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Creation Myths of Primitive America, by Jeremiah Curtin, [1898], at


NEXT to "Olelbis" stands "Norwan," both for value and interest. This remarkable myth recalls forcibly the Helen of Troy tale, both in its general plan and in many particulars.

The great war among the first people is caused by the woman Norwan. Norbis Kiemila, who claims to be her husband, is descended from the heavenly white oak which forms part of Olelpanti Hlut, the divine mansion in the "Central Blue."

Norwan's full name is Pom, Norwan en Pitchen, that is, daughter of the land on the southern border. She has another name: Hluyuk Tikimit, which means the dancing porcupine. Her residence, or hlut, was Norwan Buli, Norwan Mountain. The Yana name of this mountain is Wahkanopa, which means the son of Wahkalu. Wahkalu is Mount Shasta, and Wahkanopa Lassen's Butte.

Norwan, or Hluyuk Tikimit, the dancing porcupine, has still a third name, Bastepomas pokte, the food-giving or food-producing woman. In her quality of producer she occupies a position in Wintu mythology similar to that of the divine descendant of the earth and the sun in the Algonkin religious system. This Algonkin myth is one of the most beautiful and significant, not among creation, but among action myths. And here I beg to call attention again to the distinction which I make between the two classes of myths.

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Creation myths relate always to what was done among the "first people in the world which preceded this," while creation was going on, or more correctly, perhaps, during the time of those transformations or metamorphoses from which resulted the present world and the order of things contained therein.

Action myths relate to ever-recurrent processes in nature which began as soon as the sun had his course marked out for him and the physical world around us received its present form and fashion; this happened before all the "first people" were metamorphosed. The vast majority had received the physical bodies which they have at present, but a few were left, and they remained in various places till they saw or heard the new race, the Indians. Action myths, therefore, relate to various processes in nature which never cease. For us the most important are those involved in the relations between the sun and the earth.

The great Algonkin sun and earth myth which has many variants and vast wealth of detail, describes those relations more profoundly and broadly than any other Indian myth devoted to the same subject.

The Algonkin myth in its most extended form describes the earth maiden as becoming a mother through being looked at by the sun. She gives birth to a daughter who is called Wakos ikwe, the fox woman; this daughter becomes the mother of a great hero, the highest benefactor of aboriginal man in America. He is the giver of food and of every good gift by which life is supported.

Of this myth there is a shorter version in which the hero is born of the earth directly; he is her son, not her grandson.

This benefactor and food-giver is no other than that warm air which we see dancing and quivering above the earth in fine weather. Descended from the sun and the earth, this warm air supports all things that have vegetable or animal existence.

This myth in its more extended form, the one to which I have referred first, is similar to that which Schoolcraft pieced together and which Longfellow took as the foundation of his beautiful poem "Hiawatha," though not identical with it.

Schoolcraft, with his amazing propensity to make mistakes, with his remarkable genius for missing the truth and confusing everything

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with which he came in contact, gave the name Hiawatha to his patchwork.

Hiawatha is an Iroquois name connected with Central New York. The Iroquois were mortal enemies of the Algonkins, and the feud between these two stocks was the most inveterate and far reaching of any in America. It was, in fact, the only Indian tribal hatred that rose to historical importance, and it was by the adherence of the Iroquois, the "Five Nations" of New York, that English dominion in North America was established.

The Algonkin force of America was on the French side, but the Iroquois held all water communication between Lake Erie and Ontario, the greatest strategic position on the continent at that period. They cut the Algonkins in two, and prevented France from receiving their undivided assistance.

Had the whole Algonkin power aided the French, they would have had great chances of victory. Had the Iroquois been friends of the Algonkins and acted with them, there could have been no doubt of the triumph of France at that juncture. But the Algonkins and Iroquois were mortal enemies; the Algonkins were friendly to the French, the Iroquois to the English.

In the face of all this Schoolcraft makes Hiawatha, who is peculiarly Iroquois, the leading personage in his Algonkin conglomerate; Hiawatha being an Iroquois character of Central New York (he is connected more particularly with the region about Schenectady), while the actions to which Schoolcraft relates him pertain to the Algonkin Chippewas near Lake Superior.

It is as if Europeans of some future age were to have placed before them a great epic narrative of French heroic adventure in which Prince Bismarck would appear as the chief and central Gallic figure in the glory and triumph of France. The error and absurdity would be, as the Germans say, colossál, but not greater or more towering than in Schoolcraft's Hiawatha. Longfellow, of course, could not free himself from the error contained in his material; but the error, which was not his own and which be had no means of correcting at that time, did not prevent him from giving his work that peculiar charm which is inseparable from everything which he did.

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In the original Algonkin myth the hero to which Hiawatha has been accommodated was a child of the sun and the earth. Whatever his names in the numerous versions found in the twenty-eight languages of this richest and most varied Indian stock of North America, he is always the bounteous benefactor of man, the kindest of all divine powers that have ever appeared upon earth. He is always in reality that warm light which dances and quivers before us in fine weather, and through which every man, beast, reptile, insect, fish, bird, and plant lives and flourishes.

This myth has received on the Pacific coast, or more correctly on parts of it, a different treatment from that given it east of the Rocky Mountains. There the benefactor is a female, a daughter of the earth. Nothing is said as to who her father was. It is significant that she dances all day, that she is called the quivering porcupine and the food-producing woman.

