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Myths and Native Americans
Almost every person has had an exposure to myths in one form or another. Most can associate with the classic Greek mythological figures such as Zeus and Aphrodite, the Roman counterparts Jupiter and Venus and even the Norse gods Odin and Thor. Through books, movies, comics and the like, these mythological beings are more or less well known in a variety of cultures and societies and are not solely understood by the culture in which they originated. In North America, the myths of the Native Americans are mostly unknown, not only throughout the world, but to the people of North America.
Defining a myth can be problematic because of the similarities between myths and other forms such as legends, fables, folktales, fairy tales, etc. What myths more often than not do is explain something. Myths most certainly could be traditional stories, expressions of religious beliefs, or a narrative that justifies behavior. British classicist, Geoffrey S. Kirk states that myths have two functions – to provide an explanation of facts, whether natural or cultural, and to justify, validate or explain the existence of a social system and traditional rites and customs. Kirk further explains that there are three main categories of myths. Myths solely for entertainment, myths repeated regularly in rituals and ceremonies to bring continuity in nature or society, and explanatory or speculative myths. All three are most certainly represented in Native American mythology.
Geography and climate played a large part in the myths of the Native Americans. The Inuit’s of the Arctic region of North America would most certainly have very little understanding of a myth based on the tropical climate those that resided in the subtropical areas of Florida or in the deserts of the southwest. What these myths do is provide an insight into the culture, political structure, dietary habits, gender roles, natural disasters and encounters with other cultures directly from their myths.
What is fascinating is how some of these myths relate events that are also related in other cultures across the globe. An Ojibwe legend tells the story Waynaboozhoo and the Great Flood, which is another interpretation of the flood account in the Bible concerning Noah and the ancient Sumerian story of Gilgamesh. The Ojibwe account echoes both of these stories: “Long ago the world was filled with evil. Men and women lost respect for each other. The Creator was unhappy about this and decided to cause a great flood to purify the earth.” The Abenaki legend of the creation story very closely resembles the creation story told in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The Great Spirit saw nothing, and all was void and he decided to fill it with light and life, molded the earth and oceans and then rested.
Animals, plants, nature and myths about the origin of the Native American people tend to be the normal theme. Other themes are prevalent such as mythological characters, tricksters, monsters, and heroes. These types of myths tend to be the ones most people associate with other mythological cultures. Native American spirituality also presents the idea of the powers of the Four Directions. The Four Directions have to be in balance for there to be harmony. This concept is used in symbolic or literal form in many of the Native American myths.
The question to ask then is why these other cultural myths are so well known and the Native American myths, highly diverse in topics, are for the most part lost in obscurity. The biggest factor has to be that these myths were never written down until almost the late 19th century. Outside of that particular culture there would be no way to know these myths without conversing with a member of that particular tribe. In comparison Greek myths were shaped and molded by the classic Greek authors and found their way into cultures around the globe. Another factor could be that most Native American myths were not about gods but tended to be about everyday people, everyday circumstances and these everyday things, according to the Native American attitude, was animated by divinity. This means ordinary people, animals and places are also divine. Conversely, the Greek myths provided gods to compensate for the unexplainable, the shortcomings of man and the laws of nature. These gods, larger than life and easily modified, could be used across various cultures and modified as the race saw fit. The Native American versions tended to be regional – that is they had overarching themes that could relate across the entire continent – but their subjects were regional (a Florida Native American would have no concept of a polar bear just as an Inuit would have no concept of an alligator). The lack of literature and the regional nature I believe are the two main factors that prevented Native American myths from being as well-known as their Greek counterparts.