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Shamanic initiation and the ways of the afterlife in the North American tradition

Shamanic initiation and the ways of the afterlife in the North American tradition 9

Similarly to the European tradition, the North American one recognizes in the period of the winter solstice, the “gateway” to the world of the dead and spirits and, therefore, the time suitable for youth initiations and masked ceremonies, including the Iroquois of the “False Faces” and the kwakiutl face of the “Cannibal Spirit”. These beliefs and practices, as well as the analysis of shamanic journeys to the “Village of Spirits”, allow us to understand the doctrines of the native peoples of North America on the various souls that make up the human being and on the relationship maintained by the living with the world of spirits. 

It is known as in the European tradition, the period of the year of the so-called “winter crisis”, which runs approximately from the beginning of November (Samhain/ Halloween / Feast of the Dead) in January / February, stands out for a series of beliefs and rites that have to do with the Other World and initiation. Whether we analyze the Roman Saturnalia, the Celtic ceremonies or the Yule of the Norse, as well as a series of walking rituals that remained alive in the medieval period to reach us (Romanian Calusari, Austrian Krampus, etc.), i topoi recurring of this period of the year are always the same: momentary withdrawal, pending the start of the new year, to a chaos and uncertainty; confusion of social roles; contacts between the world of the dead and that of the living; cult complex “of the visitor”; initiation of young people to secret brotherhoods; processions and dances with masks that personify the demons and spirits of the dead, and so on.

Less known is the fact that the native peoples of North America, whose religious culture is attributable to the area of ​​shamanism and animism, contemplate extremely similar ritual beliefs and practices during the same period of the year, which we intend to analyze in this article. We will first deal with the initiatory winter ceremonies, and then try to frame the actual initiatory experience and the consequent “spirit” journey of the neophyte in the “village of spirits”. Finally, we will try to define the characteristics ascribed by the North American tradition to the Other World and we will report some esoteric doctrines regarding the survival of the soul (or rather, of souls) to physical death and their access consequent to other dimensions.

71Zffe-Ri-L._SL1000_Iroquois ceremony of the False Faces

The most illuminating ritual tradition of these winter rituals that has come down to us thanks to ethnographic studies is in all probability that of the Iroquois of the subarctic area. In Mid-Winter ceremony of the latter, an initiatory lodge known as there Society of False Faces performs public rituals of exorcism for diseases, tornadoes, raging winds and witchcraft, chasing negative powers from the village, or therapeutic rites based on dream experience. The “False Faces” – in contrast to the “Real Faces”, ie the living – represent at the same time the spirits of the forest and those of the ancestors: they are addressed by calling them “grandparents” or “thunder”. It seems that the members of the “False Faces” brotherhood are only imitations of the “Sun Faces”, spiritual entities that roam deep in the forests, on the extreme edges of the world. The head of the “False Faces” is said to live on the ends of the earth, that is

“At the far end of the world, in that remote and mysterious area, where the ordinary and supernatural world merge and intersect. »

As often happens in other geographical and cultural areas, the members of the initiatory society obtain thanks to certain ritual practices the “dominion over the fire”: they handle hot, non burning coals and use the ash of the coals themselves as medicine, rubbing it on the sick patient’s body . Another variety of brotherhood members wear masks made with dry corn leaves and are defined as “Straw Faces”: they personify the spirits connected to agriculture and the fertility of the fields. The masks of the “False Faces” are instead carved from walnut wood, the sacred tree of Iroquois shamanism (and also the “witch tree” and fairies in the medieval European tradition;.

Shamanic initiation and the ways of the afterlife in the North American tradition 10
Iroquois False Faces

Also at Kwakiutl On the Pacific coast, a winter ceremony is celebrated that involves the participation of tribal members of certain masked medical lodges (the “Society of the Cannibal”), impersonating the terrifying and fatal forces that approach the world of the living during the Winter Solstice, when the power of the sun is at its nadir. Among the main characters of this ritual, which also has an initiatory value for the young people of the tribe, there is the dancer who personifies the “Cannibal Spirit” (Hamatsa), from which the members of the initiatory brotherhood were owned. The house of the god is located on the edge of the world (in the far north), that is to say in the farthest place conceivable by the world of men.

