Origin of the Seneca Medicine

Nearly two hundred years ago a man went into the woods on a hunting expedition. He was quite alone. He camped out in a field and was wakened in the night by the sound of singing and a noise like the beating of a drum. He could not sleep any more, so he rose and went in the direction of the sound. To his surprise the place had all the appearance of being inhabited. On the one hand was a hill of corn, on the other a large squash vine with three squashes on it, and three ears of corn grew apart from all the others. He was unable to guess what it meant, but started off on his hunting once more, determined to return some evening, being both curious and uneasy. In the night, as he slept near by, he again heard a noise, and awakening, saw a man looking at him, who said, “Beware! I am after you; what you saw was sacred; you deserve to die.” But the people who now gathered around said they would pardon it, and would tell him the secret they possessed: “The great medicine for wounds,” said the man who had awakened him, “is squash and corn; come with me and I will teach you.”

He led him to the spot where the people were assembled, and there he saw a fire and a laurel bush which looked like iron. The crowds danced around it singing, and rattling gourd-shells, and he begged them to tell him what they did it for.

Then one of them heated a stick and thrust it right through his cheek, and then applied some of the medicine to prove to him how quickly it could heal the wound. Then they did the same to his leg. All the time they sang a tune; they called it the “medicine song,” and taught it to him.

Then he turned to go home, and all at once he perceived that they were not human beings, as he had thought, but animals, bears, beavers, and foxes, which all flew off as he looked. They had given him directions to take one stalk of corn and dry the cob and pound it very fine, and to take one squash, cut it up and pound that, and they then showed him how much for a dose. He was to take water from a running spring, and always from up the stream, never down.

He made up the prescription and used it with very great success, and made enough before he died to last over one hundred years.

This was the origin of the great medicine of the Senecas. The people sing over its preparation every time the deer changes his coat, and when it is administered to a patient they sing the medicine song, while they rattle a gourd-shell as accompaniment, and burn tobacco. Burning tobacco is the same as praying. In times of trouble or fear, after a bad dream, or any event which frightens them, they say, “My mother went out and burned tobacco.”

The medicine is prepared now with the addition of meat.

Myths of the Iroquois