Creation Myths of Ancient People
The Egyptian Story Of The Creation
If we consider for a moment the vast amount of thought which the Egyptian gave to the problems of the future life, and their deep-seated belief in resurrection and immortality, we cannot fail to conclude that he must have theorised deeply about the constitution of the heaven in which he hoped to live everlastingly, and about its Maker. The translations given in the preceding pages prove that the theologians of Egypt were ready enough to describe heaven, and the life led by the blessed there, and the powers and the attributes of the gods, but they appear to have shrunk from writing down in a connected form their beliefs concerning the Creation and the origin of the Creator.
The worshippers of each great god proclaimed him to be the Creator of All, and every great town had its own local belief on the subject. According to the Heliopolitans, Atem, or Tem, and at a later period Rā, was the Creator; according to Memphite theology he was Ptah; according to the Hermopolitans he was Thoth; and according to the Thebans he was Amen (Ammon). In only one native Egyptian work up to the present has there been discovered any connected account of the Creation, and the means by which it was effected, namely, the British Museum Papyrus, No. 10,188. This papyrus was written about 305 B.C., and is therefore of a comparatively late date, but the subject matter of the works contained in it is thousands of years older, and it is only their forms which are of a late date.
The Story of the Creation is found in the last work in the papyrus, which is called the "Book of overthrowing Āapep, the Enemy of Rā, the Enemy of Un-Nefer" (i.e. Osiris). This work is a liturgy, which was said at certain times of the day and night in the great temple of Amen-Rā at Thebes, with the view of preventing the monster Āapep from obstructing the sunrise. Āapep was supposed to lie in wait for the sun daily just before sunrise, with the view of doing battle with him and overthrowing him. When the Sun-god arrived at the place where Āapep was, he first of all cast a spell upon the monster, which rendered him helpless, and then he cast his fiery rays upon him, which shrivelled him up, and the fire of the god consumed him entirely. In the temple of Amen-Rā the priests recited the spells that were supposed to help the Sun-god to burn up Āapep, and they burnt waxen figures of the monster in specially prepared fires, and, uttering curses, they trampled them under foot and defiled them.
These spells and burnings were also believed to break up rain clouds, and to scatter fog and mist and to dissipate thunder-storms, and to help the sun to rise on this world in a cloudless sky. Āapep was a form of Set, the god of evil of every kind, and his allies were the "Red Fiends" and the "Black Fiends," and every power of darkness. In the midst of the magical spells of this papyrus we find two copies of the "Book of knowing how Rā came into being, and of overthrowing Āapep." One copy is a little fuller than the other, but they agree substantially. The words of this book are said in the opening line to have been spoken by the god Nebertcher, i.e. the "Lord to the uttermost limit," or God Himself. The Egyptian Christians, or Copts, in their religious writings use this name as an equivalent of God Almighty, the Lord of All, the God of the Universe.
Nebertcher says: "I am the creator of what hath come into being. I myself came into being under the form of the god Khepera. I came into being under the form of Pautti (or, in primeval time), I formed myself out of the primeval matter, I made myself out of the substance that was in primeval time." Nothing existed at that time except the great primeval watery mass called Nu, but in this there were the germs of everything that came into being subsequently. There was no heaven, and no earth, and the god found no place on which to stand; nothing, in fact, existed except the god. He says, "I was alone." He first created himself by uttering his own name as a word of power, and when this was uttered his visible form appeared. He then uttered another kind of word of power, and as a result of this his soul (ba) came into being, and it worked in connection with his heart or mind (ab).
Before every act of creation Nebertcher, or his visible form Khepera, thought out what form the thing to be created was to take, and when he had uttered its name the thing itself appeared in heaven or earth. To fill the heaven, or place where he lived, the god next produced from his body and its shadow the two gods Shu and Tefnut. These with Nebertcher, or Khepera, formed the first triad of gods, and the "one god became three," or, as we should say, the one god had three aspects, each of which was quite distinct from the other. The tradition of the begetting of Shu and Tefnut is as old as the time of the pyramids, for it is mentioned in the text of Pepi I, l. 466. The next act of creation resulted in the emerging of the Eye of Nebertcher (later identified with Rā) from the watery mass (Nu), and light shone upon its waters. Shu and Tefnut then united and they produced Keb, the Earth-god, and Nut, the Sky-goddess.
The text then refers to some calamity which befell the Eye of Nebertcher or of Khepera, but what it was is not clear; at all events the Eye became obscured, and it ceased to give light. This period of darkness is, of course, the night, and to obviate the inconvenience caused by this recurring period of darkness, the god made a second Eye, i.e. the Moon, and set it in the heavens. The greater Eye ruled the day, and the lesser Eye the night. One of the results of the daily darkness was the descent of the Sky-goddess Nut to the Earth-god Keb each evening.  The second version here states that the name of Nebertcher is Ausares (Osiris), who is the oldest god of all. The gods and goddesses next created were five, namely, Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. Osiris married Isis, and their son was called Horus; Set married Nephthys, but their son Anpu, or Anubis, is not mentioned in our text. Osiris became the great Ancestor-god of Egypt, and was a reincarnation of his great-grandfather. Men and women were first formed from the tears that fell from the Eye of Khepera, or the Sun-god, upon his body; the old Egyptian word for "men" very closely resembles in form and sound the word for "tears."
Plants, vegetables, herbs, and trees owe their origin to the light of the moon falling upon the earth. Our text contains no mention of a special creation of the "beasts of the field," but the god states distinctly that he created the children of the earth, or creeping things of all kinds, and among this class quadrupeds are probably included. The men and women, and all the other living creatures that were made at that time by Nebertcher, or Khepera, reproduced their species, each in his own way, and thus the earth became filled with their descendants as we see at the present time.
The elements of this Creation legend are very, very old, and the form in which they are grouped in our text suggests the influence of the priests of Heliopolis. It is interesting to note that only very ancient gods appear as Powers of creation, and these were certainly worshipped for many centuries before the priests of Heliopolis invented their cult of the Sun-god, and identified their god with the older gods of the country. We may note, too, that gods like Ptah and Amen, whose reputation was so great in later times, and even when our text was copied in 305 B.C., find no mention at all.
Source: The Literature Of The Ancient Egyptians By E.A. Wallis Budge, M.A., Litt.D. 1914 LONDON J.M. DENT & SONS LIMITED Aldine House, Bedford Street, W.C.
Creation of the World - Jewish Version
THE CREATION OF THE WORLD -THE FIRST THINGS CREATED
In the beginning, two thousand years before the heaven and the earth, seven things were created: the Torah written with black fire on white fire, and lying in the lap of God; the Divine Throne, erected in the heaven which later was over the heads of the Hayyot; Paradise on the right side of God, Hell on the left side; the Celestial Sanctuary directly in front of God, having a jewel on its altar graven with the Name of the Messiah, and a Voice that cries aloud, "Return, ye children of men."
