Native American mythology is the body of myths, stories, and beliefs of the indigenous peoples of North America. These myths often revolve around the concept of animism, which is the belief that all natural objects and phenomena have souls or spirits. Native American myths often explain the origins of the world, natural phenomena, and the customs and traditions of the tribe. Many Native American stories also feature spiritual beings, such as gods and goddesses, as well as heroes who embark on epic quests. These myths play an important role in the cultural and spiritual traditions of Native American communities.
When the Europeans landed in America, they met strange people with strange customs, whom they called “Indians” because they thought they had discovered the Indies.
Later, to avoid confusion with India, they were called American Indians or Amerindians.
Native American mythologies are made up of a complex set of social and cultural customs that establish a relationship with the sacred and the supernatural. You will find that if you have watched American cartoons some of the protagonists of these myths are familiar to you.
The mythologies of the Native Americans were as numerous as the different Indian nations that inhabited the country. Each tribe had its own interpretation of the supernatural world and the place of each individual.
Any attempt to list in a single pantheon, all the deities known by the various Amerindian tribes, will undoubtedly be full of inexplicable gaps and contradictory details. It should be noted that the mythology of the Inuit can be found in the directory devoted to the inhabitants of the Arctic.
If their mythologies defy any simplified classification, three main types of myths can be identified, particularly important and often combined.
The first includes the creation myths, which describe the origin of the cosmos and the correlation between its various elements. Here we find the myth of the Earth Diver, according to which the Great Spirit or the Transformer dives or orders other animals to dive into the original waters in order to extract mud with which he makes the Earth.
Trickster myths, which often, but not always, depict the Transformer as a comic character who steals light, fire, water, food, animals, or even humanity and then loses them or sets them on an adventure to create the world as it is today (a Raven among the Nuxalks, Tsimshians, and Haidas; a hare, Nanabozo or Nanabush, among the Ojibwe; a frog in the Colombian Plateau; a coyote among the Blackfoot).
Myths relating to the Cultural Hero in which the Transformer appears in the guise of a human being endowed with supernatural powers, who brings the world to its current state through heroic feats (the Glooscap of the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Abenaki).
On the Colombian plateau and the great prairies especially, there is a story of two Transformers (specifically a Transformer and a mate, who is a brother, sister or other relative). They try to outdo each other in feats of strength, skill, or cunning, resulting in the formation of the world as it is.
Many myths describe the origin of the moon, the sun and the stars. In these myths, there is usually an opposition between these heavenly bodies. For example, it is said that the coolness of the moon at night is necessary to counterbalance the heat of the sun, which scorches the earth and tires human beings.
Principles of Native American mythology
She was married to the sky god and was expecting a child from him, but malicious rumors came to her husband’s ears that the child could not be his but probably someone else’s. So he became very angry and threw her into a bottomless hole in the ground by uprooting the Tree of Life.
So he flew into a rage and threw her into a bottomless hole in the ground by uprooting the Tree of Life.
In a different version, she fell into the hole while trying to taste the fruits of the Tree of Life.
As she fell inexorably toward the primordial ocean, she was caught in flight by birds who gently deposited her on an island built on the back of a turtle by the Otter and the Muskrat.
There she gave birth to twins Hahgwehdaetgah (the bad guy) and Hahgwehdiyu (the good guy).
Other names include Little Sprout or Yoskeha / Djuskaha and Flint or Taweskare / Othagwenda.
When she died, the two twins used her body to create an imperfect world because of their constant conflicts. In particular, from her body came the corn, Hahgwehdiyu’s gift to humanity.
In another version it is Enedeka Dakwa, his virgin daughter, impregnated by the breath of the West Wind, who gave birth to the two twins.
Raven in Native American mythology
The Northwest Coast Indians believed in many myths that explained, for example, the birth of daylight and the alternation of summer and winter. The main character in many of these myths was the powerful and evil Raven, known by different names among the tribes.
In the North Coast, he was the most popular emblem.
