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Myths of the Cherokees

Myths of the Cherokees (Photo credit: Gutenberg #45634)

“In Cherokee mythology, as in that of Indian tribes generally, there is no essential difference between men and animals.” (V.15, James Mooney.)

The Deluge

We have returned to the subject of Amerindians, whose tales feature a large number of animals (see 15, James Mooney). However, their “myths” also tell about a deluge.

In his Myths of the Cherokees, James Mooney published a Cherokee tale about the deluge, which I have included in this post. Amerindians to the north, Hurons, also remembered the deluge. We will look at both and mention other characteristics of Amerindians.

I should note that James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee is an extract from the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1902). It is also dated 1900.

The Cherokee variant of the story of the deluge is as follows:

The Cherokee’s Deluge

A long time ago a man had a dog, which began to go down to the river every day and look at the water and howl. At last the man was angry and scolded the dog, which then spoke to him and said: “Very soon there is going to be a great freshet and the water will come so high that everybody will be drowned; but if you will make a raft to get upon when the rain comes you can be saved, but you must first throw me into the water.” The man did not believe it, and the dog said, “If you want a sign that I speak the truth, look at the back of my neck.” He looked and saw that the dog’s neck had the skin worn off so that the bones stuck out.

Then he believed the dog, and began to build a raft. Soon the rain came and he took his family, with plenty of provisions, and they all got upon it. It rained for a long time, and the water rose until the mountains were covered and all the people in the world were drowned. Then the rain stopped and the waters went down again, until at last it was safe to come off the raft. Now there was no one alive but the man and his family, but one day they heard a sound of dancing and shouting on the other side of the ridge. The man climbed to the top and looked over; everything was still, but all along the valley he saw great piles of bones of the people who had been drowned, and then he knew that the ghosts had been dancing.

Myths of the Cherokee, (V.14, James Mooney)


Contrary to the Bible‘s Noah’s Ark, animals are not saved in the Cherokee tale, yet a dog can sense the impending drama and he tells at least one man, Messou, who builds a raft for himself and his family, which may be consistent with the Cherokees’ belief that men and beasts were the same. They perceived a continuum between men and beasts and therefore probable animal ancestry. (See Totemism, Wikipedia)


In the Cherokee Mountains by James Mooney 1888 (Photo credit: Gutenberg #45634)


On Ononaluftee River by James Mooney, 1888 (Photo credit: Gutenberg #45634)

(Links in the following paragraph take the reader to the Canadian Encyclopedia and to Wikipedia.)

The anthologie[1] used by most students of French-Canadian or Québécois literature contains excerpts from the Jesuits’ Relations (Anthologie pp. 37-89) and the writings of other missionaries. Amerindians told Paul Le Jeune, SJ (Anthologie, pp. 56-57) about the deluge and that “Messou repared the world” (“Messou répara le monde”).

The Deluge
as told to Father Le Jeune

A man called Messou went hunting with wolves (“des loups cerviers”), instead of dogs, The man learned that there was danger lurking for his wolves near a lake. While chasing an elk, he went into that very lake and his wolves followed him. They sank immediately: “ils furent abysmez en un instant.” (17th-century spelling of abîmés as in abyss).[2] The hunter came up and started looking for his “brothers,” the wolves. A bird told him that they were being kept at the bottom of the lake by beasts and monsters. The hunter jumped into the lake and it started overflowing to the point of drowning the world. He, Messou, went about repairing the world with the help of a muskrat (un rat musqué). He then avenged his wolves (ses chasseurs [hunters]) by transforming himself into all kinds of animals, inspiring fear. This “reparateur” (sic)  then married a muskrat, now une souris musquée (a mouse), and they had children who resettled (repeupler) the world.

The existence of one god: Atahocan

Paul Le Jeune (1591 – 1664), a Jesuit (Société de Jésus: SJ) also wrote that Amerindians recognized that there was a being (une nature) superior to human beings:

“mais on ne peut nier qu’ils ne recognoissent quelque nature superieure à la nature de l’homme[.]” (17th-century spelling of reconnaissent and supérieure) (Anthologie, p. 57.) 

