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Souls And Their Powers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



In no section of America is the belief in possession by spirits and spiritistic powers more deeply seated than in the North-West; shamanism is the key to the whole conception of life which animates myth and rite. Scarcely any idea connected with spiritualism is absent: stories of soul-journeys are frequent, while telepathic communication, prophetic forewarnings of death and disaster, and magic cures through spirit aid are a part of the scheme of nature; there are accounts of crystal-gazing, in which all lands and events are revealed in the trans-lucent stone, which recurs again and again as a magic object; and there are tales of houses haunted by shadows and feathers, of talking skulls and bones that are living beings by night, and of children born of the dead, which are only abortively human. There is also a kind of psychology which is well developed among some tribes. The disembodied soul is not a whole or hale being: "Why are you making an uproar, ghosts? You who take away men's reason!" is a fragment of Kwakiutl song; and a certain story tells how a sick girl, whose heart was painted, went insane because the colouring was applied too strongly. The Haida have three words for "soul"; two of these apply to the incarnate soul, and are regarded as synonyms; the third designates the disembodied soul, although the latter is not the same as the ghost, which is marked by a distinct name. A curious feature of Haida psychology is that the word for mind is the same as that for throat less strange, perhaps, when we reflect upon the importance of speech in any description of the mind's most distinctive power, that of reason.

The origin of death is explained in many ways. A Tlingit story has been given, and a Nootka tale tells of a chieftain who kept eternal life in a chest; men tried to steal it from him and almost succeeded, but their final failure doomed them to mortality. A significant Wikeno (Kwakiutl) myth recounts the descent from heaven of two ancestral beings who wished to endow men with everlasting life, but a little bird wished death into the world : "Where will I dwell," he asked, "if ye always live? I would build my nest in your graves and warm me." The two offered to die for four days, and then arise from the tomb; but the bird was not satisfied, so finally they concluded to pass away and be born again as children. After their death they ascended to heaven, whence they beheld men mourning them; whereupon they transformed themselves into drops of blood, carried downward by the wind. Sleeping women in-breathe these drops and thence bear children.

The abodes of the dead are variously placed. Beneath the sea is one of the most frequent, and there is an interesting story telling of the waters parting and the ghost, in the form of a butterfly, rising before a young man who sat fasting beside the waters. The Haida believe that the drowned go to live with the killer whales; those who perish by violence pass to Taxet's house in the sky, whence rebirth is difficult, though not impossible for an adventurous soul; while those who die in the sick-bed pass to the Land of Souls a shore land, beyond the waters, with innumerable inlets, each with its town, just as in their own country. Although the dying could decide for them-selves to what town in the Land of Souls they wished their own spirits to go, there is occasionally, nevertheless, an apportionment of the future abode on a moral basis; thus, in Tlingit myth, after Nascakiyetl has created men, he decrees that when the souls of the dead come before him, he will ask: "What were you killed for? What was your life in the world?" Destiny is determined by the answer; the good go to a Paradise above; the wicked and witches are reborn as dogs and other animals. The Bella Coola assign the dead to the two lower worlds, from the upper of which alone is return possible through reincarnation. An old woman who, in trance, had seen the spirit world, described it as stretching along the banks of a sandy river. When it is summer in the world above, it is winter in the earth below (an idea which appears in Hopi conceptions of the world order) ; and the ghosts, too, are said to walk with their heads downward. They speak a different language from that in the world above, and each soul receives a new name on entering the lower realms.

The ever-recurring and ever-pathetic story of the dead wife and of her grieving lord's quest for her the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice appears in various forms in the North-West. Sometimes it is the story of a vain journey, without even a sight of the beloved, though the Land of the Dead be discovered; sometimes the searcher is sent back with gifts, but not with the one sought; sometimes the legend is made a part of the incident of the carved wife the bereaved husband making a statue of the lost spouse, which may show a dim and troubled life, as if her soul were seeking to break through to him; and again it is the true Orphean tale with the partial success, the tabu broken through anxiety or love, and the spirit wife receding once more to the lower world. It is not necessary to invoke the theory of borrowings for such a tale as this; the elemental fact of human grief and yearning for the departed will explain it. Doubtless a similar universality in human nature and a similar likeness in human experiences will account for the multitude of other conceptions which make the mythic universe of the men of the Old World and the men of the New fundamentally and essentially one.



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