Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, 1885-'86
The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees
An Outline of the Cherokee System
Formulas (or 'spells', if you like) were as often repeated by elder women of the clans; but later, as the tribe became more Patriarchal and otherwise fell under European influence, they became the domain of the more authoritarian "doctors" -- whether male or female.
List of Illustrations of the Formulas written in Native Cherokee script.
The Shaman, Swimmer
The Formulas described herein, were obtained from the Eastern Band of Cherokees, in North Carolina.
"These [F]ormulas had been handed down orally from a remote antiquity, until the early part of the present [19th] century, when the invention of the Cherokee syllabary enabled the priests of the tribe to put them into writing... Such an exposition of the aboriginal language could be obtained from no other tribe in North America, for the simple reason that no other tribe has an alphabet of its own in which to record its sacred lore..."
~ The Cherokee alphabet was invented by Sequoyah (spelled "Sikwaya" here -- he signed his own name, "Ssiquoya").
"The formulas given here, as well as those of the entire collection, were written out by the shamans themselves -- men who adhere to the ancient religion and speak only their native language -- in order that their sacred knowledge might be preserved in a systematic manner for their mutual benefit. The language, the conception, and the execution are all genuinely Indian, and hardly a dozen lines of the hundreds of formulas [in the collection] show a trace of the influence of the white man or his religion. The formulas contained in these manuscripts are not disjointed fragments of a system long since extinct, but are the revelation of a living faith which still has its priests and devoted adherents, and it is only necessary to witness a ceremonial ball play, with its fasting, its going to water, and its mystic bead manipulation, to understand how strong is the hold which the old faith has yet even upon the minds of the younger generation. The numerous archaic and figurative expressions used require the interpretation of the priests, but, as before stated, the alphabet in which they are written is that in daily use among the common people."
(Note that around the time of this formal study, the Cherokee tribe regularly published its own newspaper, on their own printing press.)
"Let us sit down together." ("Let us tell each other our secrets.")
"Should it seem probable that the seeker after knowledge can give as much as he receives, an agreement is generally arrived at, the two retire to some convenient spot secure from observation, and the first party begins by reciting one of his [F]ormulas with the explanations. The other then reciprocates with one of his own, unless it appears that the bargain is apt to be a losing one, in which case the conference comes to an abrupt ending."
"It is sometimes possible to obtain a [F]ormula by the payment of a coat, a quantity of cloth, or a sum of money. Like the Celtic Druids of old, the candidate for the priesthood in former times found it necessary to cultivate a long memory, as no [F]ormula was repeated more than once for his benefit. It was considered that one who failed to remember after the first hearing was not worthy to be accounted a shaman."
"This task, however, was not so difficult as might appear on first thought, when once the learner understood the theory involved, as the [F]ormulas are all constructed on regular principles, with constant repitition of the same set of words. The obvious effect of such a regulation was to increase the respect in which this sacred knowledge was held by restricting it to the possession of a chosen few."
"Although the written [F]ormulas can be read without difficulty by any Cherokee educated in his own language, the shamans take good care that their sacred writings shall not fall into the hands of the laity or of their rivals in occult practices, and in performing the ceremonies the words used are uttered in such a low tone of voice as to be unintelligible even to the one for whose benefit the [F]ormula is repeated. Such being the case, it is in order to explain how the formulas collected were obtained..."
(pages 318-319) "...These [F]ormulas furnish a complete refutation of the assertion so frequently made by ignorant and prejudiced writers that the Indian had no religion excepting what they are pleased to call the meaningless mummeries of the medicine man. This is the very reverse of the truth. The Indian is essentially religious and contemplative, and it might almost be said that every act of his life is regulated and determined by his religious belief. It matters not that some might call this superstition. The difference is only relative. The religion of to-day has developed from the cruder superstitions of yesterday, and Christianity itself is but an outgrowth and enlargement of the beliefs and ceremonies which have been preserved by the Indian in their more ancient form. When we are willing to admit that the Indian has a religion which he holds sacred, even though it be different from our own, we can then admire the consistency of the theory, the particularity of the ceremonial and the beauty of the expression. So far from being a jumble of crudities, there is a wonderful completeness about the whole system which is not surpassed even by the ceremonial religions of the East. It is evident from a study of these [F]ormulas that the Cherokee Indian was a polytheist and that the spirit world was to him only a shadowy counterpart of this [reality]. All his prayers were for temporal and tangible blessings -- for health, for long life, for success in the chase [hunting], in fishing, in war and in love, for good crops, for protection and for revenge. He had no Great Spirit, no happy hunting ground, no heaven, no hell, and consequently death had for him no terrors and he awaited the inevitable end with no anxiety as to the future. He was careful not to violate the rights of his tribesman or to do injury to his feelings, but there is nothing to show that he had any idea whatever of what is called morality in the abstract."
