Native North American Lore: The Cherokee Earth Diver Creation Myth

Mythical Water Beetle

EARTH DIVER CREATION MYTHS

Creation myths evolve in the oral traditions of society, providing an unscientific account of how the world was created and became inhabited by people, animals, and plants.  With oral transmission, it is common to find several versions of the same myth in the same society.  A cultural group often considers these stories to carry important information or truths coded through allegory, metaphor, and symbolism giving that culture, and the individual members, a sense of origin, history, purpose, and even destiny. 

Mythologists classify creation myths in various ways, and the following example is an Earth Diver type of myth.  Earth Diver myths provide a narrative explaining how the earth or land mass formed, making life possible for humans, fauna, and flora.   The diver is a fictional character, usually an animal, bird, or insect that dives to the bottom of the ocean to bring back a clod of the ocean floor which expands into a landmass suitable in size with enough attributes and qualities to sustain plants, living creatures, and humans. 

Presented here is a retelling of an Earth Diver creation myth from the Cherokee people of North America taken from, Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney, followed by a brief discussion of some of the points of interest raised in the story.


BEFORE CREATION

In this myth, the earth is an enormous island floating in an ocean of water.  The island had four cords attached to the sky vault, which was of solid rock.  These four cords kept the island suspended in the water, preventing it from sinking.

Cherokees have always known this but cannot remember who attached these cords.  Furthermore, they say they will fray and break when the world wears out with age, and the island will sink into the ocean.  The Cherokees feared this event deeming it inevitable.

The island has not always existed.  In the distant past, there was a vast ocean of water below the sky vault without a single landmass.  Above the sky vault was a place called Gălûñ′lătĭ, where the animals and birds lived before the creation of land.  It was not very spacious and overcrowded with animals and birds, but there was nowhere else to go because all the world below was covered by water, and there was no land.

DAYUNSI, THE WATER BEETLE

In their cramped environment, the animals and birds were curious to know about the world below, wondering if they could live more comfortably below and spent a lot of time discussing this.  At last, the water beetle named, Dayunsi, or “Beaver’s Grandchild,” boldly volunteered to venture to the watery world below to explore and return with an answer to their questions.

Dayunsi went down and ran over the sea surface in all directions discovering there was no solid place above the water where anything could live.  Finally, diving deep below the water to see what lay beneath, he came upon the sea floor.  Reaching out, he grabbed lumps of soft mud and returned to the surface.

On the surface, the mud began to swell, grow, and expand in all directions until it became an island called land or earth, but in these early times, it was flat, exceptionally soft, damp, and muddy.   Dayunsi returned to Gălûñ′lătĭ to report what he had seen and what he had done.

Although the animals and birds yearned to leave their cramped environment and pondered deeply on the possibility of living below, they were very patient and wary.  Therefore, to play safe, they sent different birds to fly down to explore and bring back news of what the island was like, hoping it would eventually make a suitable home for them.

THE GREAT BUZZARD

Time after time, different birds flew down and explored the world below, only to report the land was still too soggy and wet to bear any weight.  Nevertheless, other birds continued to fly down at intervals to check the condition of the land, only to report that the ground was still too soft.  At last, the Great Buzzard, the father of all buzzards, flew out and returned with news the land was now dry and solid enough to bear their weight.  They sent him back to further scout out the island so he could advise further.

Flying down and all around, he discovered parts of the island were hardening, but many other places were still too soft.  He grew tired as he passed over one region, and his wings flapped against the ground, and wherever his wings struck the soft ground, rifts, ridges, and peaks formed in the mud.  These hardened into valleys, hills, and mountains, and this region became the land of the Cherokees and explains why their country is full of peaks and valleys today.  The animals called down to him to return, fearing that the entire island would become covered in mountains and valleys.

SETTING THE SUN

The animals cautiously waited a while longer until the ground was drier and more solid, and then they went down to live upon it.  There was much more space, but it was a dark world, so the Conjurors positioned the sun to travel under the arch of the sky vault, moving from east to west over the earth.

Unfortunately, the sun was not high enough, and the earth was too hot, causing the shell of Tsiska′gĭlĭ′, the Red Crawfish, to burn bright red ruining his meat for Cherokees to eat.  Therefore, the Conjurors raised the sun a handbreadth higher, but it was still too hot.  So they raised it handbreadth, by handbreadth, until they got it to just the right altitude to warm and light the earth comfortably.  The height they raised it to was called “the seven handbreadths,” or “Gûlkwâ′gine Di′gălûñ′lătiyûñ,” and is the highest point the sun can be above the land without touching the sky vault.

Every day the sun traveled in a set course under the arch of the sky vault, lighting and warming the Overland, and then traveled underneath, doing the same to the Underland, returning to its starting point in the Overland every morning to resume its journey until the end.

THE UNDERLAND AND OVERLAND

The Underland is like the Overland having the same animals, birds, and plants.  The seasons are the same but correspond the opposite to the world above. The mountain streams that flow down from the mountains are the paths that lead to the entrances of the Underland.  The springs that are the sources of these streams are the doors and entrances to the Underland.  Those who wish to enter the Underworld must fast by eating and drinking minimum food and water and be guided by a person of the Underland.

PLANTS AND FLOWERS

During the creation period of the plants and flowers, everyone was to remain awake for seven nights watching the process.  Most managed to stay awake the first few nights, but although they tried, many fell asleep.  After that, only the panther, the owl, and a few other creatures stayed awake.  These received abilities to see in the dark and prey upon those that had to sleep during the night.

Some of the trees also remained awake while the other trees fell asleep.  Those trees which remained awake became forever green, and the best medicine came from them.  However, The trees which fell asleep lost their hair every winter.  Cherokees do not know who ordained this because it all happened before they appeared upon the land.

BROTHER AND SISTER

According to the Elders, the first Cherokees were a brother and sister, and there were no others.  The brother struck his sister with a fish and instructed her to reproduce.  Seven days later, she gave birth to a child, and every seven days after, another child, and so forth.

The population increased fast, and there became a danger the land would not be able to maintain everyone.  Therefore, it was decreed that women should only give birth once a year.  The Elders do not know who ordained this, but it has remained that way ever since.


POINTS OF NOTE

The animals and birds in the myth existed before the creation of the earthly world, moving down from the cramped domain of Gălûñ′lătĭ above the sky vault to populate the newly formed land in the world below.  There was one language used and understood by all living things to communicate with one another and between species.

Intellectually, they were much more human-like than their modern counterparts, consulting, discussing, and making plans together.  Moreover, they appear physically greater and more robust than their modern-day counterparts.

For example, the Great Buzzard must have been gigantic for his wings to dip in the semiliquid ground and form the mountains and valleys of the home country of the Cherokees.  Additionally,  Dayunsi, the water beetle, dives to depths far beyond that of modern-day beetles to return with the mud that formed the land.  Instead of choosing a larger, more potent animal, the humble water beetle plays a significant part in the creation of the land, making life on earth possible for animals, birds, plants, and humans. 

The first humans appeared only after land, sun, animals, birds, plants, and trees became established.  When they did, they found a world that supplied their daily living needs, ready and waiting for them to take advantage of it.  The plants, trees, animals, and birds provided food, clothing, medicine, and most of their daily living needs. 

Of course, people will see many discussion points in myths like this, and opinions will vary, but what matters is what the reader makes of it for themselves.

©20/07/2022 zteve t evans


REFERENCE, ATTRIBUTIONS, AND FURTHER READING

Copyright July 20th, 2022 zteve t evans


8 thoughts on “Native North American Lore: The Cherokee Earth Diver Creation Myth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.