The belief systems of the indigenous people of the continental United States often get twisted through the same condescending prism as the myths of the Inuit. Just as Balladeer’s Blog previously gave proper due to the deities of those people of the far north, this time around I hope to do the same with the figures from Choctaw mythology.
Much material about Native American mythology still reflects the distortions of the Christian missionaries who did some of the first work in recording the oral traditions of native mythology and who imposed their own editorial slant on those belief systems. In their efforts to guide the Choctaws and other peoples away from what the missionaries saw as “pagan belief systems” an artificial elevation of one “Great Spirit” figure, (analogous to the missionaries’ monotheistic “God” ) took place. An equally artificial de-emphasis on the divinity of the other figures in those belief systems took place, again accomodating the prejudices of the white recorders of the myths without regard to objectivity.
Ironically, politically correct scholars often wind up reinforcing these distortions of Native American mythology through the mistaken notion that the indigenous peoples originally presented their belief systems in this way. Those scholars often believe it is “Eurocentric” to look for pantheons in the Americas, unaware that it is the “Great Spirit” approach that is really the white distortion, and not the original reflection of indigenous beliefs. See the list of source books on my Inuit Myth page for some excellent research guides in tracing this unfortunate twisting of Native American belief systems.
For brevity’s sake, let me just say that this list is intended to help restore the entities from Choctaw myths to their proper place alongside the figures from other pantheons around the world, figures like Odin, Isis, Aphrodite and Vishnu. As with all belief systems there are many alternate versions of these myths.
For Inuit myths: http://glitternight.com/inuit-myth/
For Navajo myths: http://glitternight.com/navajo-myth-clear/
For Hawaiian myths: http://glitternight.com/hawaiian-myth/
11 and 12. HELOHA AND MELATHA – The Choctaw version of the Thunderbirds. The chief deity Nanishta (or in some versions the sun god Hashtali since he and Nanishta are often conflated in the myths) assigned these two gigantic, intelligent birds the task of coming up with a way of warning human beings about the approach of storms. Heloha, the female Thunderbird, lays enormous eggs which roll around on the clouds, causing the rumblings of thunder. Her mate Melatha, darts around catching the eggs before they fall off and plummet to the Earth below. Melatha flies so swiftly his movements manifest as flashes of lightning. As with the Navajo rain god Tonenili, Heloha and Melatha are often comic relief figures in myths.
10. OHOYOCHISBA – The Choctaw corn goddess. This daughter of the sun god and moon goddess was a beautiful woman dressed entirely in white. Long ago she was roaming the Choctaw lands disguising herself as a decrepit, emaciated old woman without a family. Most of the people shunned this wandering figure and refused her pleas for food and drink. The only people who would take her in were two Choctaw brothers, themselves orphaned and poverty- stricken. The two shared their meager meal of hawk meat with the seemingly old woman and let her sleep in their home overnight, sheltered from the rain.
The next morning Ohoyochisba revealed her true form to the brothers and before leaving told them to go to the spot where they first saw her the previous day (in some versions she tells them to wait a month beore going there). They did so and found strange seeds that when planted produced the first harvest of corn, and from then on this gift of Ohoyochisba was a staple of the Choctaw diet. Ohoyochisba can still be seen wandering the corn fields in her pure white gown from time to time.
9. HVASHI – This moon goddess was the wife of the sun god and the mother of the corn goddess. Hvashi rode across the nighttime sky on a giant owl but her divine radiance made it impossible for the human eye to make out anything except the vague outlines of her astride her flying mount (the figures on the moon’s surface of course ). The owl would only fly at night to avoid ever encountering pigeons, the enemy of owls in Choctaw mythology.
Hvashi, like the other first generation Choctaw deities, was created by the chief deity Nanishta. When she and her gigantic owl first arrived among the company of other Choctaw gods they were puzzled by her because she was noone’s sister or mother so there was no word for her role. She joined with the sun god Hashtali in the very first marriage ceremony and became the first wife, the new word to describe this type of female relation. Hvashi would spend all the moonless nights of the year with her husband in his home in the west.