In the South, it was considered a protective spirit. Those who owned it were excellent hunters with great hunting skills. The Raven was both beneficent and evil, and its malice condemned it to be black forever. The Haidas, Tlingits and Tsimshians had clans that they called Raven.
Coyote in Native American mythology
Coyote is a master of illusion who often falls into his own traps; he gets caught in his own game.
And no one is more surprised than he is when things go wrong!
On the other hand, this dizzy one always manages to survive. This animal is a faithful reflection of our absurdities.
As he wanders from one disaster to another, Coyote brings the art of sabotage to the highest level of refinement.
Thanks to him, laughter and a sense of humor have their place in our lives.
He is often accompanied in his actions by his dog, Rattlesnake.
As accommodating as the “Creator Wolf” was, Coyote was always trying to thwart the Wolf’s plans.
LEGENDS in Native American mythology
Wolf once said that if someone died, he could bring them back to life by shooting an arrow from beneath them. But Coyote disagreed, because he thought that bringing people back to life was a bad idea, because then there would be too many people on earth and not enough room for everyone.
No,” he said, “let the people die, let their flesh rot and their spirits blow away so that only their dry bones remain.
The Wolf finally agreed, but he decided in petto that Coyote’s son would be the first to succumb. So he wished the boy dead and his wish was granted.
Soon, Coyote came to him with the sad news. He then reminded the Wolf of what he had said earlier: “people could live again if he shot an arrow under them”.
But the Wolf replied by reminding Coyote what he himself had said about people having to die….
And so it was.
in Native American mythology
The Trickster (Heyoka among the Lakota) or Deceiver (from the Latin decipere: to deceive) or more simply the prankster, the deceiver, the jester is a being with supernatural powers who brings realism to the myths, because he manifests through his fantasies the full extent of human weaknesses, counterbalancing the idealized and often very particular personalities of the gods and cultural heroes.
The Trickster, whose archetype is Loki in Norse mythology, is both generous and petty, he destroys as much as he builds, he is tricked as much as he deceives.
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He destroys as much as he builds, he is tricked as much as he deceives others; he acts in a completely impulsive way, without referring to any moral value.
Yet his actions, even the most disconcerting ones, often end up
As C. Jung wrote, “He spends his time getting entangled in all sorts of situations where he covers himself with ridicule. He is not really mean, but it happens to him to commit atrocious things, by pure unconsciousness and total lack of sense of the relation to the others”.
Some people, such as the cultural heroes Coyote and Raven, sometimes combine heroic virtues with a predilection for nasty pranks. Others, such as Cottontail, never quite reach the heroic level, acting instead as a stooge and sidekick to a more valiant companion
Tsohanoai – “Sun Bearer”, is the sun-spirit of the Navajo.
In some myths, he is depicted as a man carrying the sun on his back.
In others, he is depicted as a warrior on horseback (the blue horse of the sky) carrying
the sun as his shining shield. At nightfall, his journey completed, he joins his wife, the season goddess Estsanatlehi, in her square house in the west. He is considered the creator of all animals, especially the big game that feeds the Navajo. His father is the moon god Tklehonoai and his sons are the warrior god Nayanazgeni and the fishing god Tobadzistsini.
Tsohanoai is never represented in art or in tribal dances as are the other spirits.
Estsanatlehi “The woman who changes”.
Sometimes called a goddess of the Earth, but she is more of a seasonal deity of the Navajo. Throughout the year her appearance changes from youth to maturity and from maturity to old age as the seasons change from spring to summer to fall to winter.
Each winter she becomes old and weak, but with the arrival of spring she regains her youth and vigor. She is the most respected deity of the Navajo Indians.
Finally Estsanatlehi lives on the great waters west of the square house of her husband, the Navajo sun-spirit, Tsohanoai, who comes to join her each night when his daily journey across the sky is over.
