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Native American Myths

Native American Myths

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by Lewis Spence

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Drawn from the myths and legends of the Algonquins, Iroquois, Sioux, Pawnee, and Northern and Northwestern Indians, these enchanting tales offer insights into tribal character and beliefs. Selected by the distinguished British anthropologist and folklorist Lewis Spence, they range in theme from romantic love to rivalry between warriors to victory over powerful


Drawn from the myths and legends of the Algonquins, Iroquois, Sioux, Pawnee, and Northern and Northwestern Indians, these enchanting tales offer insights into tribal character and beliefs. Selected by the distinguished British anthropologist and folklorist Lewis Spence, they range in theme from romantic love to rivalry between warriors to victory over powerful forces. The details of their recounting evoke images of Native Americans' innermost aspirations and fears as well as their larger worldview.
A major forerunner of modern studies of myth, this compelling book blends the legends with factual material, giving each myth a meaningful perspective. Students of anthropology and ethnology will prize the especially rich variety of mythical imagery in this collection, which features a simple, direct manner of storytelling that will appeal to children as well as to adults. All readers will find in these pages a treasury of suspenseful tales that reveal much of the spirit of North America's original cultures.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Thrift Editions Series
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5.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.50(d)

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Native American Myths


Dover Publications, Inc.

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11235-0




THE ALGONQUIN Indians have perhaps a more extensive mythology than the majority of Indian peoples, and as they have been known to civilization or several centuries their myths have the advantage of having been thoroughly examined.

One of the most interesting figures in their pantheon is Glooskap, which means "The Liar"; but so far from an affront being intended to deity by this appellation, it was bestowed as a compliment to his craftiness, cunning being regarded as one of the virtues by all savage peoples.

Glooskap and is brother Malsum, the Wolf, were twins, and from this we may infer that they were the opposites of a dualistic system, Glooskap standing for what seems "good" to the savage, and Malsum for all that was "bad." Their mother died at their birth, and out of her body Glooskap formed the sun and moon, animals, fishes, and the human race, while the malicious Malsum made mountains, valleys, serpents, and every manner of thing which he considered would inconvenience the race of men.

Each of the brothers possessed a secret as to what would kill him, as do many other beings in myth and fairy story, notably Llew Llaw Gyffes in Welsh romance.

Malsum asked Glooskap in what manner he could be killed, and the elder brother, to try his sincerity, replied that the only way in which his life could be taken was by the touch of an owl's feather—or, as some variants of the myth say, by that of a flowering rush. Malsum in his turn confided to Glooskap that he could only perish by a blow from a fern- root. The malicious Wolf, taking his bow, brought down an owl, and while Glooskap slept struck him with a feather plucked from its wing. Glooskap immediately expired, but to Malsum's chagrin came to life again. This tale is surprisingly reminiscent of the Scandinavian myth of Balder, who would only die if struck by a sprig of mistletoe by his brother Hodur. Like Baldur, Glooskap is a sun-god, as is well proved by the circumstance that when he dies he does not fail to revive.

But Malsum resolved to learn his brother's secret and to destroy him at the first opportunity. Glooskap had told him subsequently to his first attempt that only a pine-root could kill him, and with this Malsum struck him while he slept as before, but Glooskap, rising up and laughing, drove Malsum into the forest, and seated himself by a stream, where he murmured, as if musing to himself: "Only a flowering rush can kill me." Now he said this because he knew that Quah-beet, the Great Beaver, was hidden among the rushes on the bank of the stream and would hear every word he uttered. The Beaver went at once to Malsum and told him what he regarded as is brother's vital secret. The wicked Malsum was so glad that he promised to give the Beaver whatever he might ask for. But when the beast asked for wings like a pigeon Malsum burst into mocking laughter and cried: "Ho, you with the tail like a file, what need have you of wings?" At this the Beaver was wroth, and, going to Glooskap, made a clean breast of what he had done. Glooskap, now thoroughly infuriated, dug up a fern-root, and, rushing into the recesses of the forest, sought out his treacherous brother and with a blow of the fatal plant struck him dead.


But although Malsum was slain he subsequently appears in the Algonquian myth as Lox, or Loki, the chief of the wolves, a mischievous and restless spirit. In his account of the Algonquian mythology Charles Godfrey Leland appears to think that the entire system has been sophisticated by Norse mythology filtering through the Eskimo. Although the probabilities are against such a theory, there are many points in common between the two systems, as we shall see later, and among them few are more striking than the fact that the Scandinavian and Algonquian evil influences possess one and the same name.

When Glooskap had completed the world he made man and the smaller supernatural beings, such as fairies and dwarfs. He formed man from the trunk of an ash-tree, and the elves from its bark. Like Odin, he trained two birds to bring him the news of the world, but their absences were so prolonged that he selected a black and a white wolf as his attendants. He waged a strenuous and exterminating warfare on the evil monsters which then infested the world, and on the sorcerers and witches who were harmful to man. He levelled the hills and restrained the forces of nature in his mighty struggles, in which he towered to giant stature, his head and shoulders rising high above the clouds. Yet in his dealings with men he was gentle and quietly humorous, not to say ingenuous.

