As kids, our lives seem to revolve around of stories and what they have to teach us. This still holds true in adulthood, as we base our moral compass on these stories we are told as kids, such as; Siddhartha and the Swan, Adam and Eve, and even The Story of Xenu. What most of these stories have in common is that they all carry sacred meaning in one way or another. These are what we call myths. Myths are often used to interpret the world we inhabit and tell of how this world exactly came to be.
Within the realm of myths, there are many different interpretations of the same story, this happens due to myths being orally passed down to each generation and the widespread of cultures from across the planet seem to have different versions and interpretations of past events. What common themes we see throughout ancient history concerning myths are; origin, apocalyptic, trickster, and hero myths. Though there are many myths to choose from, I will be focusing on The Earth on the Turtle’s Back, an origin story, seen in Native American and Chinese literature dating back thousands of years ago.
The Earth on the Turtle’s Back is an ancient, ancient story told from campfire to campfire, generation to generation, soul to soul. It is the creation myth of the Iroquois tribe. Each version of the myth differs moderately, however, the stories carry parallel interpretations cross-culturally. The story goes, in the beginning of time, there was a woman, carrying a child, who one night had a dream of the Great Tree being uprooted from the ground it lies in.
This woman happened to be the wife of a chief, so she asks of her husband to bring her this prominent tree. And so he does. When the man does so, he and other men of the tribe lacerate a hole in the ground so big that all who inhabited earth heard the cries of each root being pulled from the only home they knew. The curiosity of this hole invaded the minds of many, especially the pregnant woman. Consequently, the woman’s curiosity got the best of her and as she looked into the hole she saw her reflection, this led her to lose her balance and fall down the hole, towards the dark abyss below. While plunging to her death, the animals below heard her screams and caught as she hit the water, helping her to safety onto the shell of a turtle. And this is where earth begins to sprout. Eventually, she gives birth to twins and dies during the delivery. The siblings, one right and the other left-handed depict, symbolically, good and bad. The brothers did not live harmoniously together as they were the complete opposite of each other. The brothers fought constantly and eventually, the conflict led to the right-handed brother killing his left-handed brother. After his death, the brother decided to throw his remains off of earth, where anded one and throws his remains to someplace below earth, where he still reigns in darkness. As for the right-handed brother, the grandmother, known as the Sky Woman was angry at his wrongdoings and punished him. In retaliation he cuts off the head of his estranged grandmother and throws it up toward the sky, where it becomes the moon. The iroquois believe that even though the brothers hated each other deeply, they were both necessary in the balance of nature and for the betterment of the world. As we will see in the next paragraph, there are many cultures in the world and because of this there are many beliefs as to why or how we are here today.
In China, some believe in Nuwa, a savior and goddess that roamed the earth before our ancestors were even born. Nuwa existed before the dawn of the time, in a dark boundless world. She felt alone as there were no people, animals, or plants so she decided to create humans and animals. On the first day, she created the cow. On the second day, she created pigs. On the third day, she created goats. On the fourth day, she created chickens. On the sixth day she created monkey’s. On the seventh day, is when man was birthed. She then proceeded to build man of yellow clay, sculpting each one individually, with such precision and care, yet after she had created thousands of figures, the harsh realization that she was far from done sank into the pit of her vacant stomach. This was no job for one person, and she soon grew very weary of the tedious work. So instead of creating each individual from scratch, she threw bits and pieces of clay far and wide, with each thrust and roar, clay landed everywhere, each of the drops became common people. With the energy Nuwa still had left, she crafted people with the little clay she had left, these people went on to become the highly regarded. A sudden eruption in the sky came shortly after this. There was then a clash between two of the most significant gods that ruled in the heavens, this led to a fight that ensued on the helpless earth below. When the water god, Gong Gong, saw that he was close to defeat, he smashed his fists into a mountain, known as Mount Buzhou, which was a pillar that propped up the sky, holding it place. Due to the shear power forced upon the pilar, it crumbled into dust causing the sky to lean towards the northwest and the earth to shift to the southeast. This caused extraordinary catastrophes, such as fires, floods, and evil beasts to plague the earth. As Nuwa watched all these horrible events happen before her eyes, she knew she could not sit idly by. She then cut the legs off of a giant tortoise and used them to support the destroyed pillar, she was still wasn’t able to fix the sky. In her last attempt, Nuwa used 7 colored stones to restore life in response to the catastrophe’s. She succeeded Exhausted by her efforts, Nuwa soon died and her body became the mountains and soil under our feet, saving humanity. Because of the shifts in the sky it explains why the sun, moon, and stars move towards the north, and that rivers in China flow South into the Pacific Ocean.
In boths myths we see a common theme and that is; for life to exist, death must also exist. We also get an idea of totemism from each of these cultures. Within a community, different groups of people share different totems. In this case, we see a recurring one. The tortoise. Both the Chinese and Iroquois have a special relationship to the tortoise as it is considered to be a spiritual being of very high status. The tortoise is seen to represent heaven and earth, and the bridge from earth to heaven. Stories of the turtle’s magic was depicted in drawings and scriptures from all over the planet. For the Chinese, the turtle symbolizes immortality and is seen as a temporary vessel of souls on their way to Nirvana. Another common theme we see, is death and chaos. In the Iroquois myth, we see chaos between the two brothers for there to balance in the world. In the Chinese myth, we see the war between two gods who had no consideration for the earth, and because of that the earth grew. Chaos explains the evolution of life on Earth. It is ruled in the cosmos and written in the stars, it is simply embedded in our DNA. Without it, we would not exist. Death is seen time and time again in creation myths. Both Nuwu and the Woman die for the world. The sacrifice of their lives inherently saved us all, so it is no wonder why people may worship these stories and god-like figures. Though there are many parallels between the two myths, there are very polar to each other. The sacred tree described in the Iroquoi myth stands for life, status, authority- the society we all now know. Uprooting the tree, we see the death of it, and the Native Americans see this as the circle of life. Nature must be balanced always for there to be never-ending peace. In regards to the Chinese, the number seven is seen symbolically and is referred to as the luckiest number in the West. Nuwa takes seven days to create man and woman and seven stones to cure Earth of it’s tragedies. Symbolically, it refers to the harmony of the world, which is seen in the aftermath of the story of Nuwa.
Humans are diverse, to say the least. We differ on the color of our skin, age, and social class, but it is amazing to see that we can live in harmony while respecting each other’s beliefs. Beliefs are what separate us spiritually and myths are what help us understand each other. Though these stories hold various meanings for everyone, myths assist everyone in knowing where we came from, and isn’t that what all humans desire?