American Hero-Myths - Daniel G. Brinton - ebook

American Hero-Myths ebook

Daniel G. Brinton



This volume is a contribution to the comparative study of religions. It is an endeavor to present in a critically correct light some of the fundamental conceptions which are found in the native beliefs of the tribes of America. Contents: Preface. Chapter I. - Introductory. Chapter II. The Hero-Gods Of The Algonkins And Iroquois. §1. The Algonkin Myth Of Michabo. §2. The Iroquois Myth Of Ioskeha. Chapter III. - The Hero-God Of The Aztec Tribes. §1. The Two Antagonists. §2. Quetzalcoatl The God. §3. Quetzalcoatl, The Hero Of Tula. §4. Quetzalcoatl As Lord Of The Winds. §5. The Return Of Quetzalcoatl. Chapter IV. - The Hero-Gods Of The Mayas. §1. The Culture Hero, Itzamná. §2. The Culture Hero, Kukulcan. Chapter V. - The Quichua Hero-God Viracocha. Chapter VI. - The Extension And Influence Of The Typical Hero-Myth. Daniel Garrison Brinton - His Life

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American Hero-Myths.

A Study In The Native Religions Of The Western Continent.

Daniel G. Brinton, M.D.,



Chapter I. - Introductory.

Chapter Ii. The Hero-Gods Of The Algonkins And Iroquois.

§1. The Algonkin Myth Of Michabo.

§2. The Iroquois Myth Of Ioskeha.

Chapter Iii. - The Hero-God Of The Aztec Tribes.

§1. The Two Antagonists.

§2. Quetzalcoatl The God.

§3. Quetzalcoatl, The Hero Of Tula.

§4. Quetzalcoatl As Lord Of The Winds.

§5. The Return Of Quetzalcoatl.

Chapter Iv. - The Hero-Gods Of The Mayas.

§1. The Culture Hero, Itzamná.

§2. The Culture Hero, Kukulcan.

Chapter V.  - The Quichua Hero-God Viracocha.

Chapter Vi. - The Extension And Influence Of The Typical Hero-Myth.

Daniel Garrison Brinton – His Life

American Hero-Myths, Daniel G. Brinton

Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck

86450 Altenmünster, Germany

ISBN: 9783849619916

[email protected]


This little volume is a contribution to the comparative study of religions. It is an endeavor to present in a critically correct light some of the fundamental conceptions which are found in the native beliefs of the tribes of America.

So little has heretofore been done in this field that it has yielded a very scanty harvest for purposes of general study. It has not yet even passed the stage where the distinction between myth and tradition has been recognized. Nearly all historians continue to write about some of the American hero-gods as if they had been chiefs of tribes at some undetermined epoch, and the effort to trace the migrations and affiliations of nations by similarities in such stories is of almost daily occurrence. How baseless and misleading all such arguments must be, it is one of my objects to set forth.

At the same time I have endeavored to be temperate in applying the interpretations of mythologists. I am aware of the risk one runs in looking at every legend as a light or storm myth. My guiding principle has been that when the same, and that a very extraordinary, story is told by several tribes wholly apart in language and location, then the probabilities are enormous that it is not a legend but a myth, and must be explained as such. It is a spontaneous production of the mind, not a reminiscence of an historic event.

The importance of the study of myths has been abundantly shown of recent years, and the methods of analyzing them have been established with satisfactory clearness.

The time has long since passed, at least among thinking men, when the religious legends of the lower races were looked upon as trivial fables, or as the inventions of the Father of Lies. They are neither the one nor the other. They express, in image and incident, the opinions of these races on the mightiest topics of human thought, on the origin and destiny of man, his motives for duty and his grounds of hope, and the source, history and fate of all external nature. Certainly the sincere expressions on these subjects of even humble members of the human race deserve our most respectful heed, and it may be that we shall discover in their crude or coarse narrations gleams of a mental light which their proud Aryan brothers have been long in coming to, or have not yet reached.

