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


Käna’sta: The Lost Settlement of the Cherokees

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le:Chief Standing Deer – Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina (5756036106).jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina – Source: Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina – Author: Boston Public Library

James Mooney (1861-1921) was an American ethnographer who studied among the Southeastern Native American people as well as those on the Great Plains.  He spent several years living with the Cherokee people and compiling their myths, legends, and traditions into a book,  Myths of the Cherokee (1902),   Some of these legends and myths reveal that the Cherokees believed that there existed a kind of “otherworld”.  This was populated by a people who appeared similar to themselves but were invisible unless certain rituals and fasting was performed which allowed the Cherokees to make contact with them.  However, these people could make themselves known to the Cherokee at will and sometimes did. There were also various spirit beings large and small similar to giants, dwarves, and fairies.  Presented here is a legend collected by Mooney called  Käna’sta, The Lost Settlement that feature the belief in the otherworld and its spiritual inhabitants  and what follows is a rewrite base upon this.

Two Strangers Arrive

A legend says that one day two strangers visited Käna’sta and asked to be taken to see the chief as they had a message for him.  The strangers looked very much the same as the villagers and did not seem to be a threat so they were taken to see the chief.

After making the traditional greetings and welcoming them with full Cherokee hospitality the chief asked them what message they carried to him, thinking they were probably from a Cherokee village to the west of Käna’sta. To his surprise, they told him,

“Like you, we are also Cherokees and our town is very close but you have never seen it, but we are there.  In Käna’sta you have sickness and disease.  All around you are enemies who make war on you when they can. One day a stronger enemy will attack and drive you from your homes and take Käna’sta and make you homeless and miserable.  All who live in our town are happy and free of sickness and no enemy can find us.  We have been sent to Käna’sta to invite you to come and live with us in Tsuwa`tel’da which is the name of our town.”

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Cherokee Folklore: The Strange Legend of Tsuwe’nähï and the Secret Town

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Pilot Mountain, North Carolina – Image Credit: Wahkeenah – Public Domain

In his book Myths of the Cherokee People (1902) the American ethnographer, James Mooney (1861-1921) compiled a large bank of folklore, legend, and mythology of the Cherokee people that provides a remarkable insight into how they viewed and made sense of the world around them.   Some of these legends tell of a secret or invisible tribe of Cherokees who live either inside Pilot Mountain or in some hidden valley only reached by passing a concealed entrance in the mountain’s side.  The following work is a rewrite of the legend called Tsuwe’nähï: A Legend of Pilot Knob from Mooney’s book that tells of these secret people and their hidden town.

Lazy Tsuwe’nähï

There was once a lazy man whose name was Tsuwe’nähï.  He lived in an old town called Känuga that was situated on the banks of the Pigeon River.  He was too lazy to build his own house so instead, he lived with friends and relatives moving frequently from one to another.   Although he liked to spend all of his time in the woods he never bothered to hunt to bring back game as thanks to those who kept him through their good nature.

At last the good nature of his friends and relatives ran thin and they tired of him living off their generosity and they told him so.  Tsuwe’nähï pleaded for a last chance and asked them to prepare some parched corn for him to take on a hunting trip.  He promised them he would bring back deer, or some other kind of game, telling them if he failed he would never bother them again.

So his friends and relatives gave him a pouch with enough corn to sustain him on his hunting trip and he headed off into the mountains.   Many days passed, and weeks turned to months but he did not return and everyone thought they would never see him again.  Then one day he appeared in the town with a strange tale to tell.

The Strange Tale of Tsuwe’nähï

He told his friends and relatives that he had followed the trail towards the mountains and as he passed across a ridge he had met a stranger.  They greeted each other in a friendly fashion and stopped to talk to each other.  The stranger asked him where he was going out in the wilds on his own.   Tsuwe’nähï told him that his friends had relatives had driven him out of their homes telling him he was lazy.  He told him that he must bring back game to share with them or they would not have him back and ruefully he explained he was not a very good hunter.  The stranger smiled at him and said, “Come and visit my town. It is not far and you will see that you have relatives and friends there.”

The Secret Town on Pilot Mountain

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Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain – Image Credit:AnDrew McKenzie – CC BY-SA 3.0

Tsuwe’nähï was very grateful for the offer.  He was ashamed about how he had lived off his family and friends for so long and did not want to return empty handed, so he accepted.  The stranger led him towards the mountain called Tsuwa`tel’da which is also known as Pilot Mountain or Pilot Knob.   Eventually, they came to a bare rock face and the stranger led him to a hidden cave and gestured and said, “Please follow me!”

