Remarks on Shamanism

From "Discussion of J. Cheston Morris' Address ['The Relation of the Pentagonal Do-decahedron Found near Marietta, Ohio, to Shamanism'] and "Remarks on Shamanism," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 36 (1897): 184-92.

THE account Dr. Morris has given us as to what Mr. Williams related to him concerning the life of an Indian youth of the Nez Percé tribe has interested me exceedingly by reason of its striking similarity to what I have myself heard, seen, and experienced among the Zuñi Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.

With these people, a child is not thought of, when first born, as quite yet a living mortal being. It is referred to as "it" or the "new being," nor is any name given to it until after the lapse of nine days. It is supposed to be kái'-yu-na and ai'-ya-vwi--unripe and tender, or soft and susceptible as are germinating seeds or unfinished clay vessels, until after one full day for each of the lunar months of its inter-uterine gestation has passed. During this period of nine days it is usually kept with its mother, secluded from the outer world and from sunlight, in order that it may gradually become hardened to, and so, safe in the "world of daylight"--as these people term the scene and condition of mortal life-that is, condensed to "middle being"--as they further term men's particular mortal existence.

At the close of this ceremonial period the umbilical cord, which has meanwhile sloughed off or has been removed and zealously cared for, is ceremoniously buried in the soil at some particular place, in order that thereat may be formed the "midmost shrine" of the child, and therein its connection with the earth mother-as formerly with its mortal mother-may be established, and that its vitality apart from her thenceforward, be maintained--by thus placing within the fertile bosom of the Universal Mother, that through which erstwhile the child received separately, or secondarily, its being, nourishment and growth, from its human mother.

Passing over many other ceremonials which attend the first naming of the child and its introduction to the Sun and to the tribe of its descent on the early morning of the tenth day (that is, at the end of these nine natal days), a few words relative to the meaning of the "midmost shrine" will serve to indicate what would likely be the symbolic significance to a people like the Nez Percé and the Zuñi Indians, of such an object (whether natural or artificial) as the one to which Dr. Morris has called our attention.

He has quite accurately stated, in the theory he has advanced regarding this object, the view one of these Indians would hold, as to the meaning of the number of its sides or faces and itself. To one of them, a cube would not be representative of six, its number of superfices, but of seven; and a dodecahedron, not of twelve, but of thirteen. For, when an untutored or primitive man like him contemplates or considers himself or any other distinct thing, in his or its relation to space or the surrounding directions, he notes that there is ever a front or face, a rear or back; two sides, or a right and a left; a head and a foot, or an above and a below; and that of and within all these, is himself or it; that the essence of all these aspects, in anything, is the thing-itself--that is, the thing that contains their numbers or sum, yet is one by itself

This is indeed the very key to his conception of himself and of everything, in relation to space and the universe or cosmos. He observes that there are as many regions in the world as there are aspects of himself or sides to any equally separate thing; that there are as many directions from him or his place in the world (which is his "midmost" or place of attachment to the Earth-mother) or from anything in the world (which is its midmost or natural station) toward these corresponding regions. Hence to him a plane would be symbolized not by four, but by five, its four sides and directions thence, and its central self-as was actually the notion of the Prairie tribes; a cube, not by six, but by seven, as was the notion of the Valley-Pueblos and Navajos; a dodecahedron, not by twelve, but by thirteen, as was the notion of the Zuñis, the Aztecs, the Mayas, and apparently--from this example--of the Mound builders as well.

With all that I have thus far said, I cannot yet have made clear to you the relation this supposed connection of beings and things to their surroundings, to the regions in front, behind, at the right and left sides, and above, below and within them, can have to the subject under discussion. It will therefore be necessary for me to crave your patience while I enter a little more fully into a consideration of the beliefs of primitive man concerning force, life, and form, for it will be seen that these beliefs have a direct bearing on this apparently fantastic and mystic meaning of the numbers seven and thirteen.

To the primitive Shaman, all force necessarily seems to be derived from some kind of life, since he continually sees force as motion or stress originated in, or initiated as action by, life in some form--his own, or some other. Now the supreme characteristic or concomitant of his own or of any other form of life, is breath, which like force or stress, is invisible; hence he reasons that force is breath, and conversely that breath is the force of life. He sees that this breath enters into and issues from every living being, and since every such being has distinctive form, he further reasons that every separate form, whether animate in our sense or not, has life of some kind or degree. He has, for example, no knowledge of air--as a gas--no knowledge of it other than as wind, and no conception of wind other than as breath, as the sort of something that he feels when he blows upon his hand and knows absolutely that he or his own breath is blowing, and that this breath it is that is coexistent with his mortal existence.

