Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/Our Indian Mythology



THE myths of a people are the first crude embodiments of its religious feeling. They are first formulated in stories told over the fires of long winter evenings, and pass on as traditions from father to son, until written language at last makes a record of them. How carefully European students have gathered them together, seeking to extract from the scanty records the hidden image which inspired them! Any reader of this can recall some myth of Greece, or Rome, or early Europe; but how many are aware that here, among our own Indians, there exists a mythology from which not a little can be learned of the religious feeling of a rude civilization such as our own Aryan ancestors passed through long centuries ago?

Among recent German publications is a small pamphlet of seventy pages, in which Mr. Karl Knortz, under the title "Mythology and Civilization of the North American Indians," gives the impression made on him during a visit among the Indians. Having read such books as we have on the subject, he has selected and briefly sketched a few of the myths, drawing some deductions from them. In the second part of the pamphlet he takes a rather favorable view of the prospect of civilization among the remaining tribes. It will be a pity if the book is not translated, as its pleasant style would make it popular reading among many who are not capable of taking it in the present form. We call attention to this book as an indication that the subject is receiving the attention abroad which it should have at home.

In what follows, an attempt is made to indicate a direction in which the Indian myths throw light on early religion. There is nothing new in the view taken, though it is one which has not yet received sufficient consideration.

The civilization of Europe to-day is generally accepted as the result of passing through three stages of social growth:

First, that of hunters, wandering over the country in search of animal food for daily sustenance.

Second, that of nomadic shepherds, moving about from pasture to pasture with herds of domesticated animals, which supply food and clothing more regularly and with less hardship than does the hunt.

Third, the stage of agriculture, when the plow anchors man to the spot of chosen land. Out of this has grown, after a long and tedious struggle, our complicated commercial civilization.

The Indian belongs to the first of these stages, and in attempting to civilize him we are trying to raise him to the third, without his having passed through the second. To say the least, it is extremely doubtful if even our assistance can accomplish a result which Nature has denied everywhere else. However, to return, the Indian myths are those of a hunter; and the Aryan was once, long, long ago, a hunter. This point of contact is what gives the myths their principal interest. They preserve the religious feeling of what is considered the earliest civilization, and are, therefore, valuable to a student of the progressive growth of religion; and this, however different anthropology and physiology may show the Aryan and Indian.

In all religions there are two great omnipresent relations of man to nature, to God, and of man to man. One is the worship side, the other the moral side. Confining ourselves to the relation of man to nature, what has the study of early Aryan myths shown to be man's first conception of the nature around him? The Hindoos have probably wandered less over the face of the earth, and suffered less, than any other Aryan people. Their early religious records are consequently the clearest and the best preserved. From these it appears that the earliest religion was what is now called animisn. This is, as you choose, the soul, ghost, or spirit theory of nature; and is supposed to have had its source in dreams, the impalpable nature of whose visions suggested the presence in the dreamer of a soul distinct from the body. If the presence of a soul could explain dreams, it could equally well be made to explain such things in himself as man could not rationally comprehend. The idea of his own soul is followed by the idea of a soul in every man. From this it is but a short step to the idea of a soul or spirit in nature, to account for mysterious powers and properties. Thunder and lightning become the work of a spirit; fire, heat, and cold, the presence of others; and so on through all nature. Wherever there is something inexplainable, there is a mysterious spirit.

This is the earliest and simplest animism. Soon, however, unequal forces of nature suggest unequal spirits behind and in them, and gradually great and small spirits develop, some predominating others. Throughout, all, whether equal, great, or small, are worshiped on account of their mysterious powers. Besides the spirits in living bodies and in nature, are the souls released by death, but imagined still to wander at times about the earth, and to have some influence on living men, especially in controlling the fate of their bodily descendants. From this conception arose ancestral worship, and the many ceremonies at the grave intended to give peaceful rest beyond, that the departed spirit might thus be kindly disposed toward his offspring. A belief in a future life was necessary to a strong, active people having a tenacious love of life.

Little by little, as man becomes more self-appreciating, more confident in his superiority in the midst of surrounding nature, he gives to each great and small spirit a personality more or less like his own. Some of these will be merely exaggerated men, others a combination of man and animal. But the result of the whole will be that out of animism has grown polytheism, of which all know the congruous enormities in European mythology.

We have now gone as far as necessary in early Aryan religious growth, for a comparison of Indian religion to be made with it.

The Indian myths are a tangle of animism and polytheism, and only when we approach them with the information gained from the study of early Aryan religious worship do the hitherto senseless crudities open their hidden meanings. A few instances will show the animist or spiritual character. When the Algonquin Indian meets something he can not understand, there he fancies a manito present. This word has the several meanings of spirit, soul, and the first. The mysterious steel of the white man is manito-biwabwik, i. e., spirit-stone. The strange woven cloth is manito-wegin, spirit-skin. Among the Chippewas manitowis designates the magician. For this same idea of magic, mystery, spirit, soul, the Dakota has the word wakan. Wakan-tauka is the Great Spirit; wakan-hdi the lightning, literally the thing of spirit origin, hdi meaning come. Thus every mystery is wakan. "He looks at sun, moon, and stars, but knows not who made them, or of what they are composed; he hears the winds, but, as their nature and source are to him unknown, they are wakan."

To the Indian, wind and his own breath are of all nature most like his conception of the spirit force, and so these are regarded as symbols, even as embodiments, of the spirit. The principal Creek god is "the Lord of Breath"; of the Cherokees, "The oldest of the winds"; of the Choctaws, simply "storm-wind."

Like the Aryans, the Indians believe in immortality, and perform elaborate ceremonies for the benefit of departed souls.

Not content with souls and spirits in themselves and in the forces of nature, they give them also to animals; so that in the dog companion is often the guardian spirit of the Indian.

As you have already noticed, there are spirits of unequal rank and unequal powers in the Indian animism, but, though a principal spirit is at times found, yet there is no idea of a single all-powerful spirit from which all others come!

Now for some examples of the Indian polytheism. Compare the following story with some myths of early Europe. It is given in the words of Mr. Knortz: "When the world still lay in darkness, say the Mixtecas, there appeared a god, 'lion-serpent' by name, and a goddess, 'tiger-serpent.' They went to live on a high mountain, where two sons were born to them, one of whom they named 'Wind of the Nine Serpents,' and the other, 'Wind of the Nine Caves.' When the elder of these wanted amusement, he assumed the form of an eagle and flew about in the world; but the other changed himself to a winged serpent, in which shape he could fly not only through the air, but also through rocks and mountains." How nearly is this play of fancy like that which in dark Europe created dragons for the fabled knights.

The Algonquins have a hero-god, Menabuscho, whose remarkable adventures Mr. Knortz recounts at some length. Among others is an incident of the mysterious value of dragon-oil, which we have learned in the Siegfried myth: "Then he (Menabuscho) set out to war against the great chief Pearl-feather, who had slain his grandfather. He shot the serpent standing guard, and with the oil of the royal beast greased his boat, so that without stopping it ran through the fatal sea of misfortune." After death it became the privilege of Menabuscho to lead the souls of Indians into paradise.

There are numerous myths of the creation of the world and of man; others of a deluge from which only a single pair, man and woman, escaped.

These few examples give but an incomplete and very inadequate presentation of Indian mythology. But they are sufficient to show the presence of animism, and add another straw to the already accumulated evidence that animism is the first definite shape which religious feeling takes.