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Cosmogonies

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The Gulf States, representing a region into which tribes from both the north and the west had pressed, naturally show diverse and contradictory conceptions, even among neighbouring tribes. Perhaps most interesting is the contrast of cosmogonic ideas. The Forest tribes of the north commonly find the prototype of the created world in a heaven above the heavens, whose floor is the visible firmament; the tribes of the South-West very generally regard the habitable earth as an upper storey into which the ancestors of man ascended from their pristine underground abodes. Both of these types of cosmogony are to be found in the Gulf region.

Naturally the Cherokee share with their Iroquoian cousins the belief in an original upper world, though their version of the origin of things is by no means as rich and complicated as the Iroquois account. "The earth," they say, "is a great island floating in a sea, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock. When the world grows old and worn out, the people will die and the cords will break and let the earth sink down into the ocean, and all will be water again." Originally the animals were crowded into the sky-world; everything was flood below. The Water-Beetle was sent on an exploration, and after darting about on the surface of the waters and finding no rest, it dived to the depths, whence it brought up a bit of mud, from which Earth developed by accretion. "When the earth was dry and the animals came down, it was still dark, so they got the sun and set it in a track to go every day across the island from east to west, just overhead. It was too hot this way, and Tsiskagili, the Red Crayfish, had his shell scorched a bright red, so that his meat was spoiled; and the Cherokee do not eat it. The conjurers put the sun another handbreadth higher in the air, but it was still too hot. They raised it another time, and another, until it was seven hand-breadths high and just under the sky arch. Then it was right, and they left it so. This is why the conjurers call the highest place `the seventh height,' because it is seven handbreadths above the earth. Every day the sun goes along under this arch, and returns at night on the upper side to the starting place." 13

The primeval sky-world and the chaos of waters, the episode of the diving for earth, and the descent of life from heaven all indicate a northern origin; but there are many features of this myth suggestive of the far South-West, such as the crowding of the animals in their original home, the seven heights of heaven, and the raising of the sun. Furthermore, the Cherokee myth continues with an obvious addition of south-western ideas: "There is another world under this, and it is like ours in everything — animals, plants, and people — save that the seasons are different. The streams that come down from the mountains are the trails by which we reach this under-world, and the springs at their heads are the doorways by which we enter it, but to do this one must fast and go to water and have one of the underground people for a guide. We know that the seasons in the underworld are different from ours, because the water in the springs is always warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the outer air.

Among other Cherokee myths having to do with the beginnings of things is a legend of the theft of fire — a tale widely distributed throughout America. The world was cold, says the myth, until the Thunders sent their lightnings to implant fire in the heart of a sycamore, which grew upon an island. The animals beheld the smoke and determined to obtain the fire to warm the world. First the birds attempted the feat, Raven and Screech Owl and Horned Owl and Hooting Owl, but came away only with scorched feathers or blinking eyes. Next the snakes, Black Racer and Blacksnake, in succession swam through the waters to the island, but succeeded only in blackening their own skins. Finally, Water-Spider spun a thread from her body and wove it into a tusti bowl which she fastened on her back and in which she succeeded in bringing home a live coal. Game and Corn came into the world through the activities of two boys, one the son and one the foster-son of old man Lucky Hunter and his wife Corn. The boys followed their father into the woods, saw him open the rock entrance of the great cave in which the animals were confined, and after-ward in mischief loosed all the animals, to people the world with game. Their mother Corn they slew, and wherever her blood fell upon the ground there maize sprang up. The parents went to the East and dwelt with the sunrise, but the boys themselves became the Thunderers and abode in the darkening West, and the songs which they taught to the hunters are still used in the chase of deer.

Like the Cherokee, the Yuchi held to the northern cosmogony — an upper world, containing the Elders of men and animals, and a waste of waters below. Animal after animal attempts to bring up earth from the deep, until, in this legend, the crayfish succeeds in lifting to the surface the embryonic ball whence Earth is to grow. The Yuchi add, however, an interesting element to the myth: The new-formed land was semi-fluid. Turkey-Buzzard was sent forth to inspect it, with the warning that he was not to flap his wings while soaring above earth's regions. But, becoming wearied, he did so, to avoid falling, and the effect upon the fluid land of the winds so created was the formation of hill and valley.

In contrast to these tales of a primeval descent or fall from an upper world are the cosmogonic myths of an ascent from a subterranean abode, which the Muskhogean tribes share with the Indians of the SouthWest. "At a certain time, the Earth opened in the West, where its mouth is. The earth opened and the Cussitaws came out of its mouth, and settled near by." This is the beginning of the famous migration-legend of the Creeks, as preserved by Gatschet. The story recounts how the earth became angry and ate up a portion of her progeny; how the people started out on a journey toward the sunrise; how they crossed a River of Slime, then a River of Blood, and came to the King of Mountains, whence a great fire blazed upward with a singing sound. Here there was an assembly of the Nations, and a knowledge of herbs and of fire was given to men: from the East came a white fire, which they would not use; from the South a blue fire, neither would they have this; from the West came a black fire, and this, too, was refused; but the fire from the North, which was red and yellow, they took and mingled with the fire from the mountain, "and this is the fire they use today; and this, too, sometimes sings." On the mountain they found a pole which was rest-less and made a noise; they sacrificed a motherless child to it, and then took it with them to be their war standard. At this same place they received from singing plants knowledge of the herbs and purifications which they employ in the Busk.

The Choctaw, like the Creek, regard themselves as earth-born. In very ancient times, before man lived, Nane Chaha ("high hill") was formed, from the top of which a passage led down into the caverns of earth from which the Choctaw emerged, scattering to the four points of the compass. With them the grasshoppers also appeared, but their mother, who had stayed behind, was killed by men, so that no more of the insects came forth, and ever after those that remained on earth were known to the Choctaw as "mother dead." The grasshoppers, however, in revenge, persuaded Aba, the Great Spirit, to close the mouth of the cave; and the men who remained therein were transformed into ants."

The Louisiana Choctaw continue their myth with the story of how men tried to build a mound reaching to the heavens, how the mound was thrown down and a confusion of tongues ensued, how a great flood came, and how the Choctaw and the animals they had taken with them into a boat were saved from the universal deluge —all elements of an obviously Old-World origin; though the story of the smoking mountain, and of the cavern peopled by the ancestral animals and men, is to be found far in the North and West on the American continent, to which it is undoubtedly native.



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