Literature before 1820: Stories of the Beginning of the World


The versions found in the Norton Anthology date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These written narratives are transcriptions or translations of oral stories whose origins long precede such transcription. Second, the Iroquois and Pima narratives present a worldview that contrasts markedly with the worldview the colonizers brought with them. They serve as representations of early Native American culture.
Literary culture and history can be presented as something changeful, alive, and available to all who read patiently and in good faith. These writings reflect the “importance of balance among all elements.”
Readings bring us into a recognition that other cultures were present, active, and imaginatively engaged at the time of European settlement. The American experience was being looked at passionately, and from many perspectives, as European and native cultures encountered one another.
Creation stories help assure people who they are because the stories attempt to describe where they came from. Native American creation stories were never written down or collected, but they are equal to the functions of Genesis for Christians who read the bible. They offer perspective on what life is and how to understand it. All Native peoples have stories of their earliest times. These stories were not understood or transcribed until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and they were written by Euro-Americans. This time was also when the Native Americans began to extensively record their myths and legends.

The Iroquois Creation Story

Spend some time in close reading to help fully understand the human sensibility in these texts. Patience and comfort with uncertainty are required of all mature readers who seek to move across time, landscape, and large cultural barriers. Pull help from the head notes and introductory materials.
We can scrutinize the differences between these Native American creation myths and accounts from other cultures. These Native American stories do not enforce a distinction between the Creator and world created. These stories do not talk about a world somewhere else; the world spoken of is a world that is right here, to be gazed on and known firsthand as the tale is told again and again.
These differences matter because we have to then acknowledge certain habits of mind, habits of imagining and telling, that are culturally contingent and yet rarely recognized by us as paradigms, as ways of organizing not just experience, but also our narratives about experience.
It is helpful to create a visual “map” or interpretive sketch of the events of the Iroquois Creation Story. The woman who conceived begins in the “upper world” but falls to the “dark world,” where “monsters” collect enough earth to make a seat for her, on which she gives birth to the twins: the good mind and the bad mind. The twins transform the earthen seat, the Great Island that the monsters have created for the woman who fell, into a world that begins to resemble a world of humans rather than of mythical people; indeed, the story ends with the twins retiring from the earth, as the creation has been accomplished. There are three “generations” of beings: the original parent (the woman who fell from the sky), the twins (one of whom, the good mind, creates the earth and, by deceiving the bad mind, sets in motion the “nature of the system” we know as the world), and the first people with souls (who come to inhabit the universe).
The Iroquois Creation Story is only one variant of a story whose main elements may be relatively fixed but whose details change in its communal and participatory retelling. Communal participation results from viewing creation as a process of descent rather than as a one-time construction in a single god’s image.
Compare to the Book of Genesis. Descent in the Iroquois story suggests a process of creation rather than the completed act of a single creator; the woman who fell from the sky may have become parthenogenetically pregnant, thereby linking the origins of the world to women (or to an asexual being capable of parthenogenesis) rather than to a patriarchal god (note that the Iroquois were matrilineal); and the monsters in the “dark world” are benign compared with the devils that inhabit Western conceptions of hell, and these monsters actually help the falling woman give birth. The good twin creates “two images of the dust of the ground in his own likeness,” unlike the single male image the Western god creates in Genesis, where the female image is later created from a rib of the male.
One could make a list of the characters in the myth and try to determine each one’s particular contribution, without which the creation would not be complete. While a Western narrative might suggest that the woman who fell from the sky and the good twin are “central” characters, the Iroquois story highlights the importance of the other characters and the interdependence of all. The turtle, for example, who offers to endure the falling woman’s weight and who enlarges to become an island of earth is essential to the origin of the world, as are the contrivances of the bad twin, without whom we would not have mountains, waterfalls, reptiles, and the idea that even the good twin’s powers are limited (as are those of humans). This suggests that there is no human agency without help from a variety of participants and that all creative powers must know their limits. If possible, read Wiget’s beautiful interpretation of the story of the woman who fell. He says, in part, that the Earth-Diver is the story of the Fortunate Fall played out against a landscape more vast than Eden and yet on a personal scale equally as intimate. It is a story of losses, the loss of celestial status, the loss of life in the depths of the sea. But it is also the story of gifts, especially the gift of power over life, the gift of agriculture to sustain life, and the gift of the vision to understand man’s place as somewhere between the abyss and the stars.

Pima Stories of the Beginning of the World

Two prevalent themes in Native American creation myths: the “woman who fell from the sky” and the “emergence” of the world. One of the images that distinguishes the emergence narrative, connecting the Pima myth to it, is Juhwertamahkai poking a hole in the sky with his staff and emerging through this hole into another dimension, where he begins his act of world creation anew. Some scholars have suggested that this movement is a metaphor for the numerous migrations of Native American peoples, and that these myths may implicitly record those migrations. In discussing this story, students might try some comparisons, locating similarities and differences between Iroquois and Pima myths and among other Native American and Western versions of “genesis.” Unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition, which favors one story of origin, Native American traditions offer many creation stories, as if this wide and fecund world required many exploits to get it going.
In the Pima, as in Genesis, the world begins “in the beginning” with a person who floated in the darkness; in Genesis, the spirit of God hovers over the darkness. Even so, recognizing the perils of the transcription is crucial to “reading” the opening of this story, for the language of the English transcription itself echoes the language of Genesis—and those echoes could have been wished for by the English-speaking translator as much as inherently there in the original text. Later on the story ceases to resemble Genesis. Indeed, Juhwertamahkai makes several mistakes in the process of creating the world. Unlike the Western god, whose destruction of the world by flood is blamed on human behavior, Juhwertamahkai takes a trial-and-error approach to creation, starting over or letting the sky fall each time the creative act sets in motion a process that will not sustain life. As the headnote points out, he makes the world four times before he is satisfied with his creation, establishing the number four (corresponding to north, south, east, and west) as significant in Native American cosmology.
The Pima Story of the Creation includes the birth of Coyote, the trickster of many Native American legends.
In the Pima Story of the Flood, Seeurhuh, or Ee-ee-toy, and Juhwertamahkai seem to engage in a struggle—not about creation but about recreation. This is an interesting theme and a promising basis for a conversation.

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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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