AppLit Home Native American Tales / Appalachian Animal Tales / Tales of Strong Women Tina L. Hanlon

"The First Fire" - or - "How the Water Spider Captured Fire"


Note: Some Cherokee storytellers, such as Gayle Ross, are from outside Appalachia, but they and their stories are descended from the strong Cherokee culture that their ancestors took from the Southeast to Oklahoma and across the continent during the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Tales

Related Appalachian Tales Related Tales from Other Regions Hispanic Connection

"The First Fire." In Scheer, George F., ed. Cherokee Animal Tales. Illus. Robert Frankenberg. Holiday House, 1968. Rpt. Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1992. pp. 25-29. Many different animals try to bring fire to the cold world, but they get singed in the process. Water Spider succeeds by using her thread to tie a bowl on her back, bringing back a little coal from a burning tree on an island. A soft pencil drawing shows the animals gathered around the water spider. First Fire cover

Moore, MariJo. First Fire. Illus. Anthony Chee Emerson. Barrington, IL: Rigby, 2000. This and other books by Moore are recommended by Debbie Reese, a member of Nambe Pueblo, in northern New Mexico, and expert on American Indians in Children's Literature (see Reese's blog list of Recommended Children's/YA/Reference/Resource Books). See also Moore's The Cherokee Little People and The Ice Man.

Arneach, Lloyd. "The First Fire." In Long-Ago Stories of the Eastern Cherokee. Illus. Elizabeth Ellison. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008. pp. 34-37. Arneach is a native Cherokee professional storyteller. The creatures that are altered in appearance by their attempts to get fire are Raven, who turns black; Hoot Owl, who gets red eyes (depicted in a full-page black and white drawing); Screech Owl and Horned Owl, who get white rings around their eyes; Racer Snake, who turns into Black Racer; and Great Racer, who also turns black. "The little Water Spider" has always kept her bowl that she wove out of her silk.

"How the Water Spider Captured Fire." In Chiltoskey, Mary Ulmer. Aunt Mary, Tell Me A Story: A Collection of Cherokee Legends and Tales. Ed. Mary Regina Ulmer Galloway. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee Communications, 1990. pp. 64-65. With one drawing by John Barton Galloway. In this version the animals see fire but have no control over it. As the world gets colder, they try to get fire from a burning tree in the river. The crow, owl, two snakes, and hoot owl fail, but the water spider realizes that preparation is needed. The coal she risks her life to carry burns a place in her basket so she still carries the basket and the mark of the fire today.

"Getting Fire." As told by Kathi Smith Littlejohn. In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. Living Stories of the Cherokee. Chapel Hill: U of NC Press, 1998. pp. 53-55. A buzzard and snake get burned trying to get fire from the other side of the world. Grandmother Spider plans on the way that she will make a pot of clay to carry the coals on her back. "She made it all the way back and gave everybody some fire. But then she also gave the Cherokee people the idea of making pottery." This version is similar to the one collected by James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee (1900). The stories are transcribed in this book in a free verse form that represents the storytellers' "rhythmic style," using the "oral poetics" method developed in the 1970s. Background is included on storyteller Littlejohn, a native of Cherokee, NC.

"Getting Fire." As told by Kathi Smith Littlejohn. In Duncan, Barbara R., ed. The Origin of the Milky Way & Other Living Stories of the Cherokee. Caravan book. Illus. Shan Goshorn. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. This tale is in section 2, Living with Animals. This is a book for young readers, while Duncan's 1998 collection (above) is a scholarly edition.

"The First Fire." In Littlejohn, Kathi S. Cherokee Legends I. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee Publications, 1990. Sound recording. A 30-minute audiocassette with 10 Cherokee tales.

"Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun." Retold by James Mooney. Illus. Leo and Diane Dillon. In Cohn, Amy L., ed. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. New York:  Scholastic, 1993, pp. 12-13. Possum gets the fur burned off his tail trying to get light from the sun for the people. Buzzard gets his head feathers burned off. Grandmother Spider makes a pot of clay and since she is small, the people who have light don't notice her taking the sun to her side of the world, where the people now have sun, fire, and pottery making. 

