Who Was Sky Woman?

Art by Natasha Smoke-Santiago

Nine years after Megapolensis recorded his account of the Mohawk creation story, Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck captured another version, this one with an interesting variation.  We find it in his Description of New Netherland (1653).

They say that before the world and the mountains, humans, and animals had come into existence God was with the woman who dwells with him, and no one knows when that was or where they had come from. Water was all there was or at any rate water covered and overran everything. Even if an eye had existed at that time it could not have seen anything but water wherever it might have been, for all was water or covered by water. What then happened, they say, was that the aforementioned beautiful woman or idol descended from heaven into the water. She was gross and big like a woman who is pregnant of more than one child. Touching down gently, she did not sink deep, for at once a patch of land began to emerge under her at the spot where she had come down, and there she came to rest and remained.  The land waxed greater so that some areas became visible around the place where she sat, like someone standing on a sandbar in three or four feet of water while it ebbs away and eventually recedes so far that it leaves him entirely on dry land. That is how it went with the descended goddess, they say and believe, the land ever widening around her until its edge disappeared from view. Gradually grass and other vegetation sprang up and in time also fruit-bearing, and other trees, and from this, in brief, the whole globe came into being such as it appears to this day. Now whether the world you speak of and originally came from was then created as well, we are unable to say. At the time when all that had been accomplished the high personage went into labor and, being confined, gave birth to three different creatures: the first was in every respect like a deer as they are today, the second resembled a bear, and the third a wolf. The woman suckled those creatures to maturity and remained on earth for a considerable time during which she cohabited with each of the said animals and was delivered a number of times of various creatures in multiple births. Thus were bred all humans and animals of the several kinds and species that can still be seen in our day. In due course they began to segregate according, to the families and species still existing, both from an innate urge and for the sake of propriety. When all those things had thus been disposed and made self-perpetuating the universal mother ascended again to heaven rejoicing at having accomplished her task. There she continues to dwell forever, finding her entire happiness and delight in keeping and fostering the supreme Lord’s love for her. To that she is devoted and from it derives her complete enjoyment and satisfaction; therefore, God vouchsafes her his fondest love and highest esteem. Here below meanwhile humans and animals of all the various species that were the result of miscegenation increase and multiply, as does all creation the way we find it still. That is why human beings of whatever condition still exhibit the innate characters of one or other of the three animals mentioned, for they are either timid and harmless in the nature of deer, or vindictive, cruel, bold, and direct in the nature of bears, or bloodthirsty, greedy, subtle, and treacherous like wolves.

Van der Donck’s version of the creation story leaves out the “Turtle Island” imagery but retains the celestial woman who falls to earth and brings forth life, in this case by giving birth to a deer, a bear, and a wolf.  Other versions, such as those told by elders today, say that Sky Woman gave birth not to three animals, but to a daughter who would later give birth to twin sons, variously known as Sapling and Flint or Teharonhiawá:kon and Tawískaron.  (Some say Sky Woman herself gave birth to the twin sons.)  These twins created many of the things on earth but eventually had a great battle to determine who would rule the world.

Teharonhiawá:kon is of course the Tharonhij-Jagon that Megapolensis’s elderly Mohawk informant mentioned, the very same “God” who went out walking with his brother and killed him over a dispute.  Megapolensis assumed that this was just a garbled version of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible that somehow found its way into the Mohawk legends, perhaps from earlier contacts with Europeans, but today we are more inclined to recognize a universal duality going on in this story rather than just a case of cultural contamination.

Perhaps the identities of Sky Woman and her battling progeny aren’t quite as mysterious as all of this may seem.  Perhaps we’re really talking about real, flesh and blood people, our own ancestors.  Sky Woman may have been the original woman who led us to our historic place on the turtle’s shell, and Sapling and Flint may have been her sons or grandsons, perhaps leaders of rival factions.  Maybe she isn’t just one woman, but a symbolic representation of the women who were in control back then.  Her giving birth to various animals in the van der Donck version may simply explain the origin of various clans.

An archaeologist who has studied the Mohawk Valley believes that when our ancient ancestors established themselves there, they already had a matrilineal society.  The Iroquoian mix of horticulture, hunting, and fishing required a more sophisticated social and political structure than your typical roving band of male-dominated hunters.  The prominence of a “Sky Woman” in our creation story not only gives our matrilineal society an ancient pedigree, but a sense of divinity.  Who can argue with something sent from heaven?

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