The original state of the earth

(Kayah o Karenni)

Ages and ages ago the earth was twofold, like male and female, or a container and its lid. These two halves didn’t touch, but neither was the distance between them very great. In some places it was only about the length of three bamboo poles at the most, and in others the two were almost touching. These two earths were connected by a mountain range stretching up from the lower one. People didn’t know for sure whether there were people and animals on the upper earth, but they did know there were a lots of edible fruit trees. These trees grew upside-down with their roots in the upper earth, and people down below would go up the mountain range, pick the fruits with hooks and eat them. When these fruits fell, though, they say that instead of dropping down they fell back on the upper earth.

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In those times the lower earth people hadn’t yet seen the sun. They lived only in the very faint light that passed between the two earths, and they had no idea where this light came from. There wasn’t any water [supply] either, so people had to take small sips or wring some drinking-water out of a moss-like plant that grew on the rocks.

For a long, long time the people and the animals lived in that dim light unable to see each other properly until a wasp, which lived in a small hole into the wide open space beyond, and caught sight of two brilliant suns. In great wonder and delight he went around telling all the creatures about the two suns he had seen, so some of the people followed him to his cave and peered at the suns through the small opening. When they saw the two suns clearly in the distance, they too were filled with amazement and joy. Not recognising a ball of light as a sun, they contemplated going to where this amazing light was coming from, to find out what it was. They discussed with the creatures whether this might be possible, and if so how they could ask the light to come to them. After deliberation they chose the butterfly because they liked the sprightly way he would come and go, and they sent him to the suns as the people’s representative.

Very gladly the butterfly flew through the opening and out of the wasp’s cave. As he flew up and away, the nearer he got to the light the headier he became. In his excitement and joy he started weaving around, dancing in circles instead of flying straight on. All this dancing made his wings stiff and he became too exhausted to fly on to the sun. Wearily and with great difficulty he managed to fly back to his own earth. When he arrived, the people and some of the more curious animals eagerly gathered around him and questioned him, but the butterfly could,’t give any definite answers. All he would say was, “It’s beautiful. Very beautiful.” To the others, it wasn’t only his words that were strange. His body looked strange too, and they all gazed at him in wonder. What had happened was that the colour of his body had changed. He wasn’t a dark and grubby colour any more: having been touched by the sun’s rays, his whole form was pure white.

The butterfly kept repeating, “It’s beautiful, very beautiful”, but no one could make out what he was talking about, so they all decided that another representative would have to be sent. This time they chose the peacock. Those who sent him off asked him to draw and bring back an accurate copy of that bright and shining thing, taking note of its colours and shape and size in case he forgot. The peacock flew away towards the light on the same flight path that the butterfly had taken. When he reached the place where the two suns were, he drew them very carefully and strikingly on himself, added all their colours and then went back.

Returning from the two suns, the peacock now had beautifully coloured feathers. After he had told the others about the suns, they all came to the conclusion that they would make those givers of light come to their dark world. All the people and all the animals collected wood and charcoal from the forests and mountains and piled it in the cave where the wasp had first seen the light. They lit a fire and worked the bellows, and gradually the mountain range connecting the two earths broke up and collapsed because of the raging fire that was kept going all day and all night. Now, with the whole mountain range gone, they could see the two suns very clearly, and the light they received was more than sufficient. The whole earth was overjoyed, saying that the two suns had indeed come to them. At that time the distance between the earth and the sun was about equal to a three-day journey on land.

The effect of seeing two suns was to fill everyone with happiness and good heart, but their happiness didn’t last long because as time went on the heat of the two suns became more intense. It seemed that they were moving closer and closer to the earth and consquently the intensity of the heat was growing until at last it became quite overpowering. Once again all the creatures gathered together to discuss how to protect themselves against this extreme heat. The night heron said what he would like to do.

“Back in the time when there were no suns, in that very dim light that we had, and even in complete darkness when no creature could see at all, we managed to find food. Now, in this cruel brightness, we don’t know how to find any and we’re starving. Please send these two suns back to where they were in the first place”

But the majority didn’t like this idea, for there were many creatures who still preferred to have light. So they disagreed and the night heron’s proposal was turned down. The next suggestion came from the mouse.

“It would be better for all of us if we lived in light and in darkness by turns”, he said. “So what we should do is to try to fit a given time for light and a give time for darkness.”


Everyone like the mouse’s proposal, so they tried to think of a way to have light and darkness in turns. Then they remembered that there were three brothers who were unrivaled in their skill at archery. They suggested that the brothers should shoot at the shining eye of the sun and puncture it. With everybody urging him on, the eldest brother got his bow ready and shot at the sun, but the arrow went right over it. The youngest brother was next, but his arrow fell short. Finally, when the middle brother has his turn, the arrow went straight into the eye of one of the suns, softening its light, and it became the moon that we see today. Before, there had been two suns going round the earth, but when the old blinded sun with its subdued light appeared as the moon, people fixed that time as night.

While all this was going on, this earth and the one above it were still quite close. As there was no rice in those days, both people and animals ate a very tender grass that grew wild. Before, people had been able to pick fruits from the trees of the upper earth; but now that they had demolished the mountain range in their desire for light, picking fruit had become impossible. The people and the animals only had that grass to eat.

Countless years passed by, and then a banyan tree sprouted from the earth. When it began to fruit, the tender grass that people had been eating started to dwindle of its own accord, and its disappearance coincided with the ripening of the fruit. The fruit of this banyan tree was so delicious and nourishing that a single fruit could sustain a man for a whole day. If he ate two, he could go for two days without being hungry. So people learned to eat this fruit for their nourishment. Gradually, instead of picking and eating the fruit only to satisfy their [immediate] hunger, people began to gather them for daytime and night time meals, and because some folk also started hoarding them, there was nothing left for those who came day by day to pick one fruit at a time. Eventually some people were left starving, and one day a man who hadn’t had any fruit got so furious that he hacked the tree down, and with its destruction the only sustenance that people had been depending upon disappeared.