The prejudice against all the lower faiths inspired by the claim of Christianity to a monopoly of religious truth--a claim nowise set up by its founder--has led to extreme injustice toward the so-called heathen religions. Little effort has been made to distinguish between their good and evil tendencies, or even to understand them. I do not know of a single instance on this continent of a thorough and intelligent study of a native religion made by a Protestant missionary.

So little real work has been done in American mythology that very diverse opinions as to its interpretation prevail among writers. Too many of them apply to it facile generalizations, such as "heliolatry," "animism," "ancestral worship," "primitive philosophizing," and think that such a sesame will unloose all its mysteries. The result has been that while each satisfies himself, he convinces no one else.

I have tried to avoid any such bias, and have sought to discover the source of the myths I have selected, by close attention to two points: first, that I should obtain the precise original form of the myth by a rigid scrutiny of authorities; and, secondly, that I should bring to bear upon it modern methods of mythological and linguistic analysis.

The first of these requirements has given me no small trouble. The sources of American history not only differ vastly in merit, but many of them are almost inaccessible. I still have by me a list of books of the first order of importance for these studies, which I have not been able to find in any public or private library in the United States.

I have been free in giving references for the statements in the text. The growing custom among historians of omitting to do this must be deplored in the interests of sound learning. It is better to risk the charge of pedantry than to leave at fault those who wish to test an author's accuracy or follow up the line of investigation he indicates.

On the other hand, I have exercised moderation in drawing comparisons with Aryan, Semitic, Egyptian and other Old World mythologies. It would have been easy to have noted apparent similarities to a much greater extent. But I have preferred to leave this for those who write upon general comparative mythology. Such parallelisms, to reach satisfactory results, should be attempted only by those who have studied the Oriental religions in their original sources, and thus are not to be deceived by superficial resemblances.

The term "comparative mythology" reaches hardly far enough to cover all that I have aimed at. The professional mythologist thinks he has completed his task when he has traced a myth through its transformations in story and language back to the natural phenomena of which it was the expression. This external history is essential. But deeper than that lies the study of the influence of the myth on the individual and national mind, on the progress and destiny of those who believed it, in other words, its true religious import. I have endeavored, also, to take some account of this.

The usual statement is that tribes in the intellectual condition of those I am dealing with rest their religion on a worship of external phenomena. In contradiction to this, I advance various arguments to show that their chief god was not identified with any objective natural process, but was human in nature, benignant in character, loved rather than feared, and that his worship carried with it the germs of the development of benevolent emotions and sound ethical principles.

Media, Pa., Oct., 1882.


The time was, and that not so very long ago, when it was contended by some that there are tribes of men without any sort of religion; nowadays the effort is to show that the feeling which prompts to it is common, even among brutes.

This change of opinion has come about partly through an extension of the definition of religion. It is now held to mean any kind of belief in spiritual or extra-natural agencies. Some learned men say that we had better drop the word "religion," lest we be misunderstood. They would rather use "daimonism," or "supernaturalism," or other such new term; but none of these seems to me so wide and so exactly significant of what I mean as "religion."

All now agree that in this very broad sense some kind of religion exists in every human community.[1]

The attempt has often been made to classify these various faiths under some few general headings. The scheme of Auguste Comte still has supporters. He taught that man begins with fetichism, advances to polytheism, and at last rises to monotheism. More in vogue at present is the theory that the simplest and lowest form of religion is individual; above it are the national religions; and at the summit the universal or world religions.

Comte's scheme has not borne examination. It is artificial and sterile. Look at Christianity. It is the highest of all religions, but it is not monotheism. Look at Buddhism. In its pure form it is not even theism. The second classification is more fruitful for historical purposes.

The psychologist, however, inquires as to the essence, the real purpose of religions. This has been differently defined by the two great schools of thought.

All religions, says the idealist, are the efforts, poor or noble, conscious or blind, to develop the Idea of God in the soul of man.

No, replies the rationalist, it is simply the effort of the human mind to frame a Theory of Things; at first, religion is an early system of natural philosophy; later it becomes moral philosophy. Explain the Universe by physical laws, point out that the origin and aim of ethics are the relations of men, and we shall have no more religions, nor need any.