On one occasion he sought out a giant sorcerer named Win-pe, one of the most powerful of the evil influences then dwelling upon the earth. Win-pe shot upward till his head was above the tallest pine of the forest, but Glooskap, with a god-like laugh, grew till his head reached the stars, and tapped the wizard gently with the butt of his bow, so that he fell dead at his feet.

But although he exterminated many monsters and placed a check upon the advance of the forces of evil, Glooskap did not find that the race of men grew any better or wiser. In fact, the more he accomplished on their behalf the worse they became, until at last they reached such a pitch of evil conduct that the god resolved to quit the world altogether. But, with a feeling of consideration still for the beings he had created, he announced that within the next seven years he would grant to all and sundry any request they might make. A great many people were desirous of profiting by this offer, but it was with the utmost difficulty that they could discover where Glooskap was. Those who did find him and who chose injudiciously were severely punished, while those whose desires were reasonable were substantially rewarded.


Four Indians who went to Glooskap's abode found it a place of magical delights, a land fairer than the mind could conceive. Asked by the god what had brought them thither, one replied that his heart was evil and that anger had made him its slave, but that he wished to be meek and pious. The second, a poor man, desired to be rich, and the third, who was of low estate and despised by the folk of his tribe, wished to be universally honoured and respected. The fourth was a vain man, conscious of his good looks, whose appearance was eloquent of conceit. Although he was tall, he had stuffed fur into his moccasins to make him appear still taller, and his wish was that he might become bigger than any man of his tribe and that he might live for ages.

Glooskap drew four small boxes from his medicine-bag and gave one to each, desiring that they should not open them until they reached home. When the first three arrived at their respective lodges each opened his box, and found therein an unguent of great fragrance and richness, with which he rubbed himself. The wicked man became meek and patient, the poor man speedily grew wealthy, and the despised man became stately and respected. But the conceited man had stopped on his way home in a clearing in the woods, and, taking out his box, had anointed himself with the ointment it contained. His wish also was granted, but not exactly in the manner he expected, for he was changed into a pine-tree, the first of the species, and the tallest tree of the forest at that.


Glooskap, having conquered the Kewawkqu', a race of giants and magicians, and the Medecolin, who were cunning sorcerers, and Pamola, a wicked spirit of the night, besides hosts of fiends, goblins, cannibals, and witches, felt himself great indeed, and boasted to a certain woman that there was nothing left for him to subdue.

But the woman laughed and said: "Are you quite sure, Master? There is still one who remains unconquered, and nothing can overcome him."

In some surprise Glooskap inquired the name of this mighty individual.

"He is called Wasis," replied the woman; "but I strongly advise you to have no dealings with him."

Wasis was only a baby, who sat on the floor sucking a piece of maple-sugar and crooning a little song to himself. Now Glooskap had never married and was quite ignorant of how children are managed, but with perfect confiedence he smiled to the baby and asked it to come to him. The baby smiled back to him, but never moved, whereupon Glooskap imitated the beautiful song of a certain bird. Wasis, however, paid no heed to him, but went on sucking his maple-sugar. Glooskap, unaccustomed to such treatment, lashed himself into a furious rage, and in terrible and threatening accents ordered Wasis to come crawling to him at once. But Wasis burst into direful howling, which quite drowned the god's thunderous accents, and for all the threatenings of the deity he would not budge. Glooskap, now thoroughly aroused, brought all his magical resources to his aid. He recited the most terrible spells, the most dreadful incantations. He sang the songs which raise the dead, and which sent the devil scurrying to the nethermost depths of the pit. But Wasis evidently seemed to think this was all some sort of a game, for he merely smiled wearily and looked a trifle bored. At last Glooskap in despair rushed from the hut, while Wasis, sitting on the floor, cried, "Goo, goo," and crowed triumphantly. And to this day the Indians say that when a baby cries "Goo" he remembers the time when he conquered the mighty Glooskap.


At length the day on which Glooskap was to leave the earth arrived, and to celebrate the event he caused a great feast to be made on the shores of Lake Minas. It was attended by all the animals, and when it drew to a close Glooskap entered his great canoe and slowly drifted out of sight. When they could see him no longer they still heard his beautiful singing growing fainter and fainter in the distance, until at last it died away altogether. Then a strange thing happened. The beasts, who up to this time had spoken but one language, could no longer understand each other, and in confusion fled away, never again to meet in friendly converse until Glooskap shall return and revive the halcyon days of the Golden Age.

This tradition of Glooskap strikingly recalls that of the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, who drifted from the shores of Mexico eastward toward the fabled land of Tlapallan, whence he had originally come. Glooskap, like the Mexican deity alluded to, is, as has already been indicated, a sun-god, or, more properly speaking, a son of the sun, who has come to earth on a mission of enlightenment and civilization, to render the world habitable for mankind and to sow the seeds of the arts, domestic and agricultural. Quetzalcoatl disappeared toward the east because it was the original home of his father, the sun, and not toward the west, which is merely the sun's resting-place for the night. But Glooskap drifted westward, as most sun-children do.


