Teaching Geography and Culture Through Origin Stories and Myths

Why am I here? Where do I come from? Who am I? Questions like these are answered in part through stories handed from one generation to another. Civilizations from the past tried to explain the changing of seasons, objects in the sky, and the facts of life and death through the natural environment in which they lived. Ancient Chinese, for example, believed that daylight was provided by one of ten sunbirds taking its turn across the sky, while Ancient Egyptians imagined that a giant beetle pushed the round sun across the heavens.

There is a great variety of creation stories that provide explanations for earthly happenings. The cultural and religious themes evident in these stories can significantly enrich the social studies curriculum, giving elementary students an understanding of how culture and the environment influence the behavior of diverse peoples. These stories can offer a window into how people live, how they relate to their environment, and what they believe about their place in the wider universe.

Photo: Devil’s Tower, Wyoming / iStock by Getty Images


Humans often bestow specific places on the landscape with qualities of good or evil. Early American communal societies, such as the Mormons, Shakers and Oneida Communities, were searching for a “Garden of Eden” or “utopia,” where a society could be erected that would reflect the perfection of the landscape. On the other hand, topography that suggested abhorrent characteristics to American settlers were named after the devil: Devil’s Backbone, Devil’s Tower, Devil’s Throat, and Devil’s Kitchen. Creation stories are often inseparable from their locations. Students could make connections between origin stories and geography, as well as investigate why specific places are mentioned in some stories. What aspects of a story relate to the geography of the land? What aspects of a story reflect the culture of the people telling the story? Why do you think this story was created? Does it serve a purpose beyond entertainment?

Wind and Clouds

One example of myth arising from environment is The Children of Rangi and Papi from the Maori tribes in New Zealand, which contains descriptions of an angry god who sent “Fierce Squalls, Whirlwinds, Dense Clouds, Massive Clouds, Dark Clouds, Gloomy Thick Clouds, Fiery Clouds, Clouds Which Preceded Hurricanes, Clouds of Fiery Black, Clouds Reflecting Glowing Red Light, Clouds Wildly Drifting from All Quarters and Wildly Bursting, Clouds of Thunderstorms, and Clouds Hurriedly Flying.” Since New Zealand is surrounded by the Pacific Island and buffeted by strong winds, it’s logical that aboriginal stories would include these elements of nature. Have children imagine being in a severe storm and illustrate through words and pictures the feelings they might have. Lead into a discussion of ocean currents, winds, and climate. New Zealand also has volcanoes and natural hot springs. Have the students use descriptive vocabulary to provide imagery similar to that in the book.


Photo: Aztec Calendar / iStock by Getty Images


The book How We Came to the Fifth World retells the Aztec creation story in which “the four historical ages” were destroyed by the elements of water, air, fire, and earth. The Aztecs believed that the fifth world (our current one) is also doomed to destruction unless evil can be banished. The Aztecs represented the end of each “world” on their great stone calendars, which were based on the solar year and linked to agricultural cycles. Share with students the significance of fresh water to the Yucatan, where there are no rivers above ground. The peninsula is a porous limestone shelf that drains all the rainwater from the surface, and cenotes (sinkholes) are the only source of sweet, fresh water. Demonstrate the effect of rain (which is slightly acidic even if unpolluted) on limestone by placing drops of lemon juice (which is also acidic) on a piece of chalk and observing the erosion.


The Aborigines of Australia believe that the world is still being created. In an adaptation of the origin myth, Sun Mother Wakes the World: An Australian Creation Story, Sun Mother comes to the Earth and wakes the animal spirits in various caves. At first, the animals are frightened when Sun Mother leaves, but eventually realize that she returns every morning. Later in the story, Sun Mother gives birth to a son (Moon) and daughter (Morning Star), which in time give birth to the first woman and man. Have students look at a map of Australia and identify the different landforms across the continent. How has the terrain determined the location of cities? Have students create a play dough map of the Australian terrain.

Teachers can encourage students to create their own stories to explore cultural and geographical elements. Speculation about how the world came into being appears to be a basic element of all human cultures. Who we are and how we came to be are elements wrapped up in our very being. Linking culturally-based origin stories to geographic elements can provide an engaging strategy to the elementary classroom.

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Kay Gandy is a retired professor of seventeen years and a retired elementary teacher of twenty-seven years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books Mapping is Elementary, My Dear and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies provide practical lesson ideas for elementary teachers.

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