When God resolved upon the creation of the world, He took counsel with the Torah. Her advice was this: "O Lord, a king without an army and without courtiers and attendants hardly deserves the name of king, for none is nigh to express the homage due to him." The answer pleased God exceedingly. Thus did He teach all earthly kings, by His Divine example, to undertake naught without first consulting advisers.
The advice of the Torah was given with some reservations. She was skeptical about the value of an earthly world, on account of the sinfulness of men, who would be sure to disregard her precepts. But God dispelled her doubts. He told her, that repentance had been created long before, and sinners would have the opportunity of mending their ways. Besides, the Temple service would be invested with atoning power, and Paradise and hell were intended to do duty as reward and punishment. Finally, the Messiah was appointed to bring salvation, which would put an end to all sinfulness.
Nor is this world inhabited by man the first of things earthly created by God. He made several worlds before ours, but He destroyed them all, because He was pleased with none until He created ours. But even this last world would have had no permanence, if God had executed His original plan of ruling it according to the principle of strict justice. It was only when He saw that justice by itself would undermine the world that He associated mercy with justice, and made them to rule jointly. Thus, from the beginning of all things prevailed Divine goodness, without which nothing could have continued to exist. If not for it, the myriads of evil spirits had soon put an end to the generations of men. But the goodness of God has ordained, that in every Nisan, at the time of the spring equinox, the seraphim shall approach the world of spirits, and intimidate them so that they fear to do harm to men. Again, if God in His goodness had not given protection to the weak, the tame animals would have been extirpated long ago by the wild animals. In Tammuz, at the time of the summer solstice, when the strength of behemot is at its height, he roars so loud that all the animals hear it, and for a whole year they are affrighted and timid, and their acts become less ferocious than their nature is. Again, in Tishri, at the time of the autumnal equinox, the great bird ziz flaps his wings and utters his cry, so that the birds of prey, the eagles and the vultures, blench, and they fear to swoop down upon the others and annihilate them in their greed. And, again, were it not for the goodness of God, the vast number of big fish had quickly put an end to the little ones. But at the time of the winter solstice, in the month of Tebet, the sea grows restless, for then leviathan spouts up water, and the big fish become uneasy. They restrain their appetite, and the little ones escape their rapacity.
Finally, the goodness of God manifests itself in the preservation of His people Israel. It could not have survived the enmity of the Gentiles, if God had not appointed protectors for it, the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Whenever Israel disobeys God, and is accused of misdemeanors by the angels of the other nations, he is defended by his designated guardians, with such good result that the other angels conceive fear of them. Once the angels of the other nations are terrified, the nations themselves venture not to carry out their wicked designs against Israel.
That the goodness of God may rule on earth as in heaven, the
Angels of Destruction are assigned a place at the far end of the
heavens, from which they may never stir, while the Angels of
Mercy encircle the Throne of God, at His behest.
When God was about to create the world by His word, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet descended from the terrible and august crown of God whereon they were engraved with a pen of flaming fire. They stood round about God, and one after the other spake and entreated, "Create the world through me!" The first to step forward was the letter Taw. It said: "O Lord of the world! May it be Thy will to create Thy world through me, seeing that it is through me that Thou wilt give the Torah to Israel by the hand of Moses, as it is written, 'Moses commanded us the Torah.'" The Holy One, blessed be He, made reply, and said, "No!" Taw asked, "Why not?" and God answered: "Because in days to come I shall place thee as a sign of death upon the foreheads of men." As soon as Taw heard these words issue from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, it retired from His presence disappointed.
The Shin then stepped forward, and pleaded: "O Lord of the world, create Thy world through me: seeing that Thine own name Shaddai begins with me." Unfortunately, it is also the first letter of Shaw, lie, and of Sheker, falsehood, and that incapacitated it. Resh had no better luck. It was pointed out that it was the initial letter of Ra', wicked, and Rasha' evil, and after that the distinction it enjoys of being the first letter in the Name of God, Rahum, the Merciful, counted for naught. The Kof was rejected, because Kelalah, curse, outweighs the advantage of being the first in Kadosh, the Holy One. In vain did Zadde call attention to Zaddik, the Righteous One; there was Zarot, the misfortunes of Israel, to testify against it. Pe had Podeh, redeemer, to its credit, but Pesha: transgression, reflected dishonor upon it. 'Ain was declared unfit, because, though it begins 'Anawah, humility, it performs the same service for 'Erwah, immorality. Samek said: "O Lord, may it be Thy will to begin the creation with me, for Thou art called Samek, after me, the Upholder of all that fall." But God said: "Thou art needed in the place in which thou art; thou must continue to uphold all that fall." Nun introduces Ner, "the lamp of the Lord," which is "the spirit of men," but it also introduces Ner, "the lamp of the wicked," which will be put out by God. Mem starts Melek, king, one of the titles of God. As it is the first letter of Mehumah, confusion, as well, it had no chance of accomplishing its desire. The claim of Lamed bore its refutation within itself. It advanced the argument that it was the first letter of Luhot, the celestial tables for the Ten Commandments; it forgot that the tables were shivered in pieces by Moses. Kaf was sure of victory Kisseh, the throne of God, Kabod, His honor, and Keter, His crown, all begin with it. God had to remind it that He would smite together His hands, Kaf, in despair over the misfortunes of Israel. Yod at first sight seemed the appropriate letter for the beginning of creation, on account of its association with Yah, God, if only Yezer ha-Ra' the evil inclination, had not happened to begin with it, too. Tet is identified with Tob, the good. However, the truly good is not in this world; it belongs to the world to come. Het is the first letter of Hanun, the Gracious One; but this advantage is offset by its place in the word for sin, Hattat. Zain suggests Zakor, remembrance, but it is itself the word for weapon, the doer of mischief. Waw and He compose the Ineffable Name of God; they are therefore too exalted to be pressed into the service of the mundane world. If Dalet had stood only for Dabar, the Divine Word, it would have been used, but it stands also for Din, justice, and under the rule of law without love the world would have fallen to ruin. Finally, in spite of reminding one of Gadol, great, Gimel would not do, because Gemul, retribution, starts with it.
After the claims of all these letters had been disposed of, Bet stepped before the Holy One, blessed be He, and pleaded before Him: "O Lord of the world! May it be Thy will to create Thy world through me, seeing that all the dwellers in the world give praise daily unto Thee through me, as it is said, 'Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen, and Amen.'" The Holy One, blessed be He, at once granted the petition of Bet. He said, "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord." And He created His world through Bet, as it is said, "Bereshit God created the heaven and the earth." The only letter that had refrained from urging its claims was the modest Alef, and God rewarded it later for its humility by giving it the first place in the Decalogue.
Source: THE LEGENDS OF THE JEWS BY LOUIS GINZBERG
I.—Creation or Evolution?
When on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geographical relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, in 1837, it occurred to me that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on[Pg 44] all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work, I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions which then seemed to me probable. From that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.
