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Cherokee Beliefs Concerning Death [archive]

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Cherokee Beliefs Concerning Death

Most of what Will West Long told me about Cherokee funeral practice had to do with doctoring, and with the theories and practice of doctoring, conjuring, and witchcraft. Will said that his original apprenticeship in doctoring, beyond what he learned from his mother, was with Charlie Lossiah. I believe that this is the same man who was Hayes,' Tom's and Dave's father, and that he was not too much older than Will. He was Will's classificatory uncle, and had to be paid with many gifts, once $20, for specific bodies of knowledge. Hayes has a large formal photographic portrait of his father which should be copied. I gave Will an overcoat once because he had given Charlie an overcoat for a specific herb complex, and Will needed the coat. Will never trained anyone, because he said there was no suitable nephew available and because he had learned that he himself had no doctoring powers, none of the healing knowledge had enabled him to prevent death, as in the case of his wives. Later, when he worked for Mooney and after that, he learned from Lawyer and Morgan Calhoun and others, and also obtained manuscript things of theirs after their deaths. Will had never been a church member, and I understood him to say that he had never been christened, despite the fact that his father was a Baptist lay preacher. He was, of course, raised by his mother. He once told me of how many of the older men had very unwillingly become Christians because of the constant pressuring from their daughters. He said he would never give in to the churches. His mother had taught him to read and write Cherokee using the New Testament as a text, after a schoolmate (at Hampton?) had introduced him to the syllabary. Molly Sequoyah's mother also used the New Testament as a text in teaching Molly literacy when she was very young, and Molly never joined the church or was baptized until she was in prison. Molly had a manuscript book of Formulae of Swimmer's, but it was burned by Amaneet in one of his mood swings. Molly claimed not to know or have used any of the formulas or magical doctoring knowledge, only the herbalism and midwifery. Will considered the formulae and their ritualism to be the most essential parts of any significant doctoring; otherwise, herbalism interested him very little.

Will felt that all details of funeral should be carried out by one's neighbors, that the Gadugi should be central to it, that no payments should be involved, and he deplored the modern practice of using a white undertaker as a folly, a decadency, and monetary racket. The coffin should be made by the Gadugi, and draped with black cloth. Burial should be the day after death. Will had been told that formerly the corpse was covered with a special shroud which had been twined from apocynum cord. If they were used, they must have been prepared ahead. Molly had also been told this by her mother, and Molly showed me how to spin the 2-strand cord on the thigh with the right hand the way she had been taught. Will said that this practice was the last survival of aboriginal weaving.

This shroud suggests the "dead clothes" of the Longhouse Iroquois. There are costumes, prepared in early adulthood and stored away, of completely aboriginal tailoring (sash, breech-clout, leggings, etc.) which have no decoration of any sort, sombre and totally native in tailoring, although usually made of commercial cloth (wool duffle). I have never heard of the Cherokee shroud elsewhere.

Will explained a multiple-soul concept involving four souls and four stages in death. The soul of conscious life left the body immediately at death and continued its personal life, sometimes remaining nearby for a time, often seen as a ghost, harmless and powerless. Will believed that this soul eventually followed the "trail of Kanati" to the western land of the dead, but insisted that no one had any knowledge of that land or situation. Some people believed that this soul went into the river and followed the river up to a spring-head when it went down into an underworld. This soul might continue to communicate with a loved one until death rejoined them, and "ringing in the ears" was a sign that a deceased loved one, usually a mother, was calling to the living person to join the soul of the dead one. (This is usually a symptom of approaching old age.) Will was experiencing this when I knew him.

This soul is located in the head, immediately under the front fontanelle. The magic of scalping and of the ritual treatment of scalps is directed against this soul. This soul is conscious, self-conscious, has personality, memory, continuity after death, and is unitary, not quantitative in its essence. It creates or secretes the watery fluids of the body: saliva, phlegm, cerebro-spinal fluid, lymph, and sexual fluids. Magical attack upon this soul by the conjuror is called "spoiling his saliva." Will called this and the other the three souls "Askina," and also used the word for a ghost. This is one of the puzzling cognates to northern Iroquoian, where the word (phonetically identical!) is a rare and nearly obsolete root. It means "the soul of the bones," and is thus also used as a term for the substance of deer antler. "The soul of the bones" is also a fundamental concept in northeastern Algonkian, but I don't have vocabularies for it.