In Indian myths from New York to California the porcupine is ever connected with light; in some cases it is the sun himself. In "Tulchuherris" of this volume, Sas (the sun) carries a porcupine quiver, and is advised never to lay it aside, for as long as he keeps it on his shoulder he is safe from his children the grizzlies (the clouds) who wish to kill him.

In California Norwan, daughter of the earth, occupies in part the place of the Algonkin hero, the child of the sun and the earth. Her usual life is of the housekeeping order; she has great supplies of food in her hlut, or residence, and she goes on dancing each day until evening. The great and characteristic event of her life, her departure from the dance with her partner, is of the same scope and meaning as the last journey of Hiawatha when he sails to the west and vanishes in the regions of sunset. The hero of the Algonkin myth must go, he cannot stay; he must vanish in the ruddy glow of evening because he is the warm dancing air of the daytime. He must go whether he will or not. Before he goes, however, he cheers all whom he leaves behind by telling them that another will come from the east to take his place and comfort them. Next morning, of course, the comforter comes, for the life career of the Algonkin hero is included in the compass of a single day, and a successor is bound to come as surely as he himself is bound to go.

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Norwan dances, and then goes away with her partner, to the desperate vexation of Norbis Kiemila, her would-be husband, who wishes to have her to himself exclusively. She dances, as she says, without knowing it and goes away unconsciously. She dances with this partner because she cannot help it, and departs imperceptibly to herself.

Who are the rivals for her person?

Norbis means "living in the south;" he lives in the southeast, the land of greatest productiveness, in the region of Hlihli Piu Hlut Ton, that most beautiful of houses on earth, and second only to the divine mansion in the "Central Blue." He is descended from one of the white oaks in the heavenly house.

The person who was metamorphosed afterward into the red win bird (Tede Wiu) is his rival, the person with whom Norwan left the dance, thus causing the first war in the world. Was this person the red of evening which became Tede Wiu afterward? If we acknowledge that he was, and if we are willing to admit Norbis as the representative of all people living east of the west, we have at once the two parties to an irreconcilable rivalry in the most vital of questions, the possession of warm sunlight, and that most vital of questions is embodied in the person of a woman. That was the cause of the first war in the world and of fell strife. A story substantially the same as this was, we may think, the ultimate basis of the Iliad. The mythic origin of the particular tale from which Homer constructed his epic had been forgotten, that may be granted, but there is little doubt that in rustic Greece men might have found a similar tale which was mythologic beyond peradventure; and the Helen of that tale, or her equivalent, was a person like Norwan. With the materials at our command even now, we have enough to indicate this, for was not Helen the daughter of Leda and the divine swan, a person to be fought for with all available energy in the world at that period, and to be fought for in a war which surpassed in importance all that have ever succeeded it?

Helen of Troy, the daughter of Leda and of Zeus, the overarching heaven, with all its light; Norwan, daughter of the earth, with Lassen's Butte, California, for her residence; and the Algonkin hero whose place is taken by Hiawatha, are all different representatives

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of the same person, different expressions for the same phenomenon; and that person or phenomenon is the warm air which dances above the earth in fine weather. This air, in one case noted here, is conceived as the greatest benefactor of man, that being who gives the choicest and most necessary gifts to all, and, in the other two cases, as a priceless treasure, in the form of a woman who is to be fought for with all the valor that can possibly be summoned, and in a manner that in Helen's case inspired the noblest epic known to the world thus far.

These three cases show clearly the methods of mythology, and prove the absolute need of knowing that we must deal (to borrow mathematical language) with constants and variables taken together,--knowing clearly, meanwhile, which are constants,--and not with variables only, supposing them to be constants, or with constants and variables mixed together without being able to distinguish which belong to one class and which to the other. Were some writer to deal with the prehensile capacity in animated creatures, and describe how it is exercised, he would find a variety in the organs used for grasping things which would represent very well the variety of methods employed by primitive man in mythology to represent the same phenomenon or force in nature.

If man be considered as standing on his hind feet, his fore feet (the hands) are his grasping instruments. With the elephant the nose is prehensile; with some monkeys the tail performs this office, in part at least. With tigers and lions, dogs and cats, the mouth and teeth are prehensile instruments of great force and precision. With the bear the forepaws are almost hands. The two feet with their talons, which correspond to the hind feet in quadrupeds, are the graspers with birds of prey, working instruments with domestic fowl, and weapons with some other birds, as, for instance, the ostrich.

Take another case, the teeth, one office of which is to reduce food to fine particles; with all mammals they serve this purpose, and, in many cases, others also. Birds have no teeth, but they have a substitute in the gizzard, which they line with gravel and other hard particles; and this second stomach, by contraction, grinds to pulp grain and other food already softened in the crop or

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first stomach. The boa-constrictor has no teeth and no second stomach; it chews by crushing between its body and a tree the beast which it is to swallow. The chewing mouth of the boa has for one jaw the tree, for the other its own body; between those two jaws it reduces to a soft mass the carcass of the creature to be swallowed.

In considering the various personages in mythology, it is all important to discover, first of all, what they are, and, next, what they do. The office filled by a certain personage in a group of myths belonging to a given race or tribe may be filled by an entirely different kind of character in a similar set of myths of another tribe. This results sometimes from different geographic and climatic conditions, and sometimes from looking at the phenomenon or process of nature in another way. There is as much variety in the treatment of one subject by various tribes as there is variety in prehensile members and the use of them among grasping creatures, or as there is difference in the manner of reducing food to fineness among quadrupeds, birds, and boa-constrictors.

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