(“but we cannot deny that they recognize some nature [that is] superior to the nature of man[.]”) (a literal translation; Anthologie, p. 57.)

According to Amerindians, the God of the Jesuits, a god who created everything, “qui a tout fait,” was Atahocan, their god, who also created everything. In other words, both Christians and Hurons believed in one God.

In The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s (27 February 1807 – 24 March 1882) features Hiawatha, not Manabozho.

(Images below and at the bottom of this post are courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.)

The Noble Savage

As for the concept of the “noble savage,” (le bon sauvage) it is expressed very early by Gabriel Théodat Sagard (died in 1636), who was a Récollet. You may remember that the Récollets (Franciscans) were the first missionaries sent to New France. Sagard is the author of Le Grand Voyage aux pays des Hurons (The Great/Long voyage to the country of Hurons), a Gutenberg project publication [EBook, #00]. Sagard refers to his “bons Sauvages” (Anthologie, p. 44) and tells that women have their say with respect to choosing their men.

Father Paul Le Jeune, SJ, also writes about “[t]he good things that can be found in Savages” (“Des bonnes choses qui se trouvent dans les Sauvages”) (Anthologie, p. 53). For instance, Amerindians did not get angry and were patient, which could still be the case. Le Jeune writes that he has never seen anyone so patient as a sick “Sauvage.” (See “Indian Runner” by Alfred Jacob Miller, description.)

A Sauvage, other than the Amerindians with whom Le Jeune lives, tries to steal meat. He is not punished. On the contrary, he is invited, later on, to stay with Le Jeune’s Sauvages. He goes and gets his wife, whom he has to carry because she cannot walk, his grandson, and a relative (Anthologie, pp. 53-56). Father Le Jeune also reports that Amerindians are neither ambitious nor miserly (p. 54) and that they love one another:

“Ils s’entr’aiment les uns les autres, et s’accordent admirablement bien: vous ne voyez point de disputes, de querelles, d’inimitiez, de reproches parmy eux[.]”
(17th-century French) (p. 55.)

“They love one another, and get along admirably well: one does not see disputes, quarrels, enmity and criticism [reproach] among them[.]” (a literal translation; Anthologie, p. 55.)

However, Le Jeune claims they are thankless (“ils sont ingrats”) towards strangers (étrangers) (p. 56).

Father Le Jeune is perturbed because the white man brought alcoholism (yvrognerie) to Amerindians (Anthologie, p. 53). The white often used alcohol as payment for pelts. The white man also brought smallpox (Mayo Clinic) to Amerindians.

Yet, Paul Le Jeune states that he never witnessed a truly “morally virtuous” action on the part of an Amerindian:

“et néantmoins je n’oserois asseurer que j’aye vue exercer aucun acte de vraye vertu morale à un Sauvage [.]” (17th-century French) (Anthologie, p. 56.)

“and, nevertheless, I would not dare say for certain that I ever saw a Savage   perform any truly morally virtuous act[.]”

Pierre Biard, who was a Jesuit missionary to Acadie, compares the new world to both Paradise and a desert: Bel Eden [garden of Eden], pitoyable désert) (Beautiful Paradise, pitiful desert) (Anthologie, p. 37).


Note that Father Le Jeune remains a missionary, which may explain why he claims not to have seen an Amerindian perform a truly morally virtuous act. What does he mean?

For the missionaries to New France, Huguenots, French Calvinists, were greater pagans than the Sauvages. Pierre du Gua de Monts (1568 – 1628), who founded the first permanent settlement in Canada, was a Huguenot, which he did not conceal. Champlain, who travelled with him, was also a French Protestant, but he did not tell. Huguenots left New France, or converted to Catholicism, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (30 April 1598), an edict of tolerance. It was revoked by virtue of the Edict of Fontainebleau (22 October 1685).