Naste Estsan in Native American mythology
North America A spirit of the Navajo underworld. She gave a feather to Nayenezgani and Tobadzistini that protected them from the danger of their journey to see their father, the sun god Tsohanoai.
Sometimes identified as:
- Naachjeii esdzaa,
- Nasteetsan ou
The Spider Woman (Spider Woman) is a supernatural being present in many myths and especially among the Navajo and Hopi.
According to the Hopi at the beginning of time, Naste Estsan ruled the underworld, residence of the gods, while Tawa ruled in the sky. One day she molded animals with clay but they remained lifeless. Then Tawa spread a soft white blanket over them and they began to come to life.
Then she wanted to create humanity. She made beasts from the clay and held them close to her heart while Tawa sang a mysterious melody with her. Then she distributed the animals and men on the Earth and gave the humans very specific roles: the women were to watch over the house and the men were to take care of the offerings.
The two brothers Nayenezgani and Tobadzistsini who were on their way to the house of the sun noticed a smoke coming out of a hole in the ground. As they approached they saw a ladder blackened by the smoke that allowed them to descend into the hole; which they boldly did. There they met Naste Estsan, the spider-woman, who gave them two spells to guard against the difficulties and dangers they would have to overcome.
Among these dangers she cited the rocks that crush travelers, the reeds that cut them into pieces, the sharp cacti that tear flesh and the boiling sands that burn them horribly.
The two charms that Naste Estsan gave to the two brothers were two feathers:
One to subdue their enemies and the other to preserve lives.
The twins in Native American mythology
Twins are recurring characters in mythologies and Native American mythology is no exception to this theme.
In the Southwest, Apaches, Navajos and Pueblos there are twin warriors who are cultural heroes and who work to transform the world.
Among the Hidtasas, a Sioux people who lived along the Missouri River, Lodge Boy and Thrown Away play the same role.
For the eastern tribes, the emphasis is on the opposition between good and evil, as with the Iroquois with Sapling and his evil brother Flint, or Hahgwehdaetgah and Hahgwehdiyu son of Ataentsic,
Among the Algonquinsons is the legend of Glooscap and his murderous brother, Malsum.
Glooscap in Native American mythology
Glooscap (or Gluskap) is a mythical hero, the transformer of the Abnaki, from the Eastern forests. Of immense size and endowed with great powers, he would be the creator of natural elements such as the Annapolis Valley. In doing so, he often had to contend with his evil twin brother who wanted to make winding rivers and mountains impassable. He lay down on Nova Scotia to sleep, using Prince Edward Island as his pillow.
The Great Mother of the World had two sons, Glooscap and Malsum. While Glooscap was good, wise, and creative, Malsum was mean, selfish, and destructive.
When their mother died, Glooscap continued to work on creating plants, animals, and humans from his dead mother’s body. Malsum created only poisonous plants and snakes.
After a while, annoyed by his brother’s remarkable work, Malsum decided to kill him.
But in order to kill him he had to know what he could do to mortally wound him. So he boasted that he was immortal, although he knew deep down that a simple fern root could kill him. For days he questioned his brother to find his weak point.
As Glooscap could not lie, he finally admitted to Malsum that an owl feather would be fatal to him.
Malsum in Native American mythology
As soon as Malsum heard about it he hurried to get the owl feather, cut it into a sharp sting and killed his brother.
But the power of good is stronger than death. Glooscap resurrected to continue his great work and to allow the creatures he had already created to continue their lives. He also understood that his brother would always try to hinder his wonderful work in any way he could. He had no choice but to kill him.
One day Glooscap lured Malsum to a stream and told him loud and clear that a certain flowering reed was also capable of killing him. When Malsum was close enough he uprooted a fern and threw it at him.
Malsum collapsed dead and his spirit descended into the Underworld where he became the spirit of a wicked wolf that only daylight frightens (Algonquin legend).
The Great Manitou in Native American mythology
In most tribes there is a powerful deity, called the Great Spirit as well as Father the Sky, Master of Life, the Great Mystery, the Great Manitou or Wakonda.