The first answer is too intangible, the second too narrow. The rude savage does not philosophize on phenomena; the enlightened student sees in them but interacting forces: yet both may be profoundly religious. Nor can morality be accepted as a criterion of religions. The bloody scenes in the Mexican teocalli were merciful compared with those in the torture rooms of the Inquisition. Yet the religion of Jesus was far above that of Huitzilopochtli.

What I think is the essence, the principle of vitality, in religion, and in all religions, is their supposed control over the destiny of the individual, his weal or woe, his good or bad hap, here or hereafter, as it may be. Rooted infinitely deep in the sense of personality, religion was recognized at the beginning, it will be recognized at the end, as the one indestructible ally in the struggle for individual existence. At heart, all prayers are for preservation, the burden of all litanies is a begging for Life.

This end, these benefits, have been sought by the cults of the world through one of two theories.

The one, that which characterizes the earliest and the crudest religions, teaches that man escapes dangers and secures safety by the performance or avoidance of certain actions. He may credit this or that myth, he may hold to one or many gods; this is unimportant; but he must not fail in the penance or the sacred dance, he must not touch that which is taboo, or he is in peril. The life of these cults is the Deed, their expression is the Rite.

Higher religions discern the inefficacy of the mere Act. They rest their claim on Belief. They establish dogmas, the mental acceptance of which is the one thing needful. In them mythology passes into theology; the act is measured by its motive, the formula by the faith back of it. Their life is the Creed.

The Myth finds vigorous and congenial growth only in the first of these forms. There alone the imagination of the votary is free, there alone it is not fettered by a symbol already defined.

To the student of religions the interest of the Myth is not that of an infantile attempt to philosophize, but as it illustrates the intimate and immediate relations which the religion in which it grew bore to the individual life. Thus examined, it reveals the inevitable destinies of men and of nations as bound up with their forms of worship.

These general considerations appear to me to be needed for the proper understanding of the study I am about to make. It concerns itself with some of the religions which were developed on the American continent before its discovery. My object is to present from them a series of myths curiously similar in features, and to see if one simple and general explanation of them can be found.

The processes of myth-building among American tribes were much the same as elsewhere. These are now too generally familiar to need specification here, beyond a few which I have found particularly noticeable.

At the foundation of all myths lies the mental process of personification, which finds expression in the rhetorical figure of prosopopeia. The definition of this, however, must be extended from the mere representation of inanimate things as animate, to include also the representation of irrational beings as rational, as in the "animal myths," a most common form of religious story among primitive people.

Some languages favor these forms of personification much more than others, and most of the American languages do so in a marked manner, by the broad grammatical distinctions they draw between animate and inanimate objects, which distinctions must invariably be observed. They cannot say "the boat moves" without specifying whether the boat is an animate object or not, or whether it is to be considered animate, for rhetorical purposes, at the time of speaking.

The sounds of words have aided greatly in myth building. Names and words which are somewhat alike in sound, paronyms, as they are called by grammarians, may be taken or mistaken one for the other. Again, many myths spring from homonymy, that is, the sameness in sound of words with difference in signification. Thus coatl, in the Aztec tongue, is a word frequently appearing in the names of divinities. It has three entirely different meanings, to wit, a serpent, a guest and twins. Now, whichever one of these was originally meant, it would be quite certain to be misunderstood, more or less, by later generations, and myths would arise to explain the several possible interpretations of the word--as, in fact, we find was the case.

Closely allied to this is what has been called otosis. This is the substitution of a familiar word for an archaic or foreign one of similar sound but wholly diverse meaning. This is a very common occurrence and easily leads to myth making. For example, there is a cave, near Chattanooga, which has the Cherokee name Nik-a-jak. This the white settlers have transformed into Nigger Jack, and are prepared with a narrative of some runaway slave to explain the cognomen. It may also occur in the same language. In an Algonkin dialect missi wabu means "the great light of the dawn;" and a common large rabbit was called missabo; at some period the precise meaning of the former words was lost, and a variety of interesting myths of the daybreak were transferred to a supposed huge rabbit! Rarely does there occur a more striking example of how the deteriorations of language affect mythology.

