Earth-Diver Creation

Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia. Editor: David A Leeming. Volume 1. 2nd edition. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

The earth-diver creation myth type can be found in many parts of the world, but is particularly important in Central Asia, India, and Native North America. It is a myth type that stresses the creation of Earth as opposed to the larger cosmos. Animals often play an important role in the creation, as do the primeval waters and often an evil force that balances the good in a dualistic tension. Several strains within the earth-diver myth type are evident. These are the Indian, the Central Asian, the Algonquian North American, the Siouan North American, and a major variant, the Iroquoian North American, which contains the motif of the woman who falls from the sky. Elements of the earth-diver form exist among many California Native Americans and among peoples as far afield as the Finns and Hungarians, the Fiji Islanders, the Ainu of Japan, and the Yoruba of Africa.

The fully developed earth-diver myth usually begins with the primeval waters and usually with a creator, or sometimes two creators, intent on creating Earth. Also present are various animals, who prove to be necessary assistants. Typically, these animals are sent on missions into the watery depths to bring up sufficient primal material—prima materia—to make the creation of Earth possible. In the Indian Vishnu Purana, Brahman, the essence of existence, in his form as the creator god Brahma, awoke and decided that there was earth below the primordial waters that were everywhere. Brahma took the form of a great boar and dove down “to find Mother Earth.” He raised up the earth to where it floats now—a “mighty vessel”—on the original waters. Eventually this world, like all others before it and after it, will be destroyed and a new one created, reflecting the presence of Shiva the Destroyer, Brahma the Creator, and Vishnu the Preserver in the eternal and ultimate reality that is Brahman. The non-Hindu Birhor people of India say that the creator arose by way of a lotus stem from the waters, that he sat on the lotus and from there sent various animals to find the mud necessary for the creation of the world. All the animals failed until the lowly leech was able to swallow some mud and spit it into the creator’s hand. This mud became the source of the new earth and its humans. For the Garo of India it was a beetle who was finally able to gather clay from under the waters. Using this clay, the creator made Earth and decorated her with sky, clouds, and plant life. Eventually he made the first Garo as well.

The people of Central Asia and their possible relatives among the Romanians of Europe follow the earth-diver pattern but add the elements of the undermining devil or second creator. The Altaic people teach that in the beginning there was nothing but the primordial waters until one day two black geese appeared. One of the geese was the creator, and the other was the devil, who would become the first human. The devil/man insisted on trying to fly higher than the creator and the creator forced him into the waters and sent him to dive down to find rocks and earth with which to build the world. When God asked the devil/man to bring him more earth, he did so, but he hid some in his mouth, thinking he would create his own world when the creator was not looking. Both the earth that he handed the god and the earth in his mouth began immediately to grow. The Devil was forced to spit out the stolen material and it became wetlands.

In a related Siberian Buriat myth the creator god ordered the water bird to dive into the waters and bring back some earth to use to build the world. The new world was corrupted by Shiktur, the devil. While the creator went off to Heaven to get souls for his newly created humans, Shiktur tricked the dog who was guarding them and then spit on the new creation, stamping it with the evil that exits alongside good to this day.

Some people of Mongolia say that in the beginning, along with the waters, there was the sky god and his two sons, Ulgen Tenger and Erleg Khan. Ulgen was given the upper world and Erleg the lower world space that would become Earth. Ulgen sent the loon into the depths to bring up mud with which to form land. After the loon failed, a duck succeeded in finding a bit of mud on which Ulgen fell asleep. Then Ulgen’s brother tried to steal the mud from his brother, but this only made it grow. Once, while Ulgen was away, his brother tricked a guardian dog—exactly as in the Buriat myth—and spat on the new humans, thus condemning them forever to the diseases and pains to which animals and humans are subject.

A similar story to the Buriat one exists in Romania. According to that story, in the beginning, God sent Satan into the primeval depths to find soil with which to begin creating Earth. When Satan finally succeeded in his quest, God made a ball out of the soil and then fell asleep. Satan thought this would be a good time to steal the ball of earth, but every time he touched it, it grew until the waters were displaced. With the help of animals the problem was solved by the creation of rivers and other waterways.

The earth-diver myths of North America resemble those of their distant relatives in Central Asia, but there is less emphasis on the devil figure and more on the culture hero or heroine who helps in the creative process. The culture hero, however, can sometimes be a trickster whose story cycle contains mischievous and even amoral acts, linking him, at least in a distant sense, to the Devil figure. Furthermore, there can sometimes be a bad brother who struggles for dominance with a good brother in the early days of creation.

The earth-diver myths of the Algonquian-speaking tribes tend to be post-flood stories—that is, stories of a second creation—in effect a second chance following the corrupted worlds described in the Central Asian myths. The Anishinabe (Ojibwa) have a post-flood story in which the culture hero Nanabozho and a few animals survive to create a new world. Nanabhozo dove into the waters hoping to find mud for a new earth, but the waters were too deep for him. Several of the animals tried as well but failed until, finally, the lowly muskrat took his turn. After a long time he floated to the surface dead, but in his closed paw was a bit of earth. Out of this mud the culture hero made the world on the back of Turtle, who generously volunteered his services. Nanapush was the Lenape flood survivor and culture hero-creator. He, too, sent various animals into the depths of the water that covered the old world to find soil, and finally it was the muskrat who succeeded and Turtle who sacrificed his freedom to become the supporting surface for Earth, otherwise known as “Turtle Island.” Flat Pipe was the Arapaho culture hero and Turtle was the successful diver. Turtle returned from her dive and she spit out a piece of land onto Flat Pipe. Earth as we know it and humans grew from this mud.

For the Bloods Indians, the culture hero Napioa directed the new creation, sending several animals to the depths before Turtle brought up the necessary mud. Napioa rolled up this mud into a ball, and it grew to become the earth.