Manitou combines the meanings of spirit, mystery, magic. It is an Algonquin word meaning “mysterious being” or simply “mystery”, representing the unknown power of life and the universe.
This notion relates to the sun cult and the concept of mana, a personal supernatural force, which is very common among Native Americans.
It can appear in various animal forms or project its image in the clouds or in the sky in the form of the Aurora Borealis among the Inuit.
Many groups believe in the existence of a Great Spirit or Great Mystery (the Wakan Tanka of the Plains tribes and the Kitchi Manitou of the Eastern Algonquians) or Orenda by the Iroquois, is potentially beneficial, but it can become dangerous if treated carelessly or irreverently.
The Great Spirit was the first of the spirits and was associated with great power and benevolence if respected. The Great Spirit was said to inhabit the Upper World, which was normally inaccessible to ordinary people. This is why birds and all winged creatures were often used as intermediaries between the two worlds.
Nanabozo (Nanabozho or Nanabush) is a mythological cultural hero from the cosmological traditions of the Algonquin tribes of central and eastern Canada. He embodies life and has the power to create it within other beings. His various personalities correspond to the various stages and conditions of the life cycle. In some myths, he creates animals and grows plants and roots for humans to eat. His role in mythology has a duality: he is both a benefactor to the natives and a prankster and obscene buffoon.
For the Ojibwe, the world was created by Nanabozo, the son of a celestial spirit and a woman of the Earth.
Nanabozo had the ability to transform anything he wanted, including himself, into a plant or an animal (especially a large hare).
A long time ago, fire was unknown in Nanabozo’s country and it was very cold. So Nanabozo asked the grandmother, Nokomis, who knew many things, if there was not a way to warm up.
She answered that she had heard that somewhere in the east, near the great waters, lived an old sachem with his daughters. These three are warm because they have something called fire. But it seems that this man hides the fire from sight and guards it jealously.
Nanabozo swore to go to the East to find this man and ask him for some of his fire. But Nokomis doubted the success of her expedition because she knew that the fire was watched night and day by the old man who never left his wigwam and let his daughters go outside.
Nanabozo worked out a plan. “I will turn the water in the lake next to the sachem’s wigwam into ice as thin as birch bark. Then I will change into a small rabbit light enough to run on the thin ice without it breaking.
Nanabozo greeted Grandmother Nokomis, and left. He walked east for days and days. He soon came to a lake on the shore of which stood the wigwam of the old sachem. Immediately, thanks to the power he had, he transformed the water of the lake into thin ice and turned himself into a young rabbit.
Nanabozo hid so that he could observe the house and waited for a long time. Finally he saw one of the girls going out to the lake, Nanabozo came out of his hiding place and lay down on the path she was supposed to use and began to shiver very hard.
The girl was moved by the poor little rabbit, who was freezing to death. She immediately took the rabbit in her hands and carried it to her house, sheltering it under her jacket. When she entered, she showed the young rabbit to her sister. Both of them began to play with him for fun.
“Children, who allowed you to bring this animal into our home, how dizzy you are! “exclaimed the old sachem. “Perhaps this rabbit is here to steal our fire. Throw that beast out!”
The girls paid no heed to their father’s remarks thinking that the grumpy old man was wrong to say that this poor defenseless rabbit was coming to steal their fire.
- You refuse to listen to me! You’re forgetting my great age and wisdom.
The youngest daughter pretended not to hear her father’s words. She smiled and put the little rabbit down by the fire to warm up.
Now that my fur is dry,” thought Nanabozo, “I wish a spark would ignite it. And as it always happens with Nanabozo, his wish came true. A spark escaped from the burning logs and set his coat on fire. Immediately, Nanabozo jumped out and ran to the lake.
- Look father!” the girls shouted, “he’s running away with the fire!
-You can see that I was right to be suspicious,” said the old man, running after the animal. It’s surely a manitou who has come to steal the fire.