Keams, Geri. Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun: A Cherokee Story. Illus. James Bernadin. New York: Rising Moon, 1992. "After Possum and Buzzard fail in their attempts to steal a piece of the sun, Grandmother Spider succeeds in bringing light to the animals on her side of the world." At the end (and on the cover), the animals dance around Grandmother Spider and spider webs after that always look like the sun. See cover and description at Nancy Keane's Booktalks. Navajo actress and author Geri Keams narrates her book along with the illustrations in a FNX Native TV YouTube video. Keams appears at the end of the video. FNX: First Nations Experience, 2012. YouTube, 2013. 10 min. This tale is also included in SRA Reading Mastery: Signature Edition. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill, 2008 ("a direct instruction program"). Keams and her tale are also included in the DVD Storytellers' Favorite Fables. Carlsbad, CA: Organic Kids Co, 2009. "Bringing nature back to nurture. Created by Moms seeking a healthy alternative to cartoons and animation, Organic Kids Company's storyteller DVDs will captivate your child as they participate in the timeless, powerful, and rich oral tradition of storytelling. Your child will be delighted imagining the characters and places of the fables, creating a different experience every time your child participates along with the audience. Storytellers' Favorite Fables gives you endless opportunities to interact and discuss the stories with your child, and to explore together their wisdom, morals, and lessons."

Allen, Nancy Kelly. First Fire: A Cherokee Folktale. Illus. Sherry Rogers. Arbordale Publishing, 2014. N. pag. In this version of the pourquoi tale, the fire turns Raven and the snake Racer black, and puts markings in and around the eyes of several kinds of owls. Spider creates a tusti, or bowl, on her back by spinning with her thread, and brings a coal of fire back from the island where lightning had started fire. The first page shows a Cherokee adult telling the story about "when the world was new" and "Earth had no fire" to children. A lyrical repetition within the storytelling tells that each animal "flew long, flew fast, flew far" (or ran or swam) in their attempts to get fire. "For Creative Minds" is a section with maps, photographs, and drawings, with background information on Cherokee history, types of water spiders, and fire (with a quiz about fire). The author and illustrator had Cherokee ancestors. A Spanish language edition is available.

Roth, Susan L. The Story of Light. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1990. A pourquoi tale about how spider takes light in a clay pot from the sun on one side of the world to the animals on the other side. With striking black, white, and yellow collage illustrations.

Grandmother Spider by Sigman cover

Sigman, Margie. Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun: A Cherokee Tale. Illus. David Sheldon. Glenview, Ill: Pearson/Scott Foresman, 2013. 25 pp. Reading Street series, level 3.3.2. This book is a play script with seven scenes, illustrations, background on the Trail of Tears, and Reader Response questions. A chorus provides comments in verse. The colorful drawings show children in costumes, including Grandmother Spider carrying a pot she makes with the help of wasps. She takes a small piece of the sun after a fox, 'possum, and buzzard fail.

Ross, Gayle. The First Fire. Little Celebrations series. Illus. Susan Swan. Glenview, IL: Celebration Press, 1996. "Tells the story of how the water spider got the round white mark on its back." 16 pp.

Ross, Gayle. Kennedy Center Millennium Stage performance. Mar. 5, 2003. Video available on page about Gayle Ross at Kennedy Center web site (accessed 1/18/04). Ross opens the performance by singing and telling about the creation of the world and Grandmother Spider bringing fire to the people. She links these creation and animal tales with later Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears, when people carried coals of the sacred fire to Oklahoma, where it burns today. Grandmother Spider today has the round white mark made by the bowl she carried. It's "her badge of honor" because "the great gift of fire" came from "one of the smallest and meekest of our animal brothers and sisters." She also tells about her family and Cherokee history, and other tales. See AppLit's Gayle Ross bibliography.

The First Fire, Cherokee tale online in Stonees Web Lodge. "Water Spider has black downy hair and red stripes on her body. She could run on top of water and she could dive to the bottom. She would have no trouble in getting to the island" to get fire for the people. She's little but she can spin thread to make a little bowl on her back. "Every since [sic], we have had fire. And the Water Spider still has her little bowl on her back."

Ernesto, Lilly. How Grandmother Spider Got the Sun: A Cherokee Tale. Illus. Michael Grejniec. Invitations to Literacy Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. 16 pp. Ernesto's tale is reprinted in Little Readers: Difficult Set 1. Wilmington, MA: Great Source Education Group, 1997.

Rose, Anne K, and Alice Marriott. Spider in the Sky. Illus. Gail Owens. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. 24 pp. "Relates how Grandmother Spider brought fire and light to the animals back in the long ago. Based upon the story 'How the Sun Came' from American Indian mythology by Alice Marriott and Car[o]l K. Rachlin." The WorldCat entry does not say whether this version of the tale is Cherokee.

