The Sea-Lion Stomach of Desire


Matthew Spellberg

  Headdress Frontlet

Headdress Frontlet

Steller’s Sea Lion is a broad-chested pinniped of the northern Pacific with thick hair and long whiskers. It swims massively and quickly; while on land, it’s often to be observed with its torso raised up to the sky. During the breeding season, the oldest and strongest bull lions, who weigh more than one thousand pounds, make their way to their ancestral rookeries, many of them in coastal Alaska and British Columbia, and there mark out territories on which to host harems of cows.

In English this animal is named for Wilhelm Georg Steller, the son of a Lutheran cantor who travelled with a Russian ship to Alaska in 1741, and whose name was later pinned to scattered animals he encountered amid the vastness there, among them Steller’s Jay and Steller’s Sea-Eagle, not to mention Steller’s Sea-Cow, a gargantuan and docile relative of the manatee who so quickly went extinct at the hands of human hunters that we have only a single, doubtful naturalist’s sketch made from a living specimen.

But of course the sea lion, like all of these animals, had many names before and even after Steller’s, names which were linked to other names, in fact to entire systems of language and therefore systems of ordering, distant from our own taxonomies, possessed of their own logic and blindspots, systems which are no more arbitrary, in fact most probably far less, than one that groups birds and marine mammals together by virtue of a German with a pencil having passed them by at more or less the same time.

Modern taxonomists, heirs to Steller’s pencil markings, place sea lions with the fur seals in the Otariidae family on account of their externally protruding ears. In the mythology of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, by contrast, a different system of ordering was in place, and this system was especially interested not in the sea lion’s ears or in its purported discoverer, but in its stomach.

The stomach of the Sea Lion is a mysterious and multifarious receptacle. When cut open it’s usually found to be full of fish, but sometimes full of milk (it is after all a mammal), and not infrequently empty, since Sea Lions go through long periods of fasting during the breeding season. Most curiously, the sea-lion stomach often contains rocks, known as gastroliths, that is, stomach-stones, and these can be bits of gravel or sand, or in fact substantial rocks, even what might qualify as small boulders. These larger rocks are swallowed by sea lions on purpose, though their function is elusive. They may be for ballast (crocodiles sometimes eat stones for that reason); or to aid in digestion; or to crush parasites; or to aid the gastric muscles in ejecting fish bones and squid beaks, since sea lions vomit these up from time to time.  

The stony sea-lion stomach is the lynchpin of a myth, or rather a whole constellation of myths, told among the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples of northern British Columbia and coastal Alaska. And as it plays a key part in the myth, so this stomach and the being from which it is removed become the subjects of moral, philosophical, and biological inquiries. In these myths the sea-lion stomach is a fulcrum across which a series of things turn into their opposites: jealousy is overtaken by attainment; wishes by fulfillment; exile by homecoming; nature by artifice; certain death by renewed life. But the stomach is a fulcrum, and not merely a lever. It swings back and forth, refusing to settle on only one, establishing oppositions that are never permanent, only partial. The sea-lion stomach stories offer an account of thinking through opposites that is far more flexible and nuanced than what most non-narrative reasoning can offer.

The sea-lion stomach also clinches a set of complex ecological relations: in the myth, a man who was killing sea lions on a distant island goes home with the help of an inflatable sea lion stomach (often sewn up inside of it), and then carves out of wood a pod of killer whales, and these whales come to life. Something happens in the sea-lion’s stomach that makes it possible for the man who traveled in it to create life. Stravinsky said, “I am the vessel through which le sacre passed.” The sea-lion stomach is the womb in which a hunter of animals is reborn as the maker of them.



In Tlingit – and it is possible that this motif is Tlingit in origin, and quite ancient – the hunter is usually called Naatsilanéi. Let us begin with him. Many individual versions of his story have been told and quite a few recorded on paper. Each version has its own distinctive artistry, its own philosophical principles embodied in narrative decisions. But here are the general building blocks at play: Naatsilanéi is stranded on a rock where he was hunting sea lions. Something happens, in many cases involving descent to the bottom of the sea and encounter with the sea lion spirit-beings, but not always. Then Naatsilanéi returns home thanks to an inflated sea-lion stomach. When he reaches shore, he creates killer whales by whittling them out of wood, and they become his servants, carrying out his bidding and fulfilling his various desires.