A very beautiful myth tells how Glooskap captured the Summer. The form in which it is preserved is a kind of poetry possessing something in the nature of metre, which until a few generations ago was recited by many Algonquian firesides. A long time ago Glooskap wandered very far north to the Ice-country, and, feeling tired and cold, sought shelter at a wigwam where dwelt a great giant—the giant Winter. Winter received the god hospitably, filled a pipe of tobacco for him, and entertained him with charming stories of the old time as he smoked. All the time Winter was casting his spell over Glooskap, for as he talked drowsily and monotonously he gave forth a freezing atmosphere, so that Glooskap first dozed and then fell into a deep sleep—the heavy slumber of the winter season. For six whole months he slept; then the spell of the frost arose from his brain and he awoke. He took his way homeward and southward, and the farther south he fared the warmer it felt, and the flowers began to spring up around his steps.

At length he came to a vast, trackless forest, where, under primeval trees, many little people were dancing. The queen of these folk was Summer, a most exquisitely beautiful, if very tiny, creature. Glooskap caught the queen up in his great hand, and, cutting a long lasso from the hide of a moose, secured it round her tiny frame. Then he ran away, letting the cord trail loosely behind him.


The tiny people, who were the Elves of Light, came clamouring shrilly after him, pulling frantically at the lasso. But as Glooskap ran the cord ran out, and pull as they might they were left far behind.

Northward he journeyed once more, and came to the wigwam of Winter. The giant again received him hospitably, and began to tell the old stories whose vague charm had exercised such a fascination upon the god. But Glooskap in his turn began to speak. Summer was lying in his bosom, and her strength and heat sent forth such powerful magic that at length Winter began to show signs of distress. The sweat poured profusely down his face, and gradually he commenced to melt, as did his dwelling. Then slowly nature awoke, the song of birds was heard, first faintly, then more clearly and joyously. The thin green shoots of the young grass appeared, and the dead leaves of last autumn were carried down to the river by the melting snow. Lastly the fairies came out, and Glooskap, leaving Summer with them, once more bent his steps southward.

This is obviously a nature-myth conceived by a people dwelling in a climate where the rigours of winter gave way for a more or less brief space only to the blandishments of summer. To them winter was a giant, and summer an elf of pigmy proportions. The stories told during the winter season are eloquent of the life led by people dwelling in a sub-arctic climate, where the traditional tale, the father of epic poetry, whiles away the long dark hours, while the winter tempest roars furiously without and the heaped-up snow renders the daily occupation of the hunter impossible.


The Indians say that Glooskap lives far away, no one knows where, in a very great wigwam. His chief occupation is making arrows, and it would appear that each of these stands for a day. One side of his wigwam is covered with arrows, and when his lodge shall be filled with them the last great day will arrive. Then he will call upon his army of good spirits and go forth to attack Malsum in a wonderful canoe, which by magical means can be made to expand so as to hold an army or contract so that it may be carried in the palm of the hand. The war with his evil brother will be one of extermination, and not one single individual on either side will be left. But the good will go to Glooskap's beautiful abode, and all will be well at last.


Chill breezes had long forewarned the geese of the coming cold season, and the constant cry from above of "Honk, honk," told the Indians that the birds' migration was in progress.

The buffalo-hunters of the Blackfeet, an Algonquian tribe, were abroad with the object of procuring the thick robes and the rich meat which would keep them warm and provide good fare through the desolate winter moons. Sacred Otter had been lucky. Many buffaloes had fallen to him, and he was busily occupied in skinning them. But while the braves plied the knife quickly and deftly they heeded not the dun, lowering clouds heavy with tempest hanging like a black curtain over the northern horizon. Suddenly the clouds swooped down from their place in the heavens like a flight of black eagles, and with a roar the blizzard was upon them.

Sacred Otter and his son crouched beneath the carcass of a dead buffalo for shelter. But the air was frore as water in which the ice is floating, and he knew that they would quickly perish unless they could find some better protection from the bitter wind. So he made a small tepee, or tent, out of the buffalo's hide, and both crawled inside. Against this crazy shelter the snow quickly gathered and drifted, so that soon the inmates of the tiny lodge sank into a comfortable drowse induced by the gentle warmth. As Sacred Otter slept he dreamed. Away in the distance he described a great tepee, crowned with a colour like the gold of sunlight, and painted with a cluster of stars symbolic of the North. The ruddy disc of the sun was pictured at the back, and to this was affixed the tail of the Sacred Buffalo. The skirts of the tepee were painted to represent ice, and on its side had been drawn four yellow legs with a green claws, typical of the Thunder-bird. A buffalo in glaring red frowned above the door, and bunches of crow-feathers, with small bells attached, swung and tinkled in the breeze.

Sacred Otter, surprised at the unusual nature of the paintings, stood before the tepee lost in admiration of its decorations, when he was startled to hear a voice say:

"Who walks round my tepee? Come in—come in!"


Excerpted from Native American Myths by LEWIS SPENCE, DAVID DUTKANICZ. Copyright © 2005 DOVER PUBLICATIONS, INC.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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