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  • José H. Leal

The Raven, the Clam, and Humankind

A raven as the initiator of human life? And out of a clam? “At first he saw nothing, but as he scanned the beach again, a white flash caught his eye, and when he landed he found at his feet, half buried in the sand, a gigantic clamshell. When he looked more closely still, he saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror of his enormous shadow.”


This passage, from the book “The Raven Steals the Light,” by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, narrates the origin of humankind according to the Haida, the people from British Columbia, Canada, that nurtured a rich heritage of myth, legend, and art, much of that involving land and marine animals.


Still from Reid and Bringhurst’s book: “But nothing was going to happen as long as the tiny things stayed in the shell, and they certainly weren’t coming out in their present terrified state. So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue that had got him into and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful, shiny new world.”



The wood carving illustrated above interprets the Haida creation myth, the very moment when the Raven opened the clam, exposing the first humans within. The four-foot-long piece, created by artist Philip E. Burns out of four solid blocks of redwood, was recently donated to the Museum by friend and fellow malacologist Dr. Gene Coan, of Palo Alto, California, and Summerland Key, Florida. Many thanks to Gene for donating the carving. Gene is one of the world’s foremost authorities on bivalve mollusks, the author of many books on the subject, and a Museum supporter. The woodcarving will soon be on display in one of the exhibition areas at the Museum.