Everything in-between and around, the relations between characters, the psychology in hand, the fate of Naatsilanéi at the end, is up for debate in the arena of public mythtelling, and each poet has his own solutions. Together these versions make up an ongoing interrogation into a set of important questions about the nature of reality. In myth, such questions are rarely aetiological in a simple way. That is, the question is not just, or even mainly, why do killer whales exist? Or, why does a sea-lion stomach have rocks in it? Instead, the circumstances of the sea-lion stomach, its apparent functioning as both tool and organ, that it can digest things but also hold them,  that it is buoyant but can be made submergent – these permit a deep inquiry into the relationship between being and desiring, how what is shapes and is shaped by what sentient beings, of various kinds, want.

Lester Roberts of Klawock on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, told H.V. Velten a version of this story, published in 1944, in which the following happens. The hero goes hunting sea lions with his brother-in-law and his Russian slave, and while he’s on the sea-lion rock the slave paddles away in the canoe, despite the brother-in-law’s fervent protestations. Stranded there and not knowing what to do, the hero then goes up to a dead sea lion and cuts out its stomach. He fills it with air, ties it up, ties it to himself, and wades into the water, using it as a flotation device. In Velton’s literal translation, from the Tlingit: “It being far, his mind however strong was and thus shoreward he swam.”  Having reached the shore, the hero starts carving killer whales out of different woods, casting them out to sea to see if they will float or sink. He finally succeeds in making a pod of whales come to life when he carves them out of yellow cedar. He sends these whales to kill the slave who ran away, and to rescue his brother-in-law, still trapped in the canoe with the slave. They do this and then he tells them never to kill another man, which is why, we are told, killer whales do not harm humans.

 I start with Lester Roberts because in his story the circumstances surrounding the sea-lion stomach are straightforward. There is a basic transformation of organic matter into an artifact. Another way to put it: an animate being, the sea lion, dies, and part of his corpse, filled with breath, becomes a life-preserver, and it saves a human life (farther north, among the Yupik and Inuit, sea-lion stomachs are more regularly used in this manner). The hunter has ingeniously figured out a way to bend a thing with its own purpose and function to his will and need. It was a stomach, digesting and excreting; but merely by being excised and inflated, it is now a swim-bladder. This wringing of life from death, which is exactly coincident with the fashioning of an artifact from nature, is a kind of threshold for the hero to cross. When he comes back to shore he is empowered to carry out a much more spectacular act of creation-from-thought: the carving of pieces of wood into living beings, in fact into killer whales, the most powerful animals known in the Northwest. They do his bidding, and he acquires the power of life and death over his fellow-men, which he proceeds to exercise in exactly symmetrical fashion, killing one, sparing another. And then he willingly surrenders this power so that the two apex predators – human and killer whale – will, from now on, leave each other alone.

Now let us consider the myth told by J.B. Fawcett to Nora Marks Dauenhauer in 1972 in Juneau. J.B. Fawcett is an impressionistic mythteller, jumping from scene to scene, omitting psychology in favor of ambiguous action. He assumes, as many tellers in an oral tradition do, that the spine of the story is already inside the reader, holding her imagination erect. In Fawcett’s rendering Naatsilanéi is abandoned by his brothers-in-law on the rock; he doesn’t say why, though we learn later that the brothers-in-law lie to Naatsilanéi’s two wives and tell them a wave carried him out to sea, so we know that the in-laws know that what they have done is unjust. Back on the island, Naatsilanéi is left alone and days pass.

