The Seven Maidens
by David Lee Smith
retold by Richard L. Dieterle
There a village was at Red Banks at Within Lake (Green Bay). It was a Hočąk village. There an old woman lived in a lodge alone. She had much knowledge of sacred plants that could cure sickness. Earthmaker created seven maidens who alone could gather the herbs. Because the herbs were sacred, these women could not be touched by men. To guard these seven maidens, Earthmaker created seven warriors. They were to keep their eyes on them always. From time to time, the old woman would send the seven maidens out to pick herbs for her. As the women walked, the warriors followed at a distance behind them, ever keeping their eyes on them. Thus they always did.
There not too far distant was a village. This was a Snake people village. There a man lived in an oval lodge. He was very holy. This man knew of the seven maidens, and secretly followed after them. He wanted to eat them, is why he did it. In time the maidens reached their favorite spot where they picked the herbs. Then, unexpectedly, there a man stood before them. He was very handsome. Even though they knew it was forbidden for them to be with a man, yet they fell in love with him. Just the same, they were afraid and ran away to their village. There they told the old woman all that had happened. The woman became very angry at the warriors and said, "For what has Earthmaker made you that you should act thus?" And the warleader said to her, "Grandmother, we never took our eyes off them. We never saw this one that they are speaking of. An evil spirit must have cast a mist over our eyes and bewitched us," he said. But the old woman did not believe them.
The next day, she sent the maidens out again, but this time she strictly charged the warriors to be watchful. As they set out, again the man followed after them. In time the women reached the place where they picked the herbs. Then the man erected a screen of mist in front of the warriors' eyes, and all they could see there were the women picking herbs. Again, unexpectedly, he was standing there near the women. As handsome as he had been before, he was even more so now. But the maidens saw who he really was, and they fled. Again the man put mist in front of their eyes so that they became confused and could not find the trail back to their village. They changed direction and ran towards the east. Thus he made them do. As they ran, the man chased after them. By the early evening, the maidens had reached the lake. Just as he was about to catch them, they saw that he was an evil spirit. He had them trapped in front of the lake, so they cried out to the Creator, "Earthmaker, save us or the evil spirit will devour us!" There was a loud thunder in the heavens, and a bright streak of lightning struck the evil spirit and burnt his body to ashes.
Earthmaker placed the seven maidens safely in the heavens, where they may be seen even today as what the white people call "the Big Dipper." He caused the evil spirit to become the Star that Does Not Move, the pole star, Polaris. Ever after the seven maidens circled him, taunting him beyond his reach. The old woman became very angry at the warriors, for again they had not protected the maidens, so she threw them into the sky. They are what we now call "the Little Dipper." Ever after they have watched over the seven maidens as they circle around the North Star. It is ended.1
Commentary. The story can be seen as an allegory about the constellations into which the various figures were transformed. The word for herbs in Hočąk is xawina, which also means "grass." The constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) never sets, although at certain times it does touch the horizon. To put this metaphorically, it descends to the grass (or herbs), or where it is forested, it seems to drop down into the woods.
The home of the seven maidens is in the northwest. These stars reach the most northwesterly position when the sun rises in Capricorn in February. At that time too the moon is full in Leo, the nearest zodiac constellation to the seven maidens. The moon is the old woman who governs the herbs and who also lives in the same village. The moon is thought in traditional cultures around the world to be in charge of herbs, probably from its connection to water. The most famous exemplar is Soma, the moon god of the Hindus, who is at once the moon and the herb par excellance, soma. At this time there is no mist in front of their eyes: that part of the Milky Way that is in front of them is at that time out of view. As they go towards the summer solstice, they dip down to the grass level. However, now there is mist before their eyes. By the time that they have reached the winter solstice, where the sun rises in Scorpius, they are back in the northwest, and as the year comes to full circle, they have returned home.
Now the theme repeats itself in a variation. The mist again is seen as the Milky Way at the summer solstice, and it is then that the warriors (Ursa Minor) see nothing but the women picking herbs. This is because the North Star is behind them and this is coincidental with the mist in front of them, but not between them and the seven maiden stars. They take off running, but they are not on the trail to the western horizon. Now they have the mist in front of them, and this lures them to the eastern and opposite horizon. The east is where Lake Michigan is found, and the seven maidens begin to face that way with the pole star above ("behind") them. By the time the sun rises in Leo around the equinox, the seven maidens are pinned between the North Star and the lake. Not only that, but inasmuch as the sun is in Leo, they are in danger of being cooked. It is precisely at this point that they change direction, and are put higher in the sky as they begin by winter to return to the western horizon. At the same time, the moon (as the sun travels through winter), moves in the opposite direction so that in relation to her, the seven warriors get higher and higher in the sky. Thus she "throws them up." When the sun is in Leo, the serpentine Milky Way cuts the zenith in two, thus revealing his nature as a serpent spirit. When the sun rises in Scorpius in the winter solstice, which is the beginning of the story, the Milky Way lies on the northern horizon like a snake. This is the other village, which lies nearby but out of view.
Links: Polaris, Earthmaker.
