Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Anthapascan Cosmogonies

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IN no portion of the American continent is intercourse of tribe with tribe easier than on the Great Plains. Of natural barriers there are none, and in the days of the aboriginal hunter, when all the prairie nations spent a part of each year in pursuit of the herds of game that crossed and recrossed their ill-defined hunting-grounds, it was inevitable that annually there should be encounters of people with people, and eventually of ideas with ideas. It was on the Plains that the sign language was developed and perfected, a mute lingua franca, serving almost the explicitness of vocal speech. The fundamental ceremonials of a ceremonial race varied little from tribe to tribe, and indeed were often conveyed from one people to another at the great intertribal gatherings, where feasting and trading and the recounting of the deeds of heroes were the order of the day. Loose confederacies were formed, and it was sometimes the custom for friendly nations to exchange children for a term that some might grow up in each nation acquainted with the language of the other. Not infrequently tribes or segments of tribes of quite distinct linguistic stocks lived together in a more or less coherent nationality, sharing the same territory and villages. Even in time of war there were well recognized rules, forming a kind of chivalric code, which obtained a general adherence; and one of the obvious outcomes of Indian warfare was the constant replenishment of tribal stocks with the blood of adopted captives.

With all these sources of intermingling it was natural that there should be interchange of stories, and indeed it is not unreasonable to suppose that the open country was the path by which many of the tales found in both the extreme north and the extreme south were transmitted from latitude to latitude, while similarly there was here a meeting-ground for the lore of the westward pressing tribes of the Forest Region and the eastward intrusions of the Mountain and Desert stocks. As a matter of fact, this meeting and commingling of myth is just what we find on the Plains, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the field of cosmogony.

Even among the remote Athapascans of the north cosmogonic myths are of diverse source. It is supposed that these Indians came originally from the northwest, and it is, therefore, no matter of wonder that they know and tell legends of the demiurgic Raven which form the characteristic cosmogony of the Pacific Coast tribes. They are also acquainted with the Forest Region tale of the deluge and of the animals that dived for the kernel of soil from which the earth grew; and they tell, likewise, the story known to the Eskimo, of the girl who bore children to a dog, from whom mankind are descended, or who, as in a Carrier version, became stars." According to this recension, the girl was a virgin, who when her shame was discovered, was abandoned to die; but she contrived to find food for herself and her offspring, who were in the form of puppies. One night, coming back to her abode, she saw the footprints of children about the fireplace, and following this clue she re-turned surreptitiously to the lodge on the next occasion, and discovered her children in human form; she succeeded in destroying the dog-dress of her three boys, but the girl-child retransformed herself into a dog before her parent could interfere. After this, the mother (who seems very clearly to be the progenitress of all animal kinds, the Mother of Wild Life) taught her boys to hunt the different animals, their sister, the dog, aiding them in the chase; but one day brothers and sister pursued a herd of caribou up into the sky, where all became stars, the Pursuers (Orion) and the Herd (Pleiades)."

The tale of the two boys who were followed by their mother's head seems to be a Great Plains version of the cosmogonic stories of the Forest Region. The mother of the boys was decapitated by her husband for illicit intercourse with a serpent; 50 but the head remained alive and gave chase to the children. With charms received from their father, the boys protected themselves, first, by a mountain, but the head turned itself into a wind and blew over it; second, by a heaven-reaching thorn-bush, which sprang from a drop of blood drawn from a wound in the head, but the head overleaped it; third, by a wall of fire, but the head passed through it. Finally, driven into the midst of a lake, the elder brother struck the head with his knife, whereupon two water monsters emerged and swallowed it. It is easy to see in this pursuing head the body of the cosmic Titaness, the Earth Goddess, overcoming in turn earth, vegetation, and fire, and succumbing only to that primeval flood upon which the earth rests; and it is interesting to surmise in this legend the original of the gruesome tales of cannibal heads, known to tribes of the greater portion of North America.

