Thursday, May 15, 2014

Native American Religion: Shamans, Wizards and Medicine-Men


Native American Religion: Shamans, Wizards and Medicine-Men



The Native American religion and priesthood, whether known as medicine-men, shamans, or wizards, were in most tribes a caste apart, exercising not only the priestly function, but those of physician and prophet as well. The name 'medicine-men,' therefore, is scarcely a misnomer. They were skilled in the handling of occult forces such as hypnotism, and thus exercised unlimited sway over the rank and file of the tribe. But we shall first consider them in their religious aspect. In many of the Indian tribes the priesthood was a hereditary office; in others it was obtained through natural fitness or revelation in dreams. With the Cherokees, for example, the seventh son of a family was usually marked out as a suitable person for the priesthood. As a rule the religious body did not share in the general life of the tribe, from which to a great degree it isolated itself. For example, Bartram in his Travels in the Carolinas describes the younger priests of the Creeks as being arrayed in white robes, and carrying on their heads or arms "a great owl-skin stuffed very ingeniously as an insignia of wisdom and divination. These bachelors are also distinguishable from the other people by their taciturnity, grave and solemn countenance, dignified step, and singing to themselves songs or hymns in a low, sweet voice as they stroll about the towns." To add to the feeling of awe which they inspired among the laymen of the tribe, the priests conversed with one another in a secret tongue. Thus the magical formulæ of some of the Algonquin priests were not in the ordinary language, but in a dialect of their own invention. The Choctaws, Cherokees, and Zuñi employed similar esoteric dialects, all of which are now known to be merely modifications of their several tribal languages, fortified with obsolete words, or else mere borrowings from the idioms of other tribes.