The “cannibalistic” value of the initiating god-spirit is probably to be connected to well known topos also in other parts of the world (Siberia, South America, Australia, etc.) of the “Initiatory dismemberment” by spirits or demons, who then “magically” reconstruct the body of the neophyte thus giving him supernatural powers (the same role is played in kwakiutl initiations, as we will see, even by wolves, who must be considered as a “mask” worn by spirits to interact with humans). The so-called is also erected in this ceremony “Cannibal Pole”, obtained from a young cedar tree, mirror image of the young neophyte who must go through a transformation process.

The rituals that allow the spirits of the other world to enter our world during this limited period of time of the “winter crisis” are manifold and are different according to the various Amerindian tribes. At the Cree tribe of the subarctic, for example, the latter they are recalled inside the tepee through the upper opening; their arrival causes the tent to shake (this is why we speak of “Ritual of the Trembling Tent”) and everyone present can hear distinctly whispers and deafening noises, a sign that the supernatural powers have been recalled in the manner prescribed by tradition and that they are now present among the bystanders, to give them advice and visions. During the “Bladder Festival”, also held around the winter solstice, the spirits of the seals, who were believed to reside in their vesques, in the houses of the village, were invited to ensure their periodic return the following season.

NAA Photo Lot 24
Cannibal kwakiutl ceremony

The temporary arrival of these spirits into the world of men is not univocal: in a specular way, in this period of the year, the living are initiated into mystery practices and, consequently, in turn manage to access the Other World or the world of the dead and spirits. It is believed that, during the initiation and the consequent astral “journey”, the shamans arrive in another dimension, which is presented as dark and abysmal, a sort of “cosmic womb” from which the power of Manitu and his innumerable messengers is emanated as from a primordial source. A sacred song by the Kwakiutl of the north-western area reads:

“I was taken away, far inland, to the edge of the world because of the magical power of heaven, the treasure. »

During the initiation ceremony ojibwa, members of the Society of Medicine, “hit” neophytes by projecting a shell into them, which is magically “thrown” by means of the “medicine bag”. The initiate falls as dead, then is brought back to life by the brotherhood: now he has new powers and knowledge and is considered in all respects “reborn“. For Kwakiutl they are gods, and quartz crystals are projected into the body of the neophyte by the spirits (often in the form of a wolf) to give him supernatural powers: the same belief can be found sensationally at the opposite end of the Pacific Ocean, in Australia.

Shamans, in the trance phase, visit other worlds than ours: in spirit they go to the upper skies or the lower worlds, where they meet and dialogue with the spirits, recover the patient’s lost soul and objects lost by tribal members. Some descriptions of shamanic journeys are entirely identical to those of the Siberian tradition: in a tale of the Paiute of the Rocky Mountains, for example, it is understood that the soul leaves the body in the form of a “small insect” and that he is preparing to leave the tent, a symbol of the body, coming out of the smoke opening on the roof (which is also in the Mongolian-Siberian gher or yurt), symbol of the upper wall of the skull. It comes back often that the idea that “power” is somehow a “spiritual double” of the natural person (perhaps similar to daimon Greek gods), dwelling in a dark and abysmal dimension connected to the dream, which the shaman can rejoin during his ecstatic “flights”.

Shamanic initiation and the ways of the afterlife in the North American tradition 11
Kwakiutl shaman possessed by the Cannibal Spirit

In some tribes of the Rocky Mountains the spirits appeared in anthropomorphic and zoomorphic form to children aged 8-10 years; the experience was forgotten for about 15 years, after which the subject fell prostrate in a state of illness and starvation. At this point you had to entrust it to a medicine man who, with due rituals, would initiate him and allow him to firmly gain shamanic powers.

