Native American Literature


The Earth-Diver Myth Complex

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The Earth-Diver Myth Complex


The Earth-Diver myth has wide distribution throughout North America, where it appears prominently in native literatures everywhere except in the Southwest, the Southeast, the Northwest Coast, and the Arctic. Even in these areas, however, important elements of the myth occur singly or in combination with motifs from the locally more common Emergence myth. The myth is further distributed throughout Asia and Europe from Siberia to the Balkans and from Scandinavia to the Near East, where it has frequently been accommodated to the major “book” religions. This circumpolar distribution and the occurrence of the Earth-Diver elements in origin myths of clearly later invention suggest the myth's great age, even that it may have come to this continent with the first Paleolithic hunters who settled in the northern forests and eastern woodlands.

The myth has been summarized succinctly by Reichard: “A flood occurs—either a primeval flood or a deluge with various causes given. A few animals survive, usually on a raft on the surface of the waters. They feel the necessity for having land. A number of them dive for it, but come to the surface dead. A final attempt is made, often by Muskrat; and the successful animal appears exhausted but carrying mud in mouth, ears, nails, paws, and armpits. The dirt magically becomes larger until the whole earth is restored. The increased size is often brought about by running round and round the bit of land.”8 Yet the Earth-Diver myth cannot be so narrowly circumscribed. Reichard herself acknowledges its close links to several other important myths. And such a simple summary, by violating the poetic and dramatic power of the myth's several distinctive versions, would suggest that the story has only an explanatory function. In fact, in its full imaginative realization if not in its outline, the Earth-Diver myth compels one to imagine eternity. That is as much a storyteller's as a philosopher's problem.

In one telling, alone in the middle of a vast sea limned in darkness, a small raft bobbed. In the Arapaho version it contained a man, a woman, and a boy. For the Tlingit the raft was a bed of kelp and supported Raven the Trickster, who woke to find himself cast down from eternity at the beginning of time. For northern Athabascan peoples like the Kutchin of Canada's Mackenzie-Yukon region, the raft contained Crow the Trickster and other animals. When mud was brought up by Muskrat, Crow thrust his cane through it, planting it securely; on it the world began to grow. The Maidu of California believe that the raft, drifting in darkness out of the north, bore only two persons, Turtle and Father-of-Secret-Society. Suddenly a rope was let down in front of them. As the two peered up the rope into the darkness, a point of light emerged and grew larger as it drew nearer, until the figure of Earth-Initiate, his face covered but his body radiant as the sun, stepped into the bow of the boat and filled the world with light. After he agreed with Turtle that man should be created, Turtle weighted himself with a stone and plunged to the bottom of the ocean to bring up a bit of mud from which the dry earth would be made. Four times Earth-Initiate caused it to expand, until the raft ran aground on the shore of history.9

The Iroquoian version begins in a Skyworld encampment in form and population not unlike the Iroquois' own, except that the only light radiates from the blossoms of a tree planted in the center of the camp.10The Skywoman, by another name the “Fertile Flower,” marries Standing Tree, the chief of the Skyworld and owner of the Tree of Light. After their marriage their commingling breath causes her to become pregnant, but Standing Tree, knowing only that he has not had sexual intercourse with her, is unable to comprehend the magical cause of her condition and becomes jealous. He holds a dream feast to discern the outcome of the problem. In his dreaming he sees that all growing things will perish, including the flowers of light on the tree, which shall itself be uprooted and cast down through a hole in the sky around which he and his wife will be sitting, dangling their feet over the edge. A later scene finds the chief and his friends sitting around the tree. Compelled by custom to live out the dream lest the anxiety that it produced possess him, he suddenly seizes the tree and hurls it down, pushing his wife right behind it.

In the scene change the narrow focus of the hearer's imagination opens suddenly upon a vast sea of undulating waves, shrouded in a pearly auroral light that defines no horizon. Over the stillness on the sea moves a ripple of wind, the shadows of darting birds, until the mind's eye rushes in from the margins of eternity to focus upon the birds, wheeling and gathering over the sea, sensing in the rush of wind the fall from the sky. Then on their clustered backs they carry the woman cast down from the heavens and lower her gently onto the back of a great turtle floating upon the ocean. Beaver, Otter, and others are sent to gather mud from which a world can be made for her, but each fails in turn save Muskrat, who, sacrificing his life to the unlit depths of the sea, floats to the surface clutching a bit of mud in his mouth and paws. In some mysterious manner the value of his sacrifice and his fight is multiplied, and beneath the sleeping woman the earth spreads out borne on the carapace of the Great Turtle. And when the woman awakes from her swoon, time begins.

