Myths & Legends



Iroquois:  Ioskeha

Iroquois: Ioskeha

Daniel Garrison Brinton (May 13, 1837 – July 31, 1899) was an American archaeologist and ethnologist who made a considerable contribution to the study of native cultures particularly of the Maya. His study of native America cultural legends has a marked bias towards seeing the supernatural element as allegorical natural force figures.

The Legend of Ioskeha, reproduced in American Hero-Myths A Study in Native Religions of the Western Continent, has this patina of anthropomorphism as explainer. The word “myth” has been substituted with “fable”.
— Orly

The most ancient fable of the Iroquois represents this earth as covered with water, in which dwelt aquatic animals and monsters of the deep. Far above it were the heavens, peopled by supernatural beings. At a certain time one of these, a woman, by name Ataensic, threw herself through a rift in the sky and fell toward the earth. What led her to this act was variously recorded. Some said that it was to recover her dog which had fallen through while chasing a bear. Others related that those who dwelt in the world above lived off the fruit of a certain tree; that the husband of Ataensic, being sick, dreamed that to restore him this tree must be cut down; and that when Ataensic dealt it a blow with her stone axe, the tree suddenly sank through the floor of the sky, and she precipitated herself after it.

However the event occurred, she fell from heaven down to the primeval waters. There a turtle offered her his broad back as a resting-place until, from a little mud which was brought her, either by a frog, a beaver or some other animal, she, by magic power, formed dry land on which to reside.

At the time she fell from the sky she was pregnant, and in due time was delivered of a daughter, whose name, unfortunately, the legend does not record. This daughter grew to womanhood and conceived without having seen a man, for none was as yet created. The product of her womb was twins, and even before birth one of them betrayed his restless and evil nature, by refusing to be born in the usual manner, but insisting on breaking through his parent's side (or armpit). He did so, but it cost his mother her life. Her body was buried, and from it sprang the various vegetable productions which the new earth required to fit it for the habitation of man. From her head grew the pumpkin vine; from her breast, the maize; from her limbs, the bean and other useful esculents.

Meanwhile the two brothers grew up. The one was named Ioskeha. He went about the earth, which at that time was arid and waterless, and called forth the springs and lakes, and formed the sparkling brooks and broad rivers. But his brother, the troublesome Tawiscara, he whose obstinacy had caused their mother's death, created an immense frog which swallowed all the water and left the earth as dry as before. Ioskeha was informed of this by the partridge, and immediately set out for his brother's country, for they had divided the earth between them.

Soon he came to the gigantic frog, and piercing it in the side (or armpit), the waters flowed out once more in their accustomed ways. Then it was revealed to Ioskeha by his mother's spirit that Tawiscara intended to slay him by treachery. Therefore, when the brothers met, as they soon did, it was evident that a mortal combat was to begin.

Now, they were not men, but gods, whom it was impossible really to kill, nor even could either be seemingly slain, except by one particular substance, a secret which each had in his own keeping. As therefore a contest with ordinary weapons would have been vain and unavailing, they agreed to tell each other what to each was the fatal implement of war. Ioskeha acknowledged that to him a branch of the wild rose (or, according to another version, a bag filled with maize) was more dangerous than anything else; and Tawiscara disclosed that the horn of a deer could alone reach his vital part.

They laid off the lists, and Tawiscara, having the first chance, attacked his brother violently with a branch of the wild rose, and beat him till he lay as one dead; but quickly reviving, Ioskeha assaulted Tawiscara with the antler of a deer, and dealing him a blow in the side, the blood flowed from the wound in streams. The unlucky combatant fled from the field, hastening toward the west, and as he ran the drops of his blood which fell upon the earth turned into flint stones. Ioskeha did not spare him, but hastening after, finally slew him. He did not, however, actually kill him, for, as I have said, these were beings who could not die; and, in fact, Tawiscara was merely driven from the earth and forced to reside in the far west, where he became ruler of the spirits of the dead. These go there to dwell when they leave the bodies behind them here.

Ioskeha, returning, peaceably devoted himself to peopling the land. He opened a cave which existed in the earth and allowed to come forth from it all the varieties of animals with which the woods and prairies are peopled. In order that they might be more easily caught by men, he wounded every one in the foot except the wolf, which dodged his blow; for that reason this beast is one of the most difficult to catch. He then formed men and gave them life, and instructed them in the art of making fire, which he himself had learned from the great tortoise. Furthermore he taught them how to raise maize, and it is, in fact, Ioskeha himself who imparts fertility to the soil, and through his bounty and kindness the grain returns a hundred fold.


The home of Ioskeha is in the far East, at that part of the horizon where the sun rises. There he has his cabin, and there he dwells with his grandmother, the wise Ataensic. She is a woman of marvelous magical power, and is capable of assuming any shape she pleases. In her hands is the fate of all men's lives, and while Ioskeha looks after the things of life, it is she who appoints the time of death, and concerns herself with all that relates to the close of existence. Hence she was feared, not exactly as a maleficent deity, but as one whose business is with what is most dreaded and gloomy.

It was said that on a certain occasion four bold young men determined to journey to the sun-rising and visit the great Ioskeha. They reached his cabin and found him there alone. He received them affably and they conversed pleasantly, but at a certain moment he bade them hide themselves for their life, as his grandmother was coming. They hastily concealed themselves, and immediately Ataensic entered. Her magic insight had warned her of the presence of guests, and she had assumed the form of a beautiful girl, dressed in gay raiment, her neck and arms resplendent with collars and bracelets of wampum. She inquired for the guests, but Ioskeha, anxious to save them, dissembled, and replied that he knew not what she meant. She went forth to search for them, when he called them forth from their hiding place and bade them flee, and thus they escaped.



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