... According to James Mooney. Personally, I find his conclusions while fairly accurate on many points, to be much too simplistic, practically glib. Yes, the Cherokees, like other American tribes, were superstitious polytheists, perhaps. They engaged in certain (although not all) Pagan types of rituals and ceremonies, and practiced occult arts, too. But in my opinion they did have a developed sense of morality.
And, I don't think it was even remotely possible for one man or even a team of anthropologists ("ethnologists") to uncover everything needed to learn enough to form solid conclusions about the psyches of a fairly recently discovered foreign tribe as the Cherokee, with such a complex social structure, for whom English was not their native tongue, and who severely suffered from the encroachment of the far more domineering -- and in so many ways, less moral -- conquerers.
In fact, I find it extremely ironic listening to one of the invaders who participated in the subjugation of what was formerly a great and powerful tribe of people, give his opinions about their character. He describes them as beings so 'natural', simple-minded, and spontaneous, as to be barely above the animals. I would find it much more interesting and enlightening to hear from the Cherokee themselves. So, getting back to the real evidence:
(Page 319) The Cherokee attributed the origin of Human diseases to the offense taken by the various kinds of animals which lost their habitats -- and often their lives -- to Human beings. I personally also believe that most infectious disease is associated with contact between Human beings and animals... or, between species.
While the animals were the instigators of disease, it was (and still is, mostly) the plants which came to the aid of Human beings, by providing remedies and medicines to treat and / or cure sickness.
Healing Herbs and Plants Used by the Cherokee
(Page 322) ... "Like most primitive people the Cherokee believe that disease and death are not natural, but are due to the evil influence of animal spirits, ghosts, or witches. Haywood, writing in 1823, states on the authority of two intelligent residents of the Cherokee nation:
"In ancient times the Cherokees had no conception of anyone dying a natural death. They universally ascribed the death of those who perished by disease to the intervention or agency of evil spirits and witches or conjurers who had connection with the Shina (Anisgi'na) or evil spirits... A person dying by disease and charging his death to have been procured by means of witchcraft or spirits, by any other person, consigns that person to inevitable death. They profess to believe that their conjurations have no effect on white men.
"On the authority of one of the same informants, he also mentions the veneration which 'their physicians have for the numbers four and seven, who say that after man was placed upon the earth four and seven nights were intituted for the cure of diseases in the [H]uman body and the seventh night as the limit for female impurity.'"
Common Names of the Twenty Plants Most Frequently Used by the Cherokees for Medicine:
- Virginia or Black Snakeroot
- Beggar Lice (also known as "Hitchhikers")
- Wild Senna
- Life Everlasting
- Cat Gut, Turkey Pea, Goat's Rue, or Devil's Shoestrings
- Maidenhair Fern
- Wild Alum or Cranesbill
- Indian Physic
- Liverwort or Heartleaf
- Tassel Flower
- Ginseng or "Sang"
- Meadow Rue
- Lady Slipper
- Cone Flower
- Solomon's Seal
- Queen of the Meadow or Gravel Root
- Shield Fern
In their medical rituals, the Cherokees also practiced certain tabus (taboos). Also various bathing behaviors, including "sweat baths"; bleeding; blowing on the affected and other parts of the body; etc.
(Page 335) "In one of the Gahuni [F]ormulas for snakebites, the operator is told to rub in a direction contrary to that in which the snake coils itself, because 'this is just the same as uncoiling it.'"
"The religion of the Cherokees, like that of most of our North American Tribes, is zootheism or animal worship, with the survival of that earlier stage designated by Powell as hecastotheism, or the worship of all things tangible, and the beginnings of a higher system in which the elements and the great powers of nature are deified. Their pantheon includes gods in the heaven above, on the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth, but of these the animal gods constitute by far the most numerous class, although the elemental gods are more important. Among the animal gods insects and fishes occupy a subordinate place, while quadrupeds, birds, and reptiles are invoked almost constantly. The uktena (a mythical great horned serpent), the rattlesnake, and the terrapin, the various species of hawk, and the rabbit, the squirrel, and the dog are the principal animal gods. The importance of the god bears no relation to the size of the animal, and in fact the larger animals are but seldom invoked. The spider also occupies a prominent place in the love and life-destroying [F]ormulas, his duty being to entangle the soul of his victim in the meshes of his web or to pluck it from the body of the doomed man and drag it way to the black coffin in the Darkening Land.
