Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Mythology, Beliefs and Religion Among Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[The following text is more concerned with conceptual and philosophical elements than with description of the concrete beliefs of the Amerindians. Was the cosmos, the view of the spiritual world of the Amerindian, the "product of the fancy of savage and inchoate thinking" as the author of the text claims? Many would reject such a rash judgment today .]

[Further information on Indian beliefs, mythology and religion may be read in the Encyclopedia of the North American Indians and at the Canadian Encyclopedia.]


Mythology. The mythology of the North American Indians embraces the vast and complex body of their opinions regarding the genesis, the functions, the history and the destiny not only of themselves but also of every subjective and of every objective phenomenon, principle, or thing of their past or present environment which in any marked manner had affected their welfare.


Among [...] tribal men a myth is primarily and essentially an account of the genesis, the functions, the history, and the destiny of a humanised fictitious male or female personage or being who is a personification of some body, principle, or phenomenon of nature, or of a faculty or function of the mind, and who performs his or her functions by imputed inherent orenda, or magic power, and by whose being and activities the inchoate reasoning of such men sought to explain the existence and the operations of the bodies and the principles of nature. Such a being or personage might and did personify a rock, a tree, a river, a plant, the earth, the night, the storm, the summer, the winter; a star, a dream, a thought, an action, or a series of actions, or the ancient or prototype of an animal or a bird. Later, such a being, always humanized in form and mind, may, by his assumed absolute and mysterious control of the thing or phenomenon personified, become a hero or a god to men, through his relations with them - relations which are in fact the action and interaction of men with the things of their environments. A mythology is composed of a body of such myths and fragments thereof. But of course no myth that has come down to the present time is simple. Myths and parts of myths have necessarily been employed to define and explain other myths or other and new phenomena, and the way from the first to the last is long and often broken. Vestigial myths, myths whose meaning or symbolism has from any cause whatsoever become obscured or entirely lost, constitute a great part of folk-lore, and such myths are also called folk-tales.


A study of the lexic derivation of the terms "myth" and "mythology" will not lead to a satisfactory definition and interpretation of what is denoted by either term, for the genesis of the things so named was not understood when they received these appellations. In its broadest sense, mythos in Greek denoted whatever was uttered by the mouth of man - a saying, a legend, a story of something as understood by the narrator, a word. But in Attic Greek it denoted also any prehistoric story of the Greeks, and these were chiefly stories of gods and heroes, which were, though this fact was unknown to the Greeks themselves, phenomena of nature. And when the term received this specific meaning it fell into discredit, because the origin and true character of myths not being understood, these prehistoric stories, by the advance in knowledge, came into disrepute among the Greeks themselves, and, after the rise of Christianity, they were condemned as the wicked fables of a false religion. Hence, in popular usage, and quite apart from the study of mythology, the term "myth" denotes what, is in fact nonexistent - a nothing with a name, a story without a basis of fact - "a nonentity of which an entity is affirmed, a nothing which is said to be something." Besides mythos in Greek, logos , signifying 'word,' was employed originally with approximately the same meaning in ordinary speech at the time of Homer, who sometimes used them interchangeably. But strictly speaking, there was a difference from the beginning which, by the need for precision in diction, finally led to a wide divergence in the signification of the two terms. Logos, derived from legein , 'to gather,' was seldom used by Homer to denote 'a saying, a speaking, or a signification,' but to denote usually 'a gathering,' or, strictly, 'a telling, casting up, or counting'. In time, this term came to mean not only the inward constitution but the outward form of thought, and finally to denote exact thinking or reason - not only the reason in man, but the reason in the universe -the Divine Logos, the Volition of God, the Son of God, God Himself. It is so employed in the opening lines of the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John. Such is a brief outline of the uses of the two terms which in their primal signification formed the term "mythology," from which but little can be gathered as to what constitutes a myth.


