Native American Mythology

Native American Mythology

by Hartley Burr Alexander


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Native American Mythology by Hartley Burr Alexander

This fascinating and informative compendium of Native American lore was assembled by one of twentieth-century America's premier ethnographer/anthropologists. Hartley Burr Alexander recounts the continent's myths chronologically and region-by-region, offering a remarkably wide range of nomadic sagas, animist myths, cosmogonies and creation myths, end-time prophecies, and other traditional tales.
The stories begin in the far North, among Norsemen and Eskimos, and range through the land of the forest dwellers, with extensive representation of tribes such as the Iroquois and Algonquian. Legends from the Gulf region and Great Plains encompass sun worship and trickster pranks, and from the Indians of the mountain and desert come tales of Navajo gods and episodes from the ghost world. The collection concludes among the natives of the Pacific coast, with stories of secret societies, totemism and totemic spirits, and the Raven Cycle — the supernatural lore surrounding the black bird who hung the sun, moon, and stars in the sky, put the salmon in the rivers and the fish in the sea, and amused itself by fooling people with its shape-shifting tricks.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486444154
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 09/21/2005
Series: Native American
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,184,223
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Native American Mythology

By Hartley Burr Alexander

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12279-3




IN the year of our Lord 982 Eric the Red, outlawed from Iceland, discovered Greenland, which shortly afterward was colonized by Icelanders. Eric's son, Leif the Lucky, the first Christian of the New World, voyaging from Norway to Greenland, came upon a region to the south of Greenland where "self-sown corn" and wild vines grew, and which, accordingly, he named Vinland. This was in the year 1000, the year in which all Mediaeval Europe was looking for the Second Advent and for earth's destruction, but which brought instead the first discovery of a New World.

As yet no people had been encountered by the Scandinavians in the new-found lands. But the news of Vinland stirred the heart of Thorfinn Karlsefni and of his wife Gudrid, and with a company of men and two ships they set out for the region which Leif had found. First they came to a land which they called Helluland, "the land of flat stones," which seemed to them a place of little worth. Next they visited a wooded land full of wild beasts, and this they named Markland. Finally they came to Vinland, and there they dwelt for three winters, Gudrid giving birth to Snorri, the first white child born on the Western Continent. It was in Vinland that the Norsemen first encountered the Skraelings: "They saw a number of skin canoes, and staves were brandished from their boats with a noise like flails, and they were revolved in the same direction in which the sun moves." Thorfinn's band was small, the Skraelings were a multitude; so the colony returned to Greenland in the year 1006.

Apparently no further attempt was made to settle the mainland, though from time to time voyages were made thither for cargoes of timber. But the Greenland colony continued, unmolested and flourishing. About the middle of the thirteenth century peoples from the north, short and swart, began to appear; encounters became unfriendly, and in 1341 the northernmost Scandinavian settlement was destroyed. Meanwhile, ships were coming from Norway less and less frequently, and the colony ceased to prosper, ceased to be heard from. At the time when Columbus discovered the Antilles there was a Bishop of Greenland, holding title from the Pope, but there is no evidence that he ever saw his diocese, and when, in 1585, John Davis sailed into the strait now bearing his name all trace of the Norsemen's colony was lost.

But the people of the Far North had not forgotten, and when the white men again came among them they still preserved legends of former Kablunait. The story of the first meeting of the two peoples still survived, and of their mutual curiosity and fear, and of how an Eskimo and a white man became fast friends, each unable to outdo the other in feats of skill and strength, until at last the Eskimo won in a contest at archery, and the white man was cast down a precipice by his fellow-countrymen. There is the story of Eskimo men lying in wait and stealing the women of the Kablunait as they came to draw water. There are stories of blood feuds between the two peoples, and of the destruction of whole villages. At Ikat the Kablunait were taken by surprise; four fathers with their children fled out upon the ice and all were drowned; sometimes they are visible at the bottom of the sea, and then, say the Eskimo, one of our people will die.

Such are the memories of the lost colony which the Greenlanders have preserved. But far and wide among the Eskimo tribes there is the tradition of their former association with the Tornit, the Inlanders, from whom they were parted by feud and war. The Tornit were taller and stronger and swifter than the Eskimo, and most of them were blear-eyed; their dress and weapons were different, and they were not so skilful in boating and sealing or with the bow. Finally, an Eskimo youth quarrelled with one of the Tornit and slew him, boring a hole in his forehead with a drill of crystal. After that all the Tornit fled away for fear of the Eskimo and since then the Coast-People and the Inland-Dwellers have been enemies.

