Timucua Religion

According to our French informants the sun and moon were the principal objects of adoration among these Indians, particularly the former. 1 This probably means that their beliefs were substantially like those of the Creeks and Chickasaw. A side light on their cult is furnished in the following account of a ceremony by Le Moyne:

The subjects of the Chief Outina were accustomed every year, a little before their spring – that is, in the end of February – to take the skin of the largest stag they could get, keeping the horns on it; to stuff it full of all the choicest sorts of roots that grow among them, and to hang long wreaths or garlands of the best fruits on the horns, neck, and other parta of the body. Thus decorated, they carried it, with music and songs, to a very large and splendid level space, where they set it up on a very high tree, with the head and breast toward the sunrise. They then offered prayers to the sun, that he would cause to grow on their lands good things such as those offered him. The chief, with his sorcerer, stands nearest the tree and offers the prayer; the common people, placed at a distance, make responses. Then the chief and all the rest, saluting the sun, depart, leaving the deer’s hide there until the next year. This ceremony they repeat annually. 2

Pareja says that there were many different ceremonies, varying from tribe to tribe, and he mentions one called “the ceremony of the laurel performed to serve the Demon.” 3 When passing a ledge in the ocean where surf broke, the Timucua Indian whistled to it so that he would not be upset, and he also whistled to the storm to make it stop. 4

If we may believe Le Moyne, the high opinion in which chiefs were held had resulted in a kind of chief cult accompanied by human sacrifice:

Their custom is to offer up the first-born son to the chief. When the day for the sacrifice is notified to the chief, he proceeds to a place set apart for the purpose, where there is a bench for him, on which he takes his seat. In the middle of the area before him is a wooden stump two feet high, and as many thick, before which the mother sits on her heels, with her face covered in her hands, lamenting the loss of her child. The principal one of her female relatives or friends now offers the child to the chief in worship, after which the women who have accompanied the mother form a circle, and dance around with demonstrations of joy, but without joining hands. She who holds the child goes and dances in the middle, singing some praises of the chief. Meanwhile, six Indians, chosen for the purpose, take their stand apart in a certain place in the open area; and midway among them the sacrificing officer, who is decorated with a sort of magnificence, and holds a club. The ceremonies being through, the sacrificer takes the child, and slays it in honor of the chief, before them all, upon the wooden stump. The offering was on one occasion performed in our presence. 5

This suggests, in away, the rites and customs of the Natchez Indians.

Elvas declares that human sacrifice existed also among the people of Tampa Bay:

The Indians are worshippers of the devil, and it is their custom to make sacrifices of the blood and bodies of their people, or of those of any other they can come by; and they affirm, too, that when he would have them make an offering, he speaks, telling them that he is athirst, and that they must sacrifice to him. 6

As an example of the reverence which they paid to particular objects may be cited their treatment of the column set up by Ribault in 1562. When Laudonnière saw it three years later it was “crowned with crowns of bay, and, at the foot thereof, many little baskets full of mill [i.e., corn], which they call in their language tapaga tapola. Then, when they came hither, they kissed the same with great reverence, and besought us to do the like.” 7

Le Moyne says of this:

On approaching, they found that these Indians were worshipping this stone as an idol; and the chief himself, having saluted it with signs of reverence such as his subjects were in the habit of showing to himself, kissed it. His men followed his example, and we were invited to do the same. Before the monument there lay various offerings of the fruits, and edible or medicinal roots, growing thereabouts; vessels of perfumed oils; a bow, and arrows; and it was wreathed around from top to bottom with flowers of all sorts, and boughs of the trees esteemed choicest. 8

The Spaniards speak of temples among some Timucua tribes, but it is probable that those were identical with the town houses mentioned by the French, although their situation with respect to the town was not always central; and, moreover, they were sometimes placed upon mounds. Thus Elvas says that there was such a temple in the town of Ucita at the opposite end from the house of the chief. On the top was a wooden fowl with gilded eyes, “and within were found some pearls of small value, injured by fire, such as the Indians pierce for beads.” 9 The temple of Tocobaga was in this section of Florida 10 and Tocobaga and Ucita may in fact have been the same place.

