Monday, 2 March 2015

Creation Mythology: Native America - North


Today we are going to explore the creation myths of the North Native Americans.  North America is the third largest of the world’s continents and is often referred to as the New World.  There are many Native American tribes within North America, all with their own creation mythology.

The Iroquois people, including the Cayuga, Cherokee, Huron, Mohawk and Seneca tribes, occupied territory around Lakes Ontario, Huron, and Erie, in what is now New York and Pennsylvania as well as Ontario and Quebec in Canada.  Their name, Iroquois, is a derivation of the French Irinakhoiw, meaning ‘rattlesnakes’, although they call themselves Hodenosaunee, meaning ‘people of the longhouse’.  The following creation myth is widespread throughout the Iroquois tribes.


Aataentsic by Sylvie Paré & Robert Laliberté
The Turtle’s Shell
In the beginning, there was no land, only a wide, wide water that stretched as far as the far horizons in every direction.  This watery world was not without life, for in it lived such creatures as the muskrat, with its webbed feet and flat tail, and its cousin the thick-furred beaver who builds log lodges in which to live and house its young, and the otter who slides through the water like a snake.  There were salmon and other fish too, and birds – ducks with speckled and iridescent plumage and gaggles of cackling geese and diving birds with stick-like legs and pointed beaks.
But in this watery world there were no people and this is how, so the old story goes, mankind first came into the world.
Up in heaven, the Great Mother Aataentsic conceived in her womb the first man and the first woman.  Time passed, and soon, she knew, the moment would come when she should be delivered of her children.  But one day, as she was walking about in heaven, she tripped and stumbled and fell, and came tumbling, rumbling, spiralling, and turning, like a feather twirling in the breeze, all the way down through the limitless blue sky towards the wide, wide water below.
And as the animals looked up the saw Aataentsic coming towards there, ever closer, and they went scurrying hither and thither to find a piece of earth that they could place under her to break her fall, for they did not want her to drown.  The otter searched, the beaver searched, the ducks, the geese, the salmon and all the other creatures searched, but in the end it was the muskrat who found a clump of earth – not much bigger than a fist – and quickly placed it on the back of the turtle who was swimming through the water in his usual unhurried and ponderous way – and only just in time, too.
Turtle Island by Rowye
For at that very moment, the Great Mother landed – with a gentle bounce – on the little piece of earth that had been placed for her on the turtle’s back, and it was just enough to cushion her fall for her landing was as soft as if she had been dropped into a featherbed.  It was here that she was delivered of the first man and the first woman and it is their children and their children’s children who are all the people in the world.
And as for the clump of earth, that was no bigger than a fist, a very strange thing began to happen, and you would have marvelled greatly if you had been there to see.  The clump began to swell and grow and to spread out over the wide, wide water until it became an island and then a vast land that stretched north, south, east, and west, with hills and valleys and forests and rivers.  It became the earth on which we walk, and because it still rests on the turtle’s shell, the people call it Turtle Island.
And so it is, when the sea is churned into a great swell of waves, that the people say the turtle is stirring.
And so it is, when the earth is shaken by tremors and rumblings and quakes, that the people say the turtle is stretching its limbs.

The Seneca , or ‘People of the Green Hill’, who once lived in what is now New York, have their own version of the Turtle Island myth.  Unlike in the above version, where the first man and woman are the children of Old Mother, it is Old Mother’s daughter who births the first humans.  Her children, Sky Holder and Flint, or Good Mind and Bad Mind, complete the creation of the Earth.