8. ABOHLI – The goddess of the swamps and undergrowth. Abohli usually manifests herself as a human- sized swirling tornado of light floating through the swamps and carrying a pipe. Her children are the Na Losa Falaya, the “will-o-the- wisps” (actually brightly lighted swamp gas) who, like their mother, glide through the marshes astonishing and sometimes frightening the human beings who see them. Unlike their mother, however, the Na Losa Falaya have to remove all of their intestines and internal organs and set them aside before they are light enough to float.
In ancient times thornbushes, reeds, brambles and sharply-ribbed vines were poisonous to the touch and would kill any people who came into contact with them. Abohli did not like to see this harm befall the Choctaw people, who began to stay far away from her domain’s poisonous vegetation, even avoiding the streams adjacent to the goddess’ marshland home. Abohli gave the poisonous venom of the plantlife to snakes, bees and hornets instead so forever after the thorns and spines of the undergrowth may still scrape the flesh of human beings but are no longer fatal. Some of the swamp vegetation is still poisonous if eaten, however, and medicine men know how to tell which kind to avoid.
After the death of the stone-skinned demon Nunyunuwi Abohli transformed his remains into the gravel that often lines the very bottom of bayous.
7. UNCTA – The great bronze-colored spider god. Uncta was able to appear in both human form and as a giant spider. In his human form he would often entertain visitors to his lair and dispense advice and/ or prophecies to them. Uncta was the only deity brave enough to steal some of the sun’s flames in order to provide the Choctaw people with fire. Uncta lived with his sister, who could also assume human form and who is sometimes the one credited with stealing fire for humans.
Once when Uncta and his sister were in their human forms entertaining a visiting Choctaw couple the wife, named Crow, lusted after Uncta. Crow convinced his sister that her husband was actually her brother and that she was therefore unmarried and free to couple with the spider god. Uncta’s sister was fooled and informed Uncta of the woman’s attraction to him. The spider god and the mortal woman promptly had relations, disgusting the husband who immediately left. (What a sorehead!)
That night Crow gave birth to Uncta’s son (you know mythology). This son, named Yallofalaiya, grew to adulthood by morning and was already fashioning arrows for himself. Uncta was angry at Crow for lying to him and his sister and told her to take Yallofalaiya and leave. Mother and son went to the village of Crow’s husband but he and his family wanted nothing to do with the evil woman and her offspring. Furious, Crow ordered her son to kill her husband and his family.
Yallofalaiya was so swift and strong he filled the bodies of his enemies with arrows while withstanding their own assault. The rest of the villagers now attacked and, spurred on by his mother, Yallofalaiya killed every man, woman and child who lived there. Beholding this evil, the chief deity Nanishta struck Crow dead, transforming her into her namesake birds, evil creatures who eat the freshly planted corn intended for Choctaw consumption. Yallofalaiya did not want to live without his mother, so he laid down and died on the spot. Uncta removed his son’s sinews from the corpse and taught Choctaw women how to sew and weave using his son’s sinews as thread the way Uncta himself used silk to spin his webs.
6. BOHPOLI – This diminutive, two foot tall figure was sort of the Choctaw equivalent of Pan from Greek myths or Bes from Egyptian myths. He lived in the forests and he would often toy impishly with visitors to his arborial domain by throwing sticks or stones at them before ducking out of sight. Any unusual sounds or movements in the forests were attributed to Bohpoli, who forever dwelt on the outskirts of the peripheral vision of the human victims of his pranks.
Another of the figure’s favorite activities was to loudly bang on pine trees (yes, specifically pine trees) to wake up travelers who were camped for the night in his territory. Bohpoli lived in the deepest reaches of the forest in a cave concealed by large rocks. The only human beings capable of seeing and conversing with Bohpoli were medicine men.