Therefore, he thinks not only of all forms as living, but also of the wind as necessarily the breath of some living form or being. And since his own little breath is so intimately of himself, he naturally imagines that this other greater breath must needs be as intimately that of some other and correspondingly greater and more powerful--what though invisible--being. He also imagines that this great being of the wind resides in the direction whence comes prevailingly its wind or its breath. Now when he observes that there are prevailing or distinctive winds of the diverse directions,--that of the north which blows hardest of them all and chiefly in winter; that of the west which blows more temperately and chiefly in spring time; that of the south, which blows softly and most frequently in summer; that of the east, which is again more fierce and chilly, and blows mostly in autumn; he not only severally locates these winds in their various quarters, but also differentiates them, and believes that the wind-being of the north produces cold and winter; of the west, moisture and spring; of the south, warmth, dryness and summer; of the east, coolness again, frost, and therewith the aging or maturing of all growing things, and autumn. And so to him the element of the north world is wind (or air, breath) preëminently; of the west world, water; of the south world, fire; and of the east world, earth or its seeds; and that each of these elements is produced by or is under the dominion of the special wind-god of its quarter; yet all combine, in the regular succession of the seasons, to make this World of the Middle what it is from year to year . . . .

Now since the various animals are supposed, according to their kinds, to be especially resident in one region or another, not only is there attributed to the Great Being or God of Wind in a particular region, a form more or less like to that of his supposed kind of animal therein, but also, the clans are organized with reference, in turn, to the supposed relation of their totems to these various animals and animistic or mythic beings of the special regions. And so, when, for example, a name is to be conferred upon a child of one of these totems, some process of divination must be entered into to determine what shall be his relation to the creatures and the deific being of one region or another, and correspondingly, of course, to his fellows among the clans. For it is held to be essential that this sacred relationship be symbolized, in some way or another, in the choice of his totemic name, and thus--as well as for many reasons into a consideration of which I cannot enter here--must be divined. Now in this process of divination, various instrumentalities are employed. For example, among the Zuñis, wands painted in diverse colors--each color being symbolic of a special region and plumed with appropriate bird feathers--are sometimes set up in balls of clay, each placed out on the floor in the direction of the region to which the color of its wand relates it. Then it is noted which of the plumes waves most actively in any wind (or breath) that may be stirring. From this, the spiritual relation, so to say, or the source or totemic origin of the child is divined, and he will be named, and to a certain extent the course of his life will be determined upon according to this divination. For example, the Zuñi totem gods of the several regions are: the Gray Wolf for the East or Dawn-Land; the Mountain Lion or Puma for the North or fierce Winter-Land; the Black Bear for the Land of the West or Night; the sun-loving Badger for the South or Summer-Land; the Eagle for the Sky and Light, and the Burrowing Mole for the Under-Land and Darkness. Let us suppose that the plume on the white wand--the one that is set up toward the east--waves most actively; then, what though the child belong to a clan or totem of one of the other regions, he will nevertheless be regarded as spiritually related to the Gray Wolf of Dawn, and it will be believed by his fellows-and with their belief he will himself become, as he grows toward puberty, more and more impressed--that he is destined for membership in the sacred organization or Shamanistic Society or Lodge of the Medicine-men of the East, or of the Wolf deity. Now when the age of puberty is attained, and the boy is to be solemnly invested with the garment or clout and the responsibilities of manhood, he is . . . required to pass through various ordeals, such as a period of vigorous fasting and purification (this both by means of emetics and purgatives); and to retire to some lonely spot and there keep, day and night, lengthy vigils, whereby it is sought to diminish for a time his earthly grossness, interests and affections, to "still his heart" and quicken his spiritual perception and hearing of the meaning of the "Silent Surpassing Ones." This is in order that he may gain sign from or actually behold one of the Beings who wield, in the great quarters, the forces of nature, and who shall thereafter be his special Tamanawa or spiritual guide. It is also in order to aid him in seeking for some objective sign by which this relationship to his Genius may be proven to himself and made manifest to his people. In a condition of exaltation as he is--and I can attest to its absorbing nature, through having myself endured such an ordeal--you can well understand that his perceptions will become startlingly manifest in the various visions and signs he sees. These will seem to him, I can again personally assure you, far more real than the most absolutely actual things he has ever beheld or experienced. Perchance he gazes at the mist, or a cloud in the sky. The cloud will surely seem to take the form of a great gray wolf; and when he seeks for some token of that God of the Sky, a tooth-like fossil, a few hairs maybe, which he may find on the ground nearby or underneath the apparition, will be reverently accepted as potent amulets, and he will bear them to the tribal Fathers or Shamans, and by them they will be received as a sign of his Genius, and he will be relegated to the phratral division or lodge of the Wolf. Or again, it may be that he will find a crystal, and because this crystal shines clearly and therein resembles the light by which we see and the eye through which we see--and hence is regarded as helpful in seeing--it will be regarded as a token of seership, as a sign of the Seeing Spirit, and fortunate the youth who is thus supposed to be endowed with the power of penetration into the unseen. To give yet one more example, let us suppose that he finds a concretion exhibiting spiral or concentric lines. He will regard this as a symbol of the Midmost itself, a token of his relation thereto also--no matter to what totem he may belong, or to what region he may be related by birth. For the spiral lines perceived in this crystal resemble those of the marks upon the sand produced by the whirling about of objects like red-topped grass by the whirlwind, yet which are regarded as the tracks of the whirlwind god, whose breath is the midmost of all the winds of the world.

