5 Seneca Creation Myths

Timothy Robbins

Introduction

According to Wikipedia, The Seneca [are a group of indigenous Iroquoian-speaking people native to North America. They were the nation located farthest to the west within the Six Nations or Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee) in New York, along the shores of Lake Ontario to the west of the Finger Lake region, before the American Revolution.]” They were the most numerous and adventurous of the Iroquois confederacy and spread to large swaths of lower New York and into Ohio. “[The Seneca Tribe before the American Revolution had a prosperous society. The Iroquois Confederacy had ended the fighting amongst the war-based Iroquois tribes and allowed them to live in peace with each other. Yet, despite this peace amongst themselves, the Iroquois tribes were all revered as fierce warriors and were reputed to control together a large empire that stretched hundreds of miles along the Appalachian Mountains. The Seneca were a part of this confederacy with the Cayuga, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, and, later on, the Tuscaroras. However, although the Seneca and Iroquois tribes had ceased fighting each other, they still continued to conduct raids on outsiders, or rather their European visitors.]” “[In the 21st century, more than 10,000 Seneca live in the United States, which has three federally recognized Seneca tribes. Two are in New York: the Seneca Nation of New York, with two reservations in western New York near Buffalo; and the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Native Americans. The Seneca-Cayuga Nation is located in Oklahoma, where their ancestors were relocated from Ohio during Indian Removal. Approximately 1,000 Seneca live in Canada, near Brantford, Ontario, at the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. They are descendants of Seneca who resettled there after the American Revolution, as they had been allies of the British and forced to cede much of their lands.]

According to John Bruno Hare: “ This huge (500 page) book of Seneca myths was collected by Jeremiah Curtin at the turn of the 20th century. Curtin also wrote Creation Myths of Primitive America, Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland, and Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World.

The tales in this book are consistent in themes and style with Native American storytelling from diverse regions. Themes such as shape-shifting culture heroes, gambling for keeps, and journeys beyond the sky are reminiscent of many other tales from diverse parts of the continent. The tales are mostly set in a pre-human dreamtime, and the players are the conventional zoomorphic first people. There are a few legends set in more recent times, particularly regarding conflict of the Iroquois with the neighboring Cherokee.

There are many distinctive Iroquois touches, for instance, the importance of the uncle as opposed to the father, and the strong and self-motivated women characters; this is an outgrowth of matrilineal descent. Also of note are the hideous man-eaters, used as figures of horror here. (This should not be taken as an indication that cannibals were once prevalent, no more than Grimms’ tales indicate the use of gingerbread as a construction material in medieval northern Europe.) These tales are very entertaining and present insights into Iroquois psychology. There is no evidence of European contact, as is sometimes seen in other collections, whether this was the result of editing by Curtin is unknown. The repeated use of similar themes is never tedious, but shows how various storytellers built on the same foundation.”

 

References

Curtin, Jeremiah, editor. Seneca Indian Myths. E.P. Dutton and Company, 1923.

“Seneca Indian Myths.” Edited by John Bruno Hare, Seneca Indian Myths, 2004, www.sacred-texts.com/nam/iro/sim/index.htm.

 

The Creation of Men

SHAGODYOWEG is often translated False Face, but the literal meaning is “The Great One Who Protects Them (Mankind)” from sickness and pestilence, and is considered to be of the Wind People.

ABOVE, in the center of the Blue, people lived before there was any earth down here. In the middle of the village up there stood a tree covered with white blossoms; when the tree was in bloom, its blossoms gave light to the people and when the blossoms fell, there was darkness.

One time a woman in that village dreamed and in her dream an oñgwe 1 said to her, “That tree with white blossoms on it must be pulled up by the roots.”

When the woman told her dream, the people were silent, Some time passed and the woman dreamed again.

The oñgwe in her dream, said, “A circle must be dug, around the tree and the tree pulled up by the roots, then something giving more and better light will come”

The woman told her dream a second time, but still the people took no heed of it. She dreamed a third time and again was told that the tree must be pulled up. Then a man said, “I think we should give heed to this dream; we

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have better light and the people will have cause to rejoice.” His advice was listened to, men cut around the roots of the tree; when the roots were loosened the tree sank down, and disappeared.