The forest dweller began his relationship with these medicine men when they were children. He would select sensitive and enlightened youngsters and strike up a friendship with them. Since Bohpoli was so short he seemed like just another child to these future medicine men. As the relationship deepened Bohpoli would eventually take the children to visit his cavern home.
Once inside, the forest dweller would introduce the child to three elderly spirits with white hair. The first one offered him a knife, the second one poisonous herbs and the third one medicinal herbs. If the child accepts the knife he will grow up to be a violent mad man and kill his fellow Choctaws (but they’re so cute at that age). If he accepts the poisonous herbs he will become an evil medicine man and if he accepts the medicinal herbs he will become a wise and good medicine man.
Bohpoli and the spirits instruct the child in the esoteric teachings of whichever gift he selects and return him to his home. The child must never discuss his encounter with Bohpoli and his associates until after becoming a man.
5. ESKEILAY – The grasshopper goddess whose name means “mother of the unliving”. Eskeilay was human in form but with antennae . She sat with her limbs in the odd position that her grasshopper subjects imitated. This goddess ruled over the underground world, or Earth- womb, where the Choctaw people lived before emerging from the Earth at Nanih Waiya.
Eskeilay’s subterranean domain wasn’t so much an afterlife, like that ruled over by Nanishta, but was more a realm of “pre-birth” where spirits came from to be born. The Choctaws lived in the world below with Eskeilay, her grasshopper subjects and the other life forms of the day. When that world became too crowded the life forms began emerging from this Earth-womb at Nanih Waiya.
In the rush of the evacuation to the world above humans accidentally trampled and crushed many grasshoppers, including the grasshopper goddess’ own mother. Infuriated, Eskeilay called out to the chief deity Nanishta, who blocked the opening at Nanih Waiya to end the mad stampede. Many human beings were trapped in the underground world and the still-angry grasshopper goddess transformed them into ants, which is why ants also emerge from holes in the ground. In some traditions locusts are also among Eskeilay’s subjects for the same reason.
The Crawfish band of people were also inhabitants of the grasshopper goddess’ realm. They started out living on the surface world and were a species of humanoid crawfish. The Choctaws removed their shells and hair, taught them to walk upright and tried to assimilate them into the Choctaw culture. The Crawfish people rebelled against this and longed for a return to their more primitive lifestyle, so they went to live underground, where Eskeilay permitted them to live as they wished.
4. HATAKACHAFA – Variously translated as “Nameless One”, “Nameless Man” or “One Man Alone” this hunting god is also considered a wolf divinity even though he is not known as a creator of wolves but as a companion to the very first wolf in the world, whom he taught to howl. Like Herakles in Greek myths Hatakachafa was elevated to godhood after his life of adventure and tragedy.
Hatakachafa was the only son of the war chief of the Choctaw village of Eyasho. The hero was noted far and wide for his handsomeness, his oratorical skills, his boundless courage and his incomparable hunting ability. He had outgrown his boyhood name but had not yet been given his adult name because, by sheer mischance, he had yet to kill a foe of the Choctaws in wartime. That was why he was known only as the Nameless One or the other variations listed above.
Hatakachafa and Imma, the most beautiful (of course) maiden of the tribe, were deeply in love and with his hunting skill he always placed large quantities of game animals at the door of her family’s lodge. The two often shared private moments together but could not marry until the young man had won his adult name in battle. After the usual four nights of rituals preceding a war, the Choctaws were about to launch a campaign against the Osages and Hatakachafa hoped to finally earn his manly name.
The hero and his lady love said their goodbyes atop a hill heavy with pine trees and she watched him depart with the four hundred other braves to face the enemy. Days later the party led by Hatakachafa sought refuge for the night in a huge cave in Osage country. Overnight stealthy Osage warriors killed the sentries and erected a smokey fire, using the fumes to suffocate many members of the Choctaw war party in the cave and using arrows to strike down any coughing and choking survivors as they emerged.