Earth Holder, the Ancient One, lived in the sky world.  In the centre of this world grew a great tree that bore flowers and fruit, and sustained all those who lived there.  Earth Holder took Old Woman to be his wife, and she became pregnant by inhaling her husband’s breath.  But Earth Holder became jealous and suspicious and began to waste away.
He dreamed that the answer to his problems was to uproot the great tree, so he pulled it out, leaving a gaping hole in the floor of the sky world.  Earth Holder called Old Mother to look through the hole, and when she came he pushed her through it.  As she fell, she grasped seeds from the tree with one hand, and a tobacco-scented root with the other.  Old Woman fell towards the water which then covered the Earth.  The ducks saw her fall, and wove their wings together to catch her, and then the Great Turtle rose from the underworld and, with the curve of his shell, made a resting place for her above the water.
A muskrat dove under the water and brought up mud, which he smeared on to the Turtle’s shell.  As the surface began to expand, Old Woman released the seed and the root that she was holding.  The Earth was soon covered with plants, and a new tree grew from the root.
Old Woman built herself a lodge beneath the tree, and there she gave birth to a daughter, who in turn became pregnant by the Wind.  The daughter heard two voices inside her, arguing about which should be born first; one was gentle, the other harsh and rough.
‘If you won’t let me out first,’ said the second voice, ‘I shall force my way out.’  And the child with the rough voice burst out of his mother’s armpit.
Old Woman’s daughter had just enough strength to give birth to the other child before she died.  She was the first to die, and to make a path from this world back to the sky world.  The boy born from her armpit was called Flint, and his heart was cold and hard.  The other boy, Sky Holder, was warm and loving.
Old Woman Falls - artist unknown
When the boys were grown they decided to enlarge Turtle Island.  Flint created the mountains and hills in the west, while Sky Holder made the valleys and meadows in the east.  ‘You’re making it too comfortable,’ said Flint, and he did everything he could to spoil the new land.  He even stole the sun and hid it in the southwest; although Sky Holder won it back, Flint had created winter.  Sky Holder saw his own reflection in a pool of water.  Taking some clay, he made six pairs of humans in his own image – the first man and woman of six nations of the Iroquois. Sky Holder taught the people how to live, but every good gift from Sky Holder was matched by a bad gift from Flint, and so disease and evil came into the world.  Whenever Sky Holder made a healing plant, for example, Flint made a poisonous one.  Eventually Sky Holder challenged and beat Flint, imprisoning his brother in a cave.  Sky Holder also vanquished other enemies of humanity, such as the Whirlwind, the Wind, and the Fire Beast.  He made the stars, the sun, and the moon and when his work was done, Sky Holder followed his mother’s path up to the world in the sky.

This next story is one of recreation and comes from the Algonquian Indians.  The Algonquian people are the most numerous in North America, with hundreds of original tribes.  They once inhabited the forest regions of the Ottawa River vally and its tributaries in what is now Quebec and Ontario in Canada.  This creation myth tells of how Michabo, also known as Lord Hare, with the help of muskrat, uses a piece of earth from the old world to create a new world.

Far Away by Nerain
Michabo and the Flood

One day Michabo, lord of the east wind, was out hunting with his wolves when they came to a vast lake.  Stirred by the excitement of the chase, the pack would not be turned from their course and plunged headlong into the water.  But the lake was deep and it was not long before all the beasts had been swallowed up, leaving behind them no more than a few lingering ripples on the treacherously calm face of the water.
Coming close after them, Michabo saw what had befallen his beasts so he waded out into the lake to try to rescue them, pitting all his great strength against the water that slowed his path, to go ever deeper towards the middle.  But so powerful was the movement of his limbs and so wild the swirling of his breath that the lake was stirred to a storm.  Waves lashed the shore and the water rose higher and higher until it overflowed its banks and roared in turbulent torrents over the land, carrying with it stones and rocks and stripping the trees of all their branches.
Michabo and The Flood by Janet Hulings Bleicken
When the flood finally abated and all was peaceful once more, the whole world had disappeared beneath a blanket of shining water that stretched east, west, north, and south, as far as the farthest horizons.
Try as he might, nowhere could Michabo see one single spot of dry land.  So he resolved to make a new world from the remains of the old – but he needed help.  He called the raven:
‘Go out across the water,’ he said, ‘and bring me back one grain of soil so that I may make a new world from the remains of the old.’  With a swish of wings and a croaking cry, the raven flew off to do the Master’s bidding.  But when it returned, it brought nothing.
So Michabo called the otter:
‘Go out across the water,’ he said again, ‘and bring me back one grain of soil so that I may make a new world from the remains of the old.’  With a flip of its sleek body, the otter dived into the water and was soon out of sight.  But when it returned, it brought nothing.
So Michabo called the muskrat, and sent her off with the same instructions as before.  How long she was gone no one can be sure – as hour or a day or a year or more – but what is sure is that this time, when the muskrat returned, she held between her teeth a tiny clod of earth, just big enough to allow the Master to do his work.
Michabo took the clod of earth and with his magic powers of creation, made it into an island and sent it floating out on the water and the island grew and grew into a vast land with hills and valleys and plains.  And there were trees on this new land but they were bare of branches, so Michabo loosed his arrows at the trunks, and they took root in the bark and became new branches and burgeoned with fresh green leaves, and the world that Michabo had made was more beautiful than you can imagine.
As for the muskrat who had helped to bring about this great work of creation, Michabo rewarded her by making her his wife, and it is their children and their children’s children and all the generations that followed who have been living ever since in the wonderful new world that Michabo made from a tiny clod of earth, long, long ago.