In considering the origin of species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species. Nevertheless, such a conclusion, even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified so as to acquire that perfection of structure and co-adaptation which justly excites our admiration.
Naturalists continually refer to external conditions, such as climate, food, etc., as the only possible cause of variation. In one limited sense, as we shall hereafter see, this may be true; but it is preposterous to attribute to mere external conditions the structure, for instance, of the woodpecker, with its feet, tail, beak, and tongue, so admirably adapted to catch insects under the bark of trees. In the case of the mistletoe, which draws its nourishment from certain trees, which has seeds that must be transported by certain birds, and which has flowers with separate sexes absolutely requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other, it is equally preposterous to account for the structure of the parasite, with its relations to several distinct organic beings, by the effects of external conditions, or of habit, or of the volition of the plant itself[Pg 45].
It is, therefore, of the highest importance to gain a clear insight into the means of modification and co-adaptation. At the beginning of my observations it seemed to me probable that a careful study of domesticated animals and of cultivated plants would offer the best chance of making out this obscure problem. Nor have I been disappointed; in this and in all other perplexing cases I have invariably found that our knowledge, imperfect though it be, of variation under domestication, afforded the best and safest clue. I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.
Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists until recently entertained, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable, but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am also convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification.
CHARLES DARWIN - The Origin of Species
The Babylonian Legend of Creation
A perusal of the texts of the Seven Tablets of Creation, which King was enabled, through the information contained in them, to arrange for the first time in their proper sequence, shows that the main object of the Legend was the glorification of the god Marduk, the son of Ea (Enki), as the conqueror of the dragon Tiâmat, and not the narration of the story of the creation of the heavens, and earth and man. The Creation properly speaking, is only mentioned as an exploit of Marduk in the Sixth Tablet, and the Seventh Tablet is devoted wholly to the enumeration of the honorific titles of Marduk. It is probable that every great city in Babylonia, whilst accepting the general form of the Creation Legend, made the greatest of its local gods the hero of it. It has long been surmised that the prominence of Marduk in the Legend was due to the political importance of the city of Babylon. And we now know from the fragments of tablets which have been excavated in recent years by German Assyriologists at Ḳal'at Sharḳât (or Shargat, or Shar'at), that in the city of Ashur, the god Ashur, the national god of Assyria, actually occupied in texts2 of the Legend in use there the position which Marduk held in four of the Legends current in Babylonia. There is reason for thinking that the original hero of the Legend was Enlil (Bel), the great god of Nippur (the Nafar, or Nufar of the Arab writers), and that when Babylon rose into power under the First Dynasty (about B.C. 2300), his position in the Legend was usurped at Babylon by Marduk.
Excavations in Babylonia and Assyria.
Variant Forms of the Babylonian Legend of the Creation.
The views about the Creation which are described in the Seven Tablets mentioned above were not the only ones current in Mesopotamia, and certainly they were not necessarily the most orthodox. Though in the version of the Legend already referred to the great god of creation was Enlil, or Marduk, or Ashur, we know that in the Legend of Gilgamish (Second Tablet) it was the goddess Aruru who created Enkidu (Eabani) from a piece of clay moistened with her own spittle. And in the so-called "bilingual" version3 of the Legend, we find that this goddess assisted Marduk as an equal in the work of creating the seed of mankind. This version, although Marduk holds the position of pre-eminence, differs in many particulars from that given by the Seven Tablets, and as it is the most important of all the texts which deal directly with the creation of the heavens and the earth, a rendering of it is here given.
The "Bilingual" Version of the Creation Legend.
1. "The holy house, the house of the gods in the holy place had not yet been made.
2. "No reed had sprung up, no tree had been made.
3. "No brick had been laid, no structure of brick had been erected.
4. "No house had been made, no city had been built.
The Bilingual Version of the Creation Legend. [No. 93,014.]
5. "No city had been made, no creature had been constituted.
6. "Enlil's city, (i.e., Nippur) had not been made, E-kur had not been built,
7. "Erech had not been made, E-Aena had not been built,
8. The Deep4 (or Abyss) had not been made, Eridu had not been built.">
9. "Of the holy house, the house of the gods, the dwelling-place had not been made.
10. "All the lands were sea
11. "At the time that the mid-most sea was [shaped like] a trough,
12. "At that time Eridu was made, and E-sagil was built,
13. "The E-sagil where in the midst of the Deep the god Lugal-dul-azaga5 dwelleth,
14. "Babylon was made, E-sagil was completed.
15. "The gods the Anunnaki he created at one time.
16. "They proclaimed supreme the holy city, the dwelling of their heart's happiness.
17. "Marduk laid a rush mat upon the face of the waters,
18. "He mixed up earth and moulded it upon the rush mat,
19. "To enable the gods to dwell in the place where they fain would be.
20. "He fashioned man.
21. "The goddess Aruru with him created the seed of mankind.
22. "He created the beasts of the field and [all] the living things in the field.
23. "He created the river Idiglat (Tigris) and the river Purattu (Euphrates), and he set them in their places,
24. "He proclaimed their names rightly.
25. "He created grass, the vegetation of the marsh, seed and shrub;
26. "He created the green plants of the plain,
27. "Lands, marshes, swamps,
28. "The wild cow and the calf she carried, the wild calf, the sheep and the young she carried, the lamb of the fold,
29. "Plantations and shrub land,
30. "The he-goat and the mountain goat ...
31. "The lord Marduk piled up a dam in the region of the sea (i.e., he reclaimed land)
32. "He ... a swamp, he founded a marsh.
33. "... he made to be
34. "Reeds he created, trees he created,
35. "... in place he created
36. "He laid bricks, he built a brick-work,
37. "He constructed houses, he formed cities.
38. "He constructed cities, creatures he set [therein].
39. "Nippur he made, E-Kur he built.
40. "[Erech he made, E-Anna] he built.
[The remainder of the text is fragmentary, and shows that the text formed part of an incantation which was recited in the Temple of E-Zida, possibly the great temple of Nabu at Borsippa.]
Source: Title: The Babylonian Legends of the Creation Author: British Museum
Various theories of world formation
The following is a brief description of the various theories of the world's formation:
First Theory.—By the first theory the world is supposed to have existed from eternity under its actual form. Aristotle embraced this doctrine, and conceived the universe to be the eternal effect of an eternal cause; maintaining that not only the heavens and the earth, but all animate and inanimate beings, are without beginning. To use Huxley's illustration: If you can imagine a spectator on the earth, however far back in time, he would have seen a world "essentially similar, though not perhaps in all its details, to that which now exists. The animals[Pg 64] which existed would be the ancestors of those which now exist, and like them; the plants in like manner would be such as we have now, and like them; and the supposition is that, at however distant a period of time you place your observer, he would still find mountains, lands, and waters, with animal and vegetable products flourishing upon them and sporting in them just as he finds now." This theory being perfectly inconsistent with facts, had to be abandoned.