Tsuwe’nähï followed the stranger into the cave and down along a passage that ran into the heart of the mountain,  Eventually the passage opened out into a wide and beautiful valley. Looking down into the valley Tsuwe’nähï saw a great town thronged with many people.

Tsuwe’nähï and the stranger walked down the valley towards the town.  The townsfolk seeing him coming ran to meet him greeting him in warmth and friendship and showed him to the house of their chief.   The chief greeted him warmly and told him he was welcome and offered him a seat beside the fire.  Tsuwe’nähï gladly accepted and sat down but was surprised to find the seat moved underneath him.  Then he looked down and saw there was a turtle’s head poking out of its shell and realized he was seated upon the back of a huge turtle and jumped up in surprise.

“It’s alright,” said the chief, “he is only looking to see who you are!”   Tsuwe’nähï sat down gently and carefully and the turtle drew its head back into its shell. He was then offered food the kind of which he was accustomed to and he was encouraged to eat and drink his fill.  When he had finished the chief took him on a tour around the settlement and introduced him to many of its people.  Eventually, Tsuwe’nähï grew tired and was allowed to rest.  After he had rested the chief led him back to the mouth of the cave he had entered the strange country from and showed him the path that led back to the river telling him,  “Although you are going back to the place you call home you will never again be happy there. Nevertheless, you have seen us and whenever you are ready you can come to us as you now know where we are.”

Tsuwe’nähï Returns Home

The chief turned and left. Tsuwe’nähï made his way back down the mountain path towards the river following it until he found his way back to Känuga.  On his return, he told his story to his family and friends but none of them would believe him and laughed calling him foolish.   After his return, he would often go off alone into the forest sometimes being away for several days at a time.  When he came back he would tell folk he had been visiting the hidden people on Pilot Mountain but still, no one believed him.

Then one day after returning from such a trip he told a group of friends about his visit to the hidden people.   Most laughed at dismissed his story and walked away but one man stayed and told him he believed him and would like to go with him to see for himself the next time he visited the hidden people on Pilot Mountain.

At Last Someone Believes Him

Tsuwe’nähï was pleased that he had, at last, found someone who would listen to him and readily agreed to his company. A few days later he took the man into the forest and the two of them made their way to Pilot Mountain.    After a good trek, they decided to make rest and Tsuwe’nähï said to his companion to remain at the spot and set up camp while he went on ahead telling him he would soon return.

So his friend set up camp and waited for the return of his guide.  While he waited he did some hunting and set up a fire to cook his game.  After two days and two nights the man heard  Tsuwe’nähï approaching but although he appeared to be alone he was talking to someone else close by him.  Although he could see no one the man heard the voices of two girls who were talking to Tsuwe’nähï and he to them.

As Tsuwe’nähï stepped into the firelight he greeted his friend and said,  “Look I have returned with friends and they say that in two nights time there will be a dance at their town and they are inviting us to go.”  

His friend liked the idea of a dance at the strange town and readily accepted even though he could not see who else he was talking to.   Then Tsuwe’nähï spoke as if to someone nearby saying, “He accepts and thanks you for the invitation” and turned to his friend and said, “Our sisters ask for some venison”

His friend said, “What parts would they like?” and the girls said,  “Mother has asked us to request ribs,” and although he could not see who was speaking he cut them generous portions of ribs and handed them to Tsuwe’nähï.

“Thank you,” said Tsuwe’nähï taking the ribs and said, “We shall return for you in two days,”  and then turned about and disappeared into the forest night.  The man watched him disappear and listened as the voices faded into the forest and then all was quiet.

Just as he said two days later Tsuwe’nähï returned but this time the man could see he was accompanied by two girls who went and stood by the fire to warm themselves.  The man thought they were very handsome girls but one thing struck him as strange.  He noticed that their feet were not like human feet but more like the paws of a wolf.  As soon as they realized he had seen their feet they sat down to cover them up but said nothing about them and he decided out of politeness not to ask.

The party ate a meal together and then set out along a nearby creek to the trail that led to Tsuwa`tel’da and the hidden land.  They came to a bare cliff face where they entered a cave that was hidden by folds in the rock.  They made their way down a passage which opened up into a broad valley and walked down the path to the town below.  The man was surprised by everything he saw but found his legs became very weak and began to give way under him and he fell to the ground.

Tsuwe’nähï and the girls tried to help him to him to his feet but he could not move so one of the girls ran and fetched a medicine man.  The medicine man told him he could not walk because he had not prepared himself by fasting.  He then took out some old tobacco he kept in a pouch at his side and rubbed it on the legs of the man and placing it under his nose told him to smell it.  After this, the man was able to walk and went with others to the dance which had not yet begun.

