The Origin of Stories
Seneca (Iroquois) – USA / Canada
This happened long ago, in the time of our forefathers.
In a Seneca village lived a boy whose father and mother died when he was only a few weeks old. The little boy was cared for by a woman, who had known his parents. She gave him the name of Poyeshaon (Orphan).
The boy grew to be a healthy, active little fellow. When he was old enough, his foster mother gave him a bow and arrows, and said ‘It is time for you to learn to hunt.’ (…)
Taking cobs of dry corn the woman shelled off the kernels and parched them in hot ashes; and the next morning she gave the boy some of the corn for his breakfast and rolled up some in a piece of buckskin and told him to take it with him, for he would be gone all day and would get hungry.
Poyeshaon started off and was very successful. At noon he sat down and rested and ate some of the parched corn, then he hunted till the middle of the afternoon. (…)
The next morning Poyeshaon’s foster mother gave him parched corn for breakfast and while he was eating she told him that he must do his best when hunting, for if he became a good hunter he would always be prosperous.
The boy took his bow and arrows and little bundle parched corn and went to the woods (…). At midday he ate his corn and thought over what his foster mother had told him. In his mind he said,
‘I’ll do just as my mother tells me, then some time I’ll be able to hunt big game.’
Poyeshaon hunted till toward evening, then went home (…). His foster mother thanked him, and said,
‘Now you have begun to help me get food.’
The tenth day the boy started off, as usual, and, as each day he had gone farther for game than on the preceding day, so now he went deeper into the woods than ever. About midday the sinew that held the feathers to his arrow loosened. Looking around for a place where he could sit down while he took the sinew off and wound it on again, he saw a small opening and near the center of the opening a high, smooth, flat-topped, round stone. He went to the stone, sprang up on to it and sat down. He unwound the sinew and put it in his mouth to soften, then he arranged the arrow feathers and was about to fasten them to the arrow when a voice, right there near him, asked,
‘Shall I tell you stories?’
Poyeshaon looked up expecting to see a man, not seeing any one he looked behind the stone and around it, then he again began to tie the feathers to his arrow.
‘Shall I tell you stories?’ asked a voice right there by him.
The boy looked in every direction, but saw no one. Then he made up his mind to watch and find out who was trying to fool him. He stopped work and listened and when the voice again asked, ‘Shall I tell you stories?’ he found that it came from the stone, then he asked,
‘What is that? What does it mean to tell stories?’
‘It is telling what happened a long time ago. If you will give me your birds, I’ll tell you stories.’
‘You may have the birds.’
As soon as the boy promised to give the birds, the stone began telling what happened long ago. When one story was told, another was begun. The boy sat, with his head down, and listened. Toward night the stone said,
‘We will rest now. Come again tomorrow. If anyone asks about your birds, say that you have killed so many that they are getting scarce and you have to go a long way to find one.’
While going home the boy killed five or six birds. When his foster mother asked why he had so few birds, he said that they were scarce; that he had to go far for them.
The next morning Poyeshaon started off with his bow and arrows and little bundle of parched corn, but he forgot to hunt for birds, he was thinking of the stories the stone had told him. When a bird lighted near him he shot it, but he kept straight on toward the opening in the woods. When he got there he put his birds on the stone, and called out,
‘I’ve come! Here are birds. Now tell me stories.’
The stone told story after story. Toward night it said
‘Now we must rest till tomorrow.’
On the way home the boy looked for birds, but it was late and he found only a few.
That night the foster mother told her neighbors that when Poyeshaon first began to hunt he had brought home a great many birds, but now he brought only four or five after being in the woods from morning till night. She said there was something strange about it, either he threw the birds away or gave them to some animal, or maybe he idled time away, didn’t hunt. She hired a boy to follow Poyeshaon and find out what he was doing.
The next morning the boy took his bow and arrows and followed Poyeshaon, keeping out of his sight and sometimes shooting a bird. Poyeshaon killed a (…) many birds; then, about the middle of the forenoon, he suddenly started off toward the East, running as fast as he could. The boy followed till he came to an opening in the woods and saw Poyeshaon climb up and sit down on a large round stone; he crept nearer and heard talking. When he couldn’t see the person to whom Poyeshaon was talking he went up to the boy, and asked,
‘What are you doing here?’
‘What are stories?’
‘Telling about things that happened long ago. Put your birds on this stone, and say, “I’ve come to hear stories”.’
The boy did as told and straightway the stone began. The boys listened till the sun went down, then the stone said,
‘We will rest now. Come again to-morrow.’
On the way home Poyeshaon killed three or four birds.
When the woman asked the boy she had sent why Poyeshaon killed so few birds, he said, ‘I followed him for a while, then I spoke to him, and after that we hunted together till it was time to come home. We couldn’t find many birds.’
The next morning the elder boy said,
‘I’m going with Poyeshaon to hunt, it’s sport.’
