Skywoman’s Sacred Creative Power
Recently I had an appointment with a dental hygienist I’d never met before. Making small talk, he asked me what I do. I told him I’m a mythologist, which means I study stories that have meant a lot to a lot of people. Sacred stories. He thought that over for a few minutes, then asked if I focused on any particular myths. Yes, I said, I focus on creation myths.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Genesis.”
“That’s one of them. But there are lots of others too, from all over the world.”
He blinked a few times, then he blurted, “But they all start with the man, right?”
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If you’ve had the good luck to read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, you might recall the story she shares about Skywoman. This sacred creation story comes from the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) alliance of Indigenous nations of the forested hills and lake country in what we now call upstate New York. John C. Mohawk’s book Iroquois Creation Story also tells of the divine creator Skywoman, beginning in Sky World, where she falls through a hole in the ground above, then keeps falling, down through the chasm between that world and this one.
As her body was sinking through the darkness she saw Fire Dragon (Comet) and he seized her body in flight.… “I will aid you as best as I can in all things so that you can survive when you arrive below.”Mohawk, Iroquois Creation Story
Fire Dragon accompanies Skywoman a little longer, and then he leaves. She keeps plummeting through the air toward an unlit sea where the primordial water-bird beings who live there, rush upward to lower her down on their wings. But where will they put this surprising new arrival? There’s no land in the world below, only water.
“Something must be done,” said Loon, “to keep her body from sinking.” Then Hanoghye (Muskrat) said, “I will dive to the bottom of the water to bring earth for her. It is well known to us that she has creative power and can use this earth.”
“It is well known,” the myth says, “that she has creative power.” The ensouled world recognizes in Skywoman a being of great creativity whose medium is earth itself. Soon after this, she creates the land (with the help of Turtle and Muskrat), and gives birth to a divine baby girl.
When Skywoman falls into the void, I feel a jolt of adrenaline. Surely she’ll die! But she doesn’t. The chasm turns out to be neither empty nor lifeless. Helpful, intelligent beings inhabit that space, an indication that the emptiness holds consciousness. Fire Dragon—fast, hot, ferocious—swoops in to assist. The bird beings empathize with her and slow her descent. In mythic terms, the void is actually alive and supportive. And Skywoman’s creativity seems to require this separation between realms, to require crossing it. Her difficult downward passage leads her to her deeper work. This scene offers an example of what Joseph Campbell calls “magical aid,” which helps Skywoman discover the pervading “benign power” that supports her. (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living 75)
Skywoman is an Indigenous creator, illustrating the creativity of Indigenous cultures and ideas. Skywoman partners with other beings, and her diverse, ecological creativity arises from an interconnected web. She is a woman, displaying an example of women’s creativity. Not coincidentally, Haudenosaunee nations lived in a matriarchal democracy where women and men both led – a system of government that inspired the founders of the United States. In short, Skywoman is a sacred being in the form of an Indigenous woman who collaborates with the natural world to create a stable, bountiful, beautiful biosphere.
What’s missing from this story? For one thing, there’s no commandment to exercise dominion over other beings. And instead of imagining women as an afterthought who exist for men’s pleasure and companionship, Skywoman is a powerful creator in her own right.
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The dental hygienist and I went on to have an interesting conversation about science, knowledge, and the limits of scientific knowledge. He was obviously no biblical literalist, and yet he still offered a clear example of mythic assumptions at work in the world. Thanks to the Genesis creation story, he believed that he and others of his gender were inherently privileged and entitled to come first.
Myths are stories that have meant a lot to a lot of people. In other words, myths hold great meaning. But meaning by itself has no moral valence or value. It is our job to bring conscious awareness to the many levels of meaning that myths carry–both at the surface and their deeper, more hidden, metaphorical values and assumptions.
I believe that this is one of the most important reasons to study sacred stories: to identify values and assumptions that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some values and assumptions are harmful. Some are helpful. We do well to listen–respectfully, reverently, and with gratitude–to the values and assumptions that divine creators like Skywoman share through their stories.
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Have you ever felt like Skywoman falling through the void, in moments when everything changed suddenly? Have unexpected helpers come to your aid? Have you ever bumped up against your own or others’ assumptions that were rooted in myth?
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