Hatakachafa sought shelter from the smoke deeper and deeper in the cave and wound up wandering for countless days before emerging, half-starved, from a different mouth of the labyrinthine cavern in a strange part of the world no Choctaw had ever seen before. Armed with the traditional Choctaw weapons of a blowgun and a bow and arrows our hero spent a full year trying to find his way home and slew many monsters and had many adventures along the way.
First Hatakachafa encountered a horse-sized white wolf, the very first wolf in the world. After fighting, the two were so impressed with each other’s martial skill that they became loyal companions and the wolf let the heroic Choctaw ride him like a horse in their travels.
Hatakachafa’s other adventures included: killing a one- eyed monster terrorizing a forest … slaying a giant eagle that would snatch up babies and devour them in mid- air … destroying an ancient, headless ghost that would tear off the heads of people or animals that crossed its path … driving off Hoklonote’she, a telepathic shape-changer who stalked and preyed on hunters as they did with their quarries … killing a cannibalistic Kashikanchak and its monstrous child … surviving an encounter with Kashehotapolo, a figure with a shriveled face, the body of a man and the legs and hooves of a deer … saving children from the Okwa Nahollo, fish-people who live in ponds and streams and who replenish their numbers by pulling children into the water and turning them into fish- people themselves … killing a monstrous black cow (yes, a cow) with red eyes … and slaying an evil medicine man whose lodge was surrounded by ravenous bears, wildcats and alligators on leashes tied to trees.
Returning home one year to the day of his departure Hatakachafa learned that he had been given up for dead and his beloved Imma had immediately died from grief. She had lain down and died atop the pine-choked hill where the two lovers had said goodbye. Hatakachafa and his giant wolf went there and the mighty Choctaw hunter knelt down and let out long, mournful howls over and over again before falling down dead himself.
The wolf sadly imitated the howls of his lost companion before loping off into the night. He would mate with dogs and spawn all the smaller wolves in the world, teaching all of them the melancholy howl of his late Choctaw friend. It is said that for years afterward even the pine trees atop the hill would howl like wolves to commemorate the poignant story. Nanishta welcomed Hatakachafa to the afterlife and many Choctaws would pray to the figure for success in hunting. Imma herself was also canonized and is known as the beautiful idol of warriors, whose successes are dedicated to her.
3. CHOCTAW – This eponymous first man and progenitor of the Choctaw people is one of the world’s textbook examples of the worshipped ancestor and founder figure. Choctaw and his brother Chickasaw were the first human beings created by Nanishta when all life forms still dwelt in the grasshopper goddess’ underground world.
Choctaw and Chickasaw eventually led all their people in the exodus of life forms from the underground world, emerging from the world womb at Nanih Waiya. The people began building new homes for themselves around the place of emergence, but Nanishta kept causing the winds to blow down the structures overnight. Even when they tried building homes out of stone the winds simply increased in strength and blew those down, too.
Nanishta told Choctaw and Chickasaw that he was striking down their structures because they had failed to consult with him on their chosen place to live before beginning construction. He instructed them to plant a sacred red pole before camping for the night at every place they rested. If the pole stood straight up come morning the people would know that the spot was where Nanishta had decreed they could build their homes. If the pole leaned then they were to continue their journey in whichever direction the pole was inclined toward.
Assuming all this meant that Nanishta did not approve of the land around Nanih Waiya as their home, the people set off without bothering to try the pole where they were already trying to build homes. Led by the brothers Choctaw and Chickasaw the people traveled far and wide for years, their numbers growing due to births along the way. At every stop the sacred pole failed to stay upright come morning and so they journeyed on, for decades. Smaller groups of people grew weary of this nomadic existence and dropped off from the main group, establishing settlements and forming each of the world’s other tribes.
Generations came and went but Choctaw and Chickasaw, the favorites of Nanishta, still lived and retained their youthful strength as they led the ongoing migration. At long last their wandering brought them back to the area around Nanih Waiya. Initially despairing, Choctaw then remembered that he and Chickasaw had failed to plant the red pole in the ground before departing the territory way back when. (“D’OH!”)