Up to a certain point, there is substantial agreement among students in the use of the term myth. But this means but little. To the question, What is the nature and origin of a myth? wholly different replies, perplexing in number, are given, and for this reason the study of mythology, of a definite body of myths, has not yet become a science. By careful study of adequate materials a clue to the meaning and significance of myths may be found in the apprehension - vague in the beginning, increasingly definite as the study progresses - that all these things, these tales, these gods, although so diverse, arise from one simple though common basis or motive.


Every body, element, or phenomenon of nature, whether subjective or objective, has its myth or story to account for its origin, history and manner of action. Portions of these myths, especially those concerning the most striking objects of an environment, are woven together by some master mind into a cycle of myths, and a myth of the beginnings, a genesis, or creation, story is thus developed. The horns and the cloven feet of the deer, the stripes of the chipmunk's back, the tail of the beaver, the flat nose of the otter, the rattles of the snake, the tides of rivers, the earthquake, the meteor, the aurora borealis; in short, every phenomenon that fixed the attention required and received an explanation which, being conventional, satisfied the common-sense of the community, and which, later, owing to its imputation of apparently impossible attributes to fictitious personages to account for the operations of nature, became, by the growing knowledge of man, a myth.


A myth is of interest from three view-points, namely, (1) as a literary product embodying a wondrous story of things and personages; (2) for the character of the matter it contains as expressive of human thought and the interpretation of human experience and (3) for the purpose of comparison with the myths of alien or of cognate peoples and for the data it contains relating to the customs, arts, and archaeology of the people among whom it exists.


With the available data, it is as yet impossible to define with satisfactory clearness all the objective realities of the personal agencies or men-beings of the American Indian myths. In Indian thought these personages are constantly associated in function, and sometimes they exercise derivative powers or are joined in mysterious kinship groups, always combining the symbolism of personified objective phenomena with imputed life, mind, and volition, and with the exercise of attributed orenda, or magic power, of diverse function and potency. Moreover, the size and the muscular power of the objective reality personified have little, if any, relation to the strength of the orenda exercised by the man-being.


To explain in part the multiform phenomena of different and successive environments, the philosophic ancestors of the Indians of to-day subconsciously imputed mind and immortal life to every object and phenomenon in nature, and to nearly every faculty and affection of the human mind and body. Concomitantly with this endowment of lifeless things with life and mind was the additional endowment with orenda, which differed in strength and function with the individual. These dogmas underlie the mythology and religion of all the Indians, as they supplied to the latter's inchoate reasoning satisfactory explanations of the phenomena of nature - life and death, dreams and disease, floral and faunal growth and reproduction, light and darkness, cold and heat, winter and summer, rain and snow, frost and ice, wind and storm. The term "animism" has been applied by some to this doctrine of the possession of immortal life and mind by lifeless and mindless things, but with an insufficient definition of the objective for which it stands. The uses and definitions of this term are now so numerous and contradictory, that the critical student cannot afford to employ it without an exact objective definition. Primarily, animism, or the imputation of life to lifeless things, was selected to express what was considered the sole essential characteristic basis of the complex institutions called mythology and religion. But if the ascription of life to lifeless things is animism, then it becomes of fundamental importance to know exactly what kind of life is thus ascribed. If there is one difference between things which should be carefully distinguished, it is that between the alleged ghosts of dead human beings and those other alleged spiritual beings which never have been real human beings - the animal and the primal spirits. Does animism denote the ascription of only one or of all these three classes of spirits? Definite explanation is here lacking. So, as a key to the satisfactory interpretation of what constitutes mythology and religion, animism as heretofore defined has failed to meet the criticism of such scholars as Spencer, Max Maller, and Brinton, and so has fallen into that long category of equivocal words of which fetishism, shamanism, solarism, ancestor-worship, personification, and totemism are other members. Every one of these terms, as commonly employed, denotes some important phase or element in religion or mythology which, variously defined by different students, does not, however, form the characteristic basis of mythology and religion.


