Friday, July 4, 2014

The sacred formulas of the Cherokee

image: Wikimedia commons (link). A'n'inĭ or "Swimmer."

Either one or two days after the incident with the ground squirrel recounted here, I sat down to a pleasant cup of oolong tea to read Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (published by James Mooney in 1891). 

The book itself contains extremely important records of primary-source formulas written by Cherokee shamans in their own words. Mooney explains that these records are unique among the Native American tribes of the continent, in that the Cherokee possessed their own alphabet (actually, a syllabary, with each symbol standing for a spoken syllable) and writing system, and could thus record their own thoughts and traditions directly, in their own words and language, without having to relate them to an interpreter. The famous Cherokee syllabary was developed by Sequoyah (c. 1770 - 1840) in the early 1800s, and rapidly adopted among the Cherokee Nation.

Mooney explains the significance of this development for the preservation of formulas used by Cherokee shamans in his text (remember, it was published in 1891, so when he says "the early part of the present century," Mooney is referring to the early part of the nineteenth century):
These formulas had been handed down orally from a remote antiquity until the early part of the present century, when the invention of the Cherokee syllabary enabled the priests of the tribe to put them into writing. The same invention made it possible for their rivals, the missionaries, to give to the Indians the Bible in their own language, so that the opposing forces of Christianity and shamanism alike profited by the genius of Sikwâya. The pressure of the new civilization was too strong to be withstood, however, and though the prophets of the old religion still have much influence with the people, they are daily losing ground and will soon be without honor in their own country.
Such an exposition of the aboriginal religion 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. [. . .]
This alphabet was at once adopted by the tribe for all purposes for which writing can be used, including the recording of their shamanistic prayers and ritualistic ceremonies. The formulas here given, 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 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 yet has upon the minds of even 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. [pages 308-309 in the original pagination as annotated in the left-hand margin of this online edition].
There is much in the above passage upon which to comment and reflect, but chief among them is the lamentable situation in which the proponents of literalist Christianity failed to understand that their scriptures are unmistakably based upon the exact same universal esoteric system that underlies the sacred traditions of the rest of the world's traditional cultures (see the extended discussions found in this and this previous post), and that in fact the founding scriptures of the Old and New Testament teach a worldview which can be accurately described as shamanic (Paul himself admits to traveling "out of the body" in 2 Cor 12). 

The two should have never been "opposing forces" and "rivals" as they are described in the passage above. Yet this is a tragedy of history which was repeated over and over during the centuries which saw the spread of literalist Christianity, first within the borders of the Roman Empire, then out into the former "frontier" regions of Europe, and then into other continents including the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific islands.

The photograph above shows one of the Cherokee shamans who shared the ancient knowledge with Mooney when Mooney arrived at the Cherokee reservation in 1887, of whom Mooney says:
Some time afterward an acquaintance was formed with a man named A'n'inĭ or "Swimmer," who proved to be so intelligent that I spent several days with him, procuring information in regard to myths and old customs. [page 310 of the original pagination as indicated in the left-hand margin of the same online edition linked above].
Swimmer eventually furnished Mooney with "a day-book of about 240 pages" which was "about half filled with writing in the Cherokee characters," and which Mooney bought from Swimmer after giving him "another blank book into which to copy the formulas, after which the original was bought." This became known as the Swimmer Manuscript. It is available to read online in various places, including here.

As I studied this fascinating account, one passage which struck me most forcefully was the Cherokee account of "The Origin of Disease and Medicine," found beginning on page 319 of the original pagination as found in the same online edition linked above. There, the sacred history gives some very significant information regarding the origin of the knowledge of the plant-based medicines. The story begins:
In the old days quadrupeds, birds, fishes and insects could all talk, and they and the human race lived together in peace and friendship. But as time went on the people increased so rapidly that their settlements spread over the whole earth and the poor animals found themselves beginning to be cramped for room. This was bad enough, but to add to their misfortunes man invented bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and hooks, and began to slaughter the larger animals, birds and fishes for the sake of their flesh or their skins, while the smaller creatures, such as the frogs and worms, were crushed and trodden upon without mercy, out of pure carelessness or contempt. In this state of affairs the animals resolved to consult upon measures for their common safety. 319.
The bears go first, but after experimenting with bows and arrows decide for the time being to use their teeth and claws instead (a fortunate development for humanity, the Cherokee account seems to imply). Next the deer held a council under their chief, and they decide to inflict rheumatism upon any hunter who fails to ask pardon for the offense of slaying a deer any time he should kill one of their number: there is a sacred formula, preserved by the tradition of the tribe, that must be spoken by the hunter to ask pardon of the deer for killing it.

