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The Mythology of North America

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The great thing about mythology is that it is not tied to one geographical feature. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly important part of the clay that sculpts the world. Wherever there are people, there is a mythology associated with them. Such mythology most likely won’t change in our lifetimes as it is passed down from generation to generation. Myths can range from fairies to three-headed dogs to cannibalism granting supernatural abilities. “At close range, these same myths reflect the desires and fears of distinct peoples, granting them trusteeship of the land with the consent of unseen powers,” (Bierhorst, 1).

As said before, every civilization has its own stories about why things look the way they do, big heroes who saved mankind, and how the world came to be. These stories are called mythology, but what is mythology?

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As defined in this paper, mythology is “…stories of anonymous origin, prevalent among primitive peoples and by them accepted as true, concerning supernatural beings and events, or natural beings and events influenced by supernatural agencies” (Gayley 1).

In Cherokee mythology, the stories were nothing short of wondrous. They believed the earth was one giant island floating in a sea of water. It was suspended in space at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from a solid rock in the sky. When the world grew old and worn out, everyone would die and the cords would break, letting the earth sink down into the ocean. There were many other stories in Cherokee mythology, and this essay will delineate the different explanations of the world according to the Cherokee culture. (Bierhorst 69) The Cherokee had many various gods, goddesses, and deities. Ones this paper will describe include the following: The Sun (192), The Cardinal (192), Opossum (77), Rabbit (77), Cricket (77), The Great Vulture (191),

The Cherokee Rose (personal interview), and The Water Beetle (The Beaver’s Grandchild) (191). The Cherokee believed the sun was a goddess and the Cardinal, a small red bird with long feathers on top of its head, was the sun’s daughter. Most of their gods were animals; however, such as Vulture, a large carnivorous bird with no feathers on its head, who created mountains and valleys with his wings and was the father of all vultures. As Spirits, Heroes & Hunters from North American Indian Mythology text by Marion Wood said, “It must be remembered that the animals which appear in Indian myths and legends are not the same as those which exist now. When the world began, animals were much bigger, stronger and cleverer than their present counterparts…The animals which came after them-those today- are but poor, weak imitations of those first creatures” (Bierhorst 77). How was the world created? For some people, God has created the earth and all its people. For others, it has just always been there. The Cherokee believe the world we know came to be according to “The Mythology of North America.” Essentially, when the land we now know was in the ocean, all animals that existed were in galúnlati, the world above the sky, and they desired more room.

They were curious about what was below the water. One day the Beaver’s Grandchild offered to go and see if it could find anything. It ran across the water but could find anywhere to rest. Then, it dived to the bottom and came up with some mud, which began to grow until it became an island which is now called the earth. It was afterward fastened to the sky with four cords at all cardinal points (North, East, South, and West on the compass) (Bierhorst 190). At first, the earth was extremely unlivable. However, the animals wanted to go down and explore every inch of it. They sent out different birds to see if it were habitable. When they found that the whole earth was too wet, the birds went back and broke the bad news. One day the animals sent out Vulture and told him to go and get the earth ready to be inhabited. He flew all over the earth, low down near the ground, and it was still ghastly. When he reached the Cherokee country, Vulture was exhausted. He soared close to the ground, and when his wings would flap, they would strike the ground. Wherever his wings touched, a valley formed. Wherever his wings peaked, there was a mountain. When the other animals saw what was happening, they were scared that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back up to galúnlati. This, however, sped up the drying process and, when land was dry, all the animals came down to live. (Bierhorst, 191)

There are many myths such as the creation story that the Cherokee had. One of the most interesting myths, in my opinion, was the myth about the sun and the cardinal. The reason I find this interesting was because in most mythologies the sun was a god, however, in Cherokee mythology, the sun was a goddess. This particular myth would be considered an explanatory myth. Explanatory Mythology is defined as “…the outcome of naive guesses at the truth, of mistaken and superstitious attempts to satisfy the curiosity of primitive and unenlightened peoples, to unveil the mysteries of existence, make clear the facts of the universe and the experiences of life, to account for religious rites and social customs of which the origin is forgotten, to teach the meaning and the history of things” (Gayley 431). This myth, taken from The Mythology of North America written and edited by John Bierhorst, reads as follows: In an unusual Orpheus myth recorded among the Cherokee, the people of the ancient time are said to have tried to kill the sun because her rays were too hot. By mistake, her daughter was killed instead, and the grief-stricken sun stayed in her house, causing darkness. In hopes of restoring the light, people traveled to the dead land and started carrying the daughter back in a box, not to be opened until they reached home. But before the time was up, they gave in to the young woman’s plea for air, opened the box, and watched her fly off as a cardinal. From this, we know that the cardinal is the daughter of the sun. And if the people had obeyed instructions, there would have been no permanent death, as there is now (Bierhorst, 192).

