Islands in Literature
All people have origin stories. Most of these seem the 21st century reader to be phantasmagorical involving creatures and events in nature that the modern human categorized as “myth”. For those in the western world with Judeo-Christian tradition, the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel are well known as is the story of Noah and the Great Flood.
What about other origin stories? Perhaps it is not surprising that many of the origin stories are similar. The story of a great flood, for example is found throughout the world. These flood stories also comport with science. The Boston Harbor Islands are part of geologic flood story in that when the great ice sheet began to melt, once dry land was flooded, creating rivers, lakes, harbors and bays. Many indigenous tribes in what Eastern North America is now refer to this great flood in their origin stories: From the Ojibway of Eastern Canada, the story is told of the Great Spirit (Kitche Manitou) creating the world, and all was harmony until disaster fell and the rains began to fall:
“At length the rains ceased, the clouds vanished, and the sun shone.
“High in the heavens there lived alone a woman, a spirit. Without a companion she grew despondent. In her solitude she asked Kitche Manitou for some means to dispel her loneliness. Taking compassion on the sky-woman, Kitche Manitou sent a spirit to become her consort.
Sky woman and her companion were happy together. In time the spirit woman conceived. Before she gave birth her consort left. Alone she bore two children, one pure spirit and one pure physical being.
The new beings of opposite natures and substances hated one another. In a fiery sky battle they fought and destroyed each another.
After the destruction of her children, the spirit woman again lived in solitude. Kitche Manitou knowing her desolation once more sent a companion. Again sky-woman conceived. As before her consort left by sky-woman remained content. The water creatures observed what was happening in the heavens, sensed the weariness of the spirit woman, and pitied her. In their compassion they sought ways to provide relief for her. Eventually they persuaded a giant turtle to rise to the surface of the waters and offer his back as a haven. When the great turtle agreed, the water beings invited the sky woman to come down.”
The story continues as the sky woman comes down to the turtles back. She asks the water creatures to get some soil from the bottom of the sea. Many creatures tried – the beaver, the martin and the loon. All failed until the little muskrat tried. He was gone for a very long time.
“When the waiting creatures had given up, the muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsal of soil. Where the great had failed the small succeeded,
When the muskrat was tended and restored to health, the spirit woman painted the rim of the turtles back with the small amount of soil that had been brought to her. She breathed upon it and into the breath of life. Immediately the soil grew, covered the turtles back, and formed an island. The turtle had given his service, which was no longer required and he swam away. The island formed this way was called Mishee Mackinakong, the place of the Great Turtles Back, now known as Michilimackinac.”
The story continues to explain the populating of the island, the introduction of new creatures and finally, human beings. The concept of Turtle Island is found throughout the eastern part of what is now North America.
Does any of this sound familiar?
From the Book: Ojibway Heritage . Edited by Basil Johnson. 1976. University of Nebraska Press