In the subarctic area, there are testimonies and tales of shamans trained and initiated by flocks of wild animals, such as wolves, bears and partridges, who hold the same role and the same function recognized to the spirits in Austroasian, Altaic-Siberian and Turkish-Mongolian shamanism. These initiatory kidnappings also generally occurred in the winter, in the days of the Mid-Winter ceremony.

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Between Kwakiutl, the neophyte is approached and kidnapped by the helping spirits, who often appear in animal form (wolves, killer whales, loons). Initiation involves a period of confinement in the forest (and, specularly, in the “dark” dimension of spirits), in which he is detained, instructed and endowed with supernatural powers by the initiating spirits. Neophytes were thought to come invaded by the mysterious and terrifying power that emanated supernatural beings, temporarily transforming them into wild beings with fearsome and disturbing characteristics.

Shamanic initiation and the ways of the afterlife in the North American tradition 12
Costume of a Yup’ik shaman

With the Yup’ik Eskimos, there are tales of humans who would have gone to live in underwater residence of seals; but the latter turn out to be not real animals, but “people” of different sizes: according to the tradition of Alaska’s native peoples, the contemporary animal species would be descendants of past humanity, transformed following a conscious infringement of ritual prescriptions.

The Hopi talk about a “Snake Village”, located near the underground abode of the spirits of the dead, where a member of their tribe would come and marry a bride-snake, who as in European legends of the “Fairy bride” (ex. Melusina) she joined him and bore him a son, placing taboo as a condition. Just as in the medieval European tradition, once this taboo is violated (e.g., the man spies on the woman in the act of taking a bath), the snake bride immediately leaves her husband taking her son away. According to the legend, the famous snake dance of the Hopi – studied among others by Amy Warburg – it was established following this union: the dancers would impersonate the descendants of the child born from the union of their mythical ancestor with the snake wife.

At the Kwakiutl, salmons are also particularly sacred: it is said that shamans and twins are reincarnated salmons. In this we can perhaps glimpse a parallelism with the Celtic tradition, where salmon symbolized wisdom. (According to the Lakota, twins and sacred people reincarnate very easily and are already born in possession of intellectual maturity;). It is believed that at night the soul of the shamans abandon the body and travel with the souls of the “salmon” (which however appear in all respects as human – or superhuman) until they reach the village of Mäêsila, at the extreme limit of the world, where all the souls of men arrive (in ecstatic states and after death).

These mythical entities have characteristics in common with the spirits of the dead, but even more with the fairies of the European tradition: it is said that their souls are always around, around us, but that we cannot see them. It is also believed that the soul of man during the day is small, but when night falls and we fall asleep, it becomes large and can travel far.

Shamanic initiation and the ways of the afterlife in the North American tradition 13
Mask of a False Iroquois Face

The world of the dead (often referred to as “Spirit village”) looks like a exact duplication of the human one, but on the contrary: yet another variation of the topos well known also in the European area of the Other World as an “inverted world”. Sometimes the afterlife is described as A big garden, in which it is always day. In many stories, the “Land of Spirits” seems a perfect homologue of “Land of the Fairies” European (Fairyland or Elfame): in it a multitude of people dance and play, disappearing along with all the vision with the first rays of the sun. Other topoi dear to the European tradition can be found in the stories centered on the journey to the underworld, including the recommendation of never eat food offered by the entities of the “world below” nor of turning around back during the ascent to ours.

Some near-death experiences recorded by the ojibwa tradition they describe the world of the dead, located at the end of the “Path of the Spirits”, in a similar way to the Celtic tradition: the protagonist of these experiences meets the spirits of the deceased tribal members, who inquire about the health of their relatives and descendants and offer to the newcomer of the food that he must not accept if he does not want to remain forever in that world (Comba 230; identical topos in the European and Asian tradition). To some people who had died for a very long time it grew moss on the skin: perhaps a clue to the conceptual closeness, in archaic traditions, between the spirits of the dead and the spirits of vegetation and crops (Comba 231).

