Franz Boas

[Extracted from The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 12 (Jan.-Mar., 1891), pp. 14-20.]

The study of the folk-lore of the Old World has proved the fact that dissemination of tales was almost unlimited. They were carried from east to west, and from south to north, from books to the folk, and from the folk to books. Since this fact has become understood, the explanation of tales does not seem so simple and easy a matter as it formerly appeared to be.

We will apply this experience to the folk-lore and mythologies of the New World, and we shall find that certain well-defined features are common to the folk-lore of many tribes. This will lead us to the conclusion that diffusion of tales was just as frequent and just as widespread in America as it has been in the Old World.

But in attempting a study of the diffusion of tales in America we are deprived of the valuable literary means which are at our disposal in carrying on similar researches on the folk-lore of the Old World. With few exceptions, only the present folk-lore of each tribe is known to us. We are not acquainted with its growth and development. Therefore the only method open to us is that of comparison. This method, however, is beset with many difficulties. There exist certain features of tales and myths that are well-nigh universal. The ideas underlying them seem to suggest themselves easily to the mind of primitive man, and it is considered probable that they originated independently in regions widely apart. To exemplify: The tale of the man swallowed by the fish, or by some other animal, which has been treated by Dr. E. B. Tylor ("Early History of Mankind," p. 345; "Primitive Culture," vol. i. p. 328), is so simple that we may doubt whether it is due to dissemination. The German child tells of Tom Thumb swallowed by the cow; the Ojibway, of Nanabozhoo swallowed by the fish; the negro of the Bahamas, according to Dr. Edwards, of the rabbit swallowed by the cow; the Hindoo, of the prince swallowed by the whale; the Bible, of the prophet Jonah; the Micronesian, of two men inclosed in a bamboo and sent adrift. Are these stories of independent origin, or have they been derived from one source? This vexed question will embarrass us in all our studies on the folk-lore of primitive people.

Then, we may ask, is there no criterion which we may use for deciding the question whether a tale is of independent origin, or whether its occurrence at a certain place is due to diffusion? I believe we may safely assume that, wherever a story which consists of the same combination of several elements is found in two regions, we [p.14] must conclude that its occurrence in both is due to diffusion. The more complex the story is, which the countries under consideration have in common, the more this conclusion will be justified. I will give an example which will make this clearer. Petitot ("Traditions Indiennes du Canada Nord-ouest," p. 311) tells a story of the Dog-Rib Indians of Great Slave Lake: A woman was married to a dog and bore six pups. She was deserted by her tribe, and went out daily procuring food for her family. When she returned she found tracks of children around her lodge, but did not see any one besides her pups. Finally she discovered from a hiding-place that the dogs threw off their skins as soon as she left them. She surprised them, took away the skins, and the dogs became children,—a number of boys and one girl. These became the ancestors of the Dog-Rib Indians. We may analyze this story as follows: 1. A woman mated with a dog. 2. Bears pups. 3. Deserted by her tribe. 4. Sees tracks of children. 5. Surprises them. 6. Takes their skins. 7. They become a number of boys and one girl. 8. They become the ancestors of a tribe of Indians. These eight elements have been combined into a story in the same way on Vancouver Island, where a tribe of Indians derives its origin from dogs. The single "elements" of this tale occur in other combinations in other tales. The elements may have arisen independently in various places, but the sameness of their combination proves most conclusively that the whole combination, that is, the story, has been carried from Arctic America to Vancouver Island, or vice versa.

It is, however, necessary to apply this method judiciously, and the logical connection of what I have called "elements" must be taken into account. A single element may consist of a number of incidents which are very closely connected and still form one idea. There is, for instance, an Aino tale of a rascal who, on account of his numerous misdeeds, was put into a mat to be thrown into a river. He induced the carriers to go to look for a treasure which he claimed to possess, and meanwhile induced an old blind man to take his place by promising him that his eyes would be opened. Then the old man was thrown into the river, and the rascal took possession of his property. We find this identical tale in Anderson's fairy tales, and are also reminded of Sir John Falstaff. While it is quite probable that these tales have a common root, still they are so consistent in themselves that the same idea might have arisen independently on several occasions. In cases like this we have to look for corroborating evidence.

