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Iroquoian Cosmogony

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE Onondaga version of the genesis-myth of the Iroquois, as recorded by Hewitt, begins in this fashion: "He who was my grandfather was wont to relate that, verily, he had heard the legend as it was customarily told by five generations of grandsires, and this is what he himself was in the habit of telling. He customarily said: Man-beings dwell in the sky, on the farther side of the visible sky. The lodges they severally possess are customarily long [the Iroquoian "long house," or lodge]. In the end of the lodges there are spread out strips of rough bark whereon lie the several mats. There it is that, verily, all pass the night. Early in the morning the warriors are in the habit of going to hunt and, as is their custom, they return every evening."

This heaven above the visible heavens, which has existed from eternity, is the prototype of the world in which we dwell; and in it is set the first act of the cosmic drama. Sorrow and death were unknown there; it was a land of tranquil abundance. It came to pass that a girl-child was born of a celestial maid, her father having sickened and died — the first death in the universe — shortly before she was born. He had been placed, as he had directed, on a burial scaffold by the Ancient-Bodied One, grandmother to the child; and thither the girl-child was accustomed to go and converse with the dead parent. When she was grown, he directed her to take a certain journey through the heaven realm of Chief He-Holds-the-Earth, whom she was to marry, and beside whose lodge grew the great heaven tree. The maiden crosses a river on a maple-log, avoids various tempters, and arrives at the lodge, where the chief subjects her to the ordeals of stirring scalding mush which spatters upon her naked body and of having her burns licked by rasp-tongued dogs. Having successfully endured these pains, he sends her, after three nights, to her own people, with the gift of maize and venison. She returns to her chief, and he, observing that she is pregnant, becomes ill with an unjustified jealousy of the Fire-Dragon. She gives birth to a daughter, Gusts-of-Wind; whereupon the chief receives visits from the Elders of the Kinds, which dwell in heaven, among them being the Deer, the Bear, the Beaver; Wind, Daylight, Night, Star; the Squash, the Maize, the Bean; the Turtle, the Otter, the Yellowhammer; Fire, Water, Medicine, — patterns of the whole furniture of creation. Aurora Borealis divines what is troubling his mind, and suggests the uprooting of the heaven tree. This is done, and an abyss is disclosed, looking down into a chaos of Wind and Thick Night — "the aspect was green and nothing else in color," says the Seneca version. Through this opening the Chief of Heaven casts his spouse and the child, who returns again into the body of her mother, first providing her with maize and venison and a fag-got of wood, while the Fire-Dragon wraps around her a great ray of light.

Here ends the Upper World act of the drama. The name of the woman-being who is cast down from heaven is, as we know from the Jesuit Relations, Ataentsic or Ataensic,° who is to become the great Earth Mother. The Chief of Heaven is her spouse, — so that these two great actors in the world drama are Earth and Sky respectively; while their first-born is the Breath-of-Life.

The second act of the drama is set in the World Below. The Onondaga myth continues :

"So now, verily, her body continued to fall. Her body was falling some time before it emerged. Now she was surprised, seemingly, that there was light below, of a blue color. She looked and there seemed to be a lake at the spot toward which she was falling. There was nowhere any earth. There she saw many ducks on the lake where they, being waterfowl of all their kinds, floated severally about. Without interruption the body of the woman-being continued to fall.

"Now at that time the waterfowl called the Loon shouted, saying: `Do ye look, a woman-being is coming in the depths of the water, her body is floating up hither.' They said: `Verily, it is even so.'

"Now in a short time the waterfowl called Bittern said: `It is true that ye believe that her body is floating up from the depths of the water. Do ye, however, look upward.' All looked up, and all said: `Verily, it is true.'

"One of the persons said: `It seems, then, that there must be land in the depths of the water.' At that time the Loon said: `Moreover, let us first seek to find some one who will be able to bear the earth on his back by means of the forehead pack strap.'"

All the animals volunteer. Otter and Turtle attempt the feat and fail; the Muskrat succeeds, placing the soil brought up from below on the back of the Turtle. "Now at this time the carapace began to grow and the earth with which they had covered it became the Solid Land." Upon this land Ataentsic alights, her fall being broken by the wings of the fowl which fly upward to meet her.

On the growing Earth Gusts-of-Wind is reborn, and comes to maturity. She receives the visits of a nocturnal stranger, who is none other than the ruler of the winds, and gives birth to twins — Sapling and Flint, the Yoskeha and Tawiscara of the Relations 45 — who show their enmity by a pre-natal quarrel, and cause their mother's death in being born. From the body of her daughter Ataentsic fashions the sun and the moon, though she does not raise them to the heavens. Sapling she casts out, for Flint falsely persuades her that it is Sapling who is responsible for their mother's death.

The third act of the drama details the creative acts of Sap-ling and Flint, and their enmities. Sapling (better known as Yoskeha, though his most ancient title seems to be Teharonhiawagon, He-Holds-the-Sky) is the demiurge and earth-shaper, and the spirit of life and summer. Flint, or Tawiscara, is an imitator and trickster, maker of malevolent beings, and spirit of wintry forces, but the favourite of Ataentsic.

The act opens with the visit of Sapling to his father, the Wind-Ruler, who gives him presents of bow and arrows and of maize, symbolizing mastery over animal and vegetable food. The preparation of the maize is his first feat, Ataentsic rendering his work imperfect by casting ashes upon it: "The way in which thou hast done this is not good," says Sapling, "for I desire that the man-beings shall be exceedingly happy, who are about to dwell here on this earth." Next he brings forth the souls of the animal kinds, and moulds the traits of the different animals. Flint, however, imprisons them in a cavern, and, although Sapling succeeds in releasing most of them, some remain behind to become transformed into the noxious creatures of the underworld. Afterward, in a trial of strength, Sapling overcomes the humpback Hadui, who is the cause of disease and decrepitude, but from whom Sapling wins the secret of medicine and of the ceremonial use of tobacco. The giving of their courses to the Sun and the Moon, fashioned from his mother's head and body by Ataentsic, was his next deed. The grandmother and Flint had concealed these bodies and had left the earth in darkness; Sapling, aided by four animals, typifying the Four Quarters, steals back the Sun, which is passed from animal to animal (as in the Greek torch-race in honour of Selene) when they are pursued by Ataentsic and Flint. The creation of man, which Flint imitates only to pro-duce monsters, and the banishment of Flint to the underworld complete the creative drama.

"Moreover, it is said that this Sapling, in the manner in which he has life, has this to befall him recurrently, that he becomes old in body, and that when, in fact, his body becomes ancient normally, he then retransforms his body in such wise that he becomes a new man-being again and again recovers his youth, so that one would think that he had just grown to the size which a man-being customarily has when he reaches the youth of man-beings, as manifested by the change of voice at puberty. Moreover, it is so that continuously the orenda immanent in his body — the orenda with which he suffuses his person, the orenda which he projects or exhibits, through which he is possessed of force and potency — is ever full, undiminished, and all-sufficient; and, in the next place, nothing that is otkon or deadly, nor, in the next place, even the Great Destroyer, otkon in itself and faceless, has any effect on him, he being perfectly immune to its orenda; and, in the next place, there is nothing that can bar his way or veil his faculties." 46

In the Relation of 1636 Brébeuf says of the Hurons: "If they see their fields verdant in the spring, if they reap good and abundant harvests, and if their cabins are crammed with ears of corn, they owe it to Iouskeha. I do not know what God has in store for us this year; but . . . Iouskeha, it is reported has been seen quite dejected, and thin as a skeleton, with a poor ear of corn in his hand."



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