The texts of the Winnebago who narrate experiences after death recall the otherworldly paths of the Tibetan and Egyptian Book of the Dead (Comba 144). There is talk of one “Singing track” to follow that would have led the soul of the deceased to the place where the ancestors and the dead were, in the far south (Comba 239). The ojibwa they believe there is a “place of punishment” halfway from “Land of Spirits”, whence a fire is released which burns all that is wicked in the souls of the dead (Comba 164).

Corn Husk Masks Keppler
Iroquois Straw Face Masks

Generally speaking about the world of the dead in a positive, non-fearful or terrifying way (except for some pueblo tribes like the Navajo): an Ojibwa says that it is not right to cry too much for the dead, as they are in a nice place where “They are doing well”. When a tribal Crow member claims to have died, visited the afterlife and returned, he usually develops a strong nostalgia for the world of the dead, to the point of finally dying shortly after.

In other stories, e.g. of the Kwakiutl, it is said that the souls of the dead would not want to be there, and “come back to life continuously even after having been dead for a long time” (reincarnation). It is said that in this other world spirits are exactly like us, just as if they were alive. When a tribal member dies, all the objects he owns are burned so that they can be rebuilt in the other world.

Annual_report_of_the_Regents _-_ New_York_State_Museum ._ (1908) _ (19360138502)
Iroquois False Face Masks

Often, e.g. among the Crow, disembodied spirits residing in the other dimension are imagined in a condition of peace and perennial happiness, which recalls the life of the natives before the arrival of the white man. The visit to the world of the dead thus becomes, for those who experience it, comparable to a desirable escape from the world on a personal level in the face of the unacceptable current situation: a “millenarian” theme in certain aspects.

THE Crow they use a term to define the life force that remains after death, with a meaning similar to “soul“(zoé) of westerners; this term, etymologically connected with those who translate “shadow“,”ghost, ghost“And” devil or malevolent spirit “, can also refer to Life force animals and inanimate objects (eg “sacred stones”, Menicocci1 189). It is believed that the spirit of a deceased can take possession of the body of a living thing, and return to our world in the form of wind turbines (Cfr. fairies in the European tradition). Sometimes the spirits of the dead are summoned by the shaman with a ritual in their tent: in this case they manifest themselves with whispers, whispers, whirlpools and lullabies (Menicocci1 190); it is, as has been said, the so-called “Trembling Tent” ceremony widespread especially in the subarctic area.

Husk Masks Seneca Cattaraugus
Iroquois Straw Face Masks

Even the Amerindian doctrine of reincarnation has strong correspondences with the European tradition of the fairies, which are often related to the souls of the dead. THE Mandan believed that, before reincarnating again, the soul of the deceased lived together with many others in three hills called “Children’s Homes”, which closely resemble the “fairy” mounds and mounds of the Gaelic-British tradition. It was believed that in these “houses” a deceased elder would take care of souls who, at any given moment, would choose a mother to be born again in our world. It is no coincidence, exactly as in the Gaelic tradition, childless women went to these hills to pray the little guests to choose them as mothers.

It was also believed that children who died a few days after birth without receiving their first name would return to the “Children’s Homes”, from which they would then reincarnate again. Therefore, in the conception of the Mandan and other native tribal groups, there are gods “Deposits” or “reserves” of souls who belong, potentially, to the social group of the living and who await only the right moment to reincarnate within the clan, in our sublunar reality plan.

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The Mandan, like other native Amerindian groups, on the other hand, contemplated the existence of multiple souls, who at the time of death would have taken different “paths”. If one in fact, as we have seen, returned to the “Children’s Homes” waiting to be reincarnated again, a second soul at the time of his passing he went to heaven, to the “Great Spirit”; a third came to the realm of the dead proper, located in the far south of the world; a fourth finally remained potentially tied to the ground plane and could be a cause of danger (Menicocci2 48), which is why it was sometimes necessary to perform certain rituals to limit the damage of unwanted “presence”.

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