Siouan-speaking tribes tell earth-diver myths in which the creative agent is a figure who is better known as a trickster than a creator. Among the Crow there is the story of Coyote, who sent the duck into the primeval sea to find the soil with which to begin creating the world. Coyote breathed on the mud and it became Earth. He then made plants, animals and people. At some point, however, something of the Devil side of the trickster emerged in the appearance of a figure called Little Coyote, whose amoral acts lead to war, suffering, and death in the new world. The Assiniboine say that the trickster Iktome was the creator and that it was Muskrat who, like the diving hero of the Anishinabe myth, lost his life in the process of diving successfully for the creative mud. Iktome, like Coyote, possessed something of the old Devil within himself. When the frog argued with him, the trickster killed him, thus introducing death into the world, and Iktome taught the Assiniboine how to steal horses from others.

The most complex earth-diver myths in North America are those of the Iroquoian speakers and people directly influenced by them. Their complexity comes primarily with the addition of the Maiden from the Sky story that typically precedes the familiar Algonquian and Siouan type earth-diver story. In addition, the Iroquoian myths introduce the twins—one good, one evil—whose struggle against each other reflects the reality of the world.

The Mohawk myth tells of a place in the sky where human-like people lived in peace and tranquility until a series of events lead to the fall of a young woman named Earth to a darker world below where there existed only the primeval waters and some animals. The animals arranged for her to land on the back of Turtle. Earth then instructed the animals to dive into the waters for mud to be used in the creation of the world. After many tries by many animals, Muskrat succeeded and, out of the mud, the Woman from the Sky made the world and directed the process by which it was planted with corn, squash and other staple plants. The Cherokee tell a very similar tale, as do the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscurora, the Wyandot, and the Huron. As in the Algonquian tales, Turtle is a central figure for all of these tribes, as is, almost always, Muskrat.

In most of the Iroquoian versions of the earth-diver tale we find the story of the twins produced by the Sky Woman or her daughter. Both continue the process of creation. The good twin creates things that will benefit humanity and the world, the bad twin does the opposite. The twins, for example, Good Mind and Bad Mind in the Tuscurora myth, here stand in the same relationship to each other as the creator and Devil-would-be-creator in the Central Asian and Siouan myths. The twins eventually fight, and although the good twin wins the fight, he cannot altogether eliminate his brother’s evil deeds and thoughts from the world.

The ur earth-diver myth in its various incarnations can be interpreted in several ways. It reflects cultural struggles, a religious sense of basic duality in the world and the human experience—a struggle essentially between good and evil—and a psychological departure from a state of the unconscious or subconscious life to the level of full consciousness. Above all, the earth-diver myth shares with the emergence myth the metaphor of birth.

In the Iroquoian myths, for example, we begin in the paradisiacal, deathless world of the sky. Typically a maiden in that world becomes pregnant and falls or is thrown through a hole in the heavenly ground to the formless and dark world below. As a cultural dream the myth seems to tell us that there is some sort of divine purpose behind our world and that it has to do with the creativity that is pregnancy and birth and, therefore, death—a purpose that is foreign to the paradise of the sky where the cycles of life and existence do not exist. The representative of the creative cycle of our earthly experience is contained in the woman who falls from the sky. She is the first priestess of Mother Earth—the world we live in that is dominated by the life cycles. The essential nature of Mother Earth is that she gives birth and devours her progeny in a never-ending process. The animals who see the woman falling live on or in the unformed chaotic waters—the maternal waters of potential creation—they know that they must provide a place for her landing. When she lands—typically on the Turtle’s back—she initiates the creative diving process. It is here, in the diving itself, that the earth-diver myth truly begins.

In all earth-diver myths the animals are sent one by one to find the necessary creative material at the bottom of the waters. These divers are generally ordinary. They possess no supernatural powers; they are us. Whether we see the dive as a metaphor for a necessary descent into the unconscious world in search of consciousness, as a symbol of our purpose in the world to make creation conscious of itself, or as an essential religious truth— that it is Mother Earth who is the source of all life—the dive is as treacherous as that of so many heroes who journey into the underworld in search of something lost. In many myths, divers lose their lives in the service of the creative act. They are the expendable activating seeds of a new creation, and finally one of them succeeds in bringing up the sacred material of the mother; the clump of mud that stands in for the cosmic egg of the creation from chaos myth.

The birth metaphor continues as the mud is placed on the Turtle’s back. Someone touches it, activates it, and it begins to grow, like a fetus, until it is Earth—Turtle Island—itself, the chaotic Mother power made conscious and orderly. Plants and more animals, including the human variant, are created, that is, are born of the Mother.

In the versions of the earth-diver myth that contain the twin motif, we have a meditation on the duality inherent in our experience of human life and existence itself. Things are born, they live, but then they die. The Mother gives but she also takes. One age gives way to another. Pain and conflict are an evident aspect of life. The two sides of the duality that pervade life are represented by the twins or by the conflict between the creator and his devil-trickster assistant. The twins are both offspring of Mother Earth or her representative on Turtle Island, and the devil creator is related in some close way to the good creator. These conflicts between two forces are the conflicts that rage within us all or, as Charles Long suggests, they can be expressions of the old cultural conflict between the hunter/ gatherer and agricultural ways of life (189). In the Iroquoian myths, for example, the bad twin creates powerful and dangerous animals—animals of the hunt. The good twin—favored by his mother—creates good domestic animals and edible plants. In some Iroquoian myths the woman who falls from the sky, the culture heroine who teaches the people how to live on the new earth, dies or is killed, and out of her body elements of the cosmos are made. She becomes, in that motif, an example of the world parent phenomenon and, most important, a literal expression of the feminine nature of the universe; she realizes her potential as Mother Earth.