The Dance

Tsuwe’nähï took his friend to the townhouse and gave him a seat close to the fire.  His friend looked warily at the seat.  It was covered in the long thorns of the honey locust and he was worried they may pierce his skin if he sat on it.  However, his Tsuwe’näh told him it would be safe to sit on so he sat down and found the long thorns soft and comfortable.

The drummer entered the townhouse and was followed by the dancers and the dancing commenced.  A man followed the dancers around crying, “Kû! Kû!” and Tsuwe’nähï explained that he was not one of the dancers.  He told him that the man had once got lost in the mountains and had gone round in circles calling out to his friends.  Eventually, the hidden people found him and took him in but he had lost his voice and was only able to say “Kû! Kû!” ever after.

Return to Känuga

When the dance finished Tsuwe’nähï and his friend went back to Känuga.  They told the people of Känuga all about the town on Pilot Mountain and how good and kind the townsfolk were.  This time because there were two of them the people listened and some said they wanted to go there.  Tsuwe’nähï told them that they had to fast for seven days while he went up to Pilot Mountain to tell the hidden people so that they could prepare for their coming.  After seven days he returned and led the people of Känuga who wanted to go to the town on Pilot Mountain.  The people who remained behind never saw those who went with Tsuwe’nähï to the secret town again.

© 22/02/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 22nd, 2017 zteve t evans

Cherokee Folklore: The Legend of the Origin of Strawberries

The Cherokee have many wonderful stories that explain aspects of their life and nature and help them to make sense of their place in the world.  In 1902, James Mooney, an ethnographer, published Myths of the Cherokee which presented a collection of myths, legend, traditions and customs of the Cherokee people.  In many of their legends and folktales there is no formal ending or conclusion as such which leaves it open for future generations to add their part in creating a living story.  A modified version of the Origin of Strawberries is presented here based on Mooney’s work and influenced by others.

 The legend of the origin of strawberries

The legend of the origin of strawberries begins in the early days when the world  was still young and the story was just beginning with the first man and the first woman who lived together as husband and wife.  For a long time they were very happy with each other but there came a time when things were not as good and they began to argue.

After many arguments the woman finally decided she would take no more.  Leaving her husband behind she set off east in the direction of the Sun land that is called Nûñdâgûñ′yĭ.  Her husband was sorry they had argued and followed at a distance grieving for her.  The wife never once looked around but continued walking towards the Sun land in the east.

The man was distraught and prayed that she may come back to him and continued following her.    Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ looked down and saw the man following his wife and grieving and understood what had happened.  Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ felt sorry for the man and asked him why if he still felt anger towards his wife.  The man said he now felt no anger towards her but missed her company badly.  Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ asked the man if he would take her back as his wife again.  The man readily and eagerly told him that he would.

Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ looked down and seeing the woman was heading towards the east caused a bush of the juiciest huckleberries to spring from the ground right in her path.  The woman took no notice of them and passed round them continuing to walk into the east.

Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ was surprised and decided to try again.  Next he caused a bush of fine blackberries to grow right on the path she was taking to the Sun-land, thinking they would surely be too tempting for her not to stop and eat her fill.  Again she simply walked around the blackberry bushes ignoring them completely and continuing walking into the east.

Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ was perplexed and tried to tempt her with other fruits but she simply took no notice of them and continued walking into the east.  He then caused trees with branches laden with red service berries to grow in her path thinking this would surely tempt her to stop. The woman simply paid no attention to them and continued walking into the east.  At the end of his tether Une′ʻlănûñ′hĭ created the most luscious fruit of the most gorgeous color of red to grow right in her path.  These  berries had never before been seen on earth and the woman seeing them was intrigued by the vibrancy their colour and scent.

She bent down and picked one and put it into her mouth.  The taste was delicious and she had never tasted anything so good in her life.  As she ate she looked towards the west where she knew her husband was and she remembered his face.   She remembered all the good times they had together and she no longer wanted to go to the Sun-land and sat down thinking she would wait for him to catch up.

The longer she waited the stronger grew her desire to see him.  Filling her hands with the biggest and juiciest strawberries she walked back the way she had come into the west. When she met her husband who was still following he was delighted to see her and she was delighted to see him.  Together they walked back to their home in the west sharing the strawberries she had picked together.  From the first man and the first woman came more people who spread out across the land like the strawberry plants and so the living story grew and multiplied and continues to unfold.

© 14/06/2016 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 14th, 2016  zteve t evans