The account continues, and becomes even more noteworthy:
Next came the fishes and reptiles, who had their own grievances against humanity. They held a joint council and determined to make their victims dream of snakes twining about them in slimy folds and blowing their fetid breath in their faces, or to make them dream of eating raw or decaying fish, so that they would lose appetite, sicken, and die. Thus it is that snake and fish dreams are accounted for.
Finally the birds, insects, and smaller animals came together for a like purpose, and the Grubworm presided over the deliberations. It was decided that each in turn should express an opinion and then vote on the question as to whether or not man should be deemed guilty. Seven votes were to be sufficient to condemn him. One after another denounced man's cruelty and injustice toward the other animals and voted in favor of his death. The Frog (walâ'sĭ) spoke first and said: "We must do something to check the increase of the race or people will become so numerous that we shall be crowded from off the earth. See how man has kicked me about because I'm ugly, as he says, until my back is covered with sore;" and here he showed the spots on his skin. Next came the Bird (tsi'skwa; no particular species is indicated), who condemned man because "he burns my feet off," alluding to the way in which the hunter barbecues birds by impaling them on a stick set over the fire, so that their feathers and tender feet are singed and burned. Others followed in the same strain. The Ground Squirrel alone ventured to say a word in behalf of man, who seldom hurt him because he was so small; but this so enraged the others that they fell upon the Ground Squirrel and tore him with their teeth and claws, and the stripes remain on his back to this day. 
The assembly then began to devise and name various diseases, one after another, and had not their invention failed them not one of the human race would have been able to survive. [. . .]
When the plants, who were friendly to man, heard what had been done by the animals, they determined to defeat their evil designs. Each tree, shrub, and herb, down even to the grasses and mosses, agreed to furnish a remedy for some one of the diseases named, and each said: "I shall appear to help man when he calls upon me in his need." Thus did medicine originate, and the plants, every one of which has its use if we only knew it, furnish the antidote to counteract the evil wrought by the revengeful animals. When the doctor is in doubt what treatment to apply for the relief of a patient, the spirit of the plant suggests to him the proper remedy. 321 -  322.
This passage is full of resonances with topics discussed in The Undying Stars, particularly the subject of the shamanic and accounts from shamanic cultures that their vast awareness of medicinal plants and plant-based remedies are not based on trial and error (nor could they be), but rather are derived from teachings received from the plants themselves (or, in the words of the above translation, from "the spirit of the plant").  

This shamanic tradition from shamans in North America who were still in contact with their living ancient tradition accords well with the observations of anthropologist Dr. Jeremy Narby during his years of living and conversing with the people of the Peruvian Amazon. In The Cosmic Serpent, he records that he was originally astonished when he was told by the Ashaninca that they learned of the medicinal properties of plants by undertaking shamanic journeys during which they communicated directly with the plants themselves (in the spirit world).

The sacred teachings of the Cherokee appear to confirm that the things Dr. Narby was told and that he experienced himself are part of a pattern that stretches well beyond the specific peoples and areas he was studying, and may indeed be characteristic of surviving shamanic cultures. The mention of "snake dreams" in the above account may also have some harmonies with the experiences Dr. Nary describes, although it should be noted that in the Cherokee account, these "snake and fish dreams" seem to have a heavily negative and even sinister and potentially deadly connotation.

It is notable that the message of the story does not seem to be one of limiting the growth of the human population: the animals (especially Grubworm) who desire to cause harm to men and women through disease are portrayed in a negative light, and animals such as the deer and the bear seem to take a merciful attitude towards men and women. Further, the plants upon hearing of the harm intended by some of the animals are described as being "determined to defeat their evil designs." The plants furnish remedies so that the harmful plans of some of the animals will  be thwarted.

Finally, of personal interest to me was the prominent mention of the Ground Squirrel, who "alone ventured to say a word in behalf of man," because people apparently "seldom hurt him [Ground Squirrel] because he was so small." Coming literally just a couple days after the rescue of the ground squirrel (see link at the top of this post) which made a deep impression on me, this unexpected passage in a book I had never read before was quite astonishing. 

In fact, I had not sat down to read this particular Mooney manuscript, but had at that moment been looking for any online editions of Mooney's text describing his time observing the Ghost Dance movement of the Great Plains. When that was unavailable online, I moved on to the Cherokee text linked above instead. You can imagine my surprise when Ground Squirrel was singled out for discussion in this important account of the origin of plant-medicine remedies, and when he was described as being the only one who stood up for mankind, since they seldom hurt Ground Squirrel because he as so small.

These sacred teachings clearly have significance for us today -- they seem to be trying to tell us something important. Among those messages, perhaps: "Listen to the plants," and "Be kind to Ground Squirrel."