Naturally this time the sacred pole was still upright come daylight and the people began erecting homes which this time were not blown down by Nanishta. The bones of all the people who had died along the long, long journey were buried in a mound around the lip of the entrance from the world womb at Nanih Waiya ( near present-day Philadelphia, MS).
Choctaw and Chickasaw gave the people all the laws and customs and ways of worshipping the gods. One day Misha Shipokni, “the river older than time” (the Mississippi ), overflowed its banks, flooding much of the area and permanently separating the people under Chickasaw from those under Choctaw. That is why the two tribes are separate to this very day.
2. HASHTALI – Also called Aba and other names, Hashtali was the sun god of the Choctaw people. Each day he rode his giant buzzard across the sky, but since his brightness was so much more intense than his wife the moon goddess’ was, human eyes were too weak to behold even an outline of him at the center of the brilliant light.
The god’s association with buzzards was part of his role as the psychopomp of the Choctaw pantheon. Dead bodies were laid out in the sun, where Hashtali’s sweltering heat and his familiar buzzards would nibble away at the dead person’s earthly remains. This accomodated the spirit’s journey to the afterlife and left it with no body to return home to even if it was so inclined.
When the spider god Uncta stole flames from the sun in order to provide humans with fire each individual fire ever started anywhere in the world was considered still faithful to Hashtali and reported to him everything that they witnessed. In this way Hashtali was aware of everything that happened in the world. Choctaw chiefs and statesmen would only conduct affairs of state on sunny days, deeming cloudy days to be signs that the sun god did not want them to convene.
All the stars in the sky were the daughters of Hashtali and his wife Hvashi. Moonless nights were the nights the moon goddess spent with her husband in his home in the west. The sun god’s greatest enemy was the giant black squirrel who would periodically try to devour him and the giant buzzard he rode. These battles were eclipses and Choctaw mothers would encourage their children to make as much noise as possible during eclipses to help Hashtali drive away his monstrous foe. (This is similar to myths in the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere in which noises are made to bring an end to an eclipse)
One day ages ago Choctaw realized that the only thing he could not yet teach his people was what happened to the sun god at the end of his daily journey. Two braves named Tashka and Walo (brothers of course) volunteered to follow the sun and find the answer for their revered ancestor. Leaving the area around Nanih Waiya the brothers spent long years following Hashtali by day and sleeping by night.
Tashka and Walo were both very old men by the time they reached the far western waters which the sun god and his mount dive into each night. Because the two brothers had learned much magic in their journey they were able to walk across the waters (like Nayanazgeni and Tobadzistsini in Navajo myths) and eventually reached the entrance to Hashtali’s home. This entrance was a doorway floating on the waters. Tashka and Walo climbed down through this door in the roof of the sun god’s house.
Once inside they encountered Hashtali and since it was a moonless night his wife Hvashi was there, too. The couple were startled because no human had ever reached their home before. The two gods questioned Tashka and Walo about their journey and its purpose. In addition Hashtali decided to test the brothers’ worthiness by having his wife boil a huge pot of water and submerging the two elderly men in it. (“My host hath strange notions of hospitality.”)
After the brothers survived being boiled Hashtali rubbed their skin until it was red and chafed, but still they did not cry out. Judging them worthy he welcomed them to stay overnight and presented them to each of his daughters. Come morning he allowed Tashka and Walo to ride with him on his giant buzzard as they flew out of the other doorway of the sun god’s home, the one that opened on the waters in the east.
Flying along, Hashtali informed his passengers that he would drop them off at the Choctaw people’s home near Nanih Waiya but that they would die if they ever told anyone about what they had witnessed in the sun god’s house. Tashka and Walo were welcomed back by Choctaw, who hadn’t aged a bit, but when they realized that everyone they had known and loved had died during their decades-long journey to the house of the sun god they decided they did not want to live anymore.