Second Theory.—The second theory considers the universe eternal, but not its form. This was the system of Epicurus and most of the ancient philosophers and poets, who imagined the world either to be produced by fortuitous concourse of atoms existing from all eternity, or to have sprung out of the chaotic form which preceded its present state.
Third Theory.—By this theory the matter and form of the earth is ascribed to the direct agency of a spiritual cause. It is needless to say that this last theory has for its basis the popular account, generally credited to Moses in the first chapter of Genesis. I say popular, for it certainly is not a scientific account, nor was it the intention of the writer to make it so. The supposed object was to show the relation between the Creator and his works. If it had been an ultimate scientific account, the ablest minds of to-day would be unable to comprehend it, as science is progressive and constantly changing; in fifty thousand years to come, it would still appear utterly absurd. It cannot be said for this fact that the account is any the less true because it is not presented in scientific phraseology; for instance, when we remark in popular language "the sun rises," who shall say that though the expression is not astronomically true, we do not, for all practical purposes, utter as important a truth, as when we say, "The earth by its revolution brings us to that point where the sun becomes visible?" The language, also, in which the writer wrote was very imperfect; it had no equivalent to our word "air" or "atmosphere," properly speaking, for they knew not the words. "Their nearest approaches," according to J. Pye Smith, "were with words that denoted watery vapor condensed, and thus rendered visible, whether floating around them or seen in the breathing of animals; and words for smoke from substances burning; and for air in motion, wind, a zephyr whisper or a storm." It must also be remembered, "that the Hebrews had no term for the abstract ideas which we express by 'fluid' or 'matter.' If the writer had designed to express the idea, 'In the beginning God created matter,' he could not have found words to serve his purpose" (Phin).
Creation Myths of Native Americans
THE creation myths of America form a complete system; they give a detailed and circumstantial account of the origin of this world and of all things and creatures contained in it. In the course of the various narratives which compose this myth system an earlier world is described to us, with an order of existence and a method of conduct on which the life of primitive man in America was patterned.
That earlier world had two periods of duration,—one of complete and perfect harmony; another of violence, collision, and conflict. The result and outcome of the second period was the creation of all that is animated on earth except man. Man, in the American scheme of creation, stands apart and separate; he is quite alone, peculiar, and special. Above all, he belongs to this continent. The white man was unknown to American myth-makers, as were also men of every other race and of every region outside of the Western Hemisphere.
Described briefly and by an Indian, the American myth system is as follows: “There was a world before this one in which we are living at present; that was the world of the first people, who were [Pg xii] different from us altogether. Those people were very numerous, so numerous that if a count could be made of all the stars in the sky, all the feathers on birds, all the hairs and fur on animals, all the hairs of our own heads, they would not be so numerous as the first people.”
These people lived very long in peace, in concord, in harmony, in happiness. No man knows, no man can tell, how long they lived in that way. At last the minds of all except a very small number were changed; they fell into conflict,—one offended another consciously or unconsciously, one injured another with or without intention, one wanted some special thing, another wanted that very thing also. Conflict set in, and because of this came a time of activity and struggle, to which there was no end or stop till the great majority of the first people—that is, all except a small number—were turned into the various kinds of living creatures that are on earth now or have ever been on earth, except man,—that is, all kinds of beasts, birds, reptiles, fish, worms, and insects, as well as trees, plants, grasses, rocks, and some mountains; they were turned into everything that we see on the earth or in the sky.
That small number of the former people who did not quarrel, those great first people of the old time who remained of one mind and harmonious, “left the earth, sailed away westward, passed that line where the sky comes down to the earth and touches it, sailed to places beyond; stayed there or withdrew to upper regions and lived in them happily, lived in [Pg xiii] agreement, live so to-day, and will live in the same way hereafter.”
The American system, as we see, begins with an unknown great, indefinite number of uncreated beings,—in other words, of self-existent personages or divinities. Those divinities were everything at first; there was nothing except them, nothing aside from them, nothing beyond them. They existed unchanged through untold periods, or rather through a duration which would be periods were there a measure by which to divide it. They lived side by side in perfect concord, in the repose of a primeval chaos of quiescent mind which presents a most remarkable analogy with the attenuated, quiescent, undifferentiated matter which, according to the nebular hypothesis, filled all points of space in the physical universe before the first impulse of motion was given to it.
At last this long period is ended, there is mental difference among most of the first people, character is evolved and has become evident; rivalries, collisions, and conflicts begin.
The American creation myths, as far as we know them, form simply a series of accounts of the conflicts, happenings, and various methods by which the first world was changed into the world now existing. This change was effected in various ways. In the myths of certain tribes or nations, it is mainly by struggles between hostile personages. One god of great power and character overcomes a vast number of opponents, and changes each into some beast, [Pg xiv] bird, plant, or insect; but always the resultant beast or other creature corresponds in some power of mind or in some leading quality of character with the god from whose position it has fallen. In certain single cases opponents are closely matched, they are nearly equal in combat; the struggle between them is long, uncertain, and difficult. At last, when one side is triumphant, the victor says, “Hereafter you will be nothing but a ——”; and he tells what the vanquished is to be. But at this point the vanquished turns on the victor and sends his retort like a Parthian arrow, “You will be nothing but a ——”; and he declares what his enemy is to be. The metamorphosis takes place immediately on both sides, and each departs in the form which the enemy seemed to impose, but which really belonged to him.
There are cases in which the hero transforms numerous and mighty enemies indirectly through a special wish which he possesses. For example, a certain myth hero brings it about that a large company of the first people are invited to a feast, and while all are eating with great relish he slips out unnoted, walks around the house, and utters, as he goes, the magic formula: “I wish the walls of this house to be flint, the roof also.” Next moment the whole house is flint-walled, the roof is flint also. After that he says, “I wish this house to be red-hot.” It is red-hot immediately. His enemies inside are in a dreadful predicament; they rush about wildly, they roar, they look for an opening; [Pg xv] there is none, they see no escape, they find no issue. Their heads burst from heat. Out of one head springs an owl, and flies away through the smoke-hole; out of another a buzzard, which escapes through the same place; out of the third comes a hawk, which follows the other two; out of a fourth some other bird. Thus the action continues till every head in the flint house bursts open and lets out its occupant. All fly away, and thus the whole company is metamorphosed. Each turns into that which his qualities called for, which his nature demanded; he becomes outwardly and visibly that which before he had been internally and in secret.
The hero in the above case could not wish his opponents metamorphosed directly, he could not wish this whenever he pleased or wherever he met the great company; he had to induce them to enter the house, which he turned by his wish into flint and then heated. When the moment of terrible anguish came on them, the true nature of each of those people grew evident; each head burst open, and out sprang the real person.