"Among what may be classed as elemental gods the principal are fire, water, and the sun, all of which are addressed under figurative names. The sun is called... 'the apportioner,' just as our word moon means originally 'the measurer.' Indians and Aryans alike, having noticed how these great luminaries divide and measure day and night, summer and winter, with never-varying regularity, have given to each a name which should indicate these characteristics, thus showing how the human mind constantly moves on along the same channels. Missionaries have naturally, but incorrectly, assumed this apportioner of all things to be the suppositional 'Great Spirit' of the Cherokees, and hence the word is used in the [Cherokee] Bible translation as synonymous with God..."
"But few inanimate gods are included in the category, the principal being the Stone...
"A number of personal deities are also invoked, the principal being the Red Man. He is one of the greatest of the gods, being repeatedly called upon in [F]ormulas of all kinds, and is hardly subordinate to the Fire, the Water, or the Sun. His identity is as yet uncertain, but he seems to be intimately connected with the Thunder family [of gods]. In a curious marginal note in one of the Gahuni [F]ormulas (page 350), it is stated that when the patient is a woman the doctor must pray to the Red man, but when treating a man he must pray to the Red Woman, so that this personage seems to have dual sex [gender] characteristics. Another god invoked in the hunting songs is... 'Slanting Eyes' (see Cherokee Myths), a giant hunter who lives in one of the great mountains of the Blue Ridge and owns all the game. Others are the Little Men, probably the two Thunder boys; the Little People, the fairies who live in the rock cliffs; and even... a diminutive sprite who holds the place of our Puck. One unwritten [F]ormula, which could not be obtained correctly by dictation, was addressed to the 'Red-Headed Woman, whose hair hangs down to the ground.'"
- East ==== red ==== success; triumph
- North === blue === defeat; trouble
- West ==== black == death
- South === white === peace; happiness
- Above? == brown == unascertained, but propitious
- ______ == yellow == about the same as blue
Importance Attached to Names ~ Verbalizing Names for Power
"Your soul has come into the very center of my soul, never to turn away."
Medical Formulas in Cherokee Language
Formula for Treating Rheumatism
East == Sun Land
North = Frigid Land
West == Darkening Land
South == Wahala
"The [F]ormulas generally consist of four paragraphs, corresponding to four steps in the medical ceremony. In this case there are five, the last being addressed to a terrapin [turtle] instead of to a dog."
In the [F]ormula cited here, for treating rheumatism, white beads are also a part of the ceremony as they are ritualistically placed in a terrapin shell.
"Yu! O Red Woman [or Man, as the case may be], you have caused it. You have put the intruder under him. Ha! now you have come from the Sun Land. You have brought the small red seats, with your feet resting upon them. Ha! now they have swiftly moved away from you. Relief is accomplished. Let it not be for one night alone. Let the relief come at once."
"And this is the tabu for seven nights. One must not touch a squirrel, a dog, a cat, the mountain trout, or women. If one is treating a married man they (sic) must not touch his wife for four nights. And he must sit on a seat by himself for four nights, and must not sit on the other seats for four nights."
Formula for Snake Bite
"... The rattlesnake is regarded as a supernatural being... whose favor must be propitiated, and great pains are taken not to offend him. In consonance with this idea it is never said among the people that a person has been bitten by a snake, but that he has been 'scratched by a brier.' In the same way, when an eagle has been shot for a ceremonial dance, it is announced that 'a snowbird has been killed,' the purpose being to deceive the rattlesnake or eagle spirits which might be listening."
Formula for Infant Diseases
"Cherokee mothers sometimes hush crying children by telling them that the screech owl is listening out in the woods or that the De'tsata -- a malicious little dwarf who lives in caves in the river bluffs -- will come and get them. This quiets the child for a time and is so far successful, but the animals, or the De'tsata, take offense at being spoken of in this way, and visit their displeasure upon the children born to the mother afterward. This they do by sending an animal into the body of the child to gnaw its vitals."
"The child must not be taken out of doors during the four days [of tabu], because should a bird chance to fly overhead so that its shadow would fall upon the infant, it would fan the disease back into the body of the little one."
"Relief is accomplished."
Formula to "Make Children Jump Down" ~ Childbirth
"Listen! You little man, get up now at once. There comes an old woman. The horrible [old thing] is coming, only a little way off. Listen! Quick! Get your bed and let us run away. Yu!
"Listen! You little woman, get up now at once. There comes your grandfather. The horrible old fellow is coming, only a little way off. Listen! Quick! Get your bed and let us run away. Yu!"
"Little boy, little boy, hurry, hurry, come out, come out! Little boy hurry; a bow, a bow; let's see who'll get it, let's see who'll get it!
"Little girl, little girl, hurry, hurry, come out, come out! Little girl hurry; a sifter, a sifter; let's see who'll get it, let's see who'll get it!"
Formula for Love Charms
Concerning Living Humanity (Love)
"Your soul has come into the very center of my soul, never to turn away."
"I take your soul."