Permit me to here give parenthetically a striking illustration of the way in which these primitive Shamans personify phenomena of nature, by instancing their personification of this god of the whirlwind. Of all the winds of heaven, the whirlwind alone is upright--progresses as man does, by walking over the plains. The whirlwind god is therefore endowed in part, with the personality of a man; but like the eagle, also, the whirlwind flies aloft and circles widely in the sky; therefore he is endowed with the wings and tail, the head, beak and talons of an eagle. Since the sand which he, the whirlwind, casts about pricks the face as would minute arrows, the dreadful wings of the god are supposed to be flinty, and his character warlike or destructive, as is that of the eagle; yet of all the Beings of Wind, he is the most potent, for he twists about or banishes utterly from his trail, either the north wind or the south, the east wind or the west, and overcomes even gravity--the pulling-breath of the earth or under world--and therefore is the god of the midmost among all the six gods of wind. Thus, lucky in a purely practical way, is he who finds under given auspicious circumstances, his name-token in the shape of a little concentric concretion, for he will be in the line of ordination thereby, to the Central Council or Priesthood of his people. . . .

Now I have gone a long way around the subject in hand, in order to measurably substantiate my reasons for thinking that Dr. Morris is correct in his hypothesis as to the sacred and symbolic character and origin of the pentagonal dodecahedron which he has exhibited and commented upon here to-night. A figure even as elaborate and difficult of production in stone as is this, could readily have been formed by Indian artisans. Its shape might have been suggested in the process, perfectly familiar to them, of knapping a block or cube of stone, and afterwards breaking away its angles by battering, to form a sphere; or, better still, by the shapes of balls of clay--naturally formed round in the hands--and used as by the Zuñis in their processes of name-divination just described; or again, by the shapes of pentagonal or other like--ever sacred--crystals. The scratchings or figures observed upon the various faces of this stone are quite such as might well have been drawn to differentiate them as being related to one region or another, and in all probability the figures thus scratched were further marked with pigments symbolic of the different regions, when this stone was used in such processes of divination. Close observation of the more distinct lines of these figures on the faces of the stone, shows that they were made by a flint point, not a metal instrument; for they are double,--that is within each one is a minute bead such as would be produced by the fracturing of a fine point of flint or other hard concoidal stone when drawn over the surface of another stone like this,--and not simply V-shaped as would have been the case had a metal instrument been used.

Some question may arise in the minds of those who have listened to Dr. Morris' paper, and to my comments thereon, as to the meaning of the twelve faces in this particular specimen; since, as I have explained there are only six regions, the north, west, south, east, upper and lower, that the midmost is at once surrounded by and contains within, itself. But I failed to say earlier and in the proper connection, that to the primitive-minded man, as there is no form without life, so there is no life-form, without due duality of origin--the father and the mother. Consequently we find that in relation to all things, (with tribes of primitive peoples like the Zuñis of to-day, and like the mound builders of long ago, who possessed and reverenced this object), the sexenary division is duplicated; but since there can be only one middle or content, the sexenary division is with them symbolized by the number seven, and when duplicated, we have, not fourteen, but thirteen; that is, six pairs which are visible, but only one for the concentric or synthetic middle, since there can be but one actual centre or middle to anything, even to the great world.