Myths & Legends



Iroquois: Hi-Nun

Hi-nun or Hinon is the Iroquois thunder god. He is the eldest brother and leader of the winged race of Thunders, magical beings who live in the sky and cause thunder and lightning.

The legends that follow were collected by Erminnie A. Smith, and published in a compilation entitled Myths of the Iroquois, published by the Smithsonian Institutions’ Bureau of Ethnology.
— Orly


A hunter in the woods was once caught in a thunder-shower, when he heard a voice calling upon him to follow. This he did until he found himself in the clouds, the height of many trees from the ground. Beings which seemed to be men surrounded him, with one among them who seemed to be their chief. He was told to look below and tell whether he could see a huge water-serpent. Replying that he could not, the old man anointed his eyes, after which he could see the monster in the depths below him. They then ordered one of their number to try and kill this enemy to the human race. Upon his failing, the hunter was told to accomplish the feat. He accordingly drew his bow and killed the foe. He was then conducted back to the place where he had sought shelter from the storm, which had now ceased.

This was man's first acquaintance with the Thunder God and his assistants, and by it he learned that they were friendly toward the human race, and protected it from dragons, serpents, and other enemies.



A beautiful Indian maiden was about to be compelled by her family to marry a hideous old Indian.

Despair was in her heart. She knew that there was no escape for her, so in desperation she leaped into her canoe and pushed it from shore on the roaring waters of Niagara. She heeded not that she was going to her death, preferring the angry waters to the arms of her detested lover.

Now, the God of Cloud and Rain, the great deity Hi-nuⁿ, who watches over the harvest, dwelt in a cave behind the rushing waters. From his home he saw the desperate launching of the maiden's canoe; saw her going to almost certain destruction. He spread out his wings and flew to her rescue, and caught her just as her frail bark was dashing on the rocks below.

The grateful Indian girl lived for many weeks in Hi-nuⁿ's cave. He taught her many new things. She learned from him why her people died so often—why sickness was always busy among them. He told her how a snake lay coiled up under the ground beneath the village, and how he crept out and poisoned the springs, because he lived upon human beings and craved their flesh more and more, so that he could never get enough if they died from natural causes.

Hi-nuⁿ kept the maiden in till he learned that the ugly old suitor was dead. Then he bade her return and tell her tribe what she had learned of the great Hi-nuⁿ.

She taught them all he had told her and begged them to break up their settlement and travel nearer to the lake; and her words prevailed. For a while sickness ceased, but it broke out again, for the serpent was far too cunning to be so easily outwitted. He dragged himself slowly but surely after the people, and but for Hi-nuⁿ's influence would have undermined the new settlement as he had the former one. Hi-nuⁿ watched him until he neared the creek, then he launched a thunderbolt at him. A terrible noise awoke all the dwellers by the lake, but the snake was only injured, not killed. Hi-nuⁿ was forced to launch another thunderbolt, and another and another, before, finally, the poisoner was slain.

The great dead snake was so enormous that when the Indians laid his body out in death it stretched over more than twenty arrow flights, and as he floated down the waters of Niagara it was as if a mountain appeared above them. His corpse was too large to pass the rocks, so it became wedged in between them and the waters rose over it mountains high. As the weight of the monster pressed on the rocks they gave way and thus the horseshoe form, that remains to this day, was fashioned. But the Indians had no more fever in their settlement.



On one occasion in the ancient time three warriors set out on an expedition. When they were far distant from their own land, one of them had the misfortune to break his leg. By the Indian law it became the duty of the others to convey their injured comrade back to his home. They formed a rude litter, and, laying him upon it, bore him for some distance.

At length they came to a ridge of mountains. The way was hard and the exertion severe. To rest themselves, they placed their burden on the ground. They withdrew to a little distance and took evil counsel together. There was a deep hole, or pit, opening into the ridge of the mountain at a little distance from the place where they were sitting. Returning to the litter, they took up their helpless load, carried him near the brink of the pit, and suddenly hurled him in. Then they set off rapidly for their own country. When they arrived they reported that he had died of wounds received in fight. Great was the grief of his mother, a widow, whose only support he had been. To soothe her feelings they told her that her son had not fallen into the enemy's hands. They had rescued him, they said, from that fate, had carefully tended him in his last hours, and had given his remains a becoming burial.