Another great thing about mythology is there is more than one story within a subdivision. Personally, I’ve been told the story of the Cherokee Rose several times since I was very young. There is a lot of significance to the Cherokee Rose story, as it is based on true events that only happened one hundred eighty years ago, which is a very short time for a myth to develop. The myth of the Cherokee Rose is still a mystery to many people. In appearance, it looks like a thistle with a white five-petaled rose blooming at the top. On the Trail of Tears, while being forced from their land, many Cherokee people died. As said by “The World of the American Indian by National Geographic Society” on page 316, “On “the trail where they cried,” forlorn Cherokees under armed escort reach Indian Territory, now Oklahoma…Andrew Jackson, defying the Supreme Court, pushed Indians west to open land for whites.” Sixteen thousand were relocated, but four thousand didn’t make it to their final destination. Many of the Cherokee that perished were children. This was because children were more vulnerable to disease, heat stroke, starvation, and dehydration. The tale says when the mothers were crying over the loss of their children, their tears would hit the ground. Wherever their tears touched the soil, the small rose would bloom to lift their spirits (Jared Bell, 2004 Personal interview). Although explanatory myths are incredibly interesting, another subdivision of mythology is aesthetic myths. Aesthetic myths are defined in the following way: Aesthetic myths have their origin in the universal desire for amusement, in the revulsion of the mind from the humdrum of actuality.

They furnish information that may not be practical, but is delightful; they elicit emotion—sympathy, tears, and laughter—for characters and events remote from our commonplace experience but close to the heart of things near and significant and enchanting to us in the atmosphere of imagination that embraces severed continents, inspires the dead with life, bestows color and breath upon creatures of a dream, and wraps old and young in the wonder of hearing a new thing. (Gayley 432-433). The best example of this story in Cherokee Mythology is “Why the Opossum’s Tail is Bare” (Bierhorst 77). The story of “Why the Opossum’s Tail is Bare” would be considered an explanatory myth because it explains why today’s opossums’ tails don’t have any hair on them. The tale says that Opossum had a very big, beautiful tail. He spent all day brushing, grooming, and boasting about it. Rabbit was very jealous of Opossum’s tail, due to losing his to a predator, and Opossum always bragging about it (Bierhorst 77). One day, the animals were calling a gathering where they would meet and discuss how things were going wherever they lived with a dance afterward. Rabbit decided to take this opportunity to trick the Opossum. Rabbit convinced Opossum to have someone especially dress his tail for the meeting the animals were going to have. The vain Opossum agreed, hoping to make all the other animals jealous and unaware of Rabbit’s true intentions (Bierhorst 80). Next, Rabbit talked to Cricket, who was widely known for being an excellent barber. “Like all the other animals, he found Opossum’s vanity and arrogance very tiresome,” (Bierhorst, 80).

The next day, Cricket presented himself the next day to Opossum. Cricket told Opossum that he was sent by Rabbit to dress Opossum’s tail for the big event. After Opossum sat down and got comfortable, Cricket started combing his tail. “‘I will wrap this red cord round your tail as I comb it,’ he explained, ‘so that it will remain smooth and neat for the dance tonight,’” (Bierhorst, 80). In his opinion, having someone else comb his tail was so relaxing to Opossum that he fell asleep, only waking up as Cricket tied the final knot in the red cord. Opossum decided to keep the cord around his tail until just before the dance to keep it smooth and neat (Bierhorst 80). Soon it was time for the dancing to take place. The drums and rattles began to sound. Opossum stood up, loosened the cord from his tail and stepped proudly into the centre of the floor. He began to sing. ‘Look at my beautiful tail!’ he sang as he circled the floor. ‘See how it sweeps the ground!’ There was a great shout from the audience and some of the animals began to applaud. ‘How they admire me!’ thought Opossum and he continued dancing and singing loudly. ‘See how my tail gleams in the firelight!’ (Bierhorst 80). When the animals cheered again, Opossum started having a sneaking suspicion that there was a mockery in their voices.