The Coos people, sometimes called the Hanis, once lived along the central and southcentral Oregon coast, including the Coos Bay, Umpqua, and Siuslaw estuaries.  They told the following tale of creation:

Feather Trees by rospberry
Arrow Young Men (Creation of the World)

Two young men were travelling.  They stopped in the middle of their journey, and one of them said, "How would it be if we two should try it?  What do you think about it?"--"It would be good if we two should try it," answered the other one.  "We ought to try it with that soot here."  They had five pieces (disks) of soot.  Now they stopped and dropped one piece into the ocean.  The world at that time was without land.  Everything was covered with water.  Again they dropped one piece.  The ocean was rolling over the disk.  The next day they dropped another disk.  Then they stopped at some small place and dropped another disk into the ocean.  They looked at it from above.  Now land began to appear, and they saw it.  They were very glad when they saw the land coming up.
The next day they dropped another disk.  Land began to stick out.  They looked frequently at the waves that rolled back and forth continually.  "What is your opinion?" said one of the two men.  Shall we try it again?"--"With what shall we try it?" asked the other one.  The water was still rolling back and forth.  "Let us split this mat."  They did so, and placed the two pieces over the five disks of soot.  Now they went down to examine it.  Still the land was not solid enough.  So one of them said, "Let us split this basket in two!"  They split it, and put it on the sand beach.  The waves were held back now, since the water was able to go down through the basket.  Now the young men went down and examined the land.  "This will do," said one of them.  "It's good that way."
Now they began to look around the world which they had created.  There were no trees.  "Suppose we set up some trees," said one of them.  "It would be very good," answered the other one.  Then they stuck into the ground the feathers of an eagle.  The feathers began to grow, and developed soon into fir-trees.  "All kinds of trees shall grow," said the older man.  All the different kinds of trees commenced to grow.  "Suppose we create animals," said one of the young men.  "It won't be good if there shouldn't be any animals. The future generations ought to have animals."  Then they created animals.
Medicine Man by jfarsenault
Early in the morning they went to look at the world they had created.  Suddenly they saw tracks on the ocean beach.  "Whose tracks may these be?" asked one of them.  They followed the tracks, and soon came upon a person sitting on the top of a snag.  "You, indeed, must have made these tracks.  Who are you?"--"I am a medicine-man," answered the person whose face was painted all over with red paint.  "You have no right to travel here.  This is our world, we have made it.  Are you surely a medicine-man?"  They seized the stranger and killed him.  Then they spilled his blood in all directions, and said to him, "You will be nothing, the last generation shall see you."
Then they turned back.  Suddenly one of them became pregnant.  The child could not come out.  "What will become of us?  We ought to have wives."  None of them had done anything; nevertheless he became pregnant.  The child was all the time trying to come out, but could not do it.  So they sent some one to the north, and told him, "There is a man living there.  He is a good man.  Bring him here."  Someone went to get him.  They went out in a canoe.  To their surprise, there were no waves.  So they wished that waves would come.  "Five times shall the north wind come and bring five breakers."  And so it was.  They were waiting for the fifth wave.  And when this came, they went ashore.  They found the man, and brought him to the pregnant person.  As soon as he saw the pregnant man, he took out the child.  It was a girl.  From this girl all the people took their origin.  She caused the people to multiply, and to inhabit the world.
Arrow into the Sun by IkaikaDesign*
Now the young men continued their journey.  They once more examined the world which they had created, and found it to be good.  Everything began to assume its present appearance.
They both had bows.  "How would it be if we should shoot towards the sky?"  Indeed, they began to shoot.  They looked at their arrows as they were shooting them. "You too ought to shoot one arrow," said one of the young men.  "Shoot it so that it shall hit the shaft of mine, and it will look as if it were one arrow; but don't shoot too hard!"  He shot and hit it.  "Shoot again!"  Their arrows became joined, and reached down to the place where they were standing.  "Suppose we climb up now!"--"All right!"  They shook the, arrows.  "Are they firm?  Won't they come apart?--Now you try to climb up!"  He climbed up.  "This is very good indeed."  Then the other man climbed up.  They looked down, and saw the beautiful appearance of the world which they had created.  Nobody knows what became of the two young men. Here the story ends.

The Arikara people of North America were originally from North and South Dakota.  They called themselves Sanish, meaning ‘the people’ and tell an emergence creation myth about Mother Corn, which reflects their many migrations from East to West.  The story is recited during the spring ceremonies.