Pareja’s Confessionario gives us considerable insight into the smaller superstitions and taboos shared by the people as a whole, which compensate in some degree for a lack of more detailed information regarding tribal beliefs and ceremonies. When a kind of owl hooted it was believed to be saying something and it was appealed to for help. If this owl or another variety called the “red owl” (mochuelo) hooted they said, “Do not interrupt it or it will do you harm.” It was thought to be an omen, and usually one of evil. If a person uttered a cry when woodpeckers were making a noise it was thought he would have nosebleed. If one heard the noise made by a fawn he must put herbs into his nostrils to keep from sneezing, and if he did sneeze he must go home and bathe in an infusion of herbs or he would die. When one jay chattered to another it was a sign that a visitor was coming. In winter the small partridge (la gallina pequeña) must not be eaten. When a snake was encountered, either on a country trail or in the house, it was believed to portend misfortune. When the fire crackled it was considered a sign of war, and war was also forecasted from lightning. Belching either portended death or else was a sign that there would be much food. Dreams were believed in.

Omens were also drawn from the tremblings or twitchings of different parts of the body. Such a trembling sometimes indicated that a visitor was coming. If one’s eyes trembled it portended weeping. If his mouth twitched it was a sign that something bad was going to happen to the individual, or that people were saying something about him, or that a feast was to take place.

There were many food taboos. The first acorns or fruits gathered were not eaten. The corn in a cornfield where lightning had struck was not eaten, nor the first ripened corn. The first fish caught in a new fishweir was not eaten, but laid down beside it so that a great quantity of fish would come into it with the next tide. It was thought that if the first fish caught in such a weir were thrown into hot water, no other fish would be caught. After eating bear’s meat they drank from a different shell than that ordinarily used so that they would not fall sick. When a man had lost his wife, a woman her husband, or either a relative, they would not eat corn which had been sowed by the deceased or corn from land which he or she had been wont to sow, but would give it to some one else or have the crop destroyed. After attending a burial a person bathed and abstained for some time from eating fish. Before tilling a field an ancient ceremony was recited to the shaman (i. e., probably under his leadership). Prayer was offered – that is, a formula was repeated – over the first corn, and when the corncrib was opened a formula was recited over the first flour. A ceremony accompanied with formula was performed with laurel when chestnuts (?) and palmetto berries were gathered, nor were wild fruits eaten until formulæ had been repeated over them. Perhaps this applied only to the first wild fruits of the season. Corn from a newly broken field was not supposed to be eaten, apparently, though it is hard to believe that this regulation was absolute. Unless prayers had been offered to the “spirit” by a shaman, no one was allowed to approach or open the corncrib. Some ceremony is mentioned which took place early in the sowing season, in which six old men ate a pot of “fritters.”

When a party was to go out hunting the chief had formulæ repeated over tobacco, and when the hunting ground was reached all of the arrows were laid together and the shaman repeated other formulæ over them. It was usual to give the shaman the first deer that was killed. Before fishing on a lake formulæ were also recited, and after the fish were caught the shaman prayed over them and was given half. The first fish caught, however, was, after the usual formulæ, placed in the storehouse. Pareja also mentions a kind of hunting ceremony performed by kicking with the feet, probably some form of sympathetic magic, and it appears that not a great deal of flesh was eaten immediately after hunting for fear that no more animals would be killed. It was also thought that no more game would be killed if the lungs and liver of an animal were thrown into cold water for cooking. If a hunter pierced an animal with an arrow without killing it he repeated a formula over his next arrow, believing that it was then sure to inflict a mortal wound. If the grease of partridges or other small game which had been caught with a snare or lasso was spilled it was thought that the snare would catch nothing more. Formulæ were uttered to enable hunters to find turtles. Bones of animals caught in a snare or trap were not thrown away but were hung up or placed on the roof of the house. If this ceremony were omitted it was thought that the animals would not enter the snare or trap again. When they went to hunt deer they took the antlers of another deer and repeated formulæ over them. If a man went to his fishweir immediately after having had intercourse with his wife he thought that no more fish or eels would enter it.