In the stories of the Tornit may be some vague recollections of the ancient Norsemen; more plausibly they represent the Indian neighbours of the Eskimoan tribes on the mainland, for to the Greenlanders the Indians had long become a fabulous and magical race. Sometimes, they say, the Tornit steal women who are lost in the fog, but withal are not very dangerous; they keep out of sight of men and are terribly afraid of dogs. Besides the Tornit there are in the Eskimo's uncanny Inland elves and cannibal giants, one-eyed people, shape-shifters, dog-men, and monsters, such as the Amarok, or giant wolf, or the horrid caterpillar that a woman nursed until it grew so huge that it devoured her baby — for it is a region where history and imagination mingle in nebulous marvel.


There is probably no people on the globe more isolated in their character and their life than are the Eskimo. Their natural home is to the greater part of mankind one of the least inviting regions of the earth, and they have held it for centuries with little rivalry from other races. It is the coastal region of the Arctic Ocean from Alaska to Labrador and from Labrador to the north of Greenland: inlandward it is bounded by frozen plains, where even the continuous day of Arctic summer frees only a few inches of soil; seaward it borders upon icy waters, solid during the long months of the Arctic night. The caribou and more essentially the seal are the two animals upon which the whole economy of Eskimo life depends, both for food and for bodily covering; the caribou is hunted in summer, the seal is the main reliance for winter. But the provision of a hunting people is never certain; the seasonal supply of game is fluctuating; and the Eskimo is no stranger to starvation. His is not a green world, but a world of whites and greys, shot with the occasional splendours of the North. Night is more open to him than the day; he is acquainted with the stars and death is his familiar.

"Our country has wide borders; there is no man born has travelled round it; and it bears secrets in its bosom of which no white man dreams. Up here we live two different lives; in the Summer, under the torch of the Warm Sun; in the Winter, under the lash of the North Wind. But it is the dark and the cold that make us think most. And when the long Darkness spreads itself over the country, many hidden things are revealed, and men's thoughts travel along devious paths" (quoted from "Blind Ambrosius," a West Greenlander, by Rasmussen, The People of the Polar North, p. 219).

The religious and mythical ideas of the Eskimo wear the hues of their life. They are savages, easily cheered when food is plenty, and when disheartened oppressed rather by a blind helplessness than by any sense of ignorance or any depth of thought. Their social organization is loose; their law is strength; their differences are settled by blood feuds; a kind of unconscious indecency characterizes the relations of the sexes; but they have the crude virtues of a simply gregarious people — ready hospitality, willingness to share, a lively if fitful affectionateness, a sense of fun. They are given to singing and dancing and tale-telling; to magic and trance and spirit-journeys. Their adventures in real life are grim enough, but these are outmatched by their flights of fancy. As their life demands, they are rapacious and ingrained huntsmen; and perhaps the strongest trait of their tales is the succession of images reflecting the intimate habits of a people whose every member is a butcher — blubber and entrails and warm blood, bones and the foulness of parasites and decay: these replace the tenderer images suggested to the minds of peoples who dwell in flowered and verdured lands.


For the Eskimo, as for all savage people, the world is upheld by invisible powers. Everything in nature has its Inua, its "owner" or "indweller"; stones and animals have their Inue, the air has an Inua, there is even an Inua of the strength or the appetite; the dead man is the Inua of his grave, the soul is the Inua of the lifeless body. Inue are separable from the objects of which they are the "owners"; normally they are invisible, but at times they appear in the form of a light or a fire — an ill-seen thing, foretokening death.

The "owners" of objects may become the helpers or guardians of men and then they are known as Tornait. Especially potent are the Inue of stones and bears; if a bear "owner" becomes the Tornak of a man, the man may be eaten by the bear and vomited up again; he then becomes an Angakok, or shaman, with the bear for his helper. Men or women with many or powerful Tornait are of the class of Angakut, endowed with magical and healing power and with eyes that see hidden things.