In the beginning the great sky chief, Nishanu, made giants, but these creatures had no respect for their maker and were destroyed by a great flood.  Only a few good giants were preserved as corn kernels under the ground.  Nishanu also planted some corn in the heavens.  Out of this corn came Mother Corn, who descended to the Earth to lead the people out.  Since the people were still animals then, they dug their way out with Mother Corn’s encouragement.  Then the mother led the people from the east, where they had emerged, to the west, where they are now.
Mother Corn then went back the Heaven, but while she was gone the people made trouble and started killing each other.  She returned later with a leader for the people, named Nishanu after his maker, in whose image he was made.  The leader taught the people how to fight enemies rather than each other.  Mother Corn taught them the ceremonies.

The Muskogean Indians include the Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, Apalachee, and Natchez tribes.  They once lived in what is now North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and part of Tennessee and told the following creation myth in which the deity Esaugetuh Emissee, the ‘Master of Breath’, creates the first men from clay.

Nunne Chaha - artist unknown
Esaugetuh Emissee Creates Man

In the beginning the primeval waste of waters alone was visible.  Over the dreary expanse two pigeons (or doves) flew hither and thither, and in course of time observed a single blade of grass spring above the surface.  The solid earth followed gradually, and the terrestrial sphere took its present shape.  A great hill, Nunne Chaha, rose in the midst, and in the centre of this was the house of the deity Esaugetuh Emissee, the ‘Master of Breath.’  He took the clay which surrounded his abode, and from it moulded the first men, and as the waters still covered the earth he was compelled to build a great wall upon which to dry the folk he had made.  Gradually the soft mud became transformed into bone and flesh, and Esaugetuh was successful in directing the waters into their proper channels, reserving the dry land for the men he had created.

The Zuni tribe of North America were found in what is now west-central New Mexico and are one of the Pueblo Indian groups.  They tell the following emergence myth of creation, in which Awonawilona creates Mother-earth and Father-sky.

Awonawilona by DevilsJohnson
The Creation and Emergence of Man

Before the beginning of the new-making, Awonawilona – the Maker and Container of All, the All-father, Father – solely had being.  There was nothing else whatsoever throughout the great space of the ages save everywhere black darkness in it, and everywhere void desolation.
In the beginning of the new-made, Awonawilona conceived within himself and thought outward in space, whereby mists of increase, steams potent of growth, were evolved and uplifted.  Thus, by means of his innate knowledge, the All-container made himself in person and form of the Sun, whom we hold to be our father and, who thus came to exist and appear.  With his appearance came the brightening of the spaces with light, and with the brightening of the spaces, the great mist clouds were thickened together and fell, whereby was evolved water in water, yea, and the world-holding sea.
With his substance flesh outdrawn from the surface of his person, the Sun-father formed the seed-stuff of twain worlds, impregnating therewith the great waters, and lo! in the heat of his light these waters of the sea grew green and scums rose upon them, waxing wide and weighty until, behold! they became ‘Awitelin Tsita’, the ‘Fourfold-containing Mother-earth,’ and ‘Apoyan Tachu’, the ‘All-covering Father-sky.’
From the lying together of these twain upon the great world waters, so vitalizing, terrestrial life was conceived; whence began all beings of earth men and the creatures, in the Fourfold Womb of the World, ‘Awiten Tehuhena Kwi’.