Aztlan, the mythical land whence the Aztec speaking tribes were said to have come, and from which they derived their name, means "the place of whiteness;" but the word was similar to Aztatlan, which would mean "the place of herons," some spot where these birds would love to congregate, from aztatl, the heron, and in after ages, this latter, as the plainer and more concrete signification, came to prevail, and was adopted by the myth-makers.

Polyonomyis another procedure often seen in these myths. A divinity has several or many titles; one or another of these becomes prominent, and at last obscures in a particular myth or locality the original personality of the hero of the tale. In America this is most obvious in Peru.

Akin to this is what Prof. Max Müller has termed henotheism. In this mental process one god or one form of a god is exalted beyond all others, and even addressed as the one, only, absolute and supreme deity. Such expressions are not to be construed literally as evidences of a monotheism, but simply that at that particular time the worshiper's mind was so filled with the power and majesty of the divinity to whom he appealed, that he applied to him these superlatives, very much as he would to a great ruler. The next day he might apply them to another deity, without any hypocrisy or sense of logical contradiction. Instances of this are common in the Aztec prayers which have been preserved.

One difficulty encountered in Aryan mythology is extremely rare in America, and that is, the adoption of foreign names. A proper name without a definite concrete significance in the tongue of the people who used it is almost unexampled in the red race. A word without a meaning was something quite foreign to their mode of thought. One of our most eminent students[2]has justly said: "Every Indian synthesis--names of persons and places not excepted--must preserve the consciousness of its roots, and must not only have a meaning, but be so framed as to convey that meaning with precision, to all who speak the language to which it belongs." Hence, the names of their divinities can nearly always be interpreted, though for the reasons above given the most obvious and current interpretation is not in every case the correct one.

As foreign names were not adopted, so the mythology of one tribe very rarely influenced that of another. As a rule, all the religions were tribal or national, and their votaries had no desire to extend them. There was little of the proselytizing spirit among the red race. Some exceptions can be pointed out to this statement, in the Aztec and Peruvian monarchies. Some borrowing seems to have been done either by or from the Mayas; and the hero-myth of the Iroquois has so many of the lineaments of that of the Algonkins that it is difficult to believe that it was wholly independent of it. But, on the whole, the identities often found in American myths are more justly attributable to a similarity of surroundings and impressions than to any other cause.

The diversity and intricacy of American mythology have been greatly fostered by the delight the more developed nations took in rhetorical figures, in metaphor and simile, and in expressions of amplification and hyperbole. Those who imagine that there was a poverty of resources in these languages, or that their concrete form hemmed in the mind from the study of the abstract, speak without knowledge. One has but to look at the inexhaustible synonymy of the Aztec, as it is set forth by Olmos or Sahagun, or at its power to render correctly the refinements of scholastic theology, to see how wide of the fact is any such opinion. And what is true of the Aztec, is not less so of the Qquichua and other tongues.

I will give an example, where the English language itself falls short of the nicety of the Qquichua in handling a metaphysical tenet. Cay in Qquichua expresses the real being of things, the essentia; as, runap caynin, the being of the human race, humanity in the abstract; but to convey the idea of actual being, the existentia as united to the essentia, we must add the prefix cascan, and thus have runap-cascan-caynin, which strictly means "the essence of being in general, as existent in humanity."[3]I doubt if the dialect of German metaphysics itself, after all its elaboration, could produce in equal compass a term for this conception. In Qquichua, moreover, there is nothing strained and nothing foreign in this example; it is perfectly pure, and in thorough accord with the genius of the tongue.

I take some pains to impress this fact, for it is an important one in estimating the religious ideas of the race. We must not think we have grounds for skepticism if we occasionally come across some that astonish us by their subtlety. Such are quite in keeping with the psychology and languages of the race we are studying.

Yet, throughout America, as in most other parts of the world, the teaching of religious tenets was twofold, the one popular, the other for the initiated, an esoteric and an exoteric doctrine. A difference in dialect was assiduously cultivated, a sort of "sacred language" being employed to conceal while it conveyed the mysteries of faith. Some linguists think that these dialects are archaic forms of the language, the memory of which was retained in ceremonial observances; others maintain that they were simply affectations of expression, and form a sort of slang, based on the every day language, and current among the initiated. I am inclined to the latter as the correct opinion, in many cases.