All those of the first people whose minds had been modified, who, so to speak, had grown specialized internally, who were different from that which they had been to start with, were forced to change also externally, and could not escape or avoid that great power whose shadow was approaching; their destiny was on them, and they felt it.
In the Wintu system, one of the two which are set forth in this volume, nearly all changes were [Pg xvi] effected by Olelbis; but there are examples of agents with other means. Tulchuherris turns old Tichelis into a ground-squirrel at the climax of his perfidy. He changes Hawt, the porter at the dangerous river, into a lamprey eel, whose children are to be eaten by Indians in the future. Old Sas, the false and vain chief in Saskewil, is beaten by his son-in-law, and receives his present form of sun and moon at the end of a long and bitter struggle, in which strength, wit, and keenness use the very last of their resources.
There are cases in which some of the first people are so modified mentally that they are conscious of what has happened within them. They are ready for the change, they are willing to undergo it; but there is no immediate occasion, no impending struggle in which an opponent could have the chance to transform them. These people transform themselves by the utterance of a wish, and produce their own metamorphoses. There are still others who know, as do all, that a new race is coming, that they will be changed when it comes unless they are changed some time earlier. They know that they must be changed as soon as they see the new people or a sign or a mark of their coming. These unchanged first people, few in number comparatively, attempt to escape; but their attempts are vain, their efforts are useless. In the distant east they see smoke from the fires of the advancing new people, the Indians of America, or hear the barking of the dogs of this people, and that instant they [Pg xvii] receive the forms which are due them. Others escape for a season and hide in dark places; but the Indians go everywhere, and the metamorphoses continue till the career of the first people is ended.
I have in mind at this moment a representative picture of this last group of persons who were unwilling to be metamorphosed and strove to avoid the new race, the inevitable Indians. They had no desire to see men, and they fled to all sorts of lonely retreats and remote forest places. At a certain point on the Klamath is a rough mountain slope which rises abruptly from the water; far up, well toward the ridge, about seven-eighths of the way from the river to the summit, is a bulky high stone which seen from a distance looks much like a statue. Close behind is another stone, somewhat smaller, which leans forward in the posture of a person hastening eagerly. Both are white and shining; they have the appearance of quartz rock. These were two sisters hastening, rushing away to escape the coming change. When they reached the points where they are standing at present, the foremost sister looked toward the east and saw smoke; the second did not look, but she heard the distant barking of dogs which came from the place where the smoke was; both were changed into stone that same instant.
With the transformation of the last of the first people or divinities, which was finished only when the Indians or some sign of them appeared in every remote nook and corner in which a remnant of the first people had taken refuge, the present order of [Pg xviii] things is established completely. There are now in the world individualities of three distinct sets and orders. First, that small number of the first people whose minds had never changed, those gods who withdrew and who live in their original integrity and harmony, who retired to places outside the sky or above it; second, the great majority of the gods, who have become everything in the present world save and except only Indians. This cycle finished, there is a new point of departure, and we meet a second group of myths concerning the existent world as it is now with its happenings,—myths containing accounts of conflicts which are ever recurrent, which began before all the first people were metamorphosed, conflicts which are going on at present and which will go on forever; struggles between light and darkness, heat and cold, summer and winter, struggles between winds which blow in opposite directions,—in fact, accounts of various phenomena and processes which attract the attention of savage men more than others because savage men are living face to face with them always.
This second group contains a large number of myths, many of them exceedingly beautiful and, so far as they are known, highly pleasing to cultivated people. Unfortunately few of these myths have been given to the world yet, for the sole and simple reason that comparatively few have been collected from the Indians.
The first cycle of myths—that is, those which refer to creation, in other words to the metamorphoses of [Pg xix] the first people or gods into everything which is in the world, including the world itself—is succeeded by another in which are described the various changes, phenomena, and processes observed throughout nature.
In this second cycle, as I have just stated, light and darkness, heat and cold, opposing winds, heavenly bodies appear as heroes and leading actors. For ages the reverence, sympathy, and enthusiasm of primitive men have been given to those heroes, and are given to them yet, by every tribe which preserves its ancient beliefs and ideas.
In this cycle is one small group of myths which to the Indian is very sacred, a group which in many tribes is revered beyond others. This group associates the earth with the sky and sun considered as one person, or the sky and sun considered as distinct from each other. To these are added one, and sometimes two personages born of the earth. In the simplest version of this myth the earth maiden through being looked at by the sun becomes a mother, gives birth to a great hero, the chief benefactor of Indians. This hero gives the race all gifts that support existence, and it is through him that men live and prosper. Under whatever name he appears this benefactor is really that warm light which we see quivering, waving, and dancing above the earth in fine weather. He is the son of the virgin earth, of that mother who has never known a consort save the one who looked from the height of heaven on her.
[Pg xx] The lives of the first people are described in creation myths, and presented as models upon which faithful Indians are to fashion their lives at all times and places. All institutions of primitive man in America were patterned upon those of “the first people.” Every act of an Indian in peace or in war, as an individual or as a member of a tribe, had its only sanction in the world of the first people, the American divinities.
There was not on this continent one institution, observance, right, or custom which was not god-given, theoretically. The Indians of America always acted in a prescribed manner on a given occasion, because the gods of the world which preceded this had acted in the same manner in similar conditions and circumstances.
No people could be more religious than those of this continent, for there was no act of any kind in life during which they were free of religious direction. The source of this religion is in the myths, and in the explanations concerning them given by wise men,—in other words, by sorcerers.
What shall we say of this Indian system, and what is its value?
The first to be said is that it is complete, and for every Indian believer well-founded and symmetrically developed. In the primitive religion of America there is no speculation, all is simple statement; there are no abstractions, qualities are always connected with persons.
Indians believe that the whole immense body of [Pg xxi] myths was delivered to them by the first people in one place or another. Among the Iroquois there is a detailed account of how myths were told to an ancient chief and an assembly of the people on a circular open space in a deep forest. On this space was a large wheel-shaped stone. From beneath this stone came a voice which told the tale of the former world, told how the first people had become what they are at present.
Day after day the chief and the people came to the stone, sat, and listened till the whole cycle of tales was narrated.
On the Lower Klamath is a very old, immense tree, which has given an account of the first world and people. This tree itself is one of the first people metamorphosed; no one knows what its age is. Sorcerers go to it yearly, hold converse, put questions, receive answers. Each year a small stone is added to a pile in which there are thousands of pebbles, apparently. This pile stands near the tree; no one is permitted to count the stones in it. The pile is sacred; once a stone is placed with the others, it must stay there forever.
This sacred tree has told tales of the first world,—the tales known to Weitspekan Indians and revered by them.
On the Upper Columbia is a great rock which resembles an elk somewhat. This rock is also an oracle, one of the first people; like the round stone of the Iroquois, it has told of the first world, and its tales all belong to the Shahaptians.
[Pg xxii] The Indian system has its plain and clear revelation; for believers it has tangible and undoubted connection with the world which preceded the present one. Its narratives explain how in one place and another the first people revealed the tale of the world’s transformation.