The two started off together. By the middle of the forenoon each boy had a (…) string of birds. They hurried to the opening, put the birds on the stone, and said,
‘We have come. Here are the birds! Tell us stories.’
They sat on the stone and listened to stories till late in the afternoon, then the stone said,
‘We’ll rest now till tomorrow.’
On the way home the boys shot every bird they could find, but it was late and they didn’t find many.
Several days went by in this way, then the foster mother said,
‘Those boys kill more birds than they bring home,’ and she hired two men to follow them.
The next morning, when Poyeshaon and his friend started for the woods the two men followed. When the boys had a (…) number of birds they stopped hunting and hurried to the opening. The men followed and, hiding behind trees, saw them put the birds on a large round stone, then jump up and sit there, with their heads down, listening to a man’s voice; every little while they said, ‘Ûn!’
‘Let’s go there and find out who is talking to those boys,’ said one man to the other.
They walked quickly to the stone, and asked,
‘What are you doing, boys?’
The boys were startled, but Poyeshaon said,
‘You must promise not to tell anyone.’
They promised, then Poyeshaon said,
‘Jump up and sit on the stone.’
The men seated themselves on the stone, then the boy said,
‘Go on with the story, we are listening.’
The four sat with their heads down and the stone began to tell stories. When it was almost night the Stone said,
‘Tomorrow all the people in your village must come and listen to my stories (…) and have each man bring something to eat. You must clean the brush away so the people can sit on the ground near me.’
That night Poyeshaon told the chief about the storytelling stone, and gave him the stone’s message. The chief sent a runner to give the message to each family in the village.
Early the next morning everyone in the village was ready to start. Poyeshaon went ahead and the crowd followed. When they came to the opening each man put what he had brought, meat or bread, on the stone; the brush was cleared away, and every one sat down.
When all was quiet the stone said,
‘Now I will tell you stories of what happened long ago. There was a world before this. The things that I am going to tell about happened in that world. Some of you will remember every word that I say, some will remember a part of the words, and some will forget them all. I think this will be the way, but each (…) must do the best he can. Hereafter you must tell these stories to one another. Now listen.’
Each man bent his head and listened to every word the stone said. Once in a while the boys said ‘Ûn!’ When the sun was almost down the stone said,
‘We’ll rest now. Come tomorrow and bring meat and bread.’
The next morning when the people gathered around the stone they found that the meat and bread they had left there the day before was gone. They put the food they had brought on the stone, then sat in a circle and waited. When all was quiet the stone began. Again it told stories till the sun was almost down, then it said,
‘Come tomorrow. Tomorrow I will finish the stories of what happened long ago.’
Early in the morning the people of the village gathered around the stone and, when all was quiet, the stone began to tell stories, and it told till late in the afternoon, then it said,
‘I have finished! You must keep these stories as long as the world lasts; tell them to your children and grandchildren generation after generation. One person will remember them better than another. When you go to a man or a woman to ask for one of these stories carry something to pay for it, bread or meat, or whatever you have. I know all that happened in the world before this; I have told it to you. When you visit one another, you must tell these things, and keep them up always. I have finished.’
And so it has been. From the Stone came all the knowledge the Senecas have of the world before this.
Told by Henry Jacob and edited by Jeremiah Curtin (1922).
This is a first-hand account of the Seneca people, an Iroquois culture that originally populated the shores of Lake Ontario. This story was collected by Jeremiah Curtin, an agent of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute who, in 1883, compiled as many stories as he could in order to preserve them for posterity. In this case the old Seneca man who told him this story had adopted the name of Henry Jacob. In addition, it should be noted that Curtin ended up being accepted as a member of the Seneca people under the name of HI-WE-SAS, Seeker of Knowledge.
In the version offered here we have opted to eliminate some very brief fragments that could contradict the principles and values of the Earth Charter. Otherwise, this story fits exactly the edition that you can find on the website of Sacred Texts.
- Curtin, J. (ed.) (1922). The Origin of Stories. In Seneca Indian Myths (pp. 70-75). New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. Retrieved from https://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/iro/sim/sim14.htm.
- Planet Ozkids (2012). The Storytelling Stone – How Stories Began. Animals Myths & Legends: Educational website. Retrieved on 05/08/2013 from http://www.planetozkids.com/oban/legends/storytelling-stone-legend.htm.
Associated text of the Earth Charter
Principle 14a: Provide all, especially children and youth, with educational opportunities that empower them to contribute actively to sustainable development.
Other passages that this story illustrates
Principle 8b: Recognize and preserve the traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom in all cultures that contribute to environmental protection and human well-being.
Principle 9b: Empower every human being with the education and resources to secure a sustainable livelihood, and provide social security and safety nets for those who are unable to support themselves.
Principle 12b: Affirm the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.
The Way Forward: The arts, sciences, religions, educational institutions, media, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and governments are all called to offer creative leadership.