They little imagined that he was still alive. When he was thrown down by his treacherous comrades he lay for some time insensible at the bottom of the pit. When he recovered his senses, he observed an old gray-headed man seated near him, crouching into a cavity on one side of the pit. "Ah, my son," said the old man, "what have your friends done to you?" "They have thrown me here to die, I suppose," he replied, with true Indian stoicism. "You shall not die," said the old man, "if you will promise to do what I require of you in return for saving you." "What is that?" asked the youth. "Only that when you recover you will remain here and hunt for me and bring me the game you kill." The young warrior readily promised, and the old man applied herbs to his wound and attended him skillfully until he recovered. This happened in the autumn. All through the winter the youth hunted in the service of the old man, who told him that whenever he killed any game too large for one man to carry, he would come himself and help to convey it to the pit, in which they continued to reside. When the spring arrived, bringing melting snows and frequent showers, he continued his pursuit of the game, though with more difficulty. One day he encountered an enormous bear, which he was lucky enough to kill. As he stooped to feel its fatness and judge of its weight, he heard a murmur of voices behind him. He had not imagined that any human beings would find their way to that lonely region at that time of the year. Astonished, he turned and saw three men, or figures in the shape of men, clad in strange cloud-like garments, standing near him. "Who are you?" he asked. In reply they informed him that they were the Thunderers (Hi-nuⁿ). They told him that their mission was to keep the earth and everything upon it in good order for the benefit of the human race. If there was a drought, it was their duty to bring rain; if there were serpents or other noxious creatures, they were commissioned to destroy them, and, in short, to do away with everything injurious to mankind. They told him that their present object was to destroy the old man to whom he had bound himself, and who, as they would show him, was a very different sort of being from what he pretended to be. For this they required his aid. If he would assist them he would do a good act, and they would convey him back to his home, where he would see his mother and be able to take care of her. This proposal and their assurances overcame any reluctance the young man might have felt to sacrifice his seeming benefactor. He went to him and told him that he had killed a bear and needed his help to bring it home. The old man was anxious and uneasy. He bade the youth examine the sky carefully and see if there was the smallest speck of cloud visible. The young man replied that the sky was perfectly clear. The old man then came out of the hollow and followed the young hunter, urging him constantly to make haste, and looking upward with great anxiety. When they reached the bear they cut it up hurriedly with their knives, and the old man directed the youth to place it all on his shoulders. The youth complied, though much astonished at his companion's strength. The old man set off hastily for the pit, but just then a cloud appeared and the thunder rumbled in the distance. The old man threw down his load and started to run. The thunder rumbled nearer, and the old man assumed his proper form of an enormous porcupine, which fled through the bushes, discharging its quills like arrows backward as it ran. But the thunder followed him, with burst upon burst, and finally a bolt struck the huge animal, which fell lifeless into its den.

Then the Thunderers said to the young man, "Now, that we have done our work here, we will take you to your home and your mother, who is grieving for you all the time."

They gave him a dress like that which they wore, a cloud-like robe, having wings on its shoulders, and told him how these were to be moved. Then he rose with them in the air, and soon found himself in his mother's cornfield. It was night. He went to her cabin, and drew aside the mat which covered the opening. The widow started up and gazed at him in the moonlight with terror, thinking that she saw her son's ghost. He guessed her thoughts. "Do not be alarmed, mother," he said; "it is no ghost. It is your son come back to take care of you." As may be supposed, the poor woman was overjoyed, and welcomed her long-lost son with delight. He remained with her, fulfilling his duties as a son, for the rest of the year. What was done to his treacherous comrades is not recorded. They were too insignificant to be further noticed in the story, which now assumes a more decided mythological character.

When the Thunderers bade farewell to the young man they said to him, "We will leave the cloud-dress with you. Every spring, when we return, you can put it on and fly with us to be witness to what we do for the good of man." Accordingly, the youth hid the dress in the woods, that no one might see it, and waited until the spring. Then the Thunderers returned, and he resumed the robe, and floated with them in the clouds over the earth. As they passed above a mountain he became thirsty, and seeing below him a pool he descended to drink of it. When he rejoined his companions they looked at him, and saw that the water with which his lips were moist had caused them to shine as if smeared with oil. "Where have you been drinking?" they asked him eagerly. "In yonder pool," he answered, pointing to where it lay still in sight. They said, "There is something in that pool which we must destroy. We have sought it for years, and now you have happily found it for us." Then they cast a mighty thunderbolt into the pool, which presently became dry. At the bottom of it, blasted by the thunder, was an immense grub, of the kind which destroys the corn and beans and other products of the fields and gardens; but this was a vast creature ("as big as a house," said the chief), the special patron and representative of all grubs. After accompanying his spirit friends to some distance, and seeing more of their good deeds of the like sort, the youth returned home and told his friends that the Thunder was their divine protector, and narrated the proofs which he had witnessed of this benignant character. Thence originated the honor in which the Thunder is held among the Indians. Many Iroquois still call Hi-nuⁿ their grandfather.




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