The Greenlanders had a vague belief in a being, Tornarsuk, the Great Tornak, or ruler of the Tornait, through whom the Angakut obtained their control over their helpers; but a like belief seems not to have been prevalent on the continent. In the spiritual economy of the Eskimo, the chief place is held by a woman-being, the Old Woman of the Sea, — Nerrivik, the "Food Dish," the north Greenlanders call her, — while Sedna is a mainland name for her. Once she was a mortal woman; a petrel wooed her with entrancing song and carried her to his home beyond the sea. Too late she found that he had deceived her. When her relatives tried to rescue her, the bird raised such a storm that they cast her into the sea to save themselves; she attempted to cling to the boat, but they cut off her hand, and she sank to the bottom, her severed fingers being transformed into whales and seals of the several kinds. In her house in the depths of the sea Nerrivik dwells, trimming her lamp, guarded by a terrible dog, and ruling over the animal life of the deep. Sometimes men catch no seals, and then the Angakut go down to her and force or persuade her to release the food animals; that is why she is called the "Food Dish." It is not difficult to perceive in this Woman of the Sea a kind of Mother of Wild Life — a hunter folk's goddess, but cruel and capricious as is the sea itself.

In the house of Sedna is a shadowy being, Anguta, her father. Some say that it was he who rescued her and then cast her overboard to save himself, and he is significantly surnamed "the Man with Something to Cut." Like his daughter, Anguta has a maimed hand, and it is with this that he seizes the dead and drags them down to the house of Sedna — for her sovereignty is over the souls of the dead as well as over the food of the living; she is Mistress of Life and of Death. According to the old Greenlandic tradition, when the Angakut go down to the Woman of the Sea they pass first through the region of the dead, then across an abyss where an icy wheel is forever revolving, next by a boiling cauldron with seals in it, and lastly, when the great dog at the door is evaded, within the very entrance there is a second abyss bridged only by a knifelike way. Such was the Eskimo's descensus Averno.


As the Eskimo's Inland is peopled with monstrous tribes, so is his Sea-Front populous with strange beings. There are the Inue of the sea — a kind of mermen; there are the mirage- like Kayak-men who raise storms and foul weather; there are the phantom women's boats, the Umiarissat, whose crews, some say, are seals transformed into rowers. Strangest of all are the Fire-People, the Ingnersuit, dwelling in the cliffs, or, as it were, in the crevasse between land and sea. They are of two classes, the Pug-Nosed People and the Noseless People. The former are friendly to men, assisting the kayaker even when invisible to him; the Noseless Ones are men's enemies, and they drag the hapless kayaker to wretched captivity down beneath the black waters. An Angakok was once seal-hunting, far at sea; all at once he found himself surrounded by strange kayaks — the Fire-People coming to seize him. But a commotion arose among them, and he saw that they were pursued by a kayak whose prow was like a great mouth, opening and shutting, and slaying all that were in its path; and suddenly all of the Fire-People were gone from the surface of the sea. Such was the power of the shaman's helping spirit.

In the Eskimo's conception there are regions above and regions below man's visible abode, and the dead are to be found in each. Accounts differ as to the desirability of the several abodes. The mainland people — or some of them — regard the lower world as a place of cold and storm and darkness and hunger, and those who have been unhappy or wicked in this life are bound thither; the region above is a land of plenty and song, and those who have been good and happy, and also those who perish by accident or violence, and women who die in child-birth, pass to this upper land. But there are others who deem the lower world the happier, and the upper the realm of cold and hunger; yet others maintain that the soul is full of joy in either realm.

The Angakut make soul-journeys to both the upper and the lower worlds. The lower world is described as having a sky like our own, only the sky is darker and the sun paler; it is always winter there, but game is plentiful. Another tale tells of four cavernous underworlds, one beneath the other; the first three are low-roofed and uncomfortable, only the fourth and lowest is roomy and pleasant. The upper world is beyond the visible sky, which is a huge dome revolving about a mountain-top; it is a land with its own hills and valleys, duplicating Earth. Its "owners" are the Inue of the celestial bodies, who once were men, but who have been translated to the heavens and are now the celestial lights. The road to the upper world is not free from perils: on the way to the moon there is a person who tempts wayfarers to laughter, and if successful in making them laugh takes out their entrails. Perhaps this is a kind of process of disembodying; for repeatedly in Eskimo myth occur spirit-beings which when seen face to face appear to be human beings, but when seen from behind are like skeletons.


The Sun and the Moon were sister and brother — mortals once. In a house where there was no light they lay together, and when the sister discovered who had been her companion, in her shame she tore off her breasts and threw them to her brother, saying, "Since my body pleaseth thee, taste these, too." Then she fled away, her brother pursuing, and each bearing the torches by means of which they had discovered one another. As they ran they rose up into the heavens; the sister's torch burned strong and bright, and she became the Sun; the brother's torch died to a mere ember, and he became the Moon. When the Sun rises in the sky and summer is approaching, she is coming "to give warmth to orphans," say the Eskimo; for in the Far North, where many times in the winter starvation is near, the lot of the orphan is grimly uncertain.

