Traditions of their Wars with Monsters, Giants and Supernatural Phenomena

It is proposed to narrate a few passages of their early wars with monsters and giants, the two prominent objects in the foreground of their traditions. If it be thought, in perusing them, that mythology and superstition mingle too freely with real events or actions, to which the mind makes no exception, that is a matter upon which we have nothing to offer. Let it rather be considered as a proof of the authenticity of the narrative for certainly there could be no stronger-indication of a contrary character, than to find the Indian narrator relating a clear, consistent chain of indisputable facts and deductions to fill up the foreground of his history. What is said of such creations tallies admirably with their belief, at the present day, and harmonizes with itself, and with that state of proud heathendom, adventurous idolatry, and wild and roving independence in which they lived. Who but an Aonaod? who but an Iroquois? could enact such a part, or believe that his ancestors ever did? To be great, and admired and feared, they roved over half America in quest of beasts and men. Surely, the man should be allowed to tell his own story in his own way, with all the witchcraft and spirit-craft he has a mind to bring to bear upon it.

No people in the world have ever, probably, so completely mingled up and lost their early history, in fictions and allegories, types and symbols, as the red men of this continent. Making no sort of distinction themselves, between the symbolic and the historical, they have left no distinctions to mark the true from the false. Their notions of a Deity, founded, apparently, upon some dreamy tradition of original truth, are so subtle and divisible, and establish so heterogeneous a connection, between spirit and matter, of all imaginable forms, that popular belief seems to have wholly confounded the possible with the impossible, the natural with the supernatural. Action, so far as respects cause and effect, takes the widest and wildest range, through the agency of good or evil influences, which are put in motion alike for noble or ignoble ends alike by men, beasts, devils or gods. Seeing some things mysterious and wonderful, he believes all things mysterious and wonderful; and he is afloat, without shore or compass, on the wildest sea of superstition and necromancy. He sees a god in every phenomenon and fears a sorcerer in every enemy. Life, under such a system of polytheism and wild belief, is a constant scene of fears and alarms. Fear is the predominating passion, and he is ready, wherever he goes, to sacrifice at any altar, be the sup posed deity ever so grotesque. When such a man comes to narrate events, he stops at nothing, be it ever so gross or puerile. He relates just what he believes, and unluckily he believes every thing that can possibly be told. A beast or a bird, or a man, or a god, or a devil, a stone, a serpent, or a wizard, a wind or a sound, or a ray of light these are so many causes of action, which the meanest and lowest of the series, may put in motion, but which shall, in his theology and philosophy, vibrate along the mysterious chain through the upper most skies; and life or death may, at any moment, be the reward or the penalty. If there be truth, mingled in the man s narrations, as there sometimes is, it must be judged of by the lights of reason, common sense, science, sound philosophy and religion. It is a Gordian knot for the modern historian to untie; or it is a mass of traditionary chaff, from which we may, perhaps, winnow a few grains of wheat. Herodotus had, probably, just such materials to work upon, and he made the best possible use of them, by letting the events stand as they were given, without exercising any inductive faculty upon them, or telling us the why and the wherefore; or if he ever deviates from the rule, as in the case of the fishes descending the Nile, it is a species of labor which might as well have been omitted. 1

By the figure of a long house, the Iroquois meant to denote the confederated frame work of the league; by a great tree planted, they symbolized its deep seated natural power, one in blood and lineage, and its overshadowing influence and permanency. To assail such a combination of stout hearts, nature they thought must send forth the stoutest and most appalling objects of her creation.

The first enemy that appeared to question their power, or disturb their peace, was the fearful phenomenon of Ko-nea-rau-neh-neh, or the Flying Heads. These heads were enveloped in a beard and hair, flaming like fire; they were of monstrous size, and shot through the air with the velocity of meteors. Human power was not adequate to cope with them. The priests pronounced them an emanation of some mysterious influence, and it remained with the priests alone, to exorcise them by their arts. Drum and rattle and incantation, were deemed more effective, than arrow or club. One evening, after they had been plagued a long time with this fearful visitation, the Flying Head came to the door of a lodge occupied by a single female and her dog. She was sitting composedly before the fire roasting acorns, which, as they become done, she deliberately took from the fire and eat. Amazement seized the flying head, who put out two huge black paws, from beneath his streaming beard. Supposing the woman to be eating live coals he withdrew, and from that time he came no more among them. 2

The withdrawal of the Ko-nea-rau-neh-neh, was followed by the appearance of the great Onyare, 3 or Lake Serpent, which traversed the country, and by coiling himself in leading positions near the paths, interrupted the communication between the towns. He created terror wherever he went, and diffused a poisonous breath.