This may be found either in an increase of the number of analogous tales, or in their geographical distribution. Whenever we find a tale spread over a continuous area, we must assume that it spread [p.15] over this territory from a single centre. If, besides this, we should know that it does not occur outside the limits of this territory, our conclusion will be considerably strengthened. This argument will be justified even should our tale be a very simple one. Should it be complex, both our first and second methods may be applied, and our conclusion will be the more firmly established.

I will give an example of this kind. Around the Great Lakes we find a deluge legend: A number of animals escaped in a canoe or on a raft, and several of them dived to the bottom of the water in order to bring up the land. The first attempts were in vain, but finally the muskrat succeeded in bringing up a little mud, which was expanded by magic and formed the earth. Petitot recorded several versions of this tale from the Mackenzie Basin. It is known to the various branches of the Ojibway and to the Ottawa. Mr. Dorsey recorded it among tribes of the Siouan stock, and kindly sent me an Iowa myth, related by the Rev. W. Hamilton, which belongs to the same group. On the Atlantic coast the legend has been recorded by Zeisberger, who obtained it from the Delawares, and Mr. Mooney heard it told by the Cherokees in a slightly varied form.

They say that in the beginning all animals were up above, and that there was nothing below but a wide expanse of water. Finally, a small water-beetle and the water-spider came down from above, and, diving to the bottom of the water, brought up some mud, from which the earth was made. The buzzard flew down while the land was still soft, and by the flapping of its wings made the mountains. The Iroquois have a closely related myth, according to which a woman fell down from heaven into the boundless waters. A turtle arose from the flood, and she rested on her back until an animal brought up some mud, from which the earth was formed. I have not found any version of this legend from New England or the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, although the incident of the turtle forming the earth occurs. We do not find any trace of this legend in the South, but on turning to the Pacific coast we find it recorded in three different places. The Yocut in California say that at a time when the earth was covered with water there existed a hawk, a crow, and a duck. The latter, after diving to the bottom and bringing up a beakful of mud, died. Whereupon the crow and the hawk took each one half of the mud, and set to work to make the mountains. This tale resembles in some respects the Cherokee tale. Farther north I found the tale of the muskrat bringing up the mud among the Molalla, the Chinook, and the Bilqula, while all around these places it is unknown. As, besides, these are the places where intercourse with the interior takes place, we must conclude that the tale has been carried to the coast from the interior. Thus we obtain the [p.16] result that the tale of the bringing up of the earth from the bottom of the water is told all over an enormous area, embracing the Mackenzie Basin, the watershed of the Great Lakes, the Middle and South Atlantic coasts, and a few isolated spots on the Pacific coast which it reached overflowing over the mountain passes.

We will now once more take up the legend of the woman and her pups. I mentioned that two almost identical versions are known to exist, one from Great Slave Lake, the other from Vancouver's Island. The legend is found in many other places. On the Pacific coast it extends from southern Oregon to southern Alaska, but in the north and south slight variations are found. Petitot recorded a somewhat similar tale among the Hare Indians of Great Bear Lake, so that we find it to occupy a continuous area from the Mackenzie to the Pacific coast, with the exception of the interior of Alaska. Among the Eskimo of Greenland and of Hudson Bay we find a legend which closely resembles the one we are considering here. A woman married a dog and had ten pups. She was deserted by her father, who killed the dog. Five of her children she sent inland, where they became the ancestors of a tribe who are half dog, half man. The other five she sent across the ocean, where they became the ancestors of the Europeans. The Greenland version varies slightly from the one given here, but is identical with it in all its main features. Fragments of the same story have been recorded by Mr. James Murdoch at Point Barrow. We may analyze this tale as follows: 1. A woman married a dog. 2. She had pups. 3. Was deserted by her father. 4. The pups became ancestors of a tribe. Here we have four of the elements of our first story combined in the same way and forming a new story. Besides this, the geographical distribution of the two tales is such that they are told in a continuous area. From these two facts we conclude that they must have been derived from the same source. The legend of the half-human beings with dog legs forms an important element in Eskimo lore, and according to Petitot is also found among the Loucheux and Hare Indians. This increases the sweep of our story to that part of North America lying northwest of a line drawn from southern Oregon to Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland. It is worth remarking that in Baffinland the mother of the dogs is, at the same time, the most important deity of the Eskimo. These arguments hardly need being strengthened.

