Anyway, now that I’ve stated that the Native Americans, aka “red men”, were not a big blob of homogenous religiosity, I will go to say that there were some ideas that were pretty common. To the best of my knowledge, all Native American groups had religion and the form of religion they had was animism. There was a good bit of trade and other interaction going on between the Natives, always a good way of spreading myths, legends, stories and other bits of lore (as well as small pox, but that’s something else entirely. One book I do have, which I’m currently reading, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic Of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn, is delightfully entertaining.) As the myths traveled from one tribe to another, they were changed in the telling, but the salient features tended to remain.
The one I want to focus on here is “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, which originated among the Algonquin up in present-day New York and migrated from tribe to tribe all over North America. Even the Navajo, way away in the desert that we now call Nevada, had a version of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. This is interesting in itself, because “The Woman Who Fell” is an origin story. It explains how human beings came to be on Earth. Many of the tribes who incorporated it into their stock of myth either didn’t already have such a story or they preferred “The Woman Who Fell” and so got rid of whatever they had before. The Navajo had a long and richly developed myth about how the first people lived in the center of the Earth and ascended to the surface by climbing up a ladder or rope. The Navajo were not about to let go of their origin myth but they apparently really liked “The Woman Who Fell” because they kept it, despite the fact that it was incompatible with what they already had.
This is a wonderful thing about mythology. These bizarre and fanciful tales come into being and then spread across continents for no apparent reason other than the fact that people find something of value in them and it doesn’t matter at all if they make no sense or contradict each other. That can only happen, of course, if the people in question know that myths are not facts. If people think their myths are facts, you get 1,500 years (and counting) of bloodshed.
None of the books on Native American myth are here, so I’m going to just give a very basic and possibly marred synopsis of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”.
The story begins in the sky world, where the spirits live. There is a young woman who is married to the son of the sky chief. She’s pregnant. Things are going along pretty smoothly – or not, there are different versions – until one night there is a terrible storm. In the morning, everyone goes outside and discovers that a very large tree was blown down by the storm. The whole tree fell over, ripping the roots out of the ground and making a hole. The people gather round the hole to look in and they see right through the ground of the sky world, down through space. They see the Earth down there. The pregnant woman leans over too far, perhaps trying to look over her belly, and falls into the hole. Down, down she falls through space toward the Earth. Some ducks see her falling and fly up to catch her. Bearing the woman on their backs, the ducks bring her safely down to Earth. The woman who fell to Earth gives birth to her child, a girl. In time, the girl grows up and desires a mate. Her mother, who has a bit of magic, transforms different animals into mates for her. The girl admires a buck’s beauty and grace, so the mother changes the buck to human form for her. The girl admires a bear’s power and strength or a mountain lion’s speed and agility, so the mother transforms them for her. From these unions are born the first human beings.
There’s a lot more to the actual myth(s), of course, and I encourage everyone to look up “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. The above is just what I remember off the top of my head.
So why is this strange story significant? Why did the Native Americans from New York to Nevada adopt it into their stores of myth? What the hell does it mean?
First, let’s set aside any questions about whether or not anybody actually believed that a pregnant woman fell through a hole in the sky, was carried to Earth by ducks and gave birth to a daughter who fucked anthropomorphized animals. Some probably did, some probably didn’t. That doesn’t matter. What we’re looking for is the symbolic content.
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” explains why human beings are different from the other animals: they are pure animals, while we are only half-animals, being spirit on our mother’s side, so to speak. Our spirit lineage gives us advantages over the other animals, but it also gives us responsibilities to them and to our ancestors above. Our minds, our creativity, our complex emotions come to us from the spirits; our physical bodies, however, are of the animal world with all the needs, wants and urges of animals. This can be perceived as a conflict between the “higher” and “lower” natures of humanity, but it doesn’t have to be. Spirit and body can live together without conflict, or with relatively little conflict. That seems like an odd notion to those of us who were raised up with a worldview based on a cosmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. We were taught to identify ourselves with the good and fight the evil. To the most of the world, body and spirit are not diametrically opposed. In disagreement occasionally, sure, but not opposed. The goal of those peoples is to achieve balance between the two, so that they can both be satisfied without either suffering.
So “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is about the dual nature of humanity, but without the conflict. The rest of it is just storytelling, which is a fine and respectable thing in itself. The ducks are there because ducks fly, walk and swim; that is, they exist in the air, land and water, which makes them special in a symbolic way. Ducks, geese and swans show up in myths fairly often. The woman who fell has magic because she is from the spirit world; her daughter doesn’t because, though conceived in the spirit world, she was born on Earth. If you understand the symbols, it’s all pretty straight forward.
I was doodling in my sketchbook t’other night, just doodling, kinda zoned out, and I got a sudden insight. “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is the first two chapters of Genesis from another perspective. I won’t be quoting Genesis because my King James Version is in a box over at the other place. They share certain features. In both, the female is the mate of the son of the sky chief. In both, humanity is of divine origin and invested with a soul that is housed in a body with the same needs, desires and urges of animals. There’s even a tree in both stories. At the most basic levels, they say the same things. The differences, though, are pretty striking.
In “The Woman Who Fell”, the fall, which is literal, occurs first and by accident, instead of last and as punishment for disobedience. The fall to Earth is simply the explanation for a sky world person to be on the Earth and carries no moral overtone. Animals in “The Woman Who Fell” are helpers, noble and good in their own right. In Genesis, animals are things to be dominated and used by Adam and Eve, except for the serpent who is the agent of evil. In “The Woman Who Fell”, human beings are equal parts spirit and animal. In Genesis, human beings are inherently corrupt because we inherit the corruption of our forebears. “The Woman Who Fell” spread across a continent because people liked telling and hearing the story. Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, spread across the world at the point of a sword. Millions of swords, actually.
Here’s a little research project: name one monotheistic religion that wasn’t disseminated using violence. Then, name one non-monotheistic religion that was.
I’m coming across like I have no use whatsoever for monotheism. That’s mostly true. I do find some very good stories in the Bible, most of which have better parallels in other traditions, and I certainly believe that the metaphors employed in the Bible are as good as any. Unfortunately, the Bible is overwhelmingly moralistic, which I find distasteful. Actions speak louder than words, after all.
I digress. The point I was after was the differences and similarities between “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” and the creation story in the two opening chapters of Genesis (which are really the same story told in two ways). Everywhere and everywhen you look in mythology, you find the same ideas popping up again and again, occasionally with different interpretations. The same stories appear over and over among peoples who never had any contact with each other. Diffusion, the explanation for the spread of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” across North America, cannot possibly explain the similarities between the Hindu Indian myth of Indra and Vrtra and the Canadian Indian myth about Kuluscap and the Water Monster.
The myths speak to us in ways we don’t understand. Indians and Indians developed the same stories because they share the same basic bodies and lifeways, as do we all when we live according to the needs, desires and urges of both our bodies and spirits. Every myth is reflected, possibly refracted, by another. Every human being is connected to every other.
Some of those connections are also very good ways of spreading small pox.