The myths dwell infrequently on the life-threatening reversals entailed in abandonment, but for the intended listeners, they would surely have been self-evident. A deathly island in the midst of the flesh-rich sea, a hunter made a sitting duck, betrayed by the very blood to which he had pledged his life and issue. The sun and rain, which he has known to give life, now take turns flogging it away. Great masses of mammals, rutting and un-killable, pungent and loud, overwhelm the narrow band of rock. And the tide, once the highway on which he traveled the wide world, becomes his intruding jailer; it ransacks his cell and spoils the meager rain-skim he drinks from hollows in the rock.

This seems his fate, and in some stories, it brings him unto weeping. But then, as in J.B. Fawcett’s version, this arrives with the suddenness of a dream:

Someone talked to him.

He had probably been there a long time on that island.

“What happened to you?”

That was the voice he looked at.

It was a young man,

a young man.

“They left without me, you know,” Naatsilanéi said.

“Well, we watched them, you see,” the young man said.

A something, a being, a feeling, then a voice, and behold a young man, in the midst of the sea and sun, the precipitous divine materialized upon a rock. The numinous beings of Northwestern mythology almost always cross the boundary into story as a someone or a something, speaking at first with no name, a voice yet without designation, without categorization within the intricate web of relations that normally tells you, in societies where kinship is all, who fits in where. One marker of meeting a spirit in such a setting is that you cannot name who it is that speaks in your ear.

He is, that is, something which J.B. Fawcett expresses with a wry litotes – He had probably been there a long time on that island – his way of telling us that Naatsilanéi has met what you might call the genius of the place (Fawcett’s English translators call him, in their notes, the “Spirit Helper”). He’s of course seen and heard everything.

 And it is the Spirit Helper who brings the sea-lion stomach. “He moved it over the waves four times” – four being a whole and significant number in the Northwest – “on the fourth time, the man told him to get inside.” If a sea-lion stomach can hold a stone, one might reason, then why not a man; if a gastrolith, then surely a gastroanthropos. The Spirit Helper then tells Naatsilanéi this:

Please don’t think back to here.

Only think about the mainland.

There is a sandy beach.

 The sea lion stomach, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, operates on a principle of literal wish-fulfillment. Think of your home, and it will carry you there. But what happens next is truly amazing: “When he was only half way his thought returned.” Naatsilanéi fails to make good on the stomach’s power. Half-way to shore, his thought returns to the island, to what he has experienced and seen, to the intensity of the encounter with the Spirit-Helper – and because his thought returns, so does he. The Spirit Helper must send him out again, this time with another powerful implement, and only then does the wronged hero make his way back to shore to carve killer whales.


You might think that to tell yourself, there’s no place like home, especially when you have been left to die on an island, should be the most natural thing in the world. But the myth of Naatsilanéi as told by J.B. Fawcett – and by many other tellers, especially in the Tlingit tradition – indicates this is not so. Actually it’s terribly hard to make yourself think of what it is that you want. The architecture of the mind most willingly carries us towards the imprint of experience and not the phantasm of future attainment. Wish-fulfillment here is not the default mode of mentation, but a deliberate exercise of will, in fact in this case a higher-order function, a function of self-consciousness, which resists the natural course of Naatsilanéi’s thoughts. This natural course is to live and relive the dramatic progress of the previous days: the narrow line of life and death on the island, the encounter with the divine. It is the leap out into the future that requires the labor of deliberate thought.

 The differences, or rather transpositions, between the myth told by Lester Roberts and the myth told by J.B. Fawcett are important. In the first, the sea-lion stomach is made over into an instrument of human use through ingenuity and physical work. In the second, the sea-lion stomach becomes an instrument of human use through an act of pure mental concentration – and this one is trickier than the physical counterpart, more prone to failure.

 In the myths we’ve seen so far, there are just two places: the island and the shore, and one means of conveyance between them. But there are other stories where this two-dimensional landscape is augmented by a third dimension of depth, and with this depth comes a much denser adumbration of mythical figures and devices.