Death Ceremonials

Hurons had a Festin des âmes, a feast for the dead (Anthologie, pp. 65-72). Jean de Brébeuf met an Amerindian who removed and kept the brain of the dead and another Amerindian who went to fetch his dead sister. The man who had removed his fellow Amerindian’s sister’s brain told him to come by once he had found his sister. She seemed to be resuscitating, but she died again (Anthologie, pp. 63-65). This Amerindian was a Huron (Wyandot), who were friends of the French.

Brébeuf and seven other missionaries were tortured to death during hostilities between the Hurons and the Iroquois. The Iroquois were allies of the British. (See Canadian Martyrs, Wikipedia.)


After Messou repaired the world, he avenged his wolves by transforming himself into all kinds of animals, which is shapeshifting. Loup-Garou (werewolf) stories were quite common in Quebec.

Interestingly, shapeshifting occurs in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses (1st century CE) ApuleiusThe Golden Ass (2nd century CE) and it also occurs in fairy tales and legends (the Werewolf [lycantrophy]). In the Golden Ass, it takes place in a remarkable digression, the tale of Cupid and Psyche.

We have also encountered metamorphoses in Beauty and the Beast and Puss in Boots as well as in fables.

Modern examples are the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894: aged 44) and a 1915 novella, Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), by Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924: aged 40).

We have seen therefore that Amerindians:

  • remembered a deluge;
  • that they believed in one god who made everything: Atohacan;
  • that the Hurons had virtues—they did not get angry; they were patient; they were not ambitious nor were they greedy;
  • that they honoured the dead;
  • that Cherokees believed men and beast did not differ (“the dog, which then spoke to him and said” [Cherokee deluge]);
  • that Hurons thought they could bring the dead back to life;
  • that they shared shapeshifting myths with the white.


Aarne, Thompson and Üther, as well as other folklorists and ethnologists, have seen variants of the same tale from country to country. Tales are shaped by culture and cultures, by elements such as the climate. However, it would be my opinion that shared myths may also be the product of the human mind and of human needs that are independent of culture.

For instance, the figure of the trickster seems to cross borders, except that he is a fox in Europe and a rabbit or a coyote in North America. He seems an archetype, or function. Moreover, tricksters everywhere may be “hoisted by their own petard.”

Some missionaries saw a degree of nobility in Amerindians, which led to the development of the notion of the Noble Savage (le bon Sauvage). French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau‘s Indes galantes (1735) portrays bons Sauvages. He had seen real Amerindians dance. Rameau was a superb composer of music for ballet.

I will close this post by emphasizing that trickster tales are common in Amerindian lore but that etiological (“pourquoi”) tales seem equally important. So are creation myths. The story of the deluge is shared by many tribes. Manabozho, an Ojibwa, experiences a deluge which he is able to repair, he can “make the land.” Moreover, there is a legend about Manabozho in which he can transform himself into what seems like the trunk of a tree. A snake wants to know whether or not the trunk is a trunk, so he squeezes it. Despite the pain, Manabozho remains quiet.[3]

So we will now have a brief look at the Song of Hiawatha, and, perhaps, totemism.

Kindest regards to all of you.


Sources and Resources


[1] Gilles Marcotte, direction, Anthologie de la littérature québécoise (Montréal : L’Hexagone, 1994), Volume 1.

[2] In this instance, abîmer means: to damage, but un abîme is an abyss, as in mise en abyme/abîme.

[3] R. C. Armour (illust.) North American Indian Fairy Tales: Folklore and Legends (London: Gibbings and Company, Limited) (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1905) (Kessinger Legacy Reprints)

Grigory Sokolov plays Rameau’s Les Sauvages (an encore)

798px-Alfred_Jacob_Miller_-_Pierre_-_Walters_37194053© Micheline Walker
21 August 2015

by Jacob Alfred Miller