Stories: about stars and other celestial bodies: The Dipper, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, Morning Star and His Friend, Little Human Head, Turtle and the Witches, Sky Man, Wojijé, The Raccoon Coat, Sun and the Big Eater, The Big Eater, The Star Husband, Grandfather's Two Families, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Children of the Sun, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Origins of the Milky Way, The Fall of the Stars; about Polaris (Pole Star, North Star): The Dipper; about the Little Dipper: The Dipper; mentioning a tribe of Snake people: The Woman who Married a Snake; mentioning Earthmaker: The Creation of the World, The Creation of Man, The Commandments of Earthmaker, The Twins Get into Hot Water, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Lost Blanket, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, The First Snakes, Tobacco Origin Myth, The Creation Council, The Gray Wolf Origin Myth, The Journey to Spiritland, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Descent of the Drum, Thunder Cloud Marries Again, The Spider's Eyes, The Boy who was Blessed by a Mountain Lion, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Fourth Universe, Šųgepaga, The Fatal House, The Twin Sisters, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, Elk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth, Bear Clan Origin Myth, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Masaxe War, The Two Children, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Petition to Earthmaker, The Gift of Shooting, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Stone Heart, The Wild Rose, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Lame Friend, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed, The Hočąk Migration Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, The War among the Animals, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Blue Mounds, Lost Lake, The Hočągara Migrate South, The Spirit of Gambling, Turtle and the Giant, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hočągara, The Hočągara Contest the Giants, Ghost Dance Origin Myth II, Bird Origin Myth, Black and White Moons, Redhorn's Sons, Holy Song, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, Death Enters the World, Man and His Three Dogs, Trickster Concludes His Mission, Story of the Thunder Names, The Origins of the Milky Way, Trickster and the Dancers, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, East Enters the Medicine Lodge, The Creation of Evil, The Blessing of Kerexųsaka, Song to Earthmaker, The Blessing of the Bow, The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, The Origin of the Cliff Swallow; about Earthmaker blessing or rescuing a person: The Wild Rose, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), Waruǧápara, The Stone Heart, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins; mentioning canes: Iron Staff and His Companions, Hare Kills a Man with a Cane, Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath; set at Red Banks (Mógašúč): The Creation Council, Annihilation of the Hočągara II, The Great Lodge, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (vv. 1, 2, 3, 5), Bear Clan Origin Myth (vv. 2a, 3, 8, 11, 12), The Winnebago Fort, Blue Bear, Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, The Creation of Man (v. 10), Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins (fr. 1), Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Elk Clan Origin Myth (v. 1), Deer Clan Origin Myth (v. 1), Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief, Šųgepaga, Gatschet's Hočank hit’e ("St. Peet," "Hočąk Origins"), The Shell Anklets Origin Myth (v. 1), First Contact, Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath; set at Green Bay, "Within Lake" (Te Rok): Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth (vv. 1, 2, 3), Story of the Thunder Names, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Deer Clan Origin Myth (v. 1), Bear Clan Origin Myth (v. 4), Ioway & Missouria Origins, Blessing of the Yellow Snake Chief, Great Walker's Warpath, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I (v. 2), The Fox-Hočąk War (v. 2), The Creation Council, First Contact, Gatschet's Hočank hit’e.
Themes: someone is blessed with a medicine: The Stench-Earth Medicine Origin Myth, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Fourth Universe, Great Walker's Medicine, Bow Meets Disease Giver, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, The Tap the Head Medicine, The Seer, The Healing Blessing, A Weed's Blessing, A Snake Song Origin Myth, Young Man Gambles Often, The Origins of the Sore Eye Dance, The Elk's Skull, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, A Peyote Vision, The Sweetened Drink Song; anthropophagy and cannibalism: A Giant Visits His Daughter, Turtle and the Giant, The Witch Men's Desert, The Were-Grizzly, Grandfather's Two Families, The Roaster, Redhorn's Father, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Lost Blanket, Young Man Gambles Often, White Wolf, The Shaggy Man, The Twins Get into Hot Water, Partridge's Older Brother, The First Fox and Sauk War, The Fox-Hočąk War, The Hočągara Contest the Giants, Morning Star and His Friend, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Šųgepaga, The Reincarnated Grizzly Bear, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Blessing of a Bear Clansman, Shakes the Earth, The Stone Heart, Thunder Cloud is Blessed; a great spirit changes his form in order to decieve someone: The Skunk Origin Myth (Turtle), The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Man with Two Heads, The Children of the Sun, The Baldness of the Buzzard, Trickster's Tail, Trickster Gets Pregnant, The Elks Skull, Trickster Soils the Princess, Old Man and Wears White Feather; someone is deceived by a spirit: The Greedy Woman, The Girl who Refused a Blessing from the Wood Spirits, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna, The Meteor Spirit and the Origin of Wampum, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Big Thunder Teaches Čap’ósgaga the Warpath, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts, The Lost Blanket; someone about to be killed cries out to a spirit to whom he is related, and is saved: Porcupine and His Brothers, Waruǧápara, Bluehorn's Nephews; Earthmaker acts against those who are not doing right: The Fatal House, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Mission of the Five Sons of Earthmaker, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, Turtle and the Giant, Šųgepaga, The Origins of the Milky Way; someone is, or becomes, a star: The Dipper, Grandfather's Two Families, Morning Star and His Friend, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Turtle and the Witches, Įčorúšika and His Brothers, The Star Husband.
1 David Lee Smith, "The Origin of the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 28-30.