"Grandmother Spider Brings the Light," A Cherokee/Creek/Kiowa pourquoi tale with gestures for young children, adapted by Sherry Norfolk (AL). In Holt, David and Bill Mooney, eds. More Ready-to-Tell Tales from Around the World. Little Rock: August House, 2000. 256 pp. Gives photos and background on the storytellers, notes on each story, age recommendations, and tips from the storytellers. The tales are organized by themes, with a geographical index. Another Appalachian tale in the book is "The Talking Dog" by Doc McConnell.

"How the Cherokee Indians Got Fire." In Johnson, F. Roy, ed. How and Why Stories in Carolina Folklore. Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Pub., 1971. pp. 101-02, The Thunderers, called Ani-Hyuntikwalaski, "sent a lightning bolt and planted it in the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree. These were the Thunderers who lived way up in Galunlati. But this tree was on an island, and no one could get to this tree on an island because of the water. The animals saw the smoke" and had a council about how to get the fire they needed. Raven got his feathers scorched black; little Screech-owl, called Wahuhu, got smoke in his eyes, which are red to this day; Hooting Owl, Uguku, and the Horned Owl, Tskili, were blinded by smoke and ashes and got white rings around their eyes; little Black Racer snake, called Uksuhi, swam across but his body was scorched black so he darts and doubles still in the way he raced back away from the fire; large Blacksnake, Gulegi, the Climber, swam across and climbed the tree but put his head in a burning stump and was turned black as Racer. The creatures had another council but all were afraid to go. "At last the Water Spider, Kananeski, which spins around on the water like a little black button, said she would go. Not only could she run on the water, but she could dive. She sat to work and spun a thread from her body into a tusti bowl, which she fastened to her back. She crossed over the water to the sycamore tree, placed a little coal of fire into her bowl and swam back with it." Since then the Cherokees have had fire and she has worn the tusti bowl on her back.

"How the People Got Fire." In Leach, Maria. How the People Sang the Mountains Up: How and Why Stories. Illus. Glen Rounds. New York: Viking Press, 1967. A Catawba tale in this book is "How Rabbit Stole Fire from the Buzzards." The other Cherokee tales in this book are "Why Some Trees are Evergreen" and "Pleiades." Several other tales are labeled North Carolina Negro or South Carolina Negro.

"How the Animals Obtained Fire." In Traveller Bird. The Path to Snowbird Mountain. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972. Illustrations. Cataloged as a juvenile book. "Abstract: Fifteen legends told to the author by his kinsmen include fables, an explanation of the earth's origin, and other Cherokee lore" (WorldCat).

"Spider, the Fire Bringer: A Cherokee Legend." Told by Shan Goshorn. Illus. Robert Annesley In Max, Jill, ed. Spider Spins a Story: Fourteen Legends from Native America. Flagstaff, AZ: Rising Moon, 1997. "Presents tales from various native people, including the Kiowa, Zuni, Cherokee, Hopi, Lakota, and the Muskogee, all featuring a spider character."

"How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun." In Bini, Renata. A World Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Folktales: Stories from Six Continents. Illus. Michael Fiodorov. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

"Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun." In McFarlane, Marilyn. Sacred Myths: Stories of World Religions. Portland, OR: Sibyl Publications, 1996. "A sampling of the sacred stories of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Native American and other nature-based spiritual religions...for elementary and junior high school." The WorldCat entry does not say whether this version of the tale is Cherokee. The same, or a very similar book, is listed as McFarlane, Marilyn. Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions. New York: Aladdin, 2012.

"Grandmother Spider." In Crimmens, Paula. Drama Therapy and Storymaking in Special Education. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006. Grandmother Spider is in a section called "The Unlikely Heroes." The WorldCat entry does not say whether this version of the tale is Cherokee. "This practical resource book for professionals covers the broad spectrum of students attending special needs schools. Paula Crimmens places therapeutic storymaking within the context of drama therapy and offers practical advice on how to structure and set up sessions to be compatible with special needs learning environments."

Fredericks, Anthony D. American Folklore, Legends, and Tall Tales for Readers Theatre. Westport, Conn: Teachers Idea Press, 2008. "This collection has 20 tales in the popular theatre format," including "John Henry," Brer Rabbit, and, under Magic and Myths, "Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun." The WorldCat entry does not say whether the latter tale is Cherokee.