Will, by the way, also sometimes used the word "Orenda" for magical power, but he explained to me that he and his father had learned the word from Mooney. We cannot find this word or root in any form in Iroquoian, and the northern Iroquois deny that such a root exists. They use totally different terms in the seventeenth century Huron dictionaries, but we cannot redo his reconstruction, so it is probably imaginary. Askina is not imaginary; we can find it in the early vocabularies, in place-names which we recorded early, and in modern ritual texts, for Mohawk, Huron, Cayuga, etc.. That it has not undergone morphophonemic change between dialects and languages is very peculiar. I cannot see it as a recent loan-word, but think it must he a phonetically "frozen" ritual term from old Iroquoian, like the set of "frozen mono-syllabic and hi-syllabic fundamental roots in Athebascon, which have everywhere escaped the morphophonemic changes of the bulk of the languages.

Note that use of Askina in the New Testament is very different, and probably based on an error by Elias Boudinot, etc. Cherokee seems to have no primary root or any root that could be used for "devil" or "evil." The Askina of ants, however, are the souls that cause kidney disease, etc., and it is probably this sense of possessing animal souls as causes of human disease that led Boudinot to use Askina as devil, probably meaning demoniacal possession.

The second soul, that of physiological life, is located in the liver, and is of primary importance in doctoring and in conjuring. This soul is a substance, is not anthropomorphic in any, has no individuality, and is quantitative, there is more or less of it. Its secretions are yellow bile, black bile, gastric juice, etc. Destruction of the liver substance produces lassitude, the "yellows" (jaundice or hepatitis, or cirrhosis) or the "black" (deep depression or gall bladder attacks or acute pancreatitis). Exhaustion of the liver substance (absence of the soul) produces physiological death. This soul may be attacked by the conjuror, producing false "yellows" or "black" as "simulation diseases," reproducing the symptoms of witch-attack, or it may be actually consumed by witches to produce the standard form of liver-gall-pancreas diseases. The witch lengthens its life by extra supplies of liver-soul.

When the animating soul of conscious life leaves the body at the moment of death, stopping all life processes, the other souls begin to die. That of the liver is gradually diffused back into nature as a life-force and it takes a week for all of it to disappear from the body, if death has been normal. If death has not been caused by liver-soul loss, all of this soul is still present at death, and is available to the witch in the dying or the newly dead as an intact resource for extended life. With each day after death the resource is dwindling and is less tempting to the witch, so that the greatest danger is in the first night after death, less danger the first night after burial, and much less the second night after burial. Loss of the liver soul to the witches seems to do no damage to the first soul of the deceased or to the living community, so there is no practical reason why it should not be permitted. However, it is viewed as desecrative of the corpse, and also, attempts by witches give the opportunity to the conjuror to try and kill the witch, thus eliminating an enemy of the community who is dangerous in other contexts.

The conjuror expects witch attacks at night just before death, during the first night after death, and soon after burial, and so keeps his lonely vigil just before death and just after death and after burial. The defenses against or obstacles to successful witch attacks are the strength or health of the victim, if alive, the strength and magical power of the fire on the household hearth, and the magical power, vigilance, and knowledge of the conjuror. Powerful witches will make their attempt to steal the liver-soul the first night after death and the first night after burial; only very feeble, incapable, and desperate witches would be tempted by the small residues left six days after death. The great crisis and the great magical conflicts would come the night after death, with the conjuror keeping his solitary vigil before the fireplace in the room with the corpse. More about this "wake" later.

The third soul, that of the circulation, is located in the heart, and blood is its secretion. This soul is non-individual and quantitative; it takes a month to die, its substance gradually diffusing back into nature as a life force. It is of no use or interest to witches or conjurors after death. The living may be attacked by magic through the blood soul, in methods called "blood sucking," producing various anemic diseases and their parallel "simulator diseases."

The fourth soul is located in the bones, and I don't understand its secretions. It takes a year to die, its essence gradually returning to nature, contributing its material to the growth of crystals in the ground, especially to the quartz crystals used in divination and conjuring. Ruby and some other crystals have different origins, as in the head of the great snake. I don't know of any conjuring practiced against the soul of the bones. Will said that the grave should be tended, weeded, etc., for a year after death, but was neglected and forgotten after that, because there was nothing of any significance left in the grave. All mourning ended a year after death, because the processes of separation of the dead from the world of the living were completed. This, of course, is true of many other tribes as well, and many details in other parts of the four-soul systems are matched in the fragmentary data of other tribes. I think the basic system was much more widespread than just among Cherokee, but the recorded data is so incomplete.