At the huge dinner Choctaw feasted the brothers with that night they told him all about everything they had seen and, as Hashtali had warned, they promptly died. The sun god welcomed them into his celestial court to marry some of his daughters and they were thenceforth worshipped by men, one as the god of the dawn and the other as the god of dusk, to herald the sun’s emergence in the morning and to welcome him home in the evening. Their skin was forever reddened by the boiling and scraping Hashtali had subjected them to and that is why the sky is often red near sunrise and near sunset.
1. NANISHTA – Also called Chitokaka, Shilup Chito Osh and other names, this chief deity of the Choctaw pantheon was less active after the initial ages of creation and his role and identity was in some traditions conflated with that of the sun god as time went on. First Nanishta created the sun and the moon, the underground world of the grasshopper goddess and the surface world of the Earth.
Next he created the plant and animal life forms, then created water for the ducks, geese and fishes. Then he comingled Earth and water to form the swamplands for the frogs and alligators and put the goddess Abohli in command. Following that he created the brothers Choctaw and Chickasaw. After 70 years of being the only human beings in the underground world the ageless brothers asked Nanishta for mates so that they might multiply like the other life forms.
Nanishta agreed and used the same yellow clay he had used in creating the other life forms to sculpt the first human women. He gave to each of the women a heart more like his own than the hearts he had given to Choctaw and Chickasaw and warned the men that since women had his more tender heart they should be treated gently by men and respected by them. (This is probably why the early Choctaw culture was matriarchal, OR it’s a myth coined to justify WHY it was matriarchal)
The females were little girls, just as Choctaw and Chickasaw had been little boys when they were first created, so Nanishta sang an aging song to accelerate their development so they quickly reached womanhood and could be taken as wives. When those first wives died the ageless brothers Choctaw and Chickasaw took new wives and so on for generations until the human population crowded the underground world so much that Nanishta ordered the mass exodus through the Earth womb at Nanih Waiya. The other Choctaws, both men and women, all had limited lifespans like the first wives of Choctaw and Chickasaw.
Eventually the day came when Nanishta decreed that the people led by Choctaw and Chickasaw should become separate, but still kindred, nations. He caused the Misha Shipokni ( “river older than time”) to overflow its banks in the great autumn flood that drove a wedge between the Choctaw people and the Chickasaw people and forced the Chickasaw to evacuate to higher ground far away.
The flood was also indirectly responsible for the red feathers on the heads of the birds called tcalantak by the Choctaws. These birds flew so high in their rush to escape the rising water from the overflowing river that they came too close to Hashtali the sun god and their head- feathers were singed, remaining red to this very day.
When Choctaw men and women began marrying people of other races it was warned that Nanishta would cause the children born from such unions to have spotted skin. Once again we are reminded that all of the world’s belief systems contain elements of some form of bigotry.
Nanishta eventually retired into a much less active role, aside from occassional actions like transforming the evil woman Crow into her namesake birds. However, there is a powerful end of the world tradition in Choctaw myths which finds Nanishta back in action.
There will come a year when Nanishta prevents summer from coming and allows most of the trees to disappear. Days will become shorter. He will cause the hair of all children to turn white as if from old age. The land will become unfarmable causing widespread famine. Nanishta will come back down to the Earth for what is called the Third Removal. He will gather all the Choctaws and Chickasaws who have not abandoned their heritage and begin leading them toward the mountains, where game animals of all kinds have already been evacuated to.
Along the way the Choctaw people will begin crying, like so many did on the Trail of Tears long ago. (It wasn’t just the Cherokee who were forced on the Trail of Tears like most people think. The Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Muskogee tribes were also involved) Nanishta will transform those falling tears into a flood that will kill all the other people of the world. The Choctaws and Chickasaws will be safe in the mountains but everyone else will die trying to reach higher ground. When the flood waters subside the Choctaws and Chickasaws will come back down to repopulate the Earth while nature heals itself to the point where the land is as lush and green as it was centuries ago.
FOR THE TOP 15 IROQUOIS DEITIES CLICK HERE – http://glitternight.com/2013/01/28/the-top-fifteen-deities-in-iroquois-mythology/