(Note: This is the tenth and final essay in my series on “Notable Women.”)
Two women, Eve and Skywoman, play central but different roles in two creation stories, the former in the Judeo-Christian and the latter in many of the Indigenous.
In the Judeo-Christian creation story, Eve has a critical role, but clearly subordinate one to Adam who was the first to be created by God out of “the dust of the ground.”
After instructing man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says, “It is not good that the man is alone; I will make him a helper like himself.” (Genesis, Ch. 2: Verse 18) God casts man into a deep sleep, and takes one of his ribs to make woman.
In the Garden of Eden, the woman lacks the strength to resist the serpent’s temptation. She sins by eating the forbidden fruit and then gets man to eat it.
Once man confesses, God reprimands woman first, asking: “Why have you done this?” The woman says: “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” (3:13)
God indicates her future suffering: “I will make great your distress in child-bearing; in pain shall you bring forth children; for your husband shall be your longing, though he have dominion over you.” (3:16)
Turning to Adam, God underlines the culpability of woman by beginning: “Because you have listened to your wife, and have eaten of the tree ….”
God stresses to man that he, no longer in the lush, verdant Eden, must now work hard to draw food from the soil: “…thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread ….”(3:18-19)
Adam decides to name woman “Eve,” a name in Hebrew relating to the verb, “to live.” Eve then is “the mother of all the living.” (3:20)
Whereas Eve plays a supporting and sinister role in that creation story, Skywoman’s role is vastly different. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, relates the creation story of Skywoman, “shared by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes.”
Through a shaft of light streaming from a hole in Skyworld, Skywoman falls down, like a twirling maple seed, clutching a bundle, her long black hair billowing.
All the animals below look up and recognize a being. Beating their wings to break her fall, the geese catch her.
The animals then gather in council to consider what to do with her. A great turtle floats by and offers its back to her. She steps on to it. The animals realize she needs land for a home, so they in turn dive deeply for mud, all failing.
Finally a tiny muskrat dives, returns, but perishes. However, in his tiny paw he manages to hold on to some mud. “He had given his life to help this helpless human.”
The turtle tells the others to place the mud on his back. Skywoman spreads the mud. She is so moved by the gifts of the animals, she begins to sing and dance in thanksgiving. From the small dab of mud, the entire earth grows, what the Indigenous call Turtle Island. This occurs, Kimmerer relates: “Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals’ gifts coupled with her deep gratitude.”
When Skywoman fell, she did not come empty-handed. She grabbed onto the Tree of Life, bringing with her fruits and seeds of all kinds. “These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended until the world turned from brown to green.”
The stories—especially creation stories—civilizations tell underline the values and principles important to them. They are also normative, indicating how we ought to live. In my study of world civilizations, I have found that civilizations may decline because they continue to cling to values which may have helped them rise and prosper, but because of changed circumstances are no longer useful or valid.
Perhaps, in this era of human-induced climate change, modern society can benefit from an examination of its creation stories and from a comparison with other creation stories, including the Indigenous story of Skywoman. The Judeo-Christian story is marked by desire, sin, punishment, and banishment from a Garden of Eden. The themes of this Indigenous story are: help and kindness from the animal world, gratitude, reciprocity and balance with all living things, and flourishment.
In the first, Eve—lacking in character—sins and is banished, along with Adam, from the Garden of Eden; in the second, Skywoman essentially creates our Garden of Eden.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is a retired educator (history and politics) and a regular columnist.