Whichever it was, such a sacred dialect is found in almost all tribes. There are fragments of it from the cultivated races of Mexico, Yucatan and Peru; and at the other end of the scale we may instance the Guaymis, of Darien, naked savages, but whose "chiefs of the law," we are told, taught "the doctrines of their religion in a peculiar idiom, invented for the purpose, and very different from the common language."[4]

This becomes an added difficulty in the analysis of myths, as not only were the names of the divinities and of localities expressed in terms in the highest degree metaphorical, but they were at times obscured by an affected pronunciation, devised to conceal their exact derivation.

The native tribes of this Continent had many myths, and among them there was one which was so prominent, and recurred with such strangely similar features in localities widely asunder, that it has for years attracted my attention, and I have been led to present it as it occurs among several nations far apart, both geographically and in point of culture. This myth is that of the national hero, their mythical civilizer and teacher of the tribe, who, at the same time, was often identified with the supreme deity and the creator of the world. It is the fundamental myth of a very large number of American tribes, and on its recognition and interpretation depends the correct understanding of most of their mythology and religious life.

The outlines of this legend are to the effect that in some exceedingly remote time this divinity took an active part in creating the world and in fitting it to be the abode of man, and may himself have formed or called forth the race. At any rate, his interest in its advancement was such that he personally appeared among the ancestors of the nation, and taught them the useful arts, gave them the maize or other food plants, initiated them into the mysteries of their religious rites, framed the laws which governed their social relations, and having thus started them on the road to self development, he left them, not suffering death, but disappearing in some way from their view. Hence it was nigh universally expected that at some time he would return.

The circumstances attending the birth of these hero-gods have great similarity. As a rule, each is a twin or one of four brothers born at one birth; very generally at the cost of their mother's life, who is a virgin, or at least had never been impregnated by mortal man. The hero is apt to come into conflict with his brother, or one of his brothers, and the long and desperate struggle resulting, which often involved the universe in repeated destructions, constitutes one of the leading topics of the myth-makers. The duel is not generally--not at all, I believe, when we can get at the genuine native form of the myth--between a morally good and an evil spirit, though, undoubtedly, the one is more friendly and favorable to the welfare of man than the other.

The better of the two, the true hero-god, is in the end triumphant, though the national temperament represented this variously. At any rate, his people are not deserted by him, and though absent, and perhaps for a while driven away by his potent adversary, he is sure to come back some time or other.

The place of his birth is nearly always located in the East; from that quarter he first came when he appeared as a man among men; toward that point he returned when he disappeared; and there he still lives, awaiting the appointed time for his reappearance.

Whenever the personal appearance of this hero-god is described, it is, strangely enough, represented to be that of one of the white race, a man of fair complexion, with long, flowing beard, with abundant hair, and clothed in ample and loose robes. This extraordinary fact naturally suggests the gravest suspicion that these stories were made up after the whites had reached the American shores, and nearly all historians have summarily rejected their authenticity, on this account. But a most careful scrutiny of their sources positively refutes this opinion. There is irrefragable evidence that these myths and this ideal of the hero-god, were intimately known and widely current in America long before any one of its millions of inhabitants had ever seen a white man. Nor is there any difficulty in explaining this, when we divest these figures of the fanciful garbs in which they have been clothed by the religious imagination, and recognize what are the phenomena on which they are based, and the physical processes whose histories they embody. To show this I will offer, in the most concise terms, my interpretation of their main details.

The most important of all things to life is Light. This the primitive savage felt, and, personifying it, he made Light his chief god. The beginning of the day served, by analogy, for the beginning of the world. Light comes before the sun, brings it forth, creates it, as it were. Hence the Light-God is not the Sun-God, but his Antecedent and Creator.