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky gives birth to a daughter who grows quickly and is herself magically impregnated, either by Turtle or Wind. During the gestation she hears two voices arguing inside her. The quarrel erupts into history when the Twins are born, normally in the case of Sprout, Good-Minded, or Sapling as he is variously called, but abnormally in the case of Flint or Evil-Minded, who bursts from his mother's armpit, killing her. Various parts of her body provide the first examples of edible plants in the Huron version. The Rival Twins engage in a dualistic struggle to establish the world, Flint creating exaggerations that threaten man's future and Sprout cutting them down to size. Sprout also releases the game animals that Flint has impounded. Throughout their contest the influence of the two women is heavily felt, Sprout being assisted by his mother and opposed by the Woman Who Fell from the Sky, who aids Flint. The world order is finally established, first when Sprout defeats Flint in a gambling contest establishing the seasons and second when Sprout defeats Flint in combat. After marrying a woman named Hanging Flower and establishing the family from which the contemporary Iroquois are descended, Sprout follows the Milky Way to join his defeated brother in the Skyworld. Among many non-Iroquoian peoples this Twins sequel holds a position independent of and more prominent than the Earth-Diver story and is closely related to the Star Husband tale.11 Nevertheless, the activities of its hero, like those of Sprout, suggest that he, too, is clearly perceived as a transformer and culture hero.

The Algonkian peoples, among whom the Earth-Diver story has its widest circulation, tell it very differently, especially in the western Great Lakes area, where the Midéwiwin has influenced the story. Like the Iroquois, the Algonkians also begin with a protoworld populated by demiurges. According to the Menomini, for instance, the flood results from the desire of Manabozho the Trickster/Culture Hero to revenge the death of his brother, Wolf, at the hands of the underground supernatural beings.12 In the middle of a lacrosse game that these spirits are watching, Manabozho drops his animal mask as Hare, assumes human form, and wounds them fatally with his arrows. Their death plunge into the Great Lakes sends waves of water to inundate the land. As the water rises, Manabozho takes to a tree, always just keeping ahead of the flood, which subsides just as he is running out of tree. Stranded above the flood, he calls to diving animals who all fail to bring up the necessary mud until Muskrat succeeds, and the world is created anew.

Unlike some other genres of oral literature, a creation myth such as the Earth-Diver story is not usually esoteric material, though it can become so when integrated with the origin stories of clans or religious organizations. In general, however, no restrictions are placed on the circumstances of its telling, precisely because it dramatizes in symbolic form the metaphysical principles by which the most profound mysteries of the community's daily experience are made intelligible. These principles of interpretation are displayed in the myth's prototypical events, which establish normative behaviors and relationships. For the myth's auditors in a community of belief, these serve as a guide for understanding and directing contemporary experience. In this manner the myth becomes, in Clifford Geertz's terms, both a “model of” the world and a “model for” the world, reflecting both metaphysical and ethical principles.13

William Fenton, the prominent Iroquoianist, has adopted a similar approach for interpreting the Iroquois Earth-Diver story. Among its prominent themes:


  • The earth is our mother, living and continually generating life.

  • Life is regular, cyclical, patterned by twos and fours, and these metaphysical patterns are models for ethical ones.

  • The world and all that is in it are endowed with Orenda (Power).

  • It is women who count (the Iroquois are matrilineal); paternity is secondary.

  • Restraint is important.

  • Thanksgiving and greeting maintain harmony in a hierarchical system by affirming right relationships.

  • Dreams compel their own fulfillment.

Finally, according to Fenton, the myth affirms that “culture is an affair of the mind.”14

Among the essential principles articulated by any cosmological myth are the shape of the universe and the relationship between space and time. Clearly and consistently, in Indian myths three cosmic zones—the Skyworld, the Earth-Surface World, and the Underworld—are imaged. The passage of the mediational figure through these worlds creates different epochs, suggesting that time and space are mutually convertible, that to say “long ago” is the same as saying “far away.” A corollary of this axiomatic, three-zone division is that passage between zones occurs along a definite path, an axis mundi, which may be imaged as the Milky Way, a sacred mountain, or a cosmic tree, and that passage can be taken in both directions. Finally, through a variety of images of transformation, the passage as fall illustrates the communication of sacred power into this world, where its effects are still visible. The act of communication establishes for all time the prototypical channel of power and provides, therefore, the means of access for all mankind to that power. Together with marvelous births, inner voices, Sky Parents, and a protoworld, these motifs link the Earth-Diver myth intimately with circumpolar, boreal shamanism, the origins of which, as indicated by the bear cult and cave paintings of man-animal transformations, lie deep in the Paleolithic past.15

Besides shamanism, another cultural institution frequently accounted for in the Earth-Diver myths is the origin of agriculture. Heavy dependence upon the corn-squash-beans complex seems to have come late for peoples like the Osage and the Iroquois, perhaps around A.D. 1000, although they had obtained these foods in small quantities through trade and scattered planting and had always gathered undomesticated plants.16 Both myths contain startling flesh-to-plant transformations, which, despite their folkloric conventionality, nevertheless suggest the impact of an agricultural revolution upon a predominantly hunting culture. In the Iroquoian myth, this transformation is validated by the resolution in favor of the former pole, in the dualism of Sprout and Flint, Growth and Death, Peace and War, Corn and Meat. In the Osage myth the Elk joyfully gives itself up to the soil, producing from its hair all forms of vegetation, wild plants as well as cultigens.

The Earth-Diver is the story of the Fortunate Fall played out against a landscape more vast than Eden and yet on a personal scale equally as intimate. It is a story of losses, the loss of celestial status, the loss of life in the depths of the sea. But it is also the story of gifts, especially the gift of power over life, the gift of agriculture to sustain life, and the gift of the vision to understand man's place as somewhere between the abyss and the stars.





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