At the time of her monthly period and for sometime after her confinement a woman did not eat fish or venison. It was also considered wrong for her to annoint herself with bear grease or eat fish for a number of moons after having given birth. Both at that time and at the menstrual period she must not make a new fire or approach one.

A gambler rubbed his hands with certain herbs in order that he might be fortunate in play. A runner is also said to have taken an herb to make him win, and this seems to have been in the form of a drink. 11

The only reference to a future state of existence is in the account of De Gourgues’s expedition, and it has been given already. 12

Regarding priests or shamans there is information both from Laudonnière and Le Moyne. The former says:

They have their priests, to whom they give great credit, because they are great magicians, great soothsayers, and callers upon devils. These priests serve them instead of physicians and surgeons; they carry always about with them a bag full of herbs and drugs, to cure the sick who, for the most part, are sick of the pox. 13

Le Moyne thus describes the ceremony gone through by an aged shaman in order to forecast the fortunes of chief Utina’s expedition against the Potano:

The sorcerer… made ready a place in the middle of the army, and, seeing the shield which D’Ottigny’s page was carrying, asked to take it. On receiving it, he laid it on the ground, and drew around it a circle, upon which he inscribed various characters and signs. Then he knelt down on the shield, and sat on his heels, so that no part of him touched the earth, and began to recite some unknown words in a low tone, and to make various gestures, as if engaged in a vehement discourse. This lasted for a quarter of an hour, when he began to assume an appearance so frightful that he was hardly like a human being; for he twisted his limbs so that the bones could be heard to snap out of place, and did many other unnatural things. After going through with all this he came back all at once to his ordinary condition, but in a very fatigued state, and with an air as if astonished; and then, stepping out of his circle, he saluted the chief, and told him the number of the enemy, and where they were intending to meet him. 14

We may add that according to both Laudonnière and Le Moyne the event verified the prediction. Le Moyne thus describes how the sick were cared for:

Thoir way of curing diseases is as follows: They put up a bench or platform of sufficient length and breadth for the patient… and lay the sick person upon it with his face up or down, according to the nature of his complaint; and, cutting into the skin of the forehead with a sharp shell, they suck out blood with their mouths, and spit it into an earthen vessel or a gourd bottle. Women who are suckling boys, or who are with child, come and drink this blood, particularly if it is that of a strong young man: as it is expected to make their milk better, and to render the children who have the benefit of it bolder and more energetic. For those who are laid on their faces they prepare fumigations by throwing certain seeds on hot coals; the smoke being made to pass through the nose and mouth into all parts of the body, and thus to act as an emetic, or to overcome and expel the cause of the disease. They have a certain plant, whose name has escaped me, which the Brazilians call petum petun], and the Spaniards tapaco. The leaves of this, carefully dried, they place in the wider part of a pipe; and setting them on fire, and putting the other end in their mouths, they inhale the smoke so strongly, that it comes out at their mouths and noses, and operates powerfully to expel the humors. In particular they are extremely subject to the venereal disease, for curing which they have remedies of their own, supplied by nature. 15

Ribault mentions among the presents which his people received from the Indians “roots like rinbabe [rhubarb], which they hold in great estimation, and make use of for medicine. 16