We may find, however, additional reasons for our opinion in the fact that there are other stories common to Greenland and Oregon. One of the most remarkable among these is the story of the man who recovered his eyesight. The tale runs about as follows: A boy lost his eyesight, and ever since that time his mother let him [p.17] starve. His sister, who loved him dearly, fed him whenever she was able to do so. One day a bear attacked their hut, and the mother gave the boy his bow and arrow, levelled it, and the boy shot the bear. His flesh served the mother and sister for food all through the winter, while she had told the boy that he had missed the bear and that it had made its escape. In spring a wild goose flew over the hut and asked the boy to follow it. The bird took the boy to a pond, dived with him several times, and thus restored his eyesight. The boy then took revenge on his mother. I recorded this, story once on the shores of Baffin Bay, once in Rivers Inlet in British Columbia. Rink tells the same story from Greenland. Here we have an excellent example of a very complex story in two widely separated regions. We cannot doubt for a moment that it is actually the same story which is told by the Eskimo and by the Indian. Besides this story there are quite a number of others which are common to the Eskimo and to tribes of the North Pacific coast.

From these facts we conclude that diffusion of tales between the Eskimo and the Indian tribes of the western half of our continent has been quite extensive. On the other hand, notwithstanding many assertions to the contrary, there are hardly any close relations between the tales of the Algonquin and the Eskimo. In Leland's collection of New England tales, for instance, I found only one or possibly two elements that belong to Eskimo lore,—the capture of a bathing girl by taking away her clothing, and the killing of birds which were enticed to come into a lodge. Both of these appear, however, in combinations which differ entirely from those in which they occur in the Eskimo tales.

There are, however, very close relations between the tales of the Algonquin and those of the Pacific coast I will select one of the most striking examples. Leland, in his collection of Algonquin legends (p. 145), tells of two sisters who slept in a forest, and, on seeing stars, wished them to become their husbands. On the following morning they found themselves in heaven, one the wife of a man with beautiful eyes, the other the wife of a man with red twinkling eyes,—both the stars whom they had desired for their husbands. Then they peeped down through a hole in the ground and perceived the earth, to which they eventually returned. This abstract may stand for another story which I collected at Victoria, B. C. There are quite a number of other Algonquin tales which are found also on the Pacific coast. I select some more examples from Leland's book because the distance between the tribes he studied and those of the Pacific coast is the greatest. He tells of the rabbit which tried to rival in a variety of ways a number of animals. The same tales are told of Hiawatha and Nanabozhoo; in Alaska they are told of the [p.18] raven. In a Passamaquoddy legend it is stated (Leland, op. cit., p. 38) that a witch asked a man to free her from vermin which consisted of toads and porcupines. When she asked the man to crush the poisonous vermin he deceived her by crushing cranberries which he had brought along instead. I collected the same tale in a number of places on the North Pacific coast.

This series of complex stories from the extreme east and the extreme west of our continent leaves no doubt that each originated at one point.

The end of the story of the women who were married to stars differs somewhat in New England and on the Pacific coast. In the East the stars permit the women to return, while in the West they find the possibility of return by digging roots contrary to the commands of their husbands. In doing so they make a hole through the sky and see the earth. They then make a rope, which they fasten to their spades and let themselves down.

We find the same incident in a story which Mr. A. S. Gatschet collected among the Kiowa. In the creation legend of this tribe, it is told that a woman was taken up to the sky. The analysis of the two legends reveals the following series of identical incidents: 1. A woman taken up to the sky. 2. Is forbidden to dig certain roots. 3. She disobeys her husband, and discovers a hole through which she can see the world. 4. She secretly makes a rope and lets herself down. In this case we may apply our first principle, and conclude that the tale in this form must have sprung from one centre. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that the rest of the Kiowa legend coincides with another tale from the Northwest coast, which is also a creation legend. The Kiowa tale continues telling how the son of the sun fed upon his mother's body. Then an old woman captured him by making arrows and a ball (which is used as a target) for him and inducing him to steal them. I have recorded this tale among the Tsimshian at the northern boundary of British Columbia.

