25 pages • 50 minutes readIroquois Creation Myth
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“The World on Turtle’s Back” is a Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) creation myth. Indigenous North Americans did not initially write down their stories themselves; instead, they shared an oral tradition in which stories were told from one person to another, often in groups with the storyteller acting out parts of the narrative. It took a long time for Indigenous American stories to be translated and transcribed, by which point they had often shifted or branched into new variations. For example, “The World on Turtle’s Back” is also called “The Iroquois Creation Story.” One can explore retellings by Keller George, Kay Olan, and Amos Christjohn, among others.
The author of this version of the story is a Tuscarora writer named David Cusick, whose tribe joined the Haudenosaunee Six Nations (then five) in the early 18th century. As early as 1825, Cusick began transcribing the stories of his people. He contributed this creation story to his collection, called Sketches of the Ancient History of the Six Nations (1827), titling it “The Iroquois Creation Story: A Tale of the Foundation of the Great Island, Now North America;—the Two Infants Born, and the Creation of the Universe.” His rendition of the story centers on themes including Primordial Darkness and the Human Need for Light, Passive Versus Active Creation, and The Nature of Good and Evil. This guide references Cusick’s retelling as it appears in the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume A: Beginnings to 1820, published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2007.
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Content Warning: “Iroquois” is a word bestowed upon the creators of this tale by the French and is considered outdated. The people of the Six Nations prefer the title “Haudenosaunee,” meaning “People of the Longhouse.”
In the beginning, there are two worlds: the dark, underwater home of large monsters (known as the lower world), and the upper world that is the living space of humans (although quite different from the humans of today). In the upper world, there is a woman who becomes pregnant with twins even though she has not been with a man. The closer the woman comes to giving birth, the more stressed she becomes. Her family members suggest she rest, but as she sleeps, her body sinks down into the lower world.
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The woman’s imminent arrival disturbs the monsters, who send word to all local creatures that a human is soon to appear. The monsters of the lower world agree on a plan: One should gather some earth so that the woman has an acceptable landing spot. One monster volunteers, going deep into the lower world and returning with earth. Then the monsters wonder who will secure the pregnant woman from all the horrors of the deep. The creatures do not have an answer until “a large turtle [comes] forward” and proposes “endur[ing] her lasting weight, which [is] accepted” (19). The earth is placed upon the turtle’s back, and the woman lands safely. The turtle begins to expand, and greenery grows on its back.
During birth, one of the twins decides not to exit via the birth canal but instead to use the underside of his mother’s arm. The twins are born into the dark world, and then their mother dies. However, the twins can live without their mother’s milk. As the turtle expands into a large island—what will become North America—the twins reach adulthood.
One twin, Enigorio (“good mind”), is gentle and loving. The other is evil and named Enigonhahetgea (“bad mind”). The good brother desires to create light, but Enigonhahetgea feels that darkness is natural and wants to remain in that state. Nevertheless, Enigorio takes his deceased mother’s head and turns it into the sun. He uses another piece of her body to craft the moon. Then he creates smaller points of light, which all become stars. Due to Enigorio’s work, the world gains night, day, changing seasons, and the progression of years. The monsters flee from the light, not wanting human beings to discover them.
Enigorio then creates waterways, large and small animals, and different types of fish. Enigorio feels someone needs to run the island and, using the dust from the ground, he creates a male and female in his own likeness and breathes souls into them. He names his creation EA-GWE-HOWE (meaning “humans” or “Indigenous Americans”). Enigorio adds hunting game for human sustenance along with thunder and rain to nourish the land, animals, and people.
While his brother constructs the universe, Enigonhahetgea makes tall mountains with waterfalls. He creates craggy hills and poisonous reptiles. Enigorio works to tamp down these lesser creations to bring the island back to equilibrium. When Enigonhahetgea tries to create humans, he uses clay and comes up with apes. Jealous of his brother, Enigonhahetgea tries once more with clay. Enigorio, seeing his brother struggle, decides to help by breathing life into these clay models, creating humans who have “the most knowledge of good and evil” (20). Enigonhahetgea pens up all the roaming animals so humans can’t benefit from them. Enigorio releases the animals back into the wild, but traces of them remain in the pictographs depicting animals on cave walls.
Enigorio recognizes that his brother is not like him and warns Enigonhahetgea about persisting down his current path of destruction. He then asks Enigonhahetgea to accompany him on his game inspection. They walk together only a short distance before Enigonhahetgea becomes unruly and challenges his twin to a contest: Whoever wins gets to rule the universe. Enigorio agrees but tells Enigonhahetgea that he can be killed with flags (i.e., husks and reeds). Enigonhahetgea says it would take deer horns to kill him.
The challenge lasts for two days, and the fight tears up trees and mountains. Finally, Enigorio resorts to using the deer horns, which indeed gives him victory. As the good mind crushes his evil brother into the earth, Enigonhahetgea declares he will “have equal power over the souls of mankind after death” (21). He “sinks down to eternal doom, and becomes the Evil Spirit” (21). Enigorio returns to visit with the people until he dies.