Will considered funeral to be the locus of the most intense shamanic conflict between conjuror and witch in Cherokee culture, and to involve the most direct personal conflict between the two that ever occurred. I see represented in it the culmination of conflict between conjurors of different communities and clans, and probably between tribes, between red and white magic, and between domestic conjuroring and warfare conjuroring. I find it very difficult to define the distinctions between witch and conjuror; one man's witch is another man s conjuror in the magical conflicts between tribes, between communities, and between clans and interest groups. The emotion which Will expressed in talking about the skili was very mixed, sometimes repulsion, sometimes admiration. His main distinction seemed to be that between ordinary witches who were solitary, secretive, and whose magical powers were used only to extend life and health by stealing liver-soul from relatives of other clans, con-jurors of great knowledge and moderate magical power who would not admit liver-soul consumption ("White witches," I suppose), and great conjurors or grand skili who carried on all the works of both conjuror and witch with superb knowledge and vast magical power, great "Raven mockers" who assaulted the liver-souls of other tribes, of whites, and of great rival conjurors like magical warriors. Will had not personally known any of the grand practitioners; they were all in the dim past.

Here I am sure I can see the identity of Raven as an ancient war title, Raven as the familiar guise of a witch, Raven as the vision-quest friend, and Raven as the ritual killer of eagles; they were all the same person and social agent, the grand warrior in fight, in magic, and in symbolism. Now we only see the features in fragmentations. Is the modern Cherokee witch a superstition, merely the broken-down survival in fragmentary belief of a prior warrior-priest complex of grand shamanic practice: The potentially immortal grand magician who carried out the most essential (and often non-physical) practices of the war complex: Two grand magicians take one another on at the funeral wake, one the assaulting raven symbol, the other the defending and luring conjuror of the domestic hearth.

In the conflict, I can see the opposing themes of fire versus night, of vegetable versus zoological realms, of female versus male agents, and some other contrasts of similar themes, such as the air versus the under-earth. I don't know if they are very meaningful.

I am sure there were two kinds of conjuring in ancient times. One was practiced in part of the town-house fire, the ball-dance fire, and the war-camp fire, and "red" functions, and involved the male twin gods. The other was practiced in part at the square-ground fire and domestic fires, had "white" functions, and involved some female deities. They meet in the magical conflict of funeral.

Once, Will said, a man who had taken the witch medicine sat and watched a grave the night after a burial. First he heard the ravens. Then two great raven-figures, who were half-human, flew down to the grave. They were semi-transparent but luminous, the pale blue of skili-fire. One said, "Is anyone here?" The other said, "No. We have some meat. They dove into the ground as though it was water, and came up carrying the coffin. They opened it, and then closed it and carried it back into the ground, and flew away.

The witch-medicine is given to a new-born baby during the first seven days, during which it is not nursed. It bestows many magical powers, including the ability to see invisible things, to fly out of ones' body, leaving the body behind in coma, with all the abilities of magic flight, the ability to shift forms, and especially to assume the identity of the raven while on magic flight. I don't think the adult initiate is capable of magic flight himself, or can acquire some of the other abilities. The medicine was also given to dogs so that they could detect witches and see them in their invisible forms.

Accounts of the witch medicine were completely messed up by Olbrechts and by Margaret Mead after Olbrechts. It consists of few ingredients which were crushed and steeped in water. Will, Molly, and Tom Lossiah all gave me identical accounts of it, which they said came from Swimmer and from Charley Lossiah. The four ingredients are: "moss" (filamentous algae) from a rock in a mountain steam; phosphorent wood from a rotten stump; two species of insect plants. All four are symbolic of night and of the underworld, but the insect plants are a really spectacular ingredient, and require some additional research.

Insect plants are a genus of Basidiomyceti fungi, of world-wide distribution which are parasitic on a variety of insects. Each species is apparently an infertation of one particular insect species. They are the genus Cordyceps, poorly studied, which were formerly included in the genus claviceps which are parasitic on the seeds of certain grasses. Claviceps include the ergot infestation of rye, and each Claviceps produces various amounts of several extremely toxic and physiologically active drugs, which include ergot and Lysergic acid diethylamide (L.S.D.). As far as I know, the pharmacology of cordycaps has not been studied, but the situation is suspicious; psychiatric drug ingredients are likely, and they are apt to be very nasty materials.

