingdom. Bears have many noble qualities (their strength for instance), but we associate them with forests, caves, darkness and hibernating; all suggestive of being a stranger to the light of reason.

It is significant that the story shows Man choosing to feed Fire. Those familiar with the Qur’an might be reminded of how the human being chose in pre-eternity to take on the trust of being God’s representative on earth:

Verily, We did offer the trust to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it.

[Surah Al-Ahzab, 72, translated by Muhammad Asad]

The symbol of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribes

The symbol of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribes

Instead of portraying the rest of creation as being unwilling to take on the role of representing God, the Alabama Tribe’s myth illustrates the unsuitability of the rest of creation to take on this role. The point made is the same however: the feeding of Fire, or fully conscious remembrance of God, is Man’s unique role and entire reason for being.

It would be interesting to know how faithful the words ‘I do not even know you!’ (said by Fire to Bear) are to the original used in the language of the Alabama Tribe. The only other English version of the story I could find that seems to take care with the details of the story does not describe Fire saying anything to Bear – it simply drives him away with its heat. However, these words seem appropriate and seem to carry a real power. When Fire says to Bear ‘I do not even know you!’ it is reflecting Bear’s own ignorance back at it. The rest of creation cannot fully know God in the way Man can. The implication is that Fire would say to Man, ‘I know you!’ because Man has demonstrated that he truly knows Fire. In Islamic terms, Man can know Allah through His Divine Names.

The other profoundly significant element of the story is the way in which Man feeds Fire (which both versions of the story I found agree on): that is, the pointing of the sticks according to the four cardinal points in an anti-clockwise order – North, West, South and East – and then pushing them into the centre as they burn down according to the ritual. The four directions represent the multiplicity of the world apparent to our bodily senses; our sense of the separateness of ourselves and the things we observe dispersed throughout the world. This is an illusion we labour under, an illusion which disappears in the centre of the fire representing Unity, the true Reality which burns away illusion. So the myth is reminding the tribe that they must keep pushing the sticks into this centre of the fire, keep remembering the Divine Oneness, much as the Muslim repeats la illaha ilallah – ‘There is no reality but the One Reality.’

Tribal symbol of the central fire with the logs forming a cross.

Tribal symbol of the central fire with the logs forming a cross.

In fact, in traditional societies, the cardinal points have usually been conceived of as five rather than four in number: the one that is missing for us today is the central one, the source of all direction and the axis in which the four directions meet. In Arabic the cardinal points are: Ash Shamaliyah (north), Al Gharbiyah (west),  Al Janobiyah (south) Ash Sharqiyah (east) and were traditionally always conceived of in relation to the fifth, Al Wusta (the centre). It is perhaps significant that the central cardinal point has vanished from the modern conception of space: we live in materialistic societies which have lost their spiritual centre.

The four sticks (four is used as the symbol of man in many spiritual traditions) can be seen as those elements within ourselves which must be purged so we can arrive at this enlightened realization of the Divine Unity. Rumi describes it in this way:

What does it mean to learn the knowledge of God’s Unity?
To consume yourself in the presence of the One.
If you wish to shine like day,
burn up the night of self-existence.
Dissolve in the Being who is everything.
You grabbed hold of “I” and “we,”
and this dualism is your ruin.

[Mathnawi I, 3009-12, translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski]

For Rumi and for the Alabama Tribe, freedom from our own selves in the Greater Self is the greatest freedom we can experience.

As for the anti-clockwise order of the placing of the sticks: Clockwise movement, the direction of time, represents movement downstream away from our Origin. Anti-clockwise movement represents movement upstream back to our Origin, to God. This is suggestive of struggle due to the resistance of our lower animal nature, those currents within us that want to carry us downstream into forgetfulness with the Bear. We can see many signs that remind us of this sacred struggle. The journey of salmon upstream to their breeding grounds, past the snapping jaws of bears, springs to mind (how appropriate the image of the bear is again!). As for the anti-clockwise movement, the very fabric of the universe seems to express this yearning to return to the Origin. Viewing Earth from above the North Pole, the Earth rotates anti-clockwise on its axis and all the planets orbit the Sun in an anti-clockwise direction; the positioning of the heart, arteries and veins in the human body mean circulation is better during anti-clockwise movement as opposed to clockwise. Muslims circle the Kaaba in an anti-clockwise direction, and the turning of the semazen in the whirling ceremony founded by Rumi is, likewise, anti-clockwise. Race tracks in the modern age continue to unwittingly reflect this wisdom.

dervish-squareThe figure presented by the semazen has special significance to our reflections here, because the outstretched arms of the semazen present us with a cross like that formed by the sticks in the fire. This cross expresses not only open-hearted, ecstatic abandonment (experienced by the higher self), but also crucifixion (experienced by the lower self). Reading the words of Rumi, it becomes clear to us that as the semazen whirls closer to the centre of the inner fire, these two opposite experiences meet with bewildering intensity. Mevlevi dervish, Neyi Osman Dede, set these words of Mevlana to a melody to be sung during the sema ceremony:

With each embrace, my Darling’s Face becomes aflame.
Wine becomes fire, love burns; what delight!
Encircled, the soul cries out, ‘Where can I escape?’
Facing fire surrounding, the soul screams,
‘Where can I flee?’

[‘Ussak Ayin’, words by Mevlana Rumi, translated by Refik Algan and Camille Helminski]

The ‘Darling’ mentioned here is Allah of course, and union with Allah means annihilation for the surrounded ego, but paradoxically delight for the real, essential self that resides in the flames of unity with Allah.

Stomp Dance

Stomp dancers circle the fire anti-clockwise

The Alabama Tribe would surely appreciate the power and symbolism of the sema ceremony, especially as sacred dance plays such an integral part in their own worship. I have not been able to find a description of the particular type of dance practised by the Alabama Tribe, but the Stomp Dance is a well-documented dance that is practised by many South Eastern tribes.  It is described as follows:

The order of the dancers is male-female-male-female in a continuous spiral or circle with young children and the odd numbers trailing at the end. The song is led by a lead man who has developed his own song on the multitude of variations of stomp dance songs. The songs are typically performed in call and response form. The dancers circle the fire in counter-clockwise direction with slow, stomping steps set to the rhythm created by the women stomping with their shell shakers.

[http://chickamaugacherokee.org/stompdance/]

Yet the whirling and dance ceremonies are not the only instances in which Sufis and Native Americans remember, or even enter, the spiritual fire. They are the most intense visual expressions of this remembrance perhaps, but for the true spiritual seeker the burning is a constant state born in each breath of daily life.

Finally, it might be worth noting that Bear is not being belittled in the Alabama myth. Though Fire may express anger towards Bear, this is a dramatic device for the benefit of Man. Taking things for granted is a human folly, not an animal one, because only the human being can be held responsible. Both the Native American and the Islamic tradition are well known for the respect and dignity they afford to the animal kingdom. The Qur’an tells us:

Are you not aware that it is God whose limitless glory
All creatures in the heavens and on earth praise,
Even the birds as they outspread their wings?
Indeed, each of them knows how to pray to Him and glorify Him;
And God has full knowledge of all that they do…

[Surah An-Nur, 41-42, rendered by Camille Helminski]

bearBy following their appetites, Bear and his people are actually performing their appropriate version of remembrance. Bear cannot help but be as God intended it, and its appreciation of acorns is its expression of love for the Creator. Man, on the other hand, has to choose to embody his reason for being, and if he forgets or chooses not to do so, he sinks lower than the innocent Bear. Our care of the Fire then, is the measure of our humanity.

~ Daniel Dyer

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