Native North American Mythologies

The Native American Great Goddess

What is the story of the Cherokee Grandmother Sun?

The Cherokee sun is represented, somewhat unusually, by a goddess figure, Grandmother Sun, rather than by a male deity. As the Sun Goddess, she has a mythological sister in the Japanese Amaterasu. The Cherokee myth of Grandmother Sun includes a disappearing god theme—again, as in the story of Amaterasu. It also includes the flood theme. Each day, during her journey across the heavens, Grandmother Sun stopped in the center of the sky to visit her daughter’s house. While there, she complained that her grandchildren, the people of the earth, never looked directly at her but rather squinted and looked away. Yet these same grandchildren always looked lovingly up at the moon god. One day, Grandmother Sun became so jealous and angry that she decided to remain for an extended period at her daughter’s house in the middle of the sky. Naturally, her prolonged presence caused the world below to be parched with heat, causing the people to beg the spirits of the earth—the “Little Men”—for help.

The spirits suggested sending two men disguised as snakes up to the sky to kill the goddess. When the snake men failed, the spirits sent up a man disguised as a horned monster, but he failed, too. When a man disguised as a rattlesnake succeeded only in killing Grandmother’s daughter, the goddess became so furious that she locked herself in the daughter’s house, leaving the world cold and dark. Once again the people asked the advice of the Little Men, who suggested that the daughter could be brought back from the land of the dead in the west. Seven men were chosen to capture her and to bring her back in a box. Each man carried a magic wand. Arriving in the Dark Land they found the sun’s daughter dancing with other ghosts.

As directed by the spirits, each man struck the girl with his wand, and after the seventh had done so and the daughter had fallen over, the men put her into the box and carried her away without the other dancers noticing. But on the way home the daughter cried out so miserably from inside the box that the men let her out. Immediately she took the form of a redbird and flew away. When the men arrived home with the empty box, Grandmother Sun gave up hope of ever seeing her daughter again and flooded the earth with her tears. It was only after the people danced for her and sang songs to her that Grandmother relented, stopped the flood, and once again bathed the earth in her light and warmth.

A sculpture by artist Lauren Raine depicts Spider Woman, a goddess and teacher popular among the Pueblo peoples.


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