"Grandmother Spider Brings Light." In Taylor, C. J. All the Stars in the Sky: Native Stories from the Heavens. Aboriginal Education Collection. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2006. "A beautiful new collection of native stories celebrate the mystery of the heavens. The Mohawk artist and author uses his own glorious paintings to convey mystery and spirituality."

"Grandmother Spider Brings the Light." Retold by Illinois storyteller Taleypo (Marilyn A. Kinsella). Text available in her web site Taleypo the Storyteller. Web site also contains drama choir adaptations (also adaptable as reader's theater) of "Little Eight John" (1981, based on Treasury of American Folklore by B. A. Botkin and Carl Sandburg, 1944) and "Wicked John and the Devil" (1980s, based on Richard Chase), the tales "Tailypo" and "The Hairy Toe," and another Cherokee tale, "The Legend of the Red Cedar" (about the creation of the seasons and the sun calendar at Cahokia Mounds, Illinois).

"Origin of Fire." In Howard, Gregg. Grandfather's Stories. CD. Richardson, TX: VIP Pub., 1998. Other Cherokee tales, told by Cherokee Gregg Howard: Intro, The Ballgame of Animals and Birds, Why Mole Lives Underground, Why Rabbit has a Short Tail, Why Possum's Tail is Bare, Little Turtle, Why Bat Flies at Night.

"Origin of Fire." Told by Cherokee Gregg Howard. In Howard, Gregg, and Nash Hernandez. Tales of Wonder Traditional Native American Stories for Children. CD. Dallas, TX: Rich-Heape Films, 1998. Also in Heape, Steven R., Chip Richie, Gregg Howard, Nash Hernandez, and Kathleen Raymond Roan. Tales of Wonder: Traditional Native American Fireside Stories. VHS video. Dallas, TX: Rich-Heape Films, 1998. 60 min. DVD 2004 contains additional tales.

"Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun." In Morningstar, Debra. Tales from the Lodge. Neenah, WI: The author, 2007. Sound recording. The other Cherokee tale included is "How Rabbit Lost His Tail."

Spatz, Alice, Robert J. Lurtsema, Grant Albrecht, H. M. Krawitz, Paul Gallico, Alice Spatz, and Steve Murray. Grandmother Spider, Old Man Coyote. Baton Rouge, LA: Centaur, 2001. Music CD. Tales (starting with the Cherokee Grandmother Spider story) adapted for piano, violin, violoncello and narrator.

"Spider Woman." In Ellington, Charlotte Jane. Dancing Leaf. Johnson City, Tenn: Overmountain Press, 2007. p. 50 (chap. 5). A novel in which "authentic Cherokee legends begin each chapter and are woven into the adventures of Dancing Leaf, a character based on the adopted daughter of Cherokee chieftainess Nancy Ward" (Worldcat). This tale stresses that Water Spider was brave and smart, making a tusti bowl with thread before going to bring back the fire. "Across the dark and cold water, she cradled the container as a mother carries a child, and thus she wove her miracle; it was she who spun the web of life." Ellington notes that this tale is found in Garrett, J. T. and Michael Garrett. Medicine of the Cherokee: The Way of Right Relationships. Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 1996. See also Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.

This tale is retold in the young adult novel The Fledglings by Sandra Markle. (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press, 1992). After Kate (age 14) runs away from Atlanta to find the grandfather she didn't know she had on Snowbird Mountain (near Cherokee, NC), she learns the language and customs of the Tsa la ki (Cherokee) from him. He tells Kate and her friend this story to pass on traditional tales to the younger generation and their descendants. This tale in which the ingenious water spider fetches fire from an island sycamore tree, after other animals get singed in the attempt, foreshadows the climactic crisis when they are attacked by poachers and must use their strength and wits to survive a fire (pp. 104-107). See Folklore Themes in Longer Appalachian Fiction.

brown quilt square Related Appalachian Tales

Other pourquoi tales about animals, natural phenomena, and human inventions are listed in the Native American section of this index, and in AppLit's Animal Tale Index and picture book bibliography.

Pourquoi elements are also found in tall tales such as Tony Beaver, Swamp Angel, and Steven Kellogg's Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett. See study guide on Tall Tales and Jack Tales.