The chief of the people said, “I did not heed this dream for I knew something would happen to the people if the tree were pulled up.” He was angry and ordered that the woman, who had the dream, should be brought and pushed into the hole left by the tree. Men caught her and threw her into the hole. Now that the tree with white blossoms was gone it was dark all the time.

The woman fell and fell. The hole was deep and long, but at last she came out into bright light, into our sky, and looking down she saw only water.

It is well known that in very ancient days all animals had the gift of speech by which they communicated with one another as freely as human beings do at the present time.

Down under the Blue there was just one enormous body of water on which there were multitudes of various kinds of water fowl and aquatic animals amusing themselves after their own fashion. One of the duck family looked up and saw a dark object coming down from the sky.

The duck cried out to the other birds and animals, “Some strange being is coming down to us.”

A council was called at once to decide how they could prepare a resting place for this being, who might not be fitted to live on the water as they did. A duck said, “I’ll dive and find if there is any bottom to this water.” After a time, the duck came to the surface, shot into the air and fell back, lifeless. Several water birds made the same attempt with a similar result.

All the people that lived in the water were there.

Loon said to fish-hawk, “Go and meet that creature in the air and hold it till we are ready for you to come down.”

Fish-hawk went and they saw him meet the woman, for it was a woman

Turtle said, “I’ll take care of her.”

Loon said, “You can’t, you are too fond of eating.”

Horned snake said, “I’ll take care of her. She can sit between my horns. I’ll carry her wherever I go.”

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Loon said, “You can’t care for her. You are poisonous, you would kill her.”

Meanwhile one person after another was trying to bring earth from the bottom of the sea. At last Hell-diver brought up a little. Loon was chief and when Hell-diver came up, he sent all that kind of people after more dirt. Loon said, “Put the dirt on Turtle’s back.” Turtle was willing, and as fast as the divers brought dirt, Beaver with his tail, pounded it down on Turtle’s back, to make it solid. When Loon thought there was enough dirt, Fish-hawk came down with the woman.

The beaver and duck people kept at work making the earth larger and larger. As it grew, more Beavers and Ducks were ordered to work. Bushes began to grow, little red bushes, like water reeds.

Soon the woman gave birth to a child, a girl. The child quickly grew to be a young woman and to be very active. She walked here and there and watched the birds and animals and once when she was wandering around she met a nice looking young man. They fell in love with each other and by their union came night and day. At daybreak the young woman went to meet her husband, at twilight she came home and the man went away.

One evening, after they had parted, the young woman turned to look at her husband, and saw a big Turtle walking along where the man had just been. She thought, “A Turtle has deceived me!”

She told her mother about the man, and said “I am going to die, you must put my body in the ground and cover it up well. Two stalks will grow from my breasts and on each stalk an ear will come. When the ears are ripe you must pick them and give one to each of the boys that are born to me.”

The younger woman gave birth to twin boys, and died. The mother buried her daughter and soon two stalks came up out of her grave. And this was the origin of corn.

The boys grew quickly; they were strong and healthy, but the younger was an awkward, ugly looking, disagreeable fellow, with a head like a lump of rough flint.

Once when the elder brother was off by himself, he was lonesome and he thought he would try to make something,

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so he took mud and when he had molded it into the shape he wanted, he put it down, and asked, “Can’t you jump?”

It didn’t move, then he blew on it till at last it jumped. And he had created the grasshopper. Then he thought he would make something that would fly higher, so of red clay he made the cherry bird. After he had the clay molded, he set it up and told it to fly in the air. The bird flew and lighted on a bough–this was the first bird. One after another he made all of the birds of the air.