A second part of the story tells of the adventures of the two brothers," one of whom is captured and held by a magician, till he finally frees himself by proving his own greater magic; the other is slain by water monsters, but restored by his brother, although in the form of a wolf. The episode of the flood and the diving animals also appears. All these themes are well known in Algonquian myth. The stories of the journey of the two young men to the village of souls, known as far as the Gulf Region; the universal legend of the theft of fire; the tradition of the creation of light; even the familiar South-Western tale of the ascent of the ancestral Elders from the under to the upper world, — each and every one is common among the northern tribes. And perhaps nowhere in America is there a more charming mythic conceit than that of the Chipewyans of the Arctic Barren Lands, relative to the Animal Age: "At the beginning there were no people, only animals; still they resembled human beings, and they could speak: when the animals could speak it was summer, and when they lost the power of speaking winter followed." Here in-deed we have a picture of the primeval world: the stillness of the dark Arctic winter, when even the animals were mute; the loveliness of summer, musical and living with the multitudinous voices of Nature.


The Assiniboin, the most northerly Siouan tribe, have a form of the story of the mother's head, but their own tales of the origins of things centre about the diving animals and the trickster hero, Inktonmi, a Siouan cousin of Manabozho. Further to the south the Mandan also possessed two cycles of cosmogonic myths. Apparently of southern provenance are the legends of the storeyed universe: " there were four storeys below and four above the earth: Before the flood, men lived in an underworld village, to which a grape-vine extended from the world above. Up this, first the animals, then men, climbed, until a very corpulent woman broke the vine. Next a flood destroyed most of the human race. A Kiowa version of this tale tells how the first people emerged from a hollow cotton-wood log, until it came the turn of a pregnant woman, who was held fast — and this accounts for the small number of the Kiowa tribe.

The second Mandan cycle evidently belongs to the more properly Siouan version of the demiurgic pair. The Lord of Life created the First Man, who formed the earth out of mud brought up from the waters by a duck. Afterward the First Man and the Lord of Life quarrelled, and divided the earth between them. The Hidatsa believe that the Lord of Life, the Man-Who-Never-Dies, lives in the Rocky Mountains; and they also say of the First Man, the Creator, that no one made him, and that he is immortal. To the Man-Who-Never-Dies the Grandmother, who is none other than the Earth, they ascribe a minor rôle in the creation; it was she who gave them the "two kettles," which are the tribal fetish, directing that they be preserved in memory of the great waters whence came all the animals dancing. When drought threat-ens they hold a feast, ceremonially using the two kettles and praying for rain. It seems altogether probable that these vessels are the "bowls of earth and sky," and so symbolize the universe.

The Dakota tell the story of the drowning of the younger brother of the First Man by the water monsters, and of his resuscitation after they had been slain. He was brought to life, they say, by means of the sweat-bath, and it is not fanciful to connect the cosmic forces with the symbolism of the stones (earth) and steam (water) used in this rite. Indeed, the Omaha make this symbolism definite. The idea of per manence, long life, and wisdom they typify by the stone; "man's restlessness, his questionings of fate, his destructiveness, are frequently symbolized by the wolf"; and in myth the wolf and the stone are the two demiurgic brothers — western duplicates of Flint and Sapling. One of the most interesting of Omaha rituals is that of the Pebble Society, sung to commemorate the great rock which Wakanda summoned from the waters, at the beginning of the world, to be a home for the animal souls that wandered about in primitive chaos (translated by Alice C. Fletcher, in 27 ARBE,p 570):----

Toward the coming of the Sun
There the people of every kind gathered,
And great animals of every kind.
Verily all gathered together, as well as people.
Insects also of every description,
Verily all gathered there together,
By what means or manner we know not.

Verily, one alone of all these was greatest,
Inspiring to all minds,
The great white rock,
Standing and reaching as high as the heavens, enwrapped in mist,
Verily, as high as the heavens.
Thus my little ones shall speak of me,
As long as they shall travel in life's path, thus shall they speak of me.
Such were the words, it has been said.

Then next in rank
Thou, male of the crane, stoodst with thy long beak
And thy neck, none like to it in length,
There with thy beak didst thou strike the earth.

This shall be the legend
Of the people of yore, the red people,
Thus my little ones shall speak of me.

Then next in rank stood the male gray wolf, whose cry,
Though uttered without effort, verily made the earth to tremble,
Even the stable earth to tremble.
Such shall be the legend of the people.

Then next in rank stood Hega, the buzzard, with his red neck.
Calmly he stood, his great wings spread, letting the heat of the sun straighten his feathers.
Slowly he flapped his wings,
Then floated away, as though without effort,
Thus displaying a power often to be spoken of by the old men in their teachings.

Home | More Articles | Email: