Iroquois: Magic & Sorcery

The idea of progress in all things human is a product of the modern world. In the field of comparative religion there is the world of the west a certain belief that the recent is the best, the oldest the most primitive, and what was is devoid of truth, hence the term “myth” as basically being other people’s religion. This bias is infused in the article that follows, which is presented as it was written by Erminnie A. Smith, and published by the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology, in a publication entitled Myths of the Iroquois.

Erminnie A. Smith, née Erminnie Adele Platt (1836–1886) was a geologist and an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology. She has been called the “first woman field ethnographer” and she was elected the first female member of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The articles is followed by various stories involving witches and witchcraft.
— Orly

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.



A great many years ago boys were instructed to go out and hunt birds and other game for the support of their respective families and to learn from practice how to hunt. A certain boy while out hunting came across a beautiful snake. Taking a great fancy to it, he caught it and cared for it, feeding it on birds, &c., and made a bark bowl in which he kept it. He put fibers, down, and small feathers into the water with the snake, and soon found that these things had become living beings. From this fact he naturally conjectured that the snake was endowed with supernatural powers. He then continued his experiments, and discovered that whatever he put into this water became alive; so he went to another swamp and got other snakes, which he put into the bowl. While experimenting he saw other Indians putting things on their eyes to see sharp, so he rubbed some of this snake-water on his eyes, and climbing a tree he found that he could see things even if they were hidden.

Finding that this snake liquid was powerful enough to improve his sight, he concluded that the more snakes he put into the waters the more powerful would be the liquid. He therefore hung a large number of snakes so that their oil dropped into the water, increasing its power and making more lively its strange inhabitants.

He then learned that by simply putting one of his fingers into the liquid and pointing it at any person that person would immediately become bewitched.

After placing some roots (which were not poisonous) into the snake liquid, he put some of the mixture into his mouth and found that it produced a peculiar sensation. By blowing it from his mouth it would give a great light; by placing some in his eyes he could see in the dark and could go through all kinds of impassable places; he could become like a snake; he could even become invisible, and could travel faster than any other mortal. An arrow dipped into this liquid and shot at any living being, even if it did not hit its object, would nevertheless kill it. A feather dipped into this snake water and then pointed at any wished-for game, would immediately start for the desired thing and would always kill it, and when the game was dissected the feather was always found in it. Having discovered the great power of this snake extract, he took into consideration the finding of counteracting agents. To accomplish this end, he diligently searched for roots and herbs having the required qualities, and finally he was rewarded by obtaining antidotes which would work upon objects which he had bewitched or wounded.



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.



Among the Senecas dwelt an old woman who was very stingy. All at once she began to suffer great pain in her eye. She consulted a conjurer, who went out to a bush and covered it with a tent and then began to sing, keeping time with his hand. After a while he returned to her and said: "You are bewitched. You refused to give milk to a poor woman who came to beg of you, and she has bewitched you. I have had her house revealed to me, and I saw her, but she was combing her hair over her face, so I could not see her features. I would not recognize her again."

Next day he tried again; then he said: "Now I know who she is." So they sent for a chief and told him all about it, and he brought the woman before them. She was a Chippewa and a witch. The chief had her brought to the old woman's cabin. She owned that she had bewitched her, and said, "Fetch me the thigh-bone of a beaver from a man who is the child of Molly Brant, the child of Governor W. Johnson." The bone was brought, and by the time it arrived she had scoured a brass kettle, and had clean water poured into it. As soon as she received the bone, which was hollow, she placed it against the eye that was not painful and spat through it. After a while she ceased spitting, and looked in the water. A spider was running around in the kettle. She covered it over with her handkerchief, then removed it, and a feather lay there instead of the spider. The pain left the old woman but the sight was not restored.



The victim in this case was a Mary Jemison, who, having severe pains in her chest, concluded that she was bewitched, and consulted the witch-doctors, who applied their extractive bandages, which greatly relieved her. She saw a dog as an apparition coming toward her, and directed her friends to shoot it, but they did not succeed in killing it. In like manner a cat, which was invisible to other people, was seen by her. She finally recovered, but Andrew John, who was pronounced her bewitcher, and who was outwitched, is now dying from consumption.



Witches could and did assume animal shapes.

On the Buffalo Reservation a man saw a "witch-woman" coming, with fire streaming from her mouth. Crossing a creek and obtaining his gun the man returned and saw a dog at no great distance resting its forefeet upon a log, and it had fire streaming from its mouth and nostrils.

The man fired at it and saw it fall, but as it was very dark he dared not go near it; but on the following morning he went to the spot and saw where it had fallen, by the marks of blood from its wound. Tracking it by this means he followed its path until it had reached a bridge, where the woman's tracks took the place of the dog's tracks in the path. He followed the bloody trail to the Tonawanda Reservation, where he found the woman. She had died from the effect of the shot.



On the Tonawanda Reservation three boys were coming down a hill, when they saw a large hog, which they concluded to follow to find its home. As they pursued the hog they continually kicked it, and it retaliated by biting at them at times. It retreated toward the bank of a small creek, reaching which it suddenly disappeared. They saw no reason to suppose that it had drowned itself in the stream; but while searching for it they found on one of the banks an old man, who laughed and said, "What do you seek?" They answered, "A hog."

After some moments the old man said that it was he, himself, whom they had been chasing, and by this the boys knew that he was a witch.


A Canadian Indian says he saw, one evening, on the road, a white bull with fire streaming from its nostrils, which, after it had passed him, he pursued. He had never seen so large a bull, or in fact any white bull, upon the reservation. As it passed in front of a house it was transformed into a man with a large white blanket, who was ever afterward known as a witch.



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