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The Iroquois original creation myth is very similar in all six of the nations; it does have some slight variations in the story. The main belief is that there were people that lived in the sky before the whole of the earth was created. Below the sky people were oceans and creatures who lived in them. One day, one of the “sky chiefs” tricked one of his wives into going near the hole in the sky. Once she was standing close enough to the hole, the sky chief kicked or pushed her out of the hole (that is one of the variations that occurs throughout the six nations). As she was plummeting to her death, the sea animals saw this and began to scoop up the dirt from the ocean floor and pile it onto the turtle’s back; the turtle was the one use because of its broad and strong back. While the sea animals piled the dirt, birds in the sky caught hold of the woman and lowered her down safely once the dirt was finished being placed. The woman, after being safely placed on the ground, gave birth to two children. Depending on which myth you go by, the woman had either two sons or she had a son and a daughter, either way, the children where the ones who built everything on the earth (Wolf 26-29).
Because of all of the new people on the earth, the Iroquois had many different spirits or gods and two different levels to them. The greater spirits include Atahentsic who was the woman lowered to the earth and is called the ruler of the angry/sad spirits in the west, Tarenyawagon who is considered the holder of the heavens, Jouskeka who is the ruler of the happy spirits in the west, and Agreskoue who is known as the God of war. The lesser spirits are Heno who is the God of storms and Gaoh who is the spirit of the winds.
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As Christian missionaries, and I use the word loosely, came into the Iroquois territory, the beliefs of the six nations changed. When the Christians first came to the areas held by the Iroquois, the Christians found the “natives” to be highly uncivilized and lacking the correct religious structure. The Christians then took it upon themselves to make the Iroquois a more civilized race and started to change their belief system. The original creation myth held by the Iroquois had similarities to the Christian creation story and these similarities were used to change the Iroquois religion into Christianity. Since the original creation myth was changed so drastically, the Iroquois nations lost many of their spirits. The main spirits lost were the lesser spirits because they did not really correlate with anyone in the Christian creation. The spirits that remained had a loose affiliation with major players in the Christian story (Snyderman 571). Atahentsic, for example, is similar to Eve from Genesis in the Bible.
As more settlers started to arrive, not just the missionaries, the Iroquois soon began to lose more than their creation myth. With the new settlers coming in, the Iroquois knew they would not uphold the treaties that the Iroquois made with France and Britain to leave the sacred land in peace and leave the Iroquois in peace as well. In the Iroquois nation however, there was a man named Handsome Lake. Handsome Lake was said to be in an almost certain state of death when he miraculously recovered. He got out of the building he was basically dying in and started to walk about. Everyone who saw him said he looked both physically and spiritually like a new man. Handsome Lake took on the challenge of sobriety (for himself) and revitalization of the Iroquois as a whole (Walle 170).
With the coming of the new settlers, Handsome Lake saw a chance for the change that his people needed to survive. Handsome Lake encouraged his fellow Iroquois to take on their original cultural traditions as well as to bring in some of the beliefs and values of the new settlers. One of the many things that set the Iroquois apart from these new settlers was the fact that the women worked the farm and the men would hunt. It was part of their religious and tribal duties. The men in the Iroquois saw farming as emasculating and woman’s work, but Handsome Lake encouraged them to take on farming. The main reason was to blend in as well as to have a secondary food source because they would all lose their hunting and fishing areas. Handsome Lake also, in trying to bring about the revitalization of the Iroquois, saw that their traditional sex roles would also have to change. The new settlers were of the Christian faith and they did not have a third gender in their religion because of it being considered immoral. Traditionally, the Iroquois had the third gender role, but Handsome Lake tried to get everyone to lose this as it would make the living situation that much more unpleasant. As a result, the Iroquois have now taken back their traditional values and have also implemented this new form of religion they call Handsome Lake as a result of that revitalization movement by Handsome Lake himself (Walle 170-180).
Over all, the Iroquois are a proud group and show their religion both traditionally and with the new Handsome Lake method. The Iroquois still hold to the original creation myth, but much of it is lost to the ages because of the way these people were treated by the Christian missionaries. If they didn’t comply, the “missionaries” would take them away from their families, place them in work camps, or just out right kill them. Another reason for the loss of the original beliefs is because there was no writing system translated to English to keep track of the way things were. Their religion has changed, but the origins and values are still what they once were.
Snyderman, George S. "Function of Wampum in Iroquois Religion." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1961): Print.
Walle, Alf H. The Path of Handsome Lake: A Model of Recovery for Native People. Greenwich, CT: IAP-Information Age Pub., 2004. Print.
Wolf, Morris. Iroquois Religion and Its Relation to Their Morals,. New York: Columbia UP, 1919. Print.