The light appears in the East, and thus defines that cardinal point, and by it the others are located. These points, as indispensable guides to the wandering hordes, became, from earliest times, personified as important deities, and were identified with the winds that blew from them, as wind and rain gods. This explains the four brothers, who were nothing else than the four cardinal points, and their mother, who dies in producing them, is the eastern light, which is soon lost in the growing day. The East, as their leader, was also the supposed ruler of the winds, and thus god of the air and rain. As more immediately connected with the advent and departure of light, the East and West are twins, the one of which sends forth the glorious day-orb, which the other lies in wait to conquer. Yet the light-god is not slain. The sun shall rise again in undiminished glory, and he lives, though absent.

By sight and light we see and learn. Nothing, therefore, is more natural than to attribute to the light-god the early progress in the arts of domestic and social life. Thus light came to be personified as the embodiment of culture and knowledge, of wisdom, and of the peace and prosperity which are necessary for the growth of learning.

The fair complexion of these heroes is nothing but a reference to the white light of the dawn. Their ample hair and beard are the rays of the sun that flow from his radiant visage. Their loose and large robes typify the enfolding of the firmament by the light and the winds.

This interpretation is nowise strained, but is simply that which, in Aryan mythology, is now universally accepted for similar mythological creations. Thus, in the Greek Phoebus and Perseus, in the Teutonic Lif, and in the Norse Baldur, we have also beneficent hero-gods, distinguished by their fair complexion and ample golden locks. "Amongst the dark as well as amongst the fair races, amongst those who are marked by black hair and dark eyes, they exhibit the same unfailing type of blue-eyed heroes whose golden locks flow over their shoulders, and whose faces gleam as with the light of the new risen sun."[5]

Everywhere, too, the history of these heroes is that of a struggle against some potent enemy, some dark demon or dragon, but as often against some member of their own household, a brother or a father.

The identificationof the Light-God with the deity of the winds is also seen in Aryan mythology. Hermes, to the Greek, was the inventor of the alphabet, music, the cultivation of the olive, weights and measures, and such humane arts. He was also the messenger of the gods, in other words, the breezes, the winds, the air in motion. His name Hermes, Hermeias, is but a transliteration of the Sanscrit Sarameyas, under which he appears in the Vedic songs, as the son of Sarama, the Dawn. Even his character as the master thief and patron saint of the light-fingered gentry, drawn from the way the winds and breezes penetrate every crack and cranny of the house, is absolutely repeated in the Mexican hero-god Quetzalcoatl, who was also the patron of thieves. I might carry the comparison yet further, for as Sarameyas is derived from the root sar, to creep, whence serpo, serpent, the creeper, so the name Quetzalcoatl can be accurately translated, "the wonderful serpent." In name, history and functions the parallelism is maintained throughout.

Or we can find another familiar myth, partly Aryan, partly Semitic, where many of the same outlines present themselves. The Argive Thebans attributed the founding of their city and state to Cadmus. He collected their ancestors into a community, gave them laws, invented the alphabet of sixteen letters, taught them the art of smelting metals, established oracles, and introduced the Dyonisiac worship, or that of the reproductive principle. He subsequently left them and lived for a time with other nations, and at last did not die, but was changed into a dragon and carried by Zeus to Elysion.

The birthplace of this culture hero was somewhere far to the eastward of Greece, somewhere in "the purple land" (Phoenicia); his mother was "the far gleaming one" (Telephassa); he was one of four children, and his sister was Europe, the Dawn, who was seized and carried westward by Zeus, in the shape of a white bull. Cadmus seeks to recover her, and sets out, following the westward course of the sun. "There can be no rest until the lost one is found again. The sun must journey westward until he sees again the beautiful tints which greeted his eyes in the morning."[6]Therefore Cadmus leaves the purple land to pursue his quest. It is one of toil and struggle. He has to fight the dragon offspring of Ares and the bands of armed men who spring from the dragon's teeth which were sown, that is, the clouds and gloom of the overcast sky. He conquers, and is rewarded, but does not recover his sister.

