THE WALAM OLUM: ITS CONTENTS.

From The Lenape and their Legends by Daniel G. Brinton (1884)


General Synopsis of the WALAM OLUM.


The myths embodied in the earlier portion of the WALAM OLUM are perfectly familiar to one acquainted with Algonkin mythology. They are not of foreign origin, but are wholly within the cycle of the most ancient legends of that stock. Although they are not found elsewhere in the precise form here presented, all the figures and all the leading incidents recur in the native tales picked up by the Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, and by Schoolcraft, McKinney, Tanner and others in later days.

In an earlier chapter I have collected the imperfect fragments of these which we hear of among the Delawares, and these are sufficient to show that they had substantially the same mythology as their western relatives.

The cosmogony describes the formation of the world by the Great Manito, and its subsequent despoliation by the spirit of the waters, under the form of a serpent. The happy days are depicted, when men lived without wars or sickness, and food was at all times abundant. Evil beings, of mysterious power, introduced cold and war and sickness and premature death. Then began strife and long wanderings.

However similar this general outline may be to European and Oriental myths, it is neither derived originally from them, nor was it acquired later by missionary influence. This similarity is due wholly to the identity of psychological action, the same ideas and fancies arising from similar impressions in New as well as Old World tribes. No sound ethnologist, no thorough student in comparative mythology, would seek to maintain a genealogical relation of cultures on the strength of such identities. They are proofs of the oneness of the human mind and nothing more

As to the historical portion of the document, it must be judged by such corroborative evidence as we can glean from other sources. I have quoted, in an earlier chapter, sufficient testimony to show that the Lenape had traditions similar to these, extending , back for centuries, or at least believed by their narrators to reach that far. What trust can be reposed in them is for the archaeologist to judge.

Authentic history tells us nothing about the migrations of the Lenape before we find them in the valley of the Delaware. There is no positive evidence that they arrived there from the west; still less concerning their earlier wanderings.

Were I to reconstruct their ancient history from the WALAM OLUM, as I understand it, the result would read as follows:--

At some remote period their ancestors dwelt far to the northeast, on tide-water, probably at Labrador (Compare ante, p. 145). They journeyed south and west, till they reached a broad water, full of islands and abounding in fish, perhaps the St. Lawrence about the Thousand Isles. They crossed and dwelt for some generations in the pine and hemlock regions of New York, fighting more or less with the Snake people, and the Talega, agricultural nations, living in stationary villages to the southeast of them, in the area of Ohio and Indiana. They drove out the former, but the latter remained on the upper ohio and its branches. The Lenape, now settled on the streams in Indiana, wished to remove to the East to join the Mohegans and other of their kin who had moved there directly from northern New York. They, therefore, united with the Hurons (Talamatans) to drive out the Talega (Tsalaki, Cherokees) from the upper Ohio. This they only succeeded in accomplishing finally in the historic period (see ante p. 17). But they did clear the road and reached the Delaware valley, though neither forgetting nor giving up their claims to their western territories (see ante p. 144). In the sixteenth century the Iroquois tribes seized and occupied the whole of the Susquehanna valley, thus cutting off the eastern from the western Algonkins, and ended by driving many of the Lenape from the west to the east bank of the Delaware (ante p. 38).


Synopsis of the separate parts. 


I.

The formation of the universe by the Great Manito is described. In the primal fog and watery waste he formed land and sky, and the heavens cleared. He then created men and animals. These lived in peace and joy until a certain evil Manito came, and sowed discord and misery. This canto is a version of the Delaware tradition mentioned in the Heckewelder MSS. which I have given previously, p. 135. The notion of the earth rising from the primal waters is strictly a part of the earliest Algonkin mythology, as I have amply shown in previous discussions of the subject. See my Myths of the New World, p. 213, and American Hero Myths, Chap. II.

II.

The Evil Manito, who now appears under the guise of a gigantic serpent, determines to destroy the human race, and for that purpose brings upon them a flood of water. Many perish, but a certain number escape to the turtle, that is, to solid land, and are there protected by Nanabush (Manibozho or Michabo). They pray to him for assistance, and he caused he water to disappear, and the great serpent to depart. This canto is a brief reference to the conflict between the Algonkin hero god and the serpent of the waters, originally, doubtless, a meteorological myth. It is an ancient and authentic aboriginal legend, shared both by Iroquois and Algonkins, under slightly different forms. In one aspect, it is the Flood or Deluge Myth. For the general form of this myth. see my Myths of the New World, pp. 119, 143, 182, and American Hero Myths, p. 50, and authorities there quoted also, E. G. Squier, " Manabozho and the Great Serpent; an Algonquin Tradition," in the American Review, Vol. II, Oct., 1848.

III.

The waters having disappeared, the home of the tribe is described as in a cold northern clime. This they concluded to leave in search of warmer lands. Having divided their people into a warrior and a peaceful class, they journeyed southward, toward what is called the "Snake land." They approached this land in winter, over a frozen river. Their number was large, but all had not joined in the expedition with equal willingness, their members at the west preferring their ancient seats in the north to the uncertainty of southern conquests. They, however, finally united with the other bands, and they all moved south to the land of spruce pines.


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