The great apostle of ancestor-worship, Lippert, makes animism a mere subdivision of the worship of ancestral spirits, or ghosts. But Gruppe, adding to the confusion of ideas, makes animism synonymous with fetishism, and describes a fetish as the tenement of a disembodied human spirit or ghost, and erroneously holds that fetishism is the result of a widely prevalent belief in the power of the human ghost to take possession of any object whatsoever, to leave its ordinary dwelling, the remains of the human body, to enter some other object, such as the sky, the sun, the moon, the earth, a star, or what not. Even the chief gods of Greece , Rome and India are by some regarded as fetishes developed through the exaltation of ancestral ghosts to this state. Their cult is regarded as a development of fetishism, which is an outgrowth of animism, which is, in turn, a development of ancestor-worship. To add to this array of conflicting definitions, Max Mailer declares that fetishism is really the "very last stage in the downward course of religion." Gruppe further holds that when a sky fetish or a star fetish becomes a totem, then the idea of "sons of heaven" or "children of the sun," is developed in the human mind, and so, according to this doctrine, every religion, ancient and modern, may be explained by animism, fetishism, and totemism. Moved by this array of conflicting definitions, Max Mailer declares that, to secure clear thinking and sober reasoning, these three terms should be entirely discarded, or, if used, then let animism be defined as a belief in the worship of ancestral spirits, whence arises in the mind the simplest and most primitive ideas of immortality; let fetishism be defined as a worship of chance objects having miraculous powers; and, finally, let totemism be defined as the custom of choosing some emblem as the family or tribal mark to which worship is paid and which is regarded as the human or superhuman ancestor. Mailer has failed to grasp the facts clearly, for no one of these excludes the others.


Stahl (1737), adopting and developing into modern scientific form the classical theory of the identity of life and soul, employed the term "animism" to designate this doctrine.


Tylor (1871), adopting the term "animism" from Stahl, defines it as "the belief in spiritual beings," and as "the deep-lying doctrine of spiritual beings, which embodies the very essence of spiritualistic as opposed to materialistic philosophy"; and; finally, he says, "animism is, in fact, the groundwork of the philosophy of religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized man!" He further makes the belief in spiritual beings "the minimum definition of religion." Hence, with Tylor, animism is broadly synonymous with religion.


But, strict definition shows that a belief in spiritual beings, as such, did not, does not, and cannot form the sole material out of which primitive thought has developed its gods and deities. To this extent, therefore, animism does not furnish the key to an accurate and valid explanation of mythology and religion.


Brinton (1896) denies that there is any special religious activity taking the form of what Tylor calls "animism," and declares that the belief that inanimate objects possess souls or spirits is common to all religions and many philosophies, and that it is not a trait characteristic of primitive faiths, but merely a secondary phenomenon of the religious sentiment. Further, he insists that "the acceptance of the doctrine of 'animism' as a sufficient explanation of early cults has led to the neglect, in English-speaking lands, of their profounder analysis."


So far as is definitely known, no support is found in the mythologist of North America for the doctrine of ancestor-worship. This doctrine seeks to show that savage men had evolved real gods from the shades of their own dead chiefs and great men. It is more than doubtful that such a thing has ever been done by man. Competent data and trained experience with the Indians of North America show that the dominant ideas of early savage thought precluded such a thing. One of the most fundamental and characteristic beliefs of savage thought is the utter helplessness of man unaided by the magic power of some favouring being against the bodies and elements of his environment. The deities, the masters and controllers - the gods of later times - differed greatly in strength of body and in the potency of the magic power exercised by them, in knowledge and in astuteness of mind; but each in his own sphere and jurisdiction was generally supreme and incomprehensible. Human shades, or ghosts, did not or could not attain to these godlike gifts. To change, transform, create by metamorphosis, or to govern, some body or element in nature, is at once the prerogative and the function of a master - a controller - humanly speaking, a god.