For the Indian this is all-satisfactory. He has a system which is perfect, extensive, rich in details, full of interest,—a system which gives proofs of its origin through testimony delivered by divinities. It was revealed to the wise men, the worthies, the patriarchs of his race. What more could he wish for? What more could he ask? Nothing. The wisdom of his nation is more valid, more reliable than the witness of his own senses. His eyes and ears might be deceived by tricksters, but not by the truth delivered to great men among his own people, preserved by them sacredly and passed down to others.
This is the position of the Indian. He believes in his own system fully. How are we to relate ourselves to that system and its contents? What should we think of it? How was it conceived, how developed?
We do not believe in an Indian first world nor a previous people turned into animals, plants, insects, birds, fish, and reptiles. We have no ancestors who founded that system; we possess no traditions that came from it, no beliefs that are based on its teachings, no faith in its sorcerers, no dread of their workings. Any statement as to how the Indian [Pg xxiii] system was conceived and how it was developed is very different in character from a statement of what the Indian system is externally and on the basis of its own story.
In presenting the system from the purely formal side we are dealing with simple facts, which we collect and range in order. Once we possess these ordered facts, we have the externals of everything Indian,—not only religion, but medicine, politics, social life. We might stop there and say, This is the system. But from our point of view we are forced to go further, we must seek explanations. We form no part of the Indian assembly of believers, we have no faith in their system except to show us what the Indian mind is; hence we are forced to ask how the Indian founded his religion and evolved it, we are forced to look for its origin and meaning. We give no credence to his tale of revelation; we are certain that he himself—that is, his race—began the system, that it was developed from insignificant beginnings, and increased through lengthy periods till it reached its present form and fulness. We have not the details of how he acted, but we know where the myth-maker had to begin, and we see what he has effected.
The physical universe was for myth-makers of the old time in America the same in principle that it is for us to-day, the visible result and expression of unseen power and qualities. The difference between us and them is determined by the things that we see and the way in which we apprehend them.
[Pg xxiv] What did the ancient myth-makers say of this universe, and what interest or value has their statement for us at this moment?
The primitive men of America saw before them forests, plains, deserts, mountains, lakes, and rivers of various sizes, from the smallest to the greatest; they lived in climates varying from the coldest and most inclement to the hottest and most difficult of endurance. They saw around them on all sides a world far more hostile than friendly,—a world of savage beasts, wild creatures, poisonous reptiles, deadly insects. Each creature, every plant had its own fixed and settled character, its own aim and object. Whence came beasts good for food or clothing; whence others dangerous to life, beasts to be slain or avoided? Whence came trees and plants of various kinds and uses? Whence came sweetness in the maple or bitterness and poison in another tree? What is the origin of corn, and why do poisons grow to kill as corn does to nourish? Whence came the rattlesnake, and whence the salmon? Because of these questions myths appeared, and those myths gave answers which received full faith and credence,—answers on which was built a theory of how this world arose, and what the true and proper scheme of life was.
The myth-maker looked at the universe around him, and saw throughout every part of it individualities having qualities, desires, and passions in varying degrees. He observed these individualities, and gave a detailed account and history of how [Pg xxv] this world arose. He gave this history by projecting existence into a past which was remote and passionless. Out of that harmonious past he evolved the present world and its order by describing in the past world the play of all those passions, desires, and appetites which he saw at work in life around him. Such was the method employed in producing the American creation myths. The task required much time, long observation, careful thought, and no small constructive power. These creation myths with the next, which I have mentioned already and called action myths, are the great result of mental toil and effort in the old time on this continent. In these two sets of myths the Indian has told what he thinks of the universe.
When Europeans came to this hemisphere, the American myth system was unbroken and perfect. There was no second order of thought here. The continent was untouched by foreign conquest or ideas. The inhabitants had lived in mental isolation, in absolute freedom from every outside influence. Human history has no second example of a single system of thought developed over such a vast area. Inhabited America extended at least nine thousand miles from north to south, more than one third of the earth’s circumference and considerably more than the earth’s diameter. This territory where broadest was at least three thousand miles from east to west, both in North and South America. Over this immense portion of the earth’s surface with its endless variety of soil, climate, scenery, and [Pg xxvi] conditions of existence, a single system of primitive philosophy was developed with a fulness and a wealth of illustration which could find no parallel in any other place. The result of all this is that we have in America a monument of thought which is absolutely unequalled, altogether unique in human experience. The special value of this thought lies, moreover, in the fact that it is primitive, that it is the thought of ages long anterior to those which we find recorded on the eastern hemisphere, either in sacred books, histories, or literature, whether preserved on baked brick, burnt cylinders, or papyrus.
The American system, which gives us a circumstantial account of the beginning of all things, is as far reaching as the nebular hypothesis, or as that theory which gives a common origin to man and all sentient existences.
Primitive man in America stood at every step face to face with divinity as he knew or understood it. He could never escape from the presence of those powers which had constituted the first world, and which composed all that there was in the present one. Man’s chief means of sustenance in most parts were on land or in the water. Game and fish of all sorts were under direct divine supervision. Invisible powers might send forth game or withdraw it very quickly. With fish the case was similar. Connected with fishing and hunting was an elaborate ceremonial, a variety of observances and prohibitions. Every man had a great many things to observe as an [Pg xxvii] individual, a great many also as a member of his tribe or society.
The most important question of all in Indian life was communication with divinity, intercourse with the spirits of divine personages. No man could communicate with these unless the man to whom they chose to manifest themselves. There were certain things which a man had to do to obtain communication with divinity and receive a promise of assistance; but it was only the elect, the right person, the fit one, who obtained the desired favor. For instance, twenty men might go to the mountain place, and observe every rule carefully, but only one man be favored with a vision, only one become a seer. Twenty others might go to the mountain place, and not one be accounted worthy to behold a spirit; a third twenty might go, and two or three of them be chosen. No man could tell beforehand what success or failure might await him. The general method at present is the following, the same as in the old time:—
Soon after puberty, and in every case before marriage or acquaintance with woman, the youth or young man who hopes to become a doctor goes to a sacred mountain pond or spring, where he drinks water and bathes. After he has bathed and dressed, he speaks to the spirits, he prays them to come to him, to give him knowledge, to grant their assistance. The young man takes no food, no nourishment of any sort, fasts, as he is able, seven days and nights, sometimes longer. All this time he is [Pg xxviii] allowed no drink except water. He sleeps as little as possible. If spirits come to him, he has visions, he receives power and favor. A number of spirits may visit a man one after another, and promise him aid and co-operation. The eagle spirit may come, the spirit of the elk or the salmon,—any spirit that likes the man. The spirit says in substance, “Whenever you call my name I will come, I will give my power to assist you.” After one spirit has gone, another may appear, and another. A man is not free to refuse the offers of spirits, he must receive all those who come to him. As there are peculiar observances connected with each spirit, the doctor who is assisted by many is hampered much in his method of living. There are spirits which do not like buckskin; the man to whom they come must never wear buckskin. If a man eats food repugnant to his spirit, the spirit will kill him. As each spirit has its favorite food, and there are other kinds which to it are distasteful, we can understand easily that the doctor who has ten spirits or twenty (and there are some who have thirty) to aid him is limited in his manner of living. Greatness has its price at all times, power must be paid for in every place. Those for whom the spirits have no regard, and they are the majority, return home without visions or hope of assistance; the spirits are able to look through all persons directly, and straightway they see what a man is. They find most people unsuited to their purposes, unfit to be assisted.
