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Algonquian Cosmogony

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



As compared with the Iroquoian cosmogony, that of the Algonquian tribes is nebulous and confused: their gods are less anthropomorphic, more prone to animal form; the order of events is not so clearly defined. There is hardly a person-age or event in the Iroquoian story that does not appear in Algonquian myth, and indeed the Algonquians would seem to have been the originators, or at least the earlier possessors, of these stories; yet the same power for organization which is reflected in the Iroquoian Confederacy appears in the Iroquois's more masterful assimilation and depiction of the cosmic story which he seems to have borrowed from his Algonquian neighbours.

The central personage of Algonquian myth is Manabozho, the Great Hare (also known by many other names and variants, as Nanibozho, Manabush, Michabo, Messou, Glooscap), who is the incarnation of vital energy: creator or restorer of the earth, the author of life, giver of animal food, lord of bird and beast. Brinton, by a dubious etymology, would make the original meaning of the name to be "the Great White One," identifying Manabozho with the creative light of day; but if we remember that the Algonquians are, by their own tradition, sons of the frigid North, where the hare is one of the most prolific and staple of all food animals, and if we bear in mind the universal tendency of men whose sustenance is precarious to identify the source of life with their principal source of food, it is no longer plausible to question the identification, which the Indians themselves make, of their great demiurge with the Elder of the Hares, who is also the Elder Brother of Man and of all life.

With Manabozho is intimately associated his grandmother, Nokomis, the Earth, and his younger brother, Chibiabos, who himself is customarily in animal form (e. g., the Micmac know the pair as Glooscap and the Marten; to the Montagnais they were Messou and the Lynx; to the Menominee, Manabush and the Wolf). This younger brother is sometimes represented as a twin; and it is not difficult to see in Nokomis, Manabozho, and Chibiabos the Algonquian prototypes of the Huron Ataentsic, Iouskeha, and Tawiscara.

Various tales are told as to the origin of the Great Hare. The Micmac declare that Glooscap was one of twins, who quarrelled before being born; and that the second twin killed the mother in his birth, in revenge for which Glooscap slew him. The Menominee say: "The daughter of Nokomis, the Earth, is the mother of Manabush, who is also the Fire. The Flint grew up out of Nokomis, and was alone. Then the Flint made a bowl and dipped it into the earth; slowly the bowlful of earth became blood, and it began to change its form. So the blood was changed into Wabus, the Rabbit. The Rabbit grew into human form, and in time became a man, and thus was Manabush formed." According to another version, the daughter of Nokomis gave birth to twins, one of whom died, as did the mother. Nokomis placed a wooden bowl (and we must remember that this is a symbol of the heavens) over the remaining child for its protection; upon removing the bowl, she beheld a white rabbit with quivering ears: "O my dear little Rabbit," she cried, "my Manabush!"

Other tribes tell how the Great Hare came to earth as a gift from the Great Spirit. The Chippewa recognize, high over all, Kitshi Manito, the Great Spirit, and next in rank Dzhe Manito, the Good Spirit, whose servant is Manabozho. The abode of all these is the Upper World. "When Minabozho, the servant of Dzhe Manido, looked down upon the earth he beheld human beings, the Anishinabeg, the ancestors of the Ojibwa. They occupied the four quarters of the earth the northeast, the southeast, the southwest, and the north-west. He saw how helpless they were, and desiring to give them the means of warding off the diseases with which they were constantly afflicted, and to provide them with animals and plants to serve as food, Minabozho remained thoughtfully hovering over the center of the earth, endeavoring to devise some means of communicating with them." Beneath Minabozho was a lake of waters, wherein he beheld an Otter, which appeared at each of the cardinal points in succession and then approached the centre, where Minabozho descended (upon an island) to meet it and where he instructed it in the mysteries of the Midewiwin, the sacred Medicine Society.

According to the Potawatomi, also, the Great Hare appears as the founder of a sacred mystery and the giver of medicine.

The story is recorded by Father De Smet: "A great manitou came on earth, and chose a wife from among the children of men. He had four sons at a birth; the first-born was called Nanaboojoo, the friend of the human race, the mediator between man and the Great Spirit; the second was named Chipiapoos, the man of the dead, who presides over the country of the souls; the third, Wabasso, as soon as he saw the light, fled toward the north where he was changed into a white rabbit, and under that name is considered there as a great manitou; the fourth was Chakekenapok, the man of flint, or fire-stone. In coming into the world he caused the death of his mother." The tale goes on to tell the deeds of Nanaboojoo. (1) To avenge his mother he pursues Chakekenapok and slays him: "all fragments broken from the body of this man of stone then grew up into large rocks; his entrails were changed into vines of every species, and took deep root in all the forests; the flintstones scattered around the earth indicate where the different combats took place." (2) Chipiapoos, the beloved brother of Nanaboojoo, venturing one day upon the ice, was dragged to the bottom by malignant manitos, where-upon Nanaboojoo hurled multitudes of these beings into the deepest abyss. For six years he mourned Chipiapoos, but at the end of that time four of the oldest and wisest of the manitos, by their medicine, healed him of his grief. "The manitous brought back the lost Chipiapoos, but it was forbidden him to enter the lodge; he received, through a chink, a burning coal, and was ordered to go and preside over the region of souls, and there, for the happiness of his uncles and aunts, that is, for all men and women, who should repair thither, kindle with this coal a fire which should never be extinguished." Nanaboojoo then initiated all his family into the mysteries of the medicine which the manitos had brought. (3) After-ward Nanaboojoo created the animals, put the earth, roots, and herbs in charge of his grandmother, and placed at the four cardinal points the spirits that control the seasons and the heavenly bodies, while in the clouds he set the Thunderbirds, his intermediaries.



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