Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Story of Creation

As mentioned in a recent post, John Howard Payne collected a substantial amount of information on the Cherokee and their beliefs in the years just prior to the Removal. For whatever reason, though, his work has been overlooked.

In his notes on the daughter of the sun and the origin of death, James Mooney referred to a version of the story collected by Payne, and quoted by Ephraim George Squier in the 1851 book, The Serpent Symbol, and The Worship of the Reciprocal Principles of Nature. Since Payne’s work is not readily available, here’s the entire passage from Squier:

The Cherokees state that a number of beings were engaged in the creation. The Sun was made first. The intention of the creators was that men should live always. But the Sun, when he passed over, told them that there was not land enough, and that people had better die. At length the daughter of the Sun, who was with them, was bitten by a snake and died. The Sun, on his return, inquired for her, and was told that she was dead.

He then consented that human beings might live always, and told them to take a box, and go where the spirit of his daughter was, and bring it back to her body; charging them that when they got her spirit, they should not open the box until they had arrived where her body was. However, impelled by curiosity, they opened it, contrary to the injunction of the Sun, and the spirit escaped; and then the fate of all men was decided, that they must die.

It is also stated that anciently the Cherokees supposed a number of beings (more than two, some have conjectured three) came down and made the world. They then attempted to make a man and woman of two rocks. They fashioned them; but while endeavoring to make them live, another being came and spoiled their work, so that they could not succeed. They then made a man and woman of red clay; but being made of clay, they were mortal. Had they been made of rock, they would have lived for ever.

These beings, having created the earth and man and woman, then made the Sun and Moon, and constituted them gods, to have the entire control of all things thus made, and to proceed in the work of creation until all was complete. Having done this, they returned to their place above, and paid no further attention to the world they had created. Of their place above, no one has any knowledge except themselves.

It was by others declared that the supreme creators, having in seven days created the sun and moon, and given form to the earth, returned to their own abode on high, where they remain in entire rest, —leaving the sun and moon to finish and to rule the world, about which they gave themselves no further concern. Hence whenever the believers in this system offer a prayer to their creator, they mean by the creator rather the Sun or Moon. As to which of these two was supreme, there seems to have been a wide difference of opinion.

In some of their ancient prayers, they speak of the sun as male, and consider, of course, the moon as female. In others, however, they invoke the Moon as male, and the Sun as female: because, as they say, the moon is vigilant, and travels by night But both Sun and Moon, as we have before said, are adored as the creator. A prayer to the Moon as creator will be found in a future page, among the ceremonies in conjuring against drought, in which he (the Moon) is supplicated to cast certain beads around the neck of his wife, the Sun, and darken her face, that clouds may come from the mountains.

While in one of the most ancient prayers, to be repeated early in the morning, when going to the water, the Sun, under the title of creator, is implored to grant them a long and blissful life; and in many cases a request is added to take their spirits and bear them with him until he has ascended to the meridian, that is until noon, and then restore them. The same prayer, with the exception of the latter clause, was also repeated at night. The expression ' Sun, my creator,' occurs frequently in their ancient prayers. Indeed the Sun was generally considered the superior in their devotions. To him they first appealed to give efficiency to the roots and herbs they sought for medicine.

If, however, the plants failed to cure, they considered that the Moon and not the Sun had occasioned the sickness, and so turned for succor to the Moon. Besides the Sun and the Moon, they had many inferior deities, all of which were created by, and subject to the direction of the former. Special duties were assigned to each.

The most active and efficient agent appointed by the Sun to take care of mankind, was supposed to be Fire. When therefore any special favor was needed, it was made known to Fire, accompanied by an offering. It was considered as an intermediate being nearest the Sun, and received homage from the Cherokees, as the same element did from the Eastern Magi.

It was extended to smoke, which was esteemed Fire's messenger, always ready to convey the petition above. A child immediately after birth was waved over the fire; children were brought before it, and its guardianship entreated for them. Hunters waved their moccasins and leggins over fire, to secure protection against snakes.

There are old Cherokees who consider fire as having first descended direct from above; others speak of it as an active and intelligent being, in the form of a man, and dwelling in distant regions, beyond wide waters, whence their ancestors came. Some represent a portion of it as having been brought with them, and sacredly guarded.

Others say that after crossing wide waters they sent back for it to the Man of Fire, from whom a little was conveyed over by a spider in his web. It was thenceforth, they aver, kept in their sacred enclosure, or rather in a hole or cave dug under it; but this structure being captured by enemies and destroyed, the fire was lost; although some suppose it only sunk deeper into the ground, to avoid unhallowed eyes, and still exists there.

Since its disappearance, new fire has been made at particular times, and with various ceremonies, which practice has been continued to this day.

1 comment:

Gary Carden said...

When I was a child, there was a "smoke hole" in Tuckaseigee and I remember seeing it in the winter with snow on the ground. The warmth from the smoke hole had melted the snow around the hole, giving in a doughnut shape. Old people in the area told my grandfather that the Cherokees used to come, bringing the sick and new-born to breathe the smoke. They quit coming sometime prior to the 1940's. At some point, construction (road and dam) destroyed the smoke-hole.