While this enemy yet remained in the land, and they were counseling about the best means of killing him, or driving him away, the country was invaded by a still more fearful enemy, namely: the Ot-ne-yar-heh, or Stonish Giants. They were a powerful tribe from the wilderness, tall, fierce and hostile, and resistance to them was vain. They defeated and overwhelmed an army which was sent out against them, and put the whole country in fear. These giants were not only of prodigious strength, but they were cannibals, devouring men, women and children in their inroads.

It is said by the Shawnees, that they were descended from a certain family, which journeyed on the east side of the Mississippi, after the vine broke, and they went towards the northwest. Abandoned to wandering and the hardships of the forest, they forgot the rules of humanity, and began at first, to eat raw flesh, and next men. They practiced rolling themselves in the sand, and by this means their bodies were covered with hard skin, so that the arrows of the Iroquois only rattled against their rough bodies, and fell at their feet. And the consequence was, that they were obliged to hide in caves, and glens, and were brought into subjection by these fierce invaders for many winters, (or years.) At length the Holder of the Heavens, visited his people, and finding that they were in great distress, he determined to grant them relief, and rid them entirely of these barbarous invaders. To accomplish this, he changed himself into one of these giants, and brandishing his heavy club, led them on, under the pretense of finding the Akonoshioni. When they had got near to their strong hold at Onondaga, night coming on, he bid them lie down in a hollow, telling them that he would make the attack at the customary hour, at day break. But at day break, having ascended a height, he overwhelmed them with a vast mass of rocks, where their forms may yet be seen. Only one escaped to carry the news of their dreadful fate, and he fled towards the north.

They were thus relieved, and began to live in more security, but the great On-yar-he, or Lake Serpent, was yet in the country. Alarmed by what Tarenyawagon had done to relieve his people, and fearing for himself, he withdrew to the lakes, where he and his brood were destroyed with thunderbolts, or compelled to retire to deep water.

The Five Families were so much molested with giants and monsters, that they were compelled to build forts to protect themselves. The manner of doing it was this: they built fires against trees, and then used their stone axes to pick off the charred part; in this way, by renewing the fire, they soon felled them; and the fallen trunks were burned off in suitable lengths, in the same way, and then setup according to the size and plan of the fort, a bank of earth being piled outside and inside. They left two gates, one to get water, and the other as a sally port.

For some time after the great On-yar-he had left the country, they had peace; but in after years a still more terrific enemy came. It had a man’s head on the body of a great serpent. This terrific foe took his position on the path between the Onondagas and Cayugas, and thus cut off all intercourse between their towns, for this was also the great thoroughfare of the five families, or nations. The bravest warriors were mustered to attack him with spears, darts and clubs. They approached him on all sides with yells. A terrible battle en sued 5 the monster raged furiously, but he was at last pierced in a vital place, and finally killed. This triumph was celebrated in songs and dances, and the people were consoled. They hunted again in peace, but after a time rumors began to be rife of the appearance of an extraordinary and ferocious animal in various places, under the name of the great O-yal-kher, or mammoth bear. One morning, while a party of hunters were in their camp, near the banks of a lake, in the Oneida country, they were alarmed by a great tumult breaking out from the lake. Going to see the cause of this extraordinary noise, they saw the monster on the bank rolling down stones and logs into the water, and exhibiting the utmost signs of rage. Another great animal of the cat kind, with great paws, came out of the water, and seized the bear. A dreadful fight ensued; in the end the bear was worsted and retired, horribly lamed. The next day the hunters ventured out to the spot, where they found one of the fore legs of the bear. It was so heavy that two men were required to lift it, but they found it was palatable food and made use of it, for their warriors believe that it inspires courage to eat of fierce and brave animals.

After a while, a great pestiferous and annoying creature of the insect tribe appeared about the forts at Onondaga, in the guise of the Ge-ne-uk-dah-sais-ke, or huge mosquito. It first appeared in the Onondaga country. It flew about the fort with vast wings, making a loud noise, with a long stinger, and on whomsoever it lighted, it sucked out his blood and killed him. Many warriors were killed in this way, and all attempts made to subdue it were abortive, till Tarenyawagon, or the Holder of the Heavens, was on a visit one day to the ruler of the Onondagas. The giant mosquito happened to come flying about the fort, as usual at this time. Tarenyawagon attacked it, but such was its rapidity of flight that he could scarcely keep in sight of it. He chased it around the border of the great lakes, towards sun setting, and round the great country at large, east and west. At last he overtook it and killed it near Gen-an-do-a, or the salt lake of Onondaga. From the blood flowing out on this occasion, the present species of small mosquitoes originated.Citations:

  1. It was designed, when these preliminary remarks were penned, to add some wilder legends than are here presented, which are, at present, withheld.[]
  2. Tor a poetic use of this tradition of the Heads and Stonish Giants, see Hoffman’s Wild Scenes, vol. 1, page 82. New York edition of 1843.[]
  3. Mohawk.[]

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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