The Greenlanders are alert to the stars, especially those that foretell the return of the summer sun; when Orion is seen toward dawn, summer is coming and hearts are joyous. The Eskimo tell how men with dogs once pursued a bear far out on the ice; suddenly the bear began to rise into the air, his pursuers followed, and this group became the constellation which we name Orion. A like story is sometimes told of the Great Bear (Ursa Major). Harsher is the tale which tells of the coming of Venus: "He who Stands and Listens" - for the sun's companion is a man to the Eskimo. An old man, so the story goes, was sealing near the shore; the noise of children playing in a cleft of rock frightened the seals away; and at last, in his anger, he ordered the cleft to close over them. When their parents returned from hunting, all they could do was to pour a little blood down a fissure which had been left, but the imprisoned children soon starved. They then pursued the old man, but he shot up into the sky and became the luminous planet which is seen low in the west when the light begins to return after the wintry dark.

The Eskimo do not greatly trouble themselves with thoughts as to the beginnings of the world as a whole; rather they take it for granted, quite unspeculatively. There is, however, an odd Greenlandic tale of how earth dropped down from the heavens, soil and stones, forming the lands we know. Babies came forth — earth-born — and sprawled about among the dwarf willows; and there they were found by a man and a woman (none knows whence these came), and the woman made clothes for them, and so there were people; and the man stamped upon the earth, whence sprang, each from its tiny mound, the dogs that men need. At first there was no death; neither was there any sun. Two old women debated, and one said, "Let us do without light, if so we can be without death"; but the other said, "Nay, let us have both light and death!" — and as she spoke, it was so.


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Table of Contents

Author's Preface
I. The Far North
1. Norseman and Skraeling
2. The Eskimo's World
3. The World-Powers
4. The World's Regions
5. The Beginnings
6. Life and Death
II. The Forest Tribes
1. The Forest Region
2. Priest and Pagan
3. The Manitos
4. The Great Spirit
5. The Frame of the World
6. The Powers Above
7. The Powers Below
8. The Elders of the Kinds
III. The Forest Tribes (continued)
1. Iroquoian Cosmogony
2. Algonquian Cosmogony
3. The Deluge
4. The Slaying of the Dragon
5. The Theft of Fire
6. Sun-Myths
7. The Village of Souls
8. Hiawatha
IV. The Gulf Region
1. Tribes and Lands
2. Sun-Worship
3. The New Maize
4. Cosmogonies
5. Animal Stories
6. Tricksters and Wonder-Folk
7. Mythic History
V. The Great Plains
1. The Tribal Stocks
2. An Athapascan Pantheon
3. The Great Gods of the Plains
4. The Life of the World
5. "Medicine"
6. Father Sun
7. Mother Earth and Daughter Corn
8. The Morning Star
9. The Gods of the Elements
VI. The Great Plains (continued)
1. Athapascan Cosmogonies
2. Siouan Cosmogonies
3. Caddoan Cosmogonies
4. The Son of the Sun
5. The Mystery of Death
6. Prophets and Wonder-Workers
7. Migration-Legends and Year-Counts
VII. Mountain and Desert
1. The Great Divide
2. The Gods of the Mountains
3. The World and its Denizens
4. Shahaptian and Shoshonean World-Shapers
5. Coyote
6. Spirits, Ghosts, and Bogies
7. Prophets and the Ghost-Dance
VIII. Mountain and Desert (continued)
1. The Navaho and their Gods
2. The Navaho Genesis
3. The Creation of the Sun
4. Navaho Ritual Myths
5. Apache and Piman Mythology
6. Yuman Mythology
IX. The Pueblo Dwellers
1. The Pueblos
2. Pueblo Cosmology
3. Gods and Katcinas
4. The Calendar
5. The Great Rites and their Myths
6. Sia and Hopi Cosmogonies
7. Zu-i Cosmogony
X. The Pacific Coast, West
1. The California-Oregon Tribes
2. Religion and Ceremonies
3. The Creator
4. Cataclysms
5. The First People
6. Fire and Light
7. Death and the Ghost-World
XI. The Pacific Coast, North
1. Peoples of the North-West Coast
2. Totemism and Totemic Spirits
3. Secret Societies and their Tutelaries
4. The World and its Rulers
5. The Sun and the Moon
6. The Raven Cycle
7. Souls and their Powers

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