The comparisons which we have made show that each group of legends has its peculiar province, and covers a certain portion of our continent. We found a number of tales common to the North Pacific and the Arctic coasts. Another series we found common to the territory between the North Atlantic and Middle Pacific coasts. The Kiowa tale and the Northwestern tale indicate a third group which seems to extend along the Rocky Mountains. I will not lay too much stress upon the last fact, as the province of these tales needs to be better defined. It appears however, clearly, that tales, and connected with it, we may add, other cultural elements, have spread from one centre over the Arctic and North Pacific [p.19] coasts, while there is hardly anything in common to the Eskimo and Algonquin. These facts strengthen our view that the Eskimo, before descending to the Arctic coast, inhabited the Mackenzie Basin, and were driven northward by the Athapaskans. We must also assume that a certain cultural centre corresponds to our second province of legends.

We will finally compare some American myths with such of the Old World, but we shall confine ourselves to those to which our first principle may be applied. I have found a series of complicated tales which are common to both. One of the most remarkable is the story of the cannibal witch who pursued children. Castren ("Ethnologische Vorlesungen," p. 165) has recorded the following Samoyede fairy tale: Two sisters escaped a cannibal witch who pursued them. One of the girls threw a whetstone over her shoulder. It was transformed into a cańon, and stopped the pursuit of the witch. Eventually the latter crossed it, and when she almost reached the sisters, the elder threw a flint over her shoulder, which was transformed into a mountain and stopped her. Finally the girl threw a comb behind her, which was transformed into a thicket. On the North Pacific coast we find the identical story, the child throwing three objects over its shoulders,—a whetstone which became a mountain, a bottle of oil which became a lake, and a comb which became a thicket.

Among a series of Aino tales published by Basil Hall Chamberlain I find four or five ("Folk-Lore Journal," 1888, p. 1 ff. Nos. 6, 2I . 27, 33, 36) which have very close analogs on the North Pacific coast.

Another very curious coincidence is found between a myth from the Pelew Islands and several from the North Pacific coast. J. Kubary (in "A. Bastian. Allerlei aus Volks- und Menschenkunde," i. p. 59 ff.) tells the following: A young man had lost his fish-hook, the line having been broken by a fish. He dived after him, and, on reaching the bottom of the sea, reached a pond, at which he sat down. A girl came out of a house to fetch some water for a sick woman. He was called in and cured her, while all her friends did not know what ailed her. In British Columbia we find the same story, an arrow being substituted for the hook, a land animal for the fish. There are a number of other remarkable coincidences in this tale with American tales from the Pacific coast. It is said, for instance, that a man owned a wonderful lamp, consisting of two mother-of-pearl shells, which they kept hidden, and which was finally taken away by a boy, exactly as the sun was stolen by the raven in Alaska.

It is true that comparisons ought to be restricted to two well-defined groups of people ; coincidences among the tales of one [p.20] people and a great variety of others have little value. Still, diffusion has taken place all along the east and north sides of Asia. Setting aside the similarity of the Northwest American tales with those from Micronesia, I believe the facts justify the conclusion that transmission of tales between Asia and America has actually taken place, and, what is more remarkable, that the main points of coincidence are not found around Behring Strait, but farther south; so that it would appear that diffusion of tales, if it took place along the coast line, was previous to the arrival of the Eskimo in Alaska. I admit, however, that these conclusions are largely conjectural, and need corroboration from collections from eastern Asia and from Alaska, which, however, unfortunately do not exist.

I hope these brief notes will show that our method promises good results in the study of the history of folk-lore.

It is particularly important to emphasize the fact that our comparison proves many creation myths to be of complex growth, in so far as their elements occur variously combined in various regions. This makes it probable that many elements have been embodied ready-made in the myths, and that they have never had any meaning, at least not among the tribes in whose possession we find them. Therefore they cannot be explained as symbolizing or anthropomorphizing natural phenomena; neither can we assume that the etymologies of the names of the heroes or deities give a clue to their actual meaning, because there never was such a meaning. We understand that for an explanation of myths we need, first of all, a careful study of their component parts, and of their mode of dissemination, which must be followed by a study of the psychology of dissemination and amalgamation. Only after these have been done we shall be able to attack the problem of an explanation of myths with the hope of success.