Practice of Sorcery by Iroquois Indians

The early history of the races of mankind, now civilized, is marked in all its course known to us by a belief in mysterious powers and influences. Sorcerers, men believed to be skilled in occult arts, have been known among them all. An examination into the actual practice of sorcery or magical arts among savage and barbaric tribes is therefore of peculiar interest.

In none of the myths of the Iroquois which I have reason to believe antedate the appearance of Europeans do I find anything indicating a belief in Heaven or a separate spiritual world, although some of their customs indicate that they may have had such a notion. The only word for Heaven in the different dialects is evidently a literal translation of the Christian idea, and signifies “in the sky.” It would seem that after the possession of that idea came the desire for intermediaries between living men and a spiritual world, indicating the first step toward a higher philosophy.

Among the highly civilized Chaldeans, Egyptians, and Greeks, the success of magic depended upon the ignorance of the masses and the comparative learning of the few who practiced it. Among the Indians the knowledge of the medicine man and the more expert sorceress is little above that of the body of the tribe. Their success depends entirely upon their own belief in being supernaturally gifted, and upon the faith and fear of their followers. I do not believe that the Iroquois lives to-day who is not a believer in sorcery or who would not in the night time quail at seeing a bright light the nature of which he did not understand. The most intelligent, the wisest, and the best Christian whom I ever met among them told me of the wonderful marvels he himself had wrought. He had stayed the flames of a burning church by holding forth his right hand. He had lamed for life a man who was stealing cherries by pointing his finger at him. Few bad Indians came into his presence without begging him not to “bewitch” them. This good Tuscarora ranks as one of the leading Christians of his tribe and lives up to all the moral precepts of the Bible, from which he can quote a text considered by himself to be appropriate for each of the superstitions in which he so firmly believes.

A few Tuscarora names with their definitions will serve to illustrate some of the practices and beliefs of the Iroquois.

Yă-ku-wi-săt: A person possessing within himself a live crystal which he could call from his mouth or nose. The crystal placed in a gourd of water, rendered visible the apparition of a person who had bewitched another. By applying this crystal to one bewitched, hairs, straws, leaves, pebbles, &c., could be drawn forth.
Rhuⁿñ-ta-yä: A medicine man who by the use of a small kettle boiled roots or herbs, and by covering the head with a blanket and holding it over the kettle could see the image of an enemy who had bewitched either some one else or himself.
Yä-tyuⁿñ-yûⁿñ: One who performed miraculous feats by drawing out with alder tubes, hairs, pieces of skin, leaves, &c., from people who had been bewitched with these things.
Ră-nûⁿ-kwă-terha-yuⁿ-nä-rhi: Superior medicine man.
Us-kuⁿ-rhă-rhih: A carnivorous ghost bodied forth in a skeleton.
U-h-nä´´-wăk: A departing ghost who will revisit its dead body.
U-t-kuⁿ-terhă´´-ksⁿñ: An evil spirit, from whom all witches received their power.
U-ht-kûⁿ-sü-rhûⁿ: One who could assume a partly animal shape.
Yä-skûⁿ-nûⁿ-nä: The ghost of a living person.
Yä tcuⁿñ-hu-h-kwă-kwä: An apparition which could emit flames of light.
U-h-t-kûⁿ: A natural-born witch or ghost.
Nä-yûⁿ-h-nă-nyä-rhûⁿñ-nyäⁿ-a: A witch under the influence or power of a superior witch.

Stories abound in which these personages or spirits are introduced.

The belief in Yä-skûⁿ-nûⁿ-nä, or that the spirit of a person could be in one locality and its body exist at the same time in another, explains much of the phenomena of witchcraft, and accounts for the strange confessions oftentimes made by those who were known to have been unjustly accused.

Many customs still existing show that spirits are supposed to continue to experience the wants of humanity after leaving the body. For some time after the death of an adult his accustomed portion of food is often dealt out for the supposed hungry spirit, and on the death of a nursing child two pieces of cloth are saturated with the mother’s milk and placed in the hands of the dead child so that its spirit may not return to haunt the bereaved mother.

When a living nursing child is taken out at night the mother takes a pinch of white ashes and rubs it on the face of the child so that the spirits will not trouble it, because they say that a child still continues to hold intercourse with the spirit world whence it so recently came.