Father Sky and Mother Earth by AmbiantNight
Thereupon the Earth-mother repulsed the Sky-father, growing big and sinking deep into the embrace of the waters below, thus separating from the Sky-father in the embrace of the waters above.  As a woman forebodes evil for her first-born ere born, even so did the Earth-mother forebode, long withholding from birth her myriad progeny and meantime seeking counsel with the Sky-father.  ‘How,’ said they to one another, ‘shall our children, when brought forth, know one place from another, even by the white light of the Sun-father?’ Now like all the surpassing beings the Earth-mother and the Sky-father were changeable, even as smoke in the wind; transmutable at thought, manifesting themselves in any form at will, as dancers may by mask-making.
Thus, as a man and woman, spake they, one to the other.  ‘Behold!’ said the Earth-mother as a great terraced bowl appeared at hand and within it water, ‘this is as, upon me, the homes of my tiny children shall be.  On the rim of each world country they wander in, terraced mountains shall stand, making in one region many, whereby country shall be known from country, and within each, place from place.  Behold, again!’ said she as she spat on the water and rapidly smote and stirred it with her fingers.  Foam formed, gathering about the terraced rim, mounting higher and higher.  ‘Yea,’ said she, ‘and from my bosom they shall draw nourishment, for in such as this shall they find the substance of life whence we were ourselves sustained, for see!’  Then with her warm breath she blew across the terraces; white flecks of the foam broke away, and floating over above the water, were shattered by the cold breath of the Sky-father attending, and forthwith shed downward abundantly fine mist and spray!  ‘Even so, shall white clouds float up from the great waters at the borders of the world, and clustering about the mountain terraces of the horizons by borne aloft and abroad by the breaths of the surpassing of soul-beings, and of the children shall hardened and broken be by thy cold, shedding downward, in rain spray, the water of life, even into the hollow places of my lap!  For therein chiefly shall nestle our children mankind and creature-kind, for warmth in thy coldness.’
Lo! even the trees on high mountains near the clouds and the Sky-father crouch low toward the Earth-mother for warmth and protection!  Warm is the Earth-mother, cold the Sky-father, even as woman is the warm, man the cold being!
Zuni Creation Myth by Lloyd Moylan
‘Even so!’ said the Sky-father.  ‘Yet not alone shalt thou helpful be unto our children, for behold!’  And he spread his hand abroad with the palm downward and into all the wrinkles and crevices thereof he sent the semblance of shining yellow corn grains; in the dark of the early world-dawn they gleamed like sparks of fire, and moved as his hand was moved, over the bowl, shining up from and also moving in the depths of the water therein.  ‘See!’ said he, pointing to the seven grains clasped by his thumb and four fingers, ‘by such shall our children be guided; for behold, when the Sun-father is not nigh, and thy terraces are as the dark itself (being all hidden therein), then shall our children be guided by lights – like to these lights of all the six regions turning round the midmost one – as in and around the midmost place, where these our children shall abide, lie all the other regions of space!  Yea! and even as these grains gleam up from the water, so shall seed grains like to them, yet numberless, spring up from thy bosom when touched by my waters, to nourish our children.’  Thus and in many other ways devised they for their offspring.


The Pawnee Indians, sometimes known as Paneassa, Pari, or Pariki, could be found along the Platte, Loup, and Republican Rivers of what is now Nebraska.  They called themselves ‘chaticks-si-chaticks’ meaning ‘men of men’ and tell the tale of Tirawa Atius, the creator and the Morning and Evening Stars.


Morning Star by GoatShrine
How Tirawa Atius Created the World

Tirawa Atius (atius meaning ‘lord’) is the great eternal God who created all things and supplies the needs of all creatures.  He created the Path of the Departing Spirits, known to the White Man as the Milky Way.  East of the Path is the Male Principle – the Morning Star, and to the west is the Female Principle – the Evening Star.  All that has happened and will happen has been ordained by Tirawa, and the stars are his servants.  From the east the Morning Star began to pursue Evening Star in order to make love to her, but she continued to elude him.  She put hindrances in his path, but continued to beckon him all the while.  Why?  Because it was not yet time to make living things on the earth; and females always tease and flirt with males, as well as demand tests to prove men’s character.
The number ten has always had significance for human beings, and this is because Evening Star placed ten obstacles in the way of her suitor.  One of the hindrances was in the chaos beneath them.  There was an endless sheet of water presided over by the Great Serpent.  The Morning Star threw a ball of fire at the serpent, which caused the serpent to flee beneath the waves.  As the fire hit the water, enough of the water dried up to reveal earth and rocks.  From these materials, Morning Star threw a pebble into the sea of chaos and it became the earth.

The Evening Star by SaraPlante
When the earth was in its proper place, Tirawa appointed four lesser gods to administer it.  They were East, West, North, and South.  They joined hands at the edge of the great sea on earth and a land mass emerged. Eventually Morning Star caught up with Evening Star and made love with her.  Soon Evening Star conceived a little daughter.  When she gave birth to the little girl, she placed the child on a cloud and sent her to earth.  High above the earth, Evening Star asked Morning Star to water her celestial garden and, as a love gift, he made the first rain.
In the celestian gardens of Evening Star, there grew a great many plants, including Mother Maize, the greatest of food plants.  Evening Star gave maize to her daughter as a gift to plant on the newly emerged earth.  Soon the Sun and the Moon produced a sun, who married the daughter of Evening Star and Morning Star.  Daughter-of-Evening-and-Morning-Star and Son-of-Sun-and-Moon are the parents of all living human beings, as well as the first beings to cultivate maize.

That's all for today.  Next time we will look at the creation mythology of South America. 

Useful Resources

Hamlyn History: Myths Retold by Diana Ferguson
DK Eyewitness Companions: Mythology by Philip Wilkinson & Neil Philip
Coos Texts by Leo J. Frachtenberg
Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia by David Adams Leeming
The Myths of the North American Indians by Lewis Spence
North American Indian Legends by Allan A. Macfarlan
Parallel Myths by J. F. Biertein