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An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 136

When the spirits of the shamans reached the well in the Land of the Ghosts where the shades of the departed drink, their first care was to ascertain if the soul of him they sought had drunk of these waters; had it done so, all hope of cure was past. If they laid hold of a soul that had drunk of the water, it shrank as they neared home, so that it would not fill the sick man's body, and he died. The same superstition applied to the spirit eating ghostly food. Did the sick man's soul eat on the astral plain, then was he doomed indeed. In this belief we have a Greek parallel: Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the corn-mother, might not return to earth permanently, because Pluto had given her to eat of the seed of a pomegranate. The taboo regarding the eating of the food of the dead is almost universal. We find it in the Finnish Kalevala, where Waïnamoïmen, visiting Tuonela, the place of the dead, refuses to drink, and in Japanese and Melanesian myth-cycles. Likewise, if the spirit enters the house of the ghosts, it cannot return to earth. These beliefs apply not only to human beings, but also to animals, and even to inanimate objects. For example, if the astral counterpart of a horse or a canoe be seen in ghost-land, unless they are rescued from thence by the shaman they are doomed.

CHOCTAW MYTH

Another interesting North American mythology is that of the Choctaw Indians, formerly occupying Middle and South Mississippi from Tombigbee River to the borders of Dallas County, Georgia. The Choctaw religion is almost unique among the North American Indian religions, as it is a union of animism and sun-worship, or, more correctly speaking, the two systems may be observed side by side among this and allied peoples of the Muskhogean stock. They have a supreme being whom they designate Yuba Paik, 'Our Father Above'; but whether this conception arose from contact with missionaries or is genuinely aboriginal it is impossible to say. The term[Pg 305] may be collective, like the Hebrew Elohim or the Latin Superi, and may include all the powers of the air. It is perhaps more likely that it evolved from the word for sky, as did Zeus, the Nottoway Qui-oki, the Iroquois Garonhia, and the ancient Powhatan Oki. This supposition is strengthened by the cognate Greek expression, signifying 'He who lives in the sky.' As usual among North American Indian tribes, the Choctaws confound the sun with fire; at least they refer to fire as Shahli miko,'the greater chief,' and speak of it as Hashe ittiapa, 'He who accompanies the sun and the sun him.' On going to war they call for assistance from both sun and fire, but, except as fire, they do not address the sun, nor does he stand in any other relation to their religious thought. He is not personified, as, for example, among the Peruvians, or worshipped as the supreme symbol of fire. In American religions, generally speaking, what appears on the surface to be sun-worship pure and simple usually resolves itself, upon closer examination, into the worship of light and fire. Indeed the cognate Natchez word for 'sun' is derived from that for 'fire,' and the sun is referred to as 'the great fire.' The expression 'sun-worship' must, then, be understood to imply an adoration of all fire, symbolized by the sun.

The Muskhogean tribes, according to tradition, were originally banded in one common confederacy, and unanimously located their earliest ancestry near an artificial eminence in the Valley of the Big Black River in the Natchez country, whence they believed they had emerged. Gregg states[2] that they described this to him and another traveller, and calls it "an elevation of earth, about half a mile square, and fifteen or twenty feet high. From its north-east corner a wall of equal height extends for nearly half a mile to the high land."[3] This eminence they designated Nunne Chaha, or Nunne Hamgeh, 'the High Hill,' or 'the Bending Hill,' known to the Muskhogees as Rvne em mekko, or 'King of Mountains.' This looks as if the Choctaws alluded to some of those immense artificial mounds so common in the Mississippi valley. When De Soto passed through the Gulf State country in 1540-41, the tribes[Pg 306] inhabiting it—Creeks, Choctaws, etc.—were still using, and probably constructing, mounds; and from this it is inferred that they and no others were the famous 'Mound-builders' of American archæology—a theory now adopted by the officials of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology and the majority of modern Americanists. Wilson, writing in 1875, considerably before the modern theory of the 'Mound-builders' gained general credence, states that "analogies to these structures have been traced in the works of Indian tribes formerly in occupation of Carolina and Georgia. They were accustomed to erect a circular terrace or platform on which their council-house stood. In front of this a quadrangular area was enclosed with earthen embankments, within which public games were played and captives tortured.... Upon the circular platform it is also affirmed that the sacred fire was maintained by the Creek Indians as part of their most cherished rites as worshippers of the sun."[4] He adds that, although the evidence does not seem very clear, analogies point "to the possibility of some of the Indian tribes having perpetuated on a greatly inferior scale some maimed rites borrowed from their civilized precursors."


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