Why Plants Have Human Characteristics

Iroquoian Myth
Retold by Anne Pellowski

Before the earth was created there was a land above the sky. Certain beings, men and women with human characteristics but not entirely human, lived among the sky people. These beings grew so numerous that the land above the sky became crowded. The beings began to quarrel among themselves and with the sky people.

The sky people went to the Great One and asked: “Can you not do something to bring back peace to this land above the sky?”

The Great One poked a hole in the sky and blew his breath through the hole, so strongly that a cloud of mists formed in the space below. He then asked the sun to shine through the hole. When the sun’s rays fell on the mists, they turned to water and formed a great sea.

Then the Great One called the Moon and asked her to shine through the hole. As she shone down, a thick scum formed on the sea. Gradually, the scum drew together into a solid mass and made the earth, with the sea all around it.

Great One now had a place to send the beings, but when he saw how bare the earth was, he decided he must first change some of the beings into plants and animals, and send them to all the corners of the earth.

So Great One changed most of the beings into plants and animals, and then with a great breath, scattered them over the earth. And that is why every living thing on earth has some human characteristic, because each kept one thing from the time when the beings lived in the land above the sky. In animals it is easier to see these characteristics, but if one looks carefully, they are to be found in plants as well. Some plants have leaves shaped like the human hand, or like an eye or ear. Some have hair that looks like human hair. Others have flowers shaped like faces or feet. All of them, whether in an open or a secret place, have one thing that shows they are also descended from the beings in sky, just like the humans.


In my book, Hidden Stories in Plants, my basic idea is to inspire people to notice the beauty and diversity of plant life by telling stories and then engaging in playful follow-up activities. I recommend telling in the quiet moments before, during or after a nature walk or during a seasonal storytelling in a classroom or library. Above all, I advocate using spare language that is without the weight of heavy explanations or moralizing.

After telling “Why Plants Have Human Characteristics.” I like to take listeners outdoors to discover natural features that show resemblances to humans. People will notice, for instance, treetops like hair; knarled trunks with facial expressions; or roots reminiscent of big, knobbly feet. The variety is endless. This story and accompanying activity has been consistently successful with groups all around the world.

Like the floss of dandelions and milkweed, ancient stories like this one should continue to be sent floating out into the wide world, in much the same way they have drifted down to us across centuries. By telling them, we keep alive our wonder at the tremendous variety of life on our planet.


“Why Plants Have Human Characteristics” is based on elements pulled from the following sources: Jeremiah Curtain and J.N.B. Hewitt, “Seneca Fiction, Legends and Myths,” Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), Annual Report 1910-1911, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1918; J.N.B. Hewitt, “Iroquoian Cosmology,” BAE, Annual Report 1899-1900, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1903; J.W. Powell, “Sketch of the Mythology of the North American Indians,” BAE, Annual Report 1879-1880, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1881; Erminnie A. Smith, “Myths of the Iroquois,” BAE, Annual Report 1880-81, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1883.

Story and comments are excerpted with permission from Hidden Stories in Plants: Unusual and Easy-to-Tell Stories from Around the World Together with Creative Things to Do While Telling Them by Anne Pellowski, Macmillan NYC, 1990.


Anne Pellowski was a children’s librarian with the New York Public Library for eight years. She then founded the Information Center on Children’s Cultures of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, which she directed for fourteen years. In addition to Hidden Stories in Plants (now, alas, out of print), her books include The World of Children’s Literature, The World of Storytelling, The Story Vine and The Family Storytelling Handbook. As a storyteller, she is much sought after by schools, libraries, and professional organizations. She is also an active member of the International Board on Books for Young. people (IBBY). Now “retired” and living in Minnesota, she finds she is busier than ever.

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