This preparation to become seers or sorcerers [Pg xxix] among Indians is of very deep interest. I have given a considerable number of details on the subject in notes to “Kol Tibichi.” The spirit of any plant, any star, or other personage in creation may become a man’s attendant. In our popular phraseology, this is called his “medicine.”
In a Modoc myth the morning star is the attendant of the sun. According to this myth the sun is destroyed every day physically, is consumed into a heap of ashes; but as the sun has an immortal golden disk in his body, a disk which contains his whole existence, he can never perish. This disk remains always in the heap of ashes. There is a condition, however, incident to the sun’s resurrection: he must be called. Every morning some one must rouse him, as a hireling is roused to his daily labor. The morning star has that duty, and will never be freed from it. While the sun exists, the morning star must call him. At the summons of the star the golden disk springs from the pile of ashes, the sun is renewed completely, and goes forth to run his race till consumed again in the evening. Here we have the Phœnix rising from its ashes daily instead of once in five centuries.
The system outlined in the myths contained in this volume is that of the Wintus and Yanas, two stocks of Indians whom I shall describe somewhat later.
The Wintu system is remarkable for the peculiar development of the chief divinity, Olelbis, called also Nomhliëstawa.
[Pg xxx] The word “Olelbis” is formed of three etymological elements: ol, up; el, in; bis, dwelling or sitting,—dwelling on high. Nomhliëstawa is formed also of three elements: nom, west; hliës, to hurl; and tawa, left-handed. Both names are epithets, and the Wintus have forgotten who or what their chief divinity is; at least I have not been able to find a man among them who could give information on this subject. Olelbis lives in the highest part of the sky; with him are the best of the first people. From his beautiful house, Olelpanti Hlut, he sees everything on earth, and seems more real and familiar than any divinity connected with other tribes. He is certainly more effective in management, more active than any divinity of other Indian stocks, so far as I know.
Olelbis disposes of the first people, except in a few cases, and he retains with himself whomsoever he likes. He sends to the earth and transforms those whom he thinks more useful below than above, and gives the example of a single ruling divinity which, without being all-powerful or all-wise, is able, through the knowledge and services of others, to bear rule over the world in all places and everywhere.
The two old women, the grandmothers, are interesting persons, counsellors of the chief divinity, rainmakers, wise with a knowledge of people of whom Olelbis is ignorant, at least professedly. These old women have been turned into a stone which has a spongy appearance and looks like the inside or porous portion of bones which are without marrow.
[Pg xxxi] The great majority of Wintu metamorphoses are effected by Olelbis. The only exceptions are those of Sas, Hawt, and Tichelis, transformed by Tulchuherris, and certain changes such as those of color produced at the great musical contest given by Waida Dikit. When each played on a flute at that contest till he had done his best, till he had lost breath, then he changed color. Though the Wintu system differs much in detail from others, it agrees perfectly with all bodies of mythology on the great point, the main principle, metamorphosis. Through metamorphosis, all things have become what they are; through revelation it was learned that the metamorphoses took place, and in what way they took place. We must not consider the final act as the whole; the change had been in process for a long period, and the final words from opponents in conflict, the commands of Olelbis, the decisions of personages who changed themselves at the approach of Indians, or at signs of their coming, are but the very last act, the final incident, the official ending, so to speak, of an immensely long career in each case.
Of course there is no true information in the American ethnic religion as to the real changes which affected the world around us; but there is in it, as in all systems like it, true information regarding the history of the human mind. Every ethnic religion gives us documentary evidence. It gives us positive facts which, in their own sphere, are as true as are facts of geology in the history of [Pg xxxii] the earth’s crust and surface. They do not tell us what took place in the world without, in the physical universe, they had no means of doing so; but they do tell us what took place at certain periods in the world of mind, in the interior of man.
The term “ethnic religion” needs some explanation, perhaps, before we go further. An ethnic or primitive religion is one which belongs to people of one blood and language, people who increased and developed together with the beliefs of every sort which belong to them. Such a religion includes every species of knowledge, every kind of custom, institution, and art. Every aboriginal nation or human brood has its gods. All people of one blood and origin are under the immediate care and supervision of their gods, and preserve continual communication and converse with them. According to their own beliefs, such people received from their gods all that they have, all that they practise, all that they know. Such people, while their blood is unmixed and their society unconquered, adhere to their gods with the utmost fidelity.
The bonds which connect a nation with its gods, bonds of faith, and those which connect the individuals of that nation with one another, bonds of blood, are the strongest known to primitive man, and are the only social bonds in prehistoric ages. This early stage was the one in which even the most advanced group of Indians in America found themselves when the continent was discovered.
On the Eastern hemisphere, where there were so [Pg xxxiii] many races quite distinct and different from one another, the conquest of one race by another, or the conquest of a number of races by one, was frequent and had a great influence on thought and on religion. The influence of one religion or system of thought on another was sometimes considerable, as the intellectual influence of Egypt on Greece, and sometimes great, as that of Greece on Rome.
The influence of the physical conquest of many by one was immense politically and socially, as in the case of Rome, which subdued Greece and, together with Greece, all that Alexander had conquered in Asia and Egypt. With the ruin of Carthage, Rome destroyed the ancient thought of Phœnicia, which was closely akin to the earliest Hebrew, and one of the most important among Semitic nations. With the conquest and assimilation of Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul, the whole ancient fabric of Keltic thought on the continent gave way, and its chief elements were lost soon after.
The last of the ethnic religions of Europe, and one of the most valuable, that of the Lithuanians, continued in perfect condition till the fifteenth century, when it was ended through bloodshed and violence. This last of the systems of primitive Aryan thought in Europe passed away leaving slight traces. We know the names of some of its divinities; we know that it resembled the Slav, but was more developed, that it had sacred serpents and priestesses who guarded the holy, unquenchable fire; [Pg xxxiv] but, to the great regret of men of science, we have only small fragments of the system, brief and meagre accounts of it.
