Monday, November 30, 2009

Winnebago Shaman Initiation

Here is a tale of metamorphosis, human-to-human reincarnation, and shamanic initiation, as told by a Winnebago shaman. He was a warrior, and while on the warpath he was killed; but he was unaware of what happened and returned home. Once there, he realized that no one could see or hear him and he suspected that he was dead. He went back to look for his body and found it lying where it had fallen, and he knew then that he was indeed dead.

Between human lives, he lived life as three different kinds of animals—a fish, a bird, and a buffalo He retained human consciousness throughout these multiple lives and was eventually reborn as a human Before he returned to the human world, the spirits initiated him as a shaman, and he acquired extraordinary powers. He could heal the sick, cause a person to die, and bring a person back to life again.

I came from above, and I am holy. This is my second life on earth. Many years before my present existence, I lived on this earth. At that time everyone seemed to be on the warpath. I also was a warrior, a brave man. Once, when I was on the warpath, I was killed. It seemed to me, however, as if I had merely stumbled. I rose and went right ahead until I reached my home. At home I found my wife and children, but they would not look at me. Then I spoke to my wife, but she seemed to be quite unaware of my presence. What can be the matter, I thought to myself, that they pay no attention to me and that they do not even answer when I speak to them.

All at once it occurred to me that I might, in reality, be dead. So I immediately started out for the place where I had presumably been killed and surely enough, here I saw my body. Then I knew positively that I had been killed. I tried to return to the place where I had lived as a human being, but for four years I was unsuccessful.

At one time I became transformed into a fish. However, the life of the fish is worse than ours. They are very frequently in lack of food. They are nevertheless very happy beings and have many dances.

At another time I became transformed into a little bird. When the weather is good the life of the bird is very pleasant. But when it is cold they are compelled to undergo many hardships on account of the weather as well as on account of lack of food. When it was very cold, I used to go to the camp of some people who were living in the neighborhood and try to steal some meat from their racks.

A little boy used to stand near these racks, and we were very much afraid of him because he carried something in his hands with which he shot and which made a dreadful noise. Whenever he shot it we would all fly away. What the boy was using was a bow and arrow. At night we slept in a hollow tree. If I entered the tree first and the others came in behind me, I would be almost squeezed to death. If, on the other hand, I waited until the last, I would sometimes have to stay outside, and when the weather was cold, I might have frozen to death.

At another time I became a buffalo. The cold weather and the food did not worry me much then, but as buffaloes, we would always have to be on the alert for hunters.

From my buffalo existence I was permitted to go to my higher spirit-home, from which I originally came. The one in charge of that spirit-home is my grandfather. I asked him for permission to return to this earth again. At first he refused, but then after I had asked him for the fourth time, he consented. He said to me, "Grandson, you had better fast before you go, and if any of the spirits take pity upon you [i.e., bless you], you may go and live in peace upon earth." So I fasted for four years, and all the spirits above, even to the fourth heaven, approved of my coming. They blessed me.

Then I fasted ten days more, and then twenty and then thirty. Finally, all the spirits blessed me, even those under the earth. When I was ready to come to this earth, the spirits gathered together in a council-lodge and “counseled” about me. All the spirits were present.

They told me that I would never fail in anything that I wished to do. Then they decided to make [a] trial of my powers. They placed a spirit-grizzly bear at one end of the lodge and sang the songs that I was to use when I returned to earth. Then I walked around the lodge holding a live coa1 in the palm of my hand and danced around the fireplace saying wahi! and striking the hand containing the coal with my other hand. The invulnerable bear fell forward, prone upon the ground, and a black substance flowed from his mouth.

Then they said to me, "You have killed him. Even so great a spirit as this you have been able to kill. Indeed, nothing will ever be able to cross your path." Then they took the bear I had killed and cut him into small pieces with a knife, piled these in the center of the lodge, and covered them with some dark material. "Now," they said, "you must again try your powers."

I asked them for the articles that I would have to use, and they gave me a flute and gourd. Then I made myself holy. All those who had blessed me were present. I walked around the object that lay piled up in the center of the lodge and breathed upon it. This I did for the second time, and all those within the lodge breathed together with me. Four times I did this, and then the spirit-grizzly bear got up and walked away in the shape of a human being.

“It is good," they said. "He has restored him to life again. Surely he is holy." After a while they said to me again, "Just as you have done here, will you always do below. Whenever you wish to, you will be able to kill a person or restore him to life. Most assuredly you have been blessed."

Then they placed a black stone in the shaman’s lodge that stood above. There again they made a trial of my powers. There I blew four times on the stone, and I blew a hole though it. For that reason, if any person has a pain and he lets me blow upon it, I can blow it away. It makes no difference what kind of a pain it is. My breath was made holy by the spirits.

The spirits on the earth and those under the earth also gave me a trial of my powers. They placed an old, rotten log before me. I breathed upon it four times and spat water upon it, and it got up in the shape of a human being and walked away. My ability to spit water upon the people whom I am treating I received from an eel, from the chief among the eels, one who lives in the center and in the deepest part of the ocean. He is absolutely white, and he is the one who blessed me. Whenever I spit water it is inexhaustible, because it comes from him, the eel.

Then I came to this earth again. They, the spirits, all gave me advice before I left them. When I came upon this earth I entered a lodge, and there I was born again. As I said, I thought that I was entering a lodge, but in reality I was entering my mother’s womb. Even in my prenatal existence, I never lost consciousness.

Then I grew up and fasted again and again, and all those spirits that blessed me before sent their blessing again. I can dictate to all the spirits that exist. Whatever I say will come to pass. The tobacco you (the patients) offer me is not to be used by myself. It is really intended for the spirits. A person is sick and he offers me tobacco. I am on earth to accept it and to try to cure him. (Radin 1923)

Tales such as this, told by shamans in both the New World and Old World, are believed to form the leitmotifs of many myths and supernatural beliefs of archaic people. Some researchers go so far as to say shaman stories form the basis of many legends and fairytales of the modern era.

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