Songs for Painting, and to Attract and Fix the Affections
"On high you repose, O Blue Hawk, there at the far distant lake. The blue tobacco has come to be your recompense. Now you have arisen at once and come down. You have alighted midway between them where they two are standing. You have spoiled their souls immediately. They have at once become separated. I am a white [happy, fortunate] man; I stand at the sunrise. The good sperm shall never allow any feeling of loneliness. This white [happy, fortunate] woman is of the Paint (iyusti) clan; she is called (iyusti) Wayi. We shall instantly turn her soul over. We shall turn it over as we go toward the Sun Land. I am a white [happy, fortunate] man. Here where I stand it (her soul) has attached itself to (literally, 'come against') mine. Let her eyes in their sockets be forever watching (for me). There is no loneliness where my body is."
"This [F]ormula... is used to separate two lovers or even a husband and wife, if the jealous rival so desires. The particular hawk invoked (giya giya) is a large species found in the coast region but seldom met with in the mountains. Blue indicates that it brings trouble with it, while white in the second paragraph indicates that the man is happy and attractive in manner."
"The first four paragraphs are probably sung, as in the other [F]ormula, on four successive nights, and, as explained in the directions and as stated verbally by A'yu ini, this must be done stealthily at night while the woman is asleep, the husband rubbing his spittle on her breast with his hand while chanting the song in a low tone, hardly above a whisper. The prayer to the Ancient One, or Ancient Red (Fire), in both [F]ormulas, and the expression, 'I come to the edge of your body,' indicate that the hands are first warmed over the fire, in accordance with the general practice when laying on the hands. The prayer to the Black Spider is a beautiful specimen of poetic imagery, and hardly requires an explanation. The final paragraph indicates the successful accomplishment of his purpose. 'Your grandchildren' (tsetsuli si) is an expression frequently used in addressing the more important deities."
NOTE: "Laying on the hands" is a term associated with the spiritual healing arts.
To Shorten a Night-Goer on This Side (To Kill a Witch)
"When it becomes known that a man is dangerously sick the witches from far and near gather invisibly about his house after nightfall to worry him and even force their way in to his bedside unless protected by the presence of a more powerful shaman within the house. They annoy the sick man and thus hasten his death by stamping upon the roof and beating upon the sides of the house; and if they can manage to get inside they raise up the dying sufferer from the bed and let him fall again or even drag him out upon the floor. The object of the witch in doing this is to prolong his term of years by adding to his own life as much as he can take from that of the sick man. Thus it is that a witch who is successful in these practices lives to be very old... [T]he [witch] most dreaded, alike by the friends of the sick man and by the lesser witches, is the Ka'lana-ayeli'ski or Raven Mocker, so called because he flies through the air at night in a shape of fire, uttering sounds like the harsh croak of a raven."
Finding Lost Items, Preventing Storms
What Those Who Have Been to War Did to Help Themselves
Cherokees, like the ancient Zulus of Africa, knew that war takes its toll on the psyche of combatants: they did not revel in the acts of killing and bloodshed nor go to war for pleasure or profit, but only when absolutely necessary, for tribal self-defense. Their warriors often suffered emotional illness much like our U.S. veterans do, from post-traumatic stress syndrome. I don't think the author of this article, James Mooney, really understood and conveyed that fact, but it becomes apparent to the sensitive and intelligent reader when one reads the [F]ormula chanted by the shaman or medicine man for their men upon returning from the battlefield.
Also, while the Cherokees and Zulus both suffered from feelings of uncleanness following fights, even when they were themselves victorious (and both tribes usually were, since they were skilled in warfare), and while both tribes' warriors "went to water" for ritual bathing afterwards -- according to Mooney, the Cherokees did not then practice any tabus like the Zulus, who would always refrain from touching their wives for a period of time during their cleansing ceremonies.
I find that rather odd, since tabus were regularly used with all the other known Cherokee medicinal [F]ormulas. It doesn't quite add up, and I wonder if it means that Mooney might have taken poetic license of some kind regarding the behavior of Cherokee warriors. Perhaps he could only understand their customs in the same light as European attitudes which glorify war.
"When the shaman wishes to destroy the life of another, either for his own purposes or for hire, he conceals himself near the trail along which the victim is likely to pass. When the doomed man appears the shaman waits until he has gone by and then follows him secretly until he chances to spit upon the ground. On coming up to the spot the shaman collects upon the end of a stick a little of the dust thus moistened with the victim's spittle. The possession of the man's spittle gives him power over the life of the man himself. Many ailments are said by the doctors to be due to the fact that some enemy has by this means 'changed the spittle' of the patient and caused it to breed animals or sprout corn in the sick man's body... The same idea in regard to spittle is found in European Folk medicine."
So, yet another good reason not to spit on Mother Earth, people!
A very interesting study of an important historical aspect of Cherokee culture.