Historical Reprints Mysteries Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees

Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees

Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees
Catalog # SKU1780
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name James Mooney
ISBN 10: 0000000000
ISBN 13: 0000000000000


The Sacred Formulas
of the Cherokees

James Mooney

The sacred formulas here given are selected from a collection of about six hundred, obtained on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina in 1887 and 1888, and covering every subject pertaining to the daily life and thought of the Indian, including medicine, love, hunting, fishing, war, self-protection, destruction of enemies, witchcraft, the crops, the council, the ball play, etc., and, in fact, embodying almost the whole of the ancient religion of the Cherokees.

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. It is true that the Crees and Micmacs of Canada and the Tukuth of Alaska have so-called alphabets or ideographic systems invented for their use by the missionaries, while, before the Spanish conquest, the Mayas of Central America were accustomed to note down their hero legends and priestly ceremonials in hieroglyphs graven upon the walls of their temples or painted upon tablets made of the leaves of the maguey.

But it seems never to have occurred to the northern tribes that an alphabet coming from a missionary source could be used for any other purpose than the transcription of bibles and catechisms, while the sacred books of the Mayas, with a few exceptions, have long since met destruction at the hands of fanaticism, and the modern copies which have come down to the present day are written out from imperfect memory by Indians who had been educated under Spanish influences in the language, alphabet and ideas of the conquerors, and who, as is proved by an examination of the contents of the books themselves, drew from European sources a great part of their material.

Moreover, the Maya tablets were so far hieratic as to be understood only by the priests and those who had received a special training in this direction, and they seem therefore to have been entirely unintelligible to the common people.

The Cherokee alphabet, on the contrary, is the invention or adaptation of one of the tribe, who, although he borrowed most of the Roman letters, in addition to the forty or more characters of his own devising, knew nothing of their proper use or value, but reversed them or altered their forms to suit his purpose, and gave them a name and value determined by himself. 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 language, the conception, and the execution are all genuinely Indian, and hardly a dozen lines of the hundreds of formulas 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 yet has upon the minds even 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.

In all tribes that still retain something of their ancient organization we find this sacred knowledge committed to the keeping of various secret societies, each of which has its peculiar ritual with regular initiation and degrees of advancement.

From this analogy we may reasonably conclude that such was formerly the case with the Cherokees also, but by the breaking down of old customs consequent upon their long contact with the whites and the voluntary adoption of a civilized form of government in 1827, all traces of such society organization have long since disappeared, and at present each priest or shaman is isolated and independent, sometimes confining himself to a particular specialty, such as love or medicine, or even the treatment of two or three diseases, in other cases broadening his field of operations to include the whole range of mystic knowledge.


On first visiting the reservation in the summer of 1887, I devoted considerable time to collecting plants used by the Cherokees for food or medicinal purposes, learning at the same time their Indian names and the particular uses to which each was applied and the mode of preparation. It soon became evident that the application of the medicine was not the whole, and in fact was rather the subordinate, part of the treatment, which was always accompanied by certain ceremonies and "words." From the workers employed at the time no definite idea could be obtained as to the character of these words. One young woman, indeed, who had some knowledge of the subject, volunteered to write the words which she used in her prescriptions, but failed to do so, owing chiefly to the opposition of the half-breed shamans, from whom she had obtained her information.

A few words remain to be said in regard to the language of the formulas. They are full of archaic and figurative expressions, many of which are unintelligible to the common people, and some of which even the shamans themselves are now unable to explain. These archaic forms, like the old words used by our poets, lend a peculiar beauty which can hardly be rendered in a translation. They frequently throw light on the dialectic evolution of the language, as many words found now only in the nearly extinct Lower Cherokee dialect occur in formulas which in other respects are written in the Middle or Upper dialect.

The R sound, the chief distinguishing characteristic of the old Lower dialect, of course does not occur, as there are no means of indicating it in the Cherokee syllabary. Those who are accustomed to look to the Bible for all beauty in sacred expression will be surprised to find that these formulas abound in the loftiest nights of poetic imagery. This is especially true of the prayers used to win the love of a woman or to destroy the life of an enemy, in which we find such expressions as-"Now your soul fades away-your spirit shall grow less and dwindle away, never to reappear;" "Let her be completely veiled in loneliness-O Black Spider, may you hold her soul in your web, so that it may never get through the meshes;" and the final declaration of the lover, "Your soul has come into the very center of my soul, never to turn away."

In the translation it has been found advisable to retain as technical terms a few words which could not well be rendered literally, such as ada'wehi and ugista'ti. These words will be found explained in the proper place. Transliterations of the Cherokee text of the formulas are given, but it must be distinctly understood that the translations are intended only as free renderings of the spirit of the originals, exact translations with grammatic and glossarial notes being deferred until a more extended study of the language has been made, when it is hoped to present with more exactness of detail the whole body of the formulas, of which the specimens here given are but a small portion.

The facsimile formulas are copies from the manuscripts now in possession of the Bureau of Ethnology, and the portraits are from photographs taken by the author in the field.

Softcover, 6¾ x 8¼", 145+ pages
Perfect-Bound - Illustrated

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