However, a big liquorice plant sprang up just in time to avert a disastrous starvation. The whole of this plant was full of nourishment, and a man could go all day on just a finger joint’s length of tendril. Although these tendrils were cut and eaten, every morning new ones appeared, so this plant became the people’s food. As with the banyan tree, people were disciplined enough at first to take just enough for the day, but driven by greed they took more and more to store away. The day came when, through ignorance and greed, a widow lopped off the plant. It was severed in such a way that it was thrown off [the surface of the earth] and struck the upper earth. The impact was so great that the upper earth, together with the plant, was flung far our into space. The sun whose light faded when it was hit by the arrow and which turned into the moon was also pushed away, and so was the other sun, and they are now the sun and moon that we can see in the distance.

Bagan Pagodas(The Kayah story tellers said that after the liquorice plant died and the sun was farther away, there was less heat. Changes occurred in the seasons and other edible plants began to grow, making it possible to survive; and that was the original state of the earth.)


I ran because the other ran


On a road among the eastern hills a Burmese “i.e. Barman” traveller heard a hillman shouting out his ware, which happened to be rice. But as he was shouting in his own language, the Burmese traveller did not understand and asked, “What is it? What is it?” The hillman of course knew Burmese, but like most hillmen he spoke it with a twang. To enlighten the Burmese stranger, he shouted the Burmese word for rice.

The Burmese word for rice was sunn, but because of his twang it sounded like sinn, which meant ‘elephant’. So the Burmese traveller thought that the hillman was warning him of an approaching wild elephant, and started to run as fast as he could. The hillman, although perplexed at at the Burman’s behaviour, ran behind him. The sun was hot and the road was rough. About an hour later the two arrived at a village, and both fell down in a swoon through sheer exhaustion.

After the two strangers had been nursed back to consciousness, the villagers asked, “Why did you come running so hard? Did robbers waylay you, or did some wild animal chase you?” “This hillman here warned me of an approaching wild elephant,” explained the Burman. The hillman looked at his fellow runner with amazement and denied that he had ever given such a warning. “Then why did you run?” the villagers asked. “It was quite simple,” replied the hillman. “I ran because he ran.”


The were-horse


Once upon a time in a small village there lived a were-horse who died but was reincarnated in the same village, still in possession of his ability to transform himself. His mother was a witch as well, but nobody in the village knew any of this because they were very careful not to let anyone find out what they were.

karen state map

The son of a neighbour and the witch’s were-horse son grew up together and were the best of friends, and every night they would walk together to a nearby village to see a young woman they were both fond of. On the way they had to go through a graveyard, and whenever they came near it the young were-horse would pause.

“My friend,” he’d say, “you go on ahead. I’ll be with you in a little while.”

He would then stay behind and catch up with his friend later. This happened not just once or twice but every night on the way to the other village, and his friend began to get suspicious about what the were-horse was up to. So one night he pretended to go on ahead but silently retraced his steps taking care not to show himself, and peered at his friend through the darkness. What he saw gave him a tremendous shock: to his horror, his friend was licking at corpses! He gagged, backed away and walked on ahead, and when the werehorse joined him he hid his revulsion and behaved as if he hadn’t seen a thing.

The next night when the were-horse asked him to walk on, the young man hesitated.

“Please don’t stay behind tonight, my friend. Let’s go on together.”

“But you’re used to going on alone. What are you afraid of now?”

“I’m not afraid of anything, not even tigers or elephants or snakes. But I must admit I’m scared of horses. They have such long necks.”

The were-horse at once transformed himself into a horse and tried to frighten him, but the friend was not a man who was easily scared. He slashed at the horse’s neck with the cutlass he was carrying, and the horse neighed with pain and galloped back towards their village. The young man didn’t follow, but went on to the next village and didn’t come back until late at night.

Meanwhile the were-horse had arrived at home with a huge gash on his neck. The old witch did her best to change her son back to his human shape, but was unable to transform him completely. What she now had on her hands was a human body with a horse’s head. She put her son inside his mosquito net and tried to save his life, but he was already fatally wounded so again she was powerless. In spite of all her witchcraft, he died during the night.

The next morning she told her neighbours how her son had died suddenly of flatulence, and that the funeral would be on the following night. Slowly, villagers drifted in to lend a hand with the funeral arrangements, as was the custom. To keep it away from prying eyes, the mother had kept her son’s head under the mosquito netting, only allowing the body to be seen. She made a request that no-one should ask to see his face because he had suffered so much that he’d died with a grimace, and she couldn’t bear to look at that face again or to let anyone else see it.

When the friend of the were-horse arrived with his little dog he sat down quietly near the body. Knowing what was under the mosquito net, he didn’t bother to look, but stealthily tied one end of a piece of string to the netting and the other end to his dog’s tail. Some time later he took his leave of the mother and went down the steps. His little dog, which had been dozing beside him, got up too. As it followed him down, the string tied to its tail pulled away the netting and revealed what had been inside the net: there in front of everyone was the dead man’s body with a horse’s head.

Aghast at this horrific sight the villagers demanded that the funeral should take place immediately, and the village elder addressed the witch.

“You and your son are bad people. You are a witch and your son was a were-horse. You alone must arrange for the funeral tonight, and as from today you are not to live in the village. Stay in the forest. Never come back here. Be warned!”

And so they drove the witch into the forest and threatened to kill her if ever she should show her face in the village again.

“From that time on, people who were believed to be witches were not accepted. They were driven away from Po Karen villages. In some areas they were beaten, and even in Burman villages they were sometimes beaten to death.”