Here we must widen our ken to languages beyond Tlingit. Naatsilanéi, or someone who undergoes certain similar trials, is called Asdiwhil or Asī’wa in Tsimshian, Gōttca in Massett Haida, and in the surviving Skidegate Haida version he’s called “the one they abandoned because he was the first to spear sea lions." In these depth-stories, the hero is called by a numinous voice– again that divine someone – down to the bottom of the sea, or into a cave deep in the rock. And here he meets the spirit-beings of the marine realm, living in a flourishing society with a chief and a longhouse and human forms. They will eventually send him home in the sea-lion stomach, but not until he’s had adventures in their world.

In some versions, these people he meets are the sea lions themselves, and they summon him to care for a sick sea-lion prince. What they cannot see – what he can – is that the sea-lion prince has been stabbed with the hero’s own spear, and as he liberates the point from the flesh, the prince is healed. In some versions the hero sees a painting of killer whales on the sea lions' wall, and this painting will serve as the inspiration for his carving-into-life of the killer whales in the latter part of the story.

In the 1900 telling by the southern Haida Walter McGregor of the Sea-Lion Town People (in the present Skidegate orthography his Haida name is G̠̠andll of the K̠ay uu ‘Laanas), the hero goes to the longhouse of the killer whales, who try to turn him into one of their own by affixing a dorsal fin to his back. But he outwits them, and only afterward is sent away in the sea-lion stomach. In this version, the sea lion makes an additional intermezzo appearance as yet another tool: a sea lion is dragged into the middle of the room by the whales, and hot rocks are thrown down its throat, followed by fish to be cooked. Because there were no ceramic or metal pots that could be held directly over a fire in the Northwestern cultures, stones heated in the fire were thrown into woven, watertight baskets, bringing the water inside to a boil. The sea lion – or more exactly, his stomach – is therefore the whales’ cooking basket.

  North Wind Mask

North Wind Mask

In G̠̠andlll’s exquisite telling, the killer whales live in a house where the sea lions are cooking utensils, and dorsal fins hang in great bunches on the walls so that they can be stitched to the backs of passing humans. In this tableau the humble gastrolith returns in a new guise as a heating rock. The heating rock is a human artifact, but by analogy it makes the gastrolith seem very plausibly like a sea-lion artifact: a found object is transformed by a mere change of circumstance into a tool, a tool that aids in the breaking down and consumption of food. The Skidegate Haida [language] Immersion Program’s 2016 Glossary defines the word “Sk’aalgang” – contributed by elder Solomon Wilson – as to “steam food with heated rocks,” but it also has a supernatural meaning that clinches the connection to this story: “that was what was on each side of the door with the sea lion.”

The mythical gastrolith is a tool with uses even outside the alimentary context. In a story recorded in Massett Haida – one outside of this immediate grouping of myths – a  different hero kills a sea lion and uses its skin as a kind of diving suit or submarine, which allows him to swim through the sea. Here he weighs the suit with rocks for ballast. The people of many villages come out to try and kill him, thinking he’s an actual sea lion, but every time they throw their spears and arrows, he simply grabs hold of the points sticking into the skin, and he swims back to his camp, where he has now amassed a huge collection of weapons. “As this story tells, people still see (stones) in the belly of the sea-lion,” is the last line of this particular story, though its listener and recorder, John Swanton, adds a footnote that “more often Raven” -- the greatest and most reckless creator of them all – “is said to have been the one to put stones in the sea-lion.”

The simple equation of gastrolith and cooking rock or canoe ballast is the zero point for a huge dilation of the analogy between animal life and human ingenuity. In one myth, the hero can now create a powerful vessel to transit the seas and elude hunters; in the other, the hero takes yellow cedar and transforms that potent and pliable wood into a killer whale, that most powerful and divine of sea-beings in the northern Pacific.

But to go back to ground zero: stones in a sea-lion. It might appear on first glance a category error – and if that’s too western a locution, if the myths don’t see it as a category error, at the very least they see it as something unusual, deserving careful study and considered explanation. The inorganic commingled with the organic; an animal using a tool; the indigestible in the digestive tract. If I understand the logic of the myths correctly, then here we have a suggestion that such distinctions are plastic, incomplete, temporary. Nature and artifice, desire and necessity, description and thing-described – these are not fast oppositions, but rather temporary fluctuations in perspective.

