The Twin Sisters

retold by Richard L. Dieterle


Among the grand spires of stone standing in the Wisconsin Dells are two that have a human shape. This is the story of their origin. Once there were twin sisters who passionately loved twin brothers. One day the boys went down to the river and began spearing sturgeon [inset]. They did not do so out of necessity, but for the idle sport of slaying the river's creatures. This infuriated the (?Water-)spirit of the river, who overwhelmed the twins with such a torrent of water that their bodies were never found. The twin sisters pined for their lovers, and every day went about searching for them. They offered the spirits sacrifices of every sort for the return of the boys, but their prayers went unanswered. Their grief was so great that Earthmaker himself took pity on them and turned them into great stone statues by the river so that they could always be with those whom they loved.1

Commentary. The primary use of the sturgeon apart from food was in the making of glue, particularly that used to fasten feathers to the shaft of an arrow. This story is largely about social and psychological "glue": love is a kind of glue that binds people together. Without it, they are like feathers without an arrow, or an arrow without feathers. Part of this lesson is that the problem with an arrow without feathers is that it becomes dysfunctional. It is the function of the fish that the boys neglect when they kill it for sport. The Creator created sturgeons for a reason, and the boys attack the purpose of creation when they treat the function of the sturgeon with complete disregard. The two moieties of the Hocągara may also be likened to wood (earth) and feather (bird), although the former is a little ambiguous in this context. The two moieties may also be thought of as twins, but of opposite sex: all marriages (with exceptions in the Wolf Clan) are between couples of different moieties. Those who disregard the function of this glue turn society from a pair of twins of opposite sex that form a working complement into a society of twins who are of the same sex, and who act in exactly the same (dysfunctional) way. When the twin sisters are left without their proper complements, they become truly pitiable. Their love is now as sterile as sport fishing. Earthmaker turns them into twin rocks, probably in part because "tears" of water emanate from rocks in the form of springs. This is why, in Greek mythology, the weeping Niobe, who lost all her children, is turned into a rock.2 Such rocks, too, are sterile, as not even plants can grow from pure rock. They become glued to the spot where their lovers, who celebrated sterility and symbolically attacked the value of glue, now endure it for eternity, complete with the sterile funerary monuments to what might have been.

Comparative Material: A story of the distant Chinook bears at least a pale resemblance to the Hocąk tale. Once long ago the great spirit Tyee lived among the ancestors of the Chinook. It was a time of constant war with the northern tribes, and Tyee was ever engaged in bloody combat. However, it was now time for his twin daughters to be married, and not even the most desperate war could keep him from returning for the feast and the great potlatch that was his honor to give. When he inquired with whom his daughters were to be married, they replied, "Father, we wish to marry two young men of the northern tribes." Although taken aback that they would marry the very men against whom he had been fighting a lifetime, he nevertheless consented and caused a decreed to be sent forth ordering all the northern tribes to appear for the festivities. They all came, bringing salmon and game, bringing all their woman and children with abundant presents. There the twins became wives. Tyee their father bestowed upon his twin girls an everlasting life: they were to become the mountains known today as the "The Lions of Vancouver," for they had given birth to the best of offspring, Peace and Brotherhood.3

The anger that spirits have for the wanton destruction of life is seen in many cultures.

The ill-usage of beasts is strictly checked by the Chief Up Above among the Tsimshian, and by Sila-Pinga among the Eskimo, and similarly, the needless slaughtering or tormenting of game by the Cree and Montagnais Supreme Beings. Puluga in the Andamans is angry when he sees anyone quarter a boar badly or uproot tubers at the wrong season.4

Links: Waterspirits, Earthmaker.

Stories: in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, Ocean Duck, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, The Story of the Medicine Rite, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake; featuring sturgeons as characters: Redhorn's Father, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Wolves and Humans, The Great Fish, see also White Flower; about two sisters: The Twin Sisters, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Old Man and the Giants, The Dipper, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Markings on the Moon, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Pete Dupeé and the Ghosts; about two brothers: The Two Children, The Captive Boys, The Twins Cycle, The Two Brothers, The Two Boys, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, The Lost Blanket, The Man with Two Heads, Bluehorn's Nephews, Snowshoe Strings, Sunset Point, The Old Man and the Giants, The Brown Squirrel, Esau was an Indian; 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 Seven Maidens, 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, 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 Hocąk Migration Myth, The Necessity for Death, Hocąk Clans Origin Myth, The War among the Animals, Lake Winnebago Origin Myth, Blue Mounds, Lost Lake, The Hocągara Migrate South, The Spirit of Gambling, Turtle and the Giant, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, The Hocągara 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; set in the Wisconsin Dells: White Flower, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Red Cloud's Death, Yellow Thunder and the Lore of Lost Canyon, Sunset Point, The Story of the Medicine Rite, Mighty Thunder.

Themes: multiple births: The Birth of the Twins, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Man with Two Heads, The Children of the Sun, The Two Boys, The Lost Blanket, The Shawnee Prophet — What He Told the Hocągara, The Shawnee Prophet and His Ascension, The Two Brothers; spirits take pity on women deprived by death of their lovers: White Flower; frustrated love: White Flower, The Resurrection of the Chief's Daughter, The Phantom Woman, The Woman who Loved her Half-Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, Partridge's Older Brother, The Stone Heart, Snowshoe Strings, Heną́ga and Star Girl, Trickster Soils the Princess, Sunset Point, The Message the Fireballs Brought, Rainbow and Stone Arch; spirits take action against a man for killing game animals for reasons other than food: The Foolish Hunter; a Waterspirit kills a human: The Shaggy Man, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, Waruǧabᵉra, The Two Children, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Seer, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Blanket; a being is transformed into stone: The Seer, A Woman Turns into a Rock, Heną́ga and Star Girl, The Raccoon Coat.


1 Capt. Don Saunders, When the Moon is a Silver Canoe. Legends of the Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin Dells, Wisc.: Don Saunders, 1947) 9-10.

2 Iliad 24.602 seq.; Diodorus Siculus 4.74.3; Pausanias 1.21.3, 2.21.9, 5.11.2, 5.16.4, 8.2.5, 7; J. Tzetzes, Chiliades 4.22 (140); Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.146 seq.; Hyginus, Fabulæ 9, 11; First Vatican Mythographer 156 (Bode, 1:150); Tragicorum Græcorum Fragmenta (Nauck), 2:50 seq., 2:228 seq.; The Fragments of Sophocles, fgg. 442-451 (Pearson, 2:94 seq.).

3 Joe Capilano, "The Two Sisters: the Lions," in E. Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1911) 1-5.

4 Raffaele Pettazzoni, "On the Attributes of God," Numen, 2, ##1-2 (Jan.-May, 1950): 1-27 [16].