The attribution of power to do things magically, that is, to perform a function in a mysterious and incomprehensible manner, was the fundamental postulate of savage mind to account for the ability of the gods, the fictitious personages of its mythology, to perform the acts which are in fact the operations of the forces of nature. To define one such man-being or personage, the explanation, to be satisfactory, must be more than the mere statement of the imputation of life, mind, and the human form and attributes to an objective thing. There must also be stated the fact of the concomitant possession along with these of orenda , or magic power, differing from individual to individual, in efficacy, function, and scope of action.


While linguistics may greatly aid in comprehending myths, it is nevertheless not always safe for determining the substance of the thought, the concept; and the student must eschew the habit of giving only an etymology rather than a definition of the things having the names of the mythical persons, which may be the subject of investigation. Etymology may aid, but without corroborative testimony it may mislead.


Many are the causes which bring about the decline and disintegration of a myth or a cycle of myths of a definite people, The migration or violent disruption of the people, the attrition or the superposition of diverse alien cultures, or the change or reformation of the religion of the people based on a recasting of opinions and like causes, all tend to the decline and dismemberment and the final loss of a myth or a mythology.


All tribes of common blood and speech are bound together by a common mythology and by a religion founded on the teachings of that mythology. These doctrines deal with a vast body of all kinds of knowledge, arts, institutions, and customs. It is the creed of such a people that all their knowledge and wisdom, all their rites and ceremonies, and all that they possess and all that they are socially and politically, have come to them through direct revelation from their gods, through the beneficence of the rulers of the bodies and elements of their environment.


The social and political bonds of every known tribe are founded essentially on real or fictitious blood kinship, and the religious bonds that hold a people to its gods are founded on faith in the truth of the teachings of their myths. No stronger bonds than these are known to savage men. The disruption of these, by whatever cause, results in the destruction of the people.


The constant struggle of man with his physical environment to secure welfare was a warfare against elements ever definitely and vividly personified and humanized by him, thus unconsciously making his surroundings quite unreal, though felt to be real; and his struggle with his environment was a ceaseless strife with animals and plants and trees in like manner ever mythically personified and humanized by him; and, finally, his tireless struggle with other men for supremacy and welfare was therefore typical, not only fundamentally and practically, but also mythically and ideally; and so this never-ceasing struggle was an abiding, all-pervading, all-transforming theme of his thoughts, and an ever-impending, ever-absorbing business of his life, suffered and impelled by his ceaseless yearning for welfare.


An environment would have been regarded by savage men very differently from what it would be by the cultured mind of to-day. To the former, the bodies and elements composing it were regarded as beings, indeed as man-beings, and the operations of nature were ascribed to the action of the diverse magic powers, or orendas, exercised by these beings rather than to the forces of nature; so that the action and interaction of the bodies and elemental principles of nature were regarded as the result of the working of numberless beings through their orendas. Among most known tribes in North America the earth is regarded as a humanised being in person and form, every particle of whose body is living substance and potent with the quickening power of life, which is bestowed on all who feed upon her. They that feed upon her are the plants and the trees, who are indeed beings living and having a being because they receive life substance from the earth, hence they are like the primal beings endowed with mind and volition, to whom prayer may be offered, since they rule and dispose in their several jurisdictions unless they are overcome by some more powerful orenda. Now, a prayer is psychologically the expression of the fact that the petitioner in need is unable to secure what is required for the welfare, or in distress to prevent what will result in the ill-fare, of himself or his kind. The substance of the prayer merely tells in what direction or in what respect this inability exists. In turn, the animals and men live on the products of the trees and plants, by which means they renew life and gain the quickening power of life, indirectly from the earth-mother, and thus by a metaphor they are said to have come up out of the earth. As the giver of life, the earth is regarded affectionately and is called Mother, but as the taker of life and the devourer of their dead bodies, she is regarded as wicked and a cannibal.