A sea lion can bend a stone to its purpose, make it part of an organic process; but the stone continues to be the stone, and in doing so bends the sea lion toward itself, makes the sea lion a tool, an instrument, a cooking pot. So too a man can make the sea-lion stomach fulfill his wishes – but only up to a point, for then his thoughts, responsive to the circumstance of their sea-lion surroundings, will no longer bend homeward, but back to the sea-lion world. We cannot make an intervention upon the world without the world making an intervention upon us. Every act by which we appear to master a circumstance permits, by some simultaneous but distinct process, the circumstance to master us. Spears and arrows and fires make us more powerful, but lock us into a certain relationship with the beings around us; guns and speedboats even more so, an extension of the principle that this myth has been known to address, as when Willie Marks, telling the story in 1972, transforms the stomach into some kind of hovercraft – “it probably had a zipper for an opening,” he says in a manner both funny and fraught with history, “there was probably an automatic button.”

To widen the radius of action is simultaneously to narrow the parameters of the possible. To be unable to understand these two facts as simply the very same thing, to perceive between them the gap of paradox, the lurch of disappointment – this is the blindspot of self-consciousness, if not exclusive to our species, then particularly broad in us all the same.

Walter of the Rear-town People of Yan, who told John Swanton the story of Gōttca in Massett Haida, makes the starkest claim in that direction at the end of his narrative: “And Gōttca never came back. Since he entered a sea-lion’s stomach, he lives forever in the hearts of sea-lions.” Though then he adds: “Their hearts are human.” A man has acquired power from the Ocean Beings, which he deploys to fulfill his human desires (in this particular story his desire is not revenge, but rather, feeding the people of his village in a time of famine, which the killer whales do on his behalf). But in exchange for the fulfillment of desire, the very conditions under which such desire is generated – those of mortality, those of kinship and familial love and duty – no longer apply to him. In some Tlingit versions of the story, Naatsilanéi, having acquired quasi-divine power, secured his revenge, and re-taken his privileges, finds himself unable to live among the people, and dies a wild man in the forest.

Yet if Gōttca lives now in the sea-lion heart, the sea-lion heart, we are told, is nevertheless human. When we look upon sea lions in their rookeries now, we can’t but speak of harems and bulls, the terms of the human and his domesticated companions. Mythic ecology, unlike some of the more dogmatic philosophies of science, does not pretend that vocabulary is irrelevant. It understands that metaphor makes likeness as much as likeness makes metaphor; that in this case we can’t speak of linear causality, but of an ouroboros.

  Dance Mask

Dance Mask

Some schools claim that what we think can and does turn into what is – this conviction, at one maximal extension, results in Whig history, Marxism, and other triumphalist accounts of the human spirit bending this world towards its own better ends. Still other schools preach that what is is the only source of what we think – materialism is the one most familiar to us now, and most ascendant. But the alternation between thinking and being, I submit, has a pull of its own, which changes the objects of desire and the possibilities for their further unfurling in the world. We see this clearly in the intensified, apparently inescapable relationship between self and surrounding that characterizes our dreams. Myths articulate a relationship between thought and matter that opposes arguments by which one or another of them is always and ever the sole cause of the other. Modern paradigms, both empirical and hermeneutic, will require considerable renovation if they are ever to accurately describe the continuous process, so much better understood in myth, by which matter and thought seem to shape and generate one another, not only among humans, but across the wide spectrum of sentience. This is not by any means an academic question. At stake is, among other things, a truer description of those gaps our limited perspective interposes between wanting and being, gaps which we sometimes call the insatiability of desire. The myths draw attention to the incompleteness of being as it is given to us; essence must be alloyed in order to achieve itself. A sea lion can’t be a sea lion without swallowing a stone, and yet once he’s swallowed the stone, he’s no longer just the sea lion he was before. 


Matthew Spellberg is a fellow at Harvard. He works on dreams.


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