The fungus invades the body of an insect, grows all through its tissues, and replaces the tissue with woody material (schlerota) as it kills the insect. At maturity, a hard, wood-like replica of the insect is completed and a club-shaped fruiting body grows up out of the schlerotized body. This forms spores which are released into a slimy fluid secreted by the fruiting body. One of the Cordyceps attaches the larva of the June Bug beetle, killing it and forming a woody replica of the larva just before pupation, and pushing up a white fruiting body above the first floor. The other one attaches the larva of the Fig Eater beetle in the same way, producing a red club-shaped fruiting body. They are found by searching for the fruiting bodies on the first floor. These two larvae, incidentally, are the major grub-worms of Cherokee mythology, figuring in the myth of the origin of disease. The June Bug larva is also the intermediate host for the tapeworm of the hog. The Journal of Plant Pathology, perhaps 1950-55, has some papers on the American insect plants. This study might lead us to some startling ideas about the links between drugs, mental states, witchcraft, and conjuring among the Cherokee.

According to Will, the conjuror or doctor sits in front of the fireplace and stays awake all night, reciting chants or formulas which invoke the aid of the fire as an old woman. He waits to feel the presence of a witch, listens to hear the "raven mockers", and occasionally scans the sky. He keeps the fire built up, and periodically rakes the coals and hot ashes out onto the hearth, forming them into a small rectangle with raised ridges for walls, which represents a sacred enclosure such as a square-ground, a house, or a yard. He drops pinches of tobacco into the center of this. If the tobacco burns evenly and quietly no hazard is near. If the tobacco flares up, bursts, and throws out sparks, a witch is approaching, and the direction in which the sparks fly is the direction of approach. As the witch is about to enter, he burns remade tobacco in the fire, singing formulas which enable the fire to kill the witch. He may see and hear the approach of witches, and he may hear the approach of witches, and he may hear the cries of rival witches who are fighting in the sky as ravens for rights to the corpse. Will denied that witches came in the guise of owls, hawks, or other birds, and said that was superstition. Molly was uncertain about this, and had heard both claims. Runningwolf insisted that witches came also as owls and hawks, and said he had killed a witch in the guise of a hawk by magic and a gun-shot. Molly did not believe that owls were "witchy," and sometimes doubted that any birds were.

Will insisted that the fire on the hearth had an intensely spiritual nature, was human in thought, consciousness, intent, emotions, etc., and was in fact an old woman who was a grandmother in kin terms. She was a member of the family and the household. Proper treatment of the fire was essential to the well-being of the family, good family life, mannerly and proper conduct, and many rules about the conduct of the hearth contributed to the health, strength, and magical power of the old woman. Putting out the fire on the last day and ritual new fire during the Green Corn was essential, as was the proper sharing of meals by burnt offerings to the fire. If all was conducted well, the old woman would be strong and vigorous and would effectively protect the family from witch attack and many other ills. If the needs of the fire were neglected and proper ritualistic behavior were forgotten, the health and strength of the old woman suffered, she began to fail in her efforts to protect the family, and witches could get at them to snatch a bit of liver substance, finally overdoing their attack when protection failed and liver disease appeared. When this danger appeared with the declining strength and health of fire, the old woman would take on the guise of an owl and hang around the house at night, screeching to warn the household of their peril. When this happened, one had to call in a conjuror to discover the faults and correct them, use ritual means to strengthen the fire, and to attack the witches. As in the funeral, the conjuror had to be paid with white cloth, although many and other things were added if one wanted.

Will objected very strongly to the shooting of owls, and said people confused their friends with their enemies. He thought many modern ills and much of witchcraft had happened because people neglected the rituals and proper use of fire, that they were becoming as ignorant as white people in the proper conduct of life, and that they had become confused and careless about the condition of witchcraft and other evils.

--written by John Witthoft

Additional Reading

 Indian Tribes
 Cherokee Mythology
 The Cherokee Indian Alphabet
 Cherokee Name
 Cherokee History
 Cherokee Indian Nation
 Oklahoma Indian Tribes
 North Carolina Indian Tribes



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