If we look closely into the religious history of the Eastern hemisphere, we shall find the position to be approximately as follows,—
In the oldest of the inscriptional versions of the “Book of the Dead” on the walls of pyramids, we find the religion of Egypt advanced far beyond the first stages of development. Though animals, birds, reptiles, and insects occupy a prominent position in Egyptian religion, it is not evident why they occupy that position. There is no inscription or book to inform us. The earliest stage of Egyptian religion is lost to us. Egyptian priests, when reproached for the national worship rendered various animals, birds, reptiles, and insects, creatures that were vile, useful, clean, or unclean, as the case might be, were unable to give a cause for the worship. They were unable for the reason that the mythologic account was unknown to them, or had been lost or was unconsidered; whatever the reason, neither papyrus nor inscription explains it.
The chief gods of priestly Egypt answered exactly to the Indian divinities of the second class of myths in America, those which I have called action myths. Among these the sun and the earth were very prominent. Of the earliest gods of Egypt, those which answered to the “first people,” or divinities in American creation myths, we find no account thus far. If we had that account, it would [Pg xxxv] explain why there are animals, reptiles, and insects in Egyptian religion.
In Greece those portions of the earliest mythology which were not lost were obscured. The ancient creation myths were either misunderstood, or were unknown to the educated at the period from which the first literary monuments have come down to us. Hesiod arranged and shaped Greek mythology to suit himself and his audience, so that it is quite impossible to learn from that author what the primitive myths of Greece were. If brought before him, he would doubtless have looked on them much as a certain French Algonkin and Iroquois scholar of Canada looked on the myths of America. The man had an extensive knowledge of Algonkin and Iroquois words, but an utter contempt for Indian thought, and no real knowledge of it whatever. When I mentioned Indian mythology, he exclaimed: “Mais, Monsieur, c’est quelque chose d’absurde.”
No doubt the earliest creation myths were well known throughout rural Greece among the illiterate, but there was no philosopher of that day who knew their value. There was no man to consider them.
Roman mythology, as well as Greek, suffered from literary treatment, and it is only by collecting detached fragments and facts of primitive thought throughout the whole field of classic literature that we are able to get at something beyond the official religion of polished society in Greece and Rome.
From the wreck of ancient Keltic and Teutonic thought much has been saved on the two islands [Pg xxxvi] of Ireland and Iceland. With this, together with the American system and the mythologic inheritance of the Slav world in Eastern Europe, we shall be able perhaps to obtain materials with which to explain the earliest epoch of Aryan thought, the epoch which corresponds in development with the world of American creation myths. In that case we shall gain a connected view of Aryan speculation and its methods from those early beginnings when there was no passion or quality apart from a person, when symbols, metaphors, and personifications were in the distant future. The whole problem is to connect the thought of this continent with that of the rest of mankind, but especially and above all with the Aryan and Semitic divisions of it.
It is to be regretted that Semitic beliefs of the primitive period have not come down to us more numerously; for example, those of the Phœnicians, the earliest Hebrews, and other kindred nations. Fortunately the Arabs, the most poetic of the race, the knightly members of it, have given us in their history one fact of great value. Just before the establishment of the new religion by Mohammed there were in Mecca more than three hundred Arabic divinities, animal, vegetable, and mineral. We can hardly doubt that the pre-Mohammedan Arabic system of religion was the one which on a time belonged to the whole Semitic race, different among some divisions of it in details, of course, but substantially the same everywhere. This statement of the Arabic condition contains a fact of immense [Pg xxxvii] significance. It points to a system exactly like the American. The pre-Mohammedan Arabic was the most splendid and important survival of primitive religion in any historic race on the Eastern Hemisphere.
It is proper here to explain the position of spirits in the Indian systems. All the first people are conceived as having bodies as well as spirits. When we speak of a spirit appearing to a sorcerer or “doctor,” it is understood that that spirit has left its body temporarily and will return to it. There are no spirits without bodies save an exceptional few who at the time of the metamorphosis of the first people lost the bodies which had belonged to them in their primal condition and received no new bodies at their fall. This loss of bodies was inflicted as a punishment. These desolate disembodied spirits wander about now in mountains and lonely weird places. Uncanny in character, they are seen rarely, and then only by sorcerers.
A good deal has been given to the world of late on mythology by able writers who with good materials would attain good results; but as the materials at their disposal are faulty, much of their work with all its cleverness is mainly a persistent pouring of the empty into the void.
We have seen attempts made to show that real gods have been developed by savage men from their own dead savage chiefs. Such a thing has never been done since the human race began, and it could never have been imagined by any man who knew [Pg xxxviii] the ideas of primitive races from actual experience or from competent testimony. The most striking thing in all savage belief is the low estimate put on man when unaided by divine, uncreated power. In Indian belief every object in the universe is divine except man. Divinities have an immense range of power, there is an incalculable difference between the greatest and the smallest of them,—some have inconceivable strength and knowledge, while others are measurably weak and of limited intelligence,—but all belong to one category, all are divine, all are extra-human.
Vegetable gods, so called, have been scoffed at by writers on mythology. The scoff is baseless, for the first people were turned, or turned themselves, into trees and various plants as frequently as into beasts and other creatures. Maize or Indian corn is a transformed god who gave himself to be eaten to save man from hunger and death. When Spanish priests saw little cakes of meal eaten ceremonially by Indians, and when the latter informed them that they were eating their god, the good priests thought this a diabolical mockery of the Holy Sacrament, and a blasphemous trick of Satan to ruin poor ignorant Indians.
I have a myth in which the main character is a violent and cruel old personage who is merciless and faith-breaking, who does no end of damage till he is cornered at last by a good hero and turned into the wild parsnip. Before transformation this old parsnip could travel swiftly, but now he must [Pg xxxix] stay in one place, and of course kills people only when they eat him.
The treasure saved to science by the primitive race of America is unique in value and high significance. The first result from it is to carry us back through untold centuries to that epoch when man made the earliest collective and consistent explanation of this universe and its origin.
Occupying this vantage-ground, we can now throw a flood of light on all those mythologies and ethnic religions or systems of thought from which are lost in part, great or small, the materials needed to prove the foundation and beginnings of each of them. In this condition are all ancient recorded religions, whether of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Chaldea, Persia, or India.
Through amazing ability of primitive man on this continent to retain, or perhaps through his inability to change or go forward, he has preserved a system of thought already old at the time of the first cuneiform letters and of the earliest statements on stone or papyrus. And the discovery of this system of ours coincides almost with the moment when America after a century and a quarter of free political activity, and of intellectual labor unexampled in fruitfulness, takes her due place as a World Power, and enters into intimate and searching relations, not with Europe alone, or one section of mankind, but with the whole human race wherever fixed or resident.
Washington, D. C., U. S. A.,
October 11, 1898.
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Source: CREATION MYTHS OF PRIMITIVE AMERICA IN RELATION TO The Religious History and Mental Development of Mankind BY JEREMIAH CURTIN Author of “Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland,” “Myths and Folk-Tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars,” “Hero-Tales of Ireland,” etc. BOSTON LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY 1898 Copyright, 1898 By Jeremiah Curtin —— All rights reserved
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