He sang out loudly again and the animals shrieked, whooped, and hollered. Opossum took a moment to look around and realized that the animals weren’t cheering for his tail, but laughing hysterically. Opossum looked down and saw what Cricket had done to his tail with pure horror (Bierhorst 80). Opossum was so overcome with shame and confusion that he could not utter a sound. Instead, he rolled over helplessly on his back, grimacing with embarrassment, just as opossums still do today, when taken by surprise (Bierhorst 80). (Heroic def+ title) The third and final subdivision of mythology discussed in this essay is heroic mythology. (insert definition here) The best example of this would be “Tsali of the Cherokees” (Rachlin 178). Up in the hills of Cherokee country is where the Ani Keetoowah-the true Cherokees-lived. They mostly kept to themselves and were very peaceful until they got word of the chiefs of their tribes signing legal documents that gave their land to the whites (Rachlin 179). “Perhaps we should hang on,” the Ani Keetoowah said to one another. “Perhaps we will not have to go away after all.” They waited and hoped, although they knew in their hearts that hope is the cruelest curse on mankind (Rachlin 179). One leader of the Ani Keetoowah was named Tsali. He stuck up for his land when a white preacher told him that he and his tribe had to go. “We’ll never leave. This is our land and we belong to it. Who could take it from us? Who would want it? It’s hard even for us to farm here, and we’re used to hill farming.

The white men wouldn’t want to come here-they’ll want the rich lands in the valleys if the lowland people will give them up,” he answered politely (Rachlin 180). The preacher got in Tsali’s face threateningly and responded, “they want these hills more than any other land. Don’t you see, you poor ignorant Indian? They are finding gold-gold, man, gold-downstream in the lower Keetoowah country. That means that the source of the gold is in the headwaters of the rivers that flow from here down into the valleys. I’ve seen gold dust in those streams myself.” Tsali then surprised the preacher by pulling out a small satchel filled with gold. The preacher begged to be his partner, but Tsali politely refused, only giving him a small pinch of the dust out of the satchel. (Rachlin 180-181). Later, Tsali went to the trader to get his wife some ribbons to trim her new dress. The trader confronted him about the gold. Tsali confirmed that it was true, he had gold, but he didn’t understand how one could be so obsessed with materialistic things. The trader, like the preacher, begged to be Tsali’s partner, but Tsali, once again, declined the offer and bought the ribbon (Rachlin 182). A month after visiting the trader, the Georgia militia came riding up to Tsali’s house. They told Amanda, Tsali’s wife, that they were there to kick them out of their land to make room for the whites. Amanda sent her youngest son to Tsali, but instead of sending him to fetch them like she told the militia, Amanda gave her son weapons and briefly explained what was happening so the boy could carry on the message to Tsali (Rachlin183). When the youngest son reached his father in the fields,

Tsali took him and the two eldest into the woods to wait out the militia. The white men, however, would not give up so easily. They set up camp in the front yard and Amanda, along with all her daughter-in-laws, barred up the windows and doors after the men fell asleep. When the militia’s fires went out, the women heard a very faint scratch at the door. Amanda slid the bar off, opened the door and Tsali crawled in (Rachlin 183). “We came to get you. Come quickly. Leave everything except your knives. Don’t wait a minute,” Tsali told her and the women snuck out with him into the woods. In the morning, the white men who were in Tsali’s front yard, who slept in Tsali’s grass, and who burned Tsali’s wood all woke up. Much to their dismay, the Ani Keetoowah were nowhere to be found (Rachlin 184) It was spring, and the weather was warm, but the rain fell and soaked the Cherokees. They had brought no food, and they dared not fire a gun. One of the daughters-in-law was pregnant, and her time was close.

Amanda was stiff and crippled with rheumatism. They gathered wild greens, for it was too early for berries or plums, and the men and boy trapped small animals and birds in string snares the women made by pulling out their hair and twisting it (Rachlin 184) For four weeks, the militia didn’t give up their search for Tsali and his family. Eventually, the militia brought in dogs who sniffed out the Ani Keetoowah. The Cherokee family got their hands tied behind their backs and were pushed all the way back to their house (Rachlin 184) The militia’s orders were to shoot any Ani Keetoowah that resisted getting off their land, and that’s precisely what Tsali did. Amanda along with her two oldest sons stood by him. The daughters-in-law and the youngest son wanted to stay as well. The women’s husbands rejected them, saying they needed to create new life out West. Tsali turned to the militia and said, “Let this boy go. He is so young. A man grows, and plants his seed, and his seed goes on. This is my seed. I planted it. My older sons ad I have had our chances. They will leave children, their names will never be forgotten. Bit this boy is too young. His seed has not ripened for planting yet. Let him go, to care for his sisters, on the way to the west!” Then, before the women and boy had gotten a chance to say goodbye, the militia drove them down the road to the sound of gunshots (Rachlin 185). (end of the world) (this is where I will put what I’ve learned.)

Cite this The Mythology of North America

The Mythology of North America. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-mythology-of-north-america/

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