In the science of opinions, mythology is found to be a fruitful field in which to gather data regarding the origin and growth of human concepts relating to man and the world around him. A study of the birth and evolution of the concepts of the human mind indicates clearly that the beginnings of conventional forms and ideas and their variations along the lines of their development are almost never quite so simple, or rather quite so direct, as they may seem-are seldom, even in the beginning, the direct product of the environmental resource and exigency acting together so immediately and so exclusively of mental agency as students are apt to assume. As a rule they are rather the product of these things - these factors and conditions of environment acting very indirectly and sometimes very subtly and complexly - through the condition of mind wrought by long-continued life and experience therein, or, again, acting through the state of mind borne over from one environment to another. It is the part of wisdom to be more cautious in deriving ideas and concepts, arts, or even technical forms of a people too instantly, too direct directly, from the environing natural objects or elements they may simulate or resemble. The motive, if not for the choice, at least for the persistency, of a given mode of a concept in relation to any objective factor is always a psychical reason, not a mere first-hand influence of environment or of accident in the popular sense of this term. This disposition of the "mere accident" or "chance" hypothesis of origins dispels many perplexities in the formation of exact judgment concerning comparative data, in the identifications of cognate forms and concepts among widely separated peoples; for instance, in the drawing of sound inferences particularly regarding their common or generic, specific or exceptional, origin and growth, as shown by the data in question.


As it is evident that independent processes and diverse factors combined cannot be alike in every particular in widely separated parts of the world, there is found a means for determining, through minute differences in similarity, rather than through general similarities alone, howsoever striking they may appear, whether such forms are related, whether or not they have a common genesis whence they have inherited aught in common. Hence caution makes it incumbent on students to beware of the alluring fallacy lurking in the frequently repeated epigram that "human nature is everywhere the same." The nature of men differs widely from differences of origin, from differences of history, from differences of education, and from differences of environment. Hence, to produce the same human nature everywhere, these factors must everywhere be the same. The environments of no two peoples are ever precisely the same, and so the two differ in their character, in their activities, and in their beliefs.


To the primitive inchoate thought of the North American Indian all the bodies and elements of his subjective and objective environment were humanized beings - man-beings, or beings that were persons, that were man in form and attributes and endowed with immortal life (not souls in the modern acceptation of this term), with omniscience, and with potent magic power in their several jurisdictions. These beings were formed in the image of man, because man was the highest type of being known to himself and because of his subjective method of thought, which imputed to outside things, objective realities, his own form and attributes. He could conceive of nature in no other way. They sometimes, however, had the power of instant change or transmigration into any desired object through the exercise of peculiar magic power.


The world of the savage was indeed of small extent, being confined by his boundless ignorance to the countries bordering on his own, a little, if any, beyond his horizon. Beyond, this he knew nothing of the world, nothing of its extent or structure. This fact is important and easily verified, and this knowledge aids in fully appreciating the teachings of the philosophy of savage men. Around and through this limited region travelled the sun, the moon, the stars, the winds, the meteors, and the fire dragons of the night, and the fitful auroral cherubim of the north. All these were, to him, man-beings. All trees and plants - the sturdy oak, the tall pine, and the wild parsnip - were such beings rooted to the earth by the mighty spell of some potent wizard, and so, unlike the deer, they do not ordinarily travel from place to place. In like manner, hills and mountains and the waters of the earth may sometimes be thus spellbound by the potency of some enchantment. Earthquakes are sometimes caused by mountains which, held in pitiless thralldom by the orenda of some mighty sorcerer, struggle in agony to be freed. And even the least of these are reputed to be potent in the exercise of magic power. But rivers run and rills and brooks leap and bound over the land, yet even these in the ripeness of time, may be gripped to silence by the mighty magic power of the god of winter.


Among all peoples and in all times and in all planes of culture there were persons whose opinions were orthodox, and there were also persons whose opinions were heterodox, and were therefore a constant protest against the common opinions, the common-sense of the community; these were the agnostics of the ages, the prophets of change and reformation.