When we find that the name Cadmus is simply the Semitic word kedem, the east, and notice all this mythical entourage, we see that this legend is but a lightly veiled account of the local source and progress of the light of day, and of the advantages men derive from it. Cadmus brings the letters of the alphabet from the east to Greece, for the same reason that in ancient Maya myth Itzamna, "son of the mother of the morning," brought the hieroglyphs of the Maya script also from the east to Yucatan--because both represent the light by which we see and learn.

Egyptian mythology offers quite as many analogies to support this interpretation of American myths as do the Aryan god-stories.

The heavenly light impregnates the virgin from whom is born the sun-god, whose life is a long contest with his twin brother. The latter wins, but his victory is transient, for the light, though conquered and banished by the darkness, cannot be slain, and is sure to return with the dawn, to the great joy of the sons of men. This story the Egyptians delighted to repeat under numberless disguises. The groundwork and meaning are the same, whether the actors are Osiris, Isis and Set, Ptah, Hapi and the Virgin Cow, or the many other actors of this drama. There, too, among a brown race of men, the light-god was deemed to be not of their own hue, but "light colored, white or yellow," of comely countenance, bright eyes and golden hair. Again, he is the one who invented the calendar, taught the arts, established the rituals, revealed the medical virtues of plants, recommended peace, and again was identified as one of the brothers of the cardinal points.[7]

The story of the virgin-mother points, in America as it did in the old world, to the notion of the dawn bringing forth the sun. It was one of the commonest myths in both continents, and in a period of human thought when miracles were supposed to be part of the order of things had in it nothing difficult of credence. The Peruvians, for instance, had large establishments where were kept in rigid seclusion the "virgins of the sun." Did one of these violate her vow of chastity, she and her fellow criminal were at once put to death; but did she claim that the child she bore was of divine parentage, and the contrary could not be shown, then she was feted as a queen, and the product of her womb was classed among princes, as a son of the sun. So, in the inscription at Thebes, in the temple of the virgin goddess Mat, we read where she says of herself: "My garment no man has lifted up; the fruit that I have borne was begotten of the sun."[8]

I do not venture too much in saying that it were easy to parallel every event in these American hero-myths, every phase of character of the personages they represent, with others drawn from Aryan and Egyptian legends long familiar to students, and which now are fully recognized as having in them nothing of the substance of history, but as pure creations of the religious imagination working on the processes of nature brought into relation to the hopes and fears of men.

If this is so, is it not time that we dismiss, once for all, these American myths from the domain of historical traditions? Why should we try to make a king of Itzamna, an enlightened ruler of Quetzalcoatl, a cultured nation of the Toltecs, when the proof is of the strongest, that every one of these is an absolutely baseless fiction of mythology? Let it be understood, hereafter, that whoever uses these names in an historical sense betrays an ignorance of the subject he handles, which, were it in the better known field of Aryan or Egyptian lore, would at once convict him of not meriting the name of scholar.

In European history the day has passed when it was allowable to construct primitive chronicles out of fairy tales and nature myths. The science of comparative mythology has assigned to these venerable stories a different, though not less noble, interpretation. How much longer must we wait to see the same canons of criticism applied to the products of the religious fancy of the red race?

Furthermore, if the myths of the American nations are shown to be capable of a consistent interpretation by the principles of comparative mythology, let it be recognized that they are neither to be discarded because they resemble some familiar to their European conquerors, nor does that similarity mean that they are historically derived, the one from the other. Each is an independent growth, but as each is the reflex in a common psychical nature of the same phenomena, the same forms of expression were adopted to convey them.

[Footnote 1: I suppose I am not going too far in saying "all agree;" for I think that the latest study of this subject, by Gustav Roskoff, disposes of Sir John Lubbock's doubts, as well as the crude statements of the author of Kraft und Stoff, and such like compilations. Gustav Roskoff, Das Religionswesen der Rohesten Naturvölker, Leipzig, 1880.]

[Footnote 2: J. Hammond Trumbull, On the Composition of Indian Geographical Names, p. 3 (Hartford, 1870).]

[Footnote 3: "El ser existente de hombre, que es el modo de estar el primer ser que es la essentia que en Dios y los Angeles y el hombre es modo personal." Diego Gonzalez Holguin, Vocabvlario de la Lengva Qqichua, o del Inca; sub voce, Cay. (Ciudad de los Reyes, 1608.)]

