Ancient Mysteries Mythology Myths of the North American Indians

Myths of the North American Indians

Myths of the North American Indians
Catalog # SKU3918
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name Lewis Spence
ISBN 10: 0000000000
ISBN 13: 0000000000000


The Myths of the
North American Indians

Lewis Spence

The North American Indian has so long been an object of the deepest interest that the neglect of his picturesque and original mythologies and the tales to which they have given rise is difficult of comprehension.



In boyhood we are wont to regard him as an instrument specially designed for the execution of tumultuous incident, wherewith heart-stirring fiction may be manufactured. In manhood we are too apt to consider him as only fit to be put aside with the matter of Faery and such evanescent stuff and relegated to the limbo of imagination. Satiated with his constant recurrence in the tales of our youth, we are perhaps but too ready to hearken credulously to accounts which picture him as a disreputable vagabond, getting a precarious living by petty theft or the manufacture of bead ornaments.

It is, indeed, surprising how vague a picture the North American Indian presents to the minds of most people in Europe when all that recent anthropological research has done on the subject is taken into account. As a matter of fact, few books have been published in England which furnish more than the scantiest details concerning the Red Race, and these are in general scarce, and, when obtained, of doubtful scientific value.

The primary object of this volume is to furnish the reader with a general view of the mythologies of the Red Man of North America, accompanied by such historical and ethnological information as will assist him in gauging the real conditions under which this most interesting section of humanity existed. The basic difference between the Indian and European mental outlook is insisted upon, because it is felt that no proper comprehension of American Indian myth or conditions of life can be attained when such a distinction is not recognized and allowed for.

The difference between the view-point, mundane and spiritual, of the Red Man and that of the European is as vast as that which separates the conceptions and philosophies of the East and West. Nevertheless we shall find in the North American mythologies much that enters into the composition of the immortal tales of the older religions of the Eastern Hemisphere. All myth, Asiatic, European, or American, springs from similar natural conceptions, and if we discover in American mythology peculiarities which we do not observe in the systems of Greece, Rome, or Egypt, we may be certain that these arise from circumstances of environment and racial habit as modified by climate and kindred conditions alone.


The primitive and barbarous appearance of the Indians in the train of Columbus deeply impressed the people of Spain. The savage had before this event been merely "a legendary and heraldic animal like the griffin and the phoenix." In the person of the Indian he was presented for the first time to the astonished gaze of a European people, who were quick to distinguish the differences in feature and general appearance between the Red Man and the civilized Oriental-although his resemblance to the Tartar race was insisted upon by some early writers.

Popular interest, instead of abating, grew greater, and with each American discovery the 'Indian' became the subject of renewed controversy. Works on the origin and customs of the American aborigines, of ponderous erudition but doubtful conclusions, were eagerly perused and discussed. These were not any more extravagant, however, than, many theories propounded at a much later date. In the early nineteenth century a school of enthusiastic antiquaries, perhaps the most distinguished of whom was Lord Kingsborough, determined upon proving the identity of the American aborigines with the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, and brought to bear upon the subject a perfect battery of erudition of the most extraordinary kind. His lordship's great work on the subject, The Antiquities of Mexico, absorbed a fortune of some fifty thousand pounds by its publication. The most absurd philological conclusions were arrived at in the course of these researches, examples of which it would but weary the reader to peruse. Only a shade less ridiculous were the deductions drawn from Indian customs where these bore a certain surface resemblance to Hebrew rite or priestly usage.

Indians as Jews

As an example of this species of argument it will be sufficient to quote the following passage from a work published in 1879:

"The Indian high-priest wears a breastplate made of a white conch-shell, and around his head either a wreath of swan feathers, or a long piece of swan skin doubled, so as to show only the snowy feathers on each side. These remind us of the breastplate and mitre of the Jewish high-priest. They have also a magic stone which is transparent, and which the medicine-men consult; it is most jealously guarded, even from their own people, and Adair could never procure one. Is this an imitation of the Urim and Thummim? Again, they have a feast of first-fruits, which they celebrate with songs and dances, repeating 'Halelu-Halelu-Haleluiah' with great earnestness and fervour. They dance in three circles round the fire that cooks these fruits on a kind of altar, shouting the praises of Yo-He-Wah (Jehovah?). These words are only used in their religious festivals." To what tribe the writer alludes is not manifest from the context.

Welsh-Speaking Indians

An ethnological connexion has been traced for the Red Man of North America, with equal parade of erudition, to Phoenicians, Hittites, and South Sea Islanders. But one of the most amusing of these theories is that which attempts to substantiate his blood-relationship with the inhabitants of Wales! The argument in favour of this theory is so quaint, and is such a capital example of the kind of learning under which American ethnology has groaned for generations, that it may be briefly examined. In the author's Myths of Mexico and Peru (p. 5) a short account is given of the legend of Madoc, son of Owen Gwyneth, a Welsh prince, who quitted his country in disgust at the manner in which his brothers had partitioned their father's territories. Sailing due west with several vessels, he arrived, says Sir Thomas Herbert in his Travels (1634), at the Gulf of Mexico, "not far from Florida," in the year 1170.

After settling there he returned to Wales for reinforcements, and once more fared toward the dim West, never to be heard of more. But, says the chronicler, "though the Cambrian issue in the new found world may seeme extinct, the Language to this day used among these Canibals, together with their adoring the crosse, using Beades, Reliques of holy men and some other, noted in them of Acusano and other places, ... points at our Madoc's former being there." The Cambrians, continued Sir Thomas, left in their American colony many names of "Birds, Rivers, Rocks, Beasts and the like, some of which words are these: Gwrando, signifying in the Cambrian speech to give eare unto or hearken. Pen-gwyn, with us a white head, refered by the Mexicans to a Bird so-called, and Rockes complying with that Idiom. Some promontories had like denominations, called so by the people to this day, tho' estranged and concealed by the Spaniard. Such are the Isles Corroeso. The Cape of Brutaine or Brittaine. The floud Gwyndowr or white water, Bara bread, Mam mother, Tate father, Dowr water, Bryd time, Bu or Buch a Cow, Clugar a Heathcocke, Llwynog a Fox, Wy an Egge, Calaf a Quill, Trwyn a Nose, Nef Heaven; and the like then used; by which, in my conceit, none save detracting Opinionatists can justly oppose such worthy testimonies and proofes of what I wish were generally allowed of."

Antiquity of Man in America

To turn to more substantial conclusions concerning the racial affinities of the Red Man, we find that it is only within very recent times that anything like a reasoned scientific argument has been arrived at. Founding upon recently acquired geological, anthropological, and linguistic knowledge, inquirers into the deeper realms of American ethnology have solved the question of how the Western Hemisphere was peopled, and the arguments they adduce are so convincing in their nature as to leave no doubt in the minds of unbiased persons.

It is now admitted that the presence of man in the Old World dates from an epoch so far distant as to be calculated only by reference to geological periods of which we know the succession but not the duration, and research has proved that the same holds good of the Western Hemisphere. Although man undoubtedly found his way from the Old World to the New, the period at which he did so is so remote that for all practical purposes he may be said to have peopled both hemispheres simultaneously. Indeed, "his relative antiquity in each has no bearing on the history of his advancement."

It is known that the American continent offers no example of the highly organized primates-for example, the larger apes-in which the Old World abounds, save man himself, and this circumstance is sufficient to prove that the human species must have reached America as strangers. Had man been native to the New World there would have been found side by side with him either existing or fossil representatives of the greater apes and other anthropoid animals which illustrate his pedigree in the Old World.

352 pages - 7 x 8½ softcover - Print size, 12 point font

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