Then he thought he would make something that would run on the ground, so he shaped a deer, brought it to life, and said to it, “You must run fast and go everywhere in the world.” He blew on it, and pushed it, and it ran off. In the same way he made different kinds of animals. Then he thought, “Maybe I can make something like myself.” Out of the mud he made something that looked like himself, but now, in some way, he found that he had a spirit in his body and he wanted the thing he had lying on the ground to have a spirit too. He wanted to give it some of his own but didn’t know how. At last he bent down and blew into its mouth. He hadn’t blown into the mouth of any other creature he had made. The image began to move; the young man raised it up, made it stand on its feet, and told it to whoop.

The new man whooped; he had a fine voice. Then he walked off a little, way and turned and looked at the young man.

The elder brother had a special place to sit when he made all these creatures. About the time he made man, the younger brother found the place and, while watching his brother, he thought, “I will make a man too.” He went away alone, made something as nearly like himself as he could and brought it to life. It didn’t look like a man. It was a strange creature, and when its maker saw that it wasn’t a man, but some ugly, deformed thing, he said to it, “My brother has made a man, he is over there, go and kill him.”

The elder brother was watching the younger, for he was afraid he would make some harmful animal. When he heard him tell the creature he had made to go and destroy man, he went back to his own place, caught cherry

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bird and pulling out the hind leg of grasshopper, gave it to the bird, and said, “Go and scare my brother.” As the bird took up the leg the bird became very large and the leg was like the leg of a man, and it was bloody. The bird flew near, perched on a limb and called out, “Gowa! gowa!” When the younger brother saw what the bird had in its beak, he left his work, ran home and said to his grandmother, “A bird came and perched just where I was at work. My brother made it frighten me. I was afraid it would pull my leg out, so I ran.”

When the elder brother came the grandmother said, “You shouldn’t frighten your brother.”

The first man made was wandering about alone. The young man saw him once in a while and saw that he was lonesome. Then he said to himself, “I will make something like my grandmother.” He made it out of mud, breathed into it and told it to walk; then he found the man, and said, “I give you this one, you must always go together.”

When the woman sat down by the man he thought that her arm was in the way and his was also. He said, “We will cut them off.” They cut them off and laid them one side. When the elder brother came along and saw what they had done he said to himself, “This won’t do. I will give them blood and pain,” and from himself he gave them blood and pain, then he put their arms on and healed them (before that they had neither blood nor pain).

To the man and woman, he said, “I have made you, you will have children like yourselves. You must hunt the animals I have made, kill them and eat their flesh; that will be your food. I am going above the Blue. You will not live forever. You will die and your spirit will go above the Blue.”

When the younger brother found that the elder brother had gone away, he saw the man and woman and talked with them. He said “I am going to make a man.” He got earth and formed it as best he could, blew into its mouth and told it to stand up and whoop. It said, “Ho, ho!” pushed it from behind and made it leap. It was a frog, as large as a man. I

The younger brother was angry, and he said “I can’t make a man. My brother has made a man and a woman
and other animals. What I have made shall turn to man-eaters and animal-eaters and eat up what my brother has
made.”

When the elder brother looked down from the Blue and saw that the animals his brother had made were trying to  eat up the people and animals he had made, he came down,  put the man-eaters in the ground, and told them to stay there as long as the earth remained. This work done, he went back above the Blue.

When the younger brother found that his animals were in the ground he was angry, and said, “I will try again
to make a man.” He got mud and began. Every little while, he went and looked at the man his brother had made.
When his man was finished and brought to life, he was an ugly-looking creature. His maker told him to whoop.
He could only say, “Ho! ho!” And this was Shagodyo-weg gowa. His maker said, “Go and eat all the creatures
my brother has made.”

When the elder brother saw what was taking place, he came from the Blue to put Shagodyoweg into the ground,
but that one spoke first and said, “Do not destroy me. I want to live on the earth. I will be your servant and help
you. I will go around in the woods, the ashes of fire will be my medicine for men. If anyone is sick I will take
ashes and scatter over them and they will be well.”

The elder brother couldn’t put Shagodyoweg into the ground for he had spoken first, so he let him stay on earth.

The younger brother said to his grandmother, “I have tried to make a man, but I cannot. Now I will cause the
people my brother has made to do all manner of evil.”The elder brother went back to the Blue.

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Timothy Robbins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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