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The Frame Of The World

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Herodotus said of the Persians: "It is their wont to per-form sacrifices to Zeus, going up to the most lofty of the mountains; and the whole circle of the heavens they call Zeus; and they sacrifice to the Sun and the Moon and the Earth, to Fire and to Water and to the Winds; these are the only gods to whom they have sacrificed ever from the first." The ritual of the calumet indicates identically the same conception of the world-powers among the American Indians. "On all great occasions," says De Smet, "in their religious and political ceremonies, and at their great feasts, the calumet presides; the savages send its first fruits, or its first puffs, to the Great Waconda, or Master of Life, to the Sun, which gives them light, and to the Earth and Water by which they are nourished; then they direct a puff to each point of the compass, begging of Heaven all the elements and favorable winds." And again: "They offer the Calumet to the Great Spirit, to the Four Winds, to the Sun, Fire, Earth and Water."

The ritual of the calumet defines for the Indian the frame of the world and the distribution of its indwelling powers. Above, in the remote and shining sky, is the Great Spirit, whose power is the breath of life that permeates all nature and whose manifestation is the light which reveals creation. As the spirit of light he shows himself in the sun, "the eye of the Great Spirit"; as the breath of life he penetrates all the world in the form of the moving Winds. Below is Mother Earth, giving forth the Water of Life, and nourishing in her bosom all organic beings, the Plant Forms and the Animal Forms. The birds are the intermediaries between the habitation of men and the Powers Above; serpents and the creatures of the waters are intermediaries communicating with the Powers Below.

Such, in broad definition, was the Indian's conception of the world-powers. But he was not unwilling to elaborate this simple scheme. The world, as he conceived it, is a storeyed world: above the flat earth is the realm of winds and clouds, haunted by spirits and traversed by the great Thunderbird; above this, the Sun and the Moon and the Stars have their course; while high over all is the circle of the upper sky, the abode of the Great Spirit. Commonly, the visible firmament is regarded as the roof of man's world, but it is also the floor of an archetypal heavenly world, containing the patterns of all things that exist in the world below: it is from this heaven above the heavens that the beings descend who create the visible universe. And as there are worlds above, so are there worlds beneath us; the earth is a floor for us, but a roof for those below the powers that send upward the fructifying springs and break forth as spirits of life in Earth's verdure. Further, both the realms above and the realms below are habitations for the souls of departed men; for to the Indian death is only a change of life.

The Chippewa believe that there are four "layers," or storeys, of the world above, and four of the world below. This is probably only a reflection in the overworld and the nether world of the fourfold structure of the cosmos, since four is everywhere the Indian's sacred number. The root of the idea is to be found in the conception of the four cardinal points or of the quarters of the world, from which came the ministering genii when the Earth was made, and in which these spirits dwell, upholding the corners of the heavens. Potogojecs, a Potawatomi chief, told Father De Smet how Nanaboojoo (Manibozho) "placed four beneficial spirits at the four cardinal points of the earth, for the purpose of contributing to the happiness of the human race. That of the north procures for us ice and snow, in order to aid us in discovering and following the wild animals. That of the south gives us that which occasions the growth of our pumpkins, melons, maize and tobacco. The spirit placed at the west gives us rain, and that of the east gives us light, and commands the sun to make his daily walks around the globe." Frequently the Indians identify the Spirits of the Quarters with the four winds. Ga-oh is the Iroquoian Wind Giant, at the entrance to whose abode are a Bear and a Panther and a Moose and a Fawn: "When the north wind blows strong, the Iroquois say, `The Bear is prowling in the sky'; if the west wind is violent, `The Panther is whining.' When the east wind blows chill with its rain, `The Moose is spreading his breath'; and when the south wind wafts soft breezes, `The Fawn is returning to its Doe."' Four is the magic number in all Indian lore; fundamentally it represents the square of the directions, by which the creator measured out his work.



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