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Secret Societies And Their Tutelaries

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Of even greater ceremonial significance than the possession of crests is membership in the secret societies of the North-West. Everywhere in North America, as the clan system loosens in rigidity, the Medicine Lodge or the Esoteric Fraternity grows in importance. In its inception the medicine society is seldom unrelated to the clan organization, but it breaks free from this either in the form of a ceremonial priesthood, as among the Pueblo, or in that of a tribal or inter-tribal religious order, as in the mystery societies of the Great Plains. Among the peoples of the North-West the fraternities have had a development of their own. Apparently they originated with the Kwakiutl tribes, among whom the social organization is either a compromise or a transitional stage between the matrilinear clans of the northward stocks and the patriarchal family or village-groups of the southerly Coast-Dwellers. Membership in the secret societies is in a sense dependent upon heredity, for certain of the tutelary spirits of the societies are supposed to appear only to members of particular clans or families; but with this restriction the influence of the clan upon society membership ends. Perhaps no sharper indication of the difference could be given than the very general custom of changing the names of the society members, during the season of their ceremonials, from their clan names to the spirit names given them at the time of their initiation; the family system temporarily yields place to a mystic division into groups defined by patron spirits, the genii or guardians of the societies.

These spirits are distinguished from the totems that mark descent in that the latter are not regarded as giving continued revelations of themselves: the totem appeared to the ancestor and revealed his mystery, which then became traditionary; the spirits of the societies manifest themselves to, and indeed must take possession of, every initiate; they still move among men, and the ceremonials in their honour take place in the winter season, when these supernatural beings are supposed to be living in association with their neophytes. The most famed and dreaded of the secret society tutelaries is the Cannibal, whose votaries practise ceremonial anthropophagy, biting the arms of non-initiates (in former times slaves were killed and partly eaten). Cannibals are common characters in the myths of the North-West, as elsewhere; but the Cannibal of the society is a particular personage who is supposed to dwell in the mountains with his servants, the man-eating Grizzly Bear and the Raven who feeds upon the eyes of the persons whom his master has devoured, and who is a long-beaked bird which breaks men's skulls and finds their brains a dainty morsel. The cult of the Cannibal probably originated among the Heiltsuk Kwakiutl, whence it passed to neighbouring tribes in comparatively recent times. The Warrior of the North is a second spirit, his gifts being prowess in war, and resistance to wounds and disease. Still others are the Bird-Spirit which makes one able to fly, and the ghosts who bestow the power of returning to life after being slain. The Dog-Eating Spirit, whose votaries kill and eat a dog as they dance, is the inspirer of yet another society with a wide-spread following. The more potent spirits are regarded as malignant in character, but there are milder beings and gentler forms of inspiration derived from the greater powers, some of these latter types belonging to societies exclusively for women.

The winter ceremonials, accompanying initiations into the secret societies, are the great festivals of the North-West. They are made the occasion for feasts, mask dances of the clan initiates in honour of their totems, potlatches, with their rivalries, and varied forms of social activity and ceremonial purification. The central event, however, is the endowment of the neophyte with the powers which the genius of the society is believed to give. The underlying idea is shamanistic; 5 the initiate must be possessed by the spirit, which is supposed to speak and act through him: he must become as glass for the spirit to enter him, as one myth expressively states. The preparation of the novice is various: sometimes he is sent into the wilderness to seek his revelation; sometimes he is ceremonially killed or entranced; but in every instance seizure by the controlling spirit is the end sought. The Haida call this "the spirit speaking through" the novice; and an account of such possession by the Cannibal Spirit, Ulala, is given by Swanton: "The one who was going to be initiated sat waiting in a definite place. He always belonged to the clan of the host's wife. When the chief had danced around the fire awhile, he threw feathers upon the novice, and a noise was heard in the chief's body. Then the novice fell flat on the ground, and something made a noise inside of him. When that happened, all the `inspired' said, `So and so fell on the ground.' A while after he went out of the house. Walala (the same as Ulala) acted through him. The novice was naked; but the spirit-companions wore dancing skirts and cedar-bark rings, and held oval rattles (like those used by shamans) in their hands. Wherever the novice went in, the town people acted as if afraid of him, exclaiming, `Hoy-hoyhoy-hoy hiya-ha-ha hoyi!' Wherever he started to go in, the spirit-companions went in first in a crowd. All the uninitiated hid themselves; not so the others. When he passed in through the doorway, he made his sound, `Ap ap ap i' At the same time the Walala spirit made a noise outside. As he went around the fire he held his face turned upward. In his mouth, too, some-thing (a whistle) sounded. His eyes were turned over and showed the whites." The cannibal initiate among the Kwakiutl is called "hamatsa"; and Boas has recorded (Report of the United States National Museum, 1895, pp. 458-6z) a number of hamatsa songs which reveal the spirit of the society and its rites better than mere description. The poetry of the North-West tribes, like their mythology, seems pervaded with a spirit of rank gluttony, which naturally finds its most unveiled expression in the cannibal songs :

Food will be given to me, food will be given to me, because I obtained this magic treasure. I am swallowing food alive: I eat living men. I swallow wealth; I swallow the wealth that my father is giving away [in the accompanying Potlatch].

This is an old song, and typical. A touch of sensibility and a grimly imaginative repression of detail is in the following:

Now I am going to eat. My face is ghastly pale. I shall eat what is given to me by Baxbakualanuchsiwae.

Baxbakualanuchsiwae is the Kwakiutl name for the Cannibal Spirit, and the appellation signifies "the first to eat man at the mouth of the river," i. e., in the north, the ocean being conceived as a river running toward the arctic regions. In some of the songs the cosmic significance of the spirit is clearly set forth:

You will be known all over the world; you will be known all over the world, as far as the edge of the world, you great one who safely returned from the spirits.

You will be known all over the world; you will be known all over the world, as far as the edge of the world. You went to Bai. bakualanuchsiwae, and there you first ate dried human flesh.

You were led to his cannibal pole, in the place of honor in his house, and his house is our world.

You were led to his cannibal pole, which is the milky way of our world.

You were led to his cannibal pole at the right-hand side of our world.

From the abode of the Cannibal, the Kwakiutl say, red smoke arises. Sometimes the "cannibal pole" is the rainbow, rather than the Milky Way; but the Cannibal himself is regarded as living at the north end of the world (as is the case with the Titanic beings of many Pacific-Coast myths), and it is quite possible that he is originally a war-god typified by the Aurora Borealis. A Tlingit belief holds that the souls of all who meet a violent death dwell in the heaven-world of the north, ruled by Tahit, who determines those that shall fall in battle, of what sex children shall be born, and whether the mother shall die in child-birth. The Aurora is blood-red when these fighting souls prepare for battle, and the Milky Way is a huge tree-trunk (pole) over which they spring back and forth. Boas is of opinion that the secret societies originated as warrior fraternities among the Kwakiutl, whose two most famed tutelaries are the Cannibal and Winalagilis, the Warrior of the North. Ecstasy is supposed to follow the slaying of a foe; the killing of a slave by the Cannibal Society members is in a sense a celebration of victory, since the slave is war booty; and it is significant that in certain tribes the Cannibals merely hold in their teeth the heads of enemies taken in war.



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