Ellis, Elizabeth. Like Meat Loves Salt: [and Other Tales]. Dallas, TX: New Moon Rising, 1984. Sound recording. Includes "How Grandmother Spider Stitched the Earth and the Sky Together." Some of Ellis' tales are Appalachian but online descriptions don't give details on this Grandmother Spider story.

brown quilt square Related Tales from Other Regions

"Blue Jay and Swallow Take the Heat." Retold by Virginia Hamilton in When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing. Illus Barry Moser. New York: Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1996. Blue Jay and Swallow acquire some of their distinctive traits while figuring out how to take fire from Firekeeper and get it to the lone, cold boy Alcee Lingo. Miss Swallow dips a chunk of fire in seven ponds, but Firekeeper's wife singes some of her tail feathers while trying to stop her. Thereafter Swallow could lean on chimneys and walls with her tail, people let her build nests around warm chimneys, and "children have toted fire chunks from cabin to cabin" (p. 25). Blue Jay should also be remembered for bravely taking on Firekeeper. Moser's realistic watercolor paintings depict birds wearing hats and ugly humans (including a self-portrait transforming himself into "mean old Firekeeper"). Based on black cante fable tales collected by Alabama folklorist Martha Young after the Civil War.

Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire. Choctaw version online at Stonee's Web Lodge.

"Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire" (Choctaw). In Young, Richard, and Judy Dockrey Young, eds. Race with Buffalo and Other Native American Stories for Young Readers. Little Rock: August House, 1994. Also contains Cherokee tales "Possum's Beautiful Tail," "Ball Game Between the Animals and the Birds," "Kanati the Hunter and the Cave of Animals," and "Where the Dog Ran across the Sky."

Fire Race: A Karuk Coyote Tale of How Fire Came to the People by Jonathan London, Lanny Pinola. Illus. Sylvia Long. Chronicle Books, 1997. Picture book with brightly detailed illustrations.

Caduto, Michael J. and Joseph Bruchac. Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1988. Includes "How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun" (Muskogee [Creek]-Oklahoma). Cherokee tales in this book are "The Coming of Corn" and "Awi Usdi, The Little Deer" from North Carolina.

Judson, Katharine Berry, ed. Native American Legends of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000. Contains a number of tales about the origin of fire from other Native American traditions, as well as a number of Cherokee tales. Originally published Myths and Legends of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1914.

Park, Youn Y., Susannah Pearse, and Luke Mays. How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun: A Musical in One Act. New York: Mondo Pub, 2007. "A new setting of a legend from the Muskogee (Creek) Native Americans of Oklahoma, in which Grandmother Spider steals a bit of the sun so that the animals don't have to live in the dark. Script, staging instructions, musical score, and songs on CD are included."

Tales from other traditions about getting or stealing fire include the Greek myth of Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for giving fire to humanity. An American 19th-century retelling from Bullfinch's Mythology is online at

brown quilt square Hispanic Connection

"The Possum's Tail" (How fire came to the world): A Mazatec myth. In Vigil, Angel. The Eagle on the Cactus: Traditional Stories from Mexico = El águila encima del nopal: cuentos tradicionales de Mexico. Transl. Francisco Miraval. World folklore series. Englewood, Colo: Libraries Unlimited, 2000. Dance, Nana, Dance cover

"Opossum Steals Fire." In Peck, Catherine, ed. QPB Treasury of North American Folktales. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998. pp. 10-11. Opossum convinces the old woman who is hoarding fire to let him near her fire. He takes the fire on his tail to people, so the opossum's tail is bald and he has asked people never to eat him. A Mexican tale from The Mythology of Mexico and Central America by John Bierhorst (1990). Peck notes that in some North American tales, fox gets fire and that is why his feet are black.

Hayes, Joe. Dance, Nana, Dance = Baila, Nana, Baila: Cuban Folktales in English and Spanish. Illus. Mauricio T. Sayago. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2008. This award-winning book is labeled as "a collection of [13] stories from Cuban folklore, representing the cultures of Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean," with a Cuban-born illustrator. Each page faces a translation in the other language. "The title story relates the acquisition of fire from an old witch by two canny jimaguas, the Cuban term for twins," who use music and dance (from School Library Journal review).

See above for a Spanish language edition of First Fire: A Cherokee Folktale by Nancy Kelly Allen and Sherry Waters.

Links checked 9/14/03   |   Top of Page   |   Last update: 1/13/19


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