IROQUOIS MYTHS and LEGENDS
Left panel images:
The Maid of the Mist, copyright 1998 by Wayne Sky, Sin'Has Cayuga Nation, Wolf
Clan, from the Six Nations Indian Reserve. Red steatite. "The story embedded in the
carving is a well known Iroquois story. An Indian chief and his five beautiful daughters
lived along the Niagara river well above the Large waterfalls. Each day the girls would
bathe in the fast flowing river. One day the youngest of his daughters, the most
beautiful, swam out too far into the raging river and was swept away over the falls. She
returns to her father daily in the mist that rises from the thunderous abyss. In the
carving the other four sisters are represented in the four waves which cover the back of
Above Iroquois art images posted with permission from Ninavik the Native Arts Place
Generations Dreamcatcher, copyright 1998 by Aspen Trading Post. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.
Generations Dreamcatcher, copyright 1998 by Aspen Trading Post. All rights
reserved. Posted with permission.
from an Iroquois Creation story
In the beginning, in the Sky World, a pregnant wife asked her husband to fetch the delicacies she craved. But she wanted the bark of a root of the Great Tree in the middle of the Sky World, which none were permitted to touch. Finally, however, he gave in, and scraped away soil to bare the root of the Tree. Underneath was a hole, and as the woman peered down into it, she fell through. The birds helped transport her as she fell, and the great Sea Turtle received her on his back.
Here, on the Sea Turtle's back, she planted bits of the roots and plants she had brought from the Sky World. And she walked across the turtle's back, planting, praying and creating the Earth that we know as Turtle Island.
The woman who had fallen from the sky then had a daughter, who became impregnated by the West Wind. While in the womb, the daughter's unborn twins began to quarrel about how they should emerge, the left-handed twin refusing to be born in the usual way. Instead, he forced himself out of his mother's left armpit, killing her as a result. The newborn twins then buried their mother, who became Corn Mother, source of corn, beans and squash, the Three Sisters of the Iroquois. From her heart grew sacred tobacco, used to send messages and thanks to the Sky World.
The two brothers continued to compete with each other as they created the animals and plants, and in the process, represented different ways of living. Right-Handed Twin created the beautiful hills, lakes, blossoms, gentle creatures; Left-Handed Twin, the jagged cliffs and whirlpools, thorns and predators. Right-Handed Twin was always truthful, reasonable, goodhearted, and "straight-arrow"; Left-Handed Twin lied, fought, rebelled and made "crooked" choices.
Because Right-Handed Twin created human beings, he is known as "Our Creator," and "The Master of Life." But Left-Handed Twin helped, and invented rituals of sorcery and healing. The world they built included both cooperation and competition, lovingkindness and aggression.
After they finished their creations, the continued to compete in other ways - by gambling, by playing lacross, then fighting with clubs. One day, grasping a deer antler, Right-handed Twin finally prevailed, and killed his brother, throwing the body of Left-Handed Twin over the edge of the earth. As a result, Right-Handed Twin rules day and the Sky-Worldand Left-Handed Twin prevails over night and the lower world.
Grandmother Skywoman was furious that Right-Handed Twin murdered his brother, and accused him of wrongdoing. Angry, and believing that grandmother had always favored the errant Left- Handed Twin, he cut off her head and threw it up toward the sky, where it became the Moon. Then he threw her body into the ocean, where it became all the fish of the sea.
The Iroquois believe that both Left-Handed Twin and Right- Handed Twin are necessary for the world to be in balance. During festivals, day activities honor Right-Handed Twin, and night activities such as feasting, singing and dancing honor Left-Handed Twin. This tension and struggle for balance between the two brothers and principles of life is incorporated into Iroquois festivals and cycles of life.
The Niagara Falls, or Nee-ah-gah-rah (Thundering Waters) are the most sacred waters of the Iroquois people, and a focus of many of their legends and myths. For centuries, the Iroquois believed that the sound of the waterfall was the voice of the mighty spirit of the waters. Until the mid 18th century, they sought the favor of the Water Spirit by sacrificing a maiden to the Falls each year - sending her in a white canoe decorated with furits and flowers over the brink of the falls. To be sacrificed was the greatest honor, and insured special gifts and happy hunting grounds in the afterlife.
In 1679, when LaSalle visited the Iroquois, he condemned their practice of yearly sacrifice, but then attempted to convert the Iroquois to Christianity, and to convince them of the value of the sacrifice that Christ made for humanity. The Iroquois, of course, could not understand how their form of sacrifice could be viewed as bad, but Christ's sacrifice as good.
At this time, in1679, Cheif Eagle Eye's daughter Lela-wala was chosen for the sacrifice, even though his wife was dead, and she was his only child. Not until the time of the sacrifice did he reveal the exte of his grief. He disappeared into the woods, then darted out in his own canoe following her through the rapids and over the Falls.
The Iroquois believe that "After their death, they were changed into pure spirits of strength and goodness. They live so far beneath the falls that the roaring is music to them." He is the ruler of the cataract; she is the maiden of the mist."
See also Thundering Waters by Frank
The three sisters of the Iroquois, Corn, Beans and Squash are the three spirits that sustain life. In the beginning, the Corn spirit was so happy at being a sustainer of life that she asked the Creator for more ways to help her people. So the Creator began forming a doll from her husks, creating for it a beautiful face, and giving it to the children of the Iroquois. But the doll, as it passed from village to vllage and child to child, continually proclaimed her beauty, until she became so vain that the Creator disapproved of her and asked her to refrain from such narcissistic behavior. If she continued, the Creator warned, he would have to punish her.
The doll agreed, and attempted to be more humble. But one day, walking by a creek, she glanced into the water and stopped to admire the beauy of her reflection. The Creator, however was unseeing; he sent a giant screech owl down from the sky to snatch her reflection from the water. When she then glaned into the water again to admire her beauty, her reflection was gone. She could no longer see her face or glory in her superior beauty.
Ever since, when an Iroquois mother gives a doll to her child, she usually a doll with
no face, and tells the legend of the Corn-Husk doll. The Iroquois want their children to
value the unique gifts that the Creator has given to each of them, but not to view
themselves as superior to another, or to overemphasize physical appearance at
More Iroquois and Dreamwork Links
Books about the Iroquois
Now available! Iroquois Music and Spirituality: Part Four - Joanne Shenandoah
Go back to Iroquois Dreamwork Part One Go back to Iroquois Dreamwork Part Two
Go to: Iroquois Music Part Four Go to Tika Yupanqui's site
Niagara Falls, Thundering Waters, sacred to the Iroquois
Above image cropped and optimized from Niagara image at TheFalls.com