[Footnote 4: Franco, Noticia de los Indios Guaymies y de sus Costumbres, p. 20, in Pinart, Coleccion de Linguistica y Etnografia Americana.Tom. iv.]

[Footnote 5: Sir George W. Cox, An Introduction to the Science of Comparative Mythology and Folk-Lore, p. 17.]

[Footnote 6: Sir George W. Cox, Ibid., p. 76.]

[Footnote 7: See Dr. C.P. Tiele, History of the Egyptian Religion, pp. 93, 95, 99, et al.]

[Footnote 8: "Τον εμον Χιτωνα ουδεις απεχαλυφεν ον εγω χαρπον ετεχαν, ηλιος εγενετο." (Greek: Ton emon chitona oudeis apechaluphen on ego charpon etechan, aelios egeneto.)]" Proclus, quoted by Tiele, ubi suprá, p. 204, note.]


Nearly all that vast area which lies between Hudson Bay and the Savannah river, and the Mississippi river and the Atlantic coast, was peopled at the epoch of the discovery by the members of two linguistic families--the Algonkins and the Iroquois. They were on about the same plane of culture, but differed much in temperament and radically in language. Yet their religious notions were not dissimilar.

§1. The Algonkin Myth of Michabo.

Among all the Algonkin tribes whose myths have been preserved we find much is said about a certain Giant Rabbit, to whom all sorts of powers were attributed. He was the master of all animals; he was the teacher who first instructed men in the arts of fishing and hunting; he imparted to the Algonkins the mysteries of their religious rites; he taught them picture writing and the interpretation of dreams; nay, far more than that, he was the original ancestor, not only of their nation, but of the whole race of man, and, in fact, was none other than the primal Creator himself, who fashioned the earth and gave life to all that thereon is.

Hearing all this said about such an ignoble and weak animal as the rabbit, no wonder that the early missionaries and travelers spoke of such fables with undisguised contempt, and never mentioned them without excuses for putting on record trivialities so utter.

Yet it appears to me that under these seemingly weak stories lay a profound truth, the appreciation of which was lost in great measure to the natives themselves, but which can be shown to have been in its origin a noble myth, setting forth in not unworthy images the ceaseless and mighty rhythm of nature in the alternations of day and night, summer and winter, storm and sunshine.

I shall quote a few of these stories as told by early authorities, not adding anything to relieve their crude simplicity, and then I will see whether, when submitted to the test of linguistic analysis, this unpromising ore does not yield the pure gold of genuine mythology.

The beginning of things, according to the Ottawas and other northern Algonkins, was at a period when boundless waters covered the face of the earth. On this infinite ocean floated a raft, upon which were many species of animals, the captain and chief of whom was Michabo, the Giant Rabbit. They ardently desired land on which to live, so this mighty rabbit ordered the beaver to dive and bring him up ever so little a piece of mud. The beaver obeyed, and remained down long, even so that he came up utterly exhausted, but reported that he had not reached bottom. Then the Rabbit sent down the otter, but he also returned nearly dead and without success. Great was the disappointment of the company on the raft, for what better divers had they than the beaver and the otter?

In the midst of their distress the (female) muskrat came forward and announced her willingness to make the attempt. Her proposal was received with derision, but as poor help is better than none in an emergency, the Rabbit gave her permission, and down she dived. She too remained long, very long, a whole day and night, and they gave her up for lost. But at length she floated to the surface, unconscious, her belly up, as if dead. They hastily hauled her on the raft and examined her paws one by one. In the last one of the four they found a small speck of mud. Victory! That was all that was needed. The muskrat was soon restored, and the Giant Rabbit, exerting his creative power, moulded the little fragment of soil, and as he moulded it, it grew and grew, into an island, into a mountain, into a country, into this great earth that we all dwell upon. As it grew the Rabbit walked round and round it, to see how big it was; and the story added that he is not yet satisfied; still he continues his journey and his labor, walking forever around and around the earth and ever increasing it more and more.