The old sachem started to run after Nanabozo, but the fragile ice gave way as soon as he took his first steps, and his daughters had great difficulty in pulling him out of the water. Meanwhile, Nanabozo had run out of breath and came within sight of his home.
- Nokomis!” he shouted. Quick, Nokomis! Get that fire to some branches.
Nokomis rushed towards him and did as he asked without hesitation. Then Nanabozo managed to extinguish the fire in his coat with his paws. Happy to see the branches burning, he looked at himself laughing.
- From now on,” he said to Nokomis, “every summer the rabbits will have a coat like mine to remind people how the fire came to them in this country.
Nanabozo took back his human form and that winter he and Nokomis were very warm.
Michabo (or Manibozho) is the gigantic hare of the Algonquin tribe, creator of the earth and of the human race to whom he taught many disciplines such as fishing. He is the son of Kabun, the West Wind.
One day Michabo was hunting with his well-trained wolf pack when he saw them enter the clear water of the lake and disappear before his eyes.
He too entered the water, causing a huge wave that flooded the entire country.
Mishabo sent a raven to find some mud with which to form a new land, but the raven returned empty-handed.
Then he sent an otter, which unfortunately only managed to bring back a grain of sand.
Finally he sent the female muskrat, who returned triumphantly with a bit of blackish mud. She had brought back enough soil for Michabo to begin rebuilding the world.
The trees had lost their branches during the flood, so Michabo used his magic arrows to make new branches for them, which quickly became covered with green leaves.
When the world was well rebuilt he married Muskrat and they became the first parents of humanity.
The Traveller in Native American mythology
The Traveler is a cultural hero also known as the “Man-Who-Traveled-Through-All” or “He-Who-Traveled-Through-All-Animals-and-Peoples”.
He reached the Dena territory by canoe from the upper Yukon River. The Dena people who lived along the Koyu-kuk River call him “Betohoh” because he became a pine grosbeak when he died.
His adventures contrast with those of Raven, as he tried to avoid wickedness.
Voyageur invented canoes.
A Dena version tells how he made a canoe out of birch bark. He killed a spruce grouse, took its wishbone and assembled its bones to form the frame.
Then he cut a sheet of birch bark and asked the women to sew it around the canoe, then seal the joints with peace.
Wishpoosh was a huge beaver who prevented everyone from fishing in the waters where he lived. When an Indian from the Nez Perce tribe came to catch a few fish in his lake, he would catch him and lock him in a large shell that he would throw to the bottom of the water.
Then the Nez Perce came to complain to Coyote who made himself a very long and strong spear that he tied to his wrist with ox nerves.
Wishpoosh grabbed the trickster to try to put him in a shell but he couldn’t do it because of the protruding spear, so Coyote stabbed him with his spear, and at the bottom of the lake the two enemies had a fierce battle.
The fight ended in the Pacific Ocean, where Wishpoosh ate some whales to regain his strength, while Coyote took the opportunity to rest and think about the next step in the battle.
Then the fight started again and Coyote transformed himself into a small tree branch to escape Wishpoosh who swallowed him in one bite.
But he didn’t succeed, because once inside the beaver’s belly, Coyote turned into a sharp knife and cut the heart of the beast to get out.
Wonomi was the creator god of the Maidu Indians of California. It was he who created Kuksu, the first man, and Laidamlulum-kule, the first woman.
These creations were watched with great interest by Coyote, who decided that he too could do the same. This made Wonomi laugh, especially since these creatures had glass eyes.
Then Coyote saw that Wonomi’s creatures had a too quiet life and that it would be more interesting (according to him) to put some spice in it. So he created disease, suffering and death.
But one day Rattlesnake, the dog of Coyote, the deceptor, bit Coyote’s own son who became seriously ill. As he had seen Wonomi do, he dipped the body in the water of a lake but it did not help and his son died.
Finally Kuksu buried the body of Coyote’s son, telling him that he had to do this until the world changed.