Every ethnical body of myths of the North American Indians forms a circumstantial narration of the origin of the world of the mythmakers and of all things and creatures therein. From these narratives it is learned that a world, earlier than the present, situated usually above the visible sky, existed from the beginning of time, in which dwelt the first or prototypal personages who, having the form and the attributes of man, are herein called man-beings. Each of these man-beings possessed a magic power peculiar to himself or herself, by which he or she, was later enabled to perform his or her functions after the metamorphosis of all things. The life and manner of living of the Indians to-day is patterned after that of these man-beings in their first; estate. They were the prototypes of the things which are now on this earth.


This elder world is introduced in a state of peace and harmony. In the ripeness of time, unrest and discord arose among these first beings, because the minds of all, except a very small number, becoming abnormal, were changed, and the former state of tranquillity was soon succeeded by a complete metamorphosis of all things and beings, or was followed by commotion, collision, and strife. The transformed things, prototypes, were banished from the sky-land to this world, whereupon it acquired its present appearance and became peopled by all that is upon it - man, animals, trees, and plants, who formerly were man-beings. In some cosmologies man is brought upon the scene later and in a peculiar manner. Each man-being became transformed into what his or her attributes required, what his primal and unchangeable nature demanded, and then he or she became in body what he had been, in a disguised body, before the transformation. But those man-beings whose minds did not change by becoming abnormal, remained there in the sky-land - separate, peculiar, and immortal. Indeed they are but shadowy figures passing into the shoreless sea of oblivion.


Among the tribes of North American Indians there is a striking similarity in their cycles of genesis myths, in that they treat of several regions or worlds. Sometimes around and above the mid-world, the habitat of the myth, are placed a group of worlds - one at the east, one at the south, one at the west, one at the north, one above, and one below - which, with the mid-world, number seven in all. Even each of the principal colours is assigned to its appropriate world. Hence, to the primitive mind, the cosmos (if the term be allowed here) was a universe of man-beings whose activities constituted the operations of nature. To it nothing was what it is to scientific thought. Indeed, it was a world wholly artificial and fanciful. It was the product of the fancy of savage and inchoate thinking, of the common sense of savage thought.


So far as is definitely known, the various systems of mythology in North America differ much in detail one from another, superficially, giving them the aspect of fundamental difference of origin and growth; but a careful study of them discloses the fact that they accord with all great bodies of mythology in a principle which underlies all, namely, the principle of change, transmigration, or metamorphosis of things, through the exercise of orenda , or magic power, from one state, condition, or form, to another. By this means things have become what they now are. Strictly, then, creation of something from nothing has no place in them. In these mythologies, purporting to be philosophies, of course , no knowledge of the real changes which have affected the environing world is to be sought; but it is equally true that in them are embedded, like rare fossils, and precious gems, many most important facts regarding the history of the human mind.


For a definite people in a definite plane of culture, the myths and the concomitant beliefs resting on them, of their neighbours, are not usually true, since the personages and the events narrated in them leave an aspect and an expression quite different from their own, although they may in the last analysis, express fundamentally identical things - may in fact spring from identical motives.


Among the Iroquois and the eastern Algonquian tribes, the Thunder people, human in form and mind and usually four in number, are most important and staunch friends of man. But in the Lake region, the N. W. coast to Alaska, and in the northern drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys, this conception is replaced by that of the Thunderbird.


Among the Algonquian and the Iroquoian tribes the myths regarding the so-called fire-dragon are at once striking and important. Now, the fire-dragon is in fact the personification of the meteor. Flying through the air among the stars, the larger meteors appear against some midnight sky like fiery reptiles sheathed in lambent flames. It is believed of them that they fly from one lake or deep river to another, in the bottom of which they are bound by enchantment to dwell, for should they be permitted to remain on the land they would set the world on fire. The Iroquois applied their name for the fire-dragon, 'light-thrower,' to the lion when first seen, thus indicating their conception of the fierceness of the fire-dragon. The Ottawa and Chippewa missibizi , or missibizhu , literally 'great lynx,' is their name for this mythic being. The horned serpent does not belong here, but the misnamed tigers of the Peoria and other Algonquian tribes do. Among the Iroquois it was the deeds of the fire-dragon that hastened the occasion for the metamorphosis of the. primal beings.


