Creation stories contain fascinating information concerning peoples’ beliefs about how the world began, how it is organized, and how things in the world work. This information isn’t always obvious; myth-makers tend to encode such information within the story’s content. Consequently, we need to read these stories carefully—and sometimes treat them as puzzles—to identify underlying themes.
A useful strategy is to break stories down into chunks or segments, each emphasizing a key story element (e.g., actors, event, and themes). These elements can be compared and contrasted, and we can attempt to identify their relationships to larger themes. Here’s a five-step procedure for accomplishing this:
As an example of how this approach can be applied, let’s consider this Creek Indian story concerning the origins of day and night:
The animals held a meeting at which Bear asked: “How can we divide night from day?” Some animals wanted the day to last all the time; others wished that night never end. After much talk, Ground Squirrel said: “I see that Raccoon has rings on his tail divided equally, first a dark color then a light color. I think day and night ought to be divided like the rings on Raccoon’s tail.” The animals were surprised at Ground Squirrel’s wisdom. The adopted his plan and divided day and night like the rings on Raccoon’s tail, repeating over and over in equal measure. Bear, who was jealous of Ground Squirrel’s intelligence, scratched the back of Ground Squirrel. To this day, all ground squirrels have stripes on their backs.
Applying our five-step strategy, we can first identify the story’s main topic: how the cycle of day and night was introduced to the world.
The main characters in the story are “the animals,” with Bear and Ground Squirrel playing the lead roles and Raccoon in a cameo appearance.
The story sequence unfolds in six brief scenes, beginning with the gathering of animals for the meeting. Next, Bear poses the main question. Then all the animals talk. Ground Squirrel offers a solution. The animals adopt the plan. Bear, in envy, scratches Ground Squirrel, thereby marking all of his descendents. Note that the sequence is linear, rather than being circular, or back-and-forth (alternating). This sequence produces an outcome involving an alternating (day/night) cycle.
Special categories and qualities include: day/night, light/dark, the quality exhibited by Ground Squirrel as an “upstart” of “instigator” of a solution, and Bear’s jealous quality exhibited toward Ground Squirrel.
The toughest part of any analysis is the final identification of themes. In this story, it seems that the relationship between Raccoon’s tail rings and the alternating day/night cycle reflects a theme concerning the fundamental importance of natural patterns; in this case, the alternating patterns of light and dark, and day and night. Bear’s attack on Ground Squirrel represents a conflict theme, which poses a threat to a third theme: the value of group cooperation and consensus.
Other themes can be identified; perhaps you can expand upon this list.
Here are some more Indian creation stories. What can you find out about these stories by applying our five step strategy?