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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The northwest coast sisiutl Paterson, Roderick Paul


This thesis comprises an investigation of the formal structure, iconography and iconology of a being mythically and visually represented on the Northwest Coast of North America, the sisiutl or double-headed serpent. The following arguments are made or are implicit in the body of the paper: 1. The prime reason for the importance of sisiutl is that it is seen by the peoples of the Northwest Coast as a supernatural being whose powers are directly accessible to them, and as one who will intercede with the other supernaturals on behalf of those humans who have obtained its help as a guardian. 2. Shamanism and sisiutl are strongly associated with each other because of the role of sisiutl as mediator; the position of the shaman in human society, that is, as one who has contact with both the natural and supernatural worlds, is paralleled by the similar attributes of sisiutl. 3. The central face seen so often on representations of sisiutl, here referring specifically to the Kwakiutl primary variant, generally represents BaxbakualanuXsiwae, the cannibal spirit; but, as shown by the fact that other supernaturals are sometimes depicted in this central position, BaxbakualanuXsiwae is actually representative of the supernaturals as a group. This is so because BaxbakualanuXsiwae is the most important character involved in the sacred winter dance cycle of the Kwakiutl. The face seen in association with the northern variants of sisiutl apparently represents the "Princess who suckled the grubworm", a being described in a myth shared by the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida. 4. Sisiutl, the Kwakiutl primary variant of the double-headed serpent, is echoed in similar beings of the Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Coola, Nootka and Haida groups. Sisiutl occurs in many Kwakiutl myths, but it is an established supernatural spirit with many attributes and no myth of origin. This fact supports the notion that the character sisiutl originated among the northern tribes and was adopted by the Kwakiutl. 5. In addition, the question of visual affinity among the Northwest Coast sisiutl and sisiutl-like beings in Shang/Chou China and seventeenth-nineteenth century New Zealand is briefly addressed. This investigation indicates that structurally-oriented inquiry into phenomena far removed from each other in space and time is more productive than research based on diffusion theory.

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