Pareja a sheds a great deal of light on the activities of shamans. As we have seen, the shaman prayed over the new corn. He also performed ceremonies to find a lost object, and he brought on rain and tempest. He was asked to pray over a new fishweir so that many more fish would enter. When it thundered, in order to keep back the rain, he would blow toward the sky and repeat formulæ. Pareja explains that in cases of sickness the native doctors were accustomed to place a kind of cupping glass over the affected part and then suck it, afterwards exhibiting a little piece of coal, earth, or “other unclean thing,” or something alive or which appeared to be alive. This evidently quite impressed the good father, who attributed the performance to the devil. The doctor would also place white feathers, new skins (“chamois”), and the ears of an owl before a sick person and thrust arrows into the soil there, saying that he would draw out the disease as he withdrew the arrows. Sharp practice was evidently well known among these primitive physicians. We are informed that when a sick person was getting better he prepared “food of a sort of cakes or fritters or other things” and shouted out after the doctor that he had cured him. Otherwise it was thought that the disease would reappear. A shaman was also known to threaten that the people would all be killed unless they gave him something to avert a calamity which he declared was threatening. Sometimes he injured a person whom he considered had not paid him enough. He is also accused of having caused delay in childbirth at times so that he would be called in and paid well to hasten the delivery; or, when he had been called, it is alleged that he would make the patient suffer more until he was paid what he thought he ought to receive. The principle of the “hold up” was thus well recognized among Timucua doctors.

It appears that when a man fell sick a new house was built for him, probably only a temporary affair, and a new fire was also made at which his food was cooked. Perhaps part of the motive for this was to protect the principal dwelling in case of the sick man’s death, for it was usual to burn the houses of chiefs and shamans at such times. Formulæ were also repeated over the sick. Some sickness was attributed to witchcraft and herbs were used to counteract the effects. When foot races were held herbs were sometimes used to cause a rival to faint. The Timucua wizard, who desired to cause the death of a person, used in his incantations the skin of a “viper” and that of a black snake, along with part of the “black guano” (a kind of palm tree) and other herbs. While he was going through his incantations he would not eat fish, cut his hair, or sleep with his wife. When the person he was trying to kill died the wizard bathed and broke his fast. If the victim did not die it seems to have been thought that the incantation would react upon the wizard himself and kill him. Instead of killing a person the wizard sometimes injured him in some particular part, such as the feet. Witchcraft was also resorted to to attract the regard of a person of the opposite sex. Sometimes this was effected by getting an herb into the person’s mouth and by the use of certain songs. To bring back the affections of her husband a woman bathed in an infusion of certain herbs. For the same purpose she tinged her palm-leaf hat with the juice of an herb, or she did this to induce another person to fall in love with her. Fasting was resorted to with the same intention. 17Citations:

  1. French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, p. 171; Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 8.[]
  2. Le Moyne, Narrative, p. 13 (ill.).[]
  3. Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc., XVIII, p. 491.[]
  4. Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc., XVI, p. 637.[]
  5. Le Moyne, Narrative, p. 13.[]
  6. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, I, pp. 29-30.[]
  7. Laudonnière, La Floride, pp. 69-70; French, Hist. Colls. La., p. 224.[]
  8. Le Moyne, Narrative, p. 4 (ill.).[]
  9. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, I, p. 23.[]
  10. Barcia, La Florida, p. 127.[]
  11. Pareja, Confessionario en Lengua Castellana y Timuquana, pp. 123-133; Proc. Am. Philos. Soc., XVI, pp. 635-638; XVII, pp. 500-50l; XVIII, pp. 489-491.[]
  12. See p. 374.[]
  13. Laudonnière, La Floride, p. 8; French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, pp. 171-172.[]
  14. Le Moyne, Narrative, pp. 5-6 (Ill.).[]
  15. Le Moyne, Narrative, pp. 8-9 (ill.).[]
  16. French, Hist. Colls. La., 1875, p. 177.[]
  17. Pareja, Confessionario en Lengua Castellana y Timuquana, pp. 123-133; Proc. Am. Philos. Soc., XVII, pp. 500-501.[]


Swanton, John Reed. Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. US Government Printing Office. 1902.

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