As early as 1868 Brinton called attention to the curious circumstance that in the mythology of those [Inuit] who had had no contact with European travellers, there were no changes or transformations of the world affecting the aspect and character of the earth. In this statement he is followed by Boas (1904), who also claims that the animal myth proper did not belong originally to [Inuit] mythology, although there are now in this mythology some animal myths and weird tales and accounts regarding monsters and vampire ghosts and the thaumaturgic deeds of shamans and wizards. This is in strong contrast with the content of the mythologies of the Indian tribes that have been studied.


In its general aspects the mythology of the North American Indians has been instructively and profitably discussed by several American anthropologists, who have greatly advanced the study and knowledge of the subject. Among these are Powell, Brinton, Boas, Curtin, Fletcher, Matthews, Cushing, Fewkes, and Dixon.


Powell treated the subject from the philosophical and evolutional point of view, and sought to establish successive stages in the development of the mythological thought or concept, making them imputation, personification and deification; and the product he divided into four stages from the character of the dominant gods in each, namely, (1) hecastotheisrn , wherein everything has life, personality, volition, said design, and the wondrous attributes of man; (2) zothcism, wherein life is not attributed indiscriminately to lifeless things, the attributes of man are imputed to the animals and no line of demarcation is drawn between man and beast, and all facts and phenomena of nature are explained in the mystic history of these zoomorphic gods; (3) physitheism, wherein a wide difference is recognized between man and the animals, the powers and phenomena of nature are personified, and the gods are anthropomorphic; and (4) psychotheism, wherein mental attributes and moral and social characteristics with which are associated the powers of nature are personified and deified, and there arise gods of war, of love, of revelry, plenty and fortune. This last stage, by processes of mental integration, passes into monotheism on the one hand and into pantheism on the other. It is found that these four stages are not thus successive, but that they may and do overlap, and that it is best perhaps to call them phases rather than stages of growth, in that they may exist side by side.


Brinton learnedly calls attention to the distinctively native American character of the large body of myths and tales rehearsed among the American aborigines. His studies include also much etymological analysis of mythical and legendary names, which is unfortunately largely inaccurate, analysis being apparently made to accord with a preconceived idea of what it should disclose. This vitiates a large part of his otherwise excellent identifications of the objective realities of the agents found in the mythology. He also treats in his instructive style the various cults of the demiurge, or the culture-hero or hero-god; but it must be borne in mind that here the so-called hero-god is not solely or even chiefly such in character. In discussing the hero-myths of the N. W. Pacific Coast tribes, Boas points out the fact that the culture-hero of that area was not always prompted by altruistic motives in "giving the world its present shape and man his arts." The hero is credited with failures as well as with successes, and in character is an "egotist pure and simple." On the other hand, Boas finds in the life and character of the Algonquian Nanabozho altruistic motives dominant. This tendency to displace the egotistic motives of the primitive transformer with pre-eminently altruistic ones is strongly marked in the character of the Iroquoian Tharonhiawagon a parallel if not cognate conception with that of the Algonquian Nanabozho. As showing a transitional stage on the way to altruism, Boas states that the transformer among the Kwakiutl brings about the changes for the benefit of a friend and not for himself. While there are some Algonquian myths in which Nanabozho appears as a trickster and teller of falsehoods, among the Iroquois the trickster and buffoon has been developed alongside that of the demi-urge, and is sometimes reputed to be the brother of death. The mink, the wolverine, the bluejay, the raven, and the coyote